The Social Security Disability Hearing Backlog

John M. FitzGerald

Recently, there has been a proliferation of articles concerning the growing backlog of Social Security Disability cases, and the regulations SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue proposes to address what is becoming an enormous hardship on disabled applicants. It is not unusual for applicants to wait more than three years to get a hearing.

Most often, these claimants have no savings, no income, and no insurance, even for necessary treatment or medications. Unfortunately, before their benefits are awarded, they lose their possessions, go bankrupt, their utilities are shut off, and ultimately, they are forced to move from their homes, often with no place else to go. In the worst cases, the claimant's die.

Since the inception of the disability program in the 1950s, the standard for approval has been intentionally strict. It is designed more to weed out malingerers than it is to help the disabled. A claimant must prove either an illness expected to result in death, or inability to do not only past work, but any work that exists "in significant numbers in the national economy."

According to SSA, in January 2005 nearly 8 million disabled workers and their dependents received DI benefits, a 100% increase since 1985. Another 6 million adults and children receive SSI payments, a 135% increase in the same period.

Nationally, about 750,000 appeals are pending. That is double the number in 2000. The wait time varies by location, but the national average is 524 days. Many offices take much longer. In Omaha, for example, the average processing time is 639 days from date of appeal to the hearing level. Of the 143 hearing offices in the country, 22 have longer processing times.

In 2006, SSA implemented a new Administrative Review Process known as the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) process to address the backlog. Presently, Boston is the only region using the system. The new regulations provided that SSA would wait at least one year (from August 1, 2006) before implementing a second region.

The new rules include an initial application and review by a Federal reviewing official. The right to appeal to an ALJ remains intact. However, the judge's decision is final unless the claim is referred to the Decision Review Board (DRB). A DRB review remains the final decision at the Administrative level. The Appeals Council will eventually be phased out.

Other changes include a new electronic filing system, presently in use in all 1,338 field offices, taking 20,000 claims per day. SSA is also implementing systems to streamline the updating of medical listings, and to close the records in hearings faster by requiring all medical evidence to be submitted at least 5 days prior to hearing. The claimant is to be notified at least 75 days before the hearing, rather than the previous 20.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, about two-thirds of the 2.5 million disability applicants each year are denied at the initial state determination levels. Of the approximately 575,000 who file appeals requesting to be heard before an administrative law judge, about two-thirds win a reversal.

Reasons officials attribute to the high reversal rate include the supposition that many of the claimant's impairments increase in severity by the time of hearing, the judge gets to meet the claimant's face-to-face, and the belief that those who appeal are those with the strongest cases, or who tend to get lawyers to help with presentation.