Remote video increases flexibility for SSA

Number of hearings for disability caseload rose from 23,000 in 2005 to 84,000 in 2009

The Social Security Administration has more than tripled its use of video conferencing for disability adjudication hearings in recent years and gets greater flexibility in managing its workload, according to a new report from SSA Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr.

At the same time, although the video equipment is gaining in popularity, regional offices are using it differently and some administrative law judges have objections to it that may limit growth in the future, the April 22 report said.

The SSA’s total number of video-based disability adjudication hearings rose from about 23,000 in 2005 to 84,000 in 2009. Likewise, the number of video hearings as a percentage of total hearings increased from about six percent to 18 percent during that time.

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Overall, the video program has been successful in meeting the agency’s goals, the report concluded: “The video hearing technology has provided the agency with greater flexibility in allocating hearing workloads and addressing backlogs nationwide,” O’Carroll wrote.

The SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review began using video hearings in 1999 for claims involving disability insurance. It allows the administrative law judges to remain in their offices, while claimants appear in a video conferencing room, typically at a permanent location.

The SSA currently is using both $23,000 full-room video units and $8,500 compact units. The full-room units are being used in fixed permanent locations serving SSA regions. If one regional office has a heavy workload, it can transfer some of its hearings to a remote video conferencing location.

Use of the equipment varied widely by location, with about 22 percent of the hearing offices using the video equipment for less than one percent of their hearings while 19 percent of the hearing offices didn't use the video equipment, the report said.

O’Carroll estimated the cost of the underused equipment at $1.9 million as of June 2010. “The low usage rates may indicate offices with excess equipment that could be better used where demand is higher,” he wrote.

Menwhile, some hearing offices used the equipment a high percentage of the time: 15 percent of the offices used video for 15 percent to 30 percent of their hearings; and 18 percent used video for 30 percent to 50 percent of their hearings.

Video was most popular in the Boston region, with an overall rate of 35 percent of hearings conducted through video; followed by Philadelphia, 19 percent; Atlanta, 17 percent; Kansas City, 16 percent and Dallas, 16 percent.

Some administrative law judges reported video equipment problems with voice transmission and small screens, gaps in training, shortage of hearing rooms available for the video equipment and they have a preference for in-person hearings. Also, advocacy groups complained of reduced human “connection” inhibiting interaction between judge and claimant, audio lag in transmitting speech and poor video quality or small screens.

“While it is not necessary for every administrative law judge to use the equipment, perceptions of equipment problems may inhibit greater use,” O’Carroll wrote.

O’Carroll recommended that the SSA should periodically reevaluate the video hearing requirements before ordering new equipment. Also, the agency should consider providing the smaller video units to more hearing offices to reduce the demand for hearing room capacity, he said.

SSA officials agreed with the recommendations.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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