The Social Security Administration recently released statistics about the backlog work of work of Adminstrative Judges and hearing offices. The news was not great for claimants.
The backlog grew significantly last year. Total applications filed in Fiscal year 2015 exceeded 2,750,000. Of these 33% were paid at the initial level. Of those who appealed to Reconsideration (in states where that level of review still exists) only 12% were approved.
Claimants appealed 746,300 applications to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing level. Judges disposed of 507,883 of those cases so nationwide the backlog of cases waiting for ALJ hearings grew significantly. Regionally backlogs ranged from 443 days to 552 days. A number of individual hearing offices were more than 600 days behind and two actually were still averaging more than 700 days!
For years, Social Security had whittled down the hearing level backlog and representatives and claimants were appreciative of the progress. However, at a time when Bby Boomers were aging and the economy was in recession, Congress lowered administrative funding for Social Security. This forced Social Security to close offices, it slowed the progress on system improvements, and made it impossible to replace and expand staff. The lack of staff has been a major problem. In the 2015 budget agreement, Congress did increase appropriations to the SSA and those additional resources will help.
Social Security is well aware of the backlog and the hardships this causes to claimants. They have proposed a plan to deal with the backlog but its chances for success are questionable. Much of the plan calls for full funding of Social Security’s administrative budget and it is doubtful that Congress will comply.
Most experienced representatives know that SSA can reduce hearing time significantly by simply empowering its senior attorney staff to recommend and draft favorable decisions and by encouraging the ALJ corps to issue more administrative favorable decisions on clear cut cases. This would open up many more hearing slots for the contested applications that need face to face meetings with clients and administrative medical and vocational expertise.
In the past, senior attorneys were given the power to review files and recommend favorable decisions. Many clear cases were disposed of without the costs and delays of an ALJ hearing. Ending this program was a mistake. ALJs are under intense pressure to work more hours, have more hearings, write more well-drafted opinions and to do so with less staff and support.
As the backlog increases it becomes more important for claimants to have experienced representatives who can help increase the chances for success at the earlier levels of reviews, and to make sure cases are well developed at the time of the ALJ hearing. We can help your clients, family and friends work through this process.