Saturday, January 05, 2008

Disability Backlogs in Wisconsin

Another article on the backlogs in the social security disability and SSI disability system, this time from the Marshfield News Herald in Wisconsin (I used to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin---the only place I've ever lived where wearing earmuffs in the winter is not really optional).

Here's one line that I'd like to address in particular: "A lack of federal money has forced job cuts through attrition, resulting in fewer administrative law judges to hear disability claim appeals."

This type of statement gives the erroneous impression that a lack of ALJs (administrative law judges) is the primary factor that accounts for the current backlog. I'd have to disagree.

There need to be more ALJ's, that much is obvious. But the system, at the social security disability hearing level, seemed to be operating substantially better prior to the former commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Joanne Barnhart) instituting a now-largely-forgotten program called HPI (don't quote me, but I believe HPI stood for hearing process improvement).

HPI was an unrealistic, bizarre concoction that, from my perspective at the time, seemed to wreak havoc on internal operations at the office of hearings and appeals (now known as ODAR, office of disability adjudication and review). And it was during the time of HPI that I began to see things, literally, start to fall apart with regard to the length of time being taken to schedule a disability hearing.

Of course, once you get a substantial backlog going, it begins to take on a life of its own, akin to a snowball rolling downhill and getting larger on its own simply due to the fact that it is rolling in the first place.

Yes, there was a time, back around 2000 or 2001 when a disability hearing could be scheduled in three to five months. Then along came HPI, another "smart idea" tossed out there by a career bureaucrat (Ms. Barnhart) with no real experience in disability adjudication, and the system began to slide downhill, to the point where it is now---in need of huge funding increases to hire additional staff at all levels of the system.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the system was at all healthy before HPI. Even then, there was a need for more judges, more hiring of field office staff, more hearing office staff, and additional funding to raise salaries for disability examiners (examiners are paid very little, which is partly why the turnover rate among newly hired examiners is sooooo high).But HPI seemed to get the ball rolling downhill at the hearing level.

And what was HPI, really? It all boiled down to being another "whacky scheme" that attempted to somehow wring more efficiency out of an existing workforce rather than face the "awful" reality that you can't pull a rabbit out of a magician's hat and make everything ok. Sometimes, you simply have to face facts and hire more workers as the need arises.

Backlog delays disability claim

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