Case files travel lighter, faster

GCN Agency Award | SSA’s eDib app hastens benefits to disabled, and reduces case backlog

People applying for disability benefits used to have to wait at least several months for the Social Security Administration to complete the paper-based process.

SSA also moved files by postal mail among federal and state agencies, and physicians who provided evidence of disability.

An individual’s case folder could be several inches thick, said Bill Gray, SSA deputy commission for systems. “And only one person at a time could work on the case.”

If a claim was denied, the appeals process could take another several years because of the tremendous backlog.

Now, SSA has nearly completed the rollout of the Electronic Disability System for online case processing.

Streamlined processes

Operating without paper, eDib streamlines SSA disability processes to such an extent that the agency projects a reduction of 100 days in the average time to process a claim, thereby expediting benefit payments to those most in need, said Michael Leff, enterprise and application solutions program director at Lockheed Martin Information Technology, the system’s integrator.

SSA hired Lockheed in 2004 under an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity agencywide support services contract that was worth $525 million. SSA included the electronic disability system in the umbrella contract.

With an aging population, applications for disability benefits are escalating. SSA needed to automate the disability claims process in an accelerated fashion and reduce service backlogs, Gray said.

“We have a tsunami coming at us,” he said.

Since 2000, the number of people who file each year is up by 500,000 a year, a 25 percent increase.

The electronic folder, a secure, centralized online repository of medical and other disability data, is a key component of eDib. The electronic folder uses IBM Corp.’s content manager and DB2 database management system. And because the folder is electronic, multiple people can work on a case simultaneously.

For example, Gray said: A state disability worker in Nebraska electronically processed cases for a state agency in Montana using Montana’s e-folders. When the worker needs advice from a particular medical specialist Montana doesn’t have, Nebraska gets the information from a medical consultant in Louisiana.

The application, which is uses Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, comprises multiple systems—150 commercial components and interfaces with numerous SSA and external systems, Leff said.

“[Many] of eDib’s significant gains in process efficiencies were realized by the system’s ability to effectively manage and provide access to both structured and unstructured data via an electronic filing system,” Leff said.
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SSA has rolled out eDib to all states and territories except parts of Nebraska, New York and the District of Columbia, which will be completed by the end of the year, Gray said.

About 85,000 SSA and state disability employees will use eDib; as of the end of August, 97 percent of those employees were using it already.

Phased introduction

SSA rolled eDib out on a state-by-state basis, and within each state, starting with a few examiners, then pushing it out to more and more examiners.

“That allowed states to acclimate themselves to work electronically without slowing down the whole process and do it on an incremental basis to make sure we didn’t pull back service to our public,” Gray said.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office faulted SSA for the way it tested eDib. GAO wanted SSA to implement eDib throughout the entire process in some field, state and hearing offices. Then SSA should run a large volume of cases through the entire process to assure that all pieces worked in sync.

“GAO was right: In the best of all worlds, that is what you would want to do. But that would have taken about three years, because that’s how long it takes for cases to go all the way through our process,” Gray said. “With more people filing for disability, we couldn’t afford to wait three years for the final decision that all the pieces worked in sync.”

Instead, SSA built the pieces for each of the components and tested them thoroughly, and rolled the system out incrementally so if there were issues, SSA could work them out in the process, Gray said.

Besides testing, another challenge was that eDib was not one unique system. Each of the 54 state and territorial organizations had systems tailored to its state’s unique needs.

That meant that each eDib implementation had to interface with the state systems and work effectively with it.

To assure that implementation stayed on track, SSA dedicated a team to each state—people who would actually go the state and be there with the state employees during the early stages.

The team coordinated with headquarters to make sure problems were resolved quickly. Later, the team provided dedicated support to the state from headquarters.

Faster processing

The eDib system is beginning to demonstrate benefits. Even with a 25 percent increase in filings, the number of cases pending has decreased by about 50,000. SSA so far has carved off seven days from the claims processing time.

“Although it’s early in the process, we’re starting to see the promise that an electronic environment can give us,” Gray said.

SSA expects over the next six months to increase the number of medical providers submitting evidence directly to SSA electronically.

SSA also over the coming year will test new business processes to align with eDib’s environment under the commissioner’s disability service improvement initiative established in August.

For example, examiners can route forms differently than with paper and make decisions quickly. Or, SSA can centralize quality assurance of the claim process so that individuals have the same type of experience across states instead of variations in state services and discrepancies between states, Gray said.

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