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Is the SSA's Reported Backlog Of Cases Accurate?

Posted on in Social Security Disability

In September, I wrote a blog post entitled, "The Terrifying Backlog at ODAR." In that post, I briefly discussed SSA's plan to reorganize the ODAR headquarters to reduce the enormous backlog of Social Security disability cases in the pipeline. The backlog was mind boggling with some areas of the United States having to wait almost 700 days on average for a disability hearing. The Deputy Commissioner stated that the backlog is as big as it is because we're both in a recession and there is a high viability of baby boomers being prone to disability. The question I have is what cases actually constitute as part of the backlog and not simply pending cases and more specifically, are the numbers that ODAR released accurate or are they much larger than anticipated?

To understand my question, it is important to know how ODAR determines what cases are part of their backlog. ODAR calculates their backlog by taking the total number of pending cases in their system and subtracting the optimal number of pending cases. The total number of pending cases is all the cases in the system that are awaiting a hearing, a claimant's day in court. The optimal number of pending cases is somewhat more complex to determine.

Every year, SSA takes a look at the total number of pending cases in their pipeline and asks the question, how many cases should the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) throughout the country be hearing that year. Although intuitively you would think an ALJ would hear a similar number of cases each year, in actuality, the number varies greatly. According to a U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in September 2009, the optimal number of cases for fiscal year 2008 was 466,000. That same report mentioned that the optimal number from 1999-2006 was 300,000.

The optimal number of cases has steadily increased, as a result of both a total increase in pending cases and the desire for ALJ's to hear more to reduce that number. Yet, for all the desire to increase the total number of cases each ALJ hears in a given year, they have failed to meet that target number in recent years. While ALJ's are failing to meet their optimal number of cases heard annually, the backlog actually increases. Using this logic, it would then seem that the actual backlog at ODAR is much higher than the reported amount by ODAR.

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