The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been dealing with a significant bottleneck in the hearing process for disability cases for the majority of the last decade. The greatest apparent culprit is the economy, with fewer available dollars translating to reduced staffing and budget cuts.
Each year for nearly a decade, the President’s Budget has fallen dramatically short of what has been requested by the commissioner of the SSA. During most of the same period, the number of pending disability cases has soared to more than three-quarters of a million per year.
Over the last two years, the agency has received enough funding to facilitate the hiring of an additional 373 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), as well as over 1000 support staff.
In an effort to streamline the disability hearing process, the agency has also implemented a procedure whereby hearings can be conducted by video instead of face-to-face. They also created a National Hearing Center to receive the video files and conduct the hearings.
This video system is similar to systems in use across the country for some criminal court hearings such as arraignments. In these hearings, the defendant is located in a room near the jail and communicates with the judge (who remains in the courtroom or office) via closed-circuit television, with two-way audio and video communication. As a result, potentially dangerous criminals don’t have to be moved away from the jail.
While the reasons and the distances involved are different, video hearings for Social Security Disability hearings are conducted on the same premise. A claimant may be hundreds of miles away from the ALJ who is presiding over the hearing, and yet still be able to present their case as though they were in the same room.
The most obvious benefit of this technology is that it streamlines the hearing process for all involved. A judge is likely able to conduct more hearings over the course of a day since multiple hearing locations could facilitate more efficient scheduling. For the claimants, reduced travel time for hearings would mean less inconvenience and a greater likelihood that other witnesses could attend.
When one considers the fact that approximately 70% of all applications for Social Security Disability benefits are denied, it comes as no surprise that the appeal process has become bogged down under the sheer weight of cases waiting to be heard. In addition, the agency has been hobbled by dwindling budgets and less-than-optimal staffing levels.
In 2006, there were 1,018 ALJs on staff. If one were to extrapolate these numbers based upon a very conservative figure of 750,000 cases per year (which is less than the current average), an ALJ would preside over 3 hearings on an average work day. When one factors in the additional administrative, legal and clerical staff needed to facilitate these hearings, it only makes sense to take advantage of the available technology and conduct hearings from remote locations.
The long wait times, the possibility of facing an initial denial, and the complexities associated with the appeal process all serve to drive home the point that the disability application process is best left to an experienced disability attorney.