Audit Highlight: The Role of National Hearing Centers

Beyond the Numbers

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
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The Office of External Relations

Every week, we look at statistics showing how many people are viewing the pages within our website.  Those numbers tell us what pages are most interesting to most people—audit reports, news releases, fraud reporting, etc.  In other words, we try to figure out what you care most about.

Starting with this post, we are going to blog occasionally about an Office of Audit report that gets a lot of interest when we first post it to the website.  Today, we're looking at the April 3 report, "The Role of National Hearing Centers in Reducing the Pending Hearings Backlog."  In April 2012, you viewed this audit more than any other.

What exactly is a pending hearings backlog?  People often wait a long time for a hearing with an administrative law judge when they appeal a denial of their application for disability benefits, partly because so many other people are also requesting hearings.

This “backlog” of hearing requests is something the Congress, the media—including The Wall Street Journal—SSA and the OIG have been concerned about over the last several years.  The wait can cause problems—financial, emotional, even medical—for the people who are waiting for claims decisions.

In the last five years, according to Commissioner Astrue, SSA has “cut the national average time disability claimants wait for a hearing decision by one-third, from an all-time high of 532 days in August 2008 to 354 days in April 2012. In 2007, some hearing offices had average waits of about 900 days; today the wait time in every hearing office is below 475 days."

We have done a lot of audit work on this issue—to provide information to SSA and the Congress, so they can make operational and policy decisions; and to make recommendations for how to improve the appeals process.

In this particular audit, we looked at SSA’s decision to create National Hearings Centers (NHCs) that take the pressure off individual hearing offices with the most severe backlogs. At the NHCs, administrative law judges use video technology to conduct hearings for claimants located throughout the United States.

To perform this audit, Auditor-in-Charge Parham Price actually visited three National Hearing Centers and talked to ALJs and staff about how the process works.  Parham and his audit team found that judges at the NHCs issued more decisions than did judges in hearing offices.  They think this was partly because NHCs have more staff for each judge, and because NHC judges don’t have to spend time traveling to interview claimants in person.

However, Parham and his team also found some challenges in using the NHCs effectively.  First, NHC judges could only hold as many hearings as existing video capacity allowed.  And, some claimants declined to have a video hearing—sometimes waiting until the day before the hearing to say they would prefer an in-person hearing.  This caused additional delays in the process.

Our auditors recommended that SSA consider increasing the number of video locations, so the NHCs can work to their full potential.  They also recommended that SSA consider preventing claimants from declining video hearings close to the day of the hearing.  Of course, claimants would still be able to request an in-person hearing earlier in the process.

Parham Price and his audit team hope their report—and any changes SSA makes in response—will help reduce the backlog, and help you and other claimants get disability decisions faster. 

To read other OIG audits related to the pending hearings backlog, click here.

For more information on SSA's hearings and appeals process, click here.

Feel free to comment below about the hearings backlog, the disability claims process, this audit report, or anything related. Please don’t put any personally identifiable information in the comments, and make sure you check our commenting policy first.