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SSA's Strategic Plan calls for reduction of hearings backlog, improvements in disability process

The Social Security Administration recently released the agency’s new Strategic Plan (“the Plan”). Using the motto, “Social Security Benefits America,” the Plan identifies the challenges the agency faces and the steps needed over the next five years to meet those challenges. Specifically, the plan identifies four strategic goals: elimination of the hearings backlog and prevention of its recurrence, improvement in the speed and quality of the disability determination process, improvement of retiree and other core services, and preservation of the public's trust in Social Security programs. “The public expects us to get things done,” Commissioner Astrue said. “This Strategic Plan charts the course that will enable us to maintain a strong level of performance on Social Security’s core workloads and work toward long-term improvement of our service to the public.”

Elimination of the hearings backlog is SSA's chief goal

Currently, over 750,000 individuals are waiting for a hearing on their disability applications. On average, an individual waits over 500 days to receive a decision. The SSA maintains that “eliminating the hearings backlog is a moral imperative and our highest priority.” To that end, it seeks to reduce the number of pending hearings to 466,000 by fiscal year 2013 and reduce the time it takes an individual to receive a hearing decision to an average of 270 days.

To accomplish this goal, the SSA intends to increase its capacity to hear and decide cases by increasing the number of ALJs and support staff at the hearing level, screen hearing requests to quickly identify possible allowances, increase the use of video hearings, and open national hearing centers.

In addition to increasing the number of ALJs to 1,250 by fiscal year 2010 from a low of 1,082 in fiscal year 2007, the SSA has, for the first time, established individual annual expectations for ALJs. They have been “asked” to issue 500 to 700 hearing decisions each year.

The SSA also expects to improve its workload management process by automating case tasks, eliminating the use of temporary hearing sites, and establishing standardized electronic hearings business processes. Recognizing that improvements to the process at the hearings level will result in an increase of appeals at the Appeals Council level, the SSA states that it will “closely monitor the Appeals Council workload and take necessary actions to prevent backlogs at that level... .”

SSA committed to improving speed, quality of disability determination process

As baby boomers reach their most disability-prone years, the SSA has seen its disability workload grow significantly in the last five years. In order to speed up and improve the quality of the disability determination process, the agency intends to ensure that individuals who are clearly disabled receive a decision within 20 calendar days of filing an application for benefits, reach an online filing rate of 25% for disability applications by 2012, regularly update the regulations to incorporate the most recent medical advances, and develop a common case processing system for all of the individual state disability determination services.

The SSA has already begun to speed up determinations for those clearly disabled with the Quick Disability Determination (QDD) initiative. Under this program, approximately three percent of all new applications are identified for the QDD process. It takes the SSA six to eight days to favorably decide over 965 of them. Using computer models, the agency expects to increase the percentage of the types of cases identified for QDD. A second initiative, Compassionate Allowances, also allows the SSA to quickly identify individuals who are clearly disabled by the nature of their disease or condition. With both initiatives, the agency expects to fast track six to nine percent of initial disability applications by 2012.

Service improvements for retirees, preservation of public trust also targeted

In order to improve service for retirees, the SSA intends to make it easier for retirees to file online for retirement benefits. According to the Plan, nearly 80 million baby boomers will file for retirement benefits over the next 20 years. That is an average of 10,000 per day. The online process should shorten from 45 minutes to 15 minutes the amount of time required to file for benefits, and eliminate a trip to the local field office. The Plan also calls for improvement in the clarity of correspondence, improvements in telephone service, and further automation of the Social Security card application process.

To preserve the public trust, the Plan's long-term objectives include minimizing improper payments; improving protection of personally identifiable information; increasing the electronic filing of wage reports; and strengthening the efforts to protect program dollars from waste, fraud and abuse.

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