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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Social Security of the House Ways and Means Committee on Social Security Administration Service Delivery Budget Plan

Location: Washington, DC








REP. E. CLAY SHAW JR (R-FL): Good morning.

Today, our Subcommittee welcomes the Commissioner of Social Security, Jo Anne Barnhart, to review the Agency's updated Service Delivery Budget Plan for fiscal year 2005. That agenda may be a little bit expanded this morning due to some comments made before the Budget by Mr. Greenspan yesterday.

The five-year Service Delivery Budget Plan was first submitted to the Office of Management and Budget with the agency's fiscal year 2004 budget request. Integrated with the five-year Strategic Plan, the Service Delivery Budget Plan provides a framework to address the challenges facing the agency and to improve public service.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): I'll try and keep to the same vein. I also would like to associate myself with your comments, Mr. Chairman, with respect to Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's remarks. We don't believe that it is necessary or right or proper to cut benefits for those who are at or near retirement. And you know what? You don't have to do that. We have a problem-Chairman Greenspan was right to point out the demographic problem, but his solution to that problem is not one that I don't think we will ever pass on this committee. So I think it's important that we make that point clear.

Also, I would say that for those who say that the trust fund is there and we don't have to worry about 2018, that's not true either. The trust fund is there but it's full of IOUs, it's not full of cash. So come 2018 we won't have the money to pay the benefits, so that's a point that has to be made. But I wanted to actually ask you, Commissioner Barnhart, a couple of local questions. I know we seem to have this pattern of talking about this a bit, but the-I wanted to ask you specifically about Milwaukee and Chicago. In November the I.G. issued a report that found that the Milwaukee OHA had addressed most of the problems identified by the review of the Chicago OHA. But the I.G. also revealed a few further problems. I wanted to see what the update on that is, including a sharp increase in the number of backlogged disability cases from 4,247 cases in '02 to 8,059 backlogged cases in '03.

Could you comment on what the agency is doing to address those backlogs? And then I'll just ask my second question, so we can get on, about the Chicago office.

Can you update us on the situation at the Chicago Regional Office of Hearing and Appeals where the contractors mishandled approximately 1,200 files? Has everyone been contacted? Has everyone put back in the front of the line to get new hearings and to have a chance to adjust their records? And have safeguards been put in place in Chicago and elsewhere to protect these kinds of files?

MS. BARNHART: Well, why don't I start with Chicago since you ask many-a number of specific --

REP. RYAN: Okay, sure. I know that was a lot, I can go back.

MS. BARNHART: First of all, we have dealt with every case and let me explain to you where each of those stand. I believe there actually ended up being 1,367 cases --

REP. RYAN: In Chicago?

MS. BARNHART: -- in our analysis. Yes, uh-huh. Six hundred and seventy-three of those cases have been decided. Four hundred and fifty-one were favorable, 128 were unfavorable and --

REP. RYAN: What was the first number, please?

MS. BARNHART: Yes, 1,367 cases total is what it ended up being. Six hundred and seventy-three of those have been decided. Four hundred and fifty-one of those were favorable, 128 were unfavorable, and 94 were dismissed. The remaining 591 cases are pending in the Hearing Offices and of those, approximately half are scheduled and half remain to be scheduled. In terms of the process --

REP. RYAN: And everyone --

MS. BARNHART: That's just to tell you where the cases are. In the terms of the process and how we dealt with ensuring that there was no harm to the individuals whose files were part of that contractor situation-and let me just say again how very disturbed we were, and I know that you know that, that that whole situation occurred and we acted as quickly as we could to deal with it. A notice was sent to each claimant to advise them of the situation and to offer them the opportunity to reexamine their file, to make sure that it included all relevant evidence and material.

And by that I want to say we offered to have staff members sit down with them and go through the file. It wasn't just a matter of putting the whole burden on the claimant, because it was a mistake made at the office by a contractor and obviously we weren't just simply going to say, "If you've got a problem, you let us know." We sat down and went through it with them and if additional evidence or exhibits were needed, we actually took the action to secure those for the claimants. For those claimants who didn't have representatives, as I said, we had experienced employees who sat down to go through everything with them. Those notices were sent in August-September of last year and if a claimant didn't respond to the letter, then a close out letter will be sent for any decision or dismissal as made.

Also, even for the cases that had moved through the system-and we did this for every case. So I want to be clear that even for the cases that moved-had moved all the way through the system we did this, even if they'd gotten a favorable decision. So we really did our best to make sure that no claimant was harmed, and we don't believe they were. We've been monitoring the situation very, very closely.

REP. RYAN: Prospectively to prevent this from happening again?

MS. BARNHART: We have put a number of procedures in place at my request. We were conducting training prior to that for the contractors, but we set up a more rigorous training program. We have monitoring that takes place on a regular basis. We have a protocol that's been established that is used across the country.

REP. RYAN: Did you investigate whether this was occurring or had occurred anywhere else in the country?

MS. BARNHART: We did. In fact, obviously one of the things I was interested in making sure of is that-at that time I think we had somewhere around 100 plus contractors and we had problems with two of them, unfortunately.

REP. RYAN: In Chicago?

MS. BARNHART: Yeah, I'm saying unfortunately they were in your region. (Laughs.)

REP. RYAN: Yeah, but what about Dallas and what about other areas?

MS. BARNHART: We didn't have problems in other areas. Since that time however, though, we have identified one problem with one individual in Boston. It really only affected a couple of cases but because of the monitoring procedures we've put in place, we've been able to ensure it doesn't happen again.

REP. RYAN: And the Milwaukee backlog?

MS. BARNHART: And the Milwaukee backlog. What we're doing there is what we do typically in the offices where we have enormous backlogs like that, and of course we have backlogs everywhere.

REP. RYAN: Yeah.

MS. BARNHART: But they just happen to be particularly bad there. Is we transfer cases. We have decision writers that help write the decisions for the ALJs, and obviously we'll be looking at the ALJ ratio in Milwaukee to see if it needs to be one of our target offices for putting more ALJs in. The other thing that I'm looking at doing is creating a prescreening unit to go to some of those offices that have huge backlogs and have our prescribes go and identify the cases that might be ripe for on the record decisions. So we could have a special unit of --

REP. RYAN: Which is essentially the reforms you're proposing system wide: you just want to fast forward and get some of --

MS. BARNHART: Fast forward some of these things, exactly. And what I'm looking at there is if they can do the screening of the cases in places like Milwaukee, like Cleveland-as Ms. Tubbs Jones mentioned, they have similar issues there-then I could have a cadre of ALJs in a location that could simply handle those cases coming in from all over the country. So that's what I'm looking at doing for the time being.

REP. RYAN: Do you have with you the number of the backlog right now? I mean, the 8,000 number is a little old.

MS. BARNHART: Let me see if I have.

REP. RYAN: If you could get it to me later, I'd --

MS. BARNHART: I don't know if I have that number with me right now, but I can certainly --

REP. RYAN: Yeah, could you.

MS. BARNHART: -- get it for you. We track it on a regular basis and so the number changes. I wish it changed a little more on the positive side, but the number does change on a fairly regular basis. I was just looking to see if I brought that with me, but I don't believe I do have it.

REP. RYAN: Okay. Well, if someone could send that to us, I'd appreciate that.

Thank you, I yield.


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