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Senator Lankford, Heitkamp: Social Security Administration Disability Backlog Proposal is a Problem

WASHINGTON, DC – The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, under the chairmanship of Senator James Lankford (R-OK), today held a hearing on the massive social security disability backlog and what the Social Security Administration (SSA) is doing to address the problem. 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.

Congress has provided the SSA the necessary funds to hire additional ALJ’s to help solve the backlog, however, the process of hiring a sufficient number of ALJs has been extremely slow. To address the backlog, the SSA recently proposed removing two classes of adjudicatory hearings from the purview of Administrative Law Judges 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.

The hearing witnesses included: Theresa L. Gruber, Deputy Commissioner for Disability Adjudication and Review at the Social Security Administration; Judge Marilyn D. Zahm, Administrative Law Judge at the Social Security Administration Buffalo, New York Office of Disability Adjudication and Review; and Joseph Kennedy, Associate Director for Human Resources Solutions at the Office of Personnel Management. During the hearing, Lankford and Ranking Member Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) asked SSA Deputy Commissioner Gruber to postpone implementation of the SSA’s Administrative Appeals Judges and Attorney Examiners proposal.

“The massive social security disability case backlog is a major problem for disabled Americans waiting for a claim decision, as well as for the taxpayer that expects a more efficient government,” said Lankford. “The Administrative Procedure Act requires that social security disability decisions are made by independent judges, so each case is evaluated without partial influences. The Social Security Administration’s decision to appoint Administrative Appeals Judges and Attorney Examiners to judge these cases, rather than ALJ’s, is a serious legal problem. Not only would the proposal encourage an unfair process, but it may also violate the law. In order for the social security disability program to best serve Americans, due process protections must remain a high priority. Unfortunately, the SSA did not provide a justifiable legal explanation for this proposed initiative during today’s hearing, therefore, I call on the Administration to go back to the drawing board and focus more on streamlining ALJ hiring and recruitment to address this backlog problem.”

It takes the SSA 15 days to hire an Attorney Examiner compared to a year of stringent testing and interviews to become an ALJ. Based on the vetting process alone, these two classes of employees are not “equal” in qualifications or independence.

Senator Lankford has been a long-time advocate for reforming the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program in order to strengthen the program for disabled Americans and reduce fraud and waste within the program. In October, Lankford offered a robust reform proposal, as an amendment to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, to improve the adjudication process for appeals and reconsiderations; prevent individuals from receiving SSDI who are not disabled; and ensure stronger program integrity, processing and oversight.

CLICK HERE to read the hearing opening statements and view the full hearing video. CLICK HERE to view video of Senator Lankford’s opening statement.