Monday, July 1, 2013

Social Security Disability Adjudcation -- Get Real

It seems popular to allege that the administrative system allows too many people to collect disability benefits either the earned variety (SSDI) or the welfare variety (SSI).  The AP story trumpets the alarm now heard in Congress -- the system is too lax.  STEPHEN OHLEMACHER writes the AP piece that now circulates all the major newspapers. 

The piece focuses on the allegation of ALJ misfeasance.  Really?  That discussion assumes that the ALJ corps is responsible in some meaningful manner for the growth in the disability rolls.  The facts do not allow the conclusion. 

The Social Security Advisory Board publishes the data.  In fiscal year 2000, the agency received just under 2 million claims for disability.  The initial claims processing allowed nearly 850,000 claims at initial or reconsideration.  The ALJ corps heard 433,000 claims that fiscal year, allowing just over 250,000 claims.  That's right, less than 25% of the claims allowed required a hearing. 

Of the 180,000 claims denied or dismissed by an ALJ, the Appeals Council found legal or factual error in over 29,000 claims.  In that fiscal year, the federal courts found legal or factual error in another 6,000 claims. 

Jump forward to fiscal year 2012 and find that not much has changed.  SSA received over 3 million claims for disability benefits from an aging population with more and more people eligible because of the entry into the workforce of women in the past 30 years.  The process allowed 1.1 million claims by initial and reconsideration determination.    The ALJ corps hear 688,000 claims and found disability whether granting in full, granting a closed period of disability that has now ended, or finding disability at a later date than originally alleged, in 347,000 claims.  So the ALJ corps is still responsible for less than 25% of the claims that are allowed at all. 

The Appeals Council continued to reverse and/or remand 20% of the ALJ decisions that it reviewed for legal and factual error.  The federal courts found legal or factual error in another 6,900 claims.  These astounding reversal rates come despite the advent of Social Security Ruling 11-1p, putting claimants on the horns of a dilemma having to choose to appeal an erroneous ALJ decision or file a new claim, washing away the right to fight against patent ALJ error. 

I have been doing this work, appealing administrative and ALJ decisions for coming up on 30 years.  Having argued disability claims at all levels of review, and losing before the Supreme Court, I have a relatively rare perspective of seeing these claims squeezed by a process that robs human beings of their dignity in a process bereft of compassion.  Frankly, about a quarter of the ALJs are outliers on both sides, granting too many or too few cases.  Getting rid of the lottery of ALJ decisional scatter by squeezing towards the middle -- that is a worthwhile goal.  Pressing down allowance rates is a bad idea that needs to die a lonely death.