Disability Cases Pending, Pending . . .

What gets Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue exercised: The average wait for a disability ruling is up to 499 days.
What gets Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue exercised: The average wait for a disability ruling is up to 499 days. (Danny Johnston - Associated Press)
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By Stephen Barr
Friday, February 29, 2008

Over the next decade, the Social Security Administration's workload will increase substantially. Retirement claims will jump by more than 40 percent and disability claims by nearly 10 percent.

The first wave of 80 million baby boomers has applied for Social Security, and boomers are likely to seek disability benefits in greater numbers than did previous generations.

At a House hearing yesterday, Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said the agency may have to reinvent itself -- making greater use of technology and streamlined procedures -- to keep up with the boomers as well as whittle down a disability case backlog.

"Productivity alone cannot fully offset the increase in our workloads," he testified.

Productivity, at least among the agency's administrative law judges, emerged as an issue at the hearing, held by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and its labor, health and human services, education and related agencies subcommittee.

The testimony raised questions about whether Social Security's 140 offices that handle disability claims are appropriately staffed and whether administrative law judges who rule in disability cases could be more productive.

The hearing process is one of the keys to helping Social Security strike a balance between assisting Americans who cannot work because of illness and need financial help, and protecting taxpayers from fraudulent claims.

But there are enormous challenges. The number of disability cases waiting for a decision has swelled to more than 750,000, causing applicants to wait, on average, 499 days. Despite efforts to control the backlog, delays have increased rather than decreased.

Most Americans seeking disability benefits have been turned down once or twice in their states and file federal appeals with Social Security. The agency's administrative law judges, or ALJs, award benefits in 62 percent of the cases that they hear.

The approval rate reflects the nature of the federal hearing process. ALJs usually work from a more complete medical record and hear directly from the claimants, who are often accompanied by lawyers. Although the ALJs work for Social Security, Congress has awarded them a large degree of independence in how they reach decisions.

Astrue said most ALJs do a good job, but he made it clear he has no power to discipline bad apples in their ranks. He said he is frustrated by his inability to deal with "gross misconduct" by judges, especially those accused of fraud, domestic violence and soliciting prostitution.

Disciplinary actions brought against ALJs end up before the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears federal employee appeals, resulting in months of litigation and, in Astrue's view, a "paid vacation" for the accused. "I'm offended by that," he said.

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