Growing hearing backlog in SSDI program should see relief with Social Security plans to hire approximately 250 administrative law judges (ALJs).
The growing hearing backlog in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program should see some needed relief with the Social Security Administration's plans to hire approximately 250 administrative law judges (ALJs) this year, according to Allsup, which has helped more than 250,000 deserving claimants receive SSDI benefits based on their work history. However, the hearing backlog, which now numbers more than 1 million claims, is not likely to improve until fiscal year (FY) 2017, according to the SSA.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) in the United States is defined as a judge and trier of fact who both presides over trials and adjudicates the claims or disputes (in other words, ALJ-controlled proceedings are bench trials) involving administrative law. ALJs can administer oaths, take testimony, rule on questions of evidence, and make factual and legal determinations. In American administrative law, ALJs are Article I judges under the U.S. Constitution. As such, they do not exercise full judicial power, essentially, the power over life, liberty, and property. Most U.S. states have a statute modeled after the APA or somewhat similar to it. In some states, such as New Jersey, the state law is also known as the Administrative Procedure Act.
The national average wait time for a hearing decision is 467 days, up over 100 days since FY 2012.
Some of the longest waits are in Florida where the processing times include 702 days in Fort Myers, 658 days in Miami, 589 days in Fort Lauderdale, 580 days in Jacksonville, and 572 days in Tallahassee.
"It is good news that Social Security is hiring more ALJs this year, because the agency ended fiscal year 2014 with a net loss of 35 judges due to retirements and departures," said Steve Perrigo, vice president, Allsup. "They've made it abundantly clear they don't expect to reduce the backlog or lower processing times any time soon."
The hearing backlog is likely to worsen before it gets better, according to Social Security officials. Factors cited include challenges with recent restricted funding and problems with the ALJ hiring process. "Earlier this year, the SSA laid out plans to improve the ALJ hiring process with involvement of a work-group," Perrigo explained.
Participating agencies include the Administrative Conference of the United States, the Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Office of Management and Budget. The SSA ended FY 2014 with 1,433 ALJs, down 8.5 percent since January 2013.
SSDI is a federally mandated insurance program, funded by FICA payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers, that provides monthly income to people under full retirement age (65-67) with a severe disability lasting at least 12 months or a terminal condition. To apply for SSDI benefits, someone must be completely unable to work and have enough work credits to be insured.
Help For A Social Security Disability Hearing
The hearing level is typically the third stage in the SSDI application and appeal process. SSDI claimants usually reach the hearing level after both their initial disability application and their appeal (reconsideration) have been denied. However, in a few states that have eliminated the reconsideration level, the initial application denials go directly to the hearing level. Most hearings are held in person with an ALJ, although video hearings are on the rise.
"Unfortunately, more and more people with severe disabilities are finding themselves in for a long wait with their claim for SSDI benefits," said David Bueltemann, Allsup manager of senior claimant representatives. "This leads to incredible frustration and sometimes dire financial situations for individuals adjusting to the impact of a severe, long-term disability."
Only 1 in 10 people who applied for Social Security disability benefits had a representative in FY 2013, compared to 3 in 4 who had a representative by the time of the hearing, according to SSA data obtained by Allsup.
There are important advantages when choosing a disability expert like Allsup.
A video hearing may be more convenient for SSDI claimants who live in a remote area, Bueltemann said.
"You may want to participate in a video hearing for convenience, but it may be important to meet the ALJ in person," Bueltemann explained. "Your SSDI representative can talk through these options with you."