Following are excerpts from SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue’s recent testimony before a House committee on the agency’s workload and staffing increases.
In FY 2009, we processed more retirement, initial disability, and hearing applications than ever before. We increased our average agency-wide productivity by 4.49 percent over FY 2008.
We made solid and sustained progress in eliminating our hearings backlog by reducing both our pending hearings for the first time in a decade and the time applicants waited for a hearing. These accomplishments are all the more impressive considering that, at the same time, we continued to focus on the oldest, most complex, and time-consuming cases.
In FY 2009, we processed over 175,000 more initial disability claims than we had expected to process in that year. We kept the pending level below 800,000 even though we received nearly 400,000 more applications than we had in FY 2008. We also reduced the initial disability claims average processing time by 5 days. We decided the cases of about 100,000 Americans with the most severe disabilities through our Quick Disability Determination and Compassionate Allowance initiatives in about ten days from the date of receipt in the State Disability Determinations Services (DDS).
We launched our new online application, iClaim, in December 2008. This quick, easy-to-use online service helped us deal with the increase in benefit applications. We decreased waiting times in our field offices and on our 800 Number.
During this difficult economic crisis, Americans are turning to us for help more than ever before. In FY 2010, we expect to receive 1.2 million more claims than we received in FY 2008. I weighed the risks of an uncertain budget against the need to sustain our progress and decided to authorize our components to continue hiring and working maximum overtime during the continuing resolution (CR). Therefore, we are using the multi-year Recovery Act funding to help sustain our momentum this fiscal year during the CR. We, nevertheless, are counting on your support to pass the President’s full FY 2010 budget. This budget will help sustain the substantial progress made in the past year.
Plan to Address Rising Workloads
We have detailed, achievable plans in place to address our soaring workloads, and our employees are dedicated to eliminating the hearings backlog by 2013. They are also poised to keep up with the recession-driven increase in initial disability claims. We will not, however, be able to achieve these goals without timely, adequate, and sustained funding.
In FY 2009, Congress provided us with $126.5 million above the President’s budget request and authorized $500 million of the Recovery Act funds to help us process our rapidly rising retirement and disability workloads and to reduce the hearings backlog.
In FY 2009, we hired approximately 8,600 new employees, most of them in less than six months, which was our largest hiring effort since the creation of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program about thirty-five years ago. Management at every level of the agency responded to this hiring opportunity with the urgency that tough times require. Given all of the conditions and hurdles involved with hiring in the civil service and the obstacles created by some governors and State legislatures in staffing the DDSs, this accomplishment is a great testament to the skill and dedication of everyone involved. Along with that hiring, we also maximized the use of overtime across the agency.
We recognize, though, that merely adding employees, while critical to our success, will not solve all of our problems. Expanding our use of technology is essential – we become more efficient as we automate additional processes. We used Recovery Act funds to purchase additional computers for our new employees, as well as video conferencing equipment for hearings and increased bandwidth to improve the availability of our systems. In January 2009, we took possession of our second data support center, and by May, began moving some of our workloads to the new center. These enhancements allowed us to reduce by two-thirds the time our disability systems were down.
In August 2009, we released a request for proposals to expand our use of health IT to gather electronic medical records. Obtaining medical records is one of the most critical and time-consuming aspects of making disability decisions. Health IT holds the promise to drastically reduce our disability processing times. In January 2010, we will use Recovery Act resources to issue $24 million in contracts with additional medical providers and networks.
Early in my tenure, I recognized the need for a new, state-of-the-art data center. It is vital that we have a stable, reliable data center to protect the sensitive data we maintain and to achieve our ongoing efforts to improve automation and increase the use of online services. In the Recovery Act, Congress gave us $500 million to build and partially equip a new, modern data center that will incorporate green building technology. It is a complicated process to plan and build a new data center, and it will not be completed until 2013. We have been planning for the new facility for some time, and in August, 2009, the General Services Administration (GSA) issued a request for expressions of interest for site selection. We anticipate awarding the contract in early 2010.
In addition to handling our customary work, we played a critical role in issuing $250 economic recovery payments, ahead of the statutory deadline, to over 55 million beneficiaries who received Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. These payments injected more than $13 billion into the struggling economy.
Maintaining Momentum to Eliminate the Hearings Backlog
As I have said many times, eliminating the hearings backlog is a moral imperative. In FY 2009, we received over 30,000 more hearing requests than in FY 2008. Despite this increase in the number of requests, I am pleased to report the news is good. For my first 22 months, we steadily reduced the rate at which the number of pending cases increased. We hit the turning point this past January, and in every month since then, the number of pending cases dropped. The rate of decline is accelerating—in the last three months, we reduced the hearings backlog by a greater percentage than we did in the previous seven months. By the end of FY 2009, we had reduced our pending hearings by nearly 38,000 cases.
Morally and operationally, we should focus our attention on applicants who have been waiting the longest for their hearings; no one should have to wait years for a decision on their benefit claim. We have steadily reduced the number of cases that have waited the longest. In FY 2007, we started by resolving virtually all 65,000 cases pending over 1,000 days. In FY 2008, we cleared nearly all 135,000 cases pending over 900 days. In FY 2009, we resolved nearly all 166,000 cases pending over 850 days. For FY 2010, we are ahead of schedule in resolving the over 135,000 cases pending 825 days or longer.
Mathematically, our targeted effort with older cases meant that average processing time remained artificially high for a while, but that figure is also now starting to drop. We have kept it below 500 days since June 2009, and last month it was 446 days. Moreover, the average processing time for our most backlogged offices is coming down faster than for other offices. In February 2007, the average processing time for Atlanta was 852 days, and we had six offices with processing times between 650 and 852 days. Last month our most backlogged office was Dayton, Ohio at 651 days.
While 651 days for a hearing is not acceptable, but shortly such performance will be a disturbing piece of history. By the middle of next year, seven new offices will open in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana, our five most congested states. With plans for 25 new hearing offices, 7 new satellite offices, and scores of office modifications and expansions, we are adding the space we need to address the cases that continue flooding in.
The expansion of our physical infrastructure will allow us to accommodate additional ALJs and support staff. While we still have work to do to reach our goal of an average processing time of 270 days, we have made significant progress and have a clear plan in place to reach that goal.
In FY 2009, we hired 147 ALJs and over 1,000 support staff in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), which is responsible for our hearing offices. In FY 2010, we plan to hire another 226 ALJs and maintain an average support staff ratio of at least 4.5 support staff per judge. By the end of FY 2010, we should have about 1,450 ALJs on board.
The Government Accountability Office recently agreed that under our hearings backlog reduction plan, we should be able to reduce our backlog, but noted that reaching our goal by 2013 is largely dependent on our ability to improve ALJ hiring, availability, and productivity. Sufficient resources and a strong pool of candidates from which to hire additional ALJs are vital elements to our success. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director John Berry has worked very closely with us to address our need to maintain a qualified pool of candidates through the ALJ examination process . I am extremely appreciative of John’s decision to open a new ALJ register because O PM’s continued support is critical for us to achieve our ALJ staffing needs.
ODARshould be proud of its three consecutive years of greatly improved productivity. Without that achievement, we would not have reduced the backlog last year.
We have a number of ways to track productivity, but an important bottom-line measure is the percentage of ALJs who reach our minimum annual disposition expectation of 500 cases . The number of ALJs, who reach that level, is steadily increasing. In FY 2007, 46 percent of our ALJs reached that level. In FY 2008, 56 percent reached that level, and in FY 2009, 71 percent reached that level. In fact, last fiscal year 89 percent of the ALJs disposed of over 400 cases. That individual success is a team success because the ALJs need sufficient support staff to prepare the cases for a hearing and write up the decisions after the hearing has been held. Last year, our ALJs received support from a recent high average of 4.6 support staff per ALJ.
Success has come from hard work, better systems, better training, and better business processes. We designed National Hearing Centers (NHCs) to quickly help the most beleaguered offices. In 2009, we opened three new NHCs, in addition to Falls Church, Virginia: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Chicago, Illinois; and Baltimore, Maryland. In May 2010, we plan to open our fifth NHC in St. Louis, Missouri.
The ALJs in the NHCs hold hearings remotely using video conferencing equipment, providing us the flexibility to better balance pending workloads across the country. We are seeing results in some of the most-backlogged offices that transferred cases to our first NHC in Falls Church, Virginia. Average processing times in Atlanta, Georgia; Cleveland, Ohio; and Flint, Michigan have dramatically improved with the assistance of the NHC. In FY 2009, the NHCs issued over 9,000 decisions.
We continue to expand our use of video technology. We are furnishing more hearing offices with video equipment so offices with available resources can assist offices with the greatest backlogs. More and more claimants in remote locations are asking for video hearings, which are not only more efficient, but also more professional and appropriate for ALJs and claimants than holding hearings in motels or other makeshift places. We are reducing the use of these temporary hearing sites, replacing them with video hearing rooms in field offices and other Social Security facilities. We implemented the Representative Video Project to allow representatives of disability claimants to use their personal equipment to participate in hearings from their own offices.
In addition to processing the most aged cases, we are taking a number of steps to expedite fully favorable decisions. We reinstituted the Attorney Adjudicator program to allow our most experienced attorneys in appropriate cases to make on-the-record, fully favorable decisions without a hearing. In FY 2009, attorney adjudicators issued over 36,000 favorable decisions. We have also instituted special Federal Quality Reviewer screening units and a Medical Expert Screening process to help identify cases that we can allow without the need for a hearing.
We identified cases that were likely allowances and electronically transferred them back to the DDSs for further review. As a result of this initiative, the DDSs allowed nearly 15,000 claims in FY 2009, and we were able to dismiss those requests for hearing.
The DDSs will not be able to provide the same level of assistance this year – they will be handling a flood of new initial disability applications. But our backlog reduction plan is not static. We continue to look for new ways to achieve our goals. We are using predictive modeling to help us decide which new techniques will most effectively help eliminate our backlog and improve our business process.
We are testing a new, more sophisticated screening tool to identify cases for senior attorneys to review. We used predictive modeling to help us determine the proper balance between the number of attorneys screening cases and the number who are writing decisions for ALJs. Based on our analysis, we are identifying 100 senior attorneys to work in a virtual screening cadre to review the disability hearing backlog for potential allowances. We believe that this innovative solution using our improved screening methodology and the electronic folder to move work to the members of the virtual unit will identify about 14,600 on-the-record, fully favorable allowances this year. These cases will not require a hearing before an ALJ. This new initiative will allow the DDSs to focus on processing initial disability claims without jeopardizing our progress in reducing the hearings backlog. In addition, we are adding centralized, regional units to pull cases and write decisions to more quickly address emerging issues.
We are working more efficiently in our hearing offices. In FY 2009, we made significant progress to eliminate the remaining paper hearings folders and to transition to an all-electronic environment. In this electronic environment, we are establishing a standardized electronic hearings business process. This process standardizes the day-to-day operations and incorporates best practices for hearings offices nationwide. We began rolling out this process to 30 hearing offices in FY 2009. We will implement it in all hearing offices by the end of FY 2010.
As we increase our capacity to hear and decide cases, we must consider the resulting workload for the Appeals Council (Council). The Council’s receipts are outpacing dispositions, with an almost 16 percent increase in receipts in FY 2009 over FY 2008. We expect that receipts will continue to increase by another 12 percent in FY 2010. Last fiscal year, we began preparing for the increase by hiring 16 new administrative appeals judges, 45 new appeals officers, and almost 200 new paralegals and attorney advisers. We revamped the new analyst training course with the goal of shortening the historic learning curve. The new training curriculum has been a success and productivity has exceeded expectations for the class of analysts that graduated in July 2009.
In FY 2009, the Council had many successes. It processed over 89,000 requests for review, 7 percent more than it processed in FY 2008. Despite increasing receipts, it exceeded its case processing goal with an average processing time of 261 days, even while eliminating cases over 750 days old.
Since I became Commissioner in 2007, I have repeatedly stated that reducing the hearings backlog is our number one priority, and that is still the case. We have implemented a solid plan and have demonstrated that it is working. With your continued support, I am confident that we will eliminate the hearings backlog by 2013.
Strategy for Unprecedented Increase in Disability Claims
However, we currently face another serious challenge – the flood of initial disability claims resulting from the economic downturn. The unemployment rate affects the number of disability claims we receive, and with the recent unemployment numbers at over 10 percent, the number of our disability applications will peak in 2010 at over 3.3 million. We are using our experience and some of our strategies from the hearings backlog reduction plan to implement a complementary plan to process the additional initial disability claims resulting from the recession.
We expect nearly 700,000 more initial disability claims in FY 2010 than we received in FY 2008. We simply do not have the capacity to process all of the incoming applications with the same timeliness of the past year.
Processing disability claims is our most labor-intensive workload. We cannot address our current challenge without additional staff, particularly disability examiners and medical consultants in the State DDSs. We developed a strategy to increase our capacity and optimize our productivity to return to the pre-recession initial claims pending level by 2013.
The increase in our FY 2009 appropriation and Recovery Act funding, allowed us to begin implementing our strategy last fiscal year. We hired 2,600 employees in the DDSs, ending FY 2009 with 1,400 more employees than at the end of FY 2008. While these hires helped us process over 200,000 more disability claims last year than we did in FY 2008, they spent a lot of their time in training and were not fully productive. This year we expect that the additional fully-trained staff will process substantially more cases.
Despite the nearly 17 percent increase in initial disability claims in FY 2009, the DDSs increased productivity by 3 percent, and so far their quality and average processing times are generally holding up well. Average initial disability processing time decreased 5 days to 101 days, and nationally the DDSs achieved the highest level performance accuracy in the past decade.
For the DDSs, not all the news is good. Disability applications are rising faster than we can hire and train, and the number of pending cases is increasing – escalating the pressure on the DDSs. Despite our employees’ heroic efforts to process initial disability claims timely and accurately, our pending cases had grown to nearly 780,000 by the end of FY 2009 – over 200,000 more cases than at the end of FY 2008. Our pending disability claims could reach as much as 1 million this year. We know this pending level is unacceptable and are working diligently to minimize the increase.
State furloughs aggravate the problems created by the recession. As nonsensical as it is for States to respond to fiscal crisis by furloughing employees whose salaries and benefits we fully fund, many of them have done so. I have spent a lot of time over the last year trying to educate State officials on the unnecessary and harmful effects of furloughing DDS employees. I have personally spoken to many governors or State officials, and I wrote letters to every governor and to the National Governor’s Association. In addition, each of our ten Regional Commissioners has been aggressively pursuing DDS furlough exemptions at the local level.
We have received considerable support from you and the Administration. I am grateful to Vice President Biden and the many Members of this Committee who have helped me persuade some governors not to take this misguided action.
We were successful in gaining exemptions or partial exemptions in several states, like Michigan, Nevada, New York, and Colorado. Other states, such as California, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Hawaii, have ignored our clear logic and have imposed destructive furloughs on our DDS employees. Currently twelve States have implemented furloughs that affect our DDS employees. I know that, like me, you are frustrated by these decisions.
While some States have argued that the furloughs are not affecting their ability to make disability determinations, these assertions are simply not true. For example, California is furloughing DDS employees three days each month. In FY 2010 this decision will delay $11 million in disability benefits to over 40,000 of California’s most vulnerable residents, at a time when the State already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. There are many clear signs of the deterioration in service. In spite of the hard work of the dedicated DDS employees, the number of initial claims currently pending in California is 22 percent higher than in 2008. The percentage of California cases pending over 90 days has grown. In the first calendar quarter of 2009, California’s Initial Claims Performance Accuracy was below the Federal regulatory threshold.
The residents of California should not be penalized for the actions of their officials. We are trying to mitigate the problems in California by deferring 9,000 continuing disability reviews so that the DDS can concentrate on initial applications, maximizing the use of overtime, obtaining medical consultant assistance from another state, and providing Federal assistance with state medical reviews.
As we began developing our strategy to process the additional recession-driven disability claims, we knew that certain States and regions had been harder hit by the recession than others. Since unemployment rates correlate directly with the number of disability claims we receive, we began to take a closer look at the unemployment rates and forecasts of disability receipts at the state level. We are using this information to decide how to allocate our resources – based on not only the current situation, but also on future population and unemployment trends.
In addition, we are analyzing a combination of DDS key indicators to determine a State’s ability to keep pace with its current and future receipts. We focus on the indicators that most directly demonstrate the State’s ability to handle additional claims, such as how old the cases are, how long they have been pending, the level of receipts, the processing time, the rate at which we are losing our employees, and whether the DDS is under a hiring freeze or furlough. By monitoring these indicators, we can quickly provide assistance to the most overwhelmed States.
This year we will continue to implement our strategy to process the increased receipts. With the President’s FY 2010 budget, we plan to add 1,400 new DDS employees. By the end of FY 2010, we expect to have 2,800 more DDS employees on board than we did at the end of FY 2008.
We are using our best practices from the hearings backlog reduction plan to create centralized units – similar to the National Hearing Centers – that will assist States across the Nation. These new units, called Extended Service Teams, will be placed in States that have a history of high quality and productivity and the capacity to hire and train significant numbers of additional staff. In FY 2010, we plan to place 280 new employees in four States (Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) to help staff the teams that will be able to quickly take cases from the hardest hit States.
We are also expanding our Federal capacity to process cases. We currently have a Federal unit in each of our ten regions and two units in Baltimore that assist the DDSs in processing cases. In FY 2010, we plan to provide 237 additional hires in these units.
In addition to hiring more disability examiners to process the claims, we also need to increase our medical consultant staff to support the examiners. Traditionally, the medical consultants work onsite in the DDSs to review the medical evidence, provide guidance to the examiners on the severity of the applicants’ conditions, and, in many cases, signoff on disability determinations.
If we do not have sufficient evidence to make a disability determination, we often send applicants for a consultative examination with a medical professional. These exams can increase the cost and waiting times for a disability decision. It is sometimes challenging to find medical providers with the appropriate specialty necessary for the exam. For example, psychiatry is a specialty that can often be difficult to obtain. We plan to use our video conferencing technology to conduct psychiatric consultative exams remotely. This technology will help us save money and time by reducing the claimants’ travel to these exams.
We will continue to enhance our Quick Disability Determination (QDD) and Compassionate Allowances (CAL) initiatives to fast-track cases that are likely allowances. QDD uses a predictive model to identify certain cases that are likely allowances, such as low birth-weight babies, cancer, and end-stage renal disease. CAL allows us to quickly identify applicants, who are clearly disabled based on the nature of their disease or condition. The list of CAL conditions currently contains 25 rare diseases and 25 cancers. We have held five public hearings to obtain critical information to develop and enhance this list of conditions. In July, we held a hearing on Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease, and yesterday in San Francisco, I presided over our latest hearing on schizophrenia. We plan to increase the number of conditions on the CAL list in early calendar year 2010. In 2010, we expect that our enhancements to QDD and CAL will allow us to fast-track about 140,000 decisions for the most severely disabled Americans while maintaining accuracy. These improvement at the DDSs also help reduce the hearings backlog.
We are also exploring options for expansion of single decision maker (SDM) authority to cases that are identified as QDD or CAL. SDM allows a disability examiner to adjudicate a case without the approval of a medical or psychological consultant.
Another automated tool, the Electronic Claims Analysis Tool (eCAT), is proving to be extremely valuable to the disability decision process. eCAT improves the quality and consistency of our decisions by aiding examiners in documenting, analyzing, and processing the disability claim in accordance with regulations. We expect that the use of eCAT will produce well-reasoned determinations with easy-to-understand explanations of how we reached our decision. This documentation is particularly useful for future case review if an appeal is filed. We are beginning to look at adapting eCAT for use at the hearing level.
In addition to enhancing the documentation, quality, and consistency of our disability decisions, eCAT has been an extremely useful training tool for the many new examiners we are hiring in the DDSs. All states have the training version of eCAT. Training through eCAT is helping new examiners more quickly gain proficiency in processing complicated cases.
We are accelerating the expansion of eCAT since we have determined that it is working well in the DDSs that have piloted it. We have already started rolling it out in eight States, and we are currently planning to roll it out to all DDSs by December 2010.
Every state in the Nation will have this upgrade before we implement the common Disability Case Processing System (DCPS). Currently each of the DDSs has its own unique case processing system, many of them COBOL-based. In April 2011, we will begin beta testing a common, state-of-the-art web-based system that will provide additional functionality and the foundation for a seamless disability process. It will make it easier to implement technology changes and will position us to take advantage of health IT.
For more than a year, we have been piloting the use of health IT to help speed decisions on disability claims. Applicants who have been treated at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts or at MedVirginia facilities in Richmond, Virginia can authorize their medical records to be transferred electronically to the DDSs. Generally, we receive medical records from these facilities in less than a minute.
In these two pilots, the receipt of electronic medical records has reduced the average DDS processing time to about 48 days, a nearly 50 percent decrease. In fact, we are making medical decisions within 48 hours of taking the claim in 11 percent of the pilot cases.
Using Recovery Act funding, this fiscal year, we are expanding our use of health IT to more health care providers and States. In January, we will award competitive contracts to providers and networks that will give us standard medical data needed to make disability decisions. A key requirement of these contracts is that data must be delivered over the Nationwide Health Information Network that ensures secure transmission of personal health information. We are actively participating in the Department of Health and Human Service efforts to produce technical standards for widespread use, including in our health IT systems.
Improving Service Delivery
We understand, too, that we have many other service challenges – from the work CDR issue that Chairman and Mr. Johnson highlighted last Thursday to prompt telephone service, reduced waiting times, clearer notices, and many other services.
We knew the aging baby-boomers would put pressure on our 800 Number and field offices. As this generation is becoming more comfortable conducting business on the Internet, we must offer more online services to meet their demands and relieve some of the strain on our field offices. In addition, Americans of all ages began turning to us for assistance during this economic crisis. Our online services, automated telephone services, and additional agents answering the 800 Number are providing the public with service options to conduct their business from the comfort of their own homes.
The implementation of iClaim in December 2008, combined with our effective marketing campaign starring Patty Duke, provided an instant spike in both online retirement and disability applications. Online retirement applications increased from 26 percent to 35 percent in less than one month. Online disability applications also increased from 14 percent to 21 percent. We have maintained the increase in Internet claims with online retirement applications currently at 34 percent and disability applications at 22 percent. In FY 2009, over 400,000 more applicants filed for benefits on the Internet, more than twice as many as the year before.. This increase helped us deal with the additional recession-driven claims and helped us reduce our waiting times in field offices.
Our online applications took the top three rankings in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The ACSI tracks trends in customer satisfaction and provides valuable benchmarking insights of the consumer economy for companies, industry trade associations, and government agencies. Our Retirement Estimator led all scores, iClaim followed closely, and our Medicare Subsidy application came in third place.
This year we are implementing several new projects to improve our current online services and to provide additional online options to the public. In February 2010, we plan to expand the capability of iClaim to allow persons to file for Medicare-only benefits at age 65 if they choose to delay retirement benefits while they continue to work. We plan to increase the number of our online services in Spanish. We will start by creating a Spanish version of our retirement estimator. With enhancements to iClaim and new marketing strategies, we expect to increase the percentage of online retirement applications to 38 percent this year.
Even though we did not market our online disability application when we launched iClaim, online applications for disability have also increased. We expect this positive trend to continue when we release a simplified electronic version of the Adult Disability Report in January 2010. We use this form to obtain basic information on the applicant’s medical condition and treating sources. This improvement will reduce the time needed to complete the disability application and improve the quality of the information we receive. We expect to increase the percentage of online disability applications to 25 percent this year.
In October, we began rolling out the first phase of the Appointed Representative Suite of Services. This process allows appointed representatives of disability applicants to view their clients’ electronic folders through secure online access. Additional phases of this initiative will provide folder access to more representatives, simplify the process for submitting appeals, and document a representative’s appointment. This online service will alleviate workloads in our field offices.
This year we will also pilot a Claims Data Web Service. Each year we receive over 100,000 paper applications and appeals filed by third party organizations, such as representatives, hospitals, and social workers. Our field office employees must manually enter all of this information into our systems. This pilot will allow selected third parties to submit application information electronically to field offices, eliminating the time our employees spend manually keying this data.
Our 800 Number is often the first point of contact the public makes with us. If they are greeted with a busy signal or placed on hold for an extended period of time, they may become frustrated and come into our field offices instead. Last year, we significantly reduced waiting times and busy signals on the 800 Number.
Our 800 Number call volume has been increasing each year, exceeding 82 million calls in FY 2009. To handle the increasing number of calls, we hired about 260 additional telephone agents last year, and we used technology to effectively forecast call volumes, anticipate staffing needs, and better distribute calls across the network. As a result, we improved our speed of answering calls by 25 percent. We answered calls within an average of 245 seconds, the lowest average wait time in 6 years. We also reduced our average busy rate from 10 percent in FY 2008 to 8 percent last year.
As we expect call volumes to increase this year, we plan to hire additional telephone agents to maintain our 800 Number services. To position ourselves for the future, we started exploring click-to-communicate technologies to allow telephone agents to assist users as they use our online services. We started the process to replace our 800 Number system with more-modern technology and began working with GSA to build a new teleservice center in Jackson, Tennessee. The new teleservice center, the first to be opened in more than a decade, will open in 2011.
Even with our efforts to improve our online and telephone service, we have experienced a steady increase in the number of field office visitors. Field offices averaged 806,000 visitors per week in FY 2006, 825,000 in FY 2007, and 854,000 in FY 2008. In FY 2009, we averaged over 866,000 visitors each week.
With the additional funding we received from Congress last year, we were able to add about 1,400 more employees in our front-line operational components and made maximum use of overtime to take claims and answer our 800 Number calls. In addition to processing more claims than ever before, we reduced office wait times despite increasing field office traffic. With the President’s FY 2010 budget, we plan to maintain our staffing level and work maximum overtime to minimize wait times and provide the best possible service to the unprecedented number of Americans, who continue to turn to us for assistance in this difficult economic environment.
In addition to using video technology to reduce our hearings backlog, we are exploring ways that it can help us process our initial disability claims, and we are using it in our field offices to connect to persons who live in remote areas or find it difficult to visit a field office. We are piloting video service delivery by using available staff in a less-busy office help other offices that may be overwhelmed with visitors waiting for service. In addition, we are placing video equipment at third-party sites, such as hospitals, community centers, libraries, and Indian reservations to provide field office service.
We continue to pilot self-help computers in our waiting rooms. These computers offer access to our online services. Currently, about 60 offices are testing this service. In addition, we are piloting Social Security TV in some of our field office reception areas. The televisions broadcast information about our programs and services, such as explaining what documents are needed when applying for benefits or a Social Security number. We can tailor the broadcasts to the local demographics, providing information in multiple languages. We currently offer this service in 18 field offices, but we are expanding its use to 150 more offices this year.