SSA cuts its losses on disability claims system

After earmarking $71 million to develop an automated system for processing disability claims, the Social Security Administration has decided to scrap its original program and salvage half the funding to field a scaled-back project, SSA commissioner Kenneth Apfel said last week.

SSA originally intended the Re-engineered Disability System (RDS) to improve service to disability clients by reducing processing time and providing a framework for more consistent and uniform disability decisions.

But the agency decided to "redirect" the focus of the project after a study conducted by consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. suggested that operational and technical problems would mar the IT initiative, Apfel said in a hearing held last week by the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security Subcommittee.

Apfel said roughly half of the $71 million will be used to help SSA transition the project from a comprehensive initiative to a more incremental, supportive effort. The remaining funds will be considered a loss, subcommittee members said.

"I believe redirecting the project was the right decision to make," Apfel said. "It will not be a comprehensive system, so it will not be able to do what we had planned for our original model."

The initial plan was to develop a single system that would support all of the SSA components involved in the disability claims process, which includes a national network of field offices, 55 state Disability Determination Service (DDS) sites, and hearings and appeals offices.

Based on the study, Apfel said SSA is changing the way it deploys automation to the disability claims process. Rather than replace all of the existing DDS systems with one central system, SSA will build on the strengths of the existing systems at the DDS sites and link them electronically to an automated field office disability system based on the RDS system piloted in its Virginia offices. "The potential for productivity will improve," Apfel said. "We will see a higher rate productivity."

A report released by the General Accounting Office states that the initiative to automate the disability claims process began in 1992 as the Modernized Disability System and was redesignated as RDS in 1994. "However, even in its earliest stages, this effort proved problematic and was plagued with delays," said Joel Willemssen, GAO's director for civil agencies information systems.

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