In an effort to reduce its massive backlog of disability determination appeals, the Social Security Administration plans to reinstate an additional step in the appeals process for Pennsylvania and nine other states.
Social Security officials say the extra step — called reconsideration — would create a more uniform system across the country and help the administration reach its goal of resolving disability appeals within 270 days. Critics have said it could have the opposite effect, possibly lengthening the appeals process.
"While some people might get a decision sooner under reconsideration, for others this step is effectively a rubber stamp of the initial decision," Rep. Sam Johnson (R., Texas), who serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee, said during a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday. "It simply further delays their hearing with an administrative law judge."
Earlier this year, the Inquirer and Daily News wrote about the backlog of appeals for people seeking to be declared disabled and eligible to begin collecting Social Security benefits. The average waiting time for appellants nationwide to get a decision in their case has hovered around 600 days, but Philadelphia had the longest average wait in the country— 26 months.
One West Philadelphia woman with multiple sclerosis, Adrianne Gunter, waited 878 days before getting a favorable ruling.
The process that the agency wants to extend is a second review of a rejected claim for disability payments. The step was once uniform across the country, but in 1999 the administration eliminated it in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, in a pilot program.
Critics say states with reconsideration in place report that seven out of every eight appeals are denied at that stage.
In Pennsylvania, SSI applicants who are denied benefits can apply directly for a hearing with an administrative law judge. Reconsideration would be a step before that hearing.
Jennifer Burdick, a lawyer with Community Legal Services who represented Gunter in her appeal, said a reconsideration process would almost certainly have extended her wait for a final determination.
"Reconsideration is a useless administrative procedure that is designed to hurt Pennsylvanians with disabilities by creating an additional administrative hurdle to getting benefits, which often discourages continued pursuit of appeal and adds additional time to the process," Burdick said.
Social Security officials say the process would let them shift the burden from overworked judges to less-taxed examiners, whose caseload of initial applications has decreased.
"We all agree 600 days is unacceptable," Patricia Jonas, a deputy Social Security commissioner, told House members. "Having a uniform step will play a significant role in getting to 270 days' [appeal] wait time."
The administration plans to reinstate the reconsideration step in the 10 states in January.
Several of the subcommittee members, including Johnson, asked that Social Security hold off on any changes until the Senate confirms a new commissioner. President Trump has nominated Andrew M. Saul, a New York businessman, but he has not had a confirmation hearing.