Jan 29, 2008

Astrue Partially Suspends Regulatory Proceedings

This does not begin to solve all the problems associated with the proposed rules. Click on each page to view full size. Ending reopening for new and material evidence is a major element of this proposal that remains, for instance. That may be the largest part of the $2 billion cost saving associated with this proposal.

Baucus Announces Economic Stimulus Plan

Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has announced his version of an economic stimulus plan. Baucus' plan would differ from the President's plan and the plan that the House of Representatives is working on in several important respects, but for our purposes the big difference is that recipients of Social Security benefits, presumably including disability benefits, would receive rebates of $500 each from the government.

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.
All federal regulations must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House. Even regulations issued by independent agencies like the Social Security Administration must be approved by OMB. This is one of the many reasons that Social Security's independence is more theoretical than real. OMB posts lists of regulations awaiting approval. Here is a new OMB filing from yesterday:

TITLE: Amendment to the Attorney Advisor Program (3398I)

Social Security In State Of The Union

An excerpt from last night's State of the Union address:
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.

AFGE Newsletter: Situation "Ugly"

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents many thousands of Social Security Administration employees, has issued its January 2008 newsletter.

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 Plans To Add Rebates For Social Security Recipients To Economic Stimulus Package

From KTHV:
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.

Senate Finance Committee Democrats Letter On Proposed Procedural Rule Changes

Several of the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have issued a press release attaching this letter:
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
Debbie Stabenow
Jeff Bingaman
John Kerry
Maria Cantwell
Blanche L. Lincoln
Ron Wyden

Duggan To Fort Lauderdale, Not Orlando

I had posted that Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin Duggan will become the new Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge in Fort Lauderdale. By mistake, the caption on that post indicated that Duggan was going to Orlando. The body of the post is correct. ALJ Duggan is going to Fort Lauderdale, not Orlando.

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.

Astrue Says SSA Has Been Bled Dry

From CQ Weekly (subscription required) (emphasis added):
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.”
It is only after an appropriations bill has been passed that Astrue is willing to talk this way. We will soon see his budget request for fiscal year 2009, which will tell us whether he really has gotten the message.

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.

SSA Employees Promote Social Security Customer Improvement Bill

From the Amherst Times of New York:
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:
  • 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.
“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.” ...

“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.
I hope those Social Security employees were off the clock.

Jan 27, 2008

IRS To Do Rebates

There was an article three days ago suggesting that the Social Security Administration would process the rebate checks that are to be the centerpiece of the economic stimulus plan expected in the next few weeks, but the Associated Press is reporting today that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be doing the processing.

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."

Altmire Raises Social Security Issues

The government might be denying Social Security disability benefits to 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 Rep. Jason Altmire 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 Allison Park, able to get the Social Security disability benefits the government spent years denying her.
No, I do not think he is any relation to Arthur Altmeyer, a major figure in the history of Social Security in the United States and the man for whom the Altmeyer Building at Social Security headquarters is named. The name is spelled differently.

Jan 26, 2008

No Match Rule Imminent?

Greg Siskind's immigration blog is reporting that new "no match" rules are imminent. Last fall, a court order blocked the Social Security Administration from sending out a huge batch of letters informing employers of situations in which an employee's name did not match his or her Social Security number. New regulations are being issued to try to address the concerns that led to the court order blocking the "no match" letters. While there may be renewed efforts to block the "no match" letters, there is a good chance that they will go out in the near future.

"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.

Quick Disability Determinations

From the South Bend Tribune:
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.
Can someone explain to me what is new here apart from the name?

SSI Stats

The Social Security Administration has released monthly statistics on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for December 2007.

Customer Service In Vero Beach

A letter to the editor of the Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches newspapers of Florida:

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. 

Vero Beach 

The Vero Beach metropolitan area has a population of 130,100 according to Wikipedia.

Jan 25, 2008

Port Huron Field Office Moves To Bigger Quarters

While some Social Security offices close, others move to bigger quarters. From the Times Herald of Port Huron, MI:

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.

Stepping Stones Manual

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Center for Mental Health Services of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has written a 202 page manual entitled Stepping Stones to Recovery: A Case Manual for Assisting Adults Who Are Homeless With Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income Applications.

While it is a good manual, it does miss the crucial issue of how Social Security deals with cases in which it is impossible to tell what part of a claimant's limitations is due to drug abuse or alcoholism and what part is due to other mental illness. This is a common problem when one is trying to help substance abusers, who are a high percentage of the homeless population.

Would This Do Anything To The Social Security Disability Programs?

There are many people who already believe that the Americans with Disabilities Act somehow made disabled people far more able to work, despite abundant proof that the Americans with Disabilities Act has been almost useless. Would an Americans with Disabilities Act with teeth change things for disabled Americans? Should it change things at Social Security? We may have to answer those questions before long. From the Kiplinger Letter:
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

SSA Role In Economic Stimulus?

From the McClatchy newspaper chain (emphasis added):
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.

And what would processing economic stimulus checks do to ordinary workloads at Social Security?

Slashing The Backlog -- In Recons -- In Nevada

From the Reno Gazette-Journal:
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.


I received this e-mail from a former benefits authorizer. I thought it would be of general interest, so I am posting it here, with Mr. Herling's permission:
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.

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.

John Herling
Mineola, NY
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.

Four Nuggets From The "Plan To Eliminate The Hearing Backlog And Prevent Its Recurrence"

Here is a nugget from the recently released "Plan To Eliminate The Hearing Backlog And Prevent Its Recurrence."
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:
  • 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
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.
And a second nugget:
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.

Biggs Nomination Formally Withdrawn -- Who's Next?

From Dow Jones:
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.

This would allow the President to nominate someone else for the Deputy Commissioner job, with a term to run until January 2013.

Social Security Debit Card Coming Soon

From Yahoo Finance:
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

Greenville, SC Office Suffers Water Damage

From Yahoo News:
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.

Correction On Quality Assurance Reviews

I received a helpful, but anonymous, response to my post about the proposed quality assurance reviews of Administrative Law Judge decisions that corrects a misunderstanding I had. I imagine I am not the only one confused by this. I have no way of asking permission to post it, but I see no way it could be traced back, so here it is:
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.

Hiring Plans At Social Security

From a Federal Times article about federal agency hiring plans:
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.

NCSSMA Suggestions

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) has posted on its website a letter it is sending to Linda McMahon, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Operations, setting forth NCSSMA's recommendations for increased efficiency. I will excerpt just a few of these recommendations:
  • 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

ALJ Quality Assurance Plan Being Planned

Below is an excerpt from "Plan To Eliminate The Hearing Backlog And Prevent Its Recurrence", which was released by the Social Security Administration last week, apparently as a response to the CBS News reports on the Social Security disability problems:
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
The one thing that this proposal tells us for sure is that Commissioner Astrue is not planning to bow gracefully to pressure from Congress and the media to do something to help Social Security disability claimants. He seems ready for a fight.

Jan 21, 2008

New HOCALJ In Orlando

I have just learned the Kevin Duggan, who has been an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Charlotte, NC, has been named the Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Help From A Newspaper

From the Post-Tribune of Merrillville, IN:
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.

Well, she did call a lawyer before contacting the newspaper and there is probably a lot more to the story than is in this newspaper article, but I still have to wonder if this lady is getting the help she needs. Where did this remaining $5,000 overpayment come from? Is it possible to get the remaining $5,000 overpayment waived? Will she be getting the regular monthly checks only because she agreed to a repayment schedule for an overpayment that she does not understand and which might be waived if she asked? Is she getting the regular monthly checks only because Social Security is still trying to straighten out this mess? Is the problem really solved or just deferred?

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.

Office Closure In Florida

From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
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."

Cleveland Editorial

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
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 Ohio who 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

Fee Payments

The Social Security Administration has released updated data on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants. Payments were way down in December 2007.

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.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Jan 19, 2008

Charities Help Alleviate Misery Caused By Delays At Social Security

From The Ledger of Lakeland, FL:
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.

An Update

From the CBS News website:
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

A press release from Representative Joseph Crowley:
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.

Supreme Court Takes Major LTD Case

Folks who work at Social Security may not notice it, but there is a major interaction between Social Security disability benefits and Long Term Disability (LTD) benefits under employer pension plans. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a major case about LTD. From the Associated Press:
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

Economic Stimulus Package

I do not want to belabor the point, but last month an extra $200 million to help Social Security work off its hearing backlog was out of the question for President Bush. Today, President Bush is calling for a $140 billion economic stimulus package.

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.

Waiting In Fort Wayne

WANE in Fort Wayne, IN is running a local follow-up story to the CBS News report on the problems in Social Security Security's disability programs. See it online.

New OMB Filings

One of the most important levers of control that White House has over the Social Security Administration (SSA) is that the Commissioner of Social Security cannot simply order the adoption of a new regulation. By presidential fiat -- and it is an old fiat -- no agency may adopt a new regulation without the approval of the Office of Managament and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House. The President cannot order the Commissioner of Social Security to adopt a new regulation, but the President can block a new regulation.

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:

TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Immune System Disorders (804F)

TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating HIV Infection (3466A)

The Number Of New Employees To Be Hired At SSA Just Went Down

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that it will cost about $1 million to correct the erroneous 1099 forms recently sent out by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Turning The Spigot Off But Not Back On

From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
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

Monthly Statistical Packages Released

The Social Security Administration has released its monthly statistical reports on Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Waiting In Youngstown

From WYTV in Youngstown, OH:
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.

Comptroller General Calls For More Funding For SSA -- And Jo Anne Barnhart Reappears

From Federal Computer Week:
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.
Funny, but I do not seem to remember Jo Anne Barnhart making much of a pitch for increased staffing while she was Commissioner. She seemed, if anything, to be promising much better processing times no matter what how much or little money was appropriated to the Social Security Administration -- as long as her Disability Service Improvement plan went forward.

Social Security Response To CBS Report

The CBS report on the Social Security disability programs came up briefly at yesterday's House Social Security Subcommittee hearing. Representative Lloyd Doggett asked David Rust, Social Security's Associate Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs, a softball question on the subject. You can see the question and Rust's response in an excerpt from the hearing available on the CBS News website. Basically, Rust denied that there was a culture of denial, but then emphasized that it was a complex subject.

NADE Reacts To CBS Story

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization representing the examiners who make the determinations at the initial and reconsideration levels, has posted the following statement on the recent CBS News reports on the Social Security disability system:
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.

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.

Georgina Huskey
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?

SSA Makes Big 1099 Error

From YubaNet.com:
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.

That Was Then. This Is Now

A little over a month ago, the White House and Congress were locked in a prolonged dispute over the omnibus appropriations bill, with President Bush calling Congressional Democrats as fiscally irresponsible for insisting on about $11 billion more in appropriations than the President favored. That was December. This is January. President Bush is now considering an economic stimulus package that runs to more than $100 billion! It makes you wonder.

Two More Senators Comment On Proposed Regulations

The Social Security Administration has now posted a comment on the proposed procedural regulations made by Senators Stabenow and Levin. The two Senators, like almost almost everyone else who commented, oppose the proposed regulations. These comments were just filed on Jaruary 15, which makes them late.

Jan 16, 2008

About The CBS Broadcast

Trisha Cardillo, a non-attorney representative and former Disability Determination Services (DDS) employee, spoke forcefully during CBS News' Tuesday night Social Security disability story. To learn more about how CBS produced the broadcast and about Ms. Cardillo's opinions, take a look at her post on the SSA CONNECT board.

Background Checks For ALJ Applicants

I have heard some ridiculous rumors about the process for selecting Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Not being an applicant myself, I have little knowledge of the process. However, an attorney who used to work at my firm has applied to become an ALJ. I have received a telephone call from a company hired to do background checks for ALJ candidates. Whatever else may be going on in the selection process, I can say that this background check was quite straightforward. There was only one question that was the least bit unusual. I was one asked whether I thought the applicant could handle a big workload. There was nothing about the background check process that anyone should find worrisome.

House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The hearing of the House Social Security Subcommittee is going on at the moment. It can be viewed over the internet. The witness statements are available at the Subcommittee website. The hearing appears to be a grab bag, with much discussion of the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), but also discussion of the five month waiting period for Disability Insurance Benefits, the 24 month waiting period for Medicare, the recent proposal for procedural changes in Social Security adjudication and various plans for improving a wide variety of types of Social Security benefits.

Allsup Got Cut

Earlier today I posted what I thought was the transcript of the story that CBS News ran last night. Actually, the transcript that CBS provided was not completely accurate. Here is a snippet that was in the transcript that did not appear on TV:
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.”
It looks as if they realized at the last minute that they needed to cut a few seconds off the piece and this little bit got cut, but they forgot to change the transcript to reflect this last bit of editing. So, Jim Allsup misses his opportunity for face time on national television.

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.

Waiting In Fargo

From the Bismark Tribune:
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.

Waiting In Syracuse

WTVH, a CBS affiliate in Syracuse, NY, is running a story on Social Security backlogs that combines some footage from the CBS Evening News story with some local footage. Unfortunately, the story contains a glaring inaccuracy. The reporter states that an attorney can reduce the time it takes to get on Social Security disability benefits. I wish it were true. Attorneys can help a claimant avoid making mistakes that would delay a case, but cannot make the process go faster.

Text Of Second CBS News Report

The text of last night's CBS report on the Social Security disability programs:

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 Ohio.

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.

Read Part I of the series: Disabled And Waiting
FYI: Resources about disability benefits

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.