Saturday, September 26, 2009

CPMS and other ODAR acronyms

Merry's been away this week taking a load of fragile items and a canoe back to Syracuse, so there is no new picture for this blog. Check out her new pictures from the Adirondacks here:

I've been mostly focusing on work this week. I have a lot of cases pending and need to decide as many as possible before leaving for my new post in Syracuse. As I work through these cases I've been reminded of the amazing process Social Security uses to keep track of cases as they move through the adjudication system. If you are interested in knowing more than you need to about how this bit of bureaucracy works, keep reading.

The last Friday of every month is the “official” last day of the month for purposes of toting up what has been accomplished. For ALJs this means the “bean-counters” make note of the total number of cases assigned to each judge, the number scheduled for hearings, the number of final decisions issued and the number of cases pending in “judge controlled” status. They get their data from an electronic case management system called CPMS that can display a constantly updated listing of the current status of every case for every judge. When I'm reviewing a case before a hearing it's in ARPR. If it's waiting for my post hearing review it's in ALPO. Decisions waiting to be edited are in EDIT and decisions waiting to be signed are in SIGN. There are “benchmarks” assigned to every status. If a case remains in any status too long, someone, somewhere is bound to notice. Did I mention that four letter acronyms are dearly loved by your government?

This case tracking system applies to every employee at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review [ODAR]. From the second a case comes to ODAR at the beginning of the request for a hearing until that case is finally closed, it resides in some status on CPMS and responsibility for the work is assigned to someone. Yes, there is a category of “unassigned” cases but that case is actually sitting for a day or two in a supervisor's cue just waiting to be assigned to the appropriate employee.

Not only are there benchmarks that apply to the time individual cases stay in a given status, there are “goals” for total numbers of cases decided. All ALJs nationwide have the goal of issuing 500 – 700 “legally sufficient” decisions per year. To achieve this overall goal, each office assigns sub-goals to every employee. Every month everyone knows exactly how many cases need to be completed to meet the goals at every level. Everyone is acutely aware that their numbers will be toted up on the last Friday of every month. To deal with this mutual stress the unwritten rule seems to be to pretend not to care about the pressure while keeping an eye on your goals. Managers, including the Hearing Office Chief ALJ [HOCALJ], the Hearing Office Director [HOD] and the Group Supervisors [GS], send out email updates on everyone's progress toward monthly and yearly goals so no one forgets they are watching.

So far as I can tell, nothing bad happens when goals are not met. Then again, our office has met or exceeded our goals for every month I've been here. Coincidence? I don't think so.

There is a very good reason for all this attention to numbers. Social Security operates the largest judicial system on the planet. More than 2.6 million people applied for some type of disability benefit this last year. Every one of those applications gets decided at some level. Over the past decade the “backlog” of applicants for benefits who are waiting for their case to be adjudicated has grown. Right now if a person is not approved at the initial level they can expect to wait 15 – 18 months for a hearing before an ALJ. In some parts of the country, especially the northeast, it's worse.

Everyone acknowledges that this is too long to wait. It's too long for the deserving applicant but also for those who don't qualify. People put their life on hold while they wait. We need to do better. This year agency-wide the top goal was to decide all cases pending 850 days or more. Last year it was 900 days. That's right, highest priority was to decide cases pending 2 1/3 years or more. When I left work Friday no official announcement had been made, but I know St. Louis met this goal on Tuesday.

This past Friday, Sept. 25, marked the official end of the federal 08-09 fiscal year. I took a look at my own first year numbers. I held hearings in about 675 cases, about 56 a month, or about 12 a week. That gives me about 3 hours to work on each case including preparation, a one hour hearing and decision writing. Since I did take two weeks or so off for vacation, the real averages are a bit higher. I issued decisions in about 540 cases. The remainder of the cases were postponed for future action. My productivity is speeding up a bit, so I'm confident I'll do slightly better next year.

After working in St. Louis for just over one year, I have over 800 cases pending on my docket. I started with about 500. Some judges in St. Louis have over 900. The situation is pretty much the same across the country. If every judge in the country issues 500 decisions a year [that's 700,000 cases] and if cases keep flowing into the system at the same rate, we won't ever reach a point where every case can be concluded in one year.

So, it's easy to see how numbers can become a fetish in my job. I try not to think about it too much. My work is to decide each case on its merits, not to meet a quota. Wish me luck.

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