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OIG review of CARES plan after six months shows little progress

Buffalo, NY — The Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, recently released a review of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Reviews (ODAR) Compassionate and Responsive Service (CARES) plan.  CARES is an initiative that was introduced in January of this year as means of dealing with the hearing backlog of Social Security Disability cases.

“The goal is to reduce both the hearing wait time and the number of cases in the backlog,” said Kevin J. Bambury, attorney, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC. “The objective is to get the wait time down to 270 days (nine months) throughout the country.”

Currently, claimants in the Buffalo area wait 24 to 28 months for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and 18 to 24 months in the Rochester area.  The average processing time nationwide is just under 24 months.  As of May, 2016, the backlog was 1.1 million cases.

The strategies of the CARES initiative are to increase the use of video hearings (allows judges in areas that are not as overwhelmed as others to hear claims from all over the country); hire new ALJs; increase the use of senior attorney adjudicators (who can make decisions on cases before they reach the hearing level); expand the use of pre-hearing conferences for unrepresented claimants; provide additional staff and resources for heavily backlogged offices; improve efficiency at the Appeals Council; and use new technologies to help analyze, review and decide cases.

Since releasing the CARES plan in January, ODAR has added six initiatives to its original 21. The OIG is asking ODAR to periodically update its plans to the public and to integrate its planning into the SSA’s strategic plan in order to make it easier for the OIG to hold the agency accountable. The OIG also said it had learned from reviews of prior backlog initiatives there is a need for: baseline data to measure progress; sufficient oversight of the plan; pilots to test initiatives; good internal and external communication; legal review of initiatives; comprehensive management information and reliable cost and savings data.

“These are all valuable guidelines. The question is, can the agency fulfill them, given the budgetary constraints it is under at the moment? The reason this backlog developed in the first place is directly related to a lack of sufficient funding and resources,” Bambury said.

“As the agency struggles with this backlog, claimants continue to suffer the consequences of having to wait months and sometimes years for a decision on their claim.  The current situation makes it even more critical for claimants to obtain representation from an experienced firm that can help them navigate the system.”

Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC, has been assisting clients in Buffalo and Rochester with Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income cases for 35 years.