Social Security Subcommittee Questions Changes to Social Security’s Disability Appeals Process

July 26, 2018 — Blog   

The House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), held a hearing yesterday on “Examining Changes to Social Security’s Disability Appeals Process.”

The hearing focused on recent and planned changes affecting the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) disability appeals process, the metrics the SSA uses to evaluate process changes, and the progress the SSA has made to address the appeals backlog.

At the hearing, Subcommittee Members expressed bipartisan concern over the SSA’s decision to reinstate the reconsideration level of appeal in the ten states in which it had been eliminated as part of a disability redesign prototype for the past two decades.

As Chairman Johnson said in his opening remarks:

Americans want, need, and deserve a disability appeals process that is fair, accurate, and timely.  And the decisions should be the same, no matter whether a claim is filed in Texas, Connecticut, or Michigan.  Unfortunately, that’s not always the case today… Reinstating reconsideration is a big decision to make, especially given that fact Social Security has been without a Commissioner for more than five years. We need to understand why Social Security thinks now is the time to make this decision.”

Jeff Price, Legislative Director at the National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), highlighted concerns about the value of reconsideration:

“In 1997, SSA introduced the prototype model for disability claims processing.  Ten DDSs were selected for inclusion in this model that featured the elimination of reconsideration…  Elimination of reconsideration in the ten DDSs has continued until this day with the effect that SSA has lacked a uniform process for the administration of the disability programs for more than twenty years.  Recently SSA announced its intent to reintroduce reconsideration to those ten DDSs. Unfortunately we have yet to see any major changes to make reconsideration a more meaningful appeals step.”

Lisa Ekman, testifying on behalf of the Social Security Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, called into question the SSA’s decision and the data it was based upon:

Making all claimants go through this level of review adds an average of 101 days to the wait time of the vast majority of claimants before they can request a hearing before an ALJ….SSA is making this change without conducting a thorough and publicly available evaluation of its 20-year disability prototype experiment.  The decision to reinstitute reconsideration is not based on data and evidence.”

Will Morton of the Congressional Research Service noted:

SSA last released a detailed study of the prototype in 2001.  The subsequent elimination of claimant conferences at the initial level, coupled with the passage of 17 years has made SSA’s 2001 analysis less informative about the prototype today. Without more recent data and analysis from SSA, it is difficult to draw a complete picture of the plan’s likely effects.”

Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI), referring to how his home state of Michigan has benefitted from the elimination of reconsideration, stated:

Since 1999, Michigan is one of those 10 prototype states, so we have really appreciated that change… disability applicants in my home state have experienced shorter wait times.”

Members also pressed the SSA on why this decision was made by the Acting Commissioner instead of waiting for a Commissioner to be confirmed by the Senate.  Referring to the pending nominee for Commissioner of Social Security, Rep. Bishop asked: 

“Wouldn’t it make more sense on something this significant to wait for that person?”

Chairman Johnson questioned:

It’s kind of a major decision. Why not wait for a Senate-confirmed Commissioner to make the decision?”

Ranking Member John Larson (D-CT) noted:

Just money isn’t the problem, there seems to me to be having to look at this for the long period of time…I don’t disagree with the chairman that we ought to make sure that we have someone that’s heading up Social Security but this ought to be a focus! The people at this table could come up with a solution, I think, in about a day that could benefit and help streamline this process to, what I think, is everybody’s objective to make sure that people who deserve the disability get it in a timely fashion.”

Chairman Johnson closed the hearing by calling again on the Senate to confirm a Commissioner soon:

“Social Security needs a consistent nation-wide appeals process and one that provides for fair and accurate and timely decisions. Reinstating reconsideration is a big decision, and one that should only be made by a Senate-confirmed Commissioner. I once again call on my Senate colleagues to act quickly to confirm the next Commissioner.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about the hearing.