“We’ve got people screaming at us all day long – ‘Why can’t you do something?'” said Scott Elkind, who represents Social Security claimants in Virginia, DC, and Maryland.
In contrast to Northern Virginia, the Richmond Social Security hearing office is an efficiency success story. The Richmond office – at last official report – took an average of 218 days to process a disability claim. As long as that sounds to those unfamiliar with the disability claim process, it shines in comparison with a national average that has reached as high as 499 days.
The Roanoke, Norfolk, and Charlottesville hearing offices also are said to be operating with minimal delays.
Virginia hearing offices “have fared fairly well,” according to Richmond lawyer Kyle Leftwich Banning, chair of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association’s Social Security legislative committee.
Nationally, the picture is darker. Recent reports showed the national backlog of pending disability hearings grew from 311,000 in 2000 to 755,000 last year.
Banning said that the national backlog of claims undermines the efficiency of the Richmond hearing office. She explained that, when there are fewer pending cases, the local hearing judges are assigned to work on out-of-state cases to reduce backlogs elsewhere.
“It’s really kind of a bizarre Catch-22,” said Banning, because the reward for efficiency was a larger caseload, adding to the delays for claimants and their lawyers.
The key to claim-handling delays is staffing, according to lawyers and government officials. An official in the Richmond hearing office explains that the success of that office is due to its “near full employment.”
Elkind talked in terms of “brain drain” as the cause of long delays in the DC office and elsewhere.
“They’re losing two experienced employees for every one that they get back,” said Elkind. “All the most talented, trained, and skilled people are leaving.”
Elkind pointed to a recent Social Security audit of the productivity of the administrative law judges (ALJs) who decide disability cases at the hearing level.
“Even if they get the ALJ productivity to the level they want, they still need 158 judges this year [nationally] just to keep up with the incoming requests. That is a very telling statistic.”
Delays hurt claimants who are unable to work, but they also hit lawyers in the pocketbook. Social Security lawyers see no fees until their cases are favorably decided. The fee is one quarter of the claimant’s back benefits, capped at $5,300. When the rate of hearings slows, so does the rate of attorneys’ income.
As Elkind candidly pointed out, however, delays can have a somewhat perverse effect on attorney fees – they get bigger. The longer it takes for a favorable ruling, the larger the award of back benefits and – therefore – the larger the one fourth share that is paid to the lawyer. Nevertheless, Elkind said, for a casual practitioner, the delays are “a crisis.”
New hiring is the government’s prescription for backlog relief. The Social Security commissioner recently announced that offers have been made for 144 new administrative law judges. First hires are to report in April.
Clearly, there will be no quick fix. Even if all goes as planned, the government audit shows that it will be five years before the backlog of disability cases is eliminated.