We are picking up where we left off in our last post. The Social Security Administration will be working on a handful of changes to the disability benefits program during 2014. Some of the projects could make the benefits application process easier for people with disabilities. Some of the projects could streamline internal processes at the SSA. It is anyone’s guess how long these will take.
We were talking about administrative law judges, the attorneys hired by the SSA to review claim appeals. Their job is to provide an objective review of the applicant’s file and to decide whether the decision should stand or be overturned. A few years ago, when the backlog of applications and appeals started to get out of hand, the SSA put pressure on ALJs to review more and more cases per year.
As the minimums crept closer to 1,000 cases per judge, some ALJs started to complain. They are required to review pages and pages of medical records for each application, and these judges believed that expecting someone to go through so many cases in a year was a disservice to appellants and the disability program.
The agency responded by imposing an upper limit on cases. Over the past couple of years, the agency has whittled the maximum down to 800. This year, the maximum could be reduced again.
ALJs will also lose some of their independence. The ALJs are supposed to be completely objective in their appeal determinations. They have always been employees of the SSA, and this year they will have more well-defined layers of supervision than before. One of the responsibilities of those new layers is to make sure each judge is within the “normal” range of overturned appeals. Currently, some judges grant benefits in many more instances while others hardly ever decide in the appellant’s favor. (If you’re interested in seeing the records of New Jersey ALJs, the records are available online at www.disabilityjudges.com.)
The SSA has plans in other areas as well, and many seem to be focused on reducing fraud. As we said in our Oct. 29 post, fraud accounts for 1 percent of benefits paid. The agency will devote resources to getting that number even lower, apparently, while applicants continue to wait for months or even years to get their first benefit checks.
Source: Wall Street Journal, “Six Changes Social Security Is Making to Its Disability Program,” Damian Paletta, Dec. 26, 2013