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Senator Lankford Examines Massive Social Security Administration Disability Backlog

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today chaired a congressional hearing on the massive social security disability backlog and what the Social Security Administration (SSA) is doing to address the problem. According to the latest available data through March of this year, there are 13,169 pending social security disability cases in Oklahoma. By comparison, neighboring state, Kansas, has 9,219 pending cases, and Arkansas, has 8,873 pending cases. The average processing time for a hearing is 478 days for the Oklahoma City office and 411 days for the Tulsa office. The national average at the end of FY 2015 was 480 days.

CLICK HERE to view Lankford’s opening statement.

CLICK HERE to view Lankford’s Q&A about why the backlog exists

Excerpt from opening statement:

Senator Lankford: …over the last 4 years, Congress has appropriated significant resources so that the Social Security Administration could hire more Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to address its backlog of disability claims. Yet, the agency has been unable to hire sufficient numbers of approved ALJs to tackle the rising backlog of cases—a backlog which topped one million last year, and in my home state of Oklahoma, around 13,000 of those.

…While we all share the goal of eliminating the hearing backlog, our concern isn’t just about meeting desired results; we must also focus on how we get there. 

Q&A Excerpts:

Senator Lankford: Why do have a [social security] backlog?

Judge Marilyn D. Zahm (Social Security Administrative Law Judge from Buffalo, New York): The American public is getting older. So, that’s a factor. The recession is a factor. I noticed in the agency submission chart of ALJ hiring, that there were years of no hiring. So, the cases accumulated. We also do not have the most efficient system. We have made suggestions to the agency on how to modernize our adjudicatory system.

The role of the ALJ is to serve as an independent impartial judge in formal proceedings requiring a decision on disability benefits. Nationally, the number of Americans waiting for a hearing to determine their eligibility for disability benefits surpassed one million cases last year, and the average wait time for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is 480 days.

To address the backlog, the SSA recently proposed removing two classes of adjudicatory hearings from the purview of ALJ’s and transferring them to internal Administrative Appeals Judges and Attorney Examiners within SSA’s Appeals Council. Today’s hearing exposed three problems with this decision: it could deprive individuals of their right to an unbiased decision by an independent judge, which the Administrative Law Judges provide; it could expose individuals to undue agency influence, because Administrative Appeals Judges and Attorney Examiners are SSA employees; and it could expose the agency to class action litigation, which would eventually cost taxpayers millions of dollars. During today’s hearing, Lankford and Ranking Member Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) asked the SSA to postpone implementation of this latest proposal.