Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Does it Take Two Years to Get to a Disability Hearing?

Someone on Twitter asked the following question: Why does it take two years to get an ALJ determination as we get physically worse?

Translation: Why does the social security disability system require individuals with disabling impairments to wait so long for a disability hearing to be scheduled while their conditions continue to degrade?

Well, there are different ways to approach this sort of question. Here's mine. It takes so long because--

1) More claims are being filed due to an aging population,

2) More claims are being filed lately due to the state of the economy,

3) There's a big, big disconnect between approval rates at the initial claim and reconsideration levels versus the hearing level (meaning that there wouldn't be so many claims headed to hearing if the state disability processing agencies made decisions that were more in line with the decisions being rendered by administrative law judges at disability hearings,

4) Too many administrative law judges are processing too few cases each month (its been shown that some ALJ's are much more productive than others as far as their work output is concerned),

5) There's been a failure to hire more ALJs along with commensurate levels of hearing office support staff (If you increase the number of disability judges without increasing support staff, is it really logical to expect more output? Not really, but upper management at SSA doesn't seem particularly bright sometimes).

However, the thing that seemed to drive this whole backlog situation over the edge was the approach to managing the social security administration during the last decade.

Social security staff levels were not increased despite the fact that disability claims increased (that's a wonderful way to inspire field office workers by the way -- work loads increase but you don't get more workers to handle the extra load AND, adding insult to injury, you don't replace workers who quit or retire...making life hellish for the remaining workers). In fact, the number of employees working at social security now...is about what it was a decade ago.

Also, the prior commissioner of the social security administration, Joanne Barnhart, wasted invaluable time and resources concocting pie-in-the-sky ridiculous programs that she and her cadre of followers somehow managed to delude themselves into believing would "fix everything".

Like sprinkling magic fairy dust everywhere. Poof, all the problems are gone!

But it didn't work out that way. She only wasted, as I said, time and resources. DSI, the disability service improvement initiative, was a joke and completely unrealistic. I knew it from the moment I read about its bare bones.

However, amazingly, so many claimant's representatives for a long time thought DSI was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Inevitably, it became obvious to all that DSI was stillborn in so many ways.

Another of Barnhart's botches was something called HPI, or the hearing process improvement initiative, if I remember correctly. That was really bad. All you had to do to know how really awful that program was was to talk to OHA staff (at the time, hearing offices were known as OHA, office of hearings and appeals, not ODAR, which sounds like some demon from norse mythology) and they would tell you how HPI was screwing everything up.

This was particularly well demonstrated by instituting the odd practice of having hearing office clerks become "generic workers" who were no longer responsible for assisting one ALJ, but, rather, were rotated from one ALJ to the next each month.

This, of course, meant that 1) Many things didn't get done, 2) No one was truly responsible for anything, and 3) Everything slowed down dramatically.

HPI was supposed to improve the disability appeal system and move things faster. It made things much much slower. DSI was supposed to revolutionize the social security disability system. It didn't even make it out of the Boston test region because it became obvious it wouldn't work and would cost more.

This is what you get, of course, when you select management types for the wrong reasons (ability to schmooze and play internal politics versus having smarts and some backbone).

I don't care how many surveys and studies the federal government trots out to show SSA is such a well-run agency. The bold, bald truth is that it is horribly run. And a lot of the social security administration's management seem to be Dilbertian pointy-headed bosses.

But, having said that, it must be pointed out that the pointy-headed bosses aren't really in charge. The politicians are. Congress. And while Congressman love to bemoan the awful wait times attached to requests for hearings (particularly when reporters are there to "capture their anger" at the way their constituents are being treated), in truth it is Congress that could actually do something about the problem.

That fix, of course, would simply be to fund the social security administration to a level that allowed it to properly staff its operations. Which is another way of saying they need more warm bodies to do the work that seems to be piling up everywhere.

So, why does it take so long to get to a hearing? There are lots of answers. But it all seems to go back to the fact that our elected leaders are a parade of buffoons.

Return to the Social Security Disability SSI Benefits Blog

Other Posts

Social Security Disability Hearing
SSI Claim for Disability Benefits
Social Security Disability - What is it and Can you qualify for it?
How do you apply for Social Security Disability or SSI - How to file
How Do You Get Approved for Disability with Social Security?
SSI Claim for Disability Benefits
Going to a Social Security Disability Hearing alone



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