Feb 12, 2008

Press Release On First Baby Boomer On Social Security Retirement Benefits

A press release from Social Security:

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, the nation's first Baby Boomer, today made history as the first of her generation to receive a Social Security retirement benefit. Having applied online for benefits at www.socialsecurity.gov, Ms. Casey-Kirschling, who was born at one second after midnight on January 1, 1946, today received her first payment by direct deposit.

“Like many of her fellow boomers, Kathy leads a full and busy life,” said Jim Courtney, Social Security Deputy Commissioner for Communications. “By choosing direct deposit, Kathy’s benefit is safely and conveniently deposited into her bank account. No matter where in the country - or the world - Kathy is, her money is as close as the nearest ATM or just a mouse click away through online banking.”

As the nation’s first Baby Boomer, Ms. Casey-Kirschling is leading what is often referred to as America’s silver tsunami. Over the next two decades, nearly 80 million Americans will become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, more than 10,000 per day on average. Ms. Casey-Kirschling is setting the example for millions of her fellow boomers by receiving her retirement benefits in the safest, most convenient way possible.

"Direct deposit is a win for everyone,” said Judith R. Tillman, Commissioner of Treasury’s Financial Management Service (FMS). “For the last three years, Treasury has led a campaign called Go Direct to educate Americans about the many benefits of direct deposit. We at Treasury congratulate Kathy on receiving her first Social Security payment and on her decision to Go Direct.”

Direct deposit eliminates the risk of lost or stolen checks, reduces fraud, helps protect against identity theft and gives people more control over their money. Direct deposit also saves taxpayers millions of dollars. In fact, according to FMS, if every current federal benefit check recipient switched to direct deposit, it would save taxpayers about $130 million a year.

At an event today in Vero Beach, Florida, Social Security also premiered a new video public service announcement, featuring Ms. Casey-Kirschling, that promotes filing online for retirement benefits. (View the video)

“Kathy is a trendsetter for her generation,” Social Security’s Courtney said. “Just as she led the way by filing for her benefits online, we hope she leads the way for baby boomers to receive their benefits by direct deposit.”

I think that they may be trying to promote online filing and direct deposit.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

What Do You Think Of The President's Proposed Administrative Budget For Social Security?

It's excellent (5) 8%
It's good (5) 8%
It's OK (6) 10%
It's poor (22) 35%
It's terrible (24) 39%

Total Votes: 62

Dead Again

The "Social Security mistakenly declares someone dead" stories in the media are so frequent that I do not bother to post about them, but I had to link to this one, from the Auburn, NY Citizen:
A 57-year-old New Jersey woman has been declared dead twice in the past year by the Social Security Administration, despite the fact that she is very much alive. Susan Lindsley, who is developmentally disabled and works about 10 hours a week, relies on Social Security income to get by.

Two months after the Summit, N.J., resident's husband died, the SSA not only stopped her disability and her widow's benefit payments, but also dipped into her bank account in July to reclaim several thousand dollars. ...

The mix-up was cleared up, but two weeks later she was declared dead again. Lindsley's brother had to call eight elected officials for help before she was resurrected once and for all.

India And U.S. Negotiating Totalization Agreement

From the Economic Times of India:
India and the US have started work on a totalisation agreement under which Indians employed for a stipulated period in the US will not have to contribute to social security.

According to government estimates, Indians working short-term in the US contribute up to $1 billion to the US kitty every year as social security contribution. While talks are in the initial stage, India is happy that the US has agreed to have a discussion on the issue.

Earlier, the country was unwilling to consider a totalisation pact because of differences in India and the US social security structure.

Speaking to ET, official sources said a team from the US government had visited India recently to examine India’s social security system.

New Items Filed With OMB

All federal agencies must file any rule-making actions with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and obtain approval before their publication in the Federal Register. The Social Security Administration filed the following items with OMB late yesterday:

TITLE: Amendments to the Ticket To Work and Self-Sufficiency Program (967F)

TITLE: Compassionate Allowances (3427P)

Feb 11, 2008

Fraud Alleged In Texas

From the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
Dale A. Lowery, 54, and Brenda G. Lowery, 48, both of Troup, were indicted on charges of theft of government property, concealment of an event to secure disability benefits and making a false statement.

From March 2003 through June 2007 in Smith County, the Lowerys allegedly stole about $28,300 in Social Security disability benefit payments, for a benefit of a child to which they were not entitled, the indictment states. They also allegedly concealed that the child was no longer living with them and they made false statements to federal agents investigating the case.

Social Security Managers Say SSA Needs 5,000 More Employees -- In Field Offices Alone

From the Federal Times:

SSA [Social Security Administration] expects to be able to replace all the field office employees who retire [under the Bush budget for fiscal year 2009], the National Council of Social Security Management Associations said many more are needed to answer phones, process claims and help people who walk into the offices. SSA needs at least 32,000 field office employees and it now has about 27,000, said Rick Warsinskey, former president of the council.

“We're not doing a good job answering calls,” Warsinskey said. “Our [phone lines’] busy rates are running at 50 percent, and staff keeps getting diverted to handle the people coming in because they can't get through on the phones.”

A Retired Social Security Employee Speaks

By Carol Balderree in the Heber Springs, Arkansas Sun Times:
It was with both sadness and joy that I retired last month, after 32 years with the Social Security Administration. I always loved my job and was rewarded by the satisfaction of being able to help people through some of the most stressful times in their lives. In retirement I look forward to spending more time with friends and family and to volunteering with local charitable organizations that do so much to support the people of our community. Regrettably, I leave friends and co-workers who are faced with a staffing shortage, long hours and increased backlogs.

There are those who believe that government agencies are nothing but bloated bureaucracies staffed by stupid, lazy, overpaid workers. I can’t speak for all of government, but I can assure you that this is not true of those who work for the Social Security Administration. SSA employees are valiantly trying to cope with increasing workloads and reduced budget appropriations. ...

Since 1983, when I started working in Searcy, staffing has shrunk from 14 employees (handling the workload for 3 counties) down to 11 or fewer. When employees resign, retire or transfer to another office, they are often not replaced due to hiring freezes. When new employees are finally hired, they go through at least 4 months of classroom training and another 2 years of on-the-job training before they become journeymen.

The Searcy office has lost 17 employees in the last 7 years, leaving the office chronically understaffed. Of the 7 who have left in the past 2 years (including me), only 3 have been replaced. ...

One business model embraced early on by Social Security is the national toll-free teleservice center. Typical of banks, insurance companies and many other businesses, callers must first listen to a litany of options that provide pre-recorded messages, and if they wait long enough, may finally get a live person from just about anywhere in the country.

It is now difficult to speak to a local representative because when the call centers were opened, staffing was reallocated from local offices to the call centers. The Searcy office has only one incoming line and callers report that it is always busy.

With the explosion of computer technology, it is now possible for SSA management to track everything that an office or employee does, whether it is taking a claim, filing an appeal, changing an address or issuing a Social Security card. Employees and offices are rated on how many actionable items they can produce in a day/week/month and how fast they can complete these actions.

While this facilitates accountability, it also creates an incentive to curtail interviews and development, which could adversely affect either the client or the agency. It creates a disincentive to provide personal services that are not measurable: things like returning phone calls, taking the time to answer questions, and sometimes just listening to people who have suffered a loss of livelihood or loss of a spouse or parent.

OIG Promotes ALJ Production Standards

From a recently released report of Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
We found that ODAR's ability to process projected hearing requests and address the growing backlog of cases will continue to be negatively impacted by the caseload performance of some ALJs if their status quo performance levels continue. To ensure claimants receive their hearing decisions as soon as possible and to be good stewards of the American taxpayer's funds, SSA must ensure that hearing requests are processed within acceptable timeframes and the backlog of cases is reduced to an appropriate level. To do so, SSA should establish a performance accountability process that allows ALJ performance to be addressed when it falls below an acceptable level. ...

[T]he APA does not prevent disciplinary actions against ALJs. In fact, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) stated in the Matter of Chocallo, "[t]he fact that an [ALJ] carries out his/her duties in a hearing room rather than an office does not provide an impenetrable shield from appraisal of performance." ...

It is imperative that ALJs process cases at an acceptable level to reduce the emotional and financial impact of long processing times for the thousands of claimants awaiting decisions on their appeals. To ensure claimants receive timely and accurate decisions, ODAR management must have Agency support to establish a performance accountability process that maintains ALJ qualified decisional independence but holds ALJs accountable for reasonable levels of performance. ...
The whole thrust of the report is that Social Security would have no backlog if the lowest producing Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) would just produce more decisions. Basically, the backlog is the fault of those lazy ALJs, not the fault of Congress or the White House or the Commissioner of Social Security. This is despite the fact that ALJ productivity has increased significantly over the years and despite the fact that the number of ALJs has not come close to keeping pace with the growth in the number of claimants requesting ALJ hearings.

Inevitably, there is a bell shaped curve of ALJ productivity. No matter how much the average increases, there are always going to be some ALJs who produce below the average and some who produce above the average. Essentially, this report is arguing that we must eliminate this bell shaped curve and force all ALJs to produce whatever number of decisions is convenient for Social Security management, whether that number is reasonable or unreasonable.

Feb 10, 2008

Plea For Change In Return To Work Provisions

From an op ed piece in the Cincinnati Dispatch (and read my comment at the end of this excerpt):
I've seen a lot of unpleasant press about the Social Security Administration in the past several weeks. Print and broadcast media have carried stories about people who have become disabled and can't tap into what was supposed to be disability insurance from all the years when that money for Social Security was taken out of their paychecks. ...

But there's another Social Security Disability Insurance problem that, while it is keeping people fed and sheltered, could, with some tweaking, lend a hefty boost to the slumping economy.

I'll give you an example. ...

M is a mother in her early forties who had a great job the first few years out of college. Then the compromised sight she always had suddenly became worse; she could no longer see the computer, spread sheets and reports that were integral to her employment. So she stopped working.

Fast-forward 14 years. M has been raising her two children and doing a great job of it. She also has gotten training in adaptive techniques, so that she can use a white cane, Braille, electronic magnifying devices and computer software that delivers information to her extra-wide monitor in huge letters -- and speaks it aloud, as well.

She's ready and eager to go back to work.

The dilemma is that if she does, she almost certainly will lose money.

The rules go like this: If you're blind and receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, you are allowed to work, but if you make more than $1,570 a month, you lose the benefits.

M gets $2,600 each month in benefits -- $1,600 for her and $500 for each of her children. Let's say she gets a job earning $10 an hour. Working at 40 hours a week, she'll earn $1,600 a month, which is $30 over the limit, and about $500 of that goes to taxes. Boom. Benefits vanish. ...

It doesn't have to be this way.

For people who reach full retirement, receive Social Security and return to work, the earning limit is $36,000 annually. If an American of full retirement age exceeds that (twice the amount a blind recipient is allowed), benefits are adjusted incrementally, $1 for each $2 additional earned.

Yes, I know that the author is confused about the special return to work provisions for the blind and that she has never heard of Social Security's concept of Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE), but she has just chosen a bad example for a good argument. Her mistake in framing the example also points to another argument for changing the return to work provisions. They need dramatic simplification. Few people understand them.

Court Finds Standing For AALJ Lawsuit

The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), several individual ALJs and several prospective ALJs brought a civil action against the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) over three actions of OPM:
  1. Requiring ALJs to maintain active bar membership
  2. New provisions on assignment of cases to ALJs in rotation
  3. A new vacancy announcement for the ALJ position that allegedly gives unfair advantage to applicants already employed in federal service.
OPM moved to dismiss the entire lawsuit on the grounds of lack of standing. The Court has issued a memorandum opinion.

The Court is allowing the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to allege that individual ALJ plaintiffs have allowed their bar membership to lapse and are therefore in danger of losing their jobs as ALJs. Amending the complaint in this way could be embarrassing for the ALJs who would have to admit that they had allowed their bar membership to lapse. It might be difficult for them to continue to hold hearings and issue decisions with their right to be ALJs so obviously in question.

The Court dismissed the assignment of cases part of the complaint on the grounds that the issue was not ripe for adjudication.

Finally, the Court is allowing the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to allege that some of the plaintiffs would apply for ALJ positions if the application process were reopened.

Fraud In Missouri

From the Oberly, Missouri Monitor-Index:
Donald and Mary Hicks of Macon have been indicted on charges involving the theft of $86,534 of Social Security Disability benefits from a couple in their care says United States Attorney Catherine L. Hanaway and Macon Police Chief Steve Olinger.

According to the indictment, in September 1998, Donald Hicks was selected as a representative payee by the Social Security Administration for a disabled couple who were recipients of Social Security Disability benefits.

The indictment alleges that between September 1998 and continuing through February 2006, Donald Hicks endorsed their checks and the money was stolen by Donald and Mary Hicks.

Feb 9, 2008

Social Security Payments Via Debit Cards

From the News Journal of Delaware:

Starting this spring, Social Security recipients in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana will have the option of collecting benefits on a prepaid debit card instead.

The card will look and feel like a regular debit card, and could be used for ATM withdrawals, in-store purchases and online transactions. Delaware will get the "Direct Express" option sometime between June and September. But beware: Not every card transaction will be free.

Feb 8, 2008

Rochester Newspaper On "Dying For Help"

From the Rochester, NY City Newspaper:

More than two-million Americans apply to the federal government for SSDI benefits each year and more than 70 percent are denied. Applicants can appeal the denial, but as many as 85 percent of those first appeals are also denied. While thousands of people give up, there are those who continue appealing until they get a hearing with a Social Security Administration judge. There are currently 750,000 people waiting for their first hearing. Caught in a waiting game that is averaging two years to get a hearing that may not even lead to an approval for benefits, thousands of applicants spend their savings and pensions trying to stay afloat. Many file for bankruptcy and lose their homes in foreclosure. Cars are repossessed, while marriages dissolve and families fall apart. Many people have to manage their application process while their illnesses progress, until they become too sick to continue.

"It is simply outrageous that so many individuals who need Social Security Disability Insurance to survive are forced to wait years before they receive the benefits they deserve," says Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. ...

John Johnson is a disabled Army veteran. Even though a panel of medical examiners with the Veterans Administration reviewed his injuries and, he says, determined he was 100-percent disabled. Johnson's application was denied by the SSA.

"How can one federal agency tell you one thing, and another tell you something completely different?" says Johnson. "It doesn't make any sense. It's crazy. I was injured serving my country. I was doing what I was supposed to do. I don't know if they are doing what they're supposed to be doing, but that's the kind of bureaucracy that you're dealing with."

Feb 7, 2008

$31 Million In Extra Funding For SSA

The economic stimulus bill just passed by Congress contains an extra $31 million in appropriations for the Social Security Administration, apparently to pay for the Social Security Administration's costs associated with implementing the rebates. H.R. 5140 §101(e)(1)(B). It is nice to see Congress thinking about implementation costs, for a change.

Social Security Recipients And Vets To Get Economic Stimulus Payments

From Reuters:
Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have reached a tentative deal on an election-year economic stimulus plan, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said on Thursday.

"I think there will be an agreement to add the 20 million seniors and the disabled vets" to the bill already passed by the House of Representatives that would give rebate checks to millions of Americans, Baucus told reporters.

Asked whether the Senate deal was now in place, the Montana Democrat said, "essentially."

Baucus said the Senate could vote as early as Thursday on the package.

Astrue Op Ed Piece

Commissioner Michael Astrue has penned an op ed piece that is being provided to newspapers. Apparently, it is not drawing much interest since the only newspaper that I have found that has published it so far is the Red Wing Republican Eagle of Minnesota. Here is a brief excerpt:
I know from personal experience how difficult Social Security’s disability process can be. When my father was 52, he suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage caused by a rare form of brain cancer. As I took care of the application for him, it opened my eyes to the complicated rules associated with our disability programs. ...

That’s why I’ve made improving the disability determination process my top priority. It is our most pressing challenge.
He goes on to talk about his "aggressive plan" for reducing the backlogs.

Congressman Wants To Prevent Field Office Hour Reductions

This seems to be a particularly hot issue in New York. From the Buffalo News:
A congressman is trying to prevent the Social Security Administration from closing its local offices to the public for three hours every Wednesday so workers can concentrate on processing disability claims.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, complained about the plan in a letter to Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue.

Social Security officials plan to begin a pilot project on March 1, closing field offices in Buffalo, Amherst, West Seneca and Niagara Falls for three hours each Wednesday. Officials have said the intent of the plan is to allow employees to catch up on a backlog of disability cases.

It turns out that Congressman Reynolds' efforts succeeded. From the same newspaper a few days later:

The Social Security Administration is rescinding a proposed pilot project that would have cut the hours of the agency’s Buffalo-area offices by three hours each week, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds announced Wednesday.

Reynolds cheered the decision by Michael Astrue, the agency’s commissioner, to withdraw a pilot project that would have closed Social Security Administration offices to the public for three hours every Wednesday afternoon. The plan had been delayed once already and was to be implemented March 1.

Other Congressman please take note.

Real ID Headaches Coming For Social Security?

I expect some sanity will prevail, but if not this could make it almost impossible for the Social Security Administration to do business in several states. From CNET News:
Starting May 11, Americans living in states that don't comply with new federal regulations could be barred from entering Washington's visitor center and collecting the complimentary maps and brochures--unless they happen to bring a passport or military ID with them.

That not-very-welcoming rule is part of a 2005 law called the Real ID Act, which takes effect in just over three months. It says that driver's licenses from states that have not agreed to Real ID mandates from the Department of Homeland Security, or which have not requested a deadline extension, can no longer be used to access "federal facilities."

Because the visitor center is in a government building that checks ID, it might just become off-limits to Americans with licenses or state ID cards from the following noncompliant states: Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have not decided whether to comply or ask for an extension, according to a survey conducted by CNET News.com over the last two weeks, meaning the fate of driver's licenses and state ID cards used by their residents remains uncertain. ...

Other effects of Real ID include: Social Security: Some Social Security offices are inside federal buildings, which means that Americans trying to replace a Medicare card or apply in person for government benefits could be inconvenienced. "In terms of getting into federal buildings, that wouldn't be something I could answer," said Mark Hinkle, a Social Security Administration spokesman who referred questions to Homeland Security.

Diabetes And Social Security

Anyone who is involved to much extent with Social Security's disability programs knows that diabetes is the underlying cause for many disability claims. It has been an article of faith that diabetics would suffer less disability if they controlled their blood sugar better -- and that diabetics who did suffer disability might be at fault for being poorly compliant with medical treatment. Well, maybe not. See this article from the New York Times:
... a major federal study of more than 10,000 middle-aged and older people with Type 2 diabetes has found that lowering blood sugar actually increased their risk of death, researchers reported Wednesday. ...

Among the study participants who were randomly assigned to get their blood sugar levels to nearly normal, there were 54 more deaths than in the group whose levels were less rigidly controlled. The patients were in the study for an average of four years when investigators called a halt to the intensive blood sugar lowering and put all of them on the less intense regimen. ...

Medical experts were stunned.

Feb 6, 2008

Stephen Barr On Social Security Budget

Stephen Barr writes the Federal Diary column for the Washington Post. Here are some excerpts from his column for February 6:

The president's budget mostly looks to the next year in a positive light. But there's some frank talk, too.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue declared his agency "is now at a crossroads." Baby boomers are retiring and "we are facing an avalanche of retirement and disability claims," he wrote in his fiscal 2009 budget message released Monday. ...

Compared to other agencies, Social Security and Homeland Security are doing fairly well in the budget derby -- President Bush would give both a funding increase of at least 6 percent.

But it may take more than that. It's clear that many federal programs can only run smoothly when properly staffed.

Take Social Security. In recent years, the agency's field offices have lost staff, and waiting times for the public have increased. More than 50 percent of people who call a field office get a busy signal. At some offices, people who show up without an appointment often wait an hour or longer to be checked in, and then wait some more to see a claims representative.

"Without sustained, adequate funding, this situation will only worsen," Astrue wrote in his budget message.

The president and Astrue are not far apart on their requests to Congress. Bush's budget would provide $10.3 billion to cover administrative expenses at the Social Security Administration. Astrue has requested $100 million more, or $10.4 billion, to administer Social Security programs and benefits.

More would be better, according to nearly 50 organizations, including employee groups, that wrote the White House budget office requesting $11 billion for Social Security in fiscal 2009. The Federal Managers Association, for one, contends Bush's budget request does not provide enough funding to tackle a huge backlog, especially disability cases, at the agency.

In a message to employees yesterday, Astrue tried to be reassuring, saying that the 2009 budget "will put us in a better position to handle the onslaught of work we are confronting."

That's partly because Congress last year provided Social Security with $148 million more than Bush sought. Astrue said that funding will permit the agency to lift a hiring freeze, hire 175 administrative law judges and increase the number of call center employees.

Still, the staffing growth seems small. For fiscal 2009, staffing would go up by 351 full-time employees, to 76,821, according to the budget. That remains lower than in 2007, when 77,855 employees were on board.


"Endemic To The System"

I have been involved in Social Security disability work for thirty years now and I have never seen anything like the amount of publicity given now to the problems in Social Security disability determination. This is way beyond what happened in the early part of the Reagan Administration, when hundreds of thousands of claimants were being cut off benefits. Before the 2006 election, I could go many days, even weeks between posting links to newspaper articles. Now, it seems that I am posting one or more every day.

From the Times-Herald Record of the Hudson Valley in New York:
Robert Veneziali knows he's sick. Anyone who looks at him knows it too. Anyone, that is, unless he or she works in the Social Security Administration's medical disability review section.

They don't see Robert Veneziali when his legs give way beneath him and his body hits the floor and freezes up and his voice is barely strong enough to cry for help.

The medical reviewers at SSA know Robert Veneziali suffers from rapidly progressing debilitating multiple sclerosis, a disease that sometimes comes in terrifying, months-long waves. When these waves strike him, Veneziali has to deal with vision and memory loss, vertigo and physical numbness. He'll be unable to walk and have trouble swallowing his food. He doesn't dare drive; sometimes walking is a risky proposition. ...

Reluctantly, he filed for disability benefits for him and his kids and his wife, Tracey, who has to work three jobs to keep the family afloat. Social Security doctors turned him down and told him he could be re-examined in another 18 months.

That was too much for his mother, Elaine Veneziali. She got hold of Rep. John Hall. Hall caught wind of a recent CBS news report that contended a "culture of denial" in New York and 13 other states designed to deter people from applying for disability benefits. As a result, Hall has called for a federal investigation into the charge.

Veneziali's treatment was "unconscionable," he said. It could only be worse if it proves to be endemic to the system.

Feb 5, 2008

Astrue E-Mail To Staff On Budget

An e-mail from Commissioner Astrue, with my comments bolded and in brackets:
^Commissioner Broadcast

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 2:00 PM


A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: FY 2008 and FY 2009 Budget News

I am pleased to share several items of good news about the agency’s budget.

First, the President’s Budget for FY 2009, submitted to Congress yesterday, provides $10.46 billion for Social Security’s administrative expenses. That’s a 6 percent increase over FY 2008. [But what about the larger budget that you asked for, but which the President was unwilling to give you. And why is an independent Commissioner of Social Security so eager to praise the President?] If enacted by Congress, this would be the largest increase SSA has received in some time. [Really, you could have had more this year, if the President had not vetoed it.] As you know, Social Security is facing an avalanche of disability and retirement claims at the same time that we must address large backlogs due to years of limited resources. The FY 2009 budget will put us in a better position to handle the onslaught of work we are confronting. [Better position? How? The proposed budget provides for almost no additional personnel.]

I am urging Congress to enact this budget quickly. [Come on, Astrue, you know as well as anyone that Democrats are going to enact whatever budget they feel like -- after Bush leaves office and the budget they enact will probably be larger than what is in the Bush budget.] Over the next couple of weeks, I will be joining Chief of Staff David Foster and staff from the Office of Budget, Finance and Management and the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs as we make our case for timely and adequate funding for SSA. [It is a shame you are unwilling to do what you say and actually ask for adequate funding.]

Now here is the good news regarding the current fiscal year. As you may know, for the first time in 15 years, Congress appropriated funding for SSA above the President’s budget. [Which Astrue opposed.] Specifically, Congress provided us with an additional $148 million in FY 2008. As a result of this appropriation, I am able to lift our current hiring freeze and provide some needed hiring flexibility across all SSA components. Each Deputy Commissioner will determine where to direct these critical hires to best address the agency's mission. [But don't expect any hiring binge. We're still going to be losing employees.]

ODAR will be able to replace all of their staff losses this year and hire 175 Administrative Law Judges. [How can I restrain my excitement? In the face of large increases in workload, ODAR will be allowed to keep its staffing level stable.] Our FY 2008 funding also allows me to provide Operations with additional hiring authority to increase the number of Teleservice Representatives in the Teleservice Centers. [But it looks like payment center staff will be cut.]

The agency will continue implementing our Hearings Backlog Reduction Plan. We will use the additional resources to build a firm foundation for the future with automation improvements, fast-track reviews, Administrative Law Judge hiring and other initiatives so that we can significantly reduce waiting times at all steps of the disability process while improving accuracy. The waiting time for a hearing has just dropped below 500 days, even though the oldest cases take the longest. [Dropped below 500 days. What do you mean?] ODAR is doing the right thing for the claimants in tackling this workload, and with these additional resources, I fully expect to see further improvement in processing times by early in the next fiscal year. [But will Astrue be around to see the improvements he predicts?]

Funds for Information Technology Systems will be sufficient to move forward with critical information technology projects, which will help SSA improve the disability programs and prepare for the millions of baby boomers who are beginning to apply for retirement benefits.

For most components, overtime will be provided at FY 2007 actual levels. Operations will be given additional overtime to begin addressing our critical backlogs, so that we can provide better service to the millions of beneficiaries who count on us each and every day. Other expenses, such as training, travel and supplies, will be funded at least at the FY 2007 level. [Funding them at the same level is the same as cutting funding when you factor in inflation.]

As the year progresses, we will be reassessing our staffing and hope to provide some additional hiring authority or overtime. I know that adequate funding is essential to providing the level of service that the American public deserves, and I have great hope that in future years we will be able to build upon the progress we make this year.

I want to thank all of you for your hard work, patience and ingenuity during the tough budget times we have faced in recent years.

Michael J. Astrue

Further SSA Press Statement On Budget

The press statement linked below is only the tip of the iceberg. Social Security has issued a a 198 page Justification of Estimates for Appropriations Committees. Here are a few excerpts:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is now at a crossroads. Due to the aging of the baby boomers, we are facing an avalanche of retirement and disability claims at the same time that we must address large backlogs due to years of increasing workloads and limited resources. In the past, as SSA offices lost staff, waiting times increased and lines grew longer. Over 50 percent of people who called into field offices received a busy signal. Without sustained, adequate funding, this situation will only worsen. Furthermore, we must attack the disability backlogs, which have dramatically and unacceptably damaged many applicants’ lives. Since fiscal year (FY) 2000, processing times for disability hearings have grown by 200 days, which is an incredible hardship for disabled workers and their families as they cope with the loss of income, and often medical insurance as well, due to a severe disability. The problems and shortfalls we have described above are the result of limited resources, increased demand for our core services and new responsibilities. Adequate funding is critical for FY 2009 and must be sustained in the years ahead. Without it, SSA’s service crisis will deepen at a time when our aging population is increasingly counting on Social Security programs. ...

With the 2009 President’s Budget, we will be able to halt the decline in customer service by restoring staffing losses and investing in needed technology. In FY 2009, SSA plans to reduce the hearing backlog by nearly 70,000 cases, process over 200,000 more retirement and survivors claims, and handle 4 million more 800-number calls compared to FY 2008. Waiting times and processing times should decrease, especially since the increased funding will be in concert with continued productivity improvements. Lastly, the President’s Budget will allow us to process more program integrity work. ...

It is important to note that while the FY 2009 budget will make important strides in core areas, SSA will still have significant growth of backlogs in its less visible work, the work that is done after an individual is approved for benefits.
The document indicates that Social Security will have 60,293 workyears in FY 2009, up from 60,064 in FY 2008, an increase of 229 workyears or .38%. Not 38% or 3.8%, but .38%. How does one cope with an "avalanche" of claims and still make "important strides in core areas" with virtually no staffing increase? The number of workyears predicted for FY 2009, though higher than in FY 2008, would not bring Social Security's workforce back to what it was in FY 2007.

The document predicts a 16% increase in hearings held and a 6% decline in the average processing time for hearings, but gives no meaningful explanation of how this can be achieved with little or no increase in staffing.

A table predicts that Social Security's hearing backlog will decline to under 400,000 cases by 2013. That is still a huge backlog and 2013 is a long time from now and I do not see any realistic plan to achieve such a reduction.

Previously, Astrue and other Social Security officials were talking of getting up to 1,250 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in the current fiscal year, but this document talks of achieving this goal in "early 2009."

This document contains fulsome praise for the President's budget proposal, but curiously missing from this lengthy document is a prominent mention of the fact that the President's proposal is lower than what the Social Security Administration is asking for.

SSA Press Release On Budget

The Social Security Administration has just put out this press release:

Statement of Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Commending the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Request

By requesting $10.46 billion for Social Security’s administrative expenses, the President has demonstrated with this budget proposal that he supports our efforts to drive down the disability backlog with faster and more accurate decisions. With a six percent increase over our 2008 appropriation, which would be the largest increase this agency has received for some time, we also can significantly improve the service in our field offices and teleservice centers.

I urge Congress to enact this budget proposal, and to do so as soon as possible. Any delays would severely undermine what the President wants to achieve for all Americans with his request for Social Security.

Astrue Schedules Meeting With Disability Advocates

The Capitol Insider published by the Disability Policy Collaboration, says that Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has scheduled a meeting with "disability advocates" for Thursday, February 7 to discuss the next steps on the procedural regulations that Astrue proposed and then partially withdrew in the face of enormous criticism from advocacy groups and Congress.

This meeting is significant because of the ambiguity of the partial withdrawal. The partial withdrawal could gut the proposed regulations and leave them pending after President Bush leaves office or the partial withdrawal could mean only a minor modification in the proposal with Astrue charging ahead to complete action on the regulations before the end of the year.

New Regulations Coming

The Social Security Administration must file all new Notices of Prospective Rule-Making (NPRMs) with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval before having them published in the Federal Register. Here is one that was just filed with OMB:

TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Malignant Neoplastic Diseases (3429P)

Social Security has also received permission from OMB for the publication of new listings for HIV. That should be in the Federal Register shortly.

Feb 4, 2008

Demonstrating My Lack Of Budget Knowledge

A reader who knows more about budget matters than than I has pointed out while the Commissioner of Social Security has not released his budget statement, the President's budget does include Commissioner Astrue's budget request for the Social Security Administration for fiscal year 2009. Here it is:
As directed by Section 104 of P.L. 103–296, the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, the Commissioner of Social Security shall prepare an annual budget for SSA, which shall be submitted by the President to the Congress without revision, together with the President’s request for SSA.

The Commissioner’s budget includes $10,529 million for total administrative discretionary resources in 2009. This represents $10,427 million for SSA administrative expenses and $102 million for the Office of the Inspector General.
This total of $10.529 billion compares to $10.386 billion in the President's budget, a difference of $143 million or 1.4%.

Even though Michael Astrue knew that Congress is ready, indeed eager, to give the Social Security Administration more money than the President, he could hardly bring himself to ask for more than the President. Astrue is certainly not asking for enough money to make a significant difference in the backlogs at Social Security. It is not clear whether he is asking for enough to prevent a further decline in employment at Social Security.

When Will Astrue's Recommended Budget For Social Security Be Released?

We have seen the President's recommended budget numbers for the Social Security Administration for fiscal year (FY) 2009, which begins on October 1, 2008. However, unlike other federal agencies, the Social Security Administration is not only allowed, but required to release its own budget requests. When will we see these? Let me list the dates these have been released in recent years:
  • FY 2008 -- March 7, 2007
  • FY 2007 -- March 1, 2006
  • FY 2006 -- February 16, 2005
  • FY 2005 -- February 25, 2004
  • FY 2004 -- March 4, 2003
In other words, do not expect it today or tomorrow.

President's FY 2009 Budget

The President's recommended budget for the Social Security Administration for Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, which begins on October 1, 2008, is out. Before talking about this budget, let me emphasize that Social Security's budget is a complicated matter and I am no budget expert. All I can give you is my understanding at this point. Readers can study the original documents for themselves.

The President's recommended budget shows the Social Security's administrative budget for FY 2009 being $10.386 billion, which is $596 million over the current fiscal year, a 6.05% increase. However, unlike the current fiscal year, $504 million is allocated for "program intergity", which means making sure that all the money being paid is being paid properly, rather than making sure that everyone who should be paid is being paid. Certainly, money will be spent in this fiscal year on "program integrity", but there is no requirement that a certain amount be spent on program integrity and it is unlikely to be anywhere near $504 million. Basically,the President's recommended budget appears to me to be close to a budget freeze. I doubt that there is any money in this budget for significant increased hiring.

I should make it clear that the President's leverage on the FY 2009 budget is limited. Congress can, and probably will, pass continuing funding resolutions until Bush leaves the White House and then deal with his successor. Democrats in Congress are certain to declare this budget "dead on arrival." The top Republican on the Senate budget committee has already declared this budget "an academic exercise" and said it lacked credibility, according to Reuters.

Here are a few items included in the budget:
  • Continues ambitious initiatives to reduce the number of disability appeals that are awaiting a decision from an Administrative Law Judge.

  • Provides funding for projects that identify those cases most likely to be allowed so that severely ill applicants can begin receiving benefits on an expedited basis.

  • Increases the capacity to process disability appeals by hiring additional Administrative Law Judges and support staff.

  • Boosts the overall productivity of hearings and targets overtime to critical areas. ...

  • Proposes legislation to synchronize the treatment of retroactive DI payments with Old-Age and Survivors Insurance payments, and to make additional modifications to the distribution of other retroactive payments.

  • Proposes legislation to encourage children to stay in school by lowering to 16 the age at which full-time school attendance is a condition of entitlement for Social Security child’s benefits. ...

  • Proposes to replace the existing complicated offset with a uniform offset for DI beneficiaries also receiving workers’ compensation. The proposal would limit the length of the offset to not more than five years.
The Detailed Budget Estimates supplement (page 1123) indicates that the proposal to "synchronize the treatment of retroactive DI payments with Old-Age and Survivors Insurance payments" means that the President wishes to reduce retroactive disability insurance benefits from twelve months to six months. I have never heard the word "synchronize" used in this way before.

Who Knew?

From the Arizona Star:
Barring a change in the rules, my wife, Georgina, and I are set with our plan for when to claim — or wait on — Social Security benefits. Using a little-known "file and suspend" strategy, I expect us to receive higher combined benefits over the long run, while protecting Georgina if I die first. ...

Discussed in a working paper for the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, this strategy calls for the lower-earner spouse — Georgina in our case — to file for benefits first under her work record.

Depending on their circumstances, some spouses may wish to do so as early as possible, which is age 62. Georgina will wait until her full retirement age of 66 in 2010 primarily because her earnings from freelance work would reduce her benefits until then.

As the higher-earner spouse, I will then "file and suspend" when I reach my full retirement age of 66 in 2011. ...

That means I will file for my full retirement benefits but immediately ask that they be voluntarily suspended (which can be done in the remarks section of the application, either on paper or online, said Dorothy Clark, a Social Security spokeswoman). I will then wait to collect until I am 70. If we need money before then, we can tap our IRAs and other retirement plans.

Why do this?
● Once I file for benefits, even if I immediately suspend them, Georgina will become eligible for the spousal benefit.
● This benefit — 50 percent of what I would have received at full retirement age — will be higher than the benefit under her work record. (Note: If the lower-earning spouse files for benefits before full retirement age, the spousal benefit is reduced.)
● My benefit at age 70 will be considerably higher than at 66. For every year I wait up to age 70, I get a credit of 8 percent a year on top of annual cost-of-living adjustments.
● If I die before Georgina, instead of the spousal benefit she would receive a survivor benefit equal to whatever I was getting (or, generally, was entitled to get if I die before age 70).

Feb 3, 2008

Waiting In Dunkirk

From The Post-Journal of Jamestown, NY:
DUNKIRK — Chances are you may have filed a social security disability claim and either healed from the injury, or worse, before you ever received a check. Congressman Brian Higgins, 27th Congressional District of New York, visited the City of Dunkirk Senior Citizen Center on Friday morning to announce his proposed bill which could help alleviate several problems at the social security administration level.

“There is just an unacceptable back-log in social security disability claims and other services that people depend on here in Chautauqua County. I have a bill that I’ve introduced — with a lot of co-sponsorship — that would exercise congressional oversight over the social security administration,” Higgins said. “They have cut staffing, they have cut hours and they’re essentially cutting services and it’s unacceptable at a time where the claims for benefits are actually increasing.” ...

“We have lost staff by more than 50 percent. However, the work that we do continues to increase,” added AFGE Local 3342 President Paul Demler. “The population is not going away. It’s growing and we’re expecting over the next few years the effect of the baby-boom generation is going to increase our services by approximately 30 to 40 percent.”

Downfalls for SSA were noted as offering unreliable office hours for local administration offices and, worst of all, untimely with the processing of claims. ...

Under the SSA’s current plan, Demler says the Dunkirk office would actually close before it hired one new employee.

“Currently, the agency only has a plan to replace employees who leave at a 1:8 ratio, meaning it would require eight employees to leave before another is hired,” he said. “If you think of Dunkirk, there’s only 6 employees, they would close before ever considering to hire another employee under the 1:8 ratio. Jamestown would be down to two or three employees.”

Law Offices Of James Sokolove

Allsup is not the only entity seeking to represent Social Security disability claimants on a national basis -- and issuing press releases in an effort to get free advertising. Here are some excerpts from a press release from the Law Offices of James Sokolove:
The LOJS, dedicated to providing equal access to the civil justice system, cites the importance of the startling results of a two-month investigation into Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims presented in a recent CBS News video report. ...

“We need to be aware now that an aging boomer population will present an increasing number of claims just as the judges who review denials at the Social Security Administration (SSA) likewise age and potentially shrink in numbers,” says Attorney Jim Sokolove, founder of The Law Offices of James Sokolove. “It’s the perfect storm. As to why new judges aren’t being appointed to handle the increase … that’s the million-dollar question.” ...

About The Law Offices of James Sokolove

For almost 30 years, The Law Offices of James Sokolove (jimsokolove.com) has focused on reinventing how people obtain legal services. Equality of access, irrespective of ethnicity or income, and superior quality of representation and service within our civil justice system is our mission. Within an ever-changing legal profession, the LOJS business model is a proven success strategically matching specific client needs with particular law firm expertise and service quality. LOJS is the nation’s largest and fastest growing marketer of legal services.

Feb 2, 2008

Waiting In Perryville

From the Southwest Missourian:
Tarring a roof or putting up walls never made Jeff Niccum bat an eye. Manual labor is all the work he has known.

But his life of construction, roofing and landscaping has resulted in degenerative joints and painful arthritis in his early 40s. Giving his son J.T., who turned 5 Wednesday, a bath hurts him. J.T. got a train for his birthday, but Niccum could only put the toy together from a recliner. Getting on the floor with the boy was out of the question.

Niccum, of Perryville, Mo., has been rejected four times for Social Security disability. His appeals have come back unfavorable since 2000. After the first time, he said he thought they might be right. So he landed a job driving a forklift at Gilster-Mary Lee. After just a week of work, he couldn't get out of bed.

Feb 1, 2008

Social Security Retirement Benefits Worth $225,000 And Disability Benefits Worth $414,000

From the National Academy of Social Insurance:
For most Americans, the value of their Social Security is the biggest accumulation of dollars they will take into retirement. In fact, for two-thirds of recipients over the age of 65, Social Security is more than half of their income during retirement, according to a new report released today by the non-partisan National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI).

The report, Social Security: An Essential Asset and Insurance Protection for All, details Social Security’s vital role in safeguarding Americans families and retirees, with a particular focus on groups at high risk of having inadequate incomes – older women, African American families, and the Latino community. The report synthesizes findings from research and outreach activities by twelve organizations funded by the Ford Foundation.

The average monthly benefit for retirees is $1,045 in 2007. A 65-year old who wanted to buy a guaranteed income of that size – with payments that go up with the cost of living and continue for a widowed spouse -- would need to pay an insurance company about $225,000. ...

The value of the disability benefits for disabled workers – those who cannot work at any job for at least a year because of physical or mental illness and impairments – was the equivalent of purchasing a $414,000 disability insurance policy in 2006. That represents the total benefits available to a 30-year old worker who becomes disabled after earning between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, has a 28 year-old spouse, a child age two and an infant under the age of one.
An Administrative Law Judge is supposed to decide upon something like 50 Social Security disability claims in a month. By my calculation, that is over $20 million in benefits -- per month -- and almost a quarter of a billion dollars per year! And that is not even considering the value of Medicare!

Field Offices With Fewer Than 15 Employees To Be Closed?

From the Storm Lake Iowa Pilot-Tribune (emphasis added):
Worries continue to circulate on the potential closing of the Storm Lake Social Security office and others like it around the state.

On Tuesday, officials of the union that represents many of the Social Security workers called on Iowans to protest to their members of Congress.

Officers of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 836 said that a Social Security Administration downsizing initiative and increased use of online services would be "a mistake that will compromise the quality and efficiency of service." ...

The SSA facility in Oskaloosa is slated to be closed on February 1, although Senator Tom Harkin has spoken to Commissioner Michael Astrue opposing any office closures in his state.

"The Commissioner has said that offices with 15 or fewer employees could be shutdown, and most of the offices in Iowa currently have fewer employees than that," said Cheryl Hainkel, the Kansas City Regional Vice President of Council 220.

If the agency approves additional shutdowns in Iowa, there could be just five remaining locations for the entire state, the union claims: Davenport, Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Council Bluffs.

"An individual would have to travel up to two-and-a half hours (153 miles) in order to reach their nearest Social Security office," Hainkel said. ...

The local manager of the Storm Lake office is also concerned about the future, feeling that not all senior citizens would be comfortable in using electronic communications or be able to drive long distances to meet with Social Security staff.

Jan 31, 2008

Budget Outlook For FY 2009

It may not make that much difference what President Bush wants in the budget for fiscal year (FY) 2009, which begins on October 1, 2008, since Democrats in Congress can just pass continuing funding resolutions until Bush leaves office and they can deal with a different president, perhaps of their party. However, Bush is not going to make it easy. From Reuters:
President George W. Bush will propose freezing most domestic spending in his upcoming 2009 budget and will seek big cost savings from government health care programs, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
Bush's final budget is due out next week.

Testimony On Overpayments

David Rust, Social Security's Acting Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs, testified today before the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on the subject of "preventing, detecting, and collecting improper payments." Rust's written statement is available online.

Here is a little excerpt that gives a small preview of the President's fiscal year (FY) 2009 recommended budget for Social Security:
The President's Budget for FY 2009 includes a proposal to provide SSA with funding, outside the spending caps, for program integrity activities such as CDRs and SSI redeterminations. The Budget includes a special funding mechanism that will provide $240 million for SSA's program integrity efforts, in addition to the $264 million already included in the base request, for a total of $504 million. SSA plans to process 329,000 medical CDRs and nearly 1.5 million SSI redeterminations in FY 2009. If found to be as cost-effective as SSI redeterminations, up to $40 million may be used for initiatives to improve the disability process and up to $34 million may be used to expand the Access to Financial Information project, which automates verification of SSI recipients' assets held in banks. In total, SSA estimates this program integrity funding in FY 2009 will result in over $4 billion in savings over 10 years.

Proposed Settlement Of Kaplan Case

The Social Security Administration has posted a notice of a proposed settlement agreement and hearing in the Kaplan v. Chertoff class action pending in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The class action has to do with delays at the Department of Homeland Security in adjudicating applications for adjustment of immigration status and naturalization. Those delays have had serious impacts upon immigrants who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), because of time limits for SSI benefits for some immigrants.

Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia is class counsel.

Allsup's Ten Questions

Allsup, a corporation which has for many years represented Social Security disability claimants on behalf of Long Term Disability insurers and pension plans (who offset the benefits they pay by Social Security disability benefits), has increasingly been seeking to represent individual Social Security disability claimants. Allsup recently issued a press release entitled "Top Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing a Social Security Disability Representative." Here is an excerpt:

- What are your options if you want to hire representation?

Typically, there are two major types of paid SSDI representatives: specialized organizations like Allsup, which has multiple representatives and specialists experienced in handling SSDI claims in local communities across the country; and law firms that may or may not have attorneys solely dedicated to SSDI claims.

- How knowledgeable and experienced is the organization in representing individuals applying for SSDI?

You should look for a representative who specializes in SSDI who understand the complexities and nuances of the process. Don’t be fooled if a representative tries to impress you with their local influence. It’s highly unlikely that they have special power over local SSA staff or can ensure your hearing will take place in front of a specific judge.

- Will the organization help you file the initial application for SSDI?

The myth that you cannot have a representative help you file your initial application for SSDI may stem from the fact that many attorneys only accept SSDI clients after their applications are denied.

“Turning away a potentially qualified individual seeking help with the SSDI application process is like telling someone who doesn’t know how to drive a car to get behind the wheel and come back once they’ve had an accident,” said Swierczek. “It’s not a safe strategy when finding help from the beginning can improve your chances of getting approved earlier and cost you less in representative fees as a result.”

- What specific activities will the representative undertake on your behalf?

It’s important to choose a representative who consistently works the claim on your behalf throughout the process and removes the burden from you. For example, you should ask:
- Will you contact my doctors and collect or update medical records for my file independently of the SSA?
- Will you regularly query the SSA for status of my claim or confirm my claim file is up-to-date?

“The SSA’s Disability Determination Service may arrange for you to visit a doctor of its choice and compile your medical records,” Swierczek explained. “But it’s generally in your best interest to have your representative help you by having your treating physician provide the needed medical evidence.

“Likewise, your representative should regularly be following up with the SSA to ensure your claim is in order. You don’t want to show up at a hearing only to learn critical information, such as your most recent medical tests showing your illness has worsened, did not make it into your file in time,” he added.

- Does the organization have experience representing someone with your disability?

Not all disabilities are alike — the SSA has specific Disability Impairment Criteria for hundreds of specific conditions, from AIDS to strokes. It’s essential to prepare each case with details and in the language required by the SSA to avoid unnecessary delays, a reduced award or denial of benefits.

- How does the organization – and who within the organization – will keep you informed on the progress of your claim?

Disability applicants should make sure that the representation organization they choose will keep them regularly updated on the progress of their application, including timely notices of deadlines, documents required or scheduled hearings.

“People sometimes select a local representative based on the belief that they’re going to have regular in-person meetings with the representative,” said Swierczek. “Then they learn after the initial meeting that the representative is no longer available to meet with them, take their calls or keep them regularly informed. In fact, it’s an all-too-common practice for some representatives to minimize communications until a specific deadline or event, like a hearing, is scheduled. Knowing the communication approach of the representative you choose is essential in making sure you’re not disappointed.”

- Will you have to attend any hearings?

Approximately one-quarter of SSDI cases proceed to the hearing level where there are hearings before judges. However, this might not be necessary if the representative asks for and receives an “on-the-record” decision, where the judge makes a decision based on a review of information in the file. It does require that your representative create a well-written brief that provides a thorough, factual record of your claim. For example, 63 percent of Allsup customers at this phase never have to attend a hearing because many judges will make a decision without the need for an oral hearing based on the information Allsup presents.

“The SSDI process is overwhelming,” Swierczek warns. “And if you have physical limitations or live in a remote area, figuring out how to get to a hearing can be a significant concern. Going through the extra effort of creating solid briefs needed to gain on-the-record decisions is a sound representation practice to help alleviate concerns and accelerate a decision.”

- What is the organization’s success rate?

No organization has a 100-percent track record, but consumers should look for a representative with a high success rate in gaining SSDI benefits for its clients. This indicates the representative not only can deliver the desired result, but also probably has a powerful credibility in the industry.

- How much faster can the organization help you win your award?

There is no guaranteed timeline. External factors, including the growing backlog at the SSA in processing claims, can affect the timing. But a representative should know on average how long it takes their clients to get through the various stages of the SSDI process. For example, individuals Allsup represents at the hearing level (where 84 percent of all claimants have representation) generally receive an award four months faster than the national average.

“How fast you get through the process matters, because it gives you access sooner to the SSDI award you need to pay for daily living expenses. It also lowers your representation fee,” said Swierczek.

- What does it cost?

The SSA determines the maximum fee that any organization can charge for SSDI representation. Currently, it is 25 percent of the retroactive dollar amount awarded, not to exceed $5,300. Those who are approved quickly at the application level and receive no retroactive award pay much less – as little as $750. You should not pay a fee if you don’t receive your SSDI award. However, you should ask a representative if they charge for costs in addition to the representation fee, such as travel or medical records.

Baltimore Sun And Social Security

Take a look at the front page of today's Baltimore Sun. No mention of Robert Ball's death. I am unable to determine online whether the Baltimore Sun even carried an obituary for Robert Ball! Certainly, there was no major article on Ball's passage.

The Social Security Administration is the largest employer in the Baltimore area. Robert Ball was arguably the most important figure in the history of the Social Security Administration. I cannot comprehend the Baltimore Sun's studied indifference to the Social Security Administration. Is this ideological? Is it because the Baltimore Sun is just a bad newspaper? Is it because the Social Security Administration is located somewhat on the periphery of Baltimore?

Senate Finance Committee Version Of Economic Stimulus Package

The Senate Finance Committee has reported out an economic stimulus different than that passed by the House of Representatives. In the Senate Finance Committee version the following individuals would be eligible for rebates:
(1) The sum of an eligible individual’s: (1) earned income (as defined for purposes of the earned income credit); and (2) social security benefits must be at least $3,000; or
(2) The eligible individual has a net income tax liability of at least $1
This would allow virtually all recipients of benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act a rebate. I had been uncertain of this, since press reports had emphasized that the Senate Finance version of the economic stimulus package would give rebates to "seniors" on Social Security. Of course, there are many drawing disability and survivors benefits from Social Security who are not "seniors."

The Senate Finance bill would exclude almost all Supplemental Security Income (SSI) only recipients.

I have been unable to determine whether the rebate checks would be counted as income for purposes of SSI. If so, concurrent recipients of both Title II and SSI benefits would receive a rebate check, but would then lose most, if not all of it, because it would reduce their SSI benefits. In fact, they could actually end up worse off if the rebate check were enough to knock them out of Medicaid altogether for a month.

House Social Security Subcommittee Press Release On Suspension Of Regulatory Proceedings

A press release from the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee -- and note the last paragraph:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) today notified Congress that the agency would suspend some parts of a controversial proposed regulation that would sharply restrict appeal rights for severely disabled individuals applying for benefits.

Under the proposed regulation, severely disabled persons would have been denied access to over $2.0 billion in Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits over the next ten years – not because their disabilities were not severe enough, but because they could not successfully navigate the complex new procedural requirements established by the proposed rule. Those denied would also have lost access to critical Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

"This proposal would have complicated the disability system and denied benefits to deserving folks – I commend the SSA for reconsidering it," said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-NY). "We should be looking for ways to improve, not complicate, the current disability system. Our immediate priority is making sure SSA has enough disability claims examiners and judges to dramatically reduce the backlog of unprocessed claims. In the future, I look forward to working with the agency to ensure that the right balance is struck between speedy processing and adjudicating claims in a way that is thorough, fair, and accessible to claimants."

The proposed regulation engendered a strong outcry from Congress and advocacy organizations. A letter objecting to the regulation was sent in December by eleven House Committee and Subcommittee chairs. Letters objecting to the proposal were also sent by the Senate Finance Committee and other Senate leaders, and almost 500 comments were filed on the regulation, primarily in opposition.

"I am pleased that Social Security Commissioner Astrue has pledged to work with Congress to improve the disability process," said Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Michael R. McNulty (D-NY). "It is essential that SSA bring down the backlog in a way that does not harm those we are trying to help. In my view, the most important thing we can do is to work together to ensure that SSA has sufficient resources to process the claims it receives without imposing intolerable waits and hardships on those suffering from severe disabilities."

The agency has agreed to suspend some portions of the regulation and will seek additional public input. However, it remains to be seen whether all aspects of the regulation that would unfairly harm disability applicants will be revised. The Committee on Ways and Means will continue to provide close oversight of the process and any proposed changes.