Federal Manager's Daily Report

The rates at which SSA administrative law judges grant disability claims varies widely but the agency’s quality assurance reviews that could help improve consistency have been deemphasized and may be flawed in any case, GAO has said.

GAO noted that because ALJs operate independently of agency management, assessing their performance is a trickier proposition than it is for federal employees in general. However, it noted that for “typical” claims–average in terms of complexity and other factors–allowance rates varied from 37 to 82 percent among ALJs.

“In addition to characteristics related to disability criteria, such as the claimant’s impairment and age, GAO found that claimants who had representatives, such as an attorney or family member, were allowed benefits at a rate nearly 3 times higher than those without representatives. Other factors did not appear related to allowance rates, such as the percentage of backlogged claims in a hearing office,” it added.

Overall the variation did narrow between 2007 and 2015, though, which was attributed to enhanced quality assurance efforts and additional training for the ALJs.

SSA conducts five types of reviews to monitor the accuracy and consistency of hearings decisions by administrative law judges, “but some of these reviews may overlap and SSA has not systematically evaluated them,” GAO said. Further, two of the five were curtailed because the SSA reassigned staff away from them to help address the claims backlog.