Oct 22, 2007

Fireworks At AALJ Meeting With Astrue

The ALJ Improvement Board includes the text of a newsletter from the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), which is a union which represents Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). The newsletter summarizes a meeting on October 10 between the head of the AALJ and Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and other top Social Security officials. To put it mildly, it was not a friendly meeting.

As I have said about another recent situation involving ALJs, this is painful to watch. Instant karma?

Read the newsletter while you can. I doubt that it will stay up long.

Social Security News Readers

Click on the map shown above to see where Social Security News readers reside. Not all hits on this blog are shown on the map, just the bigger concentrations. The large "(not set)" location is because Social Security's network was not allowing the relaying geographic locations for a time. I believe that problem has been resolved.

This Is Doable

The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee can do little directly about the Social Security Administration's staff shortages and huge backlogs. This problem can be addressed directly only by increased appropriations and those committees do not control appropriations. These committees could report out legislation that demands that the Social Security Administration meet certain service delivery criteria, but any legislation they report out of committee must comply with Congressional "pay-go" rules which require that any legislation that would cost money must also provide a means to pay for those costs. If the Social Security Administration is ordered by legislation to provide better service, Congress has to cut something else or raise taxes to pay for it and that is much harder to do.

Let me suggest something that would not cost a dime. Require the Commissioner of Social Security to file with Congress every year a budget request that sets forth the amounts of money the agency needs to meet certain specified service delivery criteria. This does not cost a thing because it does not require that any monies be appropriated. It merely allows the Congress and the American people to know how much it would cost to run the Social Security Administration as it should be run. Social Security Commissioners would no longer be able to get away with piously declaring their commitment to good service while proposing budgets that make service ever worse at the Social Security Administration. The Congress and the White House could then decide how much to actually appropriate, without illusions about the effects of their appropriations.

At the moment, no one knows how much it would cost to achieve satisfactory service at Social Security. The White House's budget for Social Security in recent years would not have come close to achieving this goal (despite what Michael Astrue has been repeating at every turn) and the Congress under Republican leadership appropriated far less than the White House asked for. The current Commissioner of Social Security seems unwilling to ask for anything more than the White House is willing to recommend for his agency and the White House is uninterested in providing enough money to address the problem. The Democratically controlled Congress does not even know what the agency needs.

Let me suggest a few service criteria that should be assured in any budget proposal that the Commissioner of Social Security presents to Congress, but this is just for starters. There should be other criteria.
  1. Have sufficient telephone lines for both Social Security's 800 number and field offices that less than 5% of callers to either receive a busy signal.
  2. Have a human answer 90% of telephone calls to Social Security's 800 number within four rings.
  3. Have a human answer 60% of all telephone calls to Social Security's field offices within four rings by the end of the first fiscal year for which a budget proposal is prepared after this legislation is enacted and then increase this by 10% a year until it reaches 90%. [Why only 60%? Because they currently can only answer about 50% and many of those are only after dozens of rings.]
  4. Retain at least the same number of Social Security field offices as currently (although some individual offices will need to be closed and some new offices opened because of population shifts) but increase the number of field offices in proportion to the rise of the population of the United States.
  5. Hold all Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings within 800 days after a request for hearing and then reduce this time limit by 100 days per year until it is 200 days.

Poll -- Off Topic

With thanks to Daily Kos for the idea

Oct 21, 2007

An Image From 1939

Offices To Close Early In Buffalo Area

From the Buffalo News:

WASHINGTON — Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, is criticizing the Social Security Administration for proposing a pilot project that, beginning in March, would close the agency’s Buffalo area offices to the public three hours early every Wednesday afternoon.

The agency says the program is under consideration as a possible way for office workers to catch up on the mounting backlog of work — growing larger with baby boomers beginning to sign up for retirement benefits and call volume threatening to surpass staffing limitations.

“I understand concerns about having insufficient staff to adequately handle the agency’s current workload, but I assure you that limiting access to the public will not solve that problem and will only create further backlogs, confusion and dissatisfaction among the members of the public whom your agency serves,” Reynolds said in a letter to Michael J. Astrue, Social Security commissioner.

Reynolds said the plan could backfire and adversely affect senior citizens and disabled people.

The Empire State News reports that Social Security will not go ahead with the reduction in offce hours -- until March.

Testimony On SSI Computation Issues

Below are some excerpts from testimony of David Rust, Social Security's Acting Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs before the Subcommittees on Select Revenue Measures and Income and Family Support on October 17.
... this provision would treat most military compensation as wages for SSI, and codify SSA's policy of treating certain housing allowances as “in-kind” income. We believe this legislation is very important. ...

Under current SSI law, generally only basic pay is counted as earned income. All other allowances – housing, uniform, special duty pay, and so on – are counted as unearned income. Because of SSI's provisions supporting beneficiary efforts to work, earned income is treated differently than unearned income in determining benefit eligibility and payment level. ...

This distinction between consideration of military basic pay and other pay types has had the effect of disadvantaging military personnel compared to civilians in similar situations....

The proposal contained in the HEART bill would result in treating most cash military compensation and civilian wages alike (for SSI purposes), thus eliminating this present unfair treatment of military compensation other than basic pay. ...

Turning to the second proposal, we also support legislation that would exclude the AmeriCorps State and National and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program payments for purposes of determining SSI eligibility and benefit amounts. ...

... the third proposal to exclude State annuity payments to blind veterans from income consideration for SSI benefits, could serve as a means to recognize that sacrifice. An exclusion of State annuity payments for veterans who, by definition, are blind and also of limited means, may be reasonable and appropriate.

Department Of Treasury Issues Another "Issue Brief" On Social Security

Proving that he still believes, the Secretary of the Treasury has put forth another "Issue Brief" designed to move the country towards some sort of "Social Security reform." The paper tries to convince the public that Social Security as presently constituted is worthless, that anyone born after 1935 will get less money out of Social Security than they put in, unless they are a very low wage earner. Of course, in figuring this, disability benefits are not considered. Although the report does not mention it, I think that survivor benefits are also ignored, which makes the report seriously misleading. The report also suggests that the Social Security trust funds are meaningless and no one should have any real hope of receiving Social Security benefits in the future. If you believe what this report says, you have to believe that the country made a grievous mistake in enacting Social Security in the 1930s and that the program should be abolished as quickly as possible.

Oct 20, 2007

One Thing Astrue Did Not Mention

When Social Security's Commissioner, Michael Astrue, spoke at the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) in St. Louis this week one subject that I hoped would come up was the cap on fees that may be paid for representing Social Security claimants. This has remained at $5,300 for more than five years. Social Security is allowed, but not required, to increase the fee cap for inflation. If the fee cap were adjusted for inflation, it would now be about $6,100. Astrue did not mention this subject.

Oct 19, 2007

New Digestive System Listings

The Social Security Administration has published new digestive system listings. The notice indicates that the new listings are expected to save substantial sums of money that would have been paid out to claimants. The rules are effective on December 18.

Oct 18, 2007

More From NOSSCR Conference

Here are a few more items from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) conference in St. Louis.
  • More than 1,000 were in attendance.
  • NOSSCR bestowed it Eileen Sweeney Distinguised Service Award to Barbara Samuels and Donald Becker.
  • Michael Astrue has a daughter in college in St. Louis.
  • Nancy Shor, NOSSCR's long time executive director said that it was her understanding that the current plan is that only 125 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are to be hired in fiscal year 2009, which begins on October 1, 2008. [This may not be enough to keep up with ordinary attrition and is certainly not enough to do anything about the hearing backlog.]

Lisa De Soto At NOSSCR Conference

Lisa De Soto, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), spoke today at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) conference in St. Louis. Here are some points that I picked up from her presentation, with my comments in brackets:
  • There were 18,000 cases remanded with 8,600 allowances under the "informal remand" [or re-recon] process in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2007.
  • ODAR has 144,000 cases that have been waiting for a hearing for 900 days or more. [Good Lord, that is a huge number.]
  • ODAR has 1,045 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) on duty now. [I believe that is down about 50 in the last six months or so -- ordinary attrition.]
  • The new register from which ALJs can be hired should be available later this month.
  • Only 92 additional staff members are to be hired to support the ALJs. [Since ODAR hiring along with all Social Security hiring is frozen as a general matter, this means that the support staff at ODAR will decline over the course of this fiscal year, since 92 will not be enough to replace ordinary attrition.]
  • De Soto does not expect the new ALJs to be able to produce many decisions until near the end of this fiscal year (September 30, 2008).
  • De Soto plans a November 1, 2007 "kickoff" for the Senior Attorney program.
  • By the end of this month, ODAR will send out "guidance" to the ALJs to require them to hear and decide 500-700 cases per year.
  • De Soto also mentioned the 11 actions brought before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) against ALJs this year and promised to "keep it up."
  • She expects rules to be issued soon to require 75 day notice of ALJ hearings and to require that all evidence be submitted five days before ALJ hearings. These new rules will also "close the record" after an ALJ decision.
  • ALJs at the new national hearings center at ODAR headquarters will supervise the attorneys who write the decisions for them. [This makes these ALJs supervisory personnel who would be ineligible to join a union. Was there an anti-ALJ flavor to her remarks? Absolutely.]
  • If the national hearings center works, there may be an expansion to regional hearings centers.
  • Currently there are 160,000 "unpulled" cases at ODAR. [If you do not know what "unpulled" means, well, the subject may not be important to you anyway.] Social Security has signed a contract for "e-pulling" of files. E-pulling should begin nationally by June 2008.
  • The pilot for a program to allow attorneys to review online the files of their clients should begin in June 2008.
  • By October 2008, ODAR should have many new things in place.
  • De Soto favors an expansion of video hearings. De Soto refused to answer a question asking whether she expects local hearing offices to "wither away." I do not mean that she evaded the question. She said specifically that she was refusing to answer the question. [My congratulations to the person who asked this question.]
  • De Soto said that she would not eliminate the right of a Social Security claimant to refuse a video hearing.

Astrue At NOSSCR Conference

Michael Astrue spoke today at the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) in St. Louis. Here are some points which I gleaned from his remarks, with my comments in brackets:
  • Former Commissioner Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan was budgeted for 35% of his agency's budget when Astrue took office. [I found that to be a stunning figure. I can understand why Astrue may have thought when he first took office that merely cancelling DSI would free up a lot of dollars to deal with his agency's backlogs. The fact that it did not is very strong proof of just how unrealistic DSI was.]
  • He described the Social Security Administration (SSA) as "struggling." He is "frustrated" with the length of time it takes to get out disability decision.
  • Two years ago SSA had 66,000 employees. By the end of this year [calendar year (CY) or fiscal year (FY)?] SSA will have fewer than 60,000 employees.
  • In this FY, Social Security will generally be unable to replace employees who leave. Disability Determination Service (DDS) offices will be allowed to replace one employee for every two who leave, because of their higher employee turnover rate.
  • Astrue expects 150 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to come "online" by April 2008. It was clear that he was talking only about 150 new ALJs, not a net increase in the number of ALJs. [150 new ALJs may not be enough to even cover the normal attrition in ALJs between now and the end of the FY.]
  • He hopes that SSA will have a new interactive website by "next year" through which attorneys will be able to view their clients' files at SSA and that SSA will have an I-Appeals system which will allow for the online filing of appeals -- "next year." [Again, is the "next year", the next CY or the next FY?]
  • Astrue is looking at shutting down many temporary offsite hearing locations.
  • SSA is working on new regulations on the recognition of law firms and other similar entities as claimants' representatives. He hopes to get this to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where it would have to be approved, by early 2008. [This would not sound like anything important to an SSA employee or even to many who represent Social Security claimants, but it is a potentially major change which dramatically eases the path towards larger entities, either law firms or non-attorney entities, to represent Social Security claimants.]
  • Astrue wants it to be possible for attorneys to be able to attend Social Security hearings electronically from their offices. He described this as "big."
  • Earlier plans to open several new hearing offices around the country have been shelved due to lack of funds.
  • Astrue has been wondering why it has been many years since SSA has asked Congress for legislation to simplify its processes or reduce its workloads.
  • Instructions on the Senior Attorney program are going out "now."
  • Astrue feels that he learns more when he takes unscheduled visits to Social Security offices and facilities. [A very wise observation.]
  • He described many of Social Security's work processes as being medieval and said that "It's a miracle and a credit to the people that the system still works."
  • Astrue said that he was becoming convinced that SSA has too much "bricks and mortar" and that he wanted to put more money in people. [Interesting, but what does it mean?]
  • SSA now has 11 cases at the Merit Systems Protection Board against ALJs. [By SSA standards this is a stunningly high number.] He intends for SSA to be much more "proactive" on ALJ discipline. He talked about being heavily involved in ALJ disciplinary matters when he worked at SSA previously and being frustrated at the lack of action on ALJ discipline at that time. He said that there was one current ALJ who was trying to simultaneously hold down a second full time federal job! [OK, who is it?]

Federal Register Alert

New proposed digestive system listings will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow. According to Michael Astrue, Social Security Commissioner, who spoke today at the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), these will include major changes in the listings concerning liver diseases. These listings will now include the MELD score, a concept previously unknown to the listings. (Much more on Astrue's talk later.)

AARP Working On Social Security Budget

The appropriations bill covering the Social Security Administration is coming up for action on the Senate floor today. From Congressional Quarterly(registration required):

AARP, the biggest U.S. lobbying group for people 50 and older, complained about how little the Labor-HHS bill would provide for Social Security’s administrative expenses. The Senate bill would allocate $9.7 billion, $125 million more than Bush requested. AARP said it was “grateful” for the additional funding, but “the agency needs more funding to avoid additional office closings and an increased disability backlog,” according to AARP official David P. Sloane in an Oct. 16 letter to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus. AARP has 38 million members, or about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Separately, Harkin yesterday criticized Bush for submitting a budget request for Social Security that “would add almost 100,000 disability claims to the backlog.” “We put in $426 million to reduce that backlog,” Harkin said. Social Security last week said it planned to hire about 150 judges and office staff for hearings on disability claims in the spring 2008. Social Security had a backlog of almost 747,000 cases at hearing level as of the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Oct 17, 2007

Social Security Budget Comes Up In Senate Tomorrow

The Labor-HHS budget bill comes up for action on the Senate floor tomorrow. This is the budget bill that includes the Social Security Administration.

Another Post On The Baby Boomer Event

From the Entitled To Know blog of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare:
We have to admit to being more than just a little confused when we read press coverage of yesterday’s baby boomer event at the National Press Club. Just in case you missed it, the nation’s first baby boomer, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, filed online for Social Security benefits yesterday to much hoopla.

But what was truly unexpected about this event was the lack of the administration’s usual gloom and doom propaganda. In fact, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue was incredibly reasonable and definitely not singing from the same “sky-is-falling-the-baby-boomers-will-suck-us-dry” hymnal preferred by the Bush administration.

Here is what Commission Astrue said about Social Security’s financial outlook:
“There’s no reason for any immediate panic”
“It’s not catastrophic”
“There’s no factual basis for these ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios
many have described”

Wow. You have to wonder if the White House knows he’s sticking so closely to the facts.

But here’s where we find ourselves down the rabbit hole. While the Bush administration’s Social Security head is telling the straight story on the program’s long-term fiscal picture (unlike what we generally hear elsewhere from this administration), multiple news organizations virtually ignored it in favor of the White House’s crisis propaganda. Almost all of the coverage today parrots the administration’s “we can’t afford the Baby Boomers ” line even though that is
not what the SSA Commissioner actually said at this event.

The Washington Post even went so far as to belittle the Commissioner and Casey-Kirschling for having the nerve to express their confidence in Social Security’s future. The media loves a crisis...this isn’t new. However, Social Security is too important to millions of American seniors and their families to play so fast and loose with the facts in the name of headlines.

The First Boomer

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling made an appearance with Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue a couple of days ago. She was dubbed the first baby boomer to apply for Social Security benefits. Here is a background story on Ms. Casey-Kirschling in an old USA Today article. I hate to sound cynical (it's an occupational hazard) but something tells me that Ms. Casey-Kirschling has an agent or publicist. I have a hard time believing that the Social Security Administration would have sought her out.

2.3% COLA

The Associated Press is reporting that the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security benefits will be 2.3% for this year.

Oct 16, 2007

ODAR Quality Assurance Program Coming?

Here is another small nugget from Commissioner Astrue's September 13 letter. He says that one initiative he has to work down "aged" cases, that is claims that have been awaiting a hearing for a long time, is to implement a "quality assurance program." He gives no explanation of what he means.

I do not know what this would mean other than some process by which decisions of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are reviewed for "quality" with some action being taken about those that do not exhibit sufficient "quality." The problem is that no one knows what "quality" is when we are talking about ALJ decisions. There is no gold standard. This might permit a Social Security Commissioner to rachet up or down the percentage of claims that are approved by ALJs whenever desired. This is essentially the situation with the "quality assurance" program at the initial and reconsideration levels of review. This is the sort of thing that Social Security Commissioners have desired for a long time. They have long felt that the ALJs are far too independent and need to be brought under some sort of control.

Evidence Submission Restrictions Coming

Here is an excerpt from the September 13 Astrue letter that deserves special attention:
We plan to include many of the hearing level procedures implemented under DSI and now in place for disability cases in the Boston Region into parts 404 and 416 of our rules to reduce the hearing backlog, including time frames for submitting evidence to the ALJ and closing the evidentiary record at the time of the ALJ decision. These changes will expand those rules nation-wide and apply them to hearings on both disability and non-disability matters.
I have seen no evidence that these rule changes will reduce hearing backlogs.

September 13 Astrue Letter

On September 13 Commissioner Astrue sent a lengthy letter to the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that deals with Social Security. I have reproduced the letter in the separate Social Security Perspectives blog. Due to technical limitations in Blogger, the letter is spread over three posts. Click on each individual page to view it full size.

I have not had a chance to study the letter in detail yet, but it is certainly a much more complete budget picture for Social Security than any other document that has been released. It suggests tough times for the current fiscal year, but improvement in the next fiscal year, which will begin on October 1, 2008.


GAO Report On Non-Attorney Withholding And SSI Fee Withholding

The Government Accountability Office has issued its long-awaited report on withholding of fees for non-attorney representatives and withholding of fees for representatives of SSI claimants. Here is an excerpt:
Nonattorney representatives who have met the eligibility requirements for fee withholding under the demonstration project have more experience representing disability claimants and are more likely to specialize in disability representation than attorneys or ineligible nonattorneys. According to our surveys, we estimate that nonattorneys eligible for fee withholding have represented on average over 240 disability claimants in a 2-year period, whereas other representatives have represented on average fewer than 90. Nearly all eligible nonattorneys specialize in disability representation, a fact that may explain why they have substantially more experience representing disability claimants. Although both eligible and ineligible nonattorneys lack advanced legal training, many had relevant work experience before becoming disability representatives, such as having worked at SSA. In terms of current employment, attorneys and eligible nonattorneys predominantly work in the private sector, but many ineligible nonattorneys work at nonprofit organizations and government agencies, which may not charge claimants fees. Results in Brief Judges rated attorneys and eligible nonattorneys about equally well overall, and more highly than ineligible nonattorneys, while claimants did not distinguish substantially among the three groups. In overall performance, judges at the 10 sites we surveyed during January and February 2007 viewed attorneys and eligible nonattorneys as comparable, although they rated attorneys more highly in a few specific areas of disability representation. Judges rated about 55 percent of overall performances by both attorneys and eligible nonattorneys as above average or among the best, and only about 6 percent as below average or poor. Many judges also told us they believe that experience in the field rather than legal training is the key to effective representation of disability claimants. However, judges did rate attorneys somewhat more highly than the eligible nonattorneys in certain facets of disability representation, such as in questioning of vocational and medical experts. By contrast, judges viewed nonattorneys who are ineligible for fee withholding as less capable than both attorneys and eligible nonattorneys, both in overall performance and in every facet of disability representation. Ratings by the limited number of claimants we interviewed, on the other hand, did not distinguish substantially among the various representatives in their overall performance. Judges and eligible nonattorneys were generally satisfied with the overall implementation of fee withholding for nonattorneys, but they expressed some concern about the experience standard for nonattorney eligibility. Almost all eligible nonattorney representatives were satisfied with SSA’s overall management of the program. Eligible nonattorneys also report that eligibility for fee withholding has benefited them by, for example, allowing them to take on more cases because they spend less time trying to collect fees from claimants. We found that judges and eligible nonattorneys considered most of the eligibility requirements for participation in the demonstration project to be reasonable. However, both groups, in addition to advocacy groups we spoke with, questioned the adequacy of the experience standard, which calls for nonattorneys to have represented at least five claimants before SSA over a 2-year period. Most of the judges we interviewed and more than half of the eligible nonattorneys considered this to be insufficient experience. Judges, and also advocacy groups we spoke with, said that the standard would not ensure that eligible nonattorneys are well qualified in disability representation. Fee withholding has succeeded in encouraging some attorneys to represent more SSI claimants, but it has also complicated payments to representatives and claimants in certain SSI cases. Attorneys reported that before fee withholding was extended to SSI, the possibility of not collecting their fees affected their decision to represent SSI claimants. Because of the availability of fee withholding, approximately one-third of attorneys with disability practices report that they are now representing more SSI claimants than in the past. Fee withholding, however, has also complicated payments to attorney and nonattorney representatives, as well as to claimants. In some cases, representatives may inappropriately receive both SSA and state payments that may total more than the SSA-authorized fee. Most states provide cash assistance to SSI claimants during the application process. At least 10 of these states pay fees to representatives of successful SSI claimants to encourage representatives to take SSI cases, and therefore increase the number of state residents receiving federal rather than state assistance benefits. Because SSA does not coordinate with these states to prevent overpayments, representatives can collect more than the authorized fee through payments from both SSA and the state—something that under the Social Security Act, representatives are not allowed to do. In addition, fee withholding in the SSI program has delayed benefit payments to claimants. In cases where claimants receive benefits from both the SSI and DI programs at the same time, SSA performs a calculation to determine the total benefits and the amount of the representative’s fee. With the extension of fee withholding to the SSI program, SSA cannot pay benefits until after it has performed this calculation. According to SSA and two disability representative associations, this change has led to delays in claimants receiving their payments, although SSA has not determined the extent of these delays. SSA is tentatively planning to make changes that would address this issue. We are recommending that the Commissioner of SSA monitor the nonattorney eligibility criteria to help ensure that only well-qualified representatives receive access to fee withholding, and if necessary adjust these criteria; assess the extent of overpayments to representatives in cases involving state fees, and if necessary take steps to prevent these overpayments; and continue to explore options to address benefit payment delays for recipients receiving both SSI and DI benefits. In its comments on a draft of this report, SSA agreed with our findings and recommendations, and noted actions it plans to take to address our recommendations.

Astrue On Social Security "Reform"

Social Security wanted to use the "first boomer goes on Social Security" story to promote using the web to do business with the Social Security Administration. However, it was also an occasion to talk about "Social Security reform". Here are some quotes from a Bloomberg article:

Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue said it is ``highly likely'' that policymakers will amend Social Security sometime between 2009 and 2011, when the next president has a "mandate'' to pursue far-reaching policy changes.

"It's just a question of timing,'' Astrue said. ...

There is more agreement among Democrats and Republicans on how to solve the issue than may be apparent from their public statements, he said.

"When you're behind closed doors, and you're not posturing for the public or for the media,'' Astrue said, "they say almost word for word the same thing.'' ...

"Nobody likes any of the options,'' he said. "Nobody wants to pay higher taxes. Nobody wants to cut benefits. So there's no easy answer one way or another, and so you can't expect anyone to say, `Oh yeah, that's terrific idea.' There is no terrific idea. The question ultimately will be: `What's the least painful idea?''

Behind closed doors Republicans were really saying they supported removing the earnings cap from FICA? Democrats were really saying they support benefit cuts?

Oct 15, 2007

Boomers And Social Security

From WTOP:
A Maryland woman Monday becomes the first baby boomer of 80 million baby boomers who will file for Social Security benefits over the next 22 years.

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, a retired teacher from Cecil County, Md., was born in Philadelphia at one second past midnight on Jan. 1, 1946.

The federal government considers her the nation's first baby boomer.

She'll file her application online during a ceremony with Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.

This is inaccurate in a couple of ways. Boomers have been filing for Social Security survivor benefits since the 1940s and for disability benefits since the 1960s. Ms. Casey-Kirshling had to have been conceived before the end of World War II, so she is not really a baby boomer. Still, this does get to a fundamental truth. Baby boomers will be retiring in huge numbers over the next 20 years or so and that will have a huge impact upon the Social Security Administration and American society.

Oct 14, 2007

An Image From 1956

Anectodal Report On Social Security Service

From the blog of Matthew Yglesias, a writer for the Atlantic Magazine:

Tons of people seem puzzled as to why I would need a physical Social Security card. The answer is that I need it as proof of Social Security Number in order to (belatedly) convert my New York driver's license into a DC one.

Incidentally, service at the Social Security Administration office at 2100 M Street was very prompt. I'd sort of been expecting an interminable wait during which I could make a serious dent in The Conscience of a Liberal but my number got called almost as soon as I was finished filling out the brief form. The employees working at the office were polite and helpful. Bureaucracy works!

Oct 13, 2007

Survey On Social Security Service Delivery

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released an audit of the Social Security Administration's survey methodology for measuring the satisfaction rate of those who do business with the agency. This is not the report on that satisfaction rate itself, but an audit of that report. As far as I know the underlying report has not been released. The audit gives the following description of the methodology for measuring customer satisfaction:
To assess the indicator's progress in meeting this objective and goal, SSA’s Office of Quality Performance (OQP) annually conducts a series of tracking surveys to measure a customer’s satisfaction with his or her last contact with SSA. SSA conducts three surveys: the 800-Number Caller Survey, the FO Caller Survey, and the Office Visitor (OV) Survey. OQP uses a 6-point rating scale ranging from “excellent” to “very poor.” To report the final overall service satisfaction, OQP combines the three customer satisfaction surveys, weighting each survey by the customer universe it represents.
According to the audit report 82% percent of individuals who do business with SSA rated the overall service at Social Security as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.”

Demonstation Outside Social Security Office

From the Dallas Star-Telegram:
A small band of pro-immigrant groups rallied outside the Social Security Administration's Dallas office Friday and called on the agency to keep its data out of immigration enforcement efforts.

About half a dozen demonstrators, including state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, delivered letters asking the administration not to allow its "no match" letters to become part of immigration enforcement.

Oct 12, 2007

Should 401(k)s And IRAs Count?

From a press release:
Goodwill Industries International is calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to pass H.R. 3696, which would modify the nation's disability policies to exclude 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts from federally funded means-tested benefits, so that all Americans can pursue a path to self-sufficiency and financial independence. ...

When people with disabilities are placed into a full-time position for the first time, they can do things that many people take for granted, such as opening a checking account and even making small contributions to their employer's 401(k) plan. But existing disability policy creates a disincentive to work and is feeding fears that if people do work and save for retirement they will lose their eligibility for income support and Medicaid.

What Happened?

Above is a page from the budget request that Social Security submitted to Congress in February 2007 for fiscal year (FY) 2008, which began on October 1. No budget has yet been adopted for FY 2008. Social Security is operating on a continuing funding resolution. Click on the page shown above to see it full size. The $9.597 billion figure shown above is not the budget that Jo Anne Barnhart urged, but the President's much lower budget. Note that even though this budget contained a 5% budget increase in funding for Social Security, that the agency projected in February that this budget that its backlogs would get worse and that the service it offers would deteriorate, although not badly. The projections in February called for a tiny cut in Social Security's workforce, from 74,823 total Social Security and DDS workyears to 74,596 workyears. (see page 91 of the Budget Request.)

We are now eight months later. Commissioner Astrue is saying that this same budget will require a near total hiring freeze for FY 2008, which will mean a dramatic decline in Social Security's workforce and dramatically increased backlogs throughout the agency. What happened since February 2007 to cause such a dramatic change? Were the projections in February unrealistically optimistic? Is Michael Astrue lowballing with the current projections to make himself look better when things turn out a bit better or is he lowballing as a covert way of lobbying for a higher budget? Did something happen in the last eight months to affect Social Security's projections for staffing levels for this fiscal year?

Demonstration Near SSA Headquarters

From the Baltimore Sun:
A day after a federal judge ruled that the government could not use mismatched Social Security numbers to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, a coalition of immigrant advocates, faith leaders and workers gathered near the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn to voice their outrage at the proposal. ...

Interfaith Worker Justice and Maryland immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland sponsored the gathering of about 100 people yesterday at St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church, just blocks from SSA headquarters. ...

Weiss said agency officials declined her group's request for a meeting to express their concerns. So after yesterday's gathering, faith leaders and advocates walked to Social Security headquarters to deliver a letter of opposition addressed to Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.

"The Social Security Administration exists to help people live with security," the letter stated. "Your Administration should never be turned into the immigration police." ...

Maria Welch, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that six years ago she received a "no-match" letter after she married and changed her name. "It took six months to get straightened out," she said. "The government doesn't do anything in 90 days." ...

The SSA does not have the resources to handle the crush of people responding to letters, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the local American Federal Government Employees, which represents the agency's employees.

"We have the lowest staffing levels since 1973," he said. "Anyone who has tried to visit a Social Security office or call the 800 number knows how difficult it is to get service. ... We likely will not be able to meet the 90-day requirement, resulting in people losing their job through no fault of their own."

Oct 11, 2007

A Very Interesting Article About Michael Astrue That I Missed

Here is an article I missed that appeared in the Belmont Citizen-Herald on March 9, 2007, shortly after Michael Astrue became Commissioner of Social Security. Belmont is the Boston suburb where Astrue lived before becoming Commissioner of Social Security. By the way, Mitt Romney also lives in Belmont.
Belmont resident Michael Astrue was in Washington, D.C. this week, but he wasn’t there to check out the museums, see the cherry blossoms in bloom or soak up the nation’s history.

He was there to become a part of it.

Astrue was sworn in as the new commissioner of Social Security on Feb. 12.

This is the second time Astrue has been an employee of the federal government — he was general counsel to the commissioner during the Reagan administration.

“It’s fun and unusual to come back two decades later. My old office is about 20 feet away from my new one,” he said.

Astrue was in Washington until 1992, when he moved back to the house he and his wife bought in 1985 on Benton Road. He started a law firm, then served as CEO of several biotech firms, including Biogen in Cambridge.

His wife, Laura Mali-Astrue, is better known to the children of Belmont as “Madame.” She has been a French teacher at the Belmont Day School for the past 14 years. This will be her last year at the school. She will join her husband in Washington in June.

The two have been “empty-nesters” since last fall, when their daughter departed for her first year of college. Their son James is a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington.

“It will be nice to live close to him without being down his back. He told us we aren’t allowed to live within three blocks of his dorm. The place we really like is about 12 blocks away,” Astrue said.

He said James will be happy because his parents will bring their dog, Maggie, an English springer spaniel named for Margaret Thatcher.

“We got Maggie when the kids were little. They wanted to name her after a famous British woman, and the only ones they knew were Margaret Thatcher and the Spice Girls. I pushed for Margaret Thatcher,” he said.

In his new job, Astrue is responsible for administering the retirement, disability and survivors insurance programs that pay out more than $580 billion annually.

He thinks he landed the job because of an appealing blend of private management and public service experience, he said.

Many, many years ago, he said, he was a law clerk while attending Harvard University. His fellow clerk also eventually settled in Belmont, where he lives to this day. His newest job is state representative, and his name is Will Brownsberger.

The Astrues won’t be leaving Belmont for good. The commissioner’s term is six years, Astrue said, and they don’t plan to become a permanent part of Washington. He said they will probably rent out the house on Benton Road, the same way they did when he was in D.C. over 20 years ago.

“We’ll miss Belmont, but we’ll be back,” he said.

A Bullet Dodged -- For Now

Under a Bush Administration plan, the Social Security Administration was going to send out a huge number of letters to employers about instances in which workers' names and Social Security numbers did not match. Unless these discrepancies were resolved within 90 days, employers were supposed to fire the employees or face serious penalties. This plan has been sidelined by a preliminary injunction issued by a San Francisco federal judge. Whatever good or bad effects this plan might have had upon immigration enforcement, it threatened to have a devastating effect upon the understaffed Social Security Administration. An excerpt from a New York Times article hints at what might have happened -- and what might happen yet if this injunction is lifted:
In a December 2006 report cited in the court documents, the inspector general of the Social Security Administration estimated that 17.8 million of the agency’s 435 million individual records contained discrepancies that could result in a no-match letter being sent to a legally authorized worker. Of those records with errors, 12.7 million belonged to native-born Americans, the report found.

Fraud In Pennsylvania

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
A Brushton woman has been sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay restitution of $15,000 for Social Security fraud, federal prosecutors said.

Angelette Freeze of Susquehanna Street was convicted of concealing her marriage from the Social Security administration so that she could receive Supplemental Security Income between 1998 and 2005.

Oct 10, 2007

No-Match Letters Blocked

From Reuters:
A U.S. federal court judge on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction barring the Bush administration from going ahead with a controversial program to remove illegal immigrants from the U.S. work force. ...

Under the proposed program, employers notified of a "no-match" would have 90 days to confirm that an employee was in the country legally or fire him if not. ...

[Federal District Court Judge] Breyer said in his decision Wednesday that the no-match letters will result in the firing of lawfully employed workers because letters based on Social Security Administration records include numerous errors.
This is important to the Social Security Administration. If those no-match letters ever go out, Social Security offices will be deluged by millions of individuals whose records contain mistakes or are out of date. Social Security's desperate staffing shortages could make this a catastrophic situation. Granting a preliminary injunction probably delays implementation for many months, perhaps even past the end of the Bush Administration.

A Question

From yesterday's press release from Social Security:
The agency also plans to hire about 150 ALJs and some additional hearing office support staff in the spring of 2008 – the only new hiring in FY 2008 as the agency continues to contract through attrition due to many years of congressional budget cuts far below what the President has requested.
Why would budget cuts in prior years require that Social Security cut its workforce this year? I can see how budget cuts in prior years would have required staff cuts in those prior years, but now? It is certainly fair to blame a good part of the current backlogs on inadequate budgets in prior years, but staffing levels in fiscal year (FY) 2008, which just began last week, are determined by the FY 2008 budget, not the budgets in prior years.

Since it seems clear that Social Security will get at least as much as what President Bush and Social Security Commissioner Astrue have requested for Social Security for FY 2008, it seems only fair to me to blame President Bush and Michael Astrue for not asking for enough money to properly staff and run the agency. Blaming prior Congresses for today's staffing level seems dishonest to me.

About the only excuse I can come up with for this is that if prior Congresses had given Social Security more funding in prior years, then in preparing the FY 2008 budget the White House and the Congress would have been working from a higher baseline and might have come to a higher number for this year. It would seem to me that it would be Michael Astrue's job to point out the fallacy of adding some small percentage onto last year's inadequate budget and expecting the backlogs to disappear. If he ever pointed out this fallacy, he did so privately. Publicly, he has said that all he wants is the President's recommended budget, even though the President's recommended budget for Social Security will require a near total hiring freeze in an agency that is already badly understaffed.

New Job For Rita Geier

From a press release:
Rita Sanders Geier has been named associate to UT Knoxville Chancellor Loren Crabtree, and will help lead intercultural efforts and implement goals of the university's diversity plan and Ready for the World initiative....

Geier was a 23-year-old faculty member at Tennessee State University in 1968 when she filed the lawsuit after the University of Tennessee announced plans to expand in Nashville. She feared that UT-Nashville would become a four-year, predominantly white school with top-notch facilities while historically black TSU would be neglected.

The suit resulted in the 2001 Geier Consent Decree, which provided $77 million in state funds over six years to diversify student populations and faculty of all state higher education institutions. Since then, more than 1,300 black students have benefited from Geier-funded scholarships at UT Knoxville. Black enrollment on the Knoxville campus has grown from 6.4 percent in 2001 to 8.2 percent in 2006. About 9 percent of this year's freshmen are black....

Prior to joining UT, Geier worked at the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., as executive counselor to the commissioner for special initiatives, serving as principal adviser on Medicare appeals, identity theft and other initiatives.

Oct 9, 2007

SSA Press Release On Backlog

The Social Security Administration has issued a press release touting its efforts to reduce its backlog in adjudicating disability claims.

Here is one interesting sentence: "The Social Security Administration also virtually eliminated its backlog of FY 2007 “aged” disability hearings cases." That is wonderful. The backlog has been eliminated! But wait, the next sentence tells us that the term "aged" cases is now defined as cases pending 1,000 days or more. Talk about setting the bar low! As long as it takes Social Security less than 32 months to give you a hearing, your case cannot be considered "aged." The press release also touts the fact that the agency has "slowed the growth" in its pending disabliity hearings case backlog. Of course, "slowed the growth" means that the backlog is continuing to get worse. It is just not getting worse at quite as fast a clip as before.

Read the press release closely and it shows that things are getting worse, but the Social Security Administration is working harder at pretending otherwise.

Note the timing, with Social Security's operating budget possibly coming up for a vote next week in the Senate. Am I being too cynical when I say that this press release looks like a deliberate effort to talk down the agency's need for additional funding?

What is particularly sad about this press release is that many Social Security employees have worked very hard to achieve the "progress" that they have achieved, but the "progress" is trivial and is being used as an excuse to avoid hiring enough people to really get the work done.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

Who do you think will win the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination?
Sam Brownback (3) 4%
Rudolph Giuliani (34) 45%
Mike Huckabee (5) 7%
Duncan Hunter (2) 3%
Alan Keyes (3) 4%
John McCain (2) 3%
Ron Paul (5) 7%
Mitt Romney (11) 15%
Tom Tancredo (2) 3%
Fred Thompson (8) 11%

Total Votes: 75

Independent Commissioner Of Social Security?

Take a look at some correspondence between Jim McCrery, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee and Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, on the effect of the children's insurance provisions recently passed by Congress and vetoed by the President. Astrue confirms that Social Security cannot tell for certain who is and who is not a citizen, which should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Note the last line in Astrue's letter: "The Office of Management and Budget advises me that there is no objection to the transmittal of this letter from the standpoint of the President's program." Why did an independent Commissioner of Social Security need the approval of the Office of Management and Budget to respond to a letter from a Congressman? Why is the "President's program" a matter of concern to an independent Commissioner of Social Security? Would Michael Astrue worry about the "President's program" if the President were Clinton or Obama or Edwards? What do we have ahead of us if Michael Astrue remains as Commissioner of Social Security through four years of a Democratic Presidency? That is how long his term of office lasts.

Note also that Astrue's stationery does not include a street address or any telephone number. That is the way it is with all virtually all Social Security stationery. It seems like they want to hide.

Oct 8, 2007

Ex Parte Communications And ALJs

I hesitate to link to a completely anonymous thread on an online message board, but I think that attorneys who represent Social Security claimants will find this thread on the ALJ Improvement Board amazing and disturbing.

Where The Money Is Going

From a Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) release:
Unlike prior Fiscal Years (FY), the number of workyears allocated for processing redeterminations (RZs) and Limited Issues (LIs) in FY 2008 is larger than in FY 2007. Because of the increase in workyears, the number of High Error Profile (HEP) Redeterminations (RZs) and Limited Issues (LIs) selected will be greater than were selected in FY 2007. Also the A, B and UC profiles will again be selected.
To translate this for you, it is more important to address SSI redeterminations to prevent erroneous payments of benefits than it is to answer the telephones at Social Security's field offices or to address the backlogs in processing of disability claims. In fact, it looks as if there will be a near complete hiring freeze during this fiscal year so these other problems will just get worse over the next year.

It would not be fair to blame the Commissioner of Social Security for this, since Congress has made it clear that it wants this. Of course Social Security ought to have sufficient funds to address the redeterminations, answer the telephones, work off the disability claims backlogs and more, but it does not. No one should be surprised that Scial Security service does not get better. That is not where our nation's priorities lie.

Fee Payment Stats

The Social Security Administration has posted the September figures for payments of fees to attorneys and others qualified to receive direct payment for representing Social Security claimants. After peaking at more than $100 million in August, fee payments declined to about $76 million in September. The fluctuations in fee payments have far more to do with increases and decreases in payment backlogs than with anything the attorneys did. These fluctuations are an indirect indicator of fluctuations in new benefit payments to disabled individuals, since the attorney is paid at about the same time as the claimant. There are huge fluctuations in how rapidly or slowly these benefits are paid.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Fee payments also include payments made to eligible non-attorneys participating in the demonstration project authorized by section 303 of the Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (Pub. L. 108-203).

Oct 7, 2007

An Image From 1937

Colombian Court Grants Equal Rights Under Social Security To Same Sex Couples

Blabendo reports that Colombia's Constitutional Court has granted equal rights under that country's Social Security system to same sex couples. Remember this is Colombia, as in the South American country. There is no reasonable chance of it happening here at any foreseeable time in the future.

Oct 6, 2007

New E-Travel System At SSA

From the Federal Times:
The Social Security Administration has signed a contract with CW Government Travel to provide online travel booking and reimbursement services, the company’s chief operating officer said Thursday.

Scott Guerrero told Federal Times that SSA reached a deal with CW on Sept. 28. The company is planning to formally announce the deal Monday, Guerrero said.
SSA is the last federal agency to settle on one of three E-Gov Travel vendors, nearly three years after the General Services Administration’s selection deadline passed.

Guerrero would not say how much the contract is worth, but said it could last until November 2013.

SSA spends $61 million on about 90,000 trips each year, Guerrero said. ...

Oct 5, 2007

Market Research At NOSSCR

I recently received the fax shown above. You can click on it to see it full size. Apparently, a lot of other members of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) received the same fax recently. Offering to pay $150 to participate in market research gets your attention, but it is a little like being offered a free vacation and all you have to do is to hear a sales pitch for a condo or a timeshare. I do not know what this is about.

Sobering Medicare News

A summary of a new report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College:
"Medicare Costs and Retirement Security"
by Alice H. Munnell

The brief's key findings are:

Medicare spending will soar, rising from 3 percent of GDP today to 8 percent of GDP in 2040.
By 2040, retirees will face:
  • a nearly 20 percent increase in income tax rates to cover the government’s Medicare contribution; and
  • rising out-of-pocket costs that will eat up more than half of the average Social Security benefit.

So, why is President Bush so worried about Title II of the Social Security Act?

Oct 4, 2007

Budget Status

From Congress Daily:
House and Senate Democrats are considering making the Labor-Health and Human Services [Fiscal Year 2008] Appropriations bill [which includes Social Security] the next major domestic policy fight with President Bush after the debate over children's health insurance. ...

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to bring it up as early as Oct. 15, and sources said upon passage, House-Senate negotiators could quickly reconcile their differences and send the measure to the White House for Bush's expected veto.

The tactic would be similar to the current standoff over the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which Democrats perceive as a political winner despite lacking the votes to override a veto. ...

Bush says he will veto the Labor-HHS measure because it spends billions of dollars more than he wants; the House measure, at $11 billion above his request, fell several votes short of enough for a potential override.

The Senate version is roughly $9 billion above the request. ...

Leadership aides said Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have discussed the option but have not made a final decision, in part because the Labor-HHS bill has to clear the Senate. That is shaping up to be at least a weeklong battle with contentious debate over stem-cell language, which Bush is likely to threaten a veto over, as well as funding priorities and earmarks.

One reason Reid has delayed the Labor-HHS measure thus far is because Republicans have threatened numerous amendments.

No Statute Of Limitations?

Shouldn't there be a limit on this sort of thing? From KETV in Omaha:
An orphan is being asked to refund money paid to him 30 years ago by the Social Security Administration.Jay Rovang, 50, is a disabled man on a fixed income. He said he got a letter from SSA, stating that it wants to collect benefits it overpaid him totaling $662. ...

A Social Security representative said the agency puts no time limit on collecting overpayments. The representative said it was only recently when Rovang started receiving disability checks that the system was triggered to collect the childhood debt.The letter to Rovang says Social Security will deduct the overpayment from his December disability check, leaving him with $421 for the entire month.

Italy Goes In Different Direction Than U.S

The Social Security Administration has issued its International Update for September with information about Social Security programs in other countries. This caught my eye:

The Italian government reached an agreement on pension reform with Italy's four largest labor unions in late July 2007. The government expects to pass legislation to raise the full retirement age to 57. If the new legislation is passed, the
full retirement age will increase from the current age 55 to age 57 over the next 4 years. The existing law requires that the retirement age increase immediately to age 60 on January 1, 2008. The government estimates that once this proposed legislation is enacted, Italians could retire with full pensions 3 or more years earlier at a cost of €10 billion (US$13.6 billion) more than under the existing law.

Controversy Over Closing Of New York Office

From the Auburn Citizen:
Plans to close the Auburn Social Security office this month again sparked opposition from one federal official Wednesday.

In a letter to the agency's commissioner, U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, argues the Social Security Administration is not using an projected $401 million increase in federal funds as anticipated. Arcuri first spoke out against the office's closure in June.

"Through my meetings with SSA staff regarding this matter, it has been made clear that additional administrative funding was a critical step to staving off closure of the Auburn office," the congressman wrote to SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue. "I find it troubling that SSA would move forward with any district office closures this year before the agency's budget for fiscal year 2008 is finalized." ...

"It seems obvious to me that two things have happened: No. 1, SSA has made no effort whatsoever to fill staffing voids in Auburn and No. 2, the decrease in visitors can be attributed to the decrease in available services and convenient office hours for the general public," Arcuri wrote, requesting another meeting with SSA officials.


Oct 3, 2007

Another AARP Article Coming

I got around to listening to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) radio broadcast on Social Security's budget and staffing problems. It is definitely worth listening to. I learned that the AARP is planning another Social Security article to come out in its November Bulletin, this time on the disability backlogs at Social Security.

I have wondered in the past why the AARP was not doing more on the staffing shortages at Social Security. It is good to see them finally working on this. How much difference can AARP make? The AARP Bulletin is distributed to 29 million households. Everybody in Washington pays attention to AARP.

AARP Radio Show On Long Lines At Social Security Offices

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) ran a story in its Bulletin on staffing shortages at Social Security. This was mailed to 29 million households. This is being followed up with a 23 minute radio program to run on about 120 radio stations around the country. You can listen to the program online if you have the Real Player downloaded.

Dickinson Office To Stay Open

A press release from Senator Kent Conrad announces that the Dickinson, ND Social Security Field Office will stay open. The office had been threatened with closure. Note that this office is in the District of Representative Pomeroy, a member of the Social Security Subcommittee.

Politics In Office Closures?

Here is a list of recent Social Security Field office closures I know about with the names and party affiliation of the representatives of those cities in Congress:
  • Auburn, NY -- Senators Schumer (D) and Clinton (D), Representative Arcuri (D)
  • Bristol, CT -- Senators Dodd (D) and Lieberman (I, but caucuses with Democrats), Reprentatives Larson (D) and Murphy (D)
  • Carbondale, PA -- Senators Spector (R, but increasingly acting in an independent manner) and Casey (D), Representative Carney (D)
  • Dickinson, ND -- probable closure, but nothing definite -- Senators Conrad (D) and Dorgan (D), Representative Pomeroy (D -- member of Social Security Subcommittee who talked about how he had been lied to by former Commissioner Barnhart and how the ALJ hiring situation at Social Security was a "god-damned outrage")
  • San Pedro, CA -- Senators Feinstein (D) and Boxer (D), Representatives Harman (D) and Rohrabacher (R)
  • Slidell, LA -- Senators Landrieu (D) and Vitter (R), Representative Jindal (R) (This office closure was probably inevitable due to the population loss in the area following the hurricane.)
I do not want to seem paranoid, but I think I see a pattern here.

Some caveats are in order. I am only reporting the office closures that resulted in newspaper articles that I can access online. It is certainly possible that some office closures have not been covered by local newspapers. Many of these newspaper articles have been generated by a Congressman's office calling a local newspaper to get coverage of the Congressman's efforts to keep a Social Security field office open. Republican Congressmen may be less likely to make the effort to keep a Social Security field office open or to publicize that effort, leading to fewer stories. Also, not all newspapers are accessible online.

Still, if I were a Democratic Congressman whose local Social Security field office were threatened with closure, I would really like to see a list of all the offices that have been or will be closed. I would also like to know the criteria used in making these decisions. I would also like to know whether the the Social Security Commissioner's liaison to the White House has been involved in these decisions.

OIG And Washington Times On Overpayments And Administrative Finality

From The Washington Times, a right wing paper:

The Social Security Administration is resisting proposed rule changes aimed at fixing longstanding errors that have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in erroneous overpayments to beneficiaries.

More than 44,000 people have received approximately $140 million in extra, undeserved payments because of clerical and other errors by the Social Security Administration (SSA), according to recent estimates by the agency's inspector general.

What's more, the SSA has continued making overpayments even after learning of errors because of an internal rule known as "administrative finality."

Under the policy, the SSA cannot reduce benefits for disability and other beneficiaries after four years except in cases of fraud, even if they later learn that incorrect calculations are responsible for the overpayments.

"We believe that when SSA discovers errors in the payments to beneficiaries, the agency should correct them rather than continuing the errors in future benefit payments," Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., inspector general for the SSA, wrote in a report sent to Congress and SSA officials last week.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) study is available online. Carroll has seemed to be very much more hard line right wing than anyone else working at the Social Security Administration. We cannot know if he was the one to call the Washington Times, but that seems awfully likely. Certainly, he has not called the Washington Times about other studies OIG has done showing the underpayments to Social Security claimants.

In considering this study, I am reminded that on many occasions the idea has been proposed at Social Security to charge interest on overpayments owed to the Social Security Administration. Every time this comes up some alert person in the room always says, "But if we charge interest on the money they owe us, don't we have to pay interest on the money we owe them?" The idea always dies immediately after this question, since it is obvious that Social Security owes far more money than is owed to it. If Social Security does away with its administrative finality rules it will ultimately have to pay out far more than it will collect.

25% Hike In Disability Pay?

This is Social Security News, not VA News, but if this happens, there is bound to be some fallout for Social Security. From the Army Times:
A presidential commission will call Wednesday for an immediate 25 percent increase in veterans’ disability compensation while awaiting a larger overhaul of disability and transition benefits. ...

With the Bush administration already balking at the $4 billion increase in veterans’ health care and benefits programs being pushed by Congress, it is unlikely that administration officials would support further increases. ...

The commission comes down squarely on the side of veterans on several controversial issues. For example, it supports allowing disabled retirees to receive full veterans’ disability compensation and military retired pay when they are eligible for both, and to allow survivors to receive their full veterans’ and military survivors’ benefits.

Resistance Is Futile!

Results of last week's poll:

Who do think will be win the Democratic nomination for President in 2008?

Joe Biden (0) 0%
Hillary Clinton (77) 65%
Chris Dodd (4) 3%
John Edwards (13) 11%
Mike Gravel (3) 3%
Dennis Kucinich (2) 2%
Barack Obama (10) 8%
Bill Richardson (2) 2%
None of the above (2) 2%
Don't know (6) 5%

Total Votes: 119

Fraud In Sacramento

From the Sacramento Bee:

A 73-year-old Sacramento woman pled guilty in federal court Monday to stealing more than $91,000 in Social Security funds.

Margaret Williams admitted to federal prosecutors that for nearly 35 years, she collected disability benefits under her true Social Security number while working under a fraudulent Social Security number, according to a news release by the office of U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.

In 1953, Williams was assigned a legitimate Social Security number that she used to work and then to collect disability benefits with until 1988. In 1971, a second Social Security number was issued to Williams, who obtained it using a different name, false birthplace, false parent names and false birthdate. She began working under the fraudulent Social Security number in 1973, the release states.