SSA Disability Decision-Making:

Additional Measures Would Enhance Agency's Ability to Determine Whether Racial Bias Exists

GAO-02-831: Published: Sep 9, 2002. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2002.

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for administering the Social Security Disability Insurance and the Supplemental Security Insurance programs--the nation's two largest disability programs. SSA is required to administer its disability programs in a fair and unbiased manner. Nevertheless, the proportion of African American applicants allowed benefits has been historically lower than the proportion of white applicants. These allowances rate differences have occurred with respect to disability determinations made by state Disability Determination Service offices and in decisions made at the hearings level by Administrative Law Judges (ALJ). In response to GAO's 1992 report, SSA initiated an extensive study of racial disparities in ALJ decisions, but methodological weaknesses preclude conclusions being drawn from it. The study--the results of which were not published--set out to analyze a representative sample of cases to determine whether race significantly influenced disability decisions, while simultaneously controlling for other factors. SSA officials told GAO that, by 1998, they found no evidence that race significantly influenced ALJ decisions. However, GAO was unable to draw these same conclusions due to weaknesses in sampling and statistical methods evident in the limited documentation still available for GAO's review. Concurrent with SSA's study of racial disparities, SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) took some limited steps at the hearings level to address possible racial bias in ALJ decision-making. OHA instituted a mandatory diversity sensitivity training course for ALJs. Additionally, OHA increased its efforts to recruit minorities for ALJ and other legal positions by attending conferences for minority bar associations, where SSA distributed information and gave seminars on how to become an ALJ. Finally, in keeping with its commitment to provide fair and impartial hearings, SSA established a new process under the direction of OHA for the review, investigation, and resolution of claimant complaints about alleged bias or misconduct by ALJs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) Associate Commissioner has instructed all OHA components to complete a Bias Complaint Summary Form to capture key information on racial bias and misconduct when an ALJ bias or misconduct complaint is filed. The form will enable OHA to address issues regarding quality assurance and to identify patterns of racial bias and misconduct. However, OHA determined that they will not use internal administrative data to identify and document the race and/or ethnicity of complainants. Attorneys within OHA recommended that the agency collect this information at the point of application for disability benefits. In 2005, the agency also convened an agency workgroup tasked with developing recommendations on how to collect meaningful data on race and ethnicity to ensure the availability of information needed to analyze any adverse effects on program policies and rules. However, no further action has yet been taken since the conclusion of this workgroup.

    Recommendation: To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias, in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should use internal, administrative data, where available, to identify and document the race or ethnicity of complainants.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration: Office of Hearings and Appeals

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) Associate Commissioner has instructed all OHA components to complete a Bias Complaint Summary Form to capture key information on racial bias and misconduct when an ALJ bias or misconduct complaint is filed. The form will enable OHA to address issues regarding quality assurance and to identify patterns of racial bias and misconduct. In October 2004, a memo from the Chief Administrative Law Judge (OCALJ) was circulated to all regional offices and hearing offices announcing that OCALJ would be the lead component responsible for compiling racial bias and misconduct information for OHA.

    Recommendation: To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias, in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should adopt a form or some other method for summarizing key information on each ALJ complaint, including type of allegation.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration: Office of Hearings and Appeals

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA addressed the shortcomings in its ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--thereby improving its assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--by making appropriate changes to its data collection to ensure a representative sample. Specifically, the agency improved their collection of cases that are denied by ALJs and subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council--a subset that was formerly excluded from their sample. They then conducted statistical analyses of these cases, comparing the decision support rates for denied appealed cases with the support rates for cases that were not appealed to the Appeals Council. Their results, as published in their biennial report, showed that the support rates of each group did not differ significantly.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should use the results to make appropriate changes, if needed, to its data collection or sampling design to ensure a representative sample.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA addressed the shortcomings in its ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--thereby improving its assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--by making appropriate changes to its data collection to ensure a representative sample. Specifically, the agency improved their collection of cases that are denied by ALJs and subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council--a subset that was formerly excluded from their sample. They then conducted statistical analyses of these cases, comparing the decision support rates for denied appealed cases with the support rates for cases that were not appealed to the Appeals Council. Their results, as published in their biennial report, showed that the support rates of each group did not differ significantly.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should include the results of this analysis in SSA's annual and biennial reports on ALJ decision making.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA addressed the shortcomings in its ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--thereby improving its assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--by making appropriate changes to its data collection to ensure a representative sample. Specifically, the agency improved their collection of cases that are denied by ALJs and subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council--a subset that was formerly excluded from their sample. They then conducted statistical analyses of these cases, comparing the decision support rates for denied appealed cases with the support rates for cases that were not appealed to the Appeals Council. Their results, as published in their biennial report, showed that the support rates of each group did not differ significantly.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should conduct ongoing analyses to assess the representativeness of the sample used in its quality assurance review of ALJ decisions, including testing the statistical significance of differences in key characteristics of the cases included in the final sample with those that were not obtained.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to SSA officials, OHA has designed a Bias Complaint Tracking Form to capture key information regarding ALJ complaints. The Bias Complaint Summary Form has been placed in a Word template that is compatible with OHA's Document Generation System. Information derived from the forms is entered into an ACCESS database application in order to extract information for analysis.

    Recommendation: To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should place the complaint information in an electronic format, periodically analyze this information and report the results to the Commissioner, and develop action plans, if needed.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration: Office of Hearings and Appeals

 

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