Washington, DC – In a vote off the Senate floor this afternoon, members of the Finance Committee favorably reported to the Senate the nomination of Michael Astrue to head the Social Security Administration. At Astrue’s nomination hearing this month, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) obtained a commitment from the nominee to “stay out” of political debates over the future of Social Security, including any rehashing of failed privatization schemes. Also today, Baucus applauded the news that the 2007 continuing resolution will restore $200 million in administrative funds to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Baucus has strongly urged the restoration of funds to SSA to prevent backlogs for disability benefit claims from getting worse, and to ward off expected staff furloughs that could have caused service disruptions.
“The next Social Security Commissioner will inherit a slightly brighter budget picture than was envisioned for this year,” said Baucus. “The continuing resolution still doesn’t give Social Security all the operating funds it needs, but at the very least we won’t see the 10-day staff furlough that was feared. Congress can’t forget that funding cuts to Social Security have a direct effect on the well-being of Social Security recipients and applicants. I will keep working to restore full administrative resources to Social Security in the coming year.”
A White House budget request in February of 2006 contained $9.59 billion in 2007 operating funds for Social Security Administration. During congressional consideration of the budget, that amount was reduced by $400 million, creating financial constraints for SSA.
Jan 31, 2007
Astrue Nomination Reported Favorably By Senate Finance Committee -- And More On Social Security Budget
Here is NCSSMA's discussion of service backlog issues:
Carla asked about whether Congress has commented about the service backlogs. She is seeing an increase in the number of congressional inquiries her office receives. ...
Hugh Stempfley related information about a conference call conducted in Illinois between SSA, represented by CO [Central Office], Chicago RO [Regional Office], and many district managers and congressional staff members from Senator Obama and Senator Durbin’s offices. The call lasted two hours and the focus was on how offices are losing staff without being able to replace them and how the loss of staff has negatively impacted service in the field offices. All concerned concluded that we have resource issues in the field offices right now.
Rick mentioned that he had a call from a manager today who pointed out that the public has an increased expectation of field office service levels but our staffing levels continue to decrease. This is a problem we are seeing in field offices and teleservice centers across the country.
The reporter misunderstood something that I said. I did not tell him that five to six of my clients die each year. I told him that something like five to six of my firm's clients die each year. My firm has six lawyers doing Social Security representation full time.
Jan 30, 2007
A few hints on what you need to look at. The number quoted on page 78 does not include the SSI user fee which is around 117 million. See the SSA appendix. Also there will probably be around another 40 million for SSA salaries and benefits (see page 8 and 9 of CR). Total will be very close to what House approps recommended. This is why Obey's office could put this out:
"...Most programs are funded at FY 2006 levels with increases to cover the cost of pay increases. Necessary additions are made to maintain staffing levels, avoid furloughs, and generally meet increased costs or workloads for agencies most notably: the Department of Justice, the Judiciary, the Social Security Administration, the FAA (including air traffic control), International peacekeeping operations, the Indian Health Service, the Food & Drug Administration, and the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service.
The House amount is right on the line of missing a furlough but leave SSA with a virtual hiring freeze this year which will still be very hard on the Agency.
Jan 29, 2007
The Social Security Administration requests applications for cooperative agreement funding to support projects that will design and implement effective, replicable, and sustainable models which will increase the number of children (birth to age 5) who receive developmental screening and improve the early identification of children with developmental delays and/or disabilities.This grant may or may not be a good idea, but why is it coming from the Social Security Administration? Was this a Congressional earmark? I hate to beat a dead horse, but when Social Security cannot answer its telephones and it is routinely taking a year and a half and more for Social Security to schedule hearings for sick, desperately poor Social Security disability claimants, most of whom will be awarded benefits by Administrative Law Judges, does it make any sense for Social Security to spend money on something that is so far away from the agency's core function that it sounds like a project for the National Institutes of Health, if anyone?
Jan 28, 2007
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) on Monday introduced a bill to establish a permanent, bipartisan commission that would provide recommendations to maintain the future solvency of Medicare and Social Security, CQ Today reports (Wayne/George, CQ Today, 1/22). The 15-member commission -- which would include seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent -- would have to provide recommendations to Congress within one year and subsequently every five years. Under the legislation, the recommendations would have to be reported by House and Senate committees within 60 days or be directly discharged to the House or Senate floor.
Jan 27, 2007
The sale might free Genex to seek the business of individual Social Security disability claimants who need representation, basically entering the retail market for Social Security representation, rather than relying upon the wholesale business provided by LTD carriers, although there is no sign of such an intent or that Genex could be successful in this should they chose to try it. The sale certainly opens the possibility for dramatic change in the market for LTD carrier representation in Social Security disability claims.
Jan 26, 2007
TAMPA - Each day, administrative law judge Elving L. Torres decides whether people are disabled enough to receive Social Security benefits.
Sometimes he puts himself in the shoes of people who appear before him: He parks his luxury import car in the handicapped spaces outside the building where he works.
A handicapped parking placard appears on the dashboard of his silver Mercedes-Benz AMG coupe. But it was issued to an 86-year-old woman from Bradenton, according to state motor vehicle records. ...
Through a receptionist, Torres declined to speak to a reporter who inquired about his handicapped placard, referring questions to the Social Security Administration's regional office in Atlanta. He declined to answer questions a second time as he approached his car in the parking lot Wednesday.
"I work for a federal agency," Torres said. "I can't speak to you without approval," he said, adding that he would speak if he received permission. ...
Jan 25, 2007
Theoretical models argue that poor health will contribute to early exit from the labor market and the decision to take early Social Security retirement benefits (Old-Age or OA benefits). However, most empirical estimates of the causal importance of health on the decision to take early OA benefits have been forced to rely on global measures such as self-rated work limitations or self-rated health. We contribute to the empirical literature by using a more objective measure of health, fatness, to predict early receipt of OA benefits. We do so by estimating the causal impact of fatness within an empirical model using the method of instrumental variables, and testing the robustness of our findings using the most common measure of fatness in the social science literature – body mass index – with what is a more theoretically appropriate measure of fatness – total body fat and percent body fat. Overall, our conclusion is that fatness and obesity are strong predictors of early receipt of OA benefits.
Astrue was talking about "modeling" as a process for producing figures for Congress on what sort of progress Social Security could make in dealing with its backlogs depending upon what level of funding the agency receives from Congress. Perhaps, someone at Social Security has devised a computer program that does "model" their operations. More likely, there is no such computer program, but there is plenty of information about employee productivity that would allow experienced agency personnel to come up with high quality estimates of what could be achieved with various levels of funding. This would be the equivalent of a computer model.
This may sound rather boring, but it is actually an important change of focus. The focus at Social Security over the last dozen years or so has been on "grand plans" which various Commissioners of Social Security promised would yield dramatically improved performance. The first of these grand plans was "Re-engineering" which began in about 1994. Re-engineering got a trial. The trial showed that the plan did not work and "Re-engineering" was abandoned. The second grand plan was "Hearing Process Improvement" or HPI. Trial implementation of HPI began in about 1999. There were early signs that HPI was not working, but in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, Social Security went ahead with full scale implementation of HPI. The result was a disaster, with dramatically worsened performance and vastly increased backlogs. Ignoring the warning signs from "Re-engineering" and HPI, Jo Anne Barnhart, who became Commissioner of Social Security in 2000, launched planning for a third grand plan, which incorporated a technological change -- using paperless scanned files instead of physical files to hold the records concerning a claim for Social Security disability benefits, called EDIB, as well as organizational changes referred to as Disability Service Improvement or DSI. There has been enough implementation of EDIB that it is already clear that it will yield only modest productivity gains at Social Security, at best. DSI is only now starting into implementation -- just as Barnhart leaves her position at Social Security -- so DSI has not had an opportunity to succeed or fail, but there is almost no one who either works at Social Security or who deals with the agency on regular basis who has hope for DSI achieving much.
"Re-engineering", HPI, EDIB and DSI had a huge impact upon Congress' view of Social Security. They created the strong impression that the ever-increasing backlogs at Social Security were the fault of poor organization at Social Security which could be corrected by re-organization, that is that the problems were largely independent of Social Security's budget. It has become increasingly obvious that this approach does not work. Smart people have been trying for decades to re-organize Social Security to get greater productivity and for the most part they have failed. The result of relying upon re-organization instead of budget has been backlogs that can be easily measured and reductions in quality of work produced that are not so easily measured.
In talking about modeling, Astrue appears to be getting away from reliance upon the grand plans that have repeatedly failed Social Security. He is telling Congress that performance at Social Security is tied closely to the agency's operating budget. It is not up to the Commissioner of Social Security to produce a grand plan that magically solves Social Security's problems. It is up to the President and Congress to decide what level of service they are willing to pay for. With modeling, Astrue is going to say, in effect "Here is what you can expect based upon these possible levels for the operating budget you give Social Security. You decide and I'll do the best I can to operate within what you give me. Don't expect me to create a grand plan that pulls a rabbit out of a hat."We can hope that this approach yields a bigger budget for Social Security and better agency performance.
In fairness to Commissioner Barnhart and her predecessors, I should note that the era of grand plans at Social Security corresponds exactly with the era of Republican control of Congress. This may be more than a coincidence. It may be that the grand plans were developed because Republicans in Congress demanded that they be created or because they made it clear that any improvement in service at Social Security could only come from productivity improvement since the agency was not going to get more money, no matter how badly service suffered. Senator Bunning gave an excellent representation of a Republican attitude that may have led to the grand plans, as he vehemently told Astrue that he did not want to hear anything about budget problems at Social Security. He knew that the problem was poor performance at Social Security and he demanded that Astrue do better. Bunning, a Republican, was at one time in the House of Representatives and the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee. Listening to Bunning, it is easy to understand how a Commissioner of Social Security would have felt pressured to come up with a grand plan. Bunning is now in the Senate, his party is no longer in control of Congress and the Ranking Minority Member of the Finance Committee seems to agree that budget is the key to better performance at Social Security, so Bunning's views, while still important, are not controlling.
The Panel has posted minutes of all of its meetings and working papers. One working paper entitled "Ability or Inability to Work: Challenges in Moving Towards a More Work-Focused Disability Definition for Social Security Administration (SSA) Disability Programs" may be worth quoting at some length, since it displays the state of knowledge and expectations at the panel and its staff:
The disability concepts from other programs tend to employ a more dynamic definition that allows for changes in disability status over time and different environments. Unlike the SSI and DI programs that assess permanent disability status at the time of application (emphasis added), other programs tend to use changing disability concepts during initial and on-going assessments for program eligibility. In general, these other systems have a more continuous measure of disability that first focuses on an applicant’s residual capacity at initial assessment and then moves to different levels of severity after a participant has shown a continuing inability to work during on-going assessments. Consequently, the disability criteria used at initial assessment [in disability programs other than Social Security] are often different from those used during ongoing disability reassessments. Another major difference is that while other systems have a permanent disability measure, they often employ different levels of this definition, including partial and full disability benefits, depending on a program participant’s impairment severity and/or inability to work. Finally, the definition of work itself and the role of employers also provide insights on possible modifications to the disability definition for the SSI and DI programs, which focuses on substantial gainful activity (SGA), rather than employment in a specific occupation. ...
The alternative is to break away from the current all-or-nothing benefit structure of the SSI and DI programs and move towards a continuum of disability that is similar to other programs. Several options within this continuum will influence the size of the population effected, as well as the costs of providing services.
Jan 24, 2007
Social Security IG to Employees: Forget Those Fines Oops, our mistake. That appears to be the latest message from the Social Security Administration inspector general's office about its effort to impose millions of dollars in fines on four Social Security Administration employees. According to the National Treasury Employees Union, which is representing three of the four workers in challenging the penalties, the IG's office has agreed not only to withdraw the proposed fines, but not to seek any other punishments, either. The employees were accused of using expert testimony improperly to help justify benefits decisions. But NTEU pointed out that they did so at the direction of an administrative law judge.
- It is obvious that Astrue will be confirmed and soon.
- Senator Baucus, the Chairman of the Committee, makes it clear that Astrue has firmly promised to stay out of anything political and especially to stay out of privatization. Senator Hatch later tries to get Astrue to say that he might "help" bring about Social Security reform. Astrue gives no such commitment to Hatch.
- Senator Baucus talks of removing Social Security from the budget -- which would dramatically improve the prospects for Social Security getting an adequate administrative budget. The Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee strongly supports this idea also. However, the Social Security trust funds are taking in far more money than they are paying out at the moment. Taking Social Security out of the budget would make the deficit appear vastly larger. In general, Baucus talks a lot about Social Security's budget problems.
- Senator Kerry, who is from Astrue's home state of Massachusetts, gives a warm introduction for Astrue. Senator Kennedy also wanted to be there to introduce Astrue, but he had to be elsewhere.
- Senator Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, also talks about Social Security's budget problem.
- Astrue reveals that his father had a brain tumor and stroke some years ago and he helped his father file for Social Security disability benefits.
- Astrue takes credit for ending non-acquiescence when he was at Social Security earlier.
- In talking about Commissioner Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement project, Astrue says he wants to review it. He would like to roll out more rapidly those parts of the plan that are least controversial and least costly. I have no idea what he could be referring to.
- Astrue says that he is an incrementalist on reorganization. He says that no sweeping reorganization is likely with him as Commissioner.
- Several Senators question Astrue on Social Security's role in regard to undocumented immigrants.
- Senator Baucus asks Astrue about benchmarks for agency performance, particularly in regards to backlogs. Baucus says the backlogs are an "outrage" and it would be "irresponsible" not to do something.
- Astrue says that Barnhart's plans are on the periphery of the problem of backlogs and that "brute force", apparently referring to the need for more manpower, is needed.
- Astrue says that 60 days after a budget is finalized for this year, which should be February 15, he can talk with the Committee regarding plans for reducing Social Security's backlogs. Senator Baucus makes it clear that he is very interested in this.
- Senator Baucus asks Astrue to be more cooperative with employee unions. The question arises because Barnhart listened to everyone, except the employee unions, with which she had a surprisingly frosty relationship. Astrue promises to meet with the unions.
- The hearing lasted about one and a half hours. There were no witnesses other than Astrue.
Jan 23, 2007
More than two dozen Cambodian refugees in Oakland and elsewhere in the East Bay are fighting allegations that they fraudulently applied for benefits from the Social Security Administration and say they were unfairly targeted. ...
Many of the Cambodians are patients of Mona Afary, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with Afghans and Cambodian refugees. She now works with the refugees at the Center for Empowerment of Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland.
Afary has diagnosed many of her patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes several people in the same family, Weiss and Lunsford said. That — combined with what Social Security may see as Afary's lack of proper clinical training to make such diagnoses — could have triggered the investigations, Afary, her patients' attorneys and spokespeople for Social Security said.
The attorneys accused investigators of lacking the clinical training to assess whether someone was truly faking mental illness, as well as cultural insensitivity toward people who were traumatized by the harsh privations suffered under the Khmer Rouge. Many of the refugees came here in the 1980s. ...
This is not the first time Cambodians and their health care providers have been the target of Social Security fraud investigations. Similar investigations have taken place in Southern California, Boston and Washington state over the last decade. In those cases, some parties involved with the Cambodians were accused of fraud and others cleared ...
Jan 22, 2007
Interestingly, although Social Security's website shows the Commissioner's job as vacant, it shows Martin Gerry still as Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs, even though Gerry was brought in by Barnhart and seemed to be her right hand man. It is a bit hard to imagine Gerry working with another Commissioner.
The first controversial time in Michael Astrue's life, as best I can tell from looking at records available on the internet, was in 2001 when the newly elected President George W. Bush suggested Astrue as a possible Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Astrue was never formally nominated for the position. Eventually, he was forced to withdraw his name from consideration due to the opposition of Senator Edward Kennedy. At the time the Senate was controlled by Democrats. Senator Kennedy, from Astrue's home state of Massachusetts, was chairman of the committee that would have considered Astrue's nomination. His opposition made Astrue's confirmation impossible. Kennedy's stated reason for opposing Astrue was that Astrue was employed in the pharmaceutical industry. This seems slightly surprising since Astrue was from Massachusetts and at the time had not worked long in the pharmaceutical industry. It would seem that almost anyone nominated to become FDA Commissioner would have some experience in working with the pharmaceutical industry.
One thing that might easily be missed is that even in 2001 the possible approval by the FDA of RU-486, the "abortion drug", was an issue. For Bush to have put Astrue's name forward, it is clear that Astrue must have given a promise to Bush to oppose RU-486, since this issue was of considerable importance to Bush. Although the RU-486 issue was not raised publicly at the time, there is no doubt that had Astrue become FDA Commissioner, RU-486 would have made him controversial.
The next "controversial" time period in Michael Astrue's life was in 2003. At the time Michael Astrue was Chief Counsel and Vice President at Transkaryotic (TKT), a biotech pharmaceutical company. Astrue resigned his job but was then rehired a month later as the company's CEO. Astrue said publicly that he resigned as Chief Counsel to work at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and to teach law at Boston University, but there is good reason to believe that he was trying to get away from a firestorm that was about to engulf TKT. The company's CEO, Dr. Richard Selden, was accused of making false and misleading statements to the public about the company's prospects for getting FDA approval for a new drug, while simultaneously selling some of his own stock in the company. What was alleged amounted to a "pump and dump", a technique usually associated with fly by night penny stocks.
Although the TKT board hired Astrue as the company's CEO in the wake of this scandal, it is far from clear that Astrue was blameless in the events that led to Selden's downfall. Selden later blamed company lawyers for misadvising him. Astrue was the company's top lawyer. Was Astrue unaware of Selden's misleading public statements about the company? Would not the rules of a publicly traded company have required Selden to notify Astrue before selling stock in the company? It was Astrue's job to keep anything like this from happening at TKT, but it happened.
In 2004 there was a small controversy. Michael Astrue had been Chairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an important trade organization, but the Boston Globe reported that he withdrew his company's membership in the Council after the Council's executive director, Janice Bourque, was forced out. Astrue refused to comment publicly, but his apparent concern was that Bourque was forced out by larger biotech companies. There is no sign that any other company withdrew from the Council over the issue.
Transkaryotic (TKT) settled down after Astrue took over as CEO and Astrue was given much of the credit. However, in 2005, with the company's fortunes looking up, Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, a British company, made an offer to buy TKT. Two TKT board members were prominent in support of accepting the offer. Astrue and one other director opposed the sale. The two who supported the sale were partners at Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm, which had a 14% stake in TKT, worth about $200 million. In the end, the board of directors voted to accept Shire's offer. Astrue resigned and led a fight to persuade the company's shareholders to vote down the sale. Astrue lost again and the company was sold. During this process Astrue apparently argued that Warburg Pincus was selling out the company's shareholders, even though Warburg Pincus was a huge shareholder itself and Astrue never publicly identified any ulterior motive that Warburg Pincus might have had.
You have to wonder about the situation. Warburg Pincus had a $200 million stake in the company and no ulterior motive as far as we know. Warburg Pincus is in the business of knowing when to buy and when to sell stock. They must be quite good at it to have the kind of money at their disposal that allows them to take a $200 million stake in a company. Their opinion would be extremely influential with most people. In truth, this was nothing more than a question of valuation and Warburg Pincus had vastly more experience with valuing stock than Astrue. Why would Astrue embark upon such a quixotic adventure as opposing this sale? Was he simply upset that he would no longer be a CEO?
Astrue described the time period of 2001 through 2005 as "a pretty rock-and-roll five years." The question is how much of this was due to intrinsic characteristics of Michael Astrue and how much was due to the politics of 2001 combined with Astrue being employed in an extraordinarily dynamic industry.
A Boston Globe article from 2003 may give some insight on Astrue's character and give some idea of why he does seem to be at the center of controversy with some frequency: '' 'Mike is an incredibly moral guy,' said Dr. Burt Adelman, executive vice president of research and development for Biogen Inc., where Astrue served as general counsel. 'I suspect they got him back [at TKT] because he wasn't going to leave something he was committed to when they were having a problem. He doesn't walk away from a fight.' " The problem is that the flip side of "incredibly moral" is "self-righteous"and the flip side of "doesn't walk away from a fight" is "spoiling for a fight."
Does Astrue have the backbone to do what is needed at Social Security or is he an arrogant, inflexible man who will relentlessly drive forward some personal or political agenda? That is the question for the Senate. I think one can say that Astrue does not sound like the sort of man who, if confirmed, would meekly implement Jo Anne Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement (DSI) vision for Social Security.
Jan 21, 2007
Jan 20, 2007
A federal judge sentenced a Tacoma woman convicted of Social Security fraud to 10 months in prison Friday. ...
Bland, the mother of a school-age son, was awarded federal disability benefits in 1996 after she claimed a bad back and an anxiety disorder made it impossible for her to work.
But two years later, she got her state cosmetology license and started working at her mother’s beauty salon without telling the government. She also spent part of her $550 in monthly benefits at a Fife bingo parlor.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a requirement for the services of a contractor to develop an automated, Section 508 compliant*, profiling/screening tool (software) for identifying Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) disability decisions that are likely to be appealed to federal district court and remanded or reversed by the court. The contractor may also recommend the purchase and/or modification of an existing Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) software package for the profiling/screening tool if an existing product can be identified.The Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan does not work unless this profiling/screening tool works, since otherwise there will be far too many Social Security cases going to federal court. This would cause intolerable problems for the federal courts and for Social Security. No one knows if screening tools can be made to work, yet DSI is already underway.
On March 31, 2006, SSA published the final rules establishing a new disability determination and administrative appeals process effective August 1, 2006. Under the new rules SSA is gradually phasing out the Appeals Council?s review of disability claims and replacing it with a review by a Decision Review Board (DRB). The DRB will focus on identifying decision making errors as well as policies and procedures that will improve decision-making at all levels of the disability determination process.
SSA intends to select ALJ decisions for review by the DRB in several different ways, including the use of computer based predictive screening tools. It is envisioned that a sophisticated computer based profiling/screening tool could be developed to help identify unfavorable ALJ decisions that contain characteristics associated with federal district court appeals and remands or reversals. The profiling model will be developed using data recorded at the time of the initial level determination, ALJ decision, Appeals Council review, and the court action. This information includes the applicant?s age, education years, primary impairment, reason for the court remand, etc. The methods for selecting cases for DRB review are expected to evolve over time as more data are available and SSA gains more experience and knowledge in the use of computer-based tools. Any software will make use of current SSA databases and systems architecture already available, if applicable.
* Missed by 25% or more of test takers
** Missed by 50% or more of test takers
*** Missed by 75% or more of test takers
Where an issue was presented in more than one question, the asterisk or asterisks shown reflect the question that was most frequently missed.
1/3 reduction rule*
Age as factor in disability determination
Amending alleged onset date**
Appeal of partially favorable decision***
Appeal deadline closely approaching**
Burden of proof**
Chances of success at various levels of review
Close transference of skills*
Closed period cases
Computation of title II benefits
Computing date last insured**
Correction of Title II computation errors
Correction of Title XVI computation errors
Cross examination of VE***
Death of claimant
Disabled widow and widower benefits
Disabled adult child benefits***
Diseases treated by various medical specialties
Effect of receipt of unemployment insurance benefits
Erosion of occupational base***
Escalation of claim*
Ethical issues in representing incompetent client**
Exertional and non-exertional impairments
Factors that determine prospects for success of disability claimant**
Failure of claimant to appear for hearing**
Fee agreement process
Fee petition process
Fees in termination cases
Filing new claim at same time as appeal
Fully insured status
Impairment related work expenses
Medicare Part B
Medicare only claims**
NC Teachers and State Employees Retirement System, relationship to Social Security benefits*
Not severe impairments
Obtaining medical evidence***
On record decisions**
Overpayment of attorney fee*
Passalong provision (Pickle people)***
Past relevant work
Period of disability
Post hearing interrogatories
Procedure on remand from Federal Court*
Protective filing dates***
Recognizing failure to file all appropriate claims***
Recognizing ethical issues in Social Security practice**
Reopening based upon mental incompetence*
Reopening based upon new and material evidence
Res judicata and collateral estoppel***
Retroactive Medicare coverage
Retroactive effect of Title II claim
Return to work while claim pending**
RFC between two ranges of work**
Sentence 4 versus sentence 6 remands*
Social Security abbreviations
Spotting signs of retardation or mental illness**
SSI transfer of assets
SSI child disability
SSI benefits effective date
SSI -- requirement to file all other claims**
Surviving divorced spouse benefits***
Sustained work activity
Transferability of skills
Trial Work Period*
Unsuccessful Work Attempts *
Waiting period for Title II benefits
Withdrawing from representing claimant
Workers compensation offset, including issues raised by clincher agreements**
Worn out worker rule
Jan 19, 2007
The name of the Acting Commissioner is not without importance. Each working day dozens of Social Security claimants sue the Commissioner or Acting Commissioner of Social Security and they need to know whom they should list as the defendant.
Any evaluation of Barnhart's term as Commissioner should start by acknowledging a paradox. Upon becoming Commissioner, Barnhart frankly acknowledged that there were severe problems in Social Security's disability programs, with the biggest problem being how long it was taking to adjudicate cases. She promised to undertake dramatic reforms to make the situation better. Her frank acknowledgment of Social Security's problems and promises for reform have drawn praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. So what is the paradox? The paradox is that the Social Security disability program problems that Barnhart inherited are still there as Barnhart leaves office and they have become worse. Indeed, Social Security as an agency can accurately be described as crumbling, yet Barnhart remains widely admired for her work as Commissioner.
Barnhart promised to make things better, but things got worse. How could she leave office with the aura of having been a successful Commissioner of Social Security? Three reasons come to mind. First, Barnhart has been quite willing to listen to other people. In the Bush Administration this has not been a common virtue. Second, she has not had a nutty right wing agenda. Again, this makes her stand out in the Bush Administration. Third and most important, Barnhart has shown herself to be an excellent politician. She has succeeded in having herself defined by her ambitions rather than by her achievements.
If we are to base an appraisal of Barnhart on her actual achievements, we can only believe her to have been a successful Commissioner if we believe the following three things:
- The only reason that there are still big backlogs at Social Security is that Congress would not appropriate the money that Barnhart asked for and that President Bush put in his budget for Social Security.
- EDIB (paperless files) is going to make Social Security significantly more efficient.
- DSI (Disability Service Improvement, Barnhart's reorganization of the Social Security disability process) is going to bring significantly greater efficiency and consistency to disability determination.
One also has to wonder why Barnhart has only been willing in the last three or four months to blame Social Security's backlogs on an inadequate budget. Why was she almost completely silent on this subject for five years? If Barnhart had been willing to make a fuss about her budget would Social Security have gotten more money? There is no way to know, but Barnhart would be in a stronger position to blame Congress if she had complained publicly that the budgets that Congress was providing were inadequate to provide basic service.
While Congress must bear the blame for what has been appropriated for Social Security, Barnhart's conduct as Commissioner has not helped Social Security's budget situation and has probably hurt. She came into office promising that service at Social Security could be dramatically improved with some improved technology and what amounts to a reorganization. A reasonable Congressperson would have concluded from this that Social Security's service problems were relatively minor and that there was no pressing need for additional funding for Social Security's administrative budget. Had Barnhart concentrated upon Social Security's budget from the beginning rather than distracting Congress by promising a relatively painless fix, Social Security might be in much better shape today. If nothing else, Congress would have a more accurate idea of what the problem is.
Barnhart has also chosen to spend huge sums of money on the implementation of EDIB, the paperless file that she has claimed will make Social Security much more efficient. In the short run the money spend on EDIB has been taken away from current operations. This has hurt the agency. Implementation of any new technology also causes at least short term disruption in operations. That disruption has been quite visible with EDIB and has hurt Social Security in the short run. The question is whether the long term advantages of EDIB outweigh these short term costs. Unfortunately for Barnhart, by this point we have enough implementation of EDIB that we can say that, at best, EDIB, will never yield more than minor productivity gains. Indeed, Barnhart, herself, has been noticeably quiet on the marvels of EDIB over the last year or two -- since about the time the first reports came in on how EDIB was affecting productivity, reports that have yet to see the light of day. This makes, implementation of EDIB look like a very questionable accomplishment for Barnhart.
There are also issues about how EDIB has been implemented. Why was EDIB based upon TIFF files rather than PDF files? TIFF versus PDF sounds arcane, but it is not that complicated. The dominant scanned file technology in the marketplace is Adobe Acrobat, which uses PDF files. TIFF is a technology that has lost out in the marketplace. Other than at Social Security, TIFF is a legacy technology, something that has to be dealt with because there are still files around that were scanned in TIFF years ago, but not something used to scan new files. Commissioner Barnhart chose to hire a contractor who is charging huge sums of money to program TIFF to provide features that are already available off the shelf in Adobe Acrobat. Why lock Social Security into spending huge sums of money to create and maintain a proprietary program that largely replicates a program that is already available in the marketplace? No one ever forced Barnhart to answer this question.
Barnhart has also chosen to turn to large contractors to do most of the scanning for EDIB. This means that Social Security offices receiving material to be scanned generally do not do the scanning in-house. They ship the paperwork to huge scanning centers in other states to be scanned. Is this efficient or reasonable?
Implementation of Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan has just begun. DSI has not had a chance to either succeed or fail. Will it succeed? The odds seem stacked against it.
The centerpiece of DSI is the Federal Reviewing Officer (FEDRO). At the moment, it is unclear whether Social Security has enough money to hire enough FEDROs to implement DSI even in one small region. Even if the money can be found, it is unclear whether Social Security can find enough people willing to work as FEDROs, when the future of DSI remains uncertain. Even if enough people can be hired, Barnhart has never put forward any compelling rationale for why FEDROs are an improvement over the traditional method of review. Barnhart's main argument seems to have been to ask people to look at how bad things are -- and then say that her plan will be much better, without explaining why. It is undeniable that the current situation is terrible, but that does not mean that any change must be a change for the better. Iraq is a good example of the fact that a poorly thought out plan can always make a bad situation worse.
The other major part of DSI is elimination of the Appeals Council. The pesky problem with this is that everyone who has looked at eliminating the Appeals Council, including Barnhart, knows that simply eliminating the Appeals Council will increase the number of Social Security civil actions in the federal courts to unacceptable levels. Barnhart has promised this will not happen because Social Security will somehow find a way to screen out most of those cases by using some computer program to identify those cases and review them before they ever get to federal court. Yet, no such program exists. Social Security has only recently started seeking a contractor to develop such a program. Actually, there would be a simple way of doing this. That would be to review ALJ decisions denying benefits when the claimant is represented by an attorney who has a history of bringing civil actions against Social Security, but that would not be politically acceptable. It would also be a long term disaster for Social Security since it would just encourage more civil actions. Other than identifying cases to review based upon who is representing the claimant, there is probably nothing that will work. The dramatic increase in business for the federal courts caused by eliminating the Appeals Council is a problem that Barnhart has sought to finesse. Her solution has been to leave the problem for her successor.
Barnhart came into office promising to successfully implement EDIB and DSI so that she could "enjoy" them before the end of her term in office. Clearly, that did not happen. Social Security disability claimants cannot now "enjoy" any of Barnhart's achievements, for there are none. There is scant evidence that future claimants will ever "enjoy" any benefit from Barnhart's plans. At the end of the day, Social Security is demonstrably worse off than when Barnhart arrived and there is little reason to believe that future developments will make her time in office look any better.
In the end, the best defense of Barnhart -- and in the context of the Bush Administration, it may not be a bad defense -- may be that she meant well and we could have done a lot worse.
Jan 18, 2007
Grover Norquist has been strongly pressuring President Bush to not include any tax increase in any plan he may have for Social Security. There was probably no hope for a Social Security plan anyway, but eliminating the possibility of a tax increase makes it utterly impossible. Norquist may not be a household name, but he is one of the most important figures in right wing political circles and someone whom a weakened President Bush cannot afford to cross.
Conservative leaders are confident their opposition to higher taxes scuttles any chance that President George W. Bush will make a deal with congressional Democrats to overhaul Social Security.`Nothing will happen in the next two years'' on Social Security, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. After lobbying Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Norquist said the officials made clear to him that ``they don't intend to raise taxes.'' Some Democrats have made Bush's willingness to consider tax increases a precondition for negotiations over Social Security.
|Michael R. McNulty, NY Chairman|
|Sander M. Levin, MI|
Earl Pomeroy, ND
Allyson Y. Schwartz, PA
Artur Davis, AL
Xavier Becerra, CA
Lloyd Doggett, TX
Stephanie Tubbs Jones, OH
| ||Sam Johnson, TX|
Ron Lewis, KY
Kevin Brady, TX
Paul Ryan, WI
Devin Nunes, CA
We are revising our rules that deal with automatic cost-of-living increases to primary insurance amounts under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). The revision is necessary because, beginning with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for January 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will publish the CPI to three decimal places. The CPI is currently published to one decimal place as is now reflected in our regulations. With this revision, our rules will conform to the change in the reporting of the CPI.
Jan 17, 2007
Chair: Dave Obey (WI)
Nita M. Lowey (NY)
Rosa L. DeLauro (CT)
Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (IL)
Patrick J. Kennedy (RI)
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA)
Barbara Lee (CA)
Tom Udall (NM)
Michael Honda (CA)
Betty McCollum (MN)
Tim Ryan (OH)
Dave Obey (WI), Ex Officio
James T. Walsh (NY)
Ralph Regula (OH)
John E. Peterson (PA)
Dave Weldon (FL)
Michael K. Simpson (ID)
Dennis R. Rehberg (MT)
Jerry Lewis (CA), Ex Officio
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have already filed 176,000 new disability claims, but have run into a VA backlog of more than 400,000 cases. VA officials say reducing this backlog is their top priority.
"I am not happy with it. I want it to be shorter," says [VA] Secretary Jim Nicholson.Nicholson says the hurdle is that every claim has to be verified when none of the records are on computers. "They're all paper and some are (very) thick. We are working this; it's a big deal for us. It's a high priority," Nicholson says. [Note that VA is saying that a transition to paperless files is the key, which is exactly what the Commissioner of Social Security has been saying, although there is no evidence to date that the conversion to scanned files is doing anything to reduce the backlog at Social Security.]
But Nicholson insists the VA is not understaffed, an assertion veterans groups call absurd. Lewis sees a mistake-prone agency in need of a wartime upgrade.
Jan 16, 2007
Jan 15, 2007
Jan 14, 2007
The new job will give McNulty an opportunity to tackle one of his pet peeves: The budget trick that allows annual surpluses in the Social Security trust fund -- overpayments from workers and their employers -- to be used for funding other government operations.
"Here in Congress, we ought to get to honest budgeting," McNulty said in an interview. "Social Security trust fund monies ought to be used for Social Security recipients, not for other purposes."
Jan 13, 2007
Leaders of the Senate Budget Committee want to assemble a bipartisan panel of lawmakers and administration officials to deal with the skyrocketing costs of Social Security and other entitlement programs, with the goal of bringing a reform proposal to a vote in Congress later this year.
Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he and his predecessor, Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), have asked House and Senate leaders to consider appointing the panel, which would be composed of an equal number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. They said they have also asked the White House to participate.
Conrad declined to provide many details of the panel, saying too much information could "kill this baby in the crib."
Jan 12, 2007
Jan 11, 2007
We had an interesting lunch in our offices today with Paul Anderson and Susan Becker of the public affairs shop at the Government Accountability Office. They noted that like executive branch agencies, GAO has been working through contingency plans for what to do if Congress enacts a measure essentially freezing its funding this year. And also like other agencies, among the possibilities GAO is considering is employee furloughs. Interestingly, congressional staffers have responded to this possibility by asking GAO officials what would happen if the House and Senate prohibited them from using furloughs to cut costs.
Jan 10, 2007
U.S. President George W. Bush would prefer not to boost Social Security taxes, but is ready to listen to all ideas on entitlement reform, the White House said Tuesday, declining to explicitly rule out the idea of a tax hike. ...
Bush has tasked Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson with working with lawmakers on a fix for the ailing Social Security system. The talks, conducted behind closed doors, have triggered speculation that a bipartisan compromise could include raising the $97,500 limit on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax and adopting Bush's proposed personal retirement accounts.
Asked if taxes were off the negotiating table, Snow said, "We never said that they were on the table." ...
Democrats have shown no willingness to accept retirement accounts, particularly if they are funded by payroll taxes. Investment accounts, however, remain at the top of Bush's Social Security reform agenda.
"We'll let the debate proceed, but you know what the president's bright lines are: he believes it's important to have an investment component that allows people to take advantage of the far superior rates of return that one gets investing in a market place," Snow said.
In June 2006, the Center for Retirement Research released the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI). The results showed that even if households work to age 65 and annuitize all their financial assets, including the receipts from reverse mortgages on their homes, 43 percent will be at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Households are more likely to be ‘at risk’ if they are young, have low incomes, or lack pension coverage.
This brief looks at the three major factors that have caused the Index to increase since the early 1980s. These factors are: 1) a decline in Social Security replacement rates due to the decline in one-earner couples and the increase in Social Security’s Normal Retirement Age; 2) lower pension replacement rates as a result of the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans; and 3) lower annuity payments due to the dramatic decline in real interest rates. These negative factors have been only partially offset by a modest increase in financial assets, and an increase in the retirement income that homeowners could potentially obtain through reverse mortgages.
Having identified the key movers, this brief also updates the Index from 2004 to 2006. During this period, the run-up in housing prices was cancelled out by a corresponding surge in mortgage debt, which resulted in no change in the ‘at risk’ status of any of the Index’s age cohorts. However, compared to the 2004 Index, the 2006 Index has more Generation Xers and fewer Baby Boomers. Since Generation Xers are more likely to be ‘at risk,’ this change increased the Index slightly to 44 percent.
In May 2006, while Social Security as a whole was struggling to meet its Medicare Part D workload, Social Security was having a national conference for its public affairs personnel, featuring Willard Scott and Ari Fleischer as paid speakers.
Jan 9, 2007
Jan 8, 2007