The District of Columbia’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) was one of the slowest to process disability benefits appeals at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Hearing Level in Fiscal Year 2015, according to data released recently by the Social Security Administration (SSA). On average it took D.C.’s ODAR 565 days to decide a case once a claimant requested a hearing, about three and a half months longer than the national average. The District also lags behind most major cities with similar numbers of claimants including Alexandria (312 days), Boston (388 days), Downtown Los Angeles (389 days), Detroit (436 days), New York (470 days), Baltimore (477 days), and Chicago (481 days). For many Washingtonians living with disabilities, this wait time is devastating.
Much of these processing delays are spent waiting for a hearing date. Take, for example, Mr. Johnson (name changed to protect confidentiality), a Legal Aid client in his 50s who has significant physical and mental impairments. He can no longer perform his past work as a parking attendant because it requires too much walking and standing. He relies on family members for a place to stay, but their resources are also limited. He applied for SSDI four years ago. Only recently did he finally obtain a hearing date.
Sadly, this situation is not uncommon. Many Legal Aid clients wait 20 to 24 months for a hearing, on top of the often six to 12 months they must endure to receive a determination at the initial application stages. Without the ability to work, these individuals face limited options. Parents with children may be eligible for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) based on their lack of income. Low income claimants with pending SSI cases may be eligible for IDA (Interim Disability Assistance), a program which lends claimants up to $270 a month while they are waiting for their disability determination. But even IDA – which provides income about 20% of the Federal Poverty Level for a family of one – currently has a 6 month waiting list. This confluence of little-to-no income and chronic physical and/or mental health issues is closely linked to homelessness, which can exacerbate their disabilities.
When asked about the disparity between the District’s Social Security Disability appeals processing times and those of other major cities, Social Security Administration officials attributed the delays to significant staff turnover and financial constraints. According to one official with whom I spoke, the SSA is taking steps to address the backlog: “We recently increased the number of ALJs in the Washington, D.C. Hearing Office to improve the ability of the office to produce timely, quality decisions. Additionally, to address the immediate crisis of the growing hearings pending and backlog and the resulting impact on the Appeals Council’s workloads, we developed a comprehensive and multi-layered plan . . . including Business Process Improvements and Information Technology Innovations.”
But this is not the first time the SSA has attempted to tackle its backlog. In May 2007, it sought to cut the average processing time for Social Security Disability appeals from 512 days to 270 days. Yet, eight years later the average processing time remains at 450 days. An Office of the Inspector General report attributes Social Security’s failure to meet its goal to four major factors: 1) an increase in the number of hearing requests, 2) a decrease in the number of available administrative law judges, 3) a decrease in senior adjudicator decisions, and 4) decreased ALJ productivity. The fourth factor is worsened by “quality control” caps, limiting the number of Social Security appeals an ALJ can hear per year (from 1,200 cases in 2011 – the first year of the cap – to 720 in 2015).
Increasing the number of ALJs in the District will likely be part of the solution, but by no means a panacea. In FY 2015, the District’s ODAR decided 2,454 cases. More than half of those eventually resulted in a favorable ruling. That’s 1,267 people living with disabilities who, in all likelihood, struggled unnecessarily without an essential safety net benefit for over two years. These numbers underscore the urgency for getting disability cases correct in the initial stages. “One of the biggest changes will involve a better triage of cases,” said the Social Security Administration in an official statement, “so many will not go to a hearing. Electronic data mining will help us determine cases that (are) appropriate for screening by attorneys and federal claims examiners, who can make decisions faster than ALJs.”
This year, Legal Aid and the DC Chapter of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel launched a joint initiative -- the Social Security Project for Effective and Efficient Determinations or the “SPEED Project" – designed to leverage pro bono resources to help eligible SSI/SSDI claimants secure benefits early in the process. So far, 22 cases have been placed with pro bono counsel from 13 local law firms. Last week, Legal Aid held its second round of SPEED training for new volunteers -- boosting capacity to serve even more claimants. Hopefully public-private partnerships, like the SPEED Project, can help get benefits in the hands of those who sorely need them in a much timelier manner.