At the end of 2015 there were nearly 1.1 million cases awaiting Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Hearings before the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). These cases had an average processing time of 17 months. That is, on average, from the time a Request for Hearing was filed until a decision was issued is taking almost a year and a half! The plan to reduce this backlog was announced in January 2017 and is known as Compassionate And Responsive Service (CARES). If the plan is successful it estimates average processing times will be reduced to 270 days by Fiscal Year 2020. What is proposed in the Plan?
1. Hiring more Administrative Law Judges and support staff. The goal is to hire 250 more ALJs each year from 2016 through 2018 plus hire an increased the number of support staff to assist each ALJ. The plan also proposes increasing the number of Administrative Appeals Judges (AAJs) and staff at the Appeals Council.
2. Use AAJs to hear certain cases. These cases would typically be non-disability cases and cases involving overpayments. This would free up the ALJs to put more time into hearing disability related cases and issuing decisions.
3. Expand the National Adjudication Team (NAT). NAT is a team of attorneys that pull cases from around the country to review for possibly issuing fully favorable decisions prior to the hearing. Currently there are 20 attorneys on the NAT and CARES would expand the number to 50 to 60.
4. Pre-Hearing Conferences. SSA would offer pre-hearing conferences with senior ODAR attorneys meeting with unrepresented claimants. The conferences would be optional and claimants that did not attend would still be scheduled for a hearing. Unfortunately, there is no current plan to expand the program to cases where the claimant is represented.
5. Improved Case Screening. This would involve better review of cases where there appears to be a high probability of a favorable decision. However, there are few specifics in the plan describing how these cases would be identified.
6. Hearing Location Issues. The CARES plan would rely on an increased number of video hearings as well as identifying additional places to hold in person hearings.
I hope the CARES plan moves forward and can be fully implemented. Unfortunately, as with any government program, success will depend in large part on the funding provided by Congress. For now the backlog is not expected to decrease to any significant degree and is likely to rise locally. It is critical that a claim is fully developed and the claimant is prepared when their hearing does take place. If you have a pending Social Security case or questions regarding a Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income issue please contact me. There is no fee unless benefits are recovered. Convenient locations in Mobile and Baldwin County. Call Randy Walton, Walton Law LLC at 251-455-5819.
Randy Walton. March 21, 2016
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