From NOSSCR New Orleans: What’s Social Security Up to Now?

NOSSCR’s 40th Anniversary conference featured a gala at The National WWII Museum. Firmidable sponsored The Victory Six Swing band, pictured here.

Normally, the general session at the NOSSCR conference is where disability attorneys intently listen for what the future may bring for them and their clients.

Last week’s 40th anniversary gathering in New Orleans, by contrast, had nostalgic tones.

It was full of anecdotes, tributes to mentors, thank yous for past service (including certificates of appreciation to three Firmidable team members for helping with the conference), anniversary SWAG and even a three-hour gala at The National WWII Museum, complete with vintage orchestra and crooner sponsored by Firmidable.

But hold on to your sentimental feelings while we focus this post on what the SSA had to say to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

If you couldn’t attend, Firmidable was there to listen for you.

History Repeats Itself. So Does the Social Security Administration

The NOSSCR officials were friendly, charming and full of anniversary congratulations.

Full of news, however, not so much.

In fact, because the conference consolidated to one meeting a year, and this blogger had a family emergency a year ago, I haven’t been to a general session in 1 ½ years. But many of the Social Security Disability programs announced in the Big Easy were eerily similar to those presented at the last one I attended.

The agency still cares about the CARES (Compassionate And REpsonsive Service) plan to reduce wait times for disability applicants, including video hearings to shift resources from where cases are backlogged to where there is capacity.

The Social Security Administration really wishes you would stop including duplicates in your materials, and the attorneys really wish the SSA would quit assuming duplicates are the result of inattentiveness, rather than the fact that sometimes there are good reasons for a page to be in there more than once.

The SSA continues to use its algorithm to find cases appropriate for on-the-record-reviews (OTRs) in lieu of hearings. Only 13 percent of OTR requests are getting approved, to which a member of the audience asked, why so low? Answer: Maybe we need to keep working on the algorithm.

That said, let’s see what IS new…

SSA Finally Has a Commissioner. Social Security Disability Backlog is Shrinking. (Casualty Implication Not Intended.)

Since the last time NOSSCR met, there finally is a commissioner for the Social Security Administration, Andrew Saul. But you probably heard that already.

Unfortunately, he didn’t attend. Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber did and her theme was that Social Security’s war on the disability benefits backlog is being won. That’s genuinely good for claimants, of course. A further look:

  • Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) pending hearings have fallen for 32 consecutive months, ending August at the lowest level since fiscal year 2004.
  • Average wait time for a hearing was 86 days lower by the end of August compared to the beginning of SSA’s fiscal year.
  • Decisions waiting to be written declined by over 55,000, to only 18,000 at the end of August.

Deputy Commissioner Gruber mostly attributes this success to video hearings. The monthly percentage of hearings held by video is now 31%, up from 27% in September 2018.

In October, the administration will look for even more opportunities to move hearings to video, so expect a spike in video hearings in the first quarter, she said.

She also praised programs like Proactive Analysis and Triage for Hearings (aka PATH because the SSA loves acronyms), which uses an algorithm to find cases likely to be approved so that they can be given an OTR instead of using resources for a hearing. Another effort is the Pre-Hearing Development Contacts program, asking unrepresented claimants if they’re really, really sure they don’t want a Social Security Disability attorney.

Claimants who insist they don’t want representation are required to watch 30 minutes of Firmidable lawyer commercials. (OK, I made that up, but it sounds like a fine idea to me.)

Back to Ms. Gruber: She said this initiative has led to “a pretty significant drop” in the number of hearing postponements, so the effort was expanded to all offices on August 1.

Ms. Gruber also said that Social Security’s technology is so out of date that when they hire IT people, they have to train them on the coding because nobody uses that technology any more. That makes the whole system expensive so they’re working to replace all the outdated technology.

SSA Centralized Scheduling Does Not Have Microsoft Outlook Sweating

Patrick Nagle, Social Security’s Chief Administrative Law Judge, took the podium to tell everyone how laudable was the SSA’s centralized scheduling system.

It’s supposed to ensure you have time to travel from one hearing office to another, but conference attendees told this blogger that, in fact, it does not.

Judge Nagle joked that he has heard attorneys ask, “Why are you doing this to us?” He said that NOSSCR’s leadership has been instrumental in helping the agency make improvements.

Its other big goal is to maximize hearing room use while freeing up SSA employees to do additional staff work.

Like it or hate it, it is expanding to all regions.

Disability Attorney Audience Questions Are Usually Interesting

During questions from the audience, you can hear what the attorneys in attendance think of the remarks just made.

Q: With the fancy algorithm to find more OTRs, why are only 13 percent of requests approved?

A: If you have ideas for criteria that the algorithm should look for, send in your suggestions to Ms. Gruber.

What is being done to address delays in payment of attorney fees?

A: It’s a time-intensive manual process that even involves faxing fee petitions. (See above about old technology.) Monthly reports are required of each region to “do something about (aged fees) or tell us what the problem is.” Ms. Gruber said that lots of things at the SSA have backlogs, and this is one of them. This also was affected by the hiring freeze in 2017.

Why can’t the request for a legal fee cap increase be resolved?

A: Ms. Gruber said it nicer than this, but her answer was essentially that it’s not her domain.

Why doesn’t the five-day rule (which closes the record to new information five business days before a scheduled hearing) apply to the SSA if it applies to the attorneys?

A: Judge Nagle said the SSA tries to update the files a couple of weeks before the hearing but he will take that comment back to the home office. He agrees that the SSA needs to give attorneys a fair timeframe to review all the information.

Now the Nostalgic and Nice NOSSCR Conference Notes…

As this was the 40th anniversary of the founding of NOSSCR, there were many long-timers who attended likely for one last time, but they went to New Orleans to remember and think about all they have done in their careers of helping people with disabilities.

In the general session, there were sometimes touching, sometimes funny, sometimes rousing remarks from four attorneys who were at the original gathering: Robert Crowe of St. Louis, Charles Hall of Raleigh, James Brown of Cleveland and Cliff Weisberg of Detroit.

They spoke of how there were virtually no resources for Social Security Disability attorneys when they were young and new in their practices. A call had gone out to gather in New Orleans to exchange ideas and learn. Several joked about not having enough money at the time to afford the city’s good restaurants.

But while they were not rich, the experience was. They found the experience so helpful, so rewarding and so inspirational, it led to the founding of NOSSCR.

Personal note: Three of the four above have been or are clients of Firmidable. While we haven’t been around for 40 years, we were essentially founded at a NOSSCR conference in 1991, making us 28 years old. For me, it was bittersweet to see the old timers, some perhaps for the last time, or to hear names that I knew well of dedicated attorneys who are now either in poor health, passed on, or (much better) retired.

We would like to add Firmidable kudos to attorney Carolyn Kubitschek, who was named this year’s winner of the Eileen P. Sweeney Distinguished Service Award, noting particularly her work on NOSSCR’s Amicus Participation Committee.

Finally, congratulations to incoming NOSSCR President Alan Polonsky and outgoing NOSSCR President John Driskill. John quipped that, like the old joke about buying a boat, the happiest days of being a NOSSCR president are the day you are named president and the day you become a former president.

If you’d like to make history in your legal practice, helping more claimants while enjoying a rewarding career, reach out to Firmidable to talk about your law firm’s growth goals.

Firmidable has been a national expert in legal marketing for almost 30 years. It brings law firms customized, data-driven marketing strategies and services, including online and traditional media for a wide range of legal practices. From Maine to Hawaii, it has transformed the lives of attorneys—and their clients.

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About the Author: Nathan Chapman

As founder and President of Firmidable, for over 30 years Nathan Chapman has been a nationally known leader, consultant and speaker on growth strategies for law firms. Nathan’s professional passion is for data-driven, holistic legal marketing driven by YOUR law firm’s measures of success—not by the metrics of a service-providing vendor. His approach has been life-changing for attorneys across the country as well as hundreds of thousands of clients helped by their firms.

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