According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an independent research organization at Syracuse University, "Very recent government data show that a concerted effort by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to reduce a massive and growing backlog in individuals awaiting a hearing on their requests for disability payments is faltering." The TRAC analysis states that more than 728,000 disability applications are now pending, and applicants wait an average of 369 days for their appeals to be heard.
TRAC's latest report on the SSA, issued June 20, may be new, but it's not news to retired SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Frank B. Borowiec of Chamblee, who recently published Upholding the Rule of Law in the Social Security Administration, An Agency At War With Itself about his and others' efforts to eliminate the disability claims backlog that plagues the SSA.
Borowiec, 87, retired in 2009 after serving as an ALJ, and then a senior judge, in the SSA's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals Atlanta office since 1968. He also served for two years as the bureau's Region IV chief judge. ALJs preside over hearings to resolve disputes between a government agency and someone affected by a decision or action of that agency.
The word "frustration" crops up often when Borowiec talks about his experiences as an ALJ handling disability claims cases. "You feel as you hear each case that you can correct an injustice, but [claimants] waited so long for a decision," Borowiec said, adding that sometimes people can become impoverished during an appeal, even losing their home. "When a check comes, it doesn't make up for the loss," he said.
For most of the book, Borowiec cites legal proceedings, governmental reports and SSA regulations in making his case for the changes he believed would eliminate the disability claims backlog. The book points out bureaucratic incongruities that thwarted that effort. For example, individual states and not the SSA make initial disability determinations. State operations are funded by the SSA, but disability decisions are not based on SSA laws and regulations, rather, a "manual" that attempts to interpret them. The manual has no legal standing and ALJs and the courts cannot use or reference it in their decisions.
While those portions of the book are more lawyerly and academic than earlier chapters, Borowiec offers explanations that are easily understood by the lay reader.
The first part of the book is more personal. Borowiec begins with a quote from Albert Einstein: "Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. ... we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper."
Borowiec subscribes to Einstein's philosophy. "Things happen day by day, like a river flowing," he said. "You're pushed off in this direction or that."
In looking back over his life and career, Borowiec sees a journey that took him from his boyhood home of Buffalo, N.Y., to the South Pacific during World War II, to a successful legal career in Buffalo, and to distinguished service in Atlanta as an ALJ. When he decided to write Upholding the Rule of Law, he believed the experiences of his early life were an integral part of the story. In the preface, Borowiec wrote: "The inclusion in this book of my education, military experience and early law practice exemplifies the importance of certain significant and insignificant events that directed my life and career in directions that I had never envisioned."
It's those personal stories at the beginning of Borowiec's book that make it an interesting biography for any reader, in addition to offering a thorough analysis of why the SSA disability claims process is so mired in backlog.
"It was something I had to say," said Borowiec of his tenure as an ALJ. In doing so, "I hope we can save the suffering of some of the three-quarter million people [awaiting disability claims appeal]."
The SSA declined to comment about Borowiec, as he is no longer employed by the agency, or about Borowiec's book, which expresses his personal views, according to Dorothy J. Clark with the Social Security Press Office. However, in a prepared statement, SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said, in part: "[The TRAC report] focuses on the wrong measures, ignores the tremendous progress we have made in addressing the disability hearing backlog, and reaches the incorrect conclusion that we are "faltering." Astrue's complete statement can be viewed at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pressoffice/pr/trac-report.htm.
"Upholding the Rule of Law in the Social Security Administration" is available at www.amazon.com.