The number of disability claimants waiting for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has now reached 1.1 million. By the end of 2015, the average waiting time for a hearing was 512 days. Just a few weeks ago, the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) unveiled a new plan to help alleviate this backlog. The plan has been called "Compassionate And REsponsive Service (CARES). If successful, the SSA believes that CARES will reduce average processing times to 270 days.
One major problem with CARES is that it will only be successful if Congress provides the SSA with the funding needed to implement it. Nonetheless, even if CARES is implemented, the backlog will not be reduced in the near future. It is expected the backlog will continue to climb in 2016.
Many a the initiatives of the CARES plan have been used before. Here is a summary of some of the components of CARES:
- Hire more ALJ's and ODAR staff.
- Use Administrative Appeal Judges (AAJ's) instead of ALJ's to decide non-disability cases such as over payment appeals and claims involving retirees and survivors.
- Expanding the teams of agency lawyers who pull cases from around the country to consider them for favorable on the record decisions.
- Have more pre-hearing conferences with senior attorneys from ODAR.
- Provide "More Robust Case Screening" of cases that have a high probability of favorable decisions. Apparently, under this part of the plan, cases will be sent back to DDS for additional review. The SSA has given very few specifics about this part of the plan.
- Create more hearing office space, particularly for video hearings.
- Allow claimants to file electronic appeals to the Appeals Council.
Of all the proposals made in the plan, the only one that will make a significant impact is the initiative to have more agency lawyers pull cases from around the country to consider them for fully favorable decisions. This initiative worked well in the past but for reasons that are not entirely clear, it was discontinued.