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Jul 28, 2014

Well, There's Your Problem

From the Federal Times

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  • Appropriations Bill Starts To Make Progress In Senate

         The Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that covers the Social Security Administration has issued a draft appropriations bill. Here's some language from the draft report on the bill:
    Disability Early Intervention Initiative.—The Committee recommendation includes $35,000,000 for a new disability early intervention initiative at SSA. This demonstration project will test models to improve outcomes for individuals with disabilities who are not yet receiving Social Security disability benefits, but who are likely to in the future, focusing on helping them remain in the workforce....

    Preventing Improper Social Security Payments.—The Committee recommendation includes $1,396,000,000 for SSA to conduct continuing disability reviews and SSI redeterminations of non-medical eligibility, a $199,000,000 increase over the fiscal year 2014 level. ...

    The Committee recommendation includes $11,921,040,000, a $224,000,000 increase, for SSA’s administrative expenses....

    The Committee recommendation includes $83,000,000 in mandatory funds for research and demonstration projects conducted under sections 1110, 1115, and 1144 of the Social Security Act.  These funds support a variety of research and demonstration projects designed to improve the disability process, promote selfsufficiency and assist individuals in returning to work, encourage savings and retirement planning through financial literacy, and generally provide analytical and data resources for use in preparing and reviewing policy proposals.  ... 
    The Committee remains concerned about the impact of persistently tight budget constraints on SSA’s ability to provide convenient, quality, and timely services to the public. After years of inadequate funding in the mid-2000s basic services began to suffer. For example, by 2008 it took an average of 532 days to process a disability hearing, and a substantial number of cases were pending for over 900 and even 1,000 days. Significant funding increases in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 allowed SSA to work down this backlog and reduce waiting times while keeping pace with increasing workloads.
    The Committee is deeply concerned that significantly reduced discretionary spending caps—non-defense discretionary spending subject to caps is $28 billion less in fiscal year 2015 than projected in August 2011—and the resulting budget constraints for SSA have reversed these positive trends and are impacting basic services to the American public. Individuals are waiting longer to receive initial disability decisions and to hear back on their appeals, waiting longer at field offices, and increasingly reaching busy signals or waiting longer when they call SSA’s 1–800 number. In recent years SSA has closed many offices, reduced hours offices are open to the public, and reduced services available at field offices. ...
    At the same time, program integrity activities, including but not limited to CDRs and SSI redeterminations, have significantly increased.
    The Committee supports such activities but remains particularly concerned about the balance in funding for program integrity activities and the core basic services at field offices, SSA’s 1–800 number, disability determination services, and hearing offices that millions of Americans rely on every day. Therefore, the Committee recommendation includes a $224,000,000 increase over the fiscal year 2014 level for LAE to keep pace with rising costs and improve services to the public, while also increasing program integrity efforts. ...
    Access and Availability of Benefit Verification Letters and SSN Printouts.—The Committee remains concerned about plans to eliminate the Social Security Number printout, and to limit the availability of Benefit Verification letters at field offices. The Committee agrees that SSN printouts should be phased out but remains concerned about the planned timeline. Similarly, the Committee remains unconvinced that the availability of Benefit Verification letters at field offices should be limited. The Committee appreciates that SSA has revised its guidance related to Benefit Verification letters and the ability of individuals to continue to receive this document at field offices but remains concerned about the effect of the overall policy change. It is often third parties, such local government agencies, banks, or employers that require individuals to provide these documents. While the Committee strongly supports SSA encouraging third parties to use existing online tools to verify the same information, and eliminate the need for individuals to provide these documents altogether, that ultimately relies on third parties to do so. Similarly, the Committee supports individuals being able to access this information through multiple service channels, including over the phone or online. However, many individuals will prefer or need to request this information in-person at a field office. The Committee strongly encourages SSA to continue to make these documents readily available at field offices until there is more evidence or better assurances that individuals will not be adversely impacted by any changes.
          This is nuts. The draft would increase funding for program integrity by 14% but increase appropriations for agency operations otherwise by only 2%, probably not enough to cover inflation. The authors of the draft say they are "deeply concerned" that basic services at Social Security are being affected by sequestration yet demand that the agency provide services that it can't afford. Social Security is given no guidance on what services it should cut. Meanwhile, a ridiculous amount of money is wasted on "research" and "demonstration projects." I defy anyone to show me an example of a Social Security research or demonstration project that ever helped the American people. It all gets wasted on beltway bandits.
         And the Senate is much more concerned about service at Social Security than the House of Representatives.
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  • Jul 27, 2014

    Johnson Demands End To DCPS

         From a House Ways and Means Committee press release:
    Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) sent a letter to Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll requesting a full and immediate investigation into the SSA’s mismanagement and failed implementation of the $300 million Disability Case Processing System (DCPS).  Johnson also sent a letter to Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Carolyn Colvin, calling for her to stop further spending on the implementation of the DCPS.
         And what, exactly, does SSA use to replace the DCPS, which is already partially implemented?

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  • Once You Assume That Social Security's Workforce Will Be Cut In Half, This Is How You Pretend The Work Will Get Done

         From Government Executive:

    ... The National Academy of Public Administration -- a congressionally chartered organization -- worked with SSA to make 29 recommendations on how the agency should modernize and reform itself by 2025. Chief among the suggestions was to more aggressively embrace new technology to deliver services to Social Security recipients, and to move away from in-person customer support in favor of “virtual channels” such as phone, online and videoconferencing options. ...
    “With a shrinking workforce, the agency cannot afford to continue to operate in this [old] way,” the panelists wrote. “Furthermore, as more work is automated, it becomes less necessary to maintain the current structure.”

    While NAPA did not make any specific estimates of potential job cuts -- Project Director Roger Kodat said it was “too early to make that judgment” -- the union representing SSA employees said the results would be drastic. The American Federation of Government Employees estimated if fully implemented, the recommendations made in the report would result in 30,000 job cuts and the elimination of all 1,250 SSA field offices. ...

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  • Jul 26, 2014

    Issa Continues Effort To Derail Colvin Nomination

         Darrell Issa is continuing his probably futile effort to derail Carolyn Colvin's nomination for a term as Commissioner of Social Security. Hint to Mr. Issa: If this nomination were really at risk, the confirmation hearing probably wouldn't be coming up this soon.

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  • Give Social Security Your Ideas

         From a page posted in the Internet by Social Security this past week:
    We are very excited to inform you that Social Security has established a National Disability Coalition.  The National Disability Coalition provides an opportunity for all interested stakeholders to share their unique insights on topics of particular interest to Social Security early in the process and directly with policy makers.  Further, it provides an opportunity for stakeholders to hear from one another.
    We feel that engaging interested parties through the National Disability Coalition can help us capture innovative ideas – ensuring that our vision for the disability program continues to keep pace with advances in medicine, technology, health care delivery, and the modern workplace.  To learn more about the Disability Coalition, visit us at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ndc/index.htm
    As a first step in the National Disability Coalition, we are inviting you to participate in an online comment forum on the Disability Decision Process.  The online forum is now open for public ideas and comments via IdeaScale through August 15, 2014. ...
    To participate in the online forum and submit your ideas and comments, you must register at the site.  Although we will consider all the ideas and comments we receive, we will not respond to them.  Since we will moderate the ideas and comments we receive during regular business hours, your ideas and comments may not be viewable immediately.  Include only information you wish to make publicly available.  Please do not include any personal information, such as Social Security numbers or medical information.

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  • Social Security Disability Benefits Can Cause Tax Problems

         This Article highlights the fact that the taxability of Social Security disability benefits paid in a lump sum causes problems for many taxpayers -- and the writer was apparently unaware of the lump sum election or of the fact that long term disability benefits are actually taxable for most people since they come as an employee benefit.

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  • Jul 25, 2014

    A Mess At The Appeals Council

         An e-mail I received recently from another attorney who represents Social Security disability claimants:
    I ran my periodic ERE [Electronic Records Express, which is one of the several names used for Social Security's online system for those who represent claimants] "status reports" this morning and noticed that the Appeals Council had denied one of my cases. Problem was, the denial date was listed as 6/4/2014 - and neither I nor my client had ever received anything in the mail regarding the denial. I promptly called up to Falls Church [which is where the Appeals Council is located] to see what the hell was going on, and the very nice representative told me that I was his fourth call of the day regarding this exact issue. He said that the case was indeed denied, but that for some inexplicable reason no one bothered to mail out the decision. The representative said he has personally fielded dozens and dozens of calls over the past few weeks about this. He said that he would make sure that a new denial - with the appropriate date - would be mailed out in the next few days.

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  • Jul 24, 2014

    Social Security Facing A Challenging Budget Situation

         From the prepared remarks of Marianna Laconfora, the Acting Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, at the Senate Finance Committee hearing today:
    During FYs 2011 - 2013, our budget situation was severe . For 3 years in a row, we received nearly a billion dollars less than the President’s budget request. Over those years, we had to make some deep reductions in our services to the public and in our stewardship efforts, while still meeting our mission and serving the public as best as possible . We took the following actions.
    • We significantly limited hiring, with only minimal hiring in critical front - line areas;
    • Reduced the hours that our field offices are open to the public to allow us to complete late - day interviews without using overtime and to complete retirement and disability claims and other post - entitlement work;
    • Operated with minimal, non - personnel spending, only funding our most essential costs, such as mandatory contracts, guard services, and rent on our buildings;
    • Closed over 500 contact stations and 7 foreign service posts;
    • Increased our use of video hearings to improve service and lower travel costs ;
    • Suspended our lower priority notices and reduced the number of Social Security Statements issued; and
    • Provided more information online to reduce printing and mailing costs .
    As a result of significantly limited hiring, wait times in field offices increased, callers to our 800 Number had to wait longer to speak with a representative, and hearings processing time increased. In addition, we were not able to ramp up our cost-effective program integrity efforts as planned.
    We are pleased that we received additional resources in FY 2014, and we thank you for your support. As a result, we are able to begin the recovery efforts from 3 years of underfunding. However, it will take time to reverse the impact on service s from the years of underfunding. It is critical that we receive the level of funding requested for our agency in the President’s FY 2015 Budget.

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  • "Boondoggle" At Social Security

         A story from ABC (update: actually, this is an AP story which ABC didn't properly attribute) bearing the title "Social Security Spent $300M on 'IT Boondoggle'"
    Six years ago the Social Security Administration embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. Nearly $300 million later, the new system is nowhere near ready and agency officials are struggling to salvage a project racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report commissioned by the agency.
    In 2008, Social Security said the project was about two to three years from completion. Five years later, it was still two to three years from being done, according to the report by McKinsey and Co., a management consulting firm.
    Today, with the project still in the testing phase, the agency can't say when it will be completed or how much it will cost. ...
    As a result, agency leaders have decided to "reset" the program in an effort to save it, the report said. As part of that effort, Social Security brought in the outside consultants from McKinsey to figure out what went wrong.
    They found a massive technology initiative with no one in charge — no single person responsible for completing the project. They issued their report in June, though it was not publicly released.
    As part of McKinsey's recommendations, acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin appointed Terrie Gruber to oversee the project last month. Gruber had been an assistant deputy commissioner. ...
    The revelations come at an awkward time for Colvin. President Barack Obama nominated Colvin to a full six-year term in June, and she now faces confirmation by the Senate. Colvin was deputy commissioner for 3½ years before becoming acting commissioner in February 2013.
    The House Oversight Committee is also looking into the program, and whether Social Security officials tried to bury the McKinsey report. In a letter to Colvin on Wednesday, committee leaders requested all documents and communications about the computer project since March 1. ...
    The troubled computer project is known at the Disability Case Processing System, or DCPS. It was supposed to replace 54 separate, antiquated computer systems used by state Social Security offices to process disability claims. As envisioned, workers across the country would be able to use the system to process claims and track them as benefits are awarded or denied, and claims are appealed.
    But as of April, the system couldn't even process all new claims, let alone accurately track them as they wound their way through the system, the report said. In all, more than 380 problems were still outstanding, and users hadn't even started testing the ability of the system to handle applications from children. ...
    Maryland-based Lockheed Martin was selected in 2011 as the prime contractor on the project. At the time, the company valued the contract at up to $200 million, according to a press release.
    McKinsey's report does not specifically fault Lockheed but raises the possibility of changing vendors, and says Social Security officials need to better manage the project.
    Gruber said Social Security will continue to work with Lockheed "to make sure that we are successful in the delivery of this program."
          This project is a genuine problem and a serious one which deserves Congressional scrutiny but this piece reads almost as if it had been written by Darrell Issa's staff. How could this be an obstacle to Carolyn Colvin's confirmation as Social Security Commissioner? She didn't begin this project and wasn't in charge until late in the game. She's taken action to try to right the ship. How's this her fault? This piece doesn't mention the name of Michael Astrue, the Republican who was Commissioner of Social Security until last year. If you're going to put the blame on anyone, and I'm not sure you should, Astrue would be the top candidate. The name of the contractor, Lockheed Martin, which has excellent Republican connections, isn't mentioned until the 16th paragraph. Did Issa's staff write this piece? ABC shouldn't allow the mindless partisanship of Darrell Issa to infect its reporting.

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  • Colvin Confirmation Hearing Scheduled For July 31

         The Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Carolyn Colvin's nomination to a term as Commissioner of Social Security has been scheduled for July 31at 10:00.

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  • Jul 23, 2014

    West Palm Beach Employees Suing Building Owner

         The bizarre West Palm Beach saga continues. From the local television station:
    Almost two dozen employees of the West Palm Beach Social Security Administration’s office are suing the building’s owner.
    CBS 12 News has obtained a copy of a lawsuit filed last year in which 22 employees and a security guard claim the building made them sick.
    As CBS-12 News was first to report, staff at the West Palm Beach SSA branch are being dispatched to other SSA offices as the agency looks for a new building to house their operation.
    The move stems from what the SSA alleges are problems with the building which is leased to the government by Carnegie Management and Development Corporation.
    In the 118 page complaint filed last year, the staff members allege the building had substantial water leaks causing extensive water intrusion; that in 2009, mold, mildew and fungus were discovered inside the building; and that staffers suffered damages including mental pain and suffering, permanent injury and loss of earnings.
    Carnegie Management and Development CEO Dr. Rustom Khouri says the claims are absolutely bogus.

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  • Trustees Report Will Be Out By July 28

         The National Academy of Social Insurance has scheduled an event for July 28 at which Social Security's Chief Actuary, Stephen Goss, will discuss the 2014 Social Security Trustees Report.

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  • Ready To Start Down This Path?

         The United Kingdom has started a big effort to force disabled people off benefits and get them back to work. The BBC tells us that things haven't been going so well. A recent report of the House of Commons says that changes need to be made "immediately." The contractor hired to get people back to work was "not achieving its purpose of getting people back to work" and has been fired. There won't be a replacement contractor until next year. An executive of one non-profit helping disabled people called the program "a shambolic and hopeless system that cruelly penalises the most vulnerable amongst us."

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  • House Ways And Means Schedules Hearing For July 29

         A press release by the House Ways and Means Committee:
    U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security announced today that the Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on what workers need to know about Social Security as they plan for their retirement.  The hearing will take place on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 in B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 11:00 a.m. ... 
    Future retirees face far more questions than answers, as according to last year’s Annual Report of the Social Security Board of Trustees, unless Congress acts, revenues will cover only 77 percent of scheduled benefits beginning in 2033.  Worse, revenues will cover only 80 percent of disability benefits beginning in 2016.  These findings will soon be updated in the 2014 Annual Report. 
    Social Security is central to retirement security, yet Social Security’s complex benefit formula is often confusing to workers and their spouses. ...
    The hearing will focus on the financial status of Social Security programs, the factors influencing the benefits paid, the status of Americans’ retirement readiness and how workers can be helped to better plan for their retirement. ... 
         I'm guessing that the Senate Finance hearing scheduled for tomorrow and now this Ways and Means Committee hearing scheduled for next week are signs that the Social Security Trustees report is due out very soon, like today or tomorrow. We'll see.

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  • Jul 22, 2014

    West Palm Beach Office Closes

         From WPEC:
    If you need to get anything done at the West Palm Beach branch of the local Social Security Administration (SSA) office, you might have to go elsewhere for services.

    It's the latest twist in an ongoing CBS 12 News investigation that began after we exposed long wait times at the West Palm Beach office.

    An SSA spokesperson says the SSA is scaling back services at this branch because of recurring maintenance and HVAC issues with the building. ...
    CBS-12 News first began investigating issues at the West Palm Beach SSA last week after folks told us they were being forced to wait two, three, and sometimes four hours in the hot sun and rain.

    After U.S. Members of Congress who learned of our story demanded the SSA address the issue of long wait times, the office suddenly closed Thursday then reopened.

    The SSA tells us they're looking to relocate the West Palm Beach office.

    CBS-12 has learned that some staff members are suing the buildings' owner Carnegie Management & Development Corp and alleging the building is making them sick.
         OK, if it was ventilation problems that closed the office, why was it that the closure happened almost immediately after a TV station broadcast pictures of lines of people waiting outside the office? Also, why did it take the agency so long to tell the TV station why the office was closed?

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  • Chart Book On Social Security Disability

         The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has issued a Chart Book on Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. I guess they're doing this now because of the Senate Finance Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday but the book will be outdated in the near future when the Social Security Trustees issue their report. Even though it will soon be a bit stale, the Chart Book still dispels many myths about Social Security disability.

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