Hundreds of thousands of Americans who are disabled and can't work often wait two to three years to receive benefits from the Social Security Administration.
Americans teetering on the edge of financial ruin as they enter the disability system can only hope that the Woodlawn-based agency approves their claims on the first go-around. Those whose claims are denied twice face a virtual abyss.
Once they appeal the denials, it takes applicants more than 500 days on average to get a final decision from an administrative law judge, who arbitrates disputes between the agency and those seeking aid.
And the majority of people who appeal to these judges win, said Richard Warsinskey, president of the agency's managerial association.
Plans to overhaul the disability system are on hold as new Commissioner Michael J. Astrue sorts out what the agency can afford and accomplish.
But under pressure from Congress, other actions are being taken to reduce the backlog of about 740,000 cases on appeal, 6,500 of which are being handled by the Baltimore field office.
According to members of Congress, Warsinskey, Astrue and others, Social Security does not have enough administrative law judges or clerks to reduce the backlog. Part of the problem is a lack of money to hire more of them.
The other part, Warsinskey says, is that the roster of candidates for the job of administrative law judge is worthless.
"The list is useless. It's so old," he said of the dormant roster of more than 1,700 qualified lawyers. "We've gone through everybody on there and considered them."
Under pressure from Congress, the Office of Personnel Management, which handles the register, is scrapping the old roster and plans to release a new list this fall. However, Kerry McTigue, OPM's general counsel, denied in an interview this week that the list is stale.
"The roster is really a list of experienced attorneys at the pinnacle of their careers working to get a federal judgeship," McTigue said. During a four-year period when the list was dormant, the applicants "were not making widgets. They were becoming more experienced. ... I would assert that a list doesn't become stale because attorneys who are on it become more experienced."
Hiring administrative judges is a far more complicated task than hiring the average civil servant.
OPM compiles a roster of "certified" candidates - lawyers who have taken an exam and have seven years of relevant experience - and ships a list of ranked applicants to Social Security when it asks for it. OPM also audits the agency's hiring of administrative judges and signs off on their transfers, reinstatements and promotions.
The separation of powers is necessary because of the unique role these judges fill - they are employed by Social Security but need to act independently of it and often rule against it.
Warsinskey said that Rep. Michael R. McNulty, chairman of the Social Security subcommittee in the House, was able to put Astrue and OPM Director Linda Springer at the "same table at the same time and get a commitment to work something out."
In a statement, McNulty said that hiring had been "disrupted by litigation, followed by several years of delays at OPM" and that he was "pleased" to see OPM working on a new roster.
In the late 1990s, applicants to become administrative law judges sued OPM, alleging that the agency illegally gave too much weight to military veterans' preference in its ranking of candidates.
During the litigation, all hiring was blocked and not until 2003, when OPM won the case in a federal appeals court, did the list go live again.
McTigue said that in 2003 OPM contacted everyone on the list to ensure that they were still interested and to get their geographic preference. (Administrative law judges work in Social Security offices across the country.)
Until now, OPM has allowed only qualified military veterans to take the test and join the register. The agency also allowed candidates who applied before litigation closed the list to complete the process.
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