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Jan 31, 2009

Crossed Lines In Pennsylvania

From the Pocono Record:
Marshalls Creek Homes downsized their phone lines five months ago, so when the dead lines began ringing again employee Ed Johnson thought it was something straight out of the "X-Files."

He answered the phone and — much to his shock — could hear an entire conversation between the local Social Security office and a client. ...

"A new Social Security office opened up in East Stroudsburg and our lines are crossed. When certain lines ring and I answer it, it is either someone looking to talk about their case, or I can hear the entire conversation between the client and the Social Security office," ...

Marshalls Creek Homes tried to rectify the situation with Verizon, but was told they couldn't because the trouble isn't their phone line.

"The owner of Marshalls Creek Homes went over to the Social Security office and told the manager there about the problem," Johnson said. "But two weeks later, the phones are still ringing." ...

Michael Laroche, manager of the Social Security office, said the problem was addressed and fixed for two days, but Johnson disagrees.

"We have a skeleton crew on Wednesdays and Thursdays so I can't say that it was fixed for the two days. I remember the phones ringing on those days," Johnson said.

In the two weeks that one phone line has been ringing in two locations, Johnson estimates that he has answered about 50 phone calls meant for the Social Security office.

"I didn't know that anyone could hear the calls," Laroche said.

"I thought it was fixed, so now I have to call Verizon again."

Verizon officials were not immediately available for comment.

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  • Action Line Gets Results

    The Miami Herald "Action Line" helps a claimant get their back benefits.

    I will take a guess at what happened. It was what I call a "phantom windfall offset." The field office took a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claim and quickly denied it because the claimant had too much income. However, once the Disability Insurance Benefits claim was approved, the SSI claim held up payment of back benefits, because Social Security's computers would not allow payment of the back Disability Insurance Benefits until the amount of the SSI payments were known, so what is called the windfall offset could be done. Of course, since no SSI benefits were being paid, there was no SSI payment information, so the back benefits were not paid. I sometimes wonder if the back benefits ever get paid in these situations if no one complains.

    Social Security is well aware of the "phantom windfall offset" problem. IIt eats up a lot of staff time and delays benefits payments for a lot of people. Is Social Security doing anything about it?

    Does anyone else have a theory about what happened here?

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  • DDS Employees Being Furloughed In Maryland

    The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of personnel who make disability determinations for Social Security, has released a letter it has sent to the governor of Maryland. and another letter it has sent to the governor of California. For historical reasons not worth explaining here, disability examiners work at state government agencies, but all salaries and expenses associated with them are paid for by the federal government. Heck, their e-mail addresses are something like nademember@ssa.gov. But they are still employees of state governments. Because of budgetary problems, the states of Maryland iand California are furloughing some disability examiners. NADE is ticked since the state budget problems have nothing to do with the disability examiners.

    Social Security needs to do something to keep this from happening in the future.

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  • Astrue Gives Interview

    From Government Executive:
    In an interview with Government Executive, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said the tough economy has increased the disability claims caseload by about 10 percent -- or 250,000 cases -- more than the agency had projected and budgeted for. He said SSA also has its hands tied when it comes to hiring new staff to address the increase in claims, largely because it is operating on a continuing resolution through March, which provides funding at fiscal 2008 levels.

    "Help is already too late," he said. "The tidal wave is hitting us, and we don't have the money to staff up appropriately." ...

    Astrue expressed some hope at the prospect of additional funding in the $819 billion stimulus package that Congress is debating. The House version of the bill, which that chamber passed on Wednesday, would provide $500 million to SSA for two years in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 to help address the disability case backlog. The legislation also would provide $400 million to create a new computer facility to keep up with new responsibilities and heavier workloads, he said.

    But Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said on Wednesday that the union has some concerns with the construction of a new computer facility, largely because it thinks the building's high price tag could be put to better use, such as reducing the hearings backlog, hiring additional staff and improving telephone customer service operations.

    "The whole point of the stimulus package is to create jobs and spending," Skwierczynski said. "We could hire more SSA employees to do the additional workloads we're getting because of the economic downturn. We'll never get rid of these backlogs unless we have more staff."

    Astrue said the agency plans to hire up to 155 additional administrative law judges [ALJs] this fiscal year to help address the backlog and influx of cases. In March, the Office of Personnel Management -- the agency charged with reviewing applications and screening potential ALJs -- will reopen the examination process and submit qualified candidates to SSA for review, he said. But because the new judges need to be hired, relocated and trained, Astrue said, they likely won't start contributing to reducing the backlog until next year. The agency currently employs about 1,200 ALJs.

    The commissioner said the $500 million proposed in the stimulus package also would be used to hire additional ALJ support staff. The support staff-to-judge ratio now stands at 4.4-to-1, but the agency hopes to use the stimulus funding to increase the ratio to about 4.6-to-1, he said.

    SSA also will look to the stimulus money to improve telephone services and wait times at field offices across the country, since demand for these services is picking up because of the tough economy, Astrue said. "The thing that's saving us is we have a big uptick in people using online services," he said. "Retirement applications are being filed online at a much higher level than they've been historically. That's a saving grace for us."

    Astrue is trying to place the blame for the upsurge in claims on the economy even though the upsurge in claims is almost solely due to the aging of the baby boomer generation and was fully anticipated. He is also trying to blame Democrats for not passing the budget proposed by President Bush, even though, in essence, he concedes that the Bush budget was grossly inadequate. He is also claiming that persuading people to use the internet more in their dealings with Social Security will somehow save the day, even though internet retirement claims are unlikely to be more than a minor bit of help. What the public and most of Congress does not understand is that the Social Security Administration is mostly a disability adjudication agency. Nothing done on retirement claims is going to make that much difference because retirement claims do not take that much staff time to begin with. What really eats up staff time is disability claims. Online filing of disability claims is not ready for prime time now. It is not clear whether online filing of disability claims will ever save Social Security much staff time because most people filing disability claims are just too impaired to file anything this complicated online without making lots and lots of mistakes.

    Bp the way, hiring 155 more ALJs sounds nice, but it is not much more than what is needed to replace the natural attrition of ALJs. If Social Security wants to beef up its ALJ corps so it can work off its backlogs, it is going to have to hire far more than 155 ALJs. Astrue needs to start talking about going up to 1,500 or even 2,000 ALJs if he wants to convince me he is serious about staffing up to work off the backlog.

    And note this quote from Michael Astrue from April 23, 2008, "We have also received some criticism that we are not providing adequate support staff for our administrative law judge corps. In my opinion, that is a fiction designed to sidetrack some of our productivity initiatives." Astrue is now planning to increase the support staff for ALJs! That remark was not off the cuff. It was in his written statement to a Congressional committee. It was a calculated insult. It looks pretty foolish now.

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  • Jan 30, 2009

    Obama Administration Puts Off E-Verify Requirement

    From Fedblog:
    The Department of Homeland Security has delayed—again—a planned rule change that would require federal contractors to verify their employees’ immigration status. Federal contractors and subcontractors will be required to begin using the E-Verify system on May 21, which would allow the Obama administration an opportunity to review the proposal, officials said.

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  • Having Trouble Accepting Reality

    Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review has an Op Ed column in the New York Times. Here are some excerpts:
    Democrats will probably get their way on most policy matters over the next two years, but bipartisan accomplishments won’t be easy. ...

    Take Social Security, which President Obama has suggested he wants to reform. A strategy that is supported only by Democrats could result in their having to take full responsibility for a tax-heavy bill, and some would balk at that prospect. This means that the most likely result is inaction. ...

    The stalemate continues today. To break it, each side will have to give up at least one cherished goal. Republicans must accept that Mr. Bush’s dream of letting individuals invest Social Security funds is dead. In return, Democrats will need to take tax increases off the table. ...

    This compromise seems more likely than other solutions (though less likely than further stalemate) , in part because both sides should agree that solvency will require reductions in the growth of benefits. Progressive price indexing is a good option. Under current policy, tomorrow’s retirees get greater benefits than today’s. Progressive indexing would keep that rule for low-income workers. Benefits for high-income workers would, on the other hand, keep up only with inflation. This policy should be palatable to Democrats. If they agree to take the remaining steps to make the program solvent without tax increases, then Republicans should agree to finance the “add-on” savings accounts that Democrats favor.
    I agree that stalemate is a likely outcome. Otherwise, this is ridiculous. All Republicans have to do is to give up on privatizing Social Security and Democrats will agree to a solution that relies solely upon benefit cuts? What kind of fantasy world does Ponnuru live in? Privatizing Social Security is way beyond dead. It is no bargaining chip. Ponnuru seems to have trouble understanding that the Republican party has only very limited power in Washington.

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  • Former Mayor Charged With Fraud

    From The State, of Columbia, SC:

    The same former small-town South Carolina mayor who pleaded guilty to misconduct last year is now charged with Social Security fraud.

    U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins said Wednesday that Alan Lenneau Berry has been charged with embezzling $130,000 in Social Security funds.

    Agents said Berry had his salary checks as Latta mayor issued in his wife’s name so he could receive Social Security disability checks from 2004 to 2008.

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  • Jan 29, 2009

    Some Reasonable Questions

    Here is a slightly edited version of a comment that was posted below:
    Can someone please explain how Compassionate Allowances work and for which medical conditions they are used?

    Even after reading Social Security's material, I don't think I fully understand how Quick Disability Determination (QDD) and Compassionate Allowance (CA) differ.

    I am a Capitol Hill staffer and I might have to answer questions about these initiatives, so I'd like a deeper understanding.

    Many thanks.
    Anyone want to take a stab at answering these questions?

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  • Tanner Votes For Economic Stimulus Bill

    John Tanner, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, who is very much a Blue Dog Democrat, voted for the President's economic stimulus bill, which passed the House of Representatives yesterday. There were 11 Democrats in the House who voted against the bill. No Republicans voted for the bill.

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  • Jan 28, 2009

    Senate Appropriations Committee Wants To Give $893 Million To Social Security -- But Nothing To Reduce Backlogs

    From the bill just reported out of the Senate Appropriations Committee (page 149):
    For an additional amount for ‘‘Limitation on Administrative Expenses’’ [which is the technical term for Social Security's operating budget] , $890,000,000 shall be available as follows:

    (1) $750,000,000 shall remain available until expended for necessary expenses of the replacement of the National Computer Center and the information technology costs associated with such Center: Provided, That the Commissioner of Social Security shall notify the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate not later than 10 days prior to each public notice soliciting bids related to site selection and construction: Provided further, That unobligated balances of funds not needed for this purpose may be used as described in subparagraph (2); and

    (2) $140,000,000 shall be available through September 30, 2010 for information technology acquisitions and research, which may include research and activities to facilitate the adoption of electronic medical records in disability claims and the transfer of funds to ‘‘Supplemental Security Income’’ to carry out activities under section 1110 of the Social Security Act: Provided further, That not later than 10 days prior to the obligation of such funds, the Commissioner shall provide to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate an operating plan describing the planned uses of such funds.

    OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL
    For an additional amount for the ‘‘Office of Inspector General’’, $3,000,000, which shall remain available through September 30, 2012, for salaries and expenses necessary for oversight and audit of programs, projects, and activities funded in this Act and administered by the Social Security Administration.
    There is far more funding for the new National Computer Center in this bill than in the bill that will be passing the House of Representatives today. In fact, I have a hard time seeing how Social Security can spend this much money this quickly on a national computer center. It takes time to design and construct such a building. I would be surprised if Social Security is anywhere near ready to go on this. They do not need to spend $750 million on architects and engineers. $140 million for information technology?

    The big thing is no additional funding for reducing the backlogs at Social Security. I find that surprising and disappointing.

    At least the amount in the Senate bill is almost identical to the amount in the House bill. The difference is how the money will be spent, which is an important difference, but this sort of thing can get sorted out in later stages of the process.

    By the way, notice that the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to want to keep Michael Astrue on a short leash? He would have to notify them before taking bids and notify them promptly of operating plans. I have not studied the bill, but I doubt that other agencies are being subjected to such scrutiny.

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  • A Press Release

    A press release from Social Security:

    Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced today that improvements to the agency’s computer modeling system have increased the number of claimants receiving expedited approvals for disability benefits. Social Security’s two-track system -- the Quick Disability Determination (QDD) process and Compassionate Allowances -- is now fast-tracking about 4 percent of all disability cases, a sharp increase from the 2.7 percent of cases fast-tracked last year.

    "In practical terms, this means that this year 100,000 to 125,000 disabled Americans -- those with the most severe disabilities -- will be approved for benefits in about 10 days instead of waiting the three to four months it typically takes for an initial decision," Commissioner Astrue said. "These initiatives are truly a lifeline for those who need it most."

    Under QDD, a predictive computer model analyzes specific data within the electronic file to identify cases where there is a high potential that the claimant is disabled and where Social Security can quickly obtain evidence of the person's allegations. Through Compassionate Allowances, Social Security expedites the processing of disability claims for applicants with medical conditions so severe that their conditions by definition meet Social Security's standards. These fast-track systems increase the efficiency of the disability process and also help free up resources so the agency can better cope with an increase of about 250,000 cases resulting from the current economic downturn.

    "During these tough economic times, getting Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits quickly to Americans who are unable to work helps them and strengthens our economy. For SSI recipients, expedited approvals also ensure they immediately get the vital medical coverage they need," Commissioner Astrue said. "It is critical that we continue to embrace innovative technologies in order to improve the services we provide to the public."

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  • Jan 27, 2009

    Senate Finance Committee Reports Out The $300 Bonus Checks For Social Security Recipients

    We do not yet know exactly what the Senate Appropriations Committee reported out today, but the Senate Finance Committee reported out a $300 bonus for each recipient of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits.

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  • No Money For SSA In Senate Bill?

    The Senate Appropriations Committee has released an updated summary of their version of the President's economic stimulus bill. There is still no mention of Social Security in the summary. The House version has $902 million for Social Security.

    Update: This has now been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and there is still no sign of money for the Social Security Administration.

    Further update: The Federal Times says that the actual bill will be posted on the Committee website Wednesday.

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  • ODAR Productivity Pressures -- What Is Your Experience?

    I hear more and more frequent references to employees of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), which is where Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) work, being subjected to greater productivity pressures than in the past. To a point, productivity pressure is a good thing. The public is suffering because of backlogs at Social Security. Public servants should be encouraged to work hard to deal with those backlogs. The other side of the coin is that excessive pressure can have adverse consequences -- higher error rates, employees taking inappropriate shortcuts (such as giving priority to quick, easy cases) and frustrated, discouraged employees.

    If you work at ODAR, what has been your recent experience with productivity pressure? Post your comment below. I am not looking for employees of other parts of the Social Security Administration to say that it is much worse where they are than it can possibly be at ODAR. or that ODAR employees are lazy. That may or may not be true, but if you have not worked at both places, you really cannot know and that is not the sort of information I am trying to gather anyway. Also, I am not looking for ODAR employees to say that while they and others doing their job are being subjected to terrible pressure and are working very, very hard, some other group of employees at ODAR has it easy. Tell us about what you are experiencing, rather than trying to blame someone else.

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  • Jan 26, 2009

    NADE Newsletter

    The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of people who work at the state disability determination services around the country, has posted its Winter 2009 newsletter. It does not contain anything new of much significance, but it is always interesting to read people writing from a different perspective.

    I note that the newsletter shows Jeffrey Price to be NADE's Legislative Director. Mr. Price has an unusual history for someone in such a position. Yes, it is the same Jeffrey Price.

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  • Jan 25, 2009

    NCSSMA Newsletter -- And One Of My Pet Peeves


    The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) has issued its January 2009 Newsletter. Of some interest to me were the articles on Social Security's new VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) project and Teleservice Center operation.

    The newsletter also has a timely article about the importance of Social Security during a recession, which includes the chart shown above. Click on the chart to see it full size. The article says that this chart proves that disability claims go up during a recession. You can see no more than a tiny bit of proof for that proposition in the chart. There is simply no evidence in this chart or elsewhere that disability claims soar when economic times are bad. No recession has ever caused more than a slight bump in Social Security disability claims filed in the United States. Disability claims are certainly going up now, but this surge in claims was predictable decades ago. It is due to the aging of the baby boomer population.

    There is one thing that has previously caused significant increases in disability claims filed -- making it less difficult to get on Social Security disability benefits.

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  • Jan 24, 2009

    GAO Says Disability Programs Still "High Risk"

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued its 2009 report on what it considers the "high risk" areas of the federal government and Social Security's disability programs are on the list.

    Apparently, GAO still has fondness for former Commissioner Barnhart's grand Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan, which was in the process of failing utterly when Barnhart's replacement, Michael Astrue, suspended it. Here is what GAO has to say (on page 89):
    SSA continues to struggle to keep pace with growing numbers of disability applications, leading to large claims backlogs and long waits for claimants. In 2006, it introduced a comprehensive set of reforms to improve the efficiency of the disability determination process and the accuracy and timeliness of decisions. Tight time frames, poor communication, and a lack of financial planning hampered implementation of these reforms, and by 2008 most had been superseded by more focused efforts to fully implement electronic case processing and eliminate the growing claims backlog at the hearings level. Whether concentration on fewer, more immediate issues will better position SSA to meet the challenges it faces remains to be seen. ...

    Agencies have taken steps to modernize their programs, such as revising eligibility criteria. However, the revisions to eligibility criteria fall short of fully incorporating a modern understanding of how technology and labor market changes could affect eligibility for disability benefits. More importantly, steps have not been taken to develop a set of agreed-upon desired outcomes for disability policies and programs and the processes to achieve them.
    I cannot imagine a more effective way to establish that one lacks any insight into the Social Security disability programs than to express nostalgia for DSI. Maybe GAO ought to investigate why our government is wasting money on GAO!

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  • Jan 23, 2009

    Senate Appropriations Committee Press Release On Economic Stimulus Package Does Not Mention Social Security

    The Senate Appropriations Committee has issued a press release about the highlights of the draft Senate version of the economic stimulus package. There is no mention in this press release of the $902 million for Social Security in the equivalent bill pending in the House of Representatives. Perhaps, the money is in the actual bill, but not mentioned in the press release, but I would not bet on that.

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  • Hiring At OGC

    I am hearing a report that Social Security's Office of General Counsel (OGC) will be hiring dozens of new attorneys in the near future with little advance notice. These jobs are not showing up on USAJobs, although that site does show more job openings at Social Security of other types than I have seen in a few months. It probably ought to show more job openings since Social Security will be hiring lots of people once it has the money and that is coming within a month or so.

    If you are interested in one of these OGC jobs, I suggest checking the USAJobs website daily and, perhaps, calling OGC to ask what is going on, if you can find their phone number. If you already work at Social Security, I expect that you can find that number. If you do not work at Social Security, I hope some kind person will post it. If you wonder why I cannot supply the phone number, well, Social Security's attitude for some years has been that its telephone numbers, apart from its 800 number, are close to being a secret, but I imagine that most people reading this far already knew that. Social Security's website shows a telephone number for its main headquarters personnel office, (410) 965-4506, but I would not bet on that office knowing anything yet.

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  • Senate Economic Stimulus Proposal Would Give $300 Bonus To Everyone On Social Security And SSI

    From the Senate Finance Committee description of its Chairman's version of a draft economic stimulus bill:
    The provision directs the Secretary of the Treasury to provide a onetime economic recovery payment of $300 to adults who were eligible for Social Security benefits, Railroad Retirement benefits, or veterans compensation or pension benefits;132 or individuals133 who were eligible for Supplement Security Income (SSI) benefits (excluding individuals who receive SSI while in a Medicaid institution). Only individuals who were eligible for one of the four programs for any of the three months prior to the month of enactment shall receive an economic recovery payment.
    The bill pending in the House of Representatives would give a bonus of one month of benefits to SSI recipients -- which would be more for most SSI recipients -- but no bonus for recipients of Title II Social Security benefits.

    I do not see any provision in the Senate proposal for extending Medicaid to those who are involuntarily unemployed.

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  • Open Government?

    I noted earlier that Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel will have its first meeting on February 23, but, apart from the Chairman, I had been unable to find any of the names of the members. I am told that there is a good reason why I had been unable to find the names of the members. Social Security does not intend to release the names of the members until the first meeting begins. I have no idea whether this is just pointless secrecy or whether they are still trying to assemble the panel, but it makes Social Security look foolish in my eyes. This meshes poorly with President Obama's goal of more open government.

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  • First Meeting Of Occupational Information Advisory Panel

    The Social Security Administration has announced that the first meeting of its Occupational Information Advisory Panel will be on February 23 and 24 in Arlington, VA. As best I can tell, there has been no public announcement of the names of the members of the panel.

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  • Jan 22, 2009

    New Medicaid Resource For Those Waiting?

    This is from the summary of one of the economic recovery bills being considered in the House Ways and Means Committee today (emphasis added):
    MEDICAID: Provides states the option of offering coverage to unemployed workers through their Medicaid programs, with the federal government matching 100 percent of the costs of benefits and administration. States could offer coverage to individuals who are unemployed and uninsured and fall into one or more of the following three categories:
    (1) individuals (and their dependents) who receive unemployment insurance benefits or who have exhausted unemployment insurance benefits;
    (2) individuals (and their dependents) who have income below 200 percent FPL [Federal Poverty Level] ($42,400 for a family of 4 and are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid or CHIP[Child Health Insurance Program];
    (3) individuals (and their dependents) receiving food stamps who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.

    In all cases, the individual must be involuntarily separated from employment between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2010 and remain unemployed.
    I have a question. Does the term "involuntarily separated" include individuals who are forced to leave employment due to illness? If so, this would quickly become an important resource for people who are waiting and waiting for Social Security to act upon their disability claims.

    Update: The text of the bill is now available. Take a look at the bill, particularly §3003, and see if you can find an answer to my question. I cannot. This seems to be something the Congress needs to address.

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  • Ways And Means Markup On SSI Bonus

    The Ways and Means Committee will be marking up the bill to give Supplemental Security Income (SSI) an extra month of benefits at some point today. The date, but not the time ,for the markup is shown on the Ways and Means website. This is technically a separate bill from the appropriations bill that will give Social Security an extra $902 million. The appropriations bill was marked up yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee.

    Update: The bill has now been reported out of the Ways and Means Committee.

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  • Social Security Subcommittee Membership Announced

    The House Ways and Means Committee has finally published a list of the entire membership of its Ways and Means Subcommittee.

    Democrats
    JOHN S. TANNER, Tennessee, Chairman
    EARL POMEROY, North Dakota
    ALLYSON Y. SCHWARTZ, Pennsylvania
    XAVIER BECERRA, California
    LLOYD DOGGETT, Texas
    RON KIND, Wisconsin
    JOSEPH CROWLEY, New York
    LINDA T. SANCHEZ, California
    JOHN A. YARMUTH, Kentucky

    Republicans
    SAM JOHNSON, Texas, Ranking Member
    KEVIN BRADY, Texas
    PATRICK J. TIBERI, Ohio
    GINNY BROWN-WAITE, Florida
    DAVID G. REICHERT, Washington

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  • Jan 21, 2009

    New Freedom Of Information Policy In Obama Administration

    While Social Security has never been a terribly secretive agency (except when it comes to Social Security claimant records), it is my impression that, like the rest of the executive branch, it did become more secretive during the Bush Administration. This is likely to change in the Obama Administration. From the Associated Press:

    In an attempt to deliver on pledges of a transparent government, Obama said he would change the way the federal government interprets the Freedom of Information Act. He said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public — not to look for reasons to legally withhold it — an alteration to the traditional standard of evaluation.

    Just because a government agency has the legal power to keep information private does not mean that it should, Obama said.

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  • Major OMB Appointments
















    The Lost in Transition blog reports that Robert Gordon, pictured to the left, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, will be associate director for education, income maintenance and labor at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "Income maintenance" sure sounds like Social Security and one can infer the same thing from looking at the OMB organizational chart. Here is some biographical information on Gordon. OMB Watch reports that Cass Sunstein, pictured to the right, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has been appointed director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Policy at OMB.

    OMB is the most important actor in determining Social Security's appropriation and the gatekeeper for any regulations that the Social Security Commissioner wants to adopt. Without OMB approval, proposed and final regulations do not go in the Federal Register. For Social Security, Gordon is in charge of the budget and Sunstein is in change of the regulations. OMB mostly operates behind the scenes, but it is enormously powerful.

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  • $902 Million Supplemental Appropriation Being Marked Up Today In House Committee

    The House Appropriations Committee is marking up the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act today beginning at noon. This is the bill that would give Social Security a $902 million supplemental appropriation. See the link at the Committee website for the webcast.

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  • Why Would A Respectable Newspapers Publish This?

    But my question presumes a fact that has not been proven. From the Kansas City Star.

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  • Jan 20, 2009

    Change We Can Believe In

    First, I strongly agree with you that there is a critical need to increase funding for the SSA administrative expenses account to address the serious challenges facing the agency. Due to prolonged underfunding, SSA has reduced staffing levels even as its workload has increased. SSA agency staffing will soon reach its lowest level since 1972 even though SSA's beneficiary population has nearly doubled since that time.

    An unfortunate result of underfunding is an unprecedented backlog in SSA disability claims. As of August 2008, about 767,000 people were awaiting a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on their Social Security disability claims, compared to about 312,000 cases pending in October 2000. There has also been an increase in Field Office waiting times.

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  • Jan 19, 2009

    Time Frame To Spend That $900 Million

    The Obama economic stimulus package contains a total of $900 million in supplemental appropriations for the Social Security Administration. Ordinarily, federal appropriations are for one fiscal year only. The current fiscal year ends on September 30, 2009. Social Security would have to move awfully fast to spend that much money that fast. A second look at the bill shows that while the money is appropriated for the current fiscal year (§3), agencies will have until the end of the following fiscal year, September 30, 2010, to spend it all (§1105). However, §1102 says that each agency must have a goal of spending at least 50% of the money upon activities that can be "initiated" within 120 days of enactment. No, the bill does not define "initiate."

    My prediction: Lots of overtime for Social Security employees, since I expect that Commissioner Astrue will try to avoid hiring new employees. At least we will know how Social Security is spending the money since §1201 requires each agency to post on the internet its plans for spending the money.

    By the way, Social Security's Office of Inspector General is also given a $2 million supplemental appropriation in the bill. Each inspector general is required to review any concerns raised by the public about how the money is spent -- and I do mean required, since the statutory language is "shall", not "may" (§1202).

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  • Social Security Central Offices To Be Open On Inauguration Day

    According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) almost all federal employees in the District of Columbia and most surrounding areas will have a holiday on Inauguration Day, but this does not apply to Baltimore County, Maryland, which is where Social Security's central offices are located. Good luck with the traffic!

    Falls Church, which is where the Appeals Council is located, is within the area covered by the holiday.

    The Baltimore City Schools will be closed on Inauguration Day, but the Baltimore County Schools will be open.

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  • Jan 18, 2009

    What Bush Did To The Federal Government

    The public's opinion of the federal government took a beating during the Bush Administration, according to research by the Pew Center for the People & the Press. I think a lot of this has to do with lack of adequate staffing at almost all domestic federal agencies. There just are not enough warm bodies to get the work done and the public has noticed the difficulty they have in dealing with these agencies and the poor performance they get in exchange for their tax dollars. Anyway, take a look at the graph. I think it speaks volumes.

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  • Updated Fee Payment Information

    Below is a table showing the payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants last year. These statistics are a useful analogue for how quickly or slowly Social Security is paying benefits to disabled claimants after a favorable decision. Notice the unevenness in the payments.

    Fee Payments

    Month/Year Volume Amount
    Jan-08
    20,559
    $75,368,163.45
    Feb-08
    26,570
    $95,228,284.32
    Mar-08
    23,088
    $83,166,027.02
    Apr-08
    27,296
    $98,616,579.78
    May-08
    29,305
    $104,283,373.35
    June-08
    25,243
    $89,786,459.83
    July-08
    22,238
    $77,346,266.77
    Aug-08
    33,834
    $120,819,791.05
    Sept-08
    25,239
    $89,167,725.69
    Oct-08
    31,296
    $111,938,127.61
    Nov-08
    24,502
    $86,982,432.57
    Dec-08
    23,919
    $86,047,403.74

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  • Jan 17, 2009

    Congressmen Call For Crackdown

    The Oregonian newspaper reports that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas and three other Republican members of the House Social Security Subcommittee, is calling for a crackdown on those who collect disability checks from Social Security but who are no longer disabled.

    Of course, Social Security could have been doing a better job of cutting off benefits to those who were no longer disabled if Republicans had just given the agency more operating funds over the last eight years.

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  • Jan 16, 2009

    Astrue Press Release Thanks Obama

    Commissioner Astrue did not bother to issue a press release thanking President-elect Obama for adding $900 million to the economic stimulus bill for Social Security, but he has just sent out a press release welcoming the President-elect's call for discussion on the future of Social Security. Will Astrue be pleased if the Obama plan to insure the future of Social Security is to take the cap off the F.I.C.A. tax?

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  • A Man With A Plan: Dr. Harvey Is Ready To Replace The DOT

    Social Security has appointed an Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel to consider what to do about the fact that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) is obsolete. The DOT has been an important foundation stone for disability determination at Social Security for more than 30 years.

    I can only find the name of the panel chairman, Dr. Robert J. Harvey of Virginia Tech. Dr. Harvey appears to have strongly held views. If you are familiar with the DOT issues at Social Security, take a look at these power points, apparently created by Dr. Harvey. Keep reading. They get more and more interesting. Dr. Harvey has a plan. You cannot tell exactly what the plan is from these power points but it involves something called the Common-Metric Questionnaire (CMQ).

    I hope that Social Security will remember the Data Quality Act as they go ahead with this. There had better be others beyond Dr. Harvey who think that CMQ is reliable.

    Update: Here is Dr. Harvey's curriculum vita. It appears that he has had no problem with the "publish or perish" part of academic life.

    Further update: A 2002 study by the Disability Research Institute, paid for by the Social Security Administration, while commending the CMQ in many ways, still recommended that Social Security not adopt Dr. Harvey's CMQ.

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  • Once Again, What Does This Mean?

    From the Washington Post:
    President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare "bargain" with the American people, saying that the nation's long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.

    That discussion will begin next month, Obama said, when he convenes a "fiscal responsibility summit" before delivering his first budget to Congress. He said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market.

    "What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further," he said. "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's." ...

    Five days before taking office, Obama was careful not to outline specific fixes for Social Security and Medicare, refusing to endorse either a new blue-ribbon commission or the concept of submitting an overhaul plan to Congress that would be subject only to an up-or-down vote, similar to the one used to reach agreement on the closure of military bases.

    But the president-elect exuded confidence that his economic team will succeed where others have not.

    "Social Security, we can solve," he said, waving his left hand.

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  • Jan 15, 2009

    Economic Stimulus Bill Has $900 Million For Social Security And Bonus For SSI Recipients

    Talking Points Memo has a detailed summary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus bill that is being proposed by the incoming Obama Administration. Here are the Social Security items:
    • Social Security Administration Modernization: $400 million to replace the 30 year old Social Security Administration's National Computer Center to meet growing needs for processing retirement and disability claims and records storage.
    • Social Security Administration Disability Backlog and Claims Processing: $500 million to help the Social Security Administration process a steep rise in disability and retirement claims, getting people their benefits faster, and preventing existing backlogs from getting worse. Within this total, $40 million will help SSI upgrade health information technology.
    • Payments to Disabled and Elderly: $4.2 billion to help 7.5 million low-income disabled and elderly individuals with rising costs by providing an additional SSI payment in 2009 equal to the average monthly federal payment under the program (approximately $450 for an individual and $630 for a couple). This one-time payment will serve as an immediate economic stimulus as half of SSI recipients have no other form of income and the other half average outside income of less than $450 per month.
    This is money to be spent in the next nine months!

    Update: Here is a link to the draft bill. The Social Security appropriations part is on page 205.

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  • Social Security Scores Well On President Bush's Management Scorecard

    Social Security scored exceptionally well on President Bush's last Management Scorecard, being one of only two agencies with "green" across the main board. The categories are Human Capital, Commercial Services Management, Financial Performance, E-Government, and Performance Improvement. Not all was quite so good. Social Security got only a Yellow in Eliminating Improper Payments, which is a little weird, since Social Security is almost certainly making vastly more improper payments than any other agency. What does it take to get a red?

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  • Jan 14, 2009

    How Will Deputy Commissioner Be Selected?

    From Alexis Simendinger at the Lost in Transition blog:
    Obama transition officials are making it clear to incoming Cabinet secretaries and agency heads that they'll be handed a slate of perhaps five or six pre-screened candidates for the top jobs in their departments and encouraged to interview and hire from among those candidates. If the secretaries want to reach outside those lists to make their own hires, they will be required to justify their picks to the president-elect's top advisers, some of whom are headed for the offices of the White House Counsel and White House personnel.
    What will the process be for selecting a new Deputy Commissioner for Social Security? Does Michael Astrue, a Bush appointee, get the same consideration as an Obama appointee?

    By the way, the blog says the process for Obama will be much like what President Bush followed. Does this mean that Michael Astrue chose Andrew Biggs to be his Deputy Commissioner from a list of several eligibles? I find that hard to believe.

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  • Jan 13, 2009

    Social Security In Top Ten

    The federal government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has released its Human Capital Survey. According to FedBlog, Social Security ranks 10th in Leadership and Knowledge Management and 7th in Job Satisfaction. Social Security did not rank in the top ten in the other six categories. Of course, there are dozens of federal agencies, so reaching top ten in any canegory is an achievement.

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  • Jan 12, 2009

    Furlough Of California DDS Employees?

    State Disability Determination Services (DDS) offices make the determinations on Social Security disability claims at the initial and reconsideration levels. All salaries and other costs of these state DDS offices are paid by Social Security, but these are still state offices with state employees. Events that affect other state employees can affect DDS employees and complicate matters for Social Security.

    The state of California has a terrible budget crisis. The governor of the state has furloughed all state employees for two days each month, beginning next month. This sort of thing has happened before in other states and almost always the DDS offices are exempted, since the state budget problems have nothing to do with the federally funded DDS. It is not clear what will happen in California this time. The governor announced that there would be no exemptions, but the Service Employees International Union is reporting that the governor's offices is saying that "certain revenue generating departments would be exempt from layoffs." I do not know whether this includes California DDS.

    Can anyone at California DDS tell me what DDS employees are being told?
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  • From A Reader Who Knows John Tanner

    From BPWUSA [Business and Professional Women USA] Area 6 Representative, who knows the new Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, John Tanner:
    He is my representative and has been for some time. He is a lawyer and a good one; therefore he understands legal arguments and does not appear to have forgotten the realities of practice. His son in law practices in this area and is a member of our legal services board. His constituent service people are experienced with Social Security. We do not always agree as I am more liberal than he but I appreciate that he is candid and does not overpromise on any issue. He also takes time to listen. I am on the Board of BPWUSA; I have thus lobbied him for years. He listens; he supports some of our issues and tells us when he cannot. For example, last year he voted for the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; I am expecting him to do so today. He has supported Legal Services.

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  • Social Security Workforce Increases Slightly

    Below are the September 2008 figures for the number of employees at Social Security, recently released by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), along with earlier figures for comparison purposes.
    • September 2008 63,990
    • June 2008 63,622
    • March 2008 60,465
    • December 2007 61,822
    • September 2007 62,407
    • June 2007 62,530
    • March 2007 61,867
    • December 2006 63,410
    • September 2006 63,647
    • September 2005 66,147
    • September 2004 65,258
    • September 2003 64,903
    • September 2002 64,648
    • September 2001 65,377
    • September 2000 64,521
    • September 1999 63,957
    • September 1998 65,629
    Note that even with an appropriation for Social Security for the last fiscal year that was well above the rate of inflation and that was higher than what President Bush had proposed, Social Security's workforce only increased by about 1,600 employees. It is going to take a lot of money to increase Social Security's workforce to where it needs to be.

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  • Jan 11, 2009

    No Kidding

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report saying that it found that the "Notices sent to denied [Social Security disability] claimants may provide inconsistent and sometimes misleading information about the evidence obtained."

    This has been a problem as long as I have been involved in this field of work, which is now about 30 years. There have been many reports and Congressional hearings over the years on this issue and promises from every Social Security Commissioner, including the current one.

    When clients ask me about details of these decisions, I always tell them not to bother because there are so many mistakes that a close reading of the denials is pointless. Some of what is in these decisions is, in effect, in code anyway. How would a claimant know that the use of the word "severe" is, in effect, an insult since it means that Social Security has just determined that there is essentially nothing wrong with the claimant -- that there is nothing to anything the claimant has alleged?

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  • Jan 10, 2009

    SSA FY 2010 Budget Request To Be $11.5 Billion? -- We Hope!

    The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE) has released a letter that it sent President-elect Obama. The letter contains this sentence: "In communicating with you and your team at this time, our purpose is to respectfully request that, as a critical component of that support, an additional $960 million in funding be included beyond SSA’s projected budget request for $11.5 billion."

    This is the first time that I have heard anything about Social Security's budget request for the 2010 Fiscal Year (FY), that begins on October 1, 2009. I hope that NADE has heard correctly on what Social Security's budget request will be. It would be wonderful to get almost a billion dollars more on top of such a request, but $11.5 billion would be a great start. The problem, even with that amount, may be how much must be spent to update Social Security's computer infrastructure, which has serious problems that raise the possibility of catastrophic failure.

    Update: As I suspected, it was too good to be true. The $11.5 billion figure is what NADE and other groups want. There is no word yet on what Social Security is going to ask for.

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  • Sounds A Bit Orwellian

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report with the title Demand for the Social Security Administration’s Electronic Data Exchanges Is Growing and Presents Future Challenges. Here is an excerpt:
    Through more than 3,000 data exchanges with federal and state agencies, SSA both receives incoming data to support its own programs and provides outgoing data to support programs of other federal and state agencies. Most of these exchanges involve collecting incoming electronic data from other agencies, primarily to support the administration of Social Security benefits programs. The outgoing data from SSA to other federal and state agencies typically provide Social Security number verifications or are used to implement payment offsets in support of other agencies’ business operations. In this regard, the agency performs more than a billion transactions to verify Social Security numbers for federal and state agencies each year. To carry out these data exchanges, SSA relies on a network of electronic information systems and an infrastructure that communicates with a variety of external systems used by the agency’s partners.

    SSA faces three primary challenges to supporting its existing and future data exchanges:
    • meeting increasing demand for its data exchange services;
    • ensuring privacy and security of data provided to its data exchange partners; and
    • establishing effective practices for implementing and managing data exchanges.
    Recognizing these challenges, the agency has undertaken an initiative to better manage its data exchange environment and address current and future challenges and limitations. If effectively implemented, the initiative could address the challenges GAO has described. Members of the initiative have drafted a report that includes recommendations for improving the management of its data exchanges. However, SSA has not established milestones for completing the report and acting on its recommendations. Thus, it cannot be assured that the recommendations will be addressed and implemented in a timely manner. In addition, the agency developed a summary inventory of its data exchanges to further support this initiative. However, while the inventory lists data exchanges and partners, among other things, it does not include comprehensive information on the agency’s data exchange systems, because, according to SSA officials, its purpose was only to provide summary data. Nonetheless, an inventory that provides comprehensive information on the data exchanges, such as the supporting information systems and the status of privacy and security compliance requirements, is an important tool that could help the agency make credible and timely decisions to ensure effective management of its growing data exchange environment.

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  • A Parting Shot

    With Barack Obama's inauguration coming up in just a few days, the Bush Administration Treasury Department has just issued its sixth and final issue brief on Social Security "reform." Is anyone other than Andrew Biggs and me paying attention?

    Forever is a long time, but I will say it nevertheless. Except as a gleam in the eye of the right wing, privatization is dead forever, but then I am not sure it was ever truly alive.

    By the way, if you wonder what would have happened had George Bush gotten his way and Social Security had been partially privatized, take a look at what happened in Italy.

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  • Jan 9, 2009

    Democrats Announce House Appropriations Subcommittee Members

    The Democrats have announced the following members for the 111th Congress for the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which includes the Social Security Administration:
    • Chair: Dave Obey, Wisconsin
    • Nita M. Lowey, New York
    • Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut
    • Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Illinois
    • Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island
    • Lucille Roybal-Allard, California
    • Barbara Lee, California
    • Michael Honda, California
    • Betty McCollum, Minnesota
    • Tim Ryan, Ohio
    • James P. Moran, Virginia
    I can find nothing indicating that the Republicans have decided on their members for the Committee, much less the Subcommittees.

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  • Social Security Problems Detailed

    The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has posted a white paper that it has prepared for the Obama transition. It provides sobering details of Social Security's problems. Here are a few highlights:
    • [I]n FY [Fiscal Year] 2007, 45% of the approximately 54 million callers who tried to reach a [Social Security] Field Office by telephone said that they had received a busy signal or a recording that all lines were busy. Because many of these callers may have called more than once and on multiple days, the actual busy rate is likely much higher than the 45% indicated by the study.
    • Waiting times in Field Offices are increasing with many customers having to wait hours before they receive service.
    • SSA [Social Security Administration] projects a backlog of workloads that occur after individuals become entitled to benefits (post-entitlement work) of 2,000 to 3,000 work years in FY 2009 if the agency receives the level of funding proposed by the President. Based on current budget projections, the agency also anticipates the work year backlog to increase by 2,000 to 3,000 work years in FY 2010.
    • In the first nine weeks of FY 2009, the state DDSs [Disability Determination Services] have received over 5 percent more new disability claims and 13 percent more requests for reconsiderations than the same time last year.
    • SSA also has a backlog of about 1.7 million unworked medical Continuing Disability Reviews and has drastically reduced the number of SSI Redeterminations conducted because of budget shortfalls. Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) save $11.70 in program costs for every $1 spent in administrative dollars. The unworked backlog is costing taxpayers over $10 billion dollars.
    • SSI eligibility redeterminations save $10 for every $1 spent in administrative dollars above SSA’s base level. In FY 2008, 1.2 million SSI redeterminations were performed. This is 1 million fewer annual SSI redeterminations than earlier this decade. This is also a contributing factor in the increase of the SSI overpayment error rate from 6.4 percent to 9.1 percent from FY 2005 to FY 2007. The overpayment error rate is currently at its highest rate in over 30 years. There is a direct correlation between the increasing error rate and the decline in the number of SSI redeterminations completed. In FY 2007 the projected overpayments were $3.9 billion. Thus the unworked SSI redeterminations are also costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
    • SSA currently manages over one petabyte of data (one million gigabytes).... The agency’s National Computer Center (NCC) is almost 30 years old and its design is no longer optimal to support the critical systems necessary to SSA’s mission. Its mechanical and electrical systems are nearing the end of their useful lives. Other components of the current NCC such as the cabling and fire suppression capabilities are disintegrating. A fire within the NCC would be devastating. Moreover, the NCC’s capacity to keep up with increasing volumes of work, new and expanded responsibilities, and new ways of doing business is severely limited. The storage capacity needs of the NCC will nearly quadruple by FY 2014. Much of this is due to the anticipated increase in the number of Internet transactions between the American public and SSA. Performing any type of maintenance or repairs on the current NCC is very difficult as SSA must keep its systems running 24/7. For the reasons stated above, it is imperative that work begin quickly, as the project will take several years to complete. If the NCC is not replaced, SSA’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public could be severely compromised, leading to catastrophic service disruptions. The total cost of replacing the NCC, which includes the facility and IT equipment costs, is approximately $750 million.

    Have you ever seen the word "petabyte" before? This is the first time for me. That is an almost inconceivable amount of data.

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  • More On Tanner

    Some more information on Representative John Tanner, the new Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee from Wikipedia:
    It is reported that Tanner could have been appointed to the United States Senate by governor of Tennessee Ned McWherter in 1992 to replace Al Gore but he declined the offer, and Harlan Mathews was appointed as a caretaker instead. Tanner became nationally known briefly when it was alleged that President Clinton was on the telephone with him in 1995 during one of Clinton's sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky. Tanner was a founder of the Blue Dog Democrats and has denied rumors that he might switch parties, and has an earned reputation as a moderate.

    Tanner is strongly in favor of balancing the budget and paying down the national debt, and has been a strong opponent of the fiscal policies of President George W. Bush, voting against virtually all tax cuts passed since his taking office. Tanner was one of the few Democrats in the House to vote in favor of CAFTA and has long distanced himself from the majority of his party on issues such as bankruptcy law and lawsuit reform. He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, the ban on "partial-birth" abortions, limiting death penalty appeals, and has voted against most gun control measures. On other issues he is more liberal: he often votes with his party on separation of church and states issues, and has consistently voted against the Flag Desecration Amendment. Tanner voted with the majority of his party to expand stem cell research and against renewing the controversial portions of the Patriot Act. He also supports affirmative action and public education. Tanner was firmly opposed to Bush's attempt to reform Social Security. ...

    In 2004, Congressman Tanner made a brief but unintended cameo appearance alongside Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, where Moore was trying to get Congressmen to have their children enlist in the Military to go to Iraq. ...

    After both his district and state chose the former first lady,[1] Congressman Tanner endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign in April 2008.[2]

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  • Social Security Subcommittee Assignments

    The House Ways and Means Committee has released its Subcommittee assignments for the 111th Congress and already one of my wild ass guesses (or maybe hopes) is proven false. I had hoped for a different chairman. Here is the list for the Social Security Subcommittee:

    • John S. Tanner, TN-Chairman
    • Earl Pomeroy, ND
    • Allyson Y. Schwartz, PA
    • Xavier Becerra, CA,
    • Lloyd Doggett, TX
    • Ron Kind, WI
    • Joseph Crowley, NY
    • Linda Sanchez, CA
    • John Yarmuth, KY
    Update: I should have made it clear that these are the Democratic members. The Republicans have yet to designate their members for the Subcommittees.

    Tanner is the co-founder of the Blue Dog group of conservative Democrats. He has repeatedly called for Social Security "reform" and very much wants a commission on Social Security's future. He has called for more funding for the Social Security Administration to help it deal with its backlogs, but remember that while Ways and Means is powerful, it does not control Social Security's appropriations.

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  • Interim Benefits Cut In Colorado

    The Coloradoan newspaper of Fort Collins is reporting that the interim benefits that Colorado provides to the disabled who are waiting and waiting for Social Security to adjudicate their disability claims has been cut from $230 to $200 a month.
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  • Jan 8, 2009

    What Does This Mean?

    From today's New York Times:
    President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be “a central part” of his administration’s efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs. ...

    Speaking at a news conference in Washington, he provided no details of his approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare, which are projected to consume a growing share of government spending as the baby boom generation ages into retirement over the next two decades. But he said he would have more to say about the issue when he unveiled a budget next month.

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  • January 9 Deadline For Comments On Scheduling Regulation Proposal

    The final day to post comments on the proposed regulations that would allow the Social Security Administration to remove any control that an individual Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has on scheduling hearings is January 9, 2009. If you have something to say on this topic, say it now. Comments may be filed online.

    Here are the comments that I filed:
    I have been representing Social Security claimants for almost thirty years. I think this is a bad proposal for six reasons.

    First, this is distraction from the real problem causing the hearing backlogs -- lack of staff. This proposal does not have the capacity to significantly reduce these backlogs, but may cause Congress to delay giving Social Security the funding it needs to hire the employees who can actually reduce the backlog.

    Second, my opinion is that many ALJs are already holding more hearings than they should. I have noticed a significant decline in the quality of the process as ALJs struggle to do something about the backlogs. Forcing ALJs to hold even more hearings is a bad idea. It will just make the process even more deficient than it is now. I get the feeling that high officials at Social Security wish to hold down the number of ALJs and then work backward from some predetermined number of ALJs to decide how many hearings an ALJ should hold. We need to decide how many hearings an ALJ should be expected to hold and then base the number of ALJs upon that. My opinion is that ALJs should be asked to issue 400-500 decisions per year, not 500-700. My opinion is based upon long experience. Where does the 500-700 figure come from other than a desire to hold down the number of ALJs?

    Third, I think this proposal places the sole responsibility on ALJs for the number of hearings they hold now. This is just not true. Many ALJs would hold more hearings if their staffs could get more cases ready for hearings.

    Fourth, this proposal concentrates upon a small number of ALJs who seem to have low productivity, without noticing that many of these low producing ALJs are in supervisory positions or were out of work due to illness or retirement during a large portion of the reporting period. Many of the rest have health issues, including psychiatric problems that limit their effectiveness. ALJs are human. Inevitably, some of them have psychiatric problems. There is no way of eliminating these psychiatric problems and Social Security has no ready means of quickly firing ALJs who struggle with psychiatric problems.

    Fifth, if this is adopted, I expect significant practical problems as Social Security tries to schedule hearings on a national basis when there are so many local variables. There are the schedules not just of the ALJ, hearing reporter, vocational expert, medical expert and attorney, but often scheduling issues at the hearing site, including arranging security guards. I think it is a pipe dream to think that some computer program is going to take account of all of this. Social Security has quite a history of believing that new computer software will perform miracles and then being disappointed when the computer software is put to the test. Do not believe everything that the salespeople say.

    Sixth, ALJs who do not feel ready to hold a hearing scheduled for them can easily defeat this proposed system by continuing the case at the last minute. I expect that this will happen regularly with some ALJs. Last minute continuances actually waste resources.

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  • Jan 7, 2009

    Oversight Committee Report -- Social Security Wasting Most Money Of Any Federal Agency

    The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has issued a report with the title Inspectors General: Implementing Thousands Of Open Recommendations Could Save Taxpayers Almost $26 Billion. Guess which agency had the biggest share of that $26 billion. This agency could save the taxpayers $8.63 billion annually according to the report, even more than the $7.70 billion at Department of Health and Human Services and far more than the paltry $1.51 billion at the Department of Defense. You guessed it -- the Social Security Administration.

    How could there be that much money to be saved at Social Security? Here is a quote from the report about one area where Social Security could save money, "In April 2006, the Social Security Administration IG estimated that the agency could save more than $2 billion annually by ceasing payments to people who no longer meet the eligibility criteria for disability benefits due to medical improvement or employment status." There is a simple explanation why Social Security has not implemented this recommendation -- they lack enough personnel to implement it. It would probably take thousands of additional personnel to fully implement this. It might cost a few hundred million dollars a year to do it. That has been completely out of the question, so far out of the question that Social Security's Commissioner, Michael Astrue, has been unable to bring himself to even ask Congress for the funding. The explanation is probably the same for most of the other unimplemented Inspector General recommendations at Social Security. Spending money to save money is an unfathomable paradox for some.

    Update: This report is starting to draw attention from the media and Social Security gets mentioned prominently.

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  • ALJs With Highest And Lowest Reversal Rates

    The database posted by The Oregonian makes it possible to generate a list of Administrative Law Judges with the highest and lowest reversal rates, that is the rate at which they approve claims. These lists are somewhat misleading since they include ALJs in supervisory positions and ALJs who retired early in the year, but here are the lists of the highest and lowest, with their total dispositions.

    Highest Allowance Rates
    Judge Name Decisions Total Dispositions Fully Favorable Partially Favorable Approval RateAscending Unfavorable Denial Rate Year
    BURKE, JAMES A 899 958 832 35 91% 32 3% 2008
    WASHINGTON, CALVIN 1,038 1,106 981 27 91% 30 3% 2008
    WHITE, DOUGLAS G 455 481 430 6 91% 19 4% 2008
    STOREY, PETER B 214 223 204 2 92% 8 4% 2008
    BUEL, SR., TOBY J 474 501 461 3 93% 10 2% 2008
    KRAFSUR, GERALD I 618 657 599 13 93% 6 1% 2008
    SMITH, MANNY 378 404 362 13 93% 3 1% 2008
    TAYLOR, II, HARRY C 989 1,020 942 7 93% 40 4% 2008
    ALDEN, NANCY 442 464 415 19 94% 8 2% 2008
    GORMLEY III, MATTHEW J 63 66 61 1 94% 1 2% 2008
    DAUGHERTY, DAVID B 1,250 1,291 1,238 1 96% 11 1% 2008
    O'BRYAN JR., W HOWARD 1,690 1,750 1,670 10 96% 10 1% 2008
    WIEMAN, F. JOSEPH 57 59 54 3 97% 0 0% 2008
    GARMON, OLLIE 145 146 145 0 99% 0 0% 2008
    CRISTAUDO, FRANK 1 1 1 0 100% 0 0% 2008


    Lowest Allowance Rates
    Judge Name Decisions Total Dispositions Fully Favorable Partially Favorable Approval RateAscending Unfavorable Denial Rate Year
    MASON, THOMASINE G 3 3 0 0 0% 3 100% 2008
    RUCKER, JAMES R 0 1 0 0 0% 0 0% 2008
    ABRAMS, RICHARD L 108 150 11 5 11% 92 61% 2008
    ABRUZZO, DOUGLAS W 185 233 21 6 12% 158 68% 2008
    ORR, WALTER 254 339 36 5 12% 213 63% 2008
    WRIGHT, ROBERT 524 3,154 379 40 13% 105 3% 2008
    FAVA, ANTHONY 39 43 4 2 14% 33 77% 2008
    HARPER, RICHARD H 223 1,028 130 12 14% 81 8% 2008
    DOMBECK, JAMES E 285 1,289 155 36 15% 94 7% 2008
    KUPERSMITH, LINDA E 99 176 24 5 16% 70 40% 2008
    PADILLA, MELVIN A 296 335 27 26 16% 243 73% 2008
    RODRIGUEZ, GILBERT 449 479 68 13 17% 368 77% 2008
    VANDERHOOF, GARY L 835 1,000 142 29 17% 664 66% 2008
    BARR, HARRY H 138 158 26 3 18% 109 69% 2008
    BLUCHER, JONATHAN P 252 280 20 30 18% 202 72% 2008
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