Jan 29, 2008
If this happens, I wonder what the effect will be on those who also receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. It would be cruel to give them a check for $500 -- but then reduce their SSI by $500.
|AGENCY: SSA||RIN: 0960-AG49|
|TITLE: Amendment to the Attorney Advisor Program (3398I)|
|STAGE: Final Rule No Material Change||ECONOMICALLY SIGNIFICANT: No|
|** RECEIVED DATE: 01/28/2008||LEGAL DEADLINE: None|
Every member in this chamber knows that spending on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is growing faster than we can afford. And we all know the painful choices ahead if America stays on this path: massive tax increases, sudden and drastic cuts in benefits, or crippling deficits. I have laid out proposals to reform these programs. Now I ask members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution to save these vital programs for our children and grandchildren.
To put it mildly, relations between the union and Social Security management are poor. Here is a quote, from Debbie Fredericksen, Executive Vice President of the Council:
About the current state of labor/management relations within Social Security, Fredericksen is very frank: “It’s ugly,” she says without hesitation. “In the past we had some bad moments, even under partnership, but we got a lot more information. The agency now believes it can do pretty much whatever it wants and management doesn’t think it has to follow the contract.
“They probably thought we would shrivel up and die, but that’s certainly not the case. They may have finally realized that we are not going to run away and a new day is coming.”
Jan 28, 2008
Senate Democrats are planning to add a few things to a bipartisan $150 billion economic stimulus package.
Senior Senate aides in both parties say the Senate is planning to draft its own measure to add rebates for senior citizens living off Social Security and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Adding to the plan would be in direct defiance with White House wishes, as President Bush has called on Congress to quickly adopt the original plan. Bush has said additional spending measures could derail the deal.
January 24, 2008
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue
U.S. Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21235
Dear Commissioner Astrue:
This letter provides comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) entitled, “Amendments to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Appeals Council, and Decision Review Board Appeals Levels,” published in the Federal Register on October 29, 2007 (72 FR 61218).
The proposed changes in this NPRM raise many concerns. The Social Security Administration should undertake a more detailed discussion before taking any final actions on these proposed rules.
Changing the rules for medical and vocational evidence submission. This NPRM seems to restrict the ability of claimants and their representatives to submit critical evidence during the period from five days before the hearing to the issuance of the ALJ decision. While some efficiency is necessary, it seems inappropriate to enforce strict rules when claimants and their representatives do not necessarily have control over when and how evidence is made available. For example, we question whether claimants should be held accountable for the responsiveness of health care providers. The Social Security Act requires SSA to accept new evidence adduced at a hearing. It would exceed SSA’s statutory authority systematically to disallow that evidence.
Formalizing the appeals process. We have concerns about increasing ALJs’ opportunities to dismiss cases based on the claimants’ ability to attend pre- or posthearing meetings. The NPRM will leave the ALJ significant latitude on this issue, and this may compromise claimants’ due process rights and their access to the appeals process.
Closing the record. While closing the record will simplify the legal procedures, it is at the expense of the affected claimant. This NPRM achieves its estimated $1.5 billion cost savings from attrition; the denied claimant who would have been allowed benefits either chooses not to reapply or dies in the interim. This change may also cause evidence to be excluded from further consideration during a reapplication hearing. This is an unacceptable means of simplifying procedures. It is also less effective in decreasing backlogs. Those whose appeal to the ALJ fails will be encouraged to submit new applications, and even a streamlined reapplication process will only increase the backlogs at the field office and disability determination services offices. Shifting a backlog is not an effective solution.
We look forward to further discussions regarding these and other issues prior to any final actions on this NPRM. We look forward to continuing to work with you to better serve the American public. Please contact [staff] at the Finance Committee to schedule a meeting to explore these issues.
Max Baucus, Chairman
John D. Rockefeller
Blanche L. Lincoln
I should have noted at the time that ALJ Duggan has been active in the ALJ Association, which is a union which represents Social Security ALJs. My understanding is that taking a HOCALJ position would put Duggan in management and no longer eligible to be a union member.
Next month the Social Security Administration plans to begin what is, for that agency at least, a veritable hiring binge. It will be offering jobs to 150 administrative law judges, who will be responsible for deciding when sick workers are too disabled to return to work.
Such staffing expansions ordinarily don’t register more than a blip within the vast federal bureaucracy. But the effort over the next year is expected to reveal whether the Social Security system is equipped to deal with an anticipated crush of baby boomers in their 50s and 60s who suffer from chronic diseases and serious workplace injuries.
The system isn’t up to the task right now. The fresh hires are being added to a cadre of about 1,000 hearings judges, and the newcomers’ task is explicitly to begin whittling down an imposing pile of nearly 750,000 applications for disability determinations — some of which have been sitting in the agency’s in basket for more than three years — that is twice as large as the workload the agency faced a decade ago. ...
“I’m not aware of a systemic problem that greater resources would not significantly address,” said Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, who is among the most vocal House members in favor of expanding the Social Security system’s legal staff. “I don’t want to shorten the hearing process or what people are entitled to. It’s very difficult for a person in a disability situation.”
Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which would take the lead in writing any legislation to change the Social Security system, was more direct addressing the situation last year, blaming the Bush administration for imposing domestic spending cuts that compelled Congress, in his view, to underfund the Social Security Administration. The tone is prompting Social Security’s top official to focus on short-term.
“The message coming from Congress loud and clear is: Get the backlog down, process cases on time and maybe we’ll think about these other issues later,” Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said in an interview. ...
Each year from fiscal 2000 to 2007, Congress appropriated less money for the Social Security Administration’s administrative accounts than the president requested, according to the Social Security Advisory Board, an independent panel. Spurred by the disability backlog, Congress gave the agency $150 million more than President Bush requested for fiscal 2008, which is how Astrue can afford his hiring binge.
“They started bleeding this agency dry in the Clinton administration and it persisted in the Bush administration,” Astrue said. ...
Astrue worries about the effects disabilities are having on the system’s long-term costs, noting findings that show that since 1985, the amount of Social Security’s total spending consumed by disability benefits has increased from 10 percent to 17 percent.
“An increasing percentage of the American public is on the rolls,” Astrue said. “It’s a number I wish Congress and others would look at.”
Note also that Astrue cannot talk about how his agency has been bled dry without also expressing a desire that fewer people draw Social Security disability benefits. Other than his father, I wonder how many Social Security disability claimants and recipients Astrue has ever met.
Today, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) was joined by West Seneca Supervisor Wallace Piotrowski and local Social Security Administration employees as he announced that he has introduced H.R. 5110 The Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act, a new bill that would give Congress a proper oversight role for local hearing office operations to ensure that customer service is at a level that citizens deserve. ...
Congressman Higgins’ bill would give Congress a proper oversight role for local hearing office operations. Specifically the bill would:
“This is an important issue, especially in the Town of West Seneca and surrounding communities like Cheektowaga and Lackawanna where you find a large senior citizen population,” said West Seneca Supervisor Wallace Piotrowski. “Residents are justifiably frustrated with the delays caused by understaffing and bureaucratic red tape. This legislation gives our local federal representatives the tools to know how their communities will be impacted by Social Security Administration changes and advocate on behalf of the residents they serve.” ...
- Require SSA to provide Congress a nonpartisan detailed yearly budget estimate;
- The budget estimate would include yearly statistics of the number of cases pending at hearing offices, the rate at with case backlogs are increasing or decreasing, the average length of time it takes for claims to be administered, and staffing level trends at offices over time;
- Prohibit SSA from closing or limiting hours at local offices without providing Congress with at least 6 months notice and thoughtful justifications for closure;
- Require SSA to inform Congress of changes to how it staffs offices at least 3 months before a proposed change could be implemented.
“The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) fully supports the efforts of Congressman Brian Higgins to introduce legislation requiring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make transparent any attempt to close a Field Office (FO) and deprive the public of the service it deserves”, said Paul Demler, President of AFGE Local 3342.
Jan 27, 2008
It is only a guess, but my guess is that the IRS was trying to pawn this job off on Social Security and Social Security said "No."
The government might be denyingto hundreds of thousands of people who should be getting them. That's according to one local congressman, who said he believes the government is rejecting valid claims simply to save money.
Freshman is reacting to a recent network news investigation highlighting the potential problem, and he compared it to another highly criticized policy involving military benefits.
Only after congressional intervention was an emotional Jean Sbaraglia, of , able to get the Social Security disability benefits the government spent years denying her.
Jan 26, 2008
"No match" letters had been sent for years, but there was no penalty for failing to clear up the situation. Mostly, employers ignored the letters. Sanctions are now threatened, so the new "no match" letters are potentially of considerable importance as an immigration enforcement measure. Unfortunately, there will be literally millions of U.S. citizens also affected by the "no match" letters and some percentage of those affected will be contacting the Social Security Administration.
No one has any idea what effect the new "no match" letters will have upon the Social Security Administration's workloads. This may be little more than a blip or it may be a tidal wave. The Social Security Administration has been quiet about the potential workload problems that may arise from this. I cannot help thinking that Michael Astrue has been afraid of saying anything, since the "no match" letters are a major part of the President's plan to deal with illegal immigration and illegal immigration is a major issue for Republicans, in particular. The sheer unpredictability of the situation would scare me if I were Michael Astrue.
Can someone explain to me what is new here apart from the name?The Social Security Administration this week launched a quick way to qualify someone for disability benefits in Indiana. ...
More than 90 percent of the cases helped by the new process in other states so far involved people with cancer or kidney failure, and babies born with a low birth weight, said Carmen Moreno, spokeswoman for Social Security's regional office in Chicago. ...
In the Boston area, where the process was tested, 3 percent of the applicants qualified for "quick disability determination," as it's called, according to Social Security.
As a citizen, I wish to register a complaint. If the U.S. government can police the world by keeping troops all over it, it should be able to have more than one window in the local Social Security office.
I received two letters from the Social Security Administration concerning a reduction of my 2008 benefits. I wanted an explanation because these letters were very unclear, like most bureaucratic letters tend to be.
So, I went down to the Vero Beach office and was shocked to find out there was only one worker and one window to service everyone in town. I was asked to take a ball with a number on it from some uninformed worker at the entrance and to wait my turn. The room was full of people and I was not willing to wait that long for a few simple questions. I even went down a second time and had the exact same experience as before.
I heard that Vero Beach had more Social Security checks sent to it per capita than any other place in the United States. So exactly why would there be only one person to service such an area that would have a high demand for help from the local Social Security office?
As a person I have better things to do with my time than sit around a Social Security office waiting to be served. It is a shame that we waste so much money on things that aren’t important in this country instead of spending money on really helping out our taxpaying citizens.
Edward R. McHenry Jr.
Jan 25, 2008
After spending more than five decades in a cramped office at the federal building in Port Huron, the Social Security office is moving.
Starting Monday, the Social Security Administration will be at 2620 Krafft Road in Fort Gratiot. ..
The office at the federal building is 8,000 square feet compared to the 12,000 square feet available at the new building.
Employers should brace for an expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing a bill that would broaden the reach of the ADA, the landmark 1990 federal law that prohibits discrimination against the disabled. Current law applies only to disabilities that "substantially limit a major life activity." Proposed legislation eliminates this qualifier, with the result that anyone with a physical or mental impairment would be covered. ...
Businesses can't count on a veto by President Bush to stop the measure. The original ADA was part of his father's legacy, and he may be reluctant to block an expansion. But the president, with backing from Senate Republicans, is likely to push for changes to make the legislation less onerous to employers. One possible compromise would include adding a list of diseases and conditions that would be covered by the ADA. It would not be an exhaustive list, but one designed to limit the scope of the bill.
Because of the short legislative calendar this election year, the bill may not make it through Congress in 2008. If it doesn't, it's a good bet for 2009. And if Democrats win the White House and expand their majorities in the House and Senate, the eventual bill will be tougher on employers than if Republicans can force a compromise this year.
Jan 24, 2008
As Congress and the White House craft an economic stimulus package, there’s growing concern that it can’t be enacted and implemented quickly enough to forestall a recession. ...
The Internal Revenue Service has already begun processing 2007 tax returns, and it’s reprogramming its computers to comply with changes in tax law that Congress passed late last year, which means that the IRS probably couldn’t begin mailing any rebate checks before late spring. Short-term payroll tax holidays would be even harder for the IRS to process quickly. It would take the Social Security Administration, which has an outdated computer system, at least six weeks to begin distributing additional money to retirees. ...
The Social Security Administration sends out nearly 50 million checks per month, but its computer systems have needed updating for many years.
Nevertheless, Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said supplement checks could be processed and distributed in about six weeks.
Lisa Worobey likes to work.
Even as a brain condition from childhood continued to wreak a serious physical toll on her body, the 39-year-old Reno resident still managed to work regularly through the years. “I didn’t want to be on disability,” Worobey said. “I wanted to work just like everyone else.”
Everything changed, however, after Worobey fell in her last job and injured her femur. Already having several surgeries on her brain and spine, the latest resulted in several complications, including a staph infection. The pain eventually became so unbearable that Worobey decided to apply for disability. After being denied twice, Worobey was finally approved last December — a year and a half after she first applied. ...
“I just don’t understand why it takes so long,” Worobey said. “I sold my house, so I got a bit of money; but I quickly went through that. ...
The Bureau of Disability Adjudication in Carson City has undergone some key changes since a Reno Gazette-Journal article chronicled the agency’s problems in 2006.
Nationally, the Social Security Administration launched a couple of initiatives to help states speed up the disability application process, said Lowell Kepke, Social Security spokesperson for the San Francisco office.
One is hiring more administrative law judges nationwide to hear appeals. Another is a program called Quick Disability Determination, which was officially implemented in Nevada last October. Quick Disability uses software that screens applications based on key health criteria to speed up identification of severe disability cases.
The biggest change was the lifting of a freeze on reviews in the Carson City bureau of cases under appeal. The freeze was initially ordered as a way to ease workload pressure on overstretched staff and allow them to focus on reviewing new applications, said Kraig Schutte, chief of the Bureau of Disability Adjudication. . But the move led to a backlog of nearly 5,000 cases in the appeal stage — 2,800 of which involved “reconsiderations” or the first level of appeal and 2,149 for cases under continued review.
“We found that we were essentially 13 months behind in processing cases (on appeal), during the backlog,” Schutte said. “It had a major impact.”
The freeze was eliminated in September 2006, plus the bureau got assistance from the Social Security Administration to clear the backlog of appeals, Schutte said. As of last week, the bureau has trimmed its backlog for reconsiderations to 146 cases. The backlog for cases under continued disability review saw a similar significant drop to 152. Social Security also lifted a hiring freeze that was causing vacant positions to accumulate at the bureau. This bumped up staffing from 37 to 45, Schutte said.
As a Social Security employee who retired after working for the agency for almost 29 years, mainly as a benefit authorizer, I would like to make an observation regarding the processing of disability benefits.My impression is that the BAs do not do such a great job at answering the phone either, since that is not the job they were trained for.
After the agonizingly lengthy procedure involved in approving disability claims (even if they are not denied), the final product, a disability award, must be processed by a benefit authorizer before benefit checks can go out. It is at the point that the Social Security Administration plays a final cruel joke on many successful disability applicants. To wit: the authorization process is delayed, unnecessarily in my opinion, because benefit authorizers, who are the only ones who can perform the benefit authorization function, are frequently forbidden to perform this function for long periods of each work week. Instead, the B.A.'s [Benefit Authorizers] are forced to "spike," i.e., answer phone calls from the public, the majority which deal with SSI eligibility and payments, which have nothing to do with Social Security. In effect, B.A.'s are being forced to act as babysitters instead of being allowed to perform the job for which they and they alone have been professionally trained. I think you will agree that this situation is a grave disservice to both the disability claimants and the B.A.'s who should be authorizing their claims.
I would appreciate it if you would make this administration policy known to your readers and to the general public. Only a public outcry could put pressure on Congress and on the Administration to do away with or at least modify drastically the Administration's pernicious and wasteful "SPIKE" policy.
A Steering Committee at the Senior Executive Level of the Social Security Administration was formed to facilitate implementation of the Commissioner’s plan to address the hearing backlog. The first meeting was held on June 7, 2007 with weekly meetings through August and bi-weekly meetings since August. Committee members include:And a second nugget:
Because of changes in Executive personnel responsibilities in late June, Ron Raborg, Deputy Chief Quality Officer, OQP, replaced Alan Lane, and in August, Roger McDonnell, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Operations, replaced Mary Glenn-Croft.
- Frank A. Cristaudo, Chief Administrative Law Judge (co-chair)
- Mary Glenn-Croft, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Operations (co-chair)
- Jim Winn, Acting Deputy General Counsel, OGC
- Jerry Berson, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, OS
- Diane B. Garro, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, OLCA
- Phil Gambino, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, OCOMM
- Alan Lane, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, OQP
- Milt Beever, Associate Commissioner, OLMER
- Glen Sklar, Associate Commissioner, ODP, ODISP
- Eileen McDaniel, Associate Commissioner for Management, ODAR
- Bill Taylor, Executive Director, OAO, ODAR
- Nancy Griswold, Deputy Chief Administrative Law Judge
- Larry Miller, Director, OBFM, OB
- Bill Newton, Senior Advisor, OQP
- Marilyn Hull, Project Director
It was estimated that approximately 20% of the remanded cases [under the informal remand or "re-recon" process] would be reversed by the DDS. By the close of FY 07, 8,714 favorable determinations had been returned by the DDSs and 7,413 cases were returned as “No Decision” by the DDS. This was a 54% reversal rate.And a third nugget:
Traditionally, management information for the hearing operation has been reported on a monthly basis. While reasons exist for this approach, it may result in delays in case processing as employees process more cases at the end of the month to meet monthly goals. In FY 07, the Chief Judge has been strongly encouraging managers to monitor workload processing data on a weekly basis and ODAR continues to develop workload reports to monitor hearing office performance this way.And a final nugget:
The Office of the General Counsel, Office of the Chief Administrative Law Judge, Office of Appellate Operations, and Office of Labor Management and Employee Relations have been meeting regularly to make immediate improvements under current rules and to clarify the complaint process for claimants. The group has completed changes to current notices, posters, associated pamphlets, and the website that outlines how to file an unfair treatment complaint. The group continues to study the process and to consider improvements that will involve regulatory changes. The goal is to make the ALJ complaint process both fair and effective for SSA, the ALJs and the American people. In FY 07, the Office of the Chief Administrative Law Judge took a more pro-active stance in pursuing disciplinary actions based on ALJ misconduct.
The White House on Wednesday withdrew the formal nomination of Andrew G. Biggs as deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
Biggs was temporarily appointed last year despite a key Democrat's objections.
In April, President George W. Bush used a recess appointment to place Biggs in the No. 2 Social Security Administration job on a temporary basis. Bush acted after Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., vowed his panel wouldn't consider Biggs's nomination because of his support for private investment accounts within Social Security.
Comerica Bank has been chosen as the card issuer for the federal government's prepaid debit card service being offered to Social Security recipients.
The new system, known as Direct Express, is expected to be rolled out in Texas and several other states in the second quarter of 2008.
Jan 23, 2008
The Greenville [South Carolina] Social Security Office on Pelham Road is temporarily closed due to water damage.Officials said that the office will be reopened as soon as possible, but they did not estimate how soon the office will reopen.
Your comments and observations were interesting and mostly on-target. However, I believe your comment number 7 is predicated on a misinterpretation of the term "Regional Attorney." You base your comment on the assumption that the references to the "Regional Attorney" are, in fact references to the "Regional Chief Counsel" in the Office of the General Counsel (OGC). I believe you are wrong in this interpretation. Regional Attorneys are located in each of the ten Offices of the Regional Chief ALJ, within ODAR, and report to the RCALJ. They may or may not have supervisory responsibilities. Regional Chief Counsels, on the other hand, are the primary OGC executives in each region, and report to the General Counsel in Baltimore. I believe that the Plan's references to Regional Attorneys are references to the ODAR attorneys, not to any attorney (or anyone else) in OGC. To my knowledge ... there have never been any serious discussions about having OGC involved in any substantive manner in the adjudication process. (The closest was the Counsel to Council short-term project several years ago. Even then, OGC had no discretionary involvement in the outcome of any individual claim).
Although your assumptions would arguably be correct if OGC became involved in the hearing process, I do not believe that is the Agency's intent.
But some sorely understaffed and underfunded agencies are planning only modest hiring efforts this year.
The Social Security Administration — which is at its lowest staffing levels in 35 years and which faces a growing backlog of 747,000 disability claims cases — plans to hire 150 administrative law judges and 92 support staff this year.SSA plans to replace only one of every two state disability determination service employees — who help decide whether people claiming severe disabilities should receive benefits — who leave in 2008.SSA might hire more people, but Commissioner Michael Astrue hasn’t made any decisions yet, spokesman Mark Lassiter said.
- Eliminate the dedicated account provisions [for children's SSI benefits] and installments [in payments of SSI benefits].
- T16 [Title XVI, or SSI] windfall offset reform; allow payment of retroactive benefits of either T2 or T16 payments.
- Eliminate need for medical CDR [Continuing Disability Review] for age 18 beneficiaries who have a permanent disability or meet a listing.
- Eliminate the Annual Earnings Test for all retirement claims if a cost analysis shows it to be cost neutral in terms of administrative costs involved in explaining it, administering it, overpayment collection activities, etc. versus drain on the trust fund.
- Eliminate the concept of SGA [Substantial Gainful Activity] for post-entitlement purposes, and extend the under FRA [Full Retirement Age] retirement work test to disability benefits.
- Stop medical CDRs on permanent impairments and for all disability beneficiaries over a certain age; and profile only those likely to be ceased.
- Have attorneys collect their own fees, and eliminate attorney fee withholding by SSA. If that cannot be done increase our fees to a more realistic amount.
- Put a dedicated computer in SSA FO [Field Office] lobbies for walk-in customers to get online services.
- Remove local office phone numbers from telephone books and provide the 800# so that this becomes the telephone portal to the agency. Calls could be transferred to local offices when needed.
- Add a field on 800# screens to collect customer's e-mail address. Also include a field for cell phones as this is a rapidly growing mode of communication for the public.
Jan 22, 2008
A quality assurance program for the hearing process will provide in line review of the claim file, the scheduling process and decision drafting to ensure that ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] is providing timely and legally sufficient hearings and decisions. ODAR has been working with Office of Quality Performance (OQP) to design a process by which a random statistically accurate sample of cases is identified for review. This process is being developed in conjunction with the standardized electronic business process. The Regional Attorneys will be charged with the additional responsibility of overseeing the Quality Assurance (QA) program. They will receive additional staff that will be assigned to the Regional Office, but may be out-stationed to various hearing offices to review claim files at three points in the process. The files will be flagged and reviewed once a hearing has been scheduled and again once a draft of a decision has been prepared. In addition to these two processes the QA process will also involve an in-line review of the Senior Attorney Adjudicator process. QA employees will review the file for certain criteria and make appropriate recommendations to management for correction. In addition, under the direction of the Regional Attorney, they will prepare reports and track trends for training purposes. In some instances they will also be responsible for developing the training.Basically, if you think that 97% of reconsideration denials are accurate, you would love this idea, because it would bring to Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) the same concept that keeps the allowance rate at reconsideration below 15%.
This would, in theory, cause the backlog of claimants awaiting hearings to go down, because claimants would have a lower rate of success before ALJs and would have less incentive to request hearings.
I do not want to get too excited about this. I have heard of other ideas for a quality assurance program for ALJs before and they never went anywhere. This does seem a bit more fleshed out than prior plans I have heard about, but let me list some of the difficulties that Michael Astrue would have in implementing this:
- Probably, most high level career people at Social Security will be hesitant to have their fingerprints on this plan, since anyone promoting the idea could be in trouble with a change in the Commissioner's office. That could easily happen next year. Finding anyone willing to manage even part of this might be difficult.
- Finding people willing to work in an ALJ quality assurance program would be difficult. It was hard to find people willing to work as Federal Reviewing Officers. Those foolish enough to take those jobs are now twisting in the wind. Their jobs are being eliminated by a new Commissioner of Social Security who is uninterested in his predecessor's plan. Somewhere down the road, the same thing may happen to anyone who takes a job in an ALJ quality assurance program.
- This would cost a fair amount of money. It is hard to imagine a Congress controlled, even in part, by Democrats appropriating money for this. It is hard to imagine even one house of Congress passing to Republican control next year, much less both.
- Social Security is already getting media criticism for denying too many meritorious disability claims. An ALJ quality assurance program would lead to more meritorious claims being denied. Implementation of such a plan would result in an incredible amount of media and Congressional attention.
- What do you think that attorneys who represent Social Security claimants are going to do if a quality assurance program reduces the ALJ reversal rate dramatically? Do you think we would just slink away? No, we would litigate. The last time that the Social Security Administration faced a huge wave of litigation was in the early 1980s when the Reagan Administration tried to cut off disability benefits for several hundred thousand claimants. As best I can recall, the Social Security Administration faced something like 30,000 civil actions a year at that time. Social Security attorneys are far more numerous and far more sophisticated than they were 25 years ago. We could easily give the Social Security Administration a lot more than 30,000 civil actions a year; many times that number, in fact. Could the Social Security Administration handle that? Could the federal courts? It did not take long in the early 1980s for the federal courts to figure out who brought on that spate of litigation and to take forceful action to bring the Social Security Administration to heel.
- It is hard to imagine any way of implementing a quality assurance program in a way that would not violate the Administrative Procedure Act, unless you make it a government representative program. A government representative program would certainly need regulations and that would take well past the end of the Bush Administration. I have trouble imagining any of the leading Presidential candidates, both Republicans or Democrats, approving such regulations.
- The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) allows prevailing parties to obtain reimbursement for their attorney fees. There has long been a mistaken belief that Social Security's administrative hearings are exempt from EAJA. Actually, there is no explicit exemption for Social Security. EAJA applies to "adversary adjudications" and adversary adjudications are those in which an agency takes a position. Social Security's hearings have been non-adversial, so EAJA has not applied. This plan is for personnel in Social Security's Office of General Counsel to look at case files before ALJ hearings. For what purpose would they look at the case files other than to "advise" ALJs on how they should decide cases? That sounds a lot like taking a position on the outcome of the case. Take a look at the figures I posted recently about attorney fee payments in Social Security cases last year. EAJA for Social Security administrative hearings could cost the Social Security Administration hundreds of millions of dollars a year -- and no agency gets an appropriation to cover EAJA fees.
Jan 21, 2008
Dear Fixer: In mid-April, the Social Security Administration deposited $11,620 in my checking account by mistake. They insisted it was mine. I said it wasn't.
In June, they took away all my Social Security payments, plus part of my husband's. I also have to pay my Medicare separately.
After months of trying to resolve this, I received a bill -- for $23,202! I've called a lawyer and my congressman; so far no results.
Darlene Land, Cedar Lake
Dear Darlene: The Fixer has wanted to wait to see if they would screw up again and accidentally deposit $23,202 in your account. That would be one way to take care of this bill.
Instead, we got in touch with Antonio Henderson at Social Security. Henderson was able to get that enormous bill off your back -- at least most of it. But not before running into a little more red tape.
For starters, you said -- even after you paid back much of the $11,620 that was given to you in error -- you were billed $15,111. You also were notified that Social Security would withhold payments until September 2011.
After more investigating, the people at the Social Security Administration agreed you owed them only another $5,000 -- an amount you say should be lower, but at least you're getting closer. They've also agreed to resume sending your regular Social Security checks.
In fairness to the newspaper, claimants often seem to omit key pieces of information when they talk with me about overpayments, especially information about their fault in causing the overpayment.
HALLANDALE BEACH - When Al Cunningham, a disabled Vietnam veteran, needed help from the Social Security Administration, he drove the 2.27 miles to the agency's office.
His five-minute trip just got a lot longer.
The agency closed its Hallandale Beach office Jan. 1 and combined it with a larger one 11 miles away at 500 N. Hiatus Road in Pembroke Pines.
The move will save the Social Security Administration $4.61 million a year, regional commissioner Paul Barnes said. ...
Carlos Simmons, president of the Hallandale Beach Community Civic Association, said the closing was "not a good thing. A lot of the elderly folks used that office."
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said she's gotten several calls from upset residents.
"We're opposed to [the consolidation]," said Cooper, whose city offered Social Security administrators a "free satellite office" to continue service. ...
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, whose district includes Hallandale Beach, Pembroke Park and West Park, tried but was unable to stop the office's closing.
Michael Astrue, an agency official, told Meek in a Dec. 18 letter that combining the offices "will enable us to streamline our processes and provide a more effective and efficient way to serve the public."
After nearly four years, Social Security disability applicants can be forgiven for being cynical about the latest pledges to end the backlog that keeps their cases in limbo.
This time, however, there is a ray of hope that the reforms will work. The Social Security Administration has a bigger budget from Congress and a newly rediscovered sense of urgency about the plight of the 14,090 applicants in
Northeast Ohiowho have been waiting for months, in some cases years, for a resolution.
The delays are inexcusable. They heap bureaucratic agony on once-proud working people laid low by crippling diseases or accidents. Some people lost their homes, their medical insurance or their very lives before a judge awarded them a disability payment.
The latest reforms could unclog this blocked spigot. And other remedies are in the works that focus on technology and personnel. More judges will be added to the Social Security bench, and current judges are giving priority to the oldest cases and using videos at hearings or not holding hearings at all - simply relying on the documents before them.
Judges should make sure to use the no-hearings solution carefully, so fraud doesn't flourish in the system. But with thousands awaiting a decision - and a possible tidal wave of dis-abled baby boomers not far down the road - the Social Security Administration has to stop making promises and start delivering on them.
Jan 20, 2008
As I mention each time I post this data, it should be of interest not merely to those who represent Social Security claimants. Attorneys and other who represent Social Security claimants are paid at about the same time as the Social Security claimants themselves. When we see a slowdown in payments to those who represent Social Security claimants, we are seeing strong evidence of a slowdown in payments to the claimants themselves. No only do claimants have to wait and wait for adjudication of their claims, they often have to wait for payment after a favorable decision.
Jan 19, 2008
It was early October when the power company cut off Justin Barber for not paying his bills, plunging the Auburndale man ever deeper into despair over his worsening health.
A severe case of sleep apnea has prevented Barber from holding a job for the past few years, and his only means of income has been the charity of relatives, friends, his church and the occasional assistance of Polk County Social Services. ...
Now in its 39th year, the Heart program also helped Barber catch up on rent, keeping him from losing his modest apartment. The program is for people who have fallen on hard times because of sickness, injury or loss of job and have exhausted other forms of assistance.
The Heart program relies solely on donations an d the many resources of United Way of Central Florida, which screens applicants and assists in helping them complete applications that are forwarded to a committee of social services experts for consideration. ...
While applicants are considered on a case-by-case basis, the one constant is that they are people whose circumstances are temporary.
Such is the case with Barber, who has applied for Social Security disability benefits and is awaiting his second determination
His case is a good one, according to experts on Social Security eligibility, and Barber is optimistic of his chances. Meanwhile, however, he has only food stamps and the generosity of others to keep him from being put out onto the streets.
Here’s an update on Armen Keteyian’s investigation on the failures of social security disability. Scott Watson, who fractured his spinal cord after a failed back surgery, appeared in our story on Monday, January 14. He was turned down TWICE for federal disability, and has been waiting nearly a year. Now we’ve learned just days after our story aired, he’s been approved. He was told our story DID NOT influence the reversal.
An Item Placed On The Agenda For Consideration After The Election -- Eliminate The Five Month Waiting Period
Washington - Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-Queens & the Bronx) Wednesday questioned the Social Security Administration about the need to eliminate the backlogs in handling disability casework, as well as shorten or end the 5-month mandated waiting period for eligible Americans to receive Social Security disability benefits.
Crowley, a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which has jurisdiction over health, tax, trade, Social Security and pension issues, spoke at a hearing on the need for the Federal government to provide more efficient and effective assistance to disabled Americans, including many of our returning veterans.
At the hearing, the Social Security Administration stated that they had not planned on reviewing the five-month waiting period before one can receive SSDI, but agreed to review this limit under questioning from Crowley.
The Supreme Court on Friday said it would rule on an appeal by MetLife Inc. in a case that could make employee benefit plans more expensive. [Obviously, the "more expensive" bit is from MetLife. The other side would say "more fair."]
The dispute centers on whether insurance companies such as MetLife have a conflict of interest when they both administer employee disability plans -- which requires deciding whether employees are eligible for benefits -- and pay benefits under them. If the court rules that handling both functions constitutes a conflict, that could encourage employers to hire separate companies for each function, potentially raising the plans' costs, lawyers for MetLife argue. ...
The case is MetLife v. Wanda Glenn, 06-923. Oral arguments in the case haven't yet been scheduled.
Jan 18, 2008
I think it is fair to be skeptical of any statement by any member of the Bush Administration, including Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, professing concern about Social Security's backlogs. I would not go so far as to say that the Bush Administration desires that there be large backlogs at Social Security, but, at best, this Administration is indifferent to those backlogs.
SSA must file any proposed regulation with OMB. At least OMB posts the news when SSA files a proposed new regulation with them. SSA recently filed these two items seeking OMB approval:
|AGENCY: SSA||RIN: 0960-AF33|
|TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Immune System Disorders (804F)|
|STAGE: Final Rule||ECONOMICALLY SIGNIFICANT: No|
|** RECEIVED DATE: 01/17/2008||LEGAL DEADLINE: None|
|AGENCY: SSA||RIN: 0960-AG67|
|TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating HIV Infection (3466A)|
|STAGE: Prerule||ECONOMICALLY SIGNIFICANT: No|
|** RECEIVED DATE: 01/17/2008||LEGAL DEADLINE: None|
The Broward Sheriff's Office collects $400 every time the Social Security Administration learns about and suspends benefits for inmates within 30 days of their incarceration.
The Broward Public Defender's Office is raising pointed criticism of the Sheriff's Office because it does not take part in a system designed to help these inmates reinstate their benefits upon release.
"If they're turning the spigot off, they can help turn it back on, too," said Doug Brawley, a chief assistant public defender. ...
The county took in more than $211,000 through the program last year, according to budget reports. ...
The Sheriff's Office does not participate in the administration's pre-release agreement, said Patti Patterson, an administration spokeswoman.
Under such an agreement, jail staff would have a liaison at the local Social Security office who would help the staff navigate eligible inmates through the application process and match benefits reinstatement with release dates.
Jan 17, 2008
Administrators in the Youngstown office say as the baby boomer generation gets older, more claims fill the offices.
Kathy Burke of Hubbard says she has been diagnosed with arthritis all throughout her body and has not been able to work for nearly two years. But the Social Security backlog has prolonged a hearing on her disability case since last spring. In the meantime, her finances are taking a hit.
Burke is one of an estimated seven hundred and fifty thousand citizens waiting for judges to decide on disability appeals filed. The Social Security administration is trying to attack the nationwide backlog by opening a national center to hold disability hearings to help decrease the wait for those in need.
The Social Security Administration is making progress in reducing its backlog of disability claims, but without more resources, it will like fall further behind as aging boomers overwhelm the system, Comptroller General David Walker said.
SSA needs more funding from Congress and it needs to hire more staff, Walker said.
“There are serious fundamental and systematic problems. We need to change the pipeline, not just the tail end. We need to look at the flow,” he said Jan. 16 at a panel sponsored by the Association of Administrative Law Judges. Administrative law judges hear disability cases as claims wind through the lengthy process.
SSA received an increase in appropriations last month to hire a number of administrative law judges this year to reduce the backlog. That means, however, that SSA will not be able to hire for positions in earlier stages of claims processing, said Jo Anne Barnhart, Social Security commissioner from 2001-2007.
Barnhart estimated in 2004 that it would take 8,000 employee years or four years to clear the backlog. However, SSA has steadily fewer employees, she said. While commissioner, SSA started the Disability Service Improvement initiative to evaluate what happens with claims at each stage of the process.
Members of the National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE) viewed with interest the news story broadcast by CBS Evening News on January 14 and 15. We commend CBS for highlighting some of the problems that have been previously known to exist within the disability program and hope that the story will build momentum for a positive examination of these issues/concerns, and for a true exploration of their potential solutions. However, we were disappointed that the news story sensationalized many of these problems and we were equally disappointed that the CBS story did not offer any of the pending solutions. We were saddened that the story misrepresented many concerns and seemed to report allegations as facts. We believe this story to be an unfair representation of how the disability program is operated. We are prepared to refute the allegations presented in the story as well as to offer a more definitive explanation of the disability process and how it serves the American public. Had we been invited to be interviewed for the CBS story, we would have presented our response on camera.Let me pose a question for NADE to think about: Does NADE favor or oppose more discretion for disability examiners? If NADE favors more discretion for disability examiners, I think that now would be a great time to say so. It was obvious at the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing yesterday that various groups were trying to lay out an agenda for consideration after the next election. NADE's expressed distress about the CBS report, although understandable, suggests that NADE opposes more discretion for disability examiners. Is that the agenda that NADE wishes to pursue?
We are disappointed that CBS did not choose to offer an unbiased examination of the issues but chose to concentrate on sensational reporting. NADE has been working with SSA and with other stakeholders to address the problems highlighted in the CBS story for many years now, and we will continue to do so. Our efforts, however, will continue to be aimed at how best to arrive at reasonable solutions to these issues rather than focusing on the problems. We will continue to be professional in our approach and will continue to honor our commitment to provide world class customer service. This will always be our paramount objective.
The California Society of Enrolled Agents (CSEA) reports that its Members have noticed a Social Security Administration (SSA) error affecting 1099s mailed in January. Enrolled Agents are tax professionals licensed by the federal government to represent taxpayers and assist them with tax planning and the preparation of tax returns.
The SSA 1099 miscue, which appears to be nationwide and not confined to California, affects Social Security recipients with Medicare deductions (Part D). The SSA is aware of the problem and plans to run corrected 1099s by the end of the month. No official press announcement has been made, although SSA spokesperson Leslie Walker, Regional Communications Director for California, confirmed to CSEA that the error occurred and will be corrected. According to Ms. Walker, corrected 1099s should be received "no later than January 29." She estimated that the error affects 2.9 million Social Security recipients.
Jan 16, 2008
Part of the reason for that, says Jim Allsup, who employs former SSA employees at his Illinois-based company Allsup Inc., is that there is “an inherent conflict-of-interest between protecting the disability trust fund and providing the appropriate level of service to the claimant.”
We know that Allsup was behind the USA Today article on Social Security backlogs that appeared a few months ago. It is unclear whether Allsup persuaded CBS to do this piece or just helped them after they got started. Either way, it is clear that Allsup is engaged in an impressively successful public relations campaign that helps Allsup but which is also of public benefit.
FARGO - Sharon Eid says she has spent the last four years battling paralysis, both from a spinal condition that left her unable to work and a government agency that left her without benefits. ...
"It's been a very long haul," Eid said Monday at a meeting with Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and Social Security Administration officials. "If it weren't for my children and my friends and my church taking care of me, I wouldn't be here. I think I would have put an end to it a long time ago." ...
"If it's this hard to reach a final decision in a case of these facts, as disturbing as they are ... what does it take to establish disability?" Pomeroy asked.
The average wait for a person in North Dakota to receive a decision on a disability claim is 435 days, nearly twice the average in 2001, Pomeroy said. The national average is a 520-day wait.
"I tell you something, if I had regulated an insurance company that took more than two years whether or not to play a claim, that would have been a company in a whole lot of trouble with me as insurance commissioner," Pomeroy said.
Two years ago, 52-year-old Sherry Farner was a manager at a Denny's restaurant. But heart problems, strokes, and kidney failure put an end to her employment.
"I can't be alone, because I fall a lot. This is the hardest thing I've ever been through," Farner told CBS News chief investigative reporter Armen Keteyian. "And I wouldn't wish this on nobody."
When Farner filed a claim against a lifetime of paying into federal Social Security disability, she was turned down -- twice. Even though a rejection letter acknowledged she was severely disabled. But not disabled enough: Unable to perform work of any kind.
"It's a very tough standard," said Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration. "And you can argue whether that should be the standard or not, but I'm stuck with that."
A two-month CBS News Investigation uncovered a system whose own standards have been called into question - a federal agency reeling from budget cuts and high staff turnover. Doctors making decisions outside their specialties, and inexperienced examiners under pressure to keep costs down.
"We're failing the disabled on a very large scale," said Trisha Cardillo, who worked inside the system for years, reviewing 200 federal disability cases a month in
She now fights for those seeking disability benefits.
"There were a lot of times when I was fighting with management because I wanted to approve a claim," Cardillo said. "And I had to go through so many steps and - jump through so many hurdles to do that, it just seemed ridiculous,"
All part, says Cardillo, of a culture built on denial. Examiners warned by their superiors that approving claims today could cost the government millions tomorrow.
"So are you saying, in essence, there was a quota system?" Keteyian asked.
"Every state had different numbers," she said. "They know that a certain percentage of people, once denied, will never file an appeal."
CBS News has learned that two-thirds of all applicants denied last year - nearly a million people - simply gave up after being turned down the first time.
Given how many claims are ultimately approved, that could mean hundreds of thousands of Americans are not getting the benefits they paid for - and deserve.
Keteyian asked Astrue: "One of the state examiners we spoke to, told us that people were singled out, talked to, if they approved too many clients."
"You can approve too many, and you can approve too few. And they're both wrong," Astrue said.
That's not what the examiner told CBS News. She said that in her state there were quotas to be kept at a certain level.
"It's not the way the system works," Astrue said.
Keteyian said: "That's the way it worked in her office."
"You can always find a disgruntled person," Astrue said.
But we found nearly three dozen former examiners from 14 states who told us about a system-wide "culture to deny."
Part of the reason for that, says Jim Allsup, who employs former SSA employees at his Illinois-based company Allsup Inc., is that there is “an inherent conflict-of-interest between protecting the disability trust fund and providing the appropriate level of service to the claimant.”
That’s something CBS News found in a review of 50 cases across the country, where patients diagnosed with strokes, heart attacks, even brain cancer, were rejected for disability payments.
"Nobody cares if a case is denied. If you approve it, it will be subjected to intense scrutiny," Cardillo said.
No surprise to Sherry Farner, whose case was finally approved by a judge a few weeks ago - after a two-year wait. But not before losing her car, her life savings, and nearly her home.