Social Security:

Review of Disability Representatives

HEHS-99-50R: Published: Mar 4, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on disability representatives, focusing on: (1) the extent to which disability representatives contribute to Social Security Administration's (SSA) Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) decisional delays; (2) other potential reasons for decisional delays; and (3) additional options available to SSA to ensure that disability decisions are reached in a timely manner.

GAO noted that: (1) due to the lack of agency data pertaining to disability representatives and limited case file documentation, GAO was unable to document whether representatives are regularly delaying disability proceedings in order to maximize their fees; (2) however, many SSA staff and managers GAO interviewed believe frequent delays in disability proceedings are a significant problem and often attributable to the actions of some disability representatives; (3) more specifically, GAO found that many of those interviewed were frustrated by disability program laws that provide numerous opportunities for representatives to submit new evidence in support of their client's claim throughout the entire process and hold SSA primarily responsible for adequately developing the evidentiary record, even when a claimant has representation; (4) a number of administrative law judges also told GAO that, under current law, they could not hold incompetent or uncooperative representatives accountable for their actions and that contempt authority could be useful; (5) in suggesting ways to address perceived attorney unpreparedness and delays, a number of SSA staff and managers argued that changes in the law underlying disability program policy were needed; (6) however, the disability representatives GAO interviewed cautioned that significant changes to the laws governing this program were unnecessary and could place an undue hardship on individuals seeking benefits; (7) short of changes in the law, SSA currently does have some tools to influence representative behavior and deter delays; (8) SSA also recently implemented new standards of conduct regulations that allow for the suspension or disqualification of problem representatives; and (9) however, the new standards went into effect only recently, and SSA has yet to discipline any representatives under them.

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