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Social Security Disability Under Review

Last month, the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced that there will be an independent review of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) system.

The Administrative Conference of the United States will conduct the review, focusing on approximately 1,500 administrative law judges (ALJs). The Conference will likely offer recommendations to the SSA in November of this year.

Administrative law judges are part of the Social Security Disability appeals process. Once SSD applicants reach this stage of the process, they have already been denied Social Security Disability benefits twice. Applicants appear before ALJs for hearings that usually take about an hour. Some hearings will take less time, depending on the evidence provided to the ALJ.

The average approval rating for Social Security Disability cases before ALJs is only 60 percent. However, that average can vary depending on the ALJ. According to the Wall Street Journal, one ALJ approved nearly 99 percent of SSDI applicants while another only approved 13 percent. Approximately 100 judges award benefits more than 85 percent of the time.

Some ALJs have claimed that the large backlog of SSD applicants waiting appeal (more than 770,000) and the SSA's focus on decreasing this backlog has led to the disparity. Some ALJs take less time to review SSD cases before them, which also means they do not thoroughly analyze each case.

Another reason cited for this vast difference in approval rates is the wide discretion that Social Security ALJs have in deciding cases. The ALJs are appointed for life. They are required to look at each case on its own merits and based on the SSDI requirements. However, determining whether someone is "disabled enough" to receive SSDI is often subjective.

Many people are wary of the high approval rates of some ALJs. However, the discrepancy in approval rates is at issue in the study, not simply the fact that some ALJs have higher approval rates than others. In fact, federal courts overturn more than half of all ALJ denials that come before them on appeal.

We will await the results of the study and the recommendations to find out what impact they will have on the SSA disability process.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Disability - Benefits System Faces Review," Damian Paletta, Dec. 15, 2011.

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