Social Security Administration:

Paying Attorneys Who Represent Disability Applicants

T-HEHS/AIMD-00-166: Published: Jun 14, 2000. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2000.

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GAO discussed issues involving the Social Security Administration's (SSA) process for paying attorneys representing applicants for disability benefits, focusing on three areas of the attorney payment process: (1) the process itself, including the costs of processing the payments; (2) possible changes to the way the user fee is charged; and (3) changes being considered for the attorney fee payment process overall.

GAO noted that: (1) while SSA has been paying attorney fees from beneficiaries' past-due benefits for over 30 years, the payment process remains inefficient, and little historical data are available to help GAO analyze proposed changes; (2) under the current procedures, the inefficiencies in processing fee payments to attorneys result from using a number of different staff in different units and various information systems that are not linked, and are not designed to calculate and process all aspects of the attorney fee payment, thus necessitating manual calculations; (3) the Ticket to Work Act includes a provision that requires SSA to charge an assessment to recover the costs of this service; (4) GAO has only begun to analyze the estimate that was used as a basis for the user fee, and SSA does not know the actual cost it incurs in processing attorney fees; (5) however, the agency is developing a methodology to better capture these costs; (6) SSA has trouble with making timely payments to attorneys, and some have questioned the appropriateness of charging a user fee for a service that takes so long; (7) a recent legislative proposal calls for eliminating the user fee if SSA does not pay the attorney within 30 days; (8) in many cases, it will be difficult for SSA to meet these timeframes; (9) attorneys need to realize that, while it is possible for SSA to improve the efficiency of the process it uses to pay them, some factors that delay their payments are outside SSA's control and are unlikely to change at this time; (10) three possible changes to the attorney fee payment process include whether: (a) joint checks for past-due benefits should be issued to the beneficiary and the attorney; (b) the dollar limit on certain attorney fees should be raised; and (c) SSA's attorney fee payment process should be expanded to the Supplemental Security Income program; (11) these changes would have both policy and administrative implications that need to be considered; (12) some of the changes could increase attorney representation for disability applicants, according to attorneys GAO spoke with; (13) however, not everyone agrees with this premise; (14) moreover, there are some drawbacks to these changes; and (15) SSA indicated it may need to make significant modifications to its information systems to issue joint checks or pay attorneys who represent SSI recipients.

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