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Social Security Disability could be fixed by reexamining the role judges play

The Social Security Disability Insurance system is supposed to provide a financial safety net for workers and their families in the event that a serious medical impairment prevents them from working ("Judges sue Social Security over 'quotas' on disability decisions" April 29). But it's really a parachute that often fails to open in time, sending the individual into a financial free fall with years of uncertainty over whether or not they are going to hit the ground — and it only opens for about a third of applicants.

The recent lawsuit filed by a number of administrative law judges who make Social Security Disability decisions argues that an increasing workload has led to unlawful quotas that prevent the judges from making accurate decisions. The judges claim that the quotas likely force more inaccurate approvals than denials. But over the past 15 years, the percentage of approved applicants who are terminated from the program has remained relatively stagnant, indicating that despite the concerns of the administrative law judges, eligibility determinations have maintained a 92-93 percent accuracy rate.

The judges' concerns should not be pushed aside. The question is: have they identified the root of the problem? While it is clear that the number of Social Security Disability applicants has increased dramatically in the past 15 years, it is also clear that the percentage of those applicants who are approved has steadily decreased over the same period of time, calling into question, again, the conclusion that current demands lead to inaccurate eligibility determinations. What can't be questioned is the fact that the workload has increased almost twofold in 15 years and the judges' cries for relief are justified.

The simple answer is to decrease the number of cases the judges see.

The judges sit behind two fences: the initial application and reconsideration. But rather than filtering out only the most complicated cases, the gates are left open and applicants are urged to dash through to the judge's chambers. Most Social Security Disability claims are initially denied — 65 percent of applicants are denied upon their initial application. If the applicant appeals the initial denial, she/he must wait months for another decision that is likely to be denied, as 87 percent are denied at this "reconsideration" stage. The majority of eligibility determinations come following a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. If only a consistent 7 percent to 8 percent of those found eligible are eventually terminated, one can only assume the determinations are accurate. Begging the question why weren't they approved earlier in the process?

The period of free-fall before the parachute opens is a burden to the judges, claimants and communities alike. For those who are denied and decide to appeal to a hearing with an administrative law judge, the wait time is staggering, usually exceeding a year. Most cases drag on for nearly two years. During that time, the lack of resources these disabled individuals have causes a decline in their health and increased reliance on other social programs for survival. Even if an individual is successful, they often wait months until their parachute finally opens and they receive that first check.

The goal expressed by the administrative law judges "to ensure due process, protect the trust fund, and bring justice to the American people" will not be accomplished by simply changing the quotas such that the judges issue more denials than approvals. The problem is not that people are being found eligible, but that it is left to the judges almost exclusively to make the determinations. If judges are still seeing more than 700 cases a year, Social Security Disability will continue to be a chute that fails to open when people need it the most.

Alecia Frisby and Frank Natale

The writers are staff attorney and the assistant director of advocacy for income security at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

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