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Judges answer SSDI adjudication critics at House hearing

New Jersey observers of the Social Security appeals process will be interested to know that the Association of Administrative Law Judges agrees that system improvements can be made. The appeal process for denials of Social Security disability insurance benefits can add years to a case and is often seen as flawed.

The President of the AALJ submitted testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security on June 27 to explain how he believes the SSDI appeal system could be improved.

A major element addressed by the judge in his testimony focused on the caseload that ALJs face in SSDI appeals adjudications. The judge claims that the quality of adjudications has been subordinated at the expense of the agency's emphasis on pushing huge numbers of cases through the system. Because most SSA appeals go to trial, the effect of overloaded dockets is widespread across the system.

The judge also discussed how ALJs perform three conflicting functions in hearing and deciding appeals at the SSA. ALJs need to be impartial adjudicators, serve the interests of the Social Security Trust Fund and serve the interests of the appealing applicant. Defending the interests of the Trust Fund at the same time as serving the interests of the claimant creates a conflict of interest, he said. In his testimony, the judge advocated strongly for hearings to include a government attorney to represent the interests of the Trust Fund.

The AALJ president also took the position that the public's interest in seeing how SSDI appeals are adjudicated is at least as important as the claimants' interests in keeping hearings closed. In SSDI appeals, however, a great deal of information that would be considered private, including medical and psychological records, is shared, making more transparency a tough nut to crack.

SSDI reform is becoming increasingly urgent because experts estimate that disability funds will run dry by 2016.

Source: House Committee on Ways and Means, "Statement of the Honorable D. Randall Frye, President, Association of Administrative Law Judges: Protecting Due Process for the American People," Hon. D. Randall Frye, June 27, 2012

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