SSD appeals process: from bad to worse?

It is well known that the Social Security Administration has significant backlogs in many parts of the Social Security Disability program. There are delays with the initial claim process for those applying for SSD benefits. There are delays with the hearing and appeals process and there are delays with the continuing disability reviews.

SSA has implemented various methods to deal with these delays over the years, but they have had little success in actually reducing any of the backlogs except when their budget has allowed the hiring of additional personnel to handle the increased workload.

In an effort to reduce the current backlog involving Administrative Law Judges (ALJ), SSA has indicated that when a denial by an ALJ is reversed by the Appeals Council, it will not go back to the ALJ. Instead, the remand will be heard by administrative appeals judges from the Appeals Council, not a local judge.

The is troubling for several reasons. The Appeals Council typically reviews cases after the ALJ has made a ruling. One issue is that the Appeals Council, where these judges normally work, has its own backlog. It is likely to increase if they are reassigned to hear remanded cases under this proposal.

Second, this could violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which controls all administrative hearings within the federal government. It requires that ALJs be protected from agency pressure in the hiring, review and bonus process. This is to prevent an agency, such as SSA, from pressuring and potentially retaliating against ALJs who fail to decide cases the way in which the agency want them to be decided. Administrative appeals judges at the Appeals Council are not independent. They are under the full control of Social Security.

So, the program is unlikely to reduce any backlog, and worse, if it violates the APA, it could provide ground for additional appeals, which would cost SSA even more in time and resources.

That is bad for applicants, as it would further delay their benefit payments. The more realistic solution would be for Congress to adequately fund the number of ALJs that SSA needs, and end these "innovations" that will likely only lead to more problems for the SSD program.

Source: huffingtonpost.com, "Massive Disability Backlog," Arthur Delaney, May 6, 2016

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