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National Hearing Centers and Their Impact on the Disability Back Log

June 22, 2012

In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, 82,000 disability cases were transferred from SSA’s 10 regions to National Hearing Centers (NHC) in Falls Church, VA, Albuquerque, NM, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD and St. Louis, MO. Here, video teleconferencing (VTC) technology is used to connect the ALJ at the NHC to the claimant at their local Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) in order to conduct a hearing.
The purpose of this transfer was to relieve the local hearing offices of the back log of disability cases waiting to be heard by an ALJ, while new local ODARs were being constructed. The Chicago region, which handles Cleveland-area hearing offices, transferred approximately 41,000 cases alone, making up approximately 50 percent of the cases transferred to the NHCs.
Was this a successful plan? According to a report made in April, 2012 by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), ALJs in the National Hearing Centers have issued approximately 56,000 dispositions during the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. This equals out to be about 2.77 dispositions per day, compared to the national average of 2.42. This higher disposition rate is based on several factors, according to the OIG’s report: high decision writer-to-ALJ ratio, how attorneys are supervised, the lack of travel to remote sites, useful pre-hearing briefs, and the processing of NHC remands at the hearing office level. 
The greater decision writer-to-ALJ ratio has a tremendous impact on productivity. Only one regional ODAR out of 10 possesses a ratio above 2, the lowest being the Chicago region at 1.60. The NHC ratio is 2.90. SSA hopes to get the national ratio to average out to at least 1.85. The more decision writers per ALJ, the sooner decisions can be written and issued in a timely manner.
Rather than ALJs and attorneys both answering to a Group Supervisor as is the case at ODARs, staff attorneys at NHC hearing offices report directly to ALJs who act as managers. This way, according to the OIG’s report, staff attorneys gain a better understanding of the ALJ’s preferences. Unfortunately this style of leadership cannot be replicated at ODARs, due to the fact that those ALJs do not carry managerial title.
Because NHC ALJs are not required to travel to remote locations to hear cases, they have more time to hear more cases as a result. Thanks to VTC technology, a NHC ALJ can hear a case from any where in the country from the comfort of his own courtroom, as long as the claimant has access to the same technology at his location. Typically claimants travel to their local ODAR, but VTC hearings can also be held at local field offices as well.
Pre-hearing briefs are another helpful practice that has been implemented at the NHCs. These are composed by the senior attorneys for the managing ALJs in preparation for a hearing. They include pertinent details such as the claimant’s education, medical conditions, past relevant work and impairments found by Disability Determination Services (DDS). The attorneys can also state their recommendation on the decision based on their research. ALJs told the OIC that they find these briefs more helpful than the pre-hearing worksheets used by ODAR attorneys.
Interestingly, NHC ALJs were not hearing their own remanded cases. This was so they had more time to hear new cases. However, the Chief ALJ amended this in December, 2011, and the following protocol was put in place for ODARs, effective January 3rd, 2012:
1.       Determine whether the NHC is still providing assistance to the hearing office.
2.       Verify that the NHC ALJ who issued the decision is on duty at the NHC .
3.       If the remand meets both requirements, transfer the remand to the NHC.
However, if a claimant declines a VTC hearing, the remand would then be transferred back to the local ODAR.
While these are steps in the right direction, NHCs are also facing a few challenges: availability of video capacity, conflicts with scheduling experts, and claimants declining VTC hearings. Next week, we will explore these challenges and what SSA is doing to overcome them.
Source: Office of the Inspector General Audit Report, April 2012

Written by Anna Westfall & edited by Attorney Andrew November

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