Staff Photo: Erin Evans
Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge Ollie Garmon, left, and Michael J. Astrue, commissioner of Social Security, officially opened a new hearing office in Covington on Monday. Garmon had his head shaved earlier that morning to keep the commitment he made to go bald should his region reduce the wait time for appeals hearings to one year.
COVINGTON — Michael J. Astrue, commissioner of Social Security, was in Covington on Monday to open a new office that is expected to help alleviate the backlog of disability cases awaiting hearings in Georgia.
The hearing office is located on the Covington Bypass, just down the road from the Social Security Administration's main office. Astrue said it will serve a critical role in meeting his goal to reduce the wait time on appeals.
The Atlanta area had one of the longest wait times in the country when Astrue took office in 2007. Since then, the wait time has been reduced from 900 to 469 days at the downtown Atlanta office and from 835 to 431 days at the Atlanta North office. Astrue's goal is to reduced the average wait time across the country to 270 days.
"The added capacity of the Covington hearing office will allow us to further reduce processing times and get decisions to Atlanta and Georgia residents even sooner," he said. "The new permanent federal jobs we are bringing to Covington and the state of Georgia are an added benefit for the area."
The Covington hearing office will be staffed by nine administrative law judges and 45 support staff. About half of those staff members are new hires. The office will primarily serve residents of Newton, Rockdale, DeKalb, Henry and Morgan counties. In addition to the two hearing offices in Atlanta, there are offices in Macon and Savannah, and a sixth office is scheduled to open in Augusta next year.
Hearing offices are opening around the country in an effort to further reduce the backlog of cases, but the Atlanta and Chicago areas were especially in need, largely due to changing demographics in recent years, Astrue said. The Covington office was one of the first new offices approved.
"This office is part of a wedge that's going to continue to drive backlog down," he said.
Social Security's administrative appeals operation is the largest administrative judicial system in the world. Of the approximately 3.3 million cases that closed this year, 15 to 20 percent of those will be appealed, Astrue said. Some 1,434 administrative law judges handle those appeals.
Following the dedication ceremony, Astrue spoke with the media on the future of Social Security. The program will be fully funded through 2037, he said, and after that, assuming no changes take place, benefits will be at 78 percent of what they are currently.
"People overreact to the term ‘exhausted,'" he said, noting that the term means the program won't be fully funded, not that it will be depleted.
"Seventy-eight percent is not great, but it's better than nothing," he said.
Still, Astrue said Americans shouldn't count on Social Security fully funding their retirement. When the program was created, it was intended to fund about 40 percent of retirement expenses, he said.
"The earlier you start a private savings account, the better," he said.
Older Americans in good health may want to consider delaying collection of Social Security benefits — every year benefits are deferred through age 70, the benefit amount increases, he said.
For more information regarding Social Security, visit www.socialsecurity.gov.