Bucking a Backlog
ABA pitches in to reduce delays in resolving disability claims
Posted Oct 1, 2009 6:30 PM CST
By Rhonda McMillion
The scene had all the appearances of a Social Security Administration appeals hearing: The claimant was represented by counsel, an expert witness was ready to testify on medical and vocational issues, and an administrative law judge was there to hear the appeal.
But it was all a mock hearing, and the players were ABA volunteers.
The May mock hearing was part of an ongoing ABA effort to help educate staff members from various congressional offices and federal agencies about the workings of the Social Security Administration and, more specifically, about who qualifies for benefits under Social Security Disability Insurance.
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The mock hearing was the fourth in a series presented by the ABA, but the first one sponsored by the Standing Committee on Governmental Affairs. A dozen other association entities also have participated in the hearings, with staff support from the Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.
“These mock hearings give attendees the opportunity to observe what occurs at the hearings, which ordinarily are closed to the public due to privacy concerns,” says Bill Robinson of Florence, Ky., who chairs the committee. He is member-in-charge of the northern Kentucky offices for Frost Brown Todd.
It is important for policymakers to understand the mechanics of disability hearings, says Jodi B. Levine, an administrative law judge in Oklahoma City and past chair of the ABA Judicial Division who participated in the hearings. That’s because, Levine says, “while not everyone is entitled to benefits, everyone is entitled to due process, including his or her day in court.”
Other regular participants in the mock hearings include Tela L. Gatewood and Peter M. Keltch, who serve with Levine as ALJs in Oklahoma; and claimants’ attorney Rudolph N. Patterson, managing partner at Westmoreland Patterson Moseley & Hinson in Macon, Ga. Patterson and Levine co-chair the Benefits Committee in the ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice.
Patterson, a founder and former president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, also is a member of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging, which developed the association’s policy urging Congress to provide sufficient administrative funding for the Social Security Administration so that the backlog in disability appeals cases can be whittled down to a manageable level. That backlog includes as many as 750,000 appeals cases, and some claimants have to wait up to four years before being approved for benefits payments.
“Despite increased funding during the past two fiscal years and agency efforts to reduce the backlog, funding remains inadequate to provide mandated services in a timely manner and to promptly and fairly adjudicate applications for disability insurance,” Patterson says.
This year support from President Barack Obama has boosted the prospects for funding increases. Adhering to the president’s budget request for fiscal 2010, appropriations bills currently moving through both the Senate and the House of Representatives include $11.4 billion for administrative expenses at the Social Security Administration—this represents a $984 million increase over current funding.
The funding increase “would constitute a large step forward in reducing the backlog and improving services to the public,” the ABA stated in correspondence to the appropriations subcommittees in both chambers. A sustained level of administrative funding would enable the agency to “build the infrastructure necessary to manage the significant workload challenges presented by serving the aging baby boomers filing disability and retirement claims,” stated the letter.
On a related issue, the ABA has given input to Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue regarding the possible use of electronic signatures for applications and authorizations to disclose medical information in disability cases.
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses ABA advocacy efforts relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.
Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.