Feb 28, 2009
Feb 27, 2009
Feb 26, 2009
Update: Here is a link that goes just to the Social Security part and here is a link to a summary sheet prepared by the White House.
We believe that when Congress passes the FY 2009 appropriation in March or April, we will have an opportunity to hire between 5,000 and 6,000 new employees before the end of the year. If you have hiring responsibilities, please do not let the legislative situation translate into inaction. Post the jobs, interview the candidates, plan for training, and hope Congress provides the money to pull the hiring trigger in the next 30 – 45 days.There are 31 weeks between now and the end of this fiscal year. If there are 5,000 new employees to be hired, something like 161 new employees should be hired each week between now and the end of the fiscal year. Currently, Social Security has only 29 job openings posted. A few of these may be for more than one vacancy. I know that this is the federal government and things take time, but Social Security needs to get moving on advertising job openings. As the Commissioner said, "Post the jobs, interview the candidates, plan for training." It will be possible to pull the "hiring trigger" long before any job opening advertised now can possibly be filled.
By the way, Alyssa Brodsky at FedBlog reports that the bill includes a one year ban on A-76 job competitions for federal work and requires federal agencies to establish guidelines for insourcing work now done by contractors that used to be done by federal employees. I have seen the word "outsource" a good deal over the past eight years. This is the first time that I have seen the word "insource."
The White House is supposed to release a budget outline for FY 2010 sometime today. It is not clear whether this outline will include a specific figure for the Social Security Administration or whether it will include the Social Security Administration's own budget request.
Feb 25, 2009
I find this stunning. Having data backup is absolutely essential on any computer network of any size. I know it is much easier to do in a small lawfirm like mine, but I cannot believe that this could happen. Database corruption is a very real problem. There is always the danger of natural disaster or, in Social Security's case, terrorist attack. You have to be able to restore from a clean backup from time to time. This failing is an indictment of Social Security Commissioners going back decades. This should have been a panic button item beginning a long time ago. The agency has been and still is dodging bullets.
Astrue also talked about hiring 3,000 to 6,000 new employees this fiscal year, instead of the 5,000 to 6,000 he was talking about last week. Was this a mistake by him or the radio station or a sign that there will be fewer hires?
Update: I posted this based upon WFED's summary of the interview. I have now listened to the interview or at least as much as WFED has posted. What they posted seems to begin in the middle of something. The WFED summary is seriously misleading. Social Security is currently backing up its data to some extent with a commercial service at a cost of $3 million per year. Apparently, that service is inadequate.
The interview that I heard makes no reference to the number of employees to be hired at Social Security.
Interestingly, Commissioner Astrue makes reference to commercial tax preparation software such as Turbotax as a model for Social Security's online services. His point is that as complicated as Social Security is, it is not as complex as the tax codes. If Turbotax can do it, so can Social Security. The only problem with this reference is that most people preparing their tax returns do not suffer from significant mental illness. Virtually everyone filing a Social Security disability claim suffers from at least moderate depression and many suffer from much more severe mood or thought disorders. At ground level, it is obvious that there are limits to how far Social Security can go with online filing.
By the way, there was a lot of background noise on the WFED interview. Perhaps a noisy restaurant? The interviewer definitely neeeded a directional microphone.
Feb 24, 2009
Emergency Messages EM-09006 - Increased Maximum Dollar Limit in the Fee Agreement Process - Instructions Will Follow ShortlyBureaucracy is mostly a good thing, but it does have some unfortunate tendencies. One of those bad tendencies is over reliance upon secrecy. I wish it were otherwise, but being a bureaucrat carries little cachet. An otherwise humble bureaucrat can feel more important if he or she has special knowledge that cannot be shared with the public. Probably more important, if the public does not know what an agency's policies are, the public cannot complain that the agency has failed to follow its own policies. Most important still is simple timidity. Bureaucrats often make the mistake of trying too hard to avoid making a mistake. The thought is that no one ever got in trouble for being too secretive, so err on the side of secrecy.
Audience: All RCs/ARCs/ROs/ADs/FOs/BOs/TSCs/PSCs/ODIO/OIO/ODO/DCO/OTS/OAS/OPSOS/DCS/OPB/ODARHQ/ODARROs/ODARHOs
As tempting as over reliance upon secrecy may be, it is inconsistent with good government, American tradition and the current administration's policies.
At least, Social Security has released one recent Emergency Message, not that it is important. I am not sure that it is even completely accurate in its discussion of the $250 economic stimulus payments and existing overpayments.
Feb 23, 2009
Identification Number AM-09032 SEN Effective Date: 02/23/2009
Intended Audience: All RCs/ARCs/ADs/FOs/TSCs/PSCs/OCO/ODARHQ
Originating Office: DCBFM OFPO
Title: Delay in Issuance of Forms 1099-MISC to Claimant Representatives
Type: AM - Admin Messages
Program: All Programs
SENSITIVE - NOT TO BE SHARED WITH THE PUBLIC
Retention Date: August 15, 2009
This instruction is intended to address the inquiries from attorneys, eligible non-attorneys, and affiliated entities who were expecting to receive a Form 1099-MISC by January 31, 2009, to report the aggregate fees received via direct payment from SSA during 2008.
Sections 6041 and 6045(f) of the Internal Revenue Code, as implemented by 26 CFR 1.6041-1, require SSA to issue a Form 1099-MISC to each representative who receives, by direct payment from SSA, aggregate fees of $600 or more in the prior calendar year. To comply with this requirement, we developed a new 2-step registration requirement (using the SSA-1699 (Request for Appointed Representatives Direct Payment Information) and SSA-1695 (Identifying Information for Possible Direct Payment of Authorized Fees)) for representatives appointed on or after January 1, 2007, who had not waived direct fee payment, and for attorneys for whom a Federal court approved a fee on or after January 1, 2007. We also developed voluntary registration (using the SSA-1694 (Request for Business Entity Taxpayer Information) for affiliated entities who wished to have the payments reported as taxable income to the entity rather than to the representative.
We had targeted the first issuance of these required Forms 1099-MISC for January 2009 to report the direct fee payments made during calendar year 2008. However, due to unexpected systems limitations, an executive decision has been made to delay issuance of Forms 1099-MISC to representatives for one year. Therefore, we are currently targeting the initial issuance of these Forms 1099-MISC for January 2010 in order to report direct fee payments made during calendar year 2009.
President Bush's recommended budget for Social Security for FY 2009 was $10.3 billion. Even after the election, advocacy groups were hoping for only $10.4 billion! The FY 2009 appropriation is in addition to the $500 million special appropriation for Social Security in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Of course, first the bill must clear the House Appropriations Committee and that Committee has not yet scheduled a meeting to consider the bill or released a proposed bill.
Stay tuned. Things should be happening soon.
My opinion is that this summit will amount to little. There is zero chance that this Congress will enact any cuts in Social Security and little chance that it will raise the cap on wages covered by FICA. The real problem is Medicare.
Feb 22, 2009
Readers who live in the area can tell us how plausible the Sun's plan is.
Feb 21, 2009
Feb 20, 2009
"This certified letter is your official notice that you are personally under attack."
Julia Markey, 86, of Fort Dodge, received a letter from the National Retirement Security Task Force Thursday that told her the Social Security Trust Fund didn't have money and that she could lose her Social Security checks.
That is, of course, unless she helped the National Retirement Security Task Force by sending it money so it could continue to lobby against the "liberal big-spenders" to ensure she can continue to get funds.
"And if I don't receive your generous $200 help within the next 168 hours, I may not have enough reserve battle funds to carry on this fight for your Social Security," the letter stated.
That, basically, has been Orszag's project: Talk a lot about the health care crisis and longer-term problems in the budget and get people to stop talking about an illusory crisis in a made-up program called socialsecurityandmedicareandmedicaid. Because what Orszag and [Nobel Pize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul] Krugman both realize is that Social Security's unfunded liabilities only look like the sort of problem you need to "fix" if you're mixing it in with Medicare's unfunded liabilities. If there's an "entitlements problem" that requires an "entitlements commission" then that will cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. If there's no "entitlements problem" and instead a health reform problem and some small questions about a politically electric program, then what you get is health reform -- which is also a way to slow Medicaid and Medicare growth without resorting to cuts -- and an end to the fear-mongering on Social Security. Orszag is one of the good guys here.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) intends to negotiate a sole source agreement with the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) for the purposes of providing services to organize and conduct a 1-day policy research and education seminar that would examine the interactions between workers compensation and SSAs disability programs. ... In order to systematically collect and analyze state data, NASI has organized and heads a Workers Compensation Steering committee comprised of the nations leading experts in workers compensation policy and practice. This unique steering committee provides expertise needed to shape the data collection and review process, as well as the expertise needed to inform NASIs policy related discussions and analyses in the areas of disability and workers compensation. As a result, NASI has the unique expertise to provide the most comprehensive national aggregates and state level estimates of workers compensation costs and benefits, as well as the mechanisms to readily provide the best high level research and analysis as a result of the data they have collected. The seminar is to be conducted in the September/October 2009 timeframe.
Feb 19, 2009
Ordinarily, RFC is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis, and the RFC assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities on that basis. ...
It is incorrect to find that an individual has limitations or restrictions beyond those caused by his or her medical impairment(s) including any related symptoms, such as pain, due to factors such as age or height, or whether the individual had ever engaged in certain activities in his or her past relevant work (e.g., lifting heavy weights.)
- Starting March 3rd, agencies must submit weekly reports providing a breakdown of funding, major actions taken to date, and major planned actions.
- No later than May 1st, agencies must provide their “Agency Recovery Plan” that describes both broad recovery goals and the agency’s coordinating efforts.
- Starting immediately, agencies must ensure all funds provided by the Recovery Act are clearly distinguishable from non-Recovery Act funds in all agency financial systems, business systems (i.e., grant and contract writing systems), and reporting systems.
- To facilitate transparency and reporting, agencies should establish a page on their existing website dedicated to the Recovery Act (i.e., www.agency.gov/recovery), which will link to Recovery.gov and will provide a single portal for all agency-specific information related to the Act.
- Within one week of issuing this guidance, agencies must establish a dedicated page on their website for recovery efforts.
Social Security does not have its "Recovery" page up yet, but these instructions were just issued.
A big issue locally is where Social Security's new National Computer Center, partially funded by ARRA, will be located. Astrue says it is impractical to build it in or adjacent to Social Security's central office campus in Woodlawn, a suburb of Baltimore. The 1,000 employees who will be working at the new National Computer Center are concerned that the National Computer Center may be up to 40 miles away from Social Security's central offices where they now work-- and the Baltimore-Washington area has some of the nation's most congested traffic.
I am not a fan of Special Needs Trusts. I think that in almost every case there is a better way of handling a situation in which a person who is entitled to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) receives a relatively large sum of money from an estate or personal injury settlement. These other methods include paying off debts, making home repairs, buying a home, buying a car, buying clothing, buying appliances and furniture, taking a trip to visit family or friends you have not seen in years because you were too poor to travel, etc. David is well aware of these other means of dealing with this situation and I am aware that if the amount you receive is a million dollars the methods I am suggesting will not be enough. If you are involved in drafting Special Needs Trusts, you need to read David's materials.
Feb 18, 2009
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue was in Atlanta this month with promising news for Georgians waiting to resolve disability claims with his agency.
The average time to settle a disability claim in the downtown Atlanta office has been reduced drastically, he said. On average, such claims are now handled in just 500 days. ...
Astrue lobbied for funds to hire more hearing officers and authorized a third field office for metro Atlanta.
Feb 17, 2009
From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 5:51 PM
Subject: COMMISSIONER'S BROADCAST -- 02/17/09
A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees
Subject: Economic Stimulus Bill
President Obama has just signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly referred to as the stimulus bill. I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to explain what I think this legislation means for SSA in both the short run and long run.
In the short run, our most immediate task is to issue the $250 stimulus payments to our beneficiaries and recipients as soon as possible. The legislation is complex and requires extensive coordination with other agencies to avoid duplicate payments, but I am optimistic that we will issue payments to the public by late May—about three weeks earlier than the statute requires. We are working on a communication plan and guidance for field offices so that we can handle the inevitable questions that will arise.
The legislation provides $90 million for the administrative cost of the stimulus payments and an additional $500 million to process the additional work that we are receiving as a result of the economic downturn. However, we are still under a continuing resolution, so we must continue to operate cautiously. We believe that when Congress passes the FY 2009 appropriation in March or April, we will have an opportunity to hire between 5,000 and 6,000 new employees before the end of the year. If you have hiring responsibilities, please do not let the legislative situation translate into inaction. Post the jobs, interview the candidates, plan for training, and hope Congress provides the money to pull the hiring trigger in the next 30 – 45 days.
As part of the legislation, Congress is investing about $20 billion in health information technology across the Federal government which has important strategic implications for us. Our pilot testing at
Beth Israel-Deaconess in Hospital demonstrates that we can become significantly more timely, efficient, and accurate if our field and DDS staff can access complete electronic medical records early in the process. We are running additional pilots in Boston and expect to expand into many other locations in the next three years. Virginia
Congress has also provided a critical $500 million for replacement of the National Computer Center (NCC). When I first started as Commissioner, I was disturbed to learn that the NCC was physically fraying and was increasingly at risk of failure from electrical interruption or other facility issues and that we had no plan in place to address the problem. Replacement of the NCC will allow us to provide 24/7 service and avoid outages and slowdowns that disrupt service delivery. Building the new NCC with today’s technology will, in three to five years, make your lives easier and greatly improve our service to the public.
The kind of progress we have made in the past few months doesn’t happen by accident. We started planning early and extensively for the possibility of additional funding, and we have had excellent support from President Obama’s transition team and the new officials at the Office of Management and Budget. This teamwork allowed us to make an effective case to Congress in a difficult time.
We should all be grateful to the people who worked with us and for us on this bill.
Michael J. Astrue
- The claimant's illness is terminal
- The case involves a disability claim for any military service personnel injured October 1, 2001 or later regardless of how or where the disability occurred, whether in the United States or on foreign soil, provided that the individual was on active duty when the injury occurred.
- The claimant's file is flagged as a Compassionate Allowance case, which means that the claimant has or is alleged to have a condition on a list maintained by Social Security.
- The claimant is without, and is unable to obtain, food, medicine or shelter.
The main changes are to add the language italicized above which makes it clear that Social Security intends to be quite inclusive about the military service personnel category and to add military service cases to the TERI (Terminal Illness) category, the subcategory of critical cases that get the very most expedited review.
Treating military service cases as TERI cases seems over the top to me Let me say something out loud that I have only heard whispered because it is so politically incorrect. Why are the military service cases so urgent? These folks already have an income from their military service pension or VA or both. Most military service personnel who become disabled are not disabled as a result of hostile action. Have a heart attack while on military service stateside and you get TERI treatment? Get injured in a car wreck because you were drunk and you qualify for TERI because you happened to be in the Army at the time? Why? Shouldn't we be worrying more about the disability claims of people who are in homeless shelters? I think someone got carried away.
By the way, Social Security also removed a list of possibly terminal illnesses that it had in the prior version. One condition which was on the list previously was being on a liver transplant list. I guess that turned out to be a little embarrassing since Social Security is turning down most claims of people who are on a liver transplant waiting list.
Feb 16, 2009
- Who is eligible? Anyone who was entitled to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or to any of the following Social Security benefits at any time during the period November 2008 to January 2009: retirement, wife's and husband's, disabled adult child (but not other child's benefits), widow's and widower's, mother's or fathers', parent's, disability insurance benefits, special age 72 benefits. Note that my answer relates only to eligibility based upon Social Security entitlement. There is also eligibility based upon receiving VA or Railroad Retirement benefits.
- Update: Are children eligible for $250 payments? I thought that I had already made this clear, but I keep getting questions about it, so let me be very specific. Children only qualify if they are on SSI or if they are receiving disabled adult child benefits. Only children who are receiving benefits because they are disabled are eligible for the $250 payments. Generally, children do not qualify for the $250 payments.
- Update: Do I have to do something to get the $250 payment? No. It is supposed to come automatically.
- Does the payment to Social Security beneficiaries come out of the Social Security trust funds? No. The Act says that these payments come out of appropriated funds.
- Will the payments be made to people living outside the U.S.? No. The Act limits it to those whose listed residence is in the U.S. or a U.S. territory.
- Will I be taxed on this income? Not by the federal government.
- Can my $250 payment be seized for payment of my debts? Generally no, but it could be seized for a federal tax debt or a child support obligation to the same extent that Social Security benefits could be seized. I think it could be seized for a debt owed the Social Security Administration or for another federal debt, such as a student loan, but I would have to study it more to be certain.
- Will an individual who is entitled to two benefits, such as Social Security and SSI, get two checks for $250? No, but avoiding this will be a challenge for the computer systems at Social Security and the other agencies involved. Mistakes, even a lot of them, would not surprise me. The databases were not set up with the idea of administering this program.
- Can more than one $250 payment be made on a Social Security number? Yes.
- Can more than one $250 payment be made to a household? Yes.
- When will the checks or direct deposits be issued? As soon as the Treasury can do it, but no later than 120 days after enactment. If President Obama signs the bill on Tuesday, February 17 as planned, the deadline for payment would be June 17. Update: Social Security hopes to get the payments out by late May.
- I am applying for benefits for the time period November 2008 to January 2009 but I have not yet gotten the benefits yet. Once I get approved for these benefits, do I get the $250 payment? Yes, but there is a time limit on this. No payment can be made after December 31, 2010.
- I am on SSI. Does the $250 count as income which would reduce my SSI benefits? No and it will not affect your Medicaid or Food Stamps or other federally funded needs based benefits either.
- I am an attorney who represents Social Security claimants. My fee is one-quarter of my clients' back benefits. Some of them will receive a $250 payment as back benefits. Will I receive a quarter of the $250 payment? Probably not. Update: I had earlier thought that the problem of claimants dying before receiving payment was an argument in favor of these payments being treated as a Social Security benefit subject to attorney fee withholding, since the Social Security Act has rules which are convenient to the agency on how payments to decedents are handled, but this Act actually forbids payment to those who die before receiving payment. That does not completely solve the problem of people dying before receiving their money but it does greatly limit the problem -- and Social Security may be able to offload the remaining problem to the Department of the Treasury anyway. Probably, they will not treat these benefits as being subject to attorney fee withholding since the Social Security Act limits withholding to benefits paid under the Social Security Act. 42 USC §406(a)(4). The ARRA does not amend the Social Security Act, so the benefit payments are not made under the Social Security Act. It may be easy for Social Security's Office of General Counsel to say this, but it may be considerably more difficult for Social Security's payment centers to implement it in this way.
- Will computing and authorizing these payments and dealing with questions from the public relating to them cause problems for an understaffed Social Security Administration? My guess, or perhaps hope, is that this will not be too hard for Social Security. The Act is fairly simple and Social Security is getting a $90 million appropriation for administering it. The holdup might be Social Security's computer system. They did do something like this last year without much of a problem, but this is still going to be a challenge. Avoiding double payments may be the hardest part and that problem goes beyond Social Security, since the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Railroad Retirement Board are also involved.
Feb 15, 2009
What I think is that the piece is beyond alarmist and may be all the way to paranoid. Of course, those on the right provide a counterpoint by claiming that a Social Security catastrophe is at hand and the only way to save Social Security is to destroy Social Security as we have known it.
Feb 14, 2009
Word has it that President Obama intends to appoint a task force the week after next which will be charged with "reforming" Social Security. According to inside gossip, the task force will be led entirely by economists who were not able to see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which is giving the country its sharpest downturn since the Great Depression. ...
My guess is that this task force will not be very popular except at the Washington Post [which it might surprise you to know has become a right leaning newspaper] and on Wall Street.
Feb 13, 2009
The purpose of this Sources Sought Notice is to gain knowledge of potential qualified sources (i.e., vendor, government, commercial, etc.) that can provide a case management system to support disability case processing for the Social Security Administration (SSA). This Sources Sought Notice is not a request for proposal and in no way obligates SSA to award a contract. This Sources Sought Notice contains the currently available information. SSA requires a case management system and technical consulting services to implement the system.Social Security has a number of specifications for the system it seeks.
Update. Lots of vendors are expressing interest in this contract.
Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced that he has voluntarily signed President Obama’s Ethics Pledge, an action required only of new political appointees in this Administration. Commissioner Astrue was confirmed by the Senate in 2007 for a six-year term.
“I gladly signed President Obama’s Ethics Pledge because I strongly support the President’s view that we serve only the interests of the American people. As the President has stated, ‘The American people deserve more than simply an assurance that those who are coming to Washington will serve their interests. They also deserve to know that there are rules on the books to keep it that way. They deserve a government that is truly of, by and for the people.’”To view a signed copy of the pledge, click here.
- SSR 09-1p Determining Childhood Disability Under the Functional Equivalence Rule – The “Whole Child” Approach
- SSR 09-3pDetermining Childhood Disability - The Functional Equivalence Domain of "Acquiring and Using Information"
- SSR 09-5p Determining Childhood Disability - The Functional Equivalence Domain of "Interacting and Relating with Others"
- SSR 09-6p Determining Childhood Disability - The Functional Equivalence Domain of "Moving About and Manipulating Objects"
- SSR 09-7p Determining Childhood Disability - The Functional Equivalence Domain of "Caring for Yourself"
- SSR 09-8p Determining Childhood Disability - The Functional Equivalence Domain of "Health and Physical Well-Being"
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION LIMITATION ON ADMINISTRATIVE EXPENSES(INCLUDING TRANSFER OF FUNDS)
For an additional amount for "Limitation on Administrative Expenses", $1,000,000,000 shall be available as follows:
1) $500,000,000 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 and prior to the lease or purchase of such site: Provided further, that the construction plan and site selection for such center shall be subject to review and approval by the Office of Management and Budget: Provided further, That such center shall continue to be a government-operated facility; and
(2) $500,000,000' for processing disability and retirement workloads, including information technology acquisitions and research in support of such activities: Provided, That up to $40,000,000 may be used by the Commissioner of Social Security for health information technology research and activities to facilitate the adoption of electronic medical records in disability claims, including the transfer of funds to "Supplemental Security Income Program" to carry out activities under section 1110 of the Social Security Act.OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERALFor an additional amount for the "Office of Inspector General", $2,000,000, which shall remain available through September 30, 2012, salaries and expenses necessary for oversight and audit of programs, projects, and activities funded in this Act
I have one reader who keeps asking me to post these. Please note that I obtain these from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) newsletter. NOSSCR obtains the reports from Social Security. The newsletter containing this report arrived at my office by e-mail at 11:58 last night and I am posting it at about 9:45 this morning. There is no point asking that I post these earlier since I cannot post something I do not have. You might get them a few hours faster if you joined NOSSCR or subscribed to its newsletter if you do not qualify to join, but that is the only way you will get them faster unless your job gives you direct access to them.
Here is how the national processing times have changed over time:
- January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
- May 25, 2007 -- 523 days
- July 28, 2007 -- 528 days
- August 31, 2007 -- 523 days
- November 30, 2007 -- 500 days
- February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
- May 30, 2008 -- 523 days
- June 27, 2008 -- 529 days
- July 31, 2008 -- 530 days
- September 3, 2008 -- 532 days
- November 5, 2008 -- 476 days
- December 3, 2008 -- 480 days
- December 31, 2008 -- 480 days
Feb 12, 2009
The Social Security Administration’s online services have earned the highest overall score in the most recent e-Government Satisfaction Index. The Index, which is administered by ForeSee Results in conjunction with the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), also gave three of SSA’s applications the highest scores in government. In a separate survey, Nextgov, a website devoted to technology and the federal government, listed www.socialsecurity.gov as one of the top five federal websites in its review of best online practices. ...
While the federal government’s overall average score is 74 out of 100, SSA’s overall score was 79, the highest in the federal government. ...
In recognizing the SSA homepage, Nextgov consulted web experts in government and academia and also did its own research and web browsing.
Update: The Conference Report is supposed to be filed at 3:00 today.
Final update: Read a set of questions and answers about what was finally passed.
Government Computer News has an article that contains this little paragraph, which is not something that Commissioner Astrue is too interested in seeing in the media:
Online services so far have not produced a big benefit, SSA staff members told GAO. Relatively few customers use them, and because of erroneous or missing information on some online forms additional time is required by staff to contact customers to gather or correct information.The Washington Post has a story out today with this quote from Commissioner Astrue:
Since becoming commissioner, I have repeatedly said we need timely and adequate funding in order to maintain the employee levels we need to serve the American public,... We have been aggressively simplifying processes and embracing new technologies in order to provide better service, but the continuing [budget] resolutions of the past three years have constrained hiring and damaged service delivery.Astrue has repeatedly called for the budgets that were recommended by former President Bush, but those budgets were barely enough to prevent Social Security's workforce from declining. He has consistently failed to ask for enough money to increase the number of employees at the Social Security Administration and has consistently downplayed Social Security's staffing problems and the service delivery problems that the staffing shortages have caused. These are simply facts which make Astrue vulnerable to criticism. Astrue seems to be thin-skinned, pugnacious and self-righteous. His personality and his situation are a bad combination.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union that represents most of Social Security's workforce, has released a press release on the GAO report urging that Commissioner Astrue step down.
- February 14, 2007 -- Social Security Disability Backlogs
- May17, 2005 -- Protecting and Strengthening Social Security
- February 27, 2003 -- Social Security Protection Act of 2003
- February 28, 2001 -- Social Security Administration's Proposal to Implement Return to Work Legislation
- February 2, 1999 --Impacts of the Current Social Security System, Today's Children
- March 6, 1997 -- The Future of Social Security for this Generation and the Next: 1994-1996 Advisory Council on Social Security Report
Feb 11, 2009
Reduced staffing [at Social Security] also impacted key customer service indicators. In fiscal year 2007, more than 3 million customers waited for over 1 hour to be served. Further, SSA’s Field Office Caller Survey found that 51 percent of customers calling selected field offices had at least one earlier call that had gone unanswered, but for methodological reasons, the unanswered call rate was likely even higher.GAO urges that Social Security develop a service delivery plan. Social Security's response is that it already has a plan. GAO mentions the argument that Social Security lacks adequate operational funding, but does not endorse it. The report does tentatively suggest that Social Security's service delivery plan may need to call for more money for the agency, which may be an oblique way of saying that Social Security should be sounding the alarm itself, instead of downplaying its problems.
The GAO report is drawing attention from U.S. News and World Report and Government Executive. More importantly, Chairman Baucus and Ranking Minority Member Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee have issued a press release citing the GAO report as a reason for Social Security to get additional funding.
Update: U.S. News and World Report has a second story about the GAO report.
A new report from Social Security's Inspector General contains the disturbing news that there are 20,000 living Americans who are listed on the DMF! That sort of error could have serious consequences and the possibility of identity fraud may be the least of the problems. All sorts of public benefits, including Social Security are cut off once one's name and Social Security number show up on the DMF. It might become impossible to do a wide range of business activities, including getting credit. Of course, the burden of correcting this mistake would be upon the innocent victim.
Feb 10, 2009
Feb 9, 2009
Update: Here is a link to the actual text of the amendment. The Social Security part begins on page 148.
The word “disabled” triggers visions of quadriplegics and speechless stroke victims, but the actual definition applies to those with ailments far less severe. Indeed, today the vast majority of those awarded benefits suffer from chronic back pain, mental problems, and other difficult-to-diagnose maladies. Gaining access to the program, and staying in it, was made easier in the 1980s and 1990s by decisions that adopted less-stringent qualifying criteria and made other such changes. Jack Kemp’s famous truism — if you subsidize something, you get more of it — has proven true for ssdi. Disability is increasingly subsidized, and in the past decade, the number of SSDI beneficiaries has grown by over 2.5 million people. Program costs have also exploded and are projected to keep rising. ...AEI is usually called a "think tank." A more accurate description would be "right wing polemic factory." This hit job is an example of what they do every day.
The history of SSDI is typical of entitlements: What started as a narrow program to assist the hardest cases has expanded incrementally and is now overwhelming. ...
By 1977, 2.8 million non-elderly people were on SSDI a program whose expenditures by that time exceeded revenues by 25 percent. These looming financial problems led to federal legislation in 1980: Initial applications were scrutinized more closely, which increased benefit denial rates by 15.5 percent. The Reagan-led Social Security Administration also instituted more thorough and frequent disability reviews and made eligibility requirements more stringent, determining that 380,000 beneficiaries — or 40 percent of those reviewed — no longer met the program’s medical criteria. ...
A congressional backlash ensued, leading to new amendments in 1984 that expanded SSDI’s scope. Eligibility was extended to those without the “ability to function in a work like setting” — a drastic change from the program’s original, medical focus on whether an applicant’s diagnostic criteria “met or exceeded a listed impairment.” This opened the door to granting benefits for expensive, long-term impairments like back pain, arthritis, and mental disabilities, which affect an applicant’s ability to function in the workplace. ...
Congress has stacked the deck in favor of SSDI applicants in other ways, too. Medical evaluations provided by an applicant’s doctor take precedence over those conducted by SSDI program’s medical staff and hired independent doctors. Giving priority to the decisions of an applicant’s caretakers effectively renders powerless SSDI’s evaluation measures, especially on ambiguous conditions such as depression and back pain, which comprise a large portion of SSDI applications. To appeal a Social Security Administration decision is also relatively easy; in fact, three separate avenues of appeal are open to disappointed benefit seekers. Furthermore, appellants may use lawyers hired on a contingency-fee basis to help them prepare their cases; SSA, though, is restricted in its ability to retain and use outside counsel. ...
Many people currently receiving SSDI probably can work, perhaps not full-time and perhaps not in their former careers, but nevertheless: They can work. ...
Feb 8, 2009
Regardless of the amount, it appears that the Senate bill will contrast with the House bill, which has a similar amount of money, but which devotes much of it to working down Social Security's backlogs. This difference will be worked out in a Conference Committee.
Feb 7, 2009
According to the most recent report, the Tampa hearing office ranked number 121 in average processing time. Here is a list of offices with worse processing times going from bad to worst:
- Fort Wayne
- Kansas City
- Grand Rapids
- Atlanta North
- Oak Brook
- Oak Park
Although all DDS costs are paid for by the federal government, this is a state agency. It is hard for a governor to exempt the employees at DDS from this sort of adverse action without making other state employees angry, even though including DDS in the hiring freeze does nothing for the state budget.
If a hiring freeze does not sound like a big deal to you, think again. State DDSs have terrible turnover problems. A year long hiring freeze would be much worse than furloughing employees for a couple of days a month. It would quickly cripple the state DDS.
Feb 6, 2009
Social Security's "independence" is illusory. Let me detail a few of the ways that the Legislative branch and other parts of the Executive branch can impact this Social Security Commissioner.
- Congress holds hearings. No one likes getting beaten up at a Congressional hearing. There is not much you can do about it if a Congressional committee does decide to beat up on you.
- Congress can investigate the Social Security Administration. Is Social Security simon pure? Of course not. It is far too big to not have some skeletons in the closet.
- Social Security needs the cooperation of Congress to resolve budgetary and legislative matters.
- Congress can pass laws that redefine the role of the Social Security Commissioner, taking away some of his powers or requiring him to report to a board. In the worst case for Astrue, he could be reorganized right out of a job, by putting Social Security back in the Department of Health and Human Services or making it a cabinet level department.
- The President is going to appoint a new Deputy Commissioner of Social Security. Do you think that Astrue will get any say on this appointment?
- The role of the Deputy Commissioner of Social Security is not defined in any meaningful way by statute. That could be changed. Even if this is not changed by statute, the White House and Congress could demand that Astrue get the approval of the Deputy Commissioner before even asking them for anything. I had predicted that Astrue will try to shunt the Deputy Commissioner off to something important but non-controversial. I still expect that he will try that, but I doubt that it is going to work.
- A new Deputy Commissioner could pass along damaging information to the Congress and the White House.
- A new Deputy Commissioner could leak damaging information to the media.
- A new Deputy Commissioner could openly criticize the Commissioner at Congressional hearings. The Commissioner cannot prevent the Deputy Commissioner from testifying.
- The President is likely to appoint a new Inspector General at Social Security. Do you think that Astrue is going to get any say on this appointment?
- The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) , which is part of the White House, has to approve any regulatory proposals made by the Social Security Administration.
- OMB prepares the President's budgetary proposal.
- The President, through OMB, is certain to put out new rules concerning the relationship between federal agencies and employee unions. The President is going to listen to what AFGE says about what should be in these rules. Astrue is not going to like these rules. You can be sure that OMB will be extremely vigilant concerning Social Security's adherence to these new rules.
Feb 5, 2009
Update. I am told that Congresswoman Brown-Waite is on the Social Security Subcommittee. Both her website and the Ways and Means website were out of date.
Social Security has also sent this out as a Press Release.
From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Thursday, February 05, 2009 12:40 PM
Subject: COMMISSIONER'S BROADCAST--02/05/09
A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees
Subject: AFGE Advertisement Regarding Employees' Activities Association
Below is a statement I have just released concerning the Employees' Activities Association (EAA). Our plan is to replace and improve important services previously supplied by the EAA, as we did when we brought the Woodlawn and Metro West child care centers into compliance with GSA policy and empowered the parents to choose the provider who can best serve them and their children.
Michael J. Astrue
Statement of Commissioner Michael J. Astrue Concerning the American Federation of Government Employees' (AFGE) Advertisement Regarding the Employees' Activities Association (EAA)
For nearly two decades, the Social Security Administration has entered into no-bid, no-audit contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to one well-connected organization, the Employees' Activities Association (EAA). That era is over.
The EAA has stubbornly stonewalled our efforts to conduct an audit of its activities and the activities of its secretive for-profit subsidiaries. AFGE's officers have responded to our efforts to ensure that federal laws and policies are followed by repeatedly threatening political retaliation against me and members of Social Security’s career civil service.
The American public is demanding honesty, transparency, and compliance with the law. I will continue to uphold these principles regardless of the inaccurate attacks that stance generates.
I have asked Congress to direct the Government Accountability Office to do the full audit that the EAA has thus far resisted.
I also want to thank the Social Security employees who first blew the whistle on the EAA, and I want to assure them that we will continue to stand by them.
I still cannot comprehend why the Senate bill has no money to improve the immediate situation at Social Security.
Current service problems [at Social Security] include the 765,000 backlog of disability hearings appeals which are awaiting hearings and decisions, the more than 500 day average processing time for disability hearings appeals, the current 20% busy rate on the SSA 800 number service, the fact that 45% of callers to an SSA field office either can’t reach an SSA employee or are told to call back due to lack of staff to handle the call, the inability of the Agency to process and complete 50% (i.e., 1.3 million per year) of scheduled SSI redeterminations, the inability of the Agency to process 67% (i.e., 465,000 per year) of scheduled medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs), and significantly increased waiting times for visitors in SSA field offices. ...
AFGE believes that the stimulus package should include $1.71 billion to restore SSA staff and enable the Agency to process the workloads assigned to it by Congress and service the pension benefit requirements for the nation’s aged, disabled and poor. ...
The union has not joined its allies in the disability community and other SSA interest groups in requesting that the economic recovery legislation contain a provision for $750 million requested by SSA to construct a new National Computer Center (NCC). AFGE represents all bargaining unit employees who work at the NCC in Baltimore MD. Neither Commissioner Astrue nor any of his leadership team have to date communicated with the union regarding any desire or plans to replace the current NCC. Thus, SSA has made no attempt to justify to AFGE the enormous $750 million estimated cost for this project. In addition, SSA has made no effort to inform either the union or NCC employees regarding the proposed location of this facility. ... [A] relocation of the NCC would result in significant economic and personal disruption for employees who work in the NCC and the Woodlawn community where the current facility is located. ...
In closing, although Congress and the current administration underfunded SSA, Agency leadership is also responsible to a significant degree for the current unacceptable situation in SSA. Commissioner Astrue, Deputy Commissioner for Operations McMahon, and Deputy Commissioner for ODAR Foster are responsible for not seeking sufficient resources from Congress and for designing solutions to SSA workload problems which will eliminate SSA’s traditional role in assisting the public to obtain the most advantageous benefit possibilities. AFGE also believes that Deputy Commissioner Wells and Office of Labor and Employee Relations Assistant Deputy Commissioner Beever are directly responsible for terminating Agency communications with the union and SSA employees. AFGE urges you to ask for the Commissioner’s resignation and the reassignment of Ms. McMahon, Mr. Foster, Mr. Wells and Mr. Beever to positions outside of direct supervision of Agency operations and labor relations due to their malfeasance and gross mismanagement. If these leaders are not terminated or reassigned, you will be unable to influence the direction of one of the key Agencies in government – the Social Security Administration.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, was among those who successfully pushed to give the Social Security commissioner a six-year term. The thinking, when Congress approved the tenure in 1994, was that it would keep the position beyond the reach of bureaucratic politics.
But now, with a president in office he likes and a commissioner he doesn't, Gage is suffering from a case of Be Careful What You Wish For.
He and other union leaders are leading an effort to push Commissioner Michael J. Astrue out of office.
The union planned to run an advertisement in today's Baltimore Sun saying that under Astrue's watch "budget cuts and critical personnel shortages have made it impossible for your staff to service the public."
Leaders of union committees, councils and locals representing Social Security employees recently voted unanimously for a 23-point resolution expressing no confidence in Astrue, a Bush administration appointee. And Gage's office is asking executive committee members of the AFL-CIO to sign a letter urging President Obama to seek Astrue's resignation.
"If Mr. Astrue refuses to resign, we request that you use your authority . . . and remove Mr. Astrue from office for malfeasance and neglect," the letter says.
Such a finding would be the only way Obama could give Astrue the boot. His term doesn't expire until 2013. Astrue has no plans to quit before then, according to spokesman Mark Lassiter, who also said the commissioner was traveling and unavailable for comment.
The White House also had no comment on the effort to oust Astrue. But with all the problems the president has had with appointees lately, he probably isn't eager to look for more trouble.
The 23 points charge Astrue with shortchanging public service by closing SSA offices, allowing the disability claims backlog to grow and wasting resources by "substantially increasing non-productive managerial staff."
One of the main complaints the union has with Astrue concerns the decision to move Employee Activity Association functions, such as day-care and fitness centers, to other vendors. That was "the straw that broke our backs," reads the advertisement.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) urged Astrue to stop all "plans to undermine" the activity association. "I am troubled by allegations that your administration has made unsupported claims of financial impropriety," her Jan. 9 letter to him said.
Clearly no fan of Astrue, Mikulski expressed concern "that an audit authorized by your office was undertaken for the sole purpose of trying to find a reason to shut down the EAA." She asked for assurances that any future actions would "not serve an ideological agenda."
Astrue responded by saying the activity association had become "a large and complex commercial enterprise that abuses its exclusive access to our employees for the benefit of for-profit subsidiaries." He acknowledged, however, that an investigation "could not prove or disprove most of the serious allegations." Nonetheless, he added, "it was clear that significant deficiencies existed and that employees were being denied the affordable, professional care that their children deserve."