In the wake of mounting allegations of corruption and incompetence inside Social Security Administration disability review offices, a Senate panel is seeking answers.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management held a hearing Thursday focused on SSA adjudication and appeals judges.
“Today we will look into several issues surrounding administrative law judges, their independence and the importance of due process as provided by the Administrative Procedure Act,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the subcommittee in his opening statements.
Lankford has pushed for reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance since 2011.
The senator noted that over the past four years Congress has appropriated “significant resources” so SSA could hire more administrative law judges to address its massive backlog of disability claims. Yet, the agency has been unable to hire sufficient numbers of judges to tackle the cases, which topped 1 million last year.
“But instead of hiring more ALJs, in a misguided effort to expedite the adjudications process, SSA is in the process of moving tens of thousands of pending cases from ALJs to non-APA (Administrative Procedure Act) attorney examiners, who are regular employees of the agency and lack the requisite decisional independence,” Lankford said.
The SSA has proposed removing two classes of benefits claims hearings from the responsibility of its administrative law judges, transferring them to federal administrative appeals judges and attorney examiners with Social Security’s Appeals Council.
“This change would impact tens of thousands of cases, potentially depriving individuals of their right to a decision by an independent judge free from undue agency influence,” states a subcommittee press release.
“This SSA proposal raises important questions about whether cases heard by non-APA attorneys constitute a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act,” Lankford said.
Social Security Administration Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber told lawmakers that the agency is looking at best business processes.
“(It’s about) how can we best support our decision-makers, our administrative law judges,” Gruber said. “How can we leverage video so we can erase service backlogs from state to state.”
Ranking subcommittee member Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., wasn’t buying it.
“I would say the system is rigged,” Heitkamp said. “Why not hire ALJs? That’s the disconnect for us here.”
Gruber said the agency can hire attorney examiners while building its administrative law judge ranks.
“Our plan calls for aggressively hiring ALJs,” she said.
Watch the subcommittee hearing here
Both Lankford and Heitkamp asked Gruber to delay its strategy to hire attorney examiners and administrative appeals judges.
Lankford said if a sizable number of claimants are denied a hearing before the ALJs, there is the potential that SSA’s proposal to move cases away from administrative law judges could result in a class-action lawsuit.
“While we all share the goal of eliminating the hearing backlog, our concern isn’t just about meeting desired results; we must also focus on how we get there,” the chairman said.
At the same time, there appears to be myriad problems systemwide with many of the judges and administrators in place.
Whistleblowers have brought to light some serious allegations of misconduct, abuse and long delays at Social Security Administration disability claims appeals offices.
Ron Klym, who went public with charges last week in a Wisconsin Watchdog investigation, has taken his complaints to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Klym, a long-time senior legal assistant in the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review Office, alleges he has been retaliated against by supervisors for going public with his charges of incompetence and misconduct in the agency.
The federal employee, who has worked for SSA for 16 years, provided Wisconsin Watchdog with documents showing extremely long wait times for claimants appealing their denied applications for benefits – in some cases, more than 1,000 days.
Beyond the delays is what Klym calls the “shell game,” the wholesale transferring of cases to other parts of the country by administrators to make the Milwaukee office’s numbers look better than they are.
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, which crosses six states and includes Milwaukee, said the agency acknowledges that Milwaukee ODAR has a “high average processing time for disability appeal hearings, and we are working to address the issue.”
“The Social Security disability program is an important resource for people with disabilities, and we work tirelessly every day to provide the best service possible,” he said.
Nguyen said he could not speak to Klym’s other allegations because they are personnel matters.
Klym was placed on administrative leave last week after, according to Klym, he was scolded by a supervisor for taking his charges to the press. He was told he could return to work Monday. SSA officials are now investigating three separate complaints filed by Klym.
The whistleblower said the long delays are impairing applicants’ civil rights. While those seeking Social Security disability benefits don’t have an unquestioned right to the payments, they do have a right to due process, he said.
“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” Klym said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”
Sarah Carver, a former senior case technician at the Huntington, West Virginia, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review says she was ostracized, penalized and traumatized for reporting on incidents of alleged waste, fraud, and abuse in the Social Security Administration agency that handles disability claim appeals.
Carver and colleague Jennifer Griffith provided insider information that ultimately led to the indictments of an administrative law judge, an attorney,and a psychologist. The three men are accused of participating in a scheme to defraud taxpayers of some $600 million in approved disability benefits.
Carver said upper management knew about the charges of misconduct in the West Virginia office. She reported it several times. Yet, instead of being punished for their failure to act, managers were rewarded. Some retired early, while others were “transitioned” into other jobs
“They received promotions, they got to train other offices,” she said. “Think about that: they were training other offices throughout the nation on how to get these cases through quicker.”
Klym makes the same allegations about his workplace supervisors.
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