Social Security Administration plans deep cuts in processing time, staff

September 07, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writer

The Social Security Administration, facing a rising tide of disability applications and a backlog of more than 1 million cases, plans to shorten the time for processing a claim by two-thirds and reduce the number of people who handle it by the same amount.

But the bureaucratic streamlining won't be quick or cheap.

It will take six years and cost $148 million, much of that the expense of retraining the agency's work force. The agency says that it will save $852 million over the next seven years and another $300 million annually after that.

The new process is expected "to stabilize the workload," but not to result in an appreciable reduction in the backlog, said Phil Gambino, the agency spokesman.

Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security Commissioner, is expected to announce the change today. What the agency calls "re-engineering" is a direct assault on its most pressing problem, an increasingly complex disability determination system combined with soaring applications.

With 65,000 employees -- including 14,000 in the Baltimore area -- Social Security collects payroll taxes from 135 million Americans and sends 45 million checks monthly. While only 20 percent of the checks go to recipients of disability benefits, handling of disability claims takes slightly more than half of the agency's $4.9 billion administrative budget. And the agency has virtually abandoned an important part of its work -- periodic review of disability recipients to see if they are still eligible for benefits.

Social Security expects to receive nearly 3 million applications for disability benefits in the next 12 months, 70 percent more than it received five years ago. Last month, it had 1.2 million applications pending at various stages in a complicated decision process that has changed little in 40 years.

Social Security admits that it offers an "unacceptable" level of service to the public.

A 70-page report to be issued today describes a fragmented process "driven by and exacerbated by the fragmentation in SSA's policy making and policy issuance mechanism."

It adds, "The organizational fragmentation of the disability process creates the perception that no one is in charge of it."

On the average, it now takes a disability applicant five months to get an initial decision. If benefits are denied, an applicant waits another 18 months to get an administrative law judge's decision on the appeal. Congress has heard complaints in recent years of deserving applicants waiting months for desperately needed funds and, in some cases, dying before they get a decision.

Ms. Chater says the waits will be reduced to two months for an initial decision and seven months for a judge's decision.

She also said that the number of employees who handle an application will be reduced from 45 now to 14.

An initial version of the plan was unveiled last March and drew several thousand comments. As a result, Ms. Chater backed away from two controversial proposals.

One involved a change in the the way Social Security evaluates disabilities. Advocates charged that the new method amounted to a "fundamental change in the basic definition of disability," one that would deny benefits to deserving applicants. Social Security denied the charge.

Now, Ms. Chater says the method is on hold pending "extensive research and testing."

A second proposal alarmed agency employees. It would have required the case manager -- the key person in handling an application -- have a face-to-face interview with the applicant before denying a claim. Employees cited the potential for violence.

And, while the new proposal requires the case manager to offer each applicant a "personal interview" before denial, the manager can decide to do the interview by telephone.

That wasn't enough to satisfy Witold Skwierczynski, an official of the American Federation of Government Employees who represents Social Security field office workers. "The only way our concerns can be allayed is if additional security measures are installed," he said last night.

Under the plan that Ms. Chater will unveil, the case manager and the office processing an application will be revealed. "Once [a disgruntled applicant] has the name of the person who decides the claim, the potential exists for violence," he said.

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