Statement of Michael J. Astrue
Commissioner of Social Security
House Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security

May 1, 2007

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the Social Security Administration's (SSA) management of the disability determination process for the Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs, and the importance of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in that process.

Before I go any further, I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the members of this subcommittee for your support. I fully understand how important that support has been, and I am grateful for it. In addition, I want to recognize the hard work and service of the employees of SSA and the State Disability Determination Services (DDSs). They understand the importance of our programs and provide the best service they can.

We recently passed an important milestone; for the last 50 years, the Disability Insurance program has helped disabled workers and their dependents cope with the loss of income due to severe disability. Along with SSA's stewardship of the Supplemental Security Income program, SSA employees work every day to provide vital service to disabled Americans. While the accomplishments in SSA's disability programs are many, today I would like to discuss several areas of concern and our planned solutions.

I'd like to start with some strategic context. Since 2001, Congress has appropriated on average about $150 million less than the President has requested. The dollar value of this differential is equivalent to processing an additional 177,000 initial claims and 454,000 hearings. The added money in March's continuing resolution allowed us to avert 6-10 days of furloughs and to slow the rate of attrition, but it is important to remember that we will still end the year with substantially fewer employees than we had when we started the year.

During this same time period our workloads have increased both due to demographics and new statutory responsibilities. The baby boomers not only start retiring in January, they are increasingly filing for disability as they age. Moreover, Congress has asked SSA to engage in new responsibilities in homeland security, immigration, Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D.

With so many of the agency's activities mandated by law, other activities have suffered disproportionately. We went from 790,000 medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) in 2002 to 290,000 medical CDRs last year, a shift that makes a permanent negative impact on the trust fund. Field offices are harried. Hearing offices have lost support staff and productivity, and we have not hired sufficient ALJs to handle a caseload that has doubled in the past five years.

The Members of this committee have been great about making our case with others in Congress, and I ask you not only to continue your efforts, but to expand them. We need your help.

Timely passage of the President's requested appropriation for SSA is a key first step towards addressing our disability caseload backlog. However, I want to acknowledge that we have not addressed the backlog problem as quickly as we need to, and that we are moving as fast as we can toward providing more efficient and compassionate service to the public.

As you know, in 2006 SSA revised the disability determination process to increase accuracy, consistency, and timeliness. The new Disability Service Improvement (DSI) process was rolled out in the Boston region in August 2006, and builds upon SSA's electronic disability folder.

DSI was implemented in a way to allow us to monitor the effects that the changes are having in the Boston region, on our entire disability process, and the Federal courts. The lessons that we learn in the early stages of implementation will help SSA as we continue to evaluate changes needed to improve the disability determination process.

In February and March, we engaged in an intensive review of DSI. We found mixed results.

Early accomplishments include perhaps the best news so far out of DSI, the success of QDD – the Quick Disability Determination program. Using a computer model to identify the cases most likely to be allowed, the states have decided 97 percent of these cases within the required 21 days and they have a mean decision time of 11 days. About 85 percent of these cases have been allowed during the initial review, and more have been allowed with additional documentation. We plan to build on the success of the QDD tool by greatly improving our ability to make decisions so that claimants with conditions such as a confirmed case of pancreatic cancer or ALS are approved for disability within the 11 days we have proved we can do. It is both efficient and compassionate for us to do this.

Another electronic program developed as part of DSI is a decision-tool for use by ALJs called the Findings Integrated Template (FIT). About 80 percent of the ALJs use it now voluntarily, and ALJs who use it have a significantly lower rate of remands from the Appeals Council. These remands cause significant costs and delays. We are in the process of requiring that all ALJs use this new tool by the end of this year.

We also found areas of DSI that are not performing as expected, and have taken early steps to make course corrections.

I am committed to making the changes internal to SSA and in SSA's policies that are needed to continue our dedicated service to disabled Americans. We are going to reorganize the Office of Disability and Income Support Programs to better align our organizational structure with this mission, and we have already received some helpful advice from the Inspector General, who, at my request, has completed a first draft of an organizational audit.

We found that two of the new electronic systems developed for DDSs were not ready for real-world use, and were in fact causing considerable delays in processing caseloads. While these systems have great potential over the long-term, they have been pulled until they are more developed. We are focusing on refining our primary two systems for making us fully electronic, and have used an additional $25 million from our technology reserve fund to accomplish that goal.

We have also accelerated and expanded recent efforts to address the “aged” cases – those cases that involve waiting for 1000 days or more for a hearing. This is America , and an American should not have to wait three or four years for his or her day in court. We have established as our goal the elimination of these cases to a negligible level by the end of this fiscal year, and I am pleased to report that this number has already dropped from 63,525 on October 1 of last year to 17,966 as of last week.

Under the broader DSI continuous-monitoring implementation strategy I mentioned earlier, we are evaluating the Federal Reviewing Official, or FedRO, and Medical and Vocational Expert System (MVES) for these components' effects on processing time, and accuracy, and the costs of handling a claim, and the program costs to the Social Security Trust Funds.

With regard to the Disability Review Board, we have limited actual experience to date due to the time required for claims to reach this stage, but I am concerned about potential for confusion and reprocessing of cases if we have two different bodies issuing conflicting decisions on my behalf over the next ten years. We are evaluating the DRB, and its counterpart – the Appeals Council -- under the current process, with these concerns in mind.

I am overdue on the subject of this hearing – ALJs. Let me make two brief points. First, we need to use our ALJs in a smarter, more efficient way. Posting all our ALJs in our 141 hearing offices does not give us enough flexibility to address the worst backlogs. Electronic hearings have been a successful method to address backlogs on an ad hoc basis, and it is time that we reserve a percentage of the ALJs in a central office and use them exclusively to address the worst backlogs through electronic hearings.

Second, we need more ALJs, and we're aiming at a net increase of about 150 ALJs. With support staff, we're looking at about 750-850 FTEs, a significant reallocation of our discretionary FTEs. With rising numbers of appeals being filed, we simply cannot reduce the backlog with fewer ALJs than we had in 1997. Last year, our ALJs made a record number of decisions – almost 559,000 – and we still fell further behind with a total number of 730,659 cases pending as of March 30 of this year. This kind of commitment, however, means we need to evaluate the costs of other changes in the disability determination process.

Let me conclude by saying that I have very much appreciated the bipartisan support we have received from both Members and the staff of this Committee, and I am looking forward to continuing to have our regular candid discussions until we have a system in which we can all take real pride.