THE INSPECTOR GENERAL
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS
CASE FILE ASSEMBLY CONTRACTS
MANAGEMENT ADVISORY REPORT
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Date: August 13, 2004
To: The Commissioner
From: Acting Inspector General
Subject: Management Advisory Report: Office of Hearings and Appeals Case File Assembly Contracts (A-07-04-24092)
The objective of our review was to provide the Social Security Administration (SSA) with recommendations to correct the weaknesses we identified during our review, Congressional Response Report: Review of File Assembly Contracts at Offices of Hearings and Appeals (A-07-04-24076). The objectives of that review were to determine whether:
Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) file assembly contactors followed the terms of the contracts.
File assembly contractors had controls in place to safeguard sensitive information contained in case files.
OHA provided adequate oversight of file assembly contractor activities.
Within SSA, OHA is responsible for conducting hearings and issuing decisions as part of determining whether a person may receive disability benefits. When a claimant requests a hearing, it is held before an OHA administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ conducts the hearing and issues a written decision. Cases involving disability under the Disability Insurance program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program account for 90 percent of OHA's work. The remainder consists of claims made under the Retirement and Survivors Insurance program, Medicare, and non-disability claims under the SSI program.
OHA's organizational structure includes 10 regional offices and 139 hearing offices. Some OHA offices use contractors to prepare case files for review by ALJs. The contractors organize medical documents chronologically, arrange documents in appropriate sections of the case files, number documents, identify and retain duplicate documents, and ensure all pertinent documents are appropriately labeled. As of October 31, 2003, OHA had 74 file assembly contracts valued at approximately $1.3 million.
During 2003, problems with OHA oversight of file assembly contracts in an OHA office resulted in several media stories and a subsequent review by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). As a follow-up to the OIG report and to inquire as to whether similar problems existed in other OHA offices, Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Jr. requested in a letter dated October 14, 2003 that we review additional file assembly contracts. We issued our report entitled Review of File Assembly Contracts at Office of Hearings and Appeals (A-07-04-24076) to Congressman Shaw on March 3, 2004.
For our review, we selected one file assembly contract in each of SSA's 10 regions, as shown in the following table:
Region OHA Office Contract Amount
Boston Boston, Massachusetts $4,500
New York New York, New York (Northeastern Program Service Center) 7,248
Philadelphia Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia East) 19,968
Atlanta Atlanta, Georgia 13,762
Chicago Cincinnati, Ohio 12,000
Dallas Dallas, Texas (Processing Center) 54,210
Kansas City Springfield, Missouri 16,817
Denver Denver, Colorado 6,000
San Francisco San Jose, California 17,190
Seattle Portland, Oregon 18,672
See Appendix B for the scope and methodology of our review.
RESULTS OF REVIEW
With the exception of the file assembly contractor in the Boston region, the file assembly contractors we reviewed followed the terms of their respective contracts and had controls in place to safeguard sensitive information in case files. The file assembly contractor in the Boston region, however, removed documents from case files, which was not in accordance with the terms of the contract. Following removal from the case files, the documents were placed in a recycle bin and supposedly shredded. According to the contractor, only duplicate documents were removed from the case files. However, we were unable to verify what documents were removed from the case files and if these documents were only duplicates.
We also identified areas where OHA's oversight of file assembly contractor activities could be improved. Specifically,
Case file assembly contractors did not receive consistent training from some OHA offices on case file assembly because the instructions were not consistent with the terms of the contracts regarding the removal of documents from case files.
Some OHA offices did not have controls in place to safeguard case files because case file assembly contractors and the janitorial contractor in one OHA office were allowed inappropriate and unsupervised access to case files.
CONTRACTOR IN THE BOSTON REGION REMOVED DOCUMENTS FROM CASE FILES
The file assembly contractor in the Boston region inappropriately removed documents from case files. Following removal from the case file, the documents were placed in a recycle bin to be shredded. This was contrary to the terms of the contract, which stated that documents could not be discarded or permanently removed from case files, and OHA training instructions, which stated that no documents could be thrown away. According to the contractor, only duplicate documents were removed from case files and shredded. This was also contrary to the terms of the contract, which stated that duplicate documents were to be marked "duplicate" and retained in the case file.
At the time of our review, approximately 24 case files had been assembled by this contractor. We were unable to determine how many of these case files contained documents that were discarded, whether the contractor only discarded duplicate documents, or whether the contractor discarded documents that were material to the disability decision. The project officer for the file assembly contract stated that he was unaware that the contractor removed documents from the case files. He further stated that the contractor would be instructed not to remove documents from the case files.
IMPROVEMENTS ARE NEEDED IN OHA'S OVERSIGHT OF FILE ASSEMBLY CONTRACTORS
The training instructions given to contractors by some OHA offices were not consistent with the terms of the contracts. Specifically,
The written training instructions provided to the Philadelphia, Springfield, and Portland contractors stated that duplicate documents should be removed from the case files and discarded. However, the contracts stated that duplicate documents must be marked "duplicate" in the top right-hand corner and placed at the back of the section of the case file in which it was found. We found that these three contractors followed the terms of their respective contracts and retained duplicate documents in the case files.
The written training instructions provided to the New York and Portland contractors specified that certain documents could be removed from the case files and discarded. However, the contracts stated that no documents were to be discarded. We found that these two contractors followed the terms of their contracts and did not discard documents.
If contractors used the training instructions as reference material they could
inappropriately discard documents needed for accurate disability decisions.
The potential problems associated with conflicting instructions could be resolved
if OHA had a standardized training package that each OHA office used to train
file assembly contractors.
In addition, some OHA offices did not have controls in place to safeguard case files. Specifically,
The Cincinnati file assembly location is in SSA space in a non-Government building. According to a memo issued by the Associate Commissioner for Hearings and Appeals (see Appendix C), contractors located in SSA space in non-Government buildings should only have access to case files currently in process. Files not in process should be secured in a locked room, which is inaccessible to the contractors. In Cincinnati, case files were stored in the file assembly location so contractors had inappropriate access to case files that were not currently in process.
The San Jose and Portland file assembly locations were counsel rooms, and the Denver contractors were located in vacant SSA space in a Government building. According to the Associate Commissioner's guidelines, contractors located in counsel rooms should only be given enough work for one day and must return all case files to the project officer at the end of the day. In these three locations, case files were stored in the file assembly location so contractors had inappropriate access to more case files than could be worked in one day and case files were not returned to the project officer at the end of the work day.
The Denver and Portland file assembly contractors were allowed unmonitored, immediate and continued access to case files. This occurred because case files were stored in the file assembly location where the doors were equipped with keyless code entry systems with access codes that were known to the contractors. According to the Associate Commissioner's guidelines, file assembly contractors located in counsel rooms should obtain the key to the file assembly location from the receptionist and return the key once the door is unlocked so the use of keyless code entry systems for file assembly locations is not consistent with the Associate Commissioner's instructions. We also found that the janitorial contractor in Denver was allowed to enter the file assembly location even if Government employees or file assembly contractors were not present. For security reasons, the janitors should not have unsupervised access to the file assembly location since case files are stored there.
The access code provided to the Portland contractor for the file assembly location was the same as the access code for an IVT room. The IVT room also had an unlocked door, which leads into OHA office space. Therefore, the contractor could use the access code to enter the IVT room and then gain unsupervised access to case files in the OHA office. According to the Memorandum of Understanding governing file assembly contracts, contractors " will not be issued access codes/keys to the hearing office."
Some project officers stated that the file assembly contractors understood and respected the integrity of case files so extensive safeguarding measures were not needed. We disagree and believe that case files should be safeguarded at all times.
The memo issued by the OHA Associate Commissioner gives varying guidelines depending on the locality of the file assembly location. The guidelines are divided between file assembly locations in counsel/IVT/hearing rooms, program service centers (PSC), and SSA space in non-Government buildings. See Appendix C for the specific guidelines given by the Associate Commissioner.
There is room for improvement in the OHA Associate Commissioner's November 2003 guidelines. The guidelines, as currently written, could lead to the security of case files being compromised. Specifically:
The guidelines do not provide adequate security for case files in file assembly locations in PSCs or non-Government buildings. Contractors in these file assembly locations may leave case files in the file assembly location and may move in and out of the file assembly location at will. In these situations, we believe case files may be compromised.
The guidelines do not address all file assembly locations. For example, as noted above, the Denver file assembly location does not fit into any of the three categories in the instructions because the location is not in a counsel/IVT/hearing room, a PSC, or a non-Government building. In locations such as this, OHA offices may follow inappropriate guidelines or no guidelines.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
We found that 9 of the 10 file assembly contractors included in our review followed the terms of their respective contracts and had adequate controls in place to safeguard information in the case files. However, OHA's oversight of contractor activities needs improvement to ensure consistent training instructions for case file assembly and case file safeguards.
We recommend that SSA:
1. Ensure the Boston contractor is following the correct procedures for case file assembly.
2. Ensure that the case files assembled by the Boston contractor contain complete evidence to render an accurate disability decision.
3. Develop standardized guidelines for file assembly contractors to ensure consistent and accurate training in all OHA regions.
4. Issue guidelines that ensure the security of case files at all file assembly locations.
In response to our draft report, SSA agreed with our recommendations. See Appendix D for the full text of SSA's comments.
Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr.
APPENDIX A - Acronyms
APPENDIX B - Scope and Methodology
APPENDIX C - Memo from OHA Associate Commissioner
APPENDIX D - Agency Comments
APPENDIX E - OIG Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments
ALJ Administrative Law Judge
IVT Interactive Video Teletraining
OHA Office of Hearings and Appeals
OIG Office of the Inspector General
PSC Program Service Center
SSA Social Security Administration
SSI Supplemental Security Income
Scope and Methodology
We collected and analyzed information specific to the concerns raised by Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Jr., regarding file assembly contracts at Offices of Hearings and Appeals (OHA). To achieve our objectives, we:
Reviewed the previously issued reports Review of File Assembly Contracts at Offices of Hearings and Appeals (A-07-04-24076); Operations at the Social Security Administration's Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Office of Hearings and Appeals (A 13 03-23091); and Chicago Regional Office of Hearings and Appeals Claimant Medical Files (A-13-04-24045).
Reviewed the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Management's Decision to Contract Out Pre-hearing Case Folder Assembly Work dated May 15, 2002; Program Operations Manual System Disability Insurance 70005.005; the Social Security Acquisition Handbook, Security Requirements Clause; and the Memorandum from A. Jacy Thurmond, Jr., Associate Commissioner for Hearings and Appeals, dated November 21, 2003.
Obtained a listing of all OHA file assembly contracts as of October 31, 2003, and selected for review the largest dollar valued contract within close proximity to an Office of Audit field office in each of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) 10 regions. The contracts selected for review are listed on Page 2 of this report.
Interviewed the contractor and project officer and observed the file assembly location for each contract to determine if the terms of the contract were being followed and adequate oversight was being provided for case file assembly.
The SSA operating component reviewed was the Office of Hearings and Appeals within the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs. We performed our review at OHA file assembly locations in Boston, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; Cincinnati, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; Springfield, Missouri; Denver, Colorado; San Jose, California; and Portland, Oregon from October 2003 through March 2004. We conducted our review in accordance with Quality Standards for Inspections Issued by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency.
Memo From OHA Associate Commissioner
Date: August 3, 2004
To: Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr.
Acting Inspector General
From: Larry W. Dye
Chief of Staff
Subject: Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Draft Management Advisory Report "Office of Hearings and Appeals Case File Assembly Contracts" (A-07-04-24092)--INFORMATION
We appreciate OIG's efforts in conducting this review. Our comments on the draft report content and recommendations are attached.
Please let me know if we can be of further assistance. Staff inquiries may be directed to Candace Skurnik, Director, Audit Management and Liaison Staff, at extension 54636.
COMMENTS ON THE OFFICE OF THE INSPECTOR GENERAL (OIG) DRAFT MANAGEMENT ADVISORY REPORT "OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS (OHA) CASE FILE ASSEMBLY CONTRACTS" (A-07-04-24092)
Thank you for the opportunity to review and comment on the draft report. We agree with the report findings and conclusions and we have already undertaken several initiatives to improve the oversight of the folder assembly contract process. Specifically, we issued reminders via email and held conference calls with all project officers and regional staff involved in this contracting activity. We also instituted a Folder Assembly Workgroup (FAW) to develop and implement a plan to improve the oversight and ensure the security of claimant information. Initiatives developed and completed under the auspices of the workgroup include:
Conducting mandatory training and certification for managers in OHA who act
as project officers for contractor services;
Preparing and distributing a folder assembly checklist for use by all contractors with a reminder that no documents should be discarded;
Developing and distributing security guidelines; and
Obtaining regular reports from hearing offices (HO) regarding the contract process.
The workgroup also developed a monitoring guide for all HOs participating in this initiative and conducted on-site reviews in 10 regional offices, 48 HOs and 2 centralized assembly units to closely monitor contractor performance and to ensure that all guidelines are properly implemented. While minor deficiencies were identified for 8 of the HOs, they were easily corrected and all offices are now in compliance.
Our responses to the specific recommendations are provided below.
SSA should ensure the Boston contractor is following the correct procedure for case file assembly.
We agree. As stated in our February 26, 2004 comments to the Congressional Response Report, the impacted files were part of the contractor's initial assignment and the project officer, as part of his review of the files, initiated immediate corrective action. In addition, the HO Director reminded the contractor that recycling or shredding duplicate documents is inappropriate and that all duplicate records are to be placed in the "junk file" section of the Modular Disability Folder. In February 2004, the contractor had completed assembling the 100 cases we initially contracted for and as of today, the Boston HO has not and does not plan to contract for any additional file assembly work to be performed by the end of the fiscal year.
SSA should ensure that the case files assembled by the Boston contractor contain complete evidence to render an accurate disability decision.
We agree. On March 5, 2004, letters were sent to all potentially impacted claimants affording them the opportunity to review the evidence in their claims files. As of today, no irregularities were found in any of the claims files. There is only one claimant whose case is still pending a decision by an administrative law judge (ALJ); the hearing for that case was held on June 21, 2004.
SSA should develop standardized guidelines for file assembly contractors to ensure consistent and accurate training in all OHA regions.
We agree. The FAW developed uniform procedures and guidelines to be followed for contract file assembly. The guidelines were distributed to all HOs with file assembly contracts in February 2004. In addition, between January and March 2004, members of the workgroup met with the project officers, either in person or by videoconference, in every office with contracts in place this year, to review the procedures and provide additional instruction where necessary. At the present time, there are no plans to contract the file assembly function after the end of this fiscal year.
SSA should issue guidelines that ensure the security of case files at all file assembly locations.
We agree. As reported above, we developed and distributed a procedures manual
to every HO with file assembly contracts in place. In addition, on February
3, 2004, the Associate Commissioner for Hearings and Appeals (ACOHA) held an
"all managers" conference call to discuss the proper procedures to
be followed for contract file assembly. In addition, the ACOHA issued a memo
to all offices on February 6, 2004 (copy attached) to reinforce the topics discussed
during the conference call. Finally, the FAW will continue to provide oversight
and support to HOs with contracts in place this year.
OIG Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments
Mark Bailey, Director, Central Audit Division (816) 936-5591
Shannon Agee, Audit Manager, Central Audit Division (816) 936-5590
In addition to those named above:
Tonya Coffelt, Auditor
For additional copies of this report, please visit our web site at www.ssa.gov/oig
or contact the Office of the Inspector General's Public Affairs Specialist at
(410) 966-1375. Refer to Common Identification Number A-07-04-24092.
Overview of the Office of the Inspector General
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is comprised of our Office of Investigations (OI), Office of Audit (OA), Office of the Chief Counsel to the Inspector General (OCCIG), and Office of Executive Operations (OEO). To ensure compliance with policies and procedures, internal controls, and professional standards, we also have a comprehensive Professional Responsibility and Quality Assurance program.
Office of Audit
OA conducts and/or supervises financial and performance audits of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) programs and operations and makes recommendations to ensure program objectives are achieved effectively and efficiently. Financial audits assess whether SSA's financial statements fairly present SSA's financial position, results of operations, and cash flow. Performance audits review the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of SSA's programs and operations. OA also conducts short-term management and program evaluations and projects on issues of concern to SSA, Congress, and the general public.
Office of Investigations
OI conducts and coordinates investigative activity related to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in SSA programs and operations. This includes wrongdoing by applicants, beneficiaries, contractors, third parties, or SSA employees performing their official duties. This office serves as OIG liaison to the Department of Justice on all matters relating to the investigations of SSA programs and personnel. OI also conducts joint investigations with other Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies.
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OCCIG provides independent legal advice and counsel to the IG on various matters, including statutes, regulations, legislation, and policy directives. OCCIG also advises the IG on investigative procedures and techniques, as well as on legal implications and conclusions to be drawn from audit and investigative material. Finally, OCCIG administers the Civil Monetary Penalty program.
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