The Current Social Security Hearing Time: Is There Any Hope for Improvement?

In July 2015, the average hearing office processing time had increased to 511 days. The record high occurred in August 2008 – 532 days. At the end of fiscal year (FY) 2014, the average processing time was 422 days and in every month of this fiscal year (FY 2015), the time has increased. With the end of the fiscal year (September 2015) closely approaching, it is entirely possible that a new record will be set by the beginning of FY 2016 in October. The ODAR National Caseload Analysis Report with statistics for FY 2015 through July is reprinted on page 12.

What happened to the efforts to decrease the average processing time, which reached a low in October 2011 (the beginning of FY 2012) of 340 days, but has been steadily climbing for nearly four years. Former Commissioner Astrue had set a goal of 270 days by the end of FY 2013, and at one time, it seemed like a possibility that the average processing time could approach such a goal. However, our concerns about the fragility of progress in eliminating the hearings level backlog and reducing the average processing time have unfortunately been realized.

Besides the processing times, there are other statistics which demonstrate the dire situation that currently exists at the hearing level:

• Pending claims at the hearing level. The number of pending claims at the hearing level hit the one million mark in November 2014 and has continued to increase every month since. In July 2015, there were 1,056,071 pending cases.

• Age of claims pending at the hearing level. The percentage of claims pending more than one year reached a low of 13% at the end of FY 2011 (September 2011), after being as high as 40% in FY 2007 and 37%-38% in much of FY 2008 and early FY 2009. However, it has increased steadily since the low of 13% at the end of FY 2011. It was 25% at the end of FY 2014 and had climbed to 34% in July 2015.

• Claims pending at the hearing level two years or more. The number of cases pending 750 or more days has been steadily growing. While admittedly a very small percentage of cases, these represented 0% until recently when they reached the 1% level in March 2015. There are now more than 10,000 cases in this category. At the end of FY 2014, there were only 2454 cases.

• Dispositions per ALJ. The number of ALJ dispositions daily per available ALJ has fluctuated: 2.42 (FY 2011); 2.41 (FY 2012); 2.30 (FY 2013); 2.07 (FY 2014). In October 2014, it had fallen under 2.00 to 1.97. In June 2015, it was 2.06 but climbed to 3.03 in July 2015. Perhaps this is the start of a more positive trend.

• Senior attorney decisions. As we have pointed out previously [see July 2015 NOSSCR Social Security Forum], the number of fully favorable decisions issued by ODAR senior attorneys in their capacity as Attorney Advisors has dropped drastically in the past five years. Senior attorneys decided about 54,000 cases in FY 2010. By FY 2013, they decided only 18,625 cases and in FY 2014, the number spiraled down to 1,872. It appears that the number will drop even more in FY 2015, despite the surge in processing times and pending cases this year – Through the first 10 months of FY 2015, they decided only 508 cases.

What has caused this significant degradation of service at the hearing level? There is no single factor but undoubtedly a number of reasons have contributed to this dire situation.

SSA’s need for adequate resources. For many years, SSA did not receive adequate funds to provide its mandated services. Between FY 2000 and FY 2007, the resulting administrative funding shortfall was more than $4 billion. The dramatic increase in the hearing level disability claims backlog during those years coincided with this period of significant underfunding.

However, between 2008 and 2010, Congress provided SSA with the necessary resources to start meeting its service delivery needs. With this funding, SSA was able to hire thousands of needed new employees, including additional ALJs and hearing level support staff. There can be no doubt that this additional staff led to SSA’s ability to make the dramatic progress in reducing the hearings level backlog at that time.

Unfortunately, that trend did not continue and in more recent years, the funding was either reduced or barely increased to meet expenses. We raised concerns that the reduction in funding would threaten to undo all of the progress SSA has made and that seems to have been realized. At a February 2015 House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Acting Commissioner Colvin testified that the one million pending number is “catastrophic.” Even if SSA can hire ALJs, it can reduce the backlog but not until FY 2019. She emphasized that flat funding will mean “significant deterioration.” NOSSCR continues to work with other advocates to ensure that SSA has adequate resources to carry out its workloads.

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