Statement of Frank A. Cristaudo Chief Administrative Law Judge
Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
Social Security Administration
Before the House Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
September 16, 2008
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about our ongoing efforts to improve hearing office productivity. The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) administers hearings and appeals for the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSA's hearing and appeals operation is one of the largest administrative adjudicative systems in the world, and we are committed to providing prompt due process under the Social Security Act .
The Chief Administrative Law Judge has day-to-day oversight of the agency's hearing operation. Our nearly 1,200 Administrative Law Judges (judges), supported by more than 5,000 hearing office staff, hold hearings in our 141 hearing offices and over 150 remote hearing locations and issue more than 550,000 decisions a year. As the Commissioner has stated on numerous occasions, we want and need to improve service to the American people. We are working vigorously to do so. Improving hearing office productivity is an integral part of improving our service. We will also need to expand our presence in the areas with the largest backlogs. We have already begun the process to add new hearing offices in Florida , Ohio , Michigan , Kansas and Georgia , as well as satellite offices in Alaska and Idaho . If we receive timely and adequate support from Congress, this unprecedented expansion will help offer relief to these states.
Unlike prior efforts to improve the hearing operation, our approach is based on initiatives that have been proven to work, along with improvements in automation, business process, and management. If there is significant uncertainty about a new idea, we conduct a pilot until we are confident that it will work. Improving hearing office productivity requires four key elements. The first element is to ensure that we have a sufficient number of well-trained judges and staff. Without sufficient human resources, we can make little progress. The second element is to facilitate the many administrative tasks associated with a hearing through available and proven technology. File preparation, record-keeping, expert testimony, and even the hearing rooms themselves have changed little in many years. Prudent investments in technology can automate repetitive tasks, ease the time and expense of extensive travel, and safeguard personally identifiable information, which frees our staff and our judges to focus on processing claims. The third element is to improve leadership of our judge corps and hearing office support staff and management of the hearing office operation. The fourth element is to improve business processes in our hearing offices, such as a standardized electronic business process, in-line quality reviews, and procedures that allow us to identify and adjudicate cases that can be allowed early in the hearing process. These initiatives will improve service, and deliver the timely, legally sufficient decisions that the American people deserve.
We are implementing a comprehensive plan to eliminate the backlog of hearings. By eliminating the backlog, we will improve hearing office productivity and the timeliness of our hearings and decisions. Long delays in processing cases not only cause hardship to the claimants waiting for a hearing, but also generate extra work for our staff who must request updated evidence and respond to multiple inquiries on case status.
We are taking assertive action in multiple areas where we know we can make an immediate difference. Our efforts this year have already yielded substantial progress - progress on which we will build as our initiatives are institutionalized and our new hires, both judges and support staff, become fully productive. However, unless we receive adequate and timely funding from Congress, we will not be able to continue on our successful path forward. Adequate funding is critical if we are to continue to implement the backlog plan.
Our judges and staff are the heart of our operation. They have stepped forward this year to produce more dispositions than last year even as receipts are growing faster than expected and as we prepare, hear, and decide our most aged cases. We are grateful for the support provided by Congress this year. The additional funding has allowed us to hire 190 judges and over 500 support staff over the course of this fiscal year (FY). We will begin to realize the full impact of these new hires by mid-2009, when we expect the new judges and staff to reach their full production capacity.
Our present target, which we continually review based on the most current productivity and workload data, is to have a judge corps of 1,250 by the end of next year. However, in light of an unanticipated increase in filings, we are now considering whether to adjust that target upwards and will keep Congress apprised if we need to hire additional judges and support staff. We will be monitoring our workloads and receipts carefully in the coming months so that, budget permitting, we will be poised to hire as many additional judges as circumstances warrant. We lose approximately 60 judges a year to attrition, so to reach our goal of 1,250 judges, we will need to hire about 100 - 125 new judges in FY 2009, as well as sufficient staff to support them. Achieving these staffing levels is contingent upon our receiving adequate FY 2009 funding on a timely basis. A protracted continuing resolution that freezes our funding at this year's level will hinder our ability to hire early in the fiscal year, delay the training of these new hires, and stall the momentum we have achieved in FY 2008.
While we must maintain adequate staff support in order to maximize the efficiency of our judges, we recognize that hiring additional staff is just one part of the solution. Our numerous automation initiatives will significantly enhance the role of hearing office support staff and enable more productive workflows. For example, centralized printing and mailing of notices saves a significant amount of time in our hearing offices and frees staff to perform other critical functions.
Looking ahead, the best way to ensure that we maintain a competent and productive workforce is to hire excellent candidates with 21 st century skills. Hiring such candidates remains a top priority. Although we were fortunate to select a number of excellent judge candidates in FY 2008, we need more access to candidates well-suited to our type of work - those capable of thriving under the workload demands of our high-volume, electronic hearing operation. Due to the large number of judges we need to process our workloads and our ongoing need to fill judge vacancies resulting from attrition, we need access to a broad pool of applicants.
Modern Technology Will Improve the Hearing Process
The second area of focus in improving hearing office productivity is automation, which will increase the effectiveness of the hearing operation. We must be able to manage our workloads more efficiently. One way of doing so is to rely on technology to handle more quickly the simpler tasks of preparing a case for hearing and free staff time to engage in the more dynamic tasks. Another is to provide up-to-date access to representatives to the claimant's files, to ensure that submitted evidence has been received and included. Another is to transfer workloads electronically and to make hearings more readily available to claimants across the country through video technology. As excited as we are at the possibilities technology provides, we are attentive to testing and refining any technology “fixes” through pilots before implementing a change for the entire hearing operation. The following initiatives highlight our ongoing efforts in the area of automation.
Centralized Printing and Mailing: This initiative provides high-speed, high-volume printing for all our offices. Instead of having each hearing office print and mail out notices locally, millions of pages will be sent electronically from the individual hearing offices to a print server for printing and mailing. Hearing office employees will no longer perform this arduous activity. As of August 30, 2008, all hearing offices, including the National Hearings Center (NHC), can use central print for nine notices. This well-received initiative provides demonstrable work-year savings.
ePulling (Electronic File Assembly): We are developing customized software to classify, filter, and identify critical data elements from each page of evidence in electronic folders. This software will enable our support staff to “pull” cases more quickly to get the electronic folder ready for a hearing, and will make the review of electronic folders considerably easier and faster. We rolled out a pilot in the Tupelo , MS hearing offices at the end of June 2008. The rollout was then expanded in the St. Louis , MO , Mobile , AL , Minneapolis , MN , and Richmond , VA hearing offices and in the Falls Church , VA NHC. If the software lives up to expectations, we plan to roll it out nationally next year. While the learning curve on any new approach takes some time, the reaction from judges and staff who have been part of this pilot is extremely enthusiastic.
Expanded Internet Services for Claimants and Representatives: In response to the public's request for more Internet services, we have implemented processes to allow claimants who are appealing decisions on disability claims the ability to submit appeals online. So far this year, over 120,000 people have opted to utilize these services. This online process is easy for the claimant to complete and helps us in managing the workload. Our efforts in this area are in keeping with our overarching goal to transition into a more fully electronic environment while allowing claimants to continue using the paper process if they so choose.
Currently 85 percent of ODAR's pending disability workload is electronic. When a claimant's representative wants to view a claimant's folder, hearing office personnel must take the time to burn a CD of the file, package it, and then mail it to the representative. As the case moves through the hearing process, representatives frequently make requests for updated file information. At the time of hearing, we burn to a CD copies of the record for the representative and for any expert witness. By the time a case is closed, it is not uncommon for offices to have burned as many as six copies of each file. With new functionality in the Agency's Electronic Records Express website, representatives will be able to view the electronic folder through a secure website, thus eliminating the need to provide multiple copies of CDs. The Agency is currently piloting this with nine representatives and is working on authentication issues to protect the claimant's personally identifiable information .
Desktop Video Units (DVU): While traditional video conferencing equipment often consists of a large television monitor and camera situated in a hearing room, we are piloting more compact Desktop Video Units (DVUs). This equipment, which looks like a 20 inch television, can sit on the judge's desk. We conducted an initial pilot of the DVUs in four judges' offices and in the National Hearing Center . The pilot feedback was extremely positive. We are now expanding the use of this equipment to more than 20 additional locations. The pilot program will continue to evaluate the utility of DVUs to conduct hearings in both hearing rooms and in individual judges' offices. Use of video conferencing for conducting hearings saves travel time and money, and the use of DVUs in judges' offices provides additional hearing room capacity.
Representative Video Conference Equipment: Another new technology initiative allows representatives to purchase their own video conferencing equipment based on exact specifications set by SSA. These representatives will then be able to conduct hearings from their own office space, thereby providing additional hearing room capacity as well as saving time and travel costs for all participants. For claimants in rural areas, and those with certain types of disabilities, this service option should prove extremely attractive. Each representative must sign an agreement with SSA that outlines the requirements for participation in the program. The agreement requires representatives to provide video equipment that is compatible with existing equipment used by SSA and to provide due process protections to the claimants, including privacy, the ability to exchange evidence with the hearing office, and an opportunity to review the evidence in the file prior to the hearing. We have notified 30 representatives who have expressed interest in participating in hearings using representative-owned video equipment. As of last week, three representatives have responded to our notice with signed agreements. We anticipate that we will be able to begin holding hearings under this program by the end of this year.
The third element of improving productivity is sound leadership and supervision of our employees and management of our work processes. For example, after successfully eliminating our 1,000 or more day-old cases in FY 2007, we focused on reducing our 900 or more day-old cases by the end of FY 2008. We pursued this initiative not only because doing so is a moral imperative, but also because a backlog of aged cases interferes with the normal hearing office workflow that we need to re-establish. Remarkably, our productivity is up despite our concentrated efforts to reduce the most aged cases, higher receipts than expected, and the demands of providing formal training for our new judges, who are trained by some of the highest-producing judges in the corps. Specifically, we have processed even more decisions this year than last and we were able to slow substantially the increase in our pending workload. The chart displays our progress in reducing the 900 day-old cases this year.
To increase operational flexibility, we have temporarily realigned hearing office service areas to balance our workloads. We focused on targeting resources so that the most backlogged areas receive the most help, and we increased the use of video hearings. These adjustments improve service by moving work from hearing offices with higher workloads to offices that have more capacity to assist.
One of the creative ways we have been able to shift workload is through the NHC in Falls Church , VA. Using video conferencing equipment, the NHC judges are now conducting hearings for the Cleveland , OH , Atlanta , GA , and Detroit , MI hearing offices. As the workloads in these offices improve, we will begin utilizing the NHC to provide assistance to three other offices with very high backlogs, the Indianapolis , IN , Atlanta North, GA, and Flint , MI offices. We have received positive feedback from claimants utilizing the NHC, and the public's acceptance of this new way of doing business has exceeded our initial projections. Since the first hearing in December 2007, the NHC has received over 4,200 cases, held over 1,600 hearings, and processed almost 1,800 dispositions. By the end of 2008 we will have a total of 11 judges in the NHC. We are proceeding with plans to open a second center in Albuquerque , NM , in the next few months that tentatively will begin by addressing backlogs in Portland , OR and Kansas City , MO. A third NHC in Chicago , IL is scheduled to open next spring; it would be premature to predict where the offices with the greatest needs will be. As the new NHCs come on line, we will utilize them to provide assistance to the hearing offices with the highest backlogs.
At the beginning of FY 2008, we clarified our expectations regarding the service judges provide to the public. I laid out these expectations to all the judges in an October 2007 memo and re-emphasized them at the four judicial conferences we held this year throughout the country. Most notably among the expectations, we have asked the judges to issue 500 to 700 legally-sufficient decisions each year, act on a timely basis, and hold scheduled hearings unless there is a good reason to postpone or cancel.
We adopted the 500 to 700 case expectation after a thorough review of historical production data and discussions with a number of individuals including judges. We believe that this expectation is reasonable for our current process, and we are pleased to report that the proportion of judges meeting this expectation has increased. So far this year, more of our judges are on pace to issue over 500 dispositions. Presently, half of our judges are meeting the 500-700 case expectation nationally. In addition, we expect most, if not all, of our judges hired this fiscal year to reach this goal once their learning curve is over. If all judges were to meet our minimum expectation of 500 cases, we would serve approximately 60,000 more claimants annually. While we are concerned about judges serving fewer claimants than expected, we are just as concerned about judges issuing dispositions at rates well above expectations at the expense of quality. We have begun the analysis of those situations as well to determine the appropriate course to take.
In addition to the improved productivity of our judges, our attorneys and paralegals who draft decisions for the judges and other support staff have also improved their productivity. As we have done with the judges, we set clear expectations for support staff. Our Senior Attorneys have issued fully favorable decisions for more than 22,000 claimants just since November 2007, while continuing to draft many decisions for our judges.
In general, our judges and staff are highly motivated professionals working extremely hard to meet the needs of the American people. By setting clear expectations and managing our workloads, we are building on their talents and creating a standard of exceptional service based on a culture of performance and professionalism.
As we eliminate backlogged cases and utilize new technology, we are attentive to adapting our work processes to take into account the changes in the mix of work and the tools used to process the work. We are working to develop a standardized electronic business process for our hearing offices. This initiative has the potential to transform our hearing operation by improving all aspects of quality including accuracy, timeliness, productivity, cost-efficiency, and service to the public. The standardized electronic process adopts the “best practices” already in use in our hearing offices. The process is built upon analysis of management information data and input from hearing office judges and staff.
Initial testing of a draft standardized electronic business process began in the Downey , CA Hearing Office in July 2008. The Grand Rapids , MI Hearing Office begins testing this month. Based on our experiences at these offices, we will refine the standardized electronic business process and then include additional hearing offices in the pilot in FY 2009. Our goal is to roll out the electronic business process nationwide next year, provided our thorough testing yields positive results.
In conjunction with the standardized electronic business process, we are also developing a quality assurance program for the hearing process. Regional personnel will have responsibility for overseeing the in-line quality process, which will include reviews of attorney adjudicator decisions, decision drafts, case pulling, and scheduling. This program will be implemented in FY 2009 after the necessary system enhancements are put in place.
Maintaining hearing office productivity and preventing the recurrence of the backlog require continual improvement in the quality of decisions at all levels of the disability process. In this regard, we are making significant progress toward reducing the number of cases that need to be reviewed by a judge. We are relying upon a variety of tools to identify cases that do not need a judge's review or that could be allowed earlier in the process. The following list provides brief descriptions of some of our most promising improvements to the disability claim process.
Attorney Adjudicator: We reinstituted the Attorney Adjudicator program to allow our most experienced attorneys in the hearing offices to spend a portion of their time making quick, on-the-record, disability decisions in cases where enough evidence exists to issue a favorable decision without waiting for a hearing. Our quality reviews show that the accuracy of these decisions is very high.
Informal Remands: In collaboration with State Disability Determination Services (DDS), we are using the informal remand process to send cases that have been profiled as likely to be reversed but are pending at the hearing level back to the DDS level for review and possible issuance of a favorable determination. From June 2007 to the end of August 2008, more than 23,000 of these reviews have already resulted in fully favorable reversals, meaning claimants who were once waiting to have their hearings scheduled are now receiving benefits.
Medical Expert Screening: In addition, the Medical Expert Screening Process plays an important role in identifying and expediting cases that may result in an allowance, by providing medical expert input that may enable us to make an “on the record” decision. Under this process, cases are screened and forwarded to a medical expert to complete a set of interrogatories. Cases that can be allowed on the record are routed to an adjudicator for review and decision. Conversely, cases that cannot be allowed are routed to a judge for normal processing with the medical expert's input in the record.
Disability Claims Improvements: Several efforts are underway to improve the processing of disability claims and reduce the number of claims reaching the hearings level. The Quick Disability Determination (QDD) process is one of two fast-track processes that focus on initial disability claims. QDD uses a computer-based, predictive model to identify and accelerate initial disability claims for individuals who are likely to be found disabled. Our second fast-track process is the Compassionate Allowances (CAL) initiative. This initiative, which will begin soon, will identify rare diseases and other medical conditions that are invariably disabling and can be established by minimal, objective medical evidence. Finally, we expect to complete our regular updates to our listing of impairments by 2010.
We are firmly committed to proper leadership and management oversight of the hearing operation so that we may provide the best possible service to the American public. As we have worked to implement the different initiatives which make up the backlog reduction plan, we have surmounted many challenges, and there is no question we will confront many more. One of the potential challenges that would be difficult to overcome is the lack of adequate resources as we strive to do all that is needed. FY 2009 will be a pivotal year, and a delay in adequate funding would seriously affect the progress we must continue to make. Sustained funding is equally critical in future budget years to ensure we stay on track with our goal of reducing the backlog by 2013. We have an excellent plan for eliminating the backlog. We are committed to improving service to the American people. With your support, we can improve the service we provide.