From the statement of Teresa Gruber, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Disability Adjudication and Review, to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs yesterday:
The cases targeted for the augmentation strategy represent only 3.6 percent of our hearings pending and the non-disability cases often involve issues that ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] do not typically encounter.
A small number of AAJs [Administrative Appeals Judges] and staff will specialize in adjudicating the non-disability issues, thus freeing up critical ALJ resources to handle disability hearings. But I want to be clear. Although the augmentation strategy is consistent with the Act and our regulations, this is a temporary initiative aimed at addressing a current need – bringing wait times down to 270 days. It allows us to use highly qualified adjudicators, whom we have thoroughly vetted, as we continue with our extraordinary efforts to hire more ALJs. The augmentation strategy is not part of a plan to replace ALJs in our hearings process.
The augmentation strategy is based on longstanding agency regulations. Since the beginning of the Social Security hearings process in 1940, our regulations have authorized the members of the Appeals Council to hold hearings. Under our current regulations, the Appeals Council has the authority to remove a pending hearing request from an ALJ, hold the hearing, and issue the decision. Moreover, nothing in our existing regulations precludes the Appeals Council from holding a hearing in a case that is before it on request for review or on remand from a Federal court.
When a claimant is dissatisfied with an ALJ hearing decision, she can appeal to the Council. Thus the second set of cases are a subset of cases already before the Council – cases where the Council could have completed action on the appeal but have generally remanded back to the ALJ. Under the augmentation strategy, the Council will complete the action on the case and issue the final decision, thus preventing an additional workload from returning to the hearing offices and freeing ALJs to hold hearings on other cases. The sole objective of this strategy is to increase capacity to hold more hearings and issue decisions so that we can, collectively, reduce the time people and their families are waiting for a decision.How can hiring AAJs to do non-disability hearings possibly help more than hiring ALJs? The AAJs will have to spend a large part of their time roaming around the country, far more than ALJs who are already located around the country. I would guess that their productivity will be half that of ALJs. I know that Social Security complains that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) won't give them a bigger roster from which to select ALJs yet there are hundreds of names on the roster now and a new roster is coming. Why take as extreme a step as Social Security is planning? How is this going to look in a few years when a study is done comparing productivity of ALJs and AAJs?