Oct 5, 2016

The Backlogs Are Horrible

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
As of March 2016, ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] had about 1.1 million pending claims awaiting a hearing decision with the average age of 318 days, measured as the time from the date of the hearing request. The volume and age of pending hearing cases has increased since FY [Fiscal Year] 2010.
With respect to the claims awaiting a decision, we found:
  • claimants’ average age was 45, and about 6 percent of pending claims involved claimants under age 19;
  • about 45 percent of hearing requests nationwide awaited assignment for pre-hearing preparation; and
  • approximately 7,400 claimants were deceased.
We found wide variations in workloads by hearing office nationwide. For instance, the average pending cases per ALJ ranged from 502 in the Boston Region to 972 in the New York Region. We also found that the proportion of individuals awaiting a decision in Georgia as related to the number of disability beneficiaries in the State was three times higher than that in Massachusetts.
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Anonymous said...

I don't understand the wide variance in wait times from one ODAR to another. In my state of MI I have ODARS that range from 12-13 month waits to 24 month waits. How can it take a full year longer for one ODAR to schedule versus another that's in the same state?

Anonymous said...

It can vary based on the number of judges in the particular office, how many hearings each judge schedules, and the number of cases brought in to that office (receipts) among other things.

Anonymous said...

Former COSS Astrue went after the backlog and reduced it dramatically. See the dip ending in 2012. Astrue left in early 2013, and the backlog took off. It is now worse that it has even been, but in raw numbers and in delay to decision.

The main difference, it seems to me, is that the Congress made a very big deal about the backlog when Astrue was first appointed. Now they don't seem to care.

Anonymous said...

Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin has NEVER cared about the Disability case backlog, or provided meaningful resources to ODAR.

When you couple that with the number of Operations folks occupying some of the highest management positions in the Agency; the few attorneys and judges who are in high level ODAR, (a legal Hearings Office), management positions, (not including those who earned law degrees on the Agency dime); and unprofessional, ineffective, poor manager's who continue to push authoritative, top down workplace management with outlandish quota goals, excessively micromanage, have a documented history of promoting like-minded favorites - merit system principles be damned, engage in widespread systemic retaliation, and automatically go into cover-up mode each time a spotlight begins to shine in an effort to obstruct any accountability, you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

Even the US Army announced this week it is completely doing away with authoritative, top down management of its workforce because they have determined through extensive research this method of workforce management outlived its usefulness long ago and is ineffective. They are changing to a workforce management which values flexibility, and encourages all Army personnel to think and act critically, be ready to take charge, and think intuitively out of the box.

Presently, an ODAR employee who does this is castigated, retaliated against, never promoted, and
targeted to be illegally forced out ASAP. See the difference?

Anonymous said...

There is a variety of reasons why you see regional variances, even between offices that are close to one another and similar in many ways.

One big one is that the whole national program, paperless, portable work thing isn't really so much so that way in practice. Until the ability to decline a video hearing is done away with, ODAR will never be able to become that nationwide program where work is moved around everywhere seamlessly to balance workloads. In fact, without that rule change (due to the amount of video declines in some areas) we really haven't been able to realize much at all of that efficiency, let alone all of it.

Another big thing that was touched upon previously is the personnel involved. Some offices actually follow FIFO most all the time, and their average pending tends to be better, while some offices can't manage to look at RFH dates, determine which ones are older, and move cases in that order (yeah yeah, we all have the criticals, CDRs, 16-only/non-disability, etc. cases that jump the line). I've seen the average processing time chart for ODAR--what it shows is that we get really good at following FIFO at the end of every FY when we are trying to get rid of all the old cases, but then every October we go back to not moving our oldest cases first. If local office managers just simply made the effort to process cases by RFH...

Also, some offices have as many ALJs as they are supposed to have or more, close to the staff they are supposed to, and those ALJs hear 600+ cases and issue 500+ dispositions. That's huge when nationwide our staff-to-ALJ ratio is below the 4.0-4.5 target and plummeting as we keep going buck wild hiring ALJs and no staff this FY and the ALJ corps as a whole is slowing; what was it, only about half of ALJs made the 500 disposition goal in FY 16? Long story short--individual offices' situations can vary widely.

Anonymous said...

Always wonder what the average time "should" be. These are not the 999 day claims we have seen.

Anonymous said...

In 2013 the average dispositions per day per ALJ was around 2.3. In the latest fiscal year, the number was 1.9. Ever since ALJ's "lost" their case about production quotas infringing on their judicial independence, the production level for ALJ's has gone straight down.

And, to Anonymous 12:02, video hearings are a horror. The very best thing about the Hearing Process is that a claimant gets to speak directly to an ALJ,, the person making the decision in their case, in person, and tell their story. Having the ability to be in the room is critical to both real and perceived fairness.

Video hearings should be the last, not first resort. And ALJ's doing video hearings should not do them exclusively. They should hold at least 50% in person just so they can see a real person in front of them. And no ALJ should hold any video hearing until they have spent a minimum of two years holding in person hearings to get to know real claimants close up.

Anonymous said...

@ 1:59

I hear what you say and appreciate it--I really do. But the fact stands: the huge increase in efficiency we will realize with transitioning to more video (at least having the ability to force some hearings to video so a remote office can take the case) is crucial if we are to do better than currently.

Unless major things change in Congress and our economy as a whole and the mindsets of the populace, we will never get CLOSE to the budget we need to get through our work with the quality and speed it deserves via in-person hearings for everyone who wants one. I'm sorry, I really am, but that's the reality on the ground.

So the question becomes, assuming our budget reality is going to remain constant for some time, are the benefits of (more) face-to-face hearings worth giving up the massively increased efficiency a "no decline VTC" rule would give us? I bet even the most pro-in-person reps will change their tune when backlogs (especially fee payment backlogs, amirite???) reach a certain point, which they are certain to reach with current funding/staffing levels and the current VTC decline rules.

Anonymous said...

@ 12:02 and 2:36PM If this program is such a "paperless, portable work thing" as you describe it to be, why don't we have the ALJs travel to the various locations to conduct in person hearings? They should be able to do their work from anywhere.

Yeah, yeah, you will claim that the costs would be astronomical but the agency already foots the bill at times on costs/temp housing associated with relocations so this wouldn't be much different. A $250 a week residential motel for an ALJ, heck we could even have two of them share a room, and a Hyundai rental car for the week wouldn't be that much in the long run. They could get a per diem of $5 which is greater than the average per day for a SNAP recipient. Sounds like a very workable plan to me.

Anonymous said...


Logistically, it's definitely possible to create nationwide virtual on-demand ALJ distribution nodes to create exceptionally efficient just-in-time ALJ delivery to the various hearing offices.

Such a system would enable the rapid assembly of mobile ALJ nodes that could be variably staffed and deployed at places where the system was experiencing heavy loads or other pipeline distribution issues. Since the nodes would be virtual, they would be flexible enough to enable dynamic re-positioning of the nodes within rather large geographic areas on a daily or weekly basis.

A public-private partnership with Uber may be less expensive than the costs of maintaining and upgrading the technological infrastructure of the video teleconferencing systems.

Anonymous said...

@ 3:20

Please ignore the Silicon Valley coder caricature @ 3:32--his ideas would require a fundamental change of contracting, hiring, etc. that simply won't ever happen in the federal government. Plus, do you see the APA wizards being down with such a system (or allowing regular employee adjudicators take over)?

Ignoring that the ALJ union would argue the ALJ job description does not allow for the amount and short-notice type of travel it would require, the costs associated with this type of travel would be astronomical. You mention relocation, but we don't spend that much on relo (relative to other budgets). This massively wide-scale ALJ travel setup you envision would be a huge strain on the budget. I don't see how this system would result in significantly less/fewer space, staff, or ALJs--we are understaffed and this is about which cases get attention first, not deploying any unused resources (as if we had any of those, lol), so it seems like the travel costs would essentially be complete net additions to our budget. Those additions would be huge.

ALJs get mileage or the rental rate or you'd have to pay for flights pretty last minute. We don't exactly use Orbitz or some such for our booking--we basically pay the standard fare rates directly from the airlines, which can get expensive for flights. Plus the hotel, plus the daily per diem (most localities' per diem rate is between $60 and $70). And travel comp time, which has indirect but significant costs. What if other hearing participants had to travel? (experts can appear by phone, but VHRs can't)

Everyone who wants having an in-person just isn't compatible with efficient disposition of disability claims in our current environment. Aside from the personnel stuff making it untenable, space considerations also make it more difficult. We cannot forget: it isn't that some offices have ALJs just sitting around and hearing rooms going unused all the time--we are understaffed and have no underutilized ALJs or hearing rooms, really. How we fix this problem is more efficiently using our existing resources such that we tackle the oldest cases first; even when we take "excess" workloads from one office, that's essentially what we are doing (so long as everyone is following FIFO).

So even if we could come up with a travel system like you or even Elon Musk over there @ 3:32 envision, a lack of hearing rooms would still get in the way. And please note that GSA (and our higher ups) isn't exactly letting us grow right now. We could cut overall office space while adding hearing rooms, but it would require the agency really sticking to its guns and forcing 3+ day-a-week teleworkers to hotel (it's already the default in both major union new contracts, right?!). I wish SSA would do that--immediately drop 25-50% of your decision writer offices, maybe even some cubicles, and add a hearing room or two to every office. We'd drop the ft^2 GSA/SSA want and add to our hearing capacity.

But we can't really do that for the same reason we haven't crammed "no VTC decline" down everyone's throats yet--there are too many stakeholders that would raise a huge stink, and if we ever get there it will be with many, many months and years of cajoling and buy-in, not a quick, unilateral act.

Anonymous said...

3:20 PM here. Obviously my proposal was mostly tongue in cheek but it is interesting to see the response from 4:06PM. That is the typical agency mindset when it comes to hearings, its all about efficiency and what makes the ALJs and their union happy. Not one mention of fairness to the claimants in the VTC process. Until we can resolve the fairness issue, VTC will always be a contentious matter.

Anonymous said...

Its only a matter of time before we get a commish that will give NOSCCR the finger and propose the video hearing rule. The technology is in place. Mgmt has very few ideas, obviously, to fix the backlog. The ideas are basically hire more judges and hold more video hearings. Eventually, with enough congressional pressure, they won't be able to waste an opportunity to gain some efficiency.

Lankford is going to want to know what the next guy is going to do differently in confirmation hearings.

Anonymous said...

There is only one proven (over and over, no less) solution to the backlog and that is the Senior Attorney program in all its STDP#7 program.

Anonymous said...

Right- Regarding the backlog decrease during Astrue's reign, he used the senior attorney program and was ok with a high favorable rate. Compare the national average ALJ favorable rate of >60% in 2011 under Astrue to the 40ish% now. The backlog is growing in part because ALJ's are denying more claims & it takes twice as long to deny a claim than it does to grant one.

Anonymous said...

That great American politician and patriot from Texas, Ron Paul, got it right when he said "let them die" at the GOP debate a few years ago when referring to the uninsured. This is pretty much the same class of people. Also, time to consider officially downgrading their US citizenship due to them being non-producers. Give them one year to find work. Subject them to stiff fines and penalties for each month they aren't working. At the end of the year send them to "Freedom to Work" facilities and subject them to mandatory labor in order to eat. The private prison industry can partner with the government to do this. When I think of the real producers, the patriots, the rugged individualists that would never take from this country. People like the leaders of our great banking institutions like Wells Fargo and our great hedge fund managers and compare them to these leaches it just makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

And we see the side effects of when the aluminum foil hat is way too tight. Best read of the day!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I should have referred to Ron Paul as Dr Ron Paul. I believe him to still be a medical doctor in good standing in the great State of Texas and a fine American practicioner of the healing arts. No offense intended to Dr Paul.

Anonymous said...


Is that you Donald?

Anonymous said...

BRAVO, 9:01PM!

I fully agree with the original STDP#7 Senior Attorney Program and all its glory. I was a part of this, and it was very successful.

What I find astonishing is current ODAR management who not only despised the original Senior Attorney STDP#7 Program, but have literally bent over backwards refusing to acknowledge and honor the SA's who were a part of the STDP#7 Program.

Sadly, I have witnessed a concerted effort to illegally push some of these SA's out the door into forced retirement when many are only in their 50's, in addition to refusing to select many of these most experienced and talented SA's for the National Adjudication SA Team, regardless of the fact the NAT is far too small to be effective, and it's creation misguided and ill conceived in the first place.

In fact, the creation of the SA NAT in many ways appears to be "CODE" for a way for ODAR management to get around civil service merit system principles so they could ignore the experienced and talented SA's from the STDP#7 era, thereby enabling them to choose whomever they wish.

Anonymous said...

One aspect of the backlog that is not discussed is the shifting of ODAR responsibilities. I am in a fair sized midwest/southwest city. For the past year we have been receiving a below average number of hearings. I also deal with three other ODARS. I noticed that most of my work was through the other ODARS and involved travel of up to three hours. When I had one of my infrequent hearings at my home ODAR I talked to one of the contracted hearings assistants. She told me that the hearing assistants are not getting many hearings either because the hearing office has for a year primarily doing hearings in another state by video. Some of my hearing requests are at 18 months. With the long waits a few of my clients have vanished, some have given up. What has happened in my area is that our ALJs are doing hearings for another state while the claimants in our state wait.

Anonymous said...

Every year I wonder if privatizing Social Security may be a better way. But then I think of the consequences e.g. bribery, corruption, lazy private employees, Board of Directors cronies, stupid shareholders, etc.

It's like picking between Hilary and Trump. No real great choice.

Anonymous said...


My understanding is that the main issue with privatization is that most forms of investment harshly punish unanticipated withdraw from the investment. The retired (and disabled) face unpredictable expenses on a frequent basis. That is why Social Security is not controlled by taxpayers directly.

If you mean privatization of the social security claims process, I haven't given that much thought. I suppose it would be similar in design to private long-term disability claims administrators and claim fiduciaries...I'm shocked to say that such an arrangement might be better.

The main conflict of interest in long-term disability is that most long-term disability providers are both administrator and fiduciary of the disability plans. If the Social Security Administration were to be the fiduciary, and private claims administrators were used to actually address the claim procedure, that actually might help. I have a significant distrust of private-public partnerships, however it is intriguing particularly given SSA's actions.

Anonymous said...

Privatization is the answer to everything. And if it's not broken lets start breaking it so the privateers can come in. Give some politically conneceted big shots a profit motive to deny these claims. Pure genius.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we cut through it. There are many methods to undermine and kill public confidence in a program. A political hit was taken out on this program by some very powerful forces in this society. The idiots in West Virginia created the perfect opportunity for a corruption is everywhere story. NPR was somehow brought in as "credible liberal news outlet" to give it maximum impact. NPR did a totally one sided smear job on the program along with Sixty Minutes, Wall Street Journal etc. This was all too well done and maximized for it not to be pre thought out and organized. It would be really interesting to know the quid pro quo for the NPR story. The maximum media smear provided the political cover to usher this era in. This is an intentional and well orchestrated effort to destroy the program.

John Adam said...

Passenger asked for ID in routine traffic stop (Michigan)?
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