SSA Commissions Independent Review of the Disability Appeal Process

Submitted by Shane on

The last year has brought increased scrutiny of the SSA’s appeal courts, the federal level at which cases denied twice by the state are allowed a final review. In understanding of the need for unbiased review of the way administrative law judges (ALJs) process Social Security Disability appeals, the administration has agreed to, and commissioned, the Administrative Conference to perform a review which is scheduled to be completed by November of 2012.

The Conference’s review is the culmination of reports from the last few years of ALJs whose decision records show a high percentage of either approvals or denials of Social Security Disability benefits cases. Several New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles featured earlier this year pinpointed specific judges who are approving a large majority of their cases, something which draws into question the thoroughness and validity of their decisions at a time when the Social Security Administration’s disability programs are under increasing financial strain.

While the average approval rate for cases at the appeals level is 60%, as many as 100 ALJs have approval percentages as high as 90%. At the same time, there are judges who are approving very low percentages. With such a wide range of approval rates among 1500 judges, critics are alarmed that continuity in the procedures and standards used by ALJs when reviewing disability cases is not being kept, a possible indication that funds are being inaccurately awarded while those who deserve benefits are denied.

While the SSA has certainly been aware of inconsistencies among its appeals judges, they have little authority over ALJs, who are appointed for life and have extensive license when reviewing cases.

In addition to being reviewed by the Administrative Conference, the SSA has made immediate steps to decrease corruption in the system by no longer notifying claimants of which ALJ has been assigned to them. With this step, they hope to discourage applicants and their lawyers from being able to purposefully avoid those who are notorious for denials while seeking out alternates whose approval rates are high.

The pressing need for reform to the disability appeals process isn’t simply a need for improving the quality and consistency of federal appeals courts - it is the need to keep the SSA’s disability programs from approaching their predicted bankruptcy by 2017. With an increase in cases over the last several years causing massive backlogs, the SSA has felt pressure to not only improve the efficiency of its disability determination process, but to do so with a tighter budget.

The urgency of the situation dictates that they tighten up the standards by which cases are evaluated and approved for benefits. With less than 50% of cases receiving an initial approval for benefits, the SSA has already made it difficult to cheat the system. However, once cases reach the appeals process, it is much easier to receive an approval, and as previously stated, is a level at which ALJs have all authority.

A review of the administrative law judges who decide Social Security Disability claims will hopefully reveal a fresh perspective on ways to reform the system, as well as bring delinquent ALJs to attention and corrective action. Applicants for disability will be also be able to expect a more fair and unbiased hearing. All of this will work together to increase the efficiency, accuracy, and financial viability of the Social Security Disability programs while ensuring benefits are going to those for whom the program is designed.

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