HEARING BEFORE THE
COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON SOCIAL SECURITY
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
JULY 24, 2003
STATEMENT BY JO ANNE B. BARNHART
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION'S
SERVICE DELIVERY BUDGET PLAN
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for inviting me today to discuss the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) initiatives to improve service delivery in the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. Although it hardly seems possible, it has been more than a year since I appeared before you as a new Commissioner, and I appreciate the opportunity to share with you some of our accomplishments in improving service delivery and discuss how we’re addressing the challenges that face us.
Before I begin, however, I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Matsui, and the other members of this Subcommittee, for your help, advice, and support during the past year. Your support has been vital in helping us to develop a plan that will improve service and stewardship. I thank you not only on behalf of myself, but also on behalf of the men and women of SSA, who strive daily to provide the kind of service that every claimant, beneficiary, and member of the public expects and deserves.
Commitment to Service
SSA faces great challenges in providing that service, and as I told you last year, those challenges are my priorities for action. I remain committed to meeting the objectives of:
- Giving the American people the service they deserve;
- Improving program integrity through sound financial stewardship;
- Ensuring the program's financial solvency for future generations; and
- Maintaining the quality staff SSA needs to provide the service and stewardship.
The people of America, who fund the Social Security program through their payroll tax contributions, and fund SSI through their income tax payments, expect and deserve well-managed programs providing accurate payments that safeguard their trust. With adequate planning and resources, SSA can prepare for the baby boomers by addressing current backlogs, building a technology infrastructure for the 21st century, and continuing to develop what I believe to be the best workforce in government.
Last year, I appeared before you to discuss the many challenges facing the agency. And I have to tell you today that we still face many challenges. But, before I discuss the challenges, I’d like to talk about some of our accomplishments:
- In FY 02, it took an average of 412 days to get a decision on a hearing appeal. In May, that time had dropped to 255 days.
- The average processing time for an initial decision dropped from 106.1 days in 2001 to 99.2 days this year.
- At the end of FY 2002, there were 593,000 initial claims pending. Now there are 18,000 fewer despite an increase in receipts. We had expected that level to rise to 695,000.
Let me give you another example of the concrete results we’ve seen. We must specially prepare cases that are filed in the Federal District Courts. Because of processing delays, some of our attorneys were being held in contempt of court. More importantly, claimants couldn’t proceed with their appeals. Our preparation time for these cases has decreased from a 120 days in January 2003 to 29 days for June.
A major part of the problem was the large backlog in hearings case files waiting for transcription. As of April 14 this year, we were totally caught up with transcription and copying of cases, and have processes in place to ensure that we do not allow new backlogs to accumulate. I recently received a letter from Guy A. Lewis, Director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys in the U. S. Department of Justice, recognizing our improvements in this area. Mr. Lewis applauded our efforts to improve our litigation support and timely transmission of case materials, which has resulted in a marked decrease in the number of extensions sought in Social Security cases.
Service Delivery Plan
I am proud of our accomplishments. But, we still have a long way to go.
The service delivery plan SSA developed last year was in large part based on a comprehensive analysis of every step in the disability determination process, an analysis that had never been done before. The plan outlined very specific, ambitious goals over a five-year period:
- Keeping up with growing core workloads;
- Processing special workloads;
- Working down backlogs;
- Maintaining program integrity through dedicated funding; and
- Preparing for the future through service and stewardship investments.
We’re making a start this year, and the increase in the President’s budget request for FY 2004 puts us firmly on the path to meet these goals.
I am continuing with our service delivery assessment. The current phase entails thoroughly examining operational workloads other than disability claims. The difference between disability claims and our operational workloads is significant. The disability workload analysis yielded a 25-foot chart mapping out the process. Lengthy as it is, the disability determination process is linear. But the operational workloads are many diverse processes. There are 282 other operational actions, and each of these is done hundreds, thousands and even tens of millions of times each year.
The list of the activities consists primarily of post-entitlement actions that comprise virtually the entire workload in SSA’s Processing Centers and at least 45% of the work in field offices. This workload is comparable to the initial claims workload in terms of time spent on task. And there is a tremendous range in the complexity of these workloads. Our dedicated employees have to deal with this range and variety everyday--doing a simple change of address in minutes and then perhaps spending hours completely redeveloping a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient’s income and resources. We are conducting our service delivery assessment to develop and implement changes to best manage this complex and varied workload. These changes will include both small and incremental improvements as well as changes that are broader in scope. Collectively, they will help us eliminate backlogs and improve timeliness and efficiency.
I’d like to turn now to a discussion of some of the areas where we continue to face challenges.
Improve Disability Process
As I said when I appeared before you last year, there is no single change that will reduce the time it takes to process disability claims to an acceptable level. More efficient processing will require many improvements to achieve the level of service that the public expects and deserves.
We’ve already taken a number of short-term actions to reduce the delays in the hearings process. These include:
- Including ALJs in early screening for on-the-record decisions;
- Creating a law clerk (Attorney Intern) position;
- Deploying speech recognition technology to hearing offices;
- Ending the practice of rotating hearing office technicians among different positions;
- Contracting out copying and assembly of case files;
- Using scanning technology to track and retrieve folders;
- And as I mentioned earlier eliminating the tape transcription backlog;
- And eliminating delays in presenting cases to the U.S. District Courts.
We are in the process of implementing two other initiatives:
- Allowing ALJs to issue decisions from the bench immediately after a hearing; and
- Expanding video teleconference hearings.
And we are preparing to implement an initiative to digitally record hearings.
I’d like to give a couple of examples of the effects of some of these changes. In June 2003, the processing time for cases where a hearing decision was drafted using speech recognition software was 25 days less than the processing time for other case dispositions in that month. And using scanning technology in the Office of Appellate Operations’ MegaSite to control incoming folders reduced the processing time for coding and filing a tub of cases from 4½ hours to 30 to 45 minutes.
It is clear that to significantly improve disability processing times we must reduce backlogs so that a manageable and appropriate number of cases are in the pipeline at each stage of appeal. The delays in the process fall into two basic categories—those that occur because there is no one available to move the case to the next step, and those that occur because of delays built into the system. The funding included in the President's budget for FY 2004 would put us on a path to eliminate the backlogs through additional staff resources as well as the means to streamline the process through technological improvements.
As you know, Mr. Chairman, SSA has also been hampered in our efforts to speed up the appeals process by our inability to hire new administrative law judges (ALJs). I want to thank you and the other members of this subcommittee for your efforts in this area. Had it not been for your efforts to allow us to hire an additional 126 ALJs in September 2001, our hearing backlogs would be far worse than they are now. It is our hope that our ability to hire ALJs will be restored soon.
Accelerating the Electronic Disability Initiative (AeDib):
One major barrier to improving efficiency in the disability determination process is SSA’s continuing reliance on paper folders—folders that must be located, organized and mailed at every step of the process. We are well into implementation of the accelerated electronic disability process, or AeDib. AeDib is a major initiative to move all SSA components involved in disability claims adjudication or review to an electronic business process through the use of an electronic disability folder. This will help eliminate lost folders and repetitive data entry, because the electronic information can be viewed and used by other case processing systems in the medical determination and appeals process.
We will begin rolling out the new electronic process nationally in January. Next week, we will begin a pilot project in the Raleigh, N.C. DDS. Pilots also are scheduled to begin in Illinois in August and California in October. We have already been conducting training at all three sites. We also are working with the medical community to obtain universal acceptance of an electronic version of our authorization to release medical records. This support is crucial if we are to obtain full advantage of both the automated request for data and the electronic receipt of medical evidence.
Improvements to the Disability Determination Process:
When I appeared before you last year, I told you that we would be developing longer term proposals for improving the disability determination process. These would require regulatory or administrative action. I know that the members of this Subcommittee are awaiting these proposals, and I hope to be able to present them to you very soon.
Return to Work:
The Ticket to Work program to help disability recipients return to work has been implemented in two-thirds of the states, and we will begin the third and final phase this fall. We are optimistic about the program’s potential. But, I must tell you that we have not yet achieved the results we had hoped for. This is not unexpected—any new program of this magnitude is evolutionary and is likely to encounter difficulties in the early stages. We are looking at ways to address some of these difficulties.
For example, we have received feedback from employment networks (ENs) describing their difficulties in obtaining evidence of work and earnings after a beneficiary is no longer receiving Federal disability cash benefits. Based on that feedback, we have developed a new process for paying employment networks (ENs) that significantly relieves ENs from the burdens associated with collecting pay stubs.
We also are working with other Federal agencies to promote these programs that support the employment of people with disabilities.
We have a long way to go. Based on our experience, we will be making adjustments and modifications as necessary.
Mr. Chairman, the Ticket to Work program would not exist were it not for the support of you and the other Subcommittee members. I want to assure you that I remain committed to making the program work effectively.
The Men and Women of SSA
I started my testimony by telling you some of the things we’ve achieved in the past year. We have an excellent workforce, and we could not have done as much as we have if the men and women of SSA were not so dedicated to public service. Since I became Commissioner, I’ve visited 49 of our local field offices, teleservice centers, hearings offices and program service centers, and am halfway through a second set of annual visits to each of our 10 regional offices.
During each visit, I make it a point to meet with employees to get their perspective and ideas, communicate my vision for the agency, and make clear my expectations. Each time I have this opportunity, I am impressed with the talent in our workforce and moved by their commitment to serving the American people.
Most recently, I’ve had a series of meetings with all of the managers in headquarters and as many of the managers from our field facilities as possible. As part of our plan to handle the agency’s retirement wave, we are engaged in development programs at all levels of management. These programs will help maintain the leadership necessary to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The dedication and commitment of SSA’s workforce including, the state DDS agencies, enabled the agency to achieve a 5% increase in productivity in 2002, processing thousands more claims than expected. This put us in a much better position at the beginning of this current fiscal year, and has helped compensate for funding below the President’s FY 03 budget request.
Even though we have not had the resources to fund the Special Disability Workload this year, we’ve made a good start in addressing the workload. But as the President's FY04 budget provides for having additional resources to devote to the task, this will allow us to complete processing these cases much faster than it would otherwise take.
I have taken steps to shift resources from headquarters to the front lines, transferring nearly 300 staff positions to direct service positions and I will continue to redirect additional staff to front line positions. We also will continue to look for ways to use our resources more effectively.
But, I must tell you that there are very real consequences when we have reduced resource levels. For example, while we have kept our commitment to keep up with initial disability claims this year, to do that, we had to cut back on the number of continuing disability reviews—CDRs—which we will conduct this year. Are CDRs important? Yes, they are, but I had to make a choice. And, with the resources in the President’s 2004 budget request, we can get CDRs back on track next year.
I’ve referred several times to the President’s 2004 budget request. I think it’s important to note that the size of the increase in administrative funding included in the budget reflects not only the President’s commitment to ensuring that SSA is able to provide quality service to the American people, but also his confidence in the agency’s ability to meet its service goals. We earned that confidence through the hard work and dedication of the men and women of Social Security.
Backed by our quality workforce and sufficient resources, we will be able to provide the level of service the American people deserve. The President’s FY 2004 budget request would give us 2,275 more work years which would fund —1,000 more employees in the field, 300 more in DDS offices, and significantly more overtime for both the field and the DDS's.
Before I close, I’d like to take just a moment to tell you about some of our other successes during the past year.
Strengthening the enumeration process:
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reinforced the need for a concerted long-term effort to address Social Security Number (SSN) misuse and identity theft. We have taken many steps to strengthen our capability to prevent those with criminal intent from getting SSN cards.
We have greatly reduced the number of non-work SSNs provided to non-citizens who are not authorized to work but who need SSNs to receive drivers’ licenses. We are working on a regulation to end issuance of non-work numbers for that purpose.
Beginning June 1, 2002, SSA began verifying birth records with the issuing agency for all U.S. born SSN applicants age one or older. (Under former rules, we verified birth records for all applicants age 18 and older.)
We are expanding our pilot online SSN verification system for employers from the original 9 employers to 100 employers. This system holds great promise, but, as you would expect, we are proceeding carefully to ensure that the system is secure as well as user friendly.
SSA now only assigns SSNs to non-citizens if their documents have been verified with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS). Under a new Enumeration at Entry (EaE), SSA assigns SSNs and issues SSN cards based on data collected by the Department of State (DoS) as part of the process of entry into the U.S. for non-citizens admitted as “immigrants.” (Non-citizens admitted as immigrants are authorized to work in the U.S.) All consular sites now have the software for this process.
We also opened a Social Security Card Center in Brooklyn NY in November, 2002. The Center represents a joint effort of SSA, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General and BCIS to strengthen SSN application procedures. As of June 2003, the Center has successfully served over 80,000 visitors.
SSA has made great strides in the area of e-Government. The number of wage reports filed electronically instead of through paper W-2 forms has increased from 68.5 million to 125 million over a period of 2 years. I’ve already described our progress in moving to an electronic disability determination process.
Expanding e-Government is one of the five areas included in the President’s Management Agenda. SSA is the lead agency for the federal government’s “e-Vital” project. This new e-Government project will reduce the cost and time it takes to verify birth and death information. At the E-Gov 2003 Conference and Exposition last month, SSA received the Pioneer Award in the area of e-Government for the e-Vital program.
SSA also is providing and encouraging the use of more services on the internet. Of course, internet services will not replace the in-person and telephone service for which SSA is so widely known. But it will provide an alternative for the increasing numbers of Americans who are doing business via the internet.
Getting to Green:
In addition, the Office of Management and Budget has recognized SSA’s work on the five elements of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In the most recent PMA scorecard, issued this month, OMB upgraded our financial management current status from “yellow” to “green.” SSA also was rated “green” in all 5 PMA "progress" categories.
Recognition of SSA's Accomplishments
SSI Off High Risk List:
The SSI program was put on GAO’s “high risk” list in 1997. Thanks to a great deal of work by SSA staff, under the leadership of Deputy Commissioner James B. Lockhart III, SSA developed and implemented a corrective action plan to address the problems that led to the “high risk” designation. As you know, GAO removed SSI from the list this year. But I can assure you that we are continuing to implement the corrective action plan’s ongoing initiatives designed to better manage SSI and maintain explicit executive accountability for results.
SSA’s efforts have been recognized by a number of other groups. We recently received the 2003 Outstanding Ethics Program Award from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
For the second time in three years, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) computer security efforts earned the top grade for all Federal agencies in an annual Congressional report card. This report card is issued by the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations.
SSA has received unqualified opinions on its financial statements since 1994, an “A” in financial management in 2002 from the Federal Performance Project, and the highest financial management grade, a “B”, on the 2001 report card from the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations. We have also received the AGA Certificate for Excellence in Accountability Reporting (CEAR) for the past five years.
SSA executives have received individual awards from the Association of Government Accountants, the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, the General Services Administration, the American Society for Public Administration, and the National Academy of Public Administration.
In summary, Mr. Chairman, SSA is a great agency. It’s gratifying to see our work recognized by others, and even more gratifying to witness the progress we’ve made in the past year towards meeting our goals.
But we know we have a long way to go.
Social Security is so important for so many people's lives that we must continue to work to provide better service: I have talked a lot about progress we've made, positive trends, and improved numbers, but I and everyone at SSA understand that every claim, every benefit payment represents an individual. Therefore;
- As long as one person has to wait 1,100 days to have a disability claim move through the entire appeals process, we won’t be satisfied;
- As long as even one person's case is delayed because we’ve lost a folder, we aren’t going to be satisfied; and
- As long as even one person’s benefit amount is wrong, we won’t be satisfied.
I join the men and women of Social Security in pledging to you that we will pursue our goals of service, stewardship, solvency and staffing. In the past year, we’ve built the foundation. The service delivery plan, with its specific goals and milestones, gives us the blueprint we need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
In closing, I would like to thank this Subcommittee again for your continuing help and support. I look forward to continuing our wonderful working relationship, and I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.