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SOCIAL SECURITY COMMISSIONER: Disability is our most pressing challenge


Michael J. Astrue
By Guest Columnist Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security


I know from personal experience how difficult Social Security’s disability process can be. When my father was 52, he suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage caused by a rare form of brain cancer. As I took care of the application for him, it opened my eyes to the complicated rules associated with our disability programs.
Each year, approximately 2.5 million people apply for Social Security disability benefits. On average, one-third of them are approved upon initial application, which takes an average of three months for a decision. But for those who are denied and appeal the decision to the hearing level, it can take a long time to receive a decision – much too long, in my opinion.

Right now, there are more than 750,000 cases waiting for a hearing and the average time to get a hearing decision is 499 days. Pending hearings have doubled since 2001. In addition, the number of applications for disability benefits has been extraordinarily high throughout the last seven years and we can expect it to be even higher in the coming years.

Social Security’s disability programs have grown significantly over the last seven years and will continue to do so at an increasing rate as aging baby boomers reach their most disability-prone years. At the same time, Congress has added new and non-traditional work¬loads to Social Security’s responsibilities. As a result, the agency is struggling to balance those new responsibilities with its core workloads under tight resource constraints.

That’s why I’ve made improving the disability determination process my top priority. It is our most pressing challenge.

Last year I appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to present an aggressive plan to reduce the backlog and improve the disability process. These new initiatives will eliminate the hearings backlog and prevent it from recurring. Let me give you just a few examples.

The first is the Quick Disability Determination (QDD), a process based on a computer model that allows us to screen cases with a high potential for approval. The QDD process has proved highly successful in the Boston region, and the average processing time now is just 8 days. On September 5, 2007, the agency issued a final rule extending QDD nationwide. By the end of this month, every state will be processing QDD cases and about 5% of all allowances will be handled through QDD.

The second, Compassionate Allowances, is a way of quickly identifying medical conditions that invariably qualify under our listings. In these cases, which are often rare diseases unfamiliar to reviewers, allowances will be made as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed. In December 2007, we held the first public hearing on this initiative and will hold three more hearings this year. You can learn more about compassionate allowances at www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances.

In addition, Social Security has opened a National Hearing Center (NHC). The NHC allows the agency to capitalize on new technologies such as electronic disability folders and video teleconferencing and gives needed flexibility to address the country’s worst backlogs. We also are hiring 175 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), the largest group of new ALJs ever hired by Social Security in a single year. We expect to start bringing these ALJs on board in the spring.

These are but a few of the many initiatives the agency has underway. When it comes to eliminating disability backlogs, there is no single magic bullet. But with additional staff, enhanced business processes and improved ways of fast-tracking targeted cases, I believe we can improve the disability process and waiting times.

To learn more about Social Security’s plan to reduce the hearings backlog and improve service go to www.socialsecurity.gov/hearingsbacklog.pdf.
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