Progress on disability benefit backlog disputed

A little more than four years ago, the Social Security Administration (SSA) embarked on a mission to reduce the ever-increasing backlog of cases waiting to be heard on appeal. A newly-released study calls into question claims of success in this endeavor made by the SSA.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the study, conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) an independent research organization from Syracuse University, projects the number of cases waiting to be heard at the end of the current fiscal year to be 735,660, an increase of more than 30,000 over fiscal year 2010. This would appear to fly in the face of what could be considered a reduction.

However, the news isn’t entirely bad for the SSA. In 2008, the average wait time for a disability case on appeal was a whopping 514 days. That’s right, almost a year and a half. This number has been reduced, with the current average reduced to 369 days. In other words, a claimant still has to wait for over a year, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.

As you might imagine, whether or not the SSA has been successful at achieving their stated goal of reducing the backlog really depends on how you read the numbers. According to David Burnham, co-director of TRAC, the increase in the number of cases waiting to be heard is an indication that the SSA has fallen short. Burnham also points out the fact that TRAC arrived at their conclusions based on numbers provided by the SSA.

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of the SSA, slammed the study as “a real disservice to disabled Americans”, and termed the conclusions reached by the firm to be “research fraud”. Astrue, in defense of the SSA, points to the reduction in wait times as evidence that the agency has made progress toward their stated goal. It is Astrue’s contention that while an increase in the number of new applications filed for disability benefits has strained the agency’s resources, those numbers should not be allowed to impact the determination of success or failure at reducing the backlog. According to Astrue, the agency’s target of a 270 day wait came from advocates for disabled claimants, giving them time to gather needed documents and take care of other preparations for their disability hearing.

Over the last several years, the SSA has been able to bring on an additional 500 or so administrative law judges to preside over appeal cases, as well as about 1500 additional support staff. The agency has taken steps toward employing technology to improve efficiency, such as utilizing more intensive screening software in order to identify clearly disabled claimants. In some areas, video conferencing technology is used to conduct hearings, reducing travel times and increasing convenience for clients for whom travel arrangements and costs may be prohibitive. The advent of the Compassionate Allowance program, which expedites the approval process for some conditions based upon the assumption that the condition is inherently disabling, has also improved efficiency within the program.

While it would be easy to look at the increase in the backlog of cases and deem the SSA’s attempts to reduce it a miserable failure, the decrease in the wait time for resolution of a case, while still unacceptably long, is a definite step in the right direction. Rather than getting into a colossal “half empty/half full” debate, perhaps it would be prudent to withhold judgment for another year.