Just Who Are The SSA Employing?

Much is being spouted of late about the long waits experienced by disabled claimants applying for Social Security benefits. It’s been going on for years, longer even than the time period applicants have to wait for a payout, but a recent investigation and subsequent broadcast by ABC News has roused a few bigwigs in Congress from slumber, opening their eyes just long enough to demand the head of SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue on a silver platter.

The average wait for a disability hearing is 499 days – let’s not be too precise, we’ll call it a round 500. The problem seems to lie with ALJ’s.

Who or what are ALJ’s, I hear you ask?

An ALJ is an Administrative Law Judge, of which there are over 1,000 in the US. They are employees of the SSA, but seem to have a poor work record. Stephen Barr, reporting in the Washington Post on the latest hearings with Michael Astrue in Congress, writes:[1]

“Most Americans seeking disability benefits have been turned down once or twice in their states and file federal appeals with Social Security. The agency’s administrative law judges, or ALJs, award benefits in 62 percent of the cases that they hear.

The approval rate reflects the nature of the federal hearing process. ALJs usually work from a more complete medical record and hear directly from the claimants, who are often accompanied by lawyers. Although the ALJs work for Social Security, Congress has awarded them a large degree of independence in how they reach decisions.

Astrue said most ALJs do a good job, but he made it clear he has no power to discipline bad apples in their ranks. He said he is frustrated by his inability to deal with “gross misconduct” by judges, especially those accused of fraud, domestic violence and soliciting prostitution.” [my bold]

“Gross misconduct”; “fraud”; domestic violence”, and “soliciting prostitution”? These people must be members of the Republican Party.

Barr continues:

“Disciplinary actions brought against ALJs end up before the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears federal employee appeals, resulting in months of litigation and, in Astrue’s view, a “paid vacation” for the accused……”

One ALJ only managed to process 40 disability cases in 2006, while others fell well short of the average 400-500 cases annually. Another has not completed one disability case in seven years.

Clearly, this amounts to too much salary and too little supervision. Like many of the bigger government departments, SSA is woefully inefficient and more money is wasted than ever gets to those who deserve it most – the poor and disabled.

Michael Astrue is yet another of those infamous George W Bush nominations. If he is unable, or unwilling, to run his organization efficiently, he should step down and allow someone else to do a better job.

Let’s be clear on this – it’s OUR tax dollars he’s wasting.

[1] “Disability Cases Pending, Pending . . .” Washington Post, February 29 2008.

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