Tampa may get second Social Security Hearing Office

02/06/09 Seán Kinane
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Tampa Bay could soon get a second Social Security hearing office to reduce its substantial backlog of requests for disability claims.

When someone files for disability claims with the Social Security Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Tampa, they have to wait more than a year before receiving benefits.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue toured the office Friday morning.

“We’re looking at about 590 days average processing time in Tampa. That puts it sort of at the top of the bottom third nationally. So they’d be about 100 out of the 142 [cities] nationally," Astrue said.

Astrue says the backlog of disability claims in Tampa and throughout Florida could be improved as soon as 2010 if Congress approves funding.

“We are planning additional facilities in this area to deal with the disability backlog. All these efforts are conditional on our getting our appropriation in March, but we have started the GSA process for a second hearing office in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. We also started about six months ago one in the Tallahassee area so that when we reconfigure the jurisdictional areas, that should take some of the burden off of this office as well.”

The siting process with the GSA, the General Services Administration, could take 12 to 18 months, according to Astrue, so Tampa Bay could get its new facility by September 2010.

“There can be delays, there could be protests. If it becomes a local political football, that can slow things down. But if everything goes according to best demonstrated practice, by Labor Day next year, we ought to have a second hearing office in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. We’re scaling it for approximately 10 judges – we have about 15 here. It will be slightly smaller, but it will take an enormous load off of the judges here and bring them much more into alignment of the national averages,” Astrue said.

The Social Security Administration is currently funded by a continuing resolution, which limits them to the previous year’s funding level. Commissioner Astrue considers it “likely” that Congress will reconcile differences between the Senate and House version of the appropriations bill before the continuing resolution expires on March 6. When that happens, Astrue says, additional support staff will be hired in Tampa.

“We have to absorb about $450 million in cuts every time we go into continuing resolution. Given the severity of the disability backlog, this is the only part of the agency that is on one-for-one replacement hiring now. We’re contracting very rapidly in the whole rest of the organization. But this office and others needs particularly more support staff. So hopefully when we get the appropriation in March, we’ll be able to increase the level of support staff, which will raise the ability to turn over cases in the short run. And then in the longer run, we’ll have the additional office that will take some of the burden off of this one.”

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Republican from Brooksville, toured the Tampa hearing office with Astrue. She is a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the Social Security Subcommittee, which have much control over appropriations for the Social Security Administration.

“Having an additional office here will help to expedite the decision time. And that means people will not be waiting as long for a decision and every constituent who needs to apply for disability – their lives will be made a whole lot easier. And I commend him for recognizing the need here in Florida.”

WMNF asked Brown-Waite if, as a fiscal conservative, she supports spending for the two new hearing offices in Florida and the eight others that will be opened around the country.

“Yes, we don’t want to shut down government. We need to have those appropriations bills passed on time.”

Once the new offices open in Tallahassee and Tampa, Commissioner Astrue hopes the 590-day backlog could be reduced to as little as 270 days. A major reason for the backlog in Tampa's hearing office is that as demographics have changed, the agency hasn't shifted resources to keep up. But Brown-Waite says that recently many Tampa cases were shifted to offices in other parts of the state.

“Well, no one likes to do bricks and mortar -- it certainly is a necessary project.”

Unlike many political appointments, the Social Security Commissioner has a six-year term instead of being chosen by an incoming president. Commissioner Astrue was appointed by George W. Bush in 2007, so his term expires in 2013.

Astrue says he commends President Obama for wanting to take on long-term solvency of Social Security. According to Astrue, “younger people should be confident that this intergenerational compact … will continue and will be there for them.”

“We’re fully solvent through 2041 and even if nothing were to happen, approximately 80 percent of benefits would be paid out after that – which would be bad – but it’s not like they disappear. Sometimes younger people think that there’s nothing after 2041.”

Astrue says the economic stimulus package going through Congress also has funds that are “strategic” for the Social Security Administration.

“The most important thing being the replacement of the national computer center which runs out of capacity in late 2012 and would create a 'parade of horribles' if we don’t actually have a system large enough to handle the demand of the Baby Boomers.”

After leaving Tampa Friday morning, Astrue and Brown-Waite toured a Social Security office in Dade City and participated in a retirement planning class in The Villages.

U.S. Social Security Administration

Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue

U.S. Representative Ginny Brown-Waite

GSA – U.S. General Services Administration

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