WASHINGTON -- The head of the Social Security Administration is promising relief for disabled people who say their requests for Social Security payments have been turned down by judges who are biased against them.
Acting Commissioner Louis D. Enoff, testifying yesterday before a Senate subcommittee, said that there was "an interim process" for dealing with such complaints and that "a permanent policy" was on the way.
Advocates for the disabled have complained for years that some administrative law judges are biased against people seeking disability insurance benefits and that the agency has refused to deal with the problem.
But Mr. Enoff told the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management that Social Security has a plan, adopted four months ago -- but never made public -- for investigating such allegations.
News of this plan surprised the senators.
"I have to tell you that the Congressional Research Service specialist who worked on these issues for more than a year never heard of this process," said Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine.
Mr. Enoff said complaints involving administrative law judges are now forwarded to a special counsel working for the associate commissioner for hearings and appeals. The special counsel will review and maintain records and investigate all complaints against the judges, Mr. Enoff said.
Mr. Enoff acknowledged that the disabled and their advocates might not have been told about the process because it was not formalized in agency policy.
"There's no use saying it existed if nobody knew about it," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the hearing.
Mr. Enoff promised to publicize the process immediately. He assured the senators that he would devise a permanent policy in about six months.
Social Security officials have previously said in interviews that there was no formal process for investigating complaints of bias against their judges and that they have been blocked from moving against judges whose conduct poses problems by an array of regulations and adverse court decisions.
Mr. Cohen requested yesterday's hearing in June after newspaper and congressional reports that a small group of agency judges appeared to be biased against people claiming disability benefits.
The General Accounting Office in May reported that Social Security has consistently denied disability benefits more frequently to black applicants than to whites.
Meanwhile, those who support the judges have opposed increasing the agency's power to review their decision-making, contending that tougher review policies would hinder their judicial independence.