This is Part 3 of the series Examining the Reconsideration Level. Read Part 1: Trust at the Reconsideration Level—Challenges and Solutions and Part 2: Quality at the Reconsideration Level—Challenges and Solutions.
Earlier, in Part 1: Trust at the Reconsideration Level, we discussed why creating and sustaining trust is essential to improving the Social Security Disability (SSD) adjudication process and reducing appeals. In Part 2: Quality at the Reconsideration Level, we reviewed how the Social Security Administration (SSA)/Disability Determination Services (DDS) can efficiently make a quality determination at the reconsideration level.
Now, the SSA/DDS is restructuring the reconsideration level appeals again—and it should. Currently, case processing times are extremely slow. By the end of 2020, there will no longer be Prototype states, and all states will have a reconsideration level appeals (again). There is an ongoing dilemma for all production-paced, high-volume based industries: how to produce a great product in a timely, efficient manner. The Social Security Disability industry isn’t any different. Inside and out of the Social Security Administration, the SSD industry is simply a numbers game. Everyone must find the balance between producing a quality product while also reducing backlogs, covering business expenses, and giving clients a chance to receive disability on a contingency free basis. Productivity and efficiency are the keys to creating a quality product. So how can the reconsideration level management and staff produce a quality determination quickly?
I personally have observed many Social Security Administration/Disability Determination Services programs that just have not worked. For instance, the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) and Federal Reviewing Official (FedRO) program in Region 1 are only a couple of programs that have not worked at the reconsideration level. FedRO was previously part of DSI and replaced reconsideration adjudicators with federal attorneys, which produced amazing quality, but it was too expensive and slowed down the process. Social Security Administration created Prototype states to try to get rid of the reconsideration level altogether. However, every state will soon have reconsideration level determinations because this approach didn’t achieve the desired results. The SSA has and will continue to try new programs to balance the quality and quantity dilemma, despite the frustrations.
Let’s consider other industries for a minute, such as manufacturing and retail, that also struggle with balancing quality and quantity. They report experimenting with programs, processes, evaluating analytics, and implementing quality reviews. The good news is that the Social Security Administration has been doing all of this for a long time. Right now, a new measure is being implemented that requires hearing offices that are returning claims to the reconsideration level to take another look and adjudicate the case. Fortunately, there are changes happening on a regular basis intending to improve the quality of determinations at the reconsideration level. But is that as good as it’s going to get?
Looking again at the manufacturing and retail industries, there may be a pattern they use that provides a new perspective toward an old solution for SSA/DDS. Within the manufacturing and retail industries, there is a formula for balancing quality and quantity that involves hiring qualified staff members, based on production needs. Is the SSA/DDS doing the same?
Certainly not in the same manner: while the SSA/DDS has hired on a temporary basis, these “temporary” positions transfer to a permanent position once the probationary period has passed, though not to extend (NTE) a particular time period. These time periods, however, are not often enforced, allowing new hires to work indefinitely in the government system. This forces the SSA/DDS to provide a comfortable income with nice benefits, despite the demand and inflow of disability applications. This is not efficiently managing production needs. Social Security Administration/Disability Determination Services must begin hiring employees based on production needs that bring a balance to the quality and quantity of determinations. Temporary hiring must be truly temporary and based on the demands of the economy and subsequent number of applications.
Thus, I propose an increase in temporary hiring of former and retired Reconsideration Level Disability examiners and adjudicators.
This temporary hiring will improve production during times of increased applications while sustaining quality. While hiring will be on a temporary basis, the number of hires should be high. These employees and independent contractors already know the processes, systems, and law. They can use their marketable skillsets to assist Disability Determination Services in managing the fluctuating demands when there is an increased number of applications and/or backlog. Certainly, by increasing the number of temporary employees and independent contractors, there will be a positive impact on the handling of millions of applications coming into the Social Security Administration each year.
When the number of applications decreases, the DDS can and must decrease the positions in order to better manage production and demands with the necessary number of highly qualified, efficient workers. In fact, the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) successfully uses this method with retired Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Overall, by using this tested approach, processing times can decrease while public trust increases. This is worth discussing while SSA/DDS continues to experiment finding a successful formula for balancing the quality and quantity of determinations made at the reconsideration level.