Social Security:

Time Required to Approve and Pay Attorney Fees Can Be Reduced

HRD-89-7: Published: Oct 18, 1988. Publicly Released: Nov 21, 1988.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement and a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) fee payment procedures for attorneys representing claimants' denied social security disability benefits, to: (1) identify obstacles to the timely payment of the fees; (2) provide information on claimants' access to attorneys; and (3) provide information on attorney fees and charges in state compensation programs.

GAO found that: (1) the SSA attorney fee approval and payment process involved four steps after the formal disability decision; (2) the overall median time between the hearing date and fee payment was 211 days; (3) the median time from hearing date until a written decision was 73 days; (4) the median time between submission of fee petitions and fee approvals was 42 days; and (5) claimants had very little difficulty finding attorneys to represent them. GAO also found that: (1) attorneys generally charged 25 percent of a claimant's past-due benefits, contingent upon a successful appeal; (2) although attorneys received an approved hourly rate of $89 for cases decided before an administrative law judge, the effective hourly rate was $50 for cases won or lost; (3) for fees up to $3,000, SSA generally approved 94 percent of the total amount requested; and (4) under state workers' compensation programs, attorneys generally charged a percentage of total benefits to be awarded. GAO believes that SSA could shorten the time it needs to calculate benefit payments to significantly reduce fee processing time.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A form has been revised to carry out the recommendation and is expected to be implemented by the end of 1990. The form has been released with an optional claimant signature block.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require SSA to: (1) require attorneys to have claimants sign fee petitions before submitting them to hearing offices; and (2) do a detailed review of the approval and payment process to determine where other efficiencies may be gained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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