Testimony of Commissioner Barnhart before the House Committee on Ways and Means,
Subcommittee on Social Security, on Challenges Facing the New Commissioner of Social Security
May 2, 2002
Chairman Shaw, Representative Matsui and Members of the Subcommittee:
I am pleased to be here today in my second appearance before you as the Commissioner of Social Security to discuss the challenges facing the Social Security Administration (SSA). For all of the people who depend on Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the work we do matters greatly. We must provide the kind of service that each and every claimant, beneficiary, and citizen needs and deserves.
I also want to thank you for holding this hearing at this time, because it gives me the chance to discuss with you the wide range of important issues facing Social Security early in my tenure. I've been Commissioner just over five months now. When I think of the things I want the agency to accomplish during my watch, it seems like the time has flown by. I look forward to working with you and all the members of the Subcommittee, as well as the experienced and dedicated employees at SSA.
Today, Social Security faces great challenges: Giving the American people the service they deserve, particularly as the number of beneficiaries increases each year with the aging of the baby boomers; improving program integrity through sound fiscal stewardship; ensuring the program's financial solvency for future generations; and maintaining the quality staff SSA needs to meet these goals. I think of these challenges as the four S's: service, stewardship, staffing and solvency.
The Social Security Administration's programs touch almost every person in the nation in one way or another-whether to get a social security number, contribute through payroll taxes, apply for retirement or survivors benefits, or apply for disability benefits. And, generally, the agency does a good job of providing the kind of service people need, but there are other areas where we must improve. The most glaring of these areas is the disability process.
I know everyone is concerned about the length of time the disability process takes. Quite frankly, I think the length of time the disability claims process can take is unacceptable. Over the last five years, through my work as a member of the Social Security Advisory Board and now as Commissioner, I have had the opportunity to visit SSA field offices, hearing offices, and State Disability Determination Services (DDS). For the past 5 months I have spent a lot of time getting different perspectives on the disability process. I have talked to many people--employees and the public, individually, in small and large groups, to hear about the concerns they have with the disability process, at both the initial and appeals levels.
In the weeks leading up to my confirmation, I was often asked what additional resources would be required to get control over the delays in the disability process, and address other areas of concern. I said that I could not answer that question until I could analyze our current processes, determine the optimal levels of service from the point of view of both applicants and taxpayers - future applicants, and what was necessary to get us there.
At my confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Baucus and I discussed my plan to develop a service delivery budget, and I promised him that I would report back.
As I mentioned, it is clear that the disability process takes too long.
Let me also say that I am not waiting to take steps to improve the disability process where we can take action now. I feel very strongly that we must move forward now and make decisions on what we can do immediately to improve disability processing while laying the groundwork for additional mid- and longer-term improvements. For instance, SSA's prototype process has been in place in 10 States since 1999. In December, I issued a Federal Register notice that the prototype would continue for six more months. That gave us time to evaluate the prototype, to see what works and what does not. Now is the time to make decisions and put them into effect nationwide. For instance, the prototype confirmed the value of the single decisionmaker (SDM) feature. This feature allows the claims examiner to make the determination without a mandatory physician sign-off on many claims (except for determinations for children and those with mental impairments) and relies on the examiner to decide when to seek consultant physician advice on difficult and complex claims. It lets the DDS make more effective use of examiner and medical consultant resources and provide faster determinations for some claimants. I have decided to put the SDM into practice now, so that all States can take advantage of it, as we continue to develop longer-term improvements.
I have also decided not to extend the formal claimant conference feature of the prototype. This end of the line conference between claimant and examiner added processing time (an estimated 15 to 20 days) and was not as effective as we had hoped in helping claimants understand claims issues. Most prototype States found early and ongoing contact with the claimant to be more effective.
There have also been concerns that the Hearings Process Improvement project (HPI) has created even more bottlenecks in the process than it was intended to fix. In addition, SSA's past inability to hire Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to make decisions at the hearing level of the disability process has had a profoundly adverse effect on our ability to provide timely service. Before I signed on, former Acting Commissioner Larry Massanari started a group looking at the hearing process. Thanks to their careful analysis and that of my own staff, I have made some additional decisions on short- and near-term changes in this area. We are required to bargain with employee unions before we can implement some of these changes, and we certainly intend to meet that obligation in good faith. The decisions include:
- Including ALJs in early screening for on-the-record decisions;
- Developing a short form for fully favorable decisions;
- Allowing ALJs to issue decisions from the bench immediately after a hearing;
- Creating a law clerk position;
- Expanding videoteleconference hearings;
- Deploying speech recognition technology;
- Ending the hearing office technician rotation requirement; and
- Digitally recording hearings.
More needs to be done and we are continuing to work in this area, but these are important first steps. I also have some good news to report with regard to hiring ALJs. In October we were able to bring on board 126 new ALJs from a list of candidates that had been (and continues to be) the subject of litigation. I want to thank the Social Security Subcommittee for your interest in hiring the new judges, and hope that we can continue to rely on your support.
One thing that has become clear is the need to accelerate implementation of what we call e- DIB, an electronic disability determination folder. This should organize, store, transmit, and track claimant files and medical evidence electronically. I have formed a committee of the deputy commissioners of the 3 offices most closely involved with this. We have a plan in place to have this process up and running in another 20 months. This will go a long way to speeding up the process.
As you are aware, many of SSA's employees are retirement-eligible and many more will become eligible over the next few years. We need to explore ways both to retain employees who may be eligible for retirement and recruit employees as they first enter the workforce. I believe part of that effort must be to reinforce the idea that pursuing a career in the federal government is a noble and worthy cause. We can even look creatively at this challenge as an opportunity for employment of our own SSI and SSDI recipients.
Over the years, SSA has earned a well-deserved reputation as an agency with a "can-do" attitude as it has taken on new responsibilities, developed new technologies, and worked hard to meet increasing workloads. With the support of talented and dedicated employees, I believe that we can make service improvements at this time within our available resources, and that we can improve the efficiency of our processes as we fulfill our legislatively mandated duties.
Stewardship and Program Integrity
I mentioned earlier the importance of good stewardship, but I'd like to elaborate a little bit on this theme. Providing true service to the public includes an obligation to ensure sound financial management. The people of America, who fund the Social Security program through their payroll tax contributions, and SSI through their income tax payments expect and deserve well managed programs. There is also a strong economic incentive for doing so. In several areas, such as SSA's continuing disability reviews, ensuring that disability beneficiaries still meet eligibility criteria can reap significant savings.
But good stewardship involves more than money. The tragic events of September 11, and reports that some of the terrorists had Social Security numbers and cards, which may have been fraudulently obtained, have brought home the need to strengthen safeguards in our enumeration process. In response to those events, SSA formed a high-level response team, which includes participation from our Office of the Inspector General (IG), and from the New York and San Francisco Regions. We have already begun implementing a number of process improvements to help ensure that we are strengthening our capability to prevent those with criminal intent from using Social Security numbers and cards to advance their operations.
In all program integrity areas, not simply identity fraud and enumeration but also in our efforts to improve our stewardship of the SSI program, I am looking forward to working with SSA's Inspector General. As a matter of fact, I met with the Inspector General during my first days in office to begin a review of his recommendations. And Deputy Commissioner Jim Lockhart and I met with the Comptroller General recently to discuss the SSI program's high risk designation and develop a plan for removing the designation from the SSI program. I have asked Mr. Lockhart to take the lead on this important initiative. With regard to September 11, although it has been several months since the terrorist attacks, I want to take this opportunity to express my pride in the response of SSA's employees to the terrorist attacks. Particularly in New York, but also in northern Virginia and throughout the country, they worked tirelessly to help those who lost family members in spite of the chaos and highly charged emotions of those first few days. They will always have my gratitude and respect for their quick and compassionate action.
Whatever their individual circumstances, the vast majority of Americans will at some point in their lives be touched by Social Security. By providing survivor benefits to children and spouses, disability benefits, retirement benefits, and SSI benefits, SSA's programs reach almost every single home. And for the millions of Americans currently receiving benefits, be it a supplement to retirement or critically needed income support, and for those who will become eligible in the future, we must make sure that we can offer the same assurances in the future.
During my tenure as a member of the Social Security Advisory Board, one of the issues on which we pressed for action is to ensure the long-term solvency and sustainability of Social Security. The combined assets of the Old-Age and Survivors and Disability Insurance Trust Funds are estimated to reach cash flow deficit in 2017 and become exhausted in 2041 according to the latest report of the Social Security Trustees. I believe it is important to act as far in advance of that time as possible to make necessary changes to the program.
I also believe that the impetus for constructive improvements must come from a bipartisan consensus. While I am not an economist, as Commissioner I will work to help reach that consensus. The final report of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security is the beginning of public discussion to work toward that goal.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I did not assume my duties as Commissioner of Social Security in order to manage the status quo. Through my work on the Social Security Advisory Board, I am convinced that we can and must do better. In doing so, I will work within the Administration, with the Congress, and with the dedicated and experienced employees of the Social Security Administration to find the best solutions.
Again, thank you for inviting me to be here today. As you know, in order to meet the challenges I've described, and others, we will also need the help and advice of the Congress, and your continued support to obtain the needed funding for our operations. I look forward to working with you to make Social Security's programs-especially disability--more responsive to claimants and beneficiaries and more accountable to the nation's taxpayers.