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Increased scrutiny of SSD judges' approval rates

For years, the Social Security Administration has only released the data on each of its administrative law judge's Social Security Disability appeal approval rates by request. Now, in response to mounting pressure from both Congress and the media, it posts the monthly SSD appeal approval rates for each of its 1,400 judges on the SSA website, leading to a potential for greater scrutiny of decisions and negative impacts on SSD applicants.

However, according to SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue, most lawmakers are hesitant to analyze and criticize judge decisions. "Congress has been pretty enthusiastic about the idea of ALJ (administrative law judge) independence," he said, adding that only a small number of judges have approval rates that are either below or above average.

But significant disparities in approval rates will get Congress' attention, as evidenced by a recent action of the House Subcommittee on Social Security. Last month, the subcommittee asked the SSA inspector general to investigate the decisions of a West Virginia judge after media reports of his high approval rate. Subcommittee members state that they plan to hold hearings on the issue in the coming months.

Over the past five years, the SSA has added some 200 judges in response to a growing number of SSD and Supplemental Security Income applications and appeals. As a result, the average wait time for an appeals decision has dropped from over 500 days to just under 400. Claims that make it to the administrative hearing level have already been twice denied by state SSD agencies called Disability Determination Service.

Source: USA Today, "Data show disability benefits can depend on judge," Mike Chalmers, 1 July 2011

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