SSA plots more cuts in disability claims backlog

The Social Security Administration is using information technology to deal with an increasing number of benefits claims and expanding services, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said today.

Some people who apply for disability benefits must wait several years for their claims to be resolved, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told a joint hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security Subcommittee and Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee.

SSA is taking steps to modernize its information technology infrastructure to make the agency and its processes more efficient, Astrue said. It is building a national computer data center in Durham, N.C., that will be completed in fiscal 2012 and is converting its master files from a system that was developed in-house to a modernized database management system, he added.

SSA also is beginning to use health IT to accelerate the exchange of medical records necessary to certify the need for disability benefits, Astrue said. The agency conducted a pilot program last year with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston to determine how to use health IT to transmit medical records for disability claimants who received treatment at the hospital.

On Feb. 28, SSA and MedVirginia, a group of hospitals based in Richmond, Va., and organized into a health information exchange, began sharing data across what is developing into the Nationwide Health Information Network, Astrue said. The agency receives the medical information in seconds or minutes instead of days, weeks or months by paper and mail, he said.

Meanwhile, in the past two years, SSA has taken other steps to improve service delivery and reduce the backlog of disability claims, he said. As a result of fiscal 2008 funding, SSA was able to hire and train 190 administrative law judges. This year, the agency expects to hire an additional 157 administrative law judges and 700 support staff members. 

The Social Security Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have reported that SSA suffers from a lack of adequate personnel to keep up with its expanding workload and reduce the claims backlog. Representatives from both organizations testified at the hearing.

The chokepoint for disability claims occurs when applicants file appeals for disability claims that are being reconsidered or rejected, said Patrick O’Carroll Jr., SSA’s inspector general. In 2006, the average claim decided at a state disability office with no delays took 131 days. When an applicant appealed a decision for reconsideration, the time more than doubled to 279 days, he said. And if the claimant appealed to an administrative law judge, it took 811 days, or more than two years, he said, adding that further appeals could stretch the wait up to five years.

GAO said some of SSA’s efforts to reduce disability backlogs faltered because of poor planning and execution. For example, implementation of an electronic system improved some aspects of the disability claims process but also caused delays due to systemic instability and shutdowns at local disability determination offices, said Daniel Bertoni, GAO’s director of education, workforce and income security issues. His testimony is available here.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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