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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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  • Jul 21, 2014

    When Will The Disability Insurance Trust Fund Run Out Of Money?

         We should get the Social Security Trustees report for 2014 in the near future. That will give us an updated projection on the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. That Fund is a matter of some concern since last year's Intermediate projection was that it would run out of money in 2016. Until the 2014 Trustees Report comes out, we can take a look at the newly released numbers on the Disability Trust Fund operations through the 2d quarter of this calendar year. The Trust Fund balance is down $10.4 billion in the first half of 2014. This contrasts with a deficit of $11.8 billion in the first half of 2013. While a declining balance is a bad thing, the reduction is 12% better than last year. The Trustees Intermediate projection made last year was that the Disability Trust Fund would go down at almost exactly the same rate in 2014 as in 2013 so thus far this year we're doing about 12% better than the projection made last year. That's pretty good. If the Disability Trust Fund continues to do 12% better than the Intermediate projection for the entire year of 2014 the difference would be about $4 billion. This is on top of the fact that the actual results in 2013 were $1.2 billion better than the 2013 Trustee's projection.
         To quote a Republican Senator from years gone by, "A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money." While the projection made last year was that the Disability Insurance Trust Fund would run out of money in 2016, to be exact the projection was that the Disability Insurance Trust Fund would be $7.4 billion short of meeting its obligations for 2016 which works out to an exhaustion date in Autumn of 2016. A $1.2 billion improvement over the projection for last year and a 12% improvement in the first half of 2014 -- all you have to do is assume that things continue at the same pace and the Disability Trust Fund lasts into 2017. To state it another way, as of the end of June there was $80 left in the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and it was declining at the rate of about $28 billion a year. You do the math. If the Disability Insurance Trust fund continues to decline at the same rate we're currently seeing, it lasts into 2017 -- only a few months into 2017 but into 2017. If you think that the improvement we've seen over the last year and a half won't turn into a flat line, that is that we will continue to see small improvement, the Disability Trust Fund may limp into 2018.
         Social Security's actuaries never claim to know exactly what's going to happen over the next few years. That's why they give not one projection but three, an Intermediate projection (which is the only one that people pay attention to), a Low Cost or optimistic projection and a High Cost or pessimistic projection. When I say that the numbers we've seen since last year's Trustees report indicate that the Disability Trust Fund is likely to last at least into 2017, I'm talking about something that is well within last year's optimistic projection that the Disability Trust Fund will never run out of money. What I'm saying only differs slightly from last year's Intermediate projection and the difference is based upon what has actually happened since that projection was released.
         One might reasonably say that there is little real difference between a Disability Insurance Trust Fund exhaustion date of October 2016 versus an exhaustion date of April 2017 but politically there's a big difference. As of today, April 2017 looks to be a much stronger time for Democrats than October 2016. It would certainly be better if something could be done about the Disability Insurance Trust Fund before the last minute but does anyone really believe that will happen, especially if the political balance of power is likely to be different a few months later?
         In any case, it shouldn't be long before the Trustees report is released.

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  • Jul 20, 2014

    Problems At The Appeals Council

         An e-mail I recently received: 
    Does anyone have an alternate AC [Social Security's Appeals Council] Fax number. I'm trying to fax a request for AC review and have used the standard fax number with no luck. I called the AC to verify that's the correct number and it is. They even gave me a backdoor fax number that isn't working. I'm just trying to find some alternatives. Thanks in advance!
         If you're sending anything to the Appeals Council, you pretty much have to fax it since you can't count on them opening and distributing their mail. The overtaxed fax machines at the Appeals Council are nothing new. And no, we can't file requests for Appeals Council review over the internet. 

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  • Jul 19, 2014

    CDI Investigations In Kansas City

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  • Jul 18, 2014

    Senate Finance Committee Schedules Hearing On Social Security Disability

         The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for 10:00 on July 24 on "Social Security: A Fresh Look at Workers’ Disability Insurance." Here's the witness list:
    Mr. Stephen Goss, Chief Actuary, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, MD
    Ms. Marianna LaCanfora, Acting Deputy Commissioner, Retirement and Disability Policy, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, MD
    Ms. Rebecca Vallas, Associate Director, Poverty to Prosperity Program, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Washington, DC
    Dr. Richard Burkhauser, Professor, Adjunct Scholar, Cornell University, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC
         Will the Social Security Trustees Report be out by then?

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  • This Is Extraordinary

         Let's review what has happened
    • On Wednesday there was a single report on a West Palm Beach, FL television station about long lines of people waiting in the hot sun to get into the local Social Security field office. 
    • Staff at the West Palm Beach Social Security field office forced the reporter and camera operator off the property, making things look even worse. 
    • The reporter tried to get a response from Social Security's public information office in Atlanta. That office promised a response by 5:00 Wednesday but couldn't manage to get back to the reporter by then. That didn't help. 
    • The television station reported that on the next day, Thursday, President Obama met at the White House with Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin and the local member of the House of Representatives to discuss the West Palm Beach problem. 
    • Note that the President had at least a couple of other things on his plate yesterday -- almost 300 people killed when a commercial airliner was shot down over rebel controlled territory in Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. 
    • Republican Senator John McCain criticized the President for sticking to his regular schedule yesterday despite the international problems yet the President still squeezed in a meeting about a local television report of people waiting in line outside one Social Security field office.
    • The local member of Congress came out of the meeting blaming sequestration brought on by Republicans for the service problem. 
    • Now the television station is reporting that the West Palm Beach Social Security field office has been closed due to unspecified "facilities problems." 
          For all I know, there is some major "facility" problem requiring the closure of the West Palm Beach office but it sure looks like the office was shut down to prevent television cameras recording the lines snaking out the door. The problem is that this isn't the only Social Security field office with a line out the door. You can't shut down all field offices where there are lines going out the door. You certainly won't make people in West Palm Beach happy by shutting down their Social Security field office.

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  • Acting Commissioner Promises To Address EEO Problems

         From the Baltimore Sun:


    The Social Security Administration is overhauling its internal anti-discrimination program after federal auditors found that the agency failed to establish an adequate system for handling employee claims.
    Auditors from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in May that the Woodlawn-based agency had failed to follow regulations on addressing workplace discrimination complaints, had manipulated data to boost case completion rates and might have allowed managers to interfere in what were supposed to be impartial investigations. Of 2,292 claims processed over a four-year period, not one resulted in a finding of discrimination, they reported.
    The agency, which employs 60,000 workers nationwide and 11,000 in Maryland, told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin had ordered an action plan to transform its Equal Employment Opportunity program into a "model program." ...
    Commission auditors found that top managers of the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity program had worked previously in the general counsel's office, which defends the agency against discrimination claims.
    "We find that a majority of ... employees interviewed expressed concerns about the general counsel's office's involvement during the EEO investigation process and perceived the involvement as a conflict of interest," they wrote. "We continue to note that the investigative process is a non-adversarial fact-finding process."

    Auditors also suggested that Social Security managers reviewed and made changes to affidavits by employees in the early stages of investigations. The EEOC said it reviewed testimony that appeared to have changed between the time it was initially given by an employees and then signed.  ...
    Employees interviewed by auditors said the agency sometimes attempted to make those rates look better than they actually were. "Several ... employees stated that when the report of investigation is untimely, some ... managers move the case file to the next fiscal year to look timely, and that they manipulate the data in the ... tracking system," the auditors wrote. ...

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  • Jul 17, 2014

    "This Place Sucked" -- Now A Meeting At The White House

         From WPEC-TV in West Palm Beach, FL:
    ... When CBS 12 News viewers kept emailing us about the really long lines at the Social Security Office on West Palm Beach's Congress Avenue, we had to see it for ourselves. 
    And this is what we found today: A line out the door, of people of all ages and needs, in the hot summer sun, with an afternoon rainstorm approaching. ...
    One person says they've been there four times. One time for three hours. 2 hours another time. Today's it's about 2 1/2 hours.
    Another person - "About an hour a half, two hours waiting. This place sucked."
    "We got here at 10 a.m.. Thought we were here for a decent time. We got here. We stood outside for an hour, an and twenty minutes at least." 
    No sooner did we start asking questions did staff here attempt to chase us from the scene.
    "Sir. You got to stop. You're on federal property". 
    So we reached out the Social Security Administration Public Information Officer in Atlanta for answers. ...
    CBS 12 is no exception to long waits for the Social Security Administration.

    We called them just after 1 p.m. today and were promised a response to our story. Now, 5 hours later, we are still waiting....
          When the Public Information Officer finally returned the call, the defense was that the average wait at the West Palm Beach office was only 47 minutes.

         Update: The local member of Congress thinks that "infrastructure changes" are needed to address the problem.

         Further update: This is from the TV station this afternoon (emphasis added):
    Representative Lois Frankel discussed your complaints about long wait times at the West Palm Beach SSA Field Office with the Acting Social Security Administrator (SSA) Carolyn Colvin at the White House today.
    Rep. Frankel tells us the long lines are a result of sequestration budget cuts. "The situation is an example of mindless budget cuts called sequestration, and it has drastically impacted vital programs across the nation including Social Security," said Frankel.
    Today, Representatives Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings and Tim Murphy—all Democrats from Florida--all sent a letter to the Southern Regional Commission of the Social Security Administration, Michael Grochowski, urging him to investigate and address long wait times at the West Palm Beach SSA Field Office.
    CBS 12 has also learned the SSA field office closes to the public at noon on Wednesday, so that staff can process an abundance of paperwork.# SSA client Elizabeth Ratliffe said, “You saw them turn people away as early as 10 o’clock. As soon as I went in, they stopped letting people in."
          Maybe somebody finally noticed the parallel to what happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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  • Benefit Verification Letters To Continue

         From an announcement from Social Security:
    Today, the Social Security Administration announced that local Social Security offices would continue to provide benefit verification letters until further notice. ...
    “We appreciate the feedback from members of Congress, our community stakeholders and agency partners. We want to ensure that we meet the needs of our customers in a way that is convenient for them and also cost-effective and secure for all,” Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin stated. “I believe that government agencies can work closer together to assist our mutual customers.”...
         In a sense this is great news. Social Security should be providing benefit verification letters. In another sense, it's Congress insisting that Social Security offer a level of service that Social Security does not have the personnel to provide. Continuing benefit verification letters means further delays in everything else. Congress also insists that no field offices be closed so they stay open but that just makes staffing more and more inadequate at all field offices. Of course, the Acting Commissioner should be sensitive to the concerns of members of Congress even if she's not trying to get confirmed as Commissioner but at some point, you have to say no, we don't have the funding to do that. Remember that the VA got in trouble by pretending to offer better service than it was capable of delivering. If you're working in the higher reaches of Social Security and you can't see the parallels between VA and Social Security, you really lack imagination.

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  • Some People Who Are Alleged To Have Been Overpaid Are Just The Victims Of Identity Theft

         The summary of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study:
    GAO's analysis of wages reported in the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH) initially showed that the Social Security Administration (SSA) made $19 million in potential overpayments to 10,187 recipients through its Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in fiscal year 2010. Using a different methodology that includes additional causes of overpayments not considered in GAO's analysis, SSA estimated it made $3.3 billion in SSI overpayments in fiscal year 2010. The majority (70 percent) of the estimated overpayment amount GAO identified showed indications of possible Social Security number (SSN) misuse, such as employers reporting wages for recipients in multiple locations during the same quarter. For example, GAO determined that wages for 2,399 SSI recipients were reported solely by employers outside the recipient's state of residence. As the figure below shows, one individual in California had wages reported from 11 different employers in seven other states during the same quarter of calendar year 2010. This suggests that multiple individuals may be using the SSI recipient's SSN and name for work. The exact number of individuals who received overpayments and the exact amount of overpayments made to those individuals cannot be determined without detailed case investigations by SSA. GAO analyzed five recipient cases and provided the results to SSA.
         Some of the people who have wages reported in other states actually did the work and some may be complicit in the misuse of their identity but you'd have to think that in most cases the claimant is just the innocent victim of identity theft and the overpayment isn't really an overpayment since the claimant didn't actually receive the wages.

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