Social Security Administration:

Information Systems Could Improve Processing Attorney Fee Payments in Disability Program

GAO-01-796: Published: Jun 22, 2001. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2001.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
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To ensure that people claiming disability insurance benefits can obtain legal representation at a fair price, the Social Security Act requires that the Social Security Administration (SSA) regulate the fees that attorneys charge people to represent their disability claims before the agency. Inefficiencies in the current process increase both the time it takes to pay the attorney fees and the costs of administration. One segment of attorney fee processing--the fee approval process--was substantially simplified in 1991. Systems support could streamline the second segment of the processing--the fee payment--thus lowering the annual administrative costs and cutting processing time. By automating this final segment of the fee processing, SSA could help improve customer service for both claimants and their attorneys. GAO found that despite internal recommendations for a new system, SSA has repeatedly postponed its plans to improve the attorney fee payment process. Indeed, even though these improvements have been part of SSA's system's plans since 1998, SSA has yet to establish a firm schedule for carrying out its plans. Additionally, although SSA has a draft plan for improving the process, agency officials told GAO that the details of the plan have not been completed and SSA has yet to complete a cost estimate for the project. There are also other gaps in the plan--such as not creating an attorney master file or establishing an electronic connection between the payment processing staff and the Office of Hearings and Appeals fee approval staff--where taking additional actions could improve the process. Furthermore, SSA's performance plan did not have goals related to attorney fees--neither for cost reduction of the program nor payment timeliness. SSA would need such goals as part of its current planning effort for improving the attorney fee payment process as well as for its future operations. Without such quantifiable goals, future efforts to track and oversee SSA's progress in these areas will be difficult.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Social Security Administration (SSA) has taken action to address this recommendation. SSA established an executive-level task force in May 2001 to oversee improvements in attorney fee processing. As a result, the agency focused attention and resources on the process, including having an independent auditor verify the accuracy of the 6.3 percent fee charged attorneys upon payment, and increasing the percentage of cases paid within 60 days from 5 percent to over 50 percent. In addition, the Office of Hearings and Appeals began faxing petitions to the payment centers via a direct fax line that electronically captures and stores the petition, which saves time and improves the accuracy of attorney payments. In 2002, SSA implemented the Single Payment System, designed to pay both the claimant and attorney representative at the same time, and automating the fee payment process. The system includes a data repository that ensures that when payments to both parties are not made simultaneously, the information is stored and tracked. SSS also implemented a call roster for attorneys to use in contacting SSA personnel regarding specific claims and disseminated this information to the National Organization of Social Security Claimant Representatives. Staff at various levels are designated as points of contact based on the type of claim, ensuring that attorneys can escalate their questions to higher levels if they do not think their concerns/questions have been adequately addressed. Furthermore, SSA established a special web site for attorneys that provide information on SSA's rules and processes along with statistics on processing rates. SSA is currently developing enhancements to the Single Payment System such as a master attorney database in 2006 which should further improve service to attorneys.

    Recommendation: SSA should proceed with improvements to the attorney fee payment process by developing a plan for such improvements based on a feasibility study and a cost/benefit analysis. In doing so, SSA should establish a schedule for developing and implementing these improvements, as well as an estimate of the systems development costs. When designing this system, SSA should consider whether it is feasible to capture management information required to track its administrative costs and payment timeliness. In addition, SSA should also consider other initiatives to improve the efficiency of the payment process, such as developing an attorney master file database, establishing an electronic link between the fee approval services and the payment processing services, and augmenting its Internet site to provide better information on its fee processing services.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA addressed this recommendation and has goals for processing the claims that result in the incurring of these fees. SSA's Single Payment System simultaneously processes both payments to the claimants and payments to their attorneys; thus, attorney fee payments are tied directly to claim payments. Improving claim processing accuracy, timeliness, and cost reduction should automatically lead to improved accuracy, timeliness, and cost reduction in attorney fee payments.

    Recommendation: Furthermore, to monitor these improvements to the attorney fee payment process, SSA should establish performance goals for cost reduction and payment timeliness in the administration of attorney fees.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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