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delays from worsening. The funds budgeted for the DDSs rise from $800 million in FY 1991 to $868 million in FY 1992. Although I do expect an increase in processing time and pendings, I think we will be able to do better now that much of the FY 1991 contingency reserve has been made available to us.
What would you consider an acceptable backlog?
Answer. SSA currently uses a frame of reference of three months for making a disability determination. A few years ago the normal timeframe was 2 months or 60 days. We have never pinned down what are generally considered to be acceptable service level requirements. DDS resource needs are driven largely by workloads generated from the public over which we have little control. Recently, SSA has experienced an unexpected increase in the rate of filing, coupled with new regulations regarding childhood disability and the impending workload of the Zebley class claims following the Supreme Court decision. We recognize these difficulties and have directed resources to the DDSs to try to alleviate the problem. We are developing service standards for the time needed for a disability decision as part of our Agency Strategic Plan.
We must, however, balance our resources to maintain acceptable service in other areas of responsibility; retirement claims, issuing Social Security numbers, "800" number, etc. Reducing the backlogs will depend on adequate resources, appropriate technological support, and effective and prudent management of workloads and available resources.
HEARINGS AND APPEALS
Question. Persons who have their claims denied and ask for a hearing have another long wait. In July, it took 208 days to process hearings cases, but now it takes an average of 215 days -more than 7 months. Is this an acceptable processing time?
Answer. No, we believe that claimants are entitled to as speedy a hearing and decision as is possible, consistent with necessary case development. We are not satisfied with recent increases in processing times and are taking several steps to reduce processing time. For example, we hired 115 new administrative law judges last year and intend to hire an additional 115 this year. We also believe that our continuing effort to upgrade hearing office computer equipment will result in more efficient case processing and improved service to the public.
Question. How long will the average hearing processing time be in fiscal 1992?
Answer. If current workload assumptions remain valid, we believe we can steadily reduce hearing processing time to 200 days by September 1992; however, if hearing level receipts increase over current projections, our progress will be slower.
USE OF CONTINGENCY FUNDS INSTEAD OF SUPPLEMENTAL
Question. You have a $146 million contingency fund, which can be used immediately to help meet the unanticipated growth in
disability claims, as well as to begin reviewing previously denied children's SSI claims as required by the Supreme Court's Zebley decision. Why wait for a supplemental, when all OMB has to do is release contingency funds?
Answer. We asked for a $232 million supplemental appropriation in order to process the 37,000 cases we expect to rework as a result of the Zebley Supreme Court decision and the cases we expect to reevaluate as a result of the interim Zebley regulations. We want to ensure that these youngsters with disabilities can be assured that we will begin to address their cases and continue that process to completion in the next 2 to 3 years. The supplemental appropriation as requested will be used to process Zebley cases only. Contingency funds are needed to process workloads exclusive of Zebley court cases. OMB released $100 million from the contingency reserve in order to permit us primarily to address the increased workloads resulting from the growth in SSI and Social Security disability claims filed, as well as "800" number call volumes, and recently enacted budget reconciliation legislation.
"800" NUMBER SERVICE
Question. Busy rates on the Social Security Administration's national "800" number have grown to a situation where in January 43 percent of calls didn't get through; on peak days more than half of all calls get busy signals. Do you feel this is an acceptable rate?
Answer. I was not satisfied with busy rates in January and we are continuing to take steps to improve the public access to the "800" number. However, our performance in January this year improved significantly compared to the same period last year. The "800" number handled 223,000 more calls this January, and at the same time there was an improvement in the average busy rate of 9 percent and in the peak day busy rate of 11 percent. On twothirds of the days in January, more than 70 percent of the calls reached the "800" number without a busy signal. We expect to see improvement in the busy rates as the call volumes decline as we move beyond the traditionally heavy calling period of January through March.
"800" SERVICE STANDARD
Question. I understand that the Social Security Administration's stated busy rate standard is 5 percent, and therefore you are not meeting your own standard. But your budget says significant improvement in busy rates is unlikely even at the requested funding level. Does this mean you are changing your service standard?
Answer. Our current goals in this area call for 20 percent busy rates on peak days--that is, the day monthly Social Security benefit checks are issued and the following 2 days, every Monday and days following a holiday--and 5 percent busy rates on non-peak days. We are, however, exploring the possibility of supplementing the busy rate data with a better measure of access to the national "800" number. The problem with the busy rate alone is that it
masks the true relationship between demand and our capacity to respond because of the many immediate redials that occur.
The alternative we are considering counts the number of people who attempt to contact us on a given day and the percentage who actually get through to one of our teleservice centers. This "access" measure keys off of the unique phone numbers calling in, with an adjustment for people and organizations who need to call more than once a day. We believe the new "access rate" will be helpful in managing the national number, particularly in improving the match between widely fluctuating demand and our available resources.
While a measure of the public access to the national "800" number is an important indicator of the level of telephone service we are providing, it may not be the best indicator of the level of service being provided by the "800" number. We are evaluating various other indicators, such as the accuracy of the information being provided and caller satisfaction, to determine the best measures to use in evaluating the service being provided by the "800" number.
Question. If not, why didn't you request more resources to bring down the busy rate?
Answer. As I stated before, the busy rate is not the only measure of service to consider. Our budget request for FY 1992 provides for an increase of 263 workyears--or 6.4 percent--above the estimated FY 1991 resource level for the "800" number telephone service. This request, while recognizing the need for fiscal restraint, also recognizes the need to provide the resources necessary to keep pace with the anticipated increases in calls to the "800" number. With the full level of resources requested we will be able to stabilize the performance of the "800" number system and begin to lay the groundwork that will enable us to eventually achieve the stated busy rate goals.
AGENCY STRATEGIC PLAN/AGENCY RESOURCE NEEDS
Question. The Department's February 4th press release states that HHS is developing strategies to maintain or improve the quality of service in the face of rapidly rising workloads and slowly rising resources. It goes on to say that the Social Security Administration is preparing an Agency Strategic Plan, expected to be completed this summer, which will provide a vision of how the Social Security Administration will function in the future. The plan will define service requirements, means to increase productivity and efficiency, projected investments in new technology, etc.
Will this plan become the "blueprint" that the Social Security Administration follows in the next few years to "enable the Social Security Administration to do more with less resources?"
Answer. The Agency Strategic Plan (ASP) is not a detailed blueprint of the future. The plan will create a comprehensive vision for the agency that is cognizant of the operating realities faced by most Government agencies. The vision presented in the ASP
will set the "tone" for the agency in terms of where we would like to be as we enter the 21st century. The ASP will "frame" these and other issues in a way that agency management and our higher monitoring authorities can more reasonably assess the relative costs and benefits of varying levels of service, technological staffing trade-offs and related budget-sensitive issues.
On balance, the ASP commits SSA to an ongoing process of change management and public accountability that will translate into plans and budgets that relate to a clearly articulated plan for the future.
Question. Do you expect this plan to be of help in alleviating pressure on extremely tight fiscal 1992 resources?
Answer. I do not expect a direct relationship between the agency strategic plan and the FY 1992 budget. However, I expect some of the ideas and approaches comprising the strategic plan, will help us to do the best we can with limited resources over the next few years.
The Agency Strategic Plan should be available by summer of 1991. This plan will form the basis for more detailed planning at lower levels. It is at these levels where specific initiatives designed to reach the vision, e.g., increased productivity, will be planned and budgeted for in accordance with prevailing public policy.
$375 MILLION INCREASE FOR SOCIAL SECURITY OPERATIONS
Question. The domestic discretionary cap increases by about 5.5 percent in fiscal 1992 compared to fiscal 1991. You are requesting a $375 million increase in budget authority for Social Security administrative expenses in fiscal 1992. That is a 9-percent increase, more than requested for many other programs. However, on page 93 of your justification, you state "we do not expect the Social Security Administration will be able to improve materially its service levels during the budget period; and, in some cases we may see the number of cases pending increase and processing times grow."
With a 9-percent increase in budget authority in fiscal 1992, why can't the Social Security Administration materially improve its service levels and take steps to reduce pending workloads and processing times?
Answer. Because of the magnitude of SSA's mandatory cost increases, such as pay raises, pay reform, rent and postage increases--which account for 80% of the increase--and expected workload increases--primarily disability workloads and work related to implementation of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, this increase in budget authority is not enough to enable SSA to improve materially its service levels in FY 1992.
PROPOSED USE OF THE $375 MILLION
Question. What will the $375 million requested increase be used for? What are we getting for the 9-percent increase?
Answer. Although this increase may appear to be substantial under the new budget rules for discretionary domestic spending, it is a conservative request given the magnitude of SSA's built-in mandatory cost increases and the amount of work to be done.
$292 million or almost 80 percent of the $375 million increase is for the following mandatory increases:
$202 million is needed for mandatory payroll cost increases, including step increases, promotions, 1992 Federal pay raise, full-year cost of the 1991 pay raise, pay reform and the Federal share of employee health benefits;
$44 million is required for mandatory rent, postage and HHS working capital fund increases and payments to attorneys under the Equal Access to Justice Act;
$22 million is needed to maintain current operations for
$24 million in increased State salaries and overhead for the Disability Determination Services (DDSS).
Another $62 million is for other built-in increases for service contracts, medical and other costs for the DDSs, and to restore funds for supplies, printing, repairs and employee training that had been deferred.
Finally, the net of all other increases and decreases from the 1991 appropriation level amounts to $21 million.
Question. I am glad to see you requested an increase in staffing after so many years of downsizing. What impact did downsizing have on the Social Security Administration?
Answer. Under SSA's 6-year downsizing effort, full-time equivalent employment declined from 79,961 in 1984 to 62,836 in 1990. Since then we have focused on stabilizing our workforce and assessing our position in the aftermath of the reduction. Have we reduced too much in some areas? When we look at the data for this period, we find both successes and areas that need to be addressed.
Despite downsizing, pending workloads in many key areas dropped significantly between 1984 and 1990. Two noticeable exceptions are the number of SSI claims filed by the disabled and our hearings caseloads. On the other hand, Social Security number cards are issued much more quickly and, thanks in large measure to our claims modernization effort, processing times for retirement claims are down by one-third from 1984. Processing times for most other workloads have increased somewhat and we have staffing imbalances in some areas.
The Agency Strategic Plan, to be published this summer, will identify the desired level of service to be provided to the public and will guide us in developing shorter-term tactical objectives. The results of this effort will, among other things, enhance SSA's