SSA must cut disability backlog to brace for boomer flood

The Social Security Administration is making progress in reducing its backlog of disability claims, but without more resources, it will like fall further behind as aging boomers overwhelm the system, Comptroller General David Walker said.

SSA needs more funding from Congress and it needs to hire more staff, Walker said.

“There are serious fundamental and systematic problems. We need to change the pipeline, not just the tail end. We need to look at the flow,” he said Jan. 16 at a panel sponsored by the Association of Administrative Law Judges. Administrative law judges hear disability cases as claims wind through the lengthy process.

The Government Accountability Office has placed the disability programs of SSA and the Veterans Affairs Department on its high-risk list since 2003 because they are grounded in conditions from the 1930s and the 1950s and are difficult to manage by present-day standards.

Individuals are applying for disability claims earlier than in previous years and increasingly more for mental rather than physical disabilities, Walker said. Claims jumped 42 percent over the past 10 years and are also becoming more complex. It will take action by both the administration and Congress to transform the disability program, he said.

About 750,000 disability claimants wait for their cases to be resolved. The benefit provides individuals who have severe physical and mental disabilities with living expenses when they are no longer able to work. Some wait more than two years for decisions in their cases, SSA has said.

In a report Jan. 7 of SSA’s disability backlog, GAO said rising numbers of disability claims, staff losses and turnovers, and management weaknesses have contributed to the backlog and longer waits by claimants for resolution. An overall loss of experienced staff combined with increasing workloads and resource constraints can reduce the success of any initiative aimed at reducing backlogs, the report said.

SSA received an increase in appropriations last month to hire a number of administrative law judges this year to reduce the backlog. That means, however, that SSA will not be able to hire for positions in earlier stages of claims processing, said Jo Anne Barnhart, Social Security commissioner from 2001-2007.

Barnhart estimated in 2004 that it would take 8,000 employee years or four years to clear the backlog. However, SSA has steadily fewer employees, she said. While commissioner, SSA started the Disability Service Improvement initiative to evaluate what happens with claims at each stage of the process.

She recommended boosting hiring and training at the early determination levels to reduce the number of claims advancing to formal hearings.

That would reduce the cost of claims, said Margaret Malone, most recently a special adviser to the Social Security commissioner and a former staff director at the Social Security Advisory Board. Claims processing cost $1,700 when they are decided in the informal determination stage. When they advance to formal hearings, each claim costs $2,800 to resolve, she said.

Disability consumes two-thirds of SSA costs. SSA data shows initial disability claims have swelled 72 percent from 1975 to 2006, yet appropriating for administration has risen just 4 percent over the same time period, Malone said.

SSA has established certain conditions for quick disability decisions, an online template for findings for decision writers and an office to improve quality performance, she said.

SSA also is using videoconferencing from a National Hearing Center and use of electronic folders to increase the capacity and efficiency of formal disability hearings, said Michael Astrue, current SSA commissioner, in a statement Dec. 17. Administrative law judges at the hearing center will initially hear cases for the Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit hearing offices, which have the longest wait for claim resolution — over two years, he said.

Even as SSA begins to reduce the backlog, it will experience more challenges for its resources.

“Boomers will cause a strain not only on the disability program but also the administrative workload throughout the claims process,” Barnhart said. SSA also has introduced programs to encourage boomers who work at SSA to put off retirement to give the agency time to hire and train new employees.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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