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May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

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  • May 30, 2010

    Trying To Stir Up Trouble

    Our old friend Andrew Biggs is up to it again. Biggs was put in a research position at Social Security by the Bush White House in order to work on Social Security privatization plans. Biggs campaigned with President Bush for the partial privatization of Social Security while working at Social Security. He later received a recess appointment as Deputy Commissioner of Social Security.

    The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has now published a study by Biggs claiming that people born in 1947 are the new "Notch Babies." Biggs bases this, somehow, on the facts that there was no cost of living adjustment for this year's Social Security benefits while there was a large COLA the year before. Basically, those retiring a year earlier benefited from the big COLA while those retiring later do not.

    The "Notch Baby" reference is an obvious attempt to invoke an earlier, similarly bogus, controversy. Anyone who is trying to be taken seriously would stay miles away from the term "Notch Baby," a fact that Biggs knows well.

    It is impossible for the human mind to devise any system that guarantees that there will never be anyone complaining of unfairness, a fact well known to lawyers like myself. Social Security COLAs are designed to be and are a neutral system. Any alternative system would produce its own allegations of unfairness. Certainly, what Biggs would prefer, a privatized system, would produce massive unfairness.

    Fortunately, so far, Biggs' study, unlike the "Notch Baby" controversy, appears to have gained no traction.

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  • May 29, 2010

    Social Security Goes With Lexmark

    From a press release:
    Lexmark International, Inc. (NYSE:LXK - News) announced today that it has been awarded a five-year blanket purchase agreement (BPA) for the purchase of monochrome and color laser printers and multifunction products (MFPs) by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The estimated value of the BPA is expected to reach $127 million.

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  • May 28, 2010

    Poll

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  • May 27, 2010

    Tell Your Story

    From a press release:
    A new effort to gather stories about the importance of Social Security in our society has been launched. The Social Security Stories Project is seeking story submissions from the public, with a goal of receiving 1,000 stories by the end of July. The stories will then be reviewed for possible inclusion in a new book to be published in honor of the 75th anniversary of Social Security on Aug. 14, 2010. ...

    “We are hoping the younger generations will interview their parents and grandparents on the subject which is why our website offers interview questions,” says Barbara Burt, executive director for the Frances Perkins Center, a nonprofit organization leading the project as part of its mission to honor and learn from Frances Perkins (the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet). A pioneering woman in and ahead of her time, Perkins was U.S. secretary of labor for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was champion of the New Deal, close friend and advisor to FDR.

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  • Social Security Wants Employees To Retire

    Looks like Social Security is eager for its employees to retire. From an e-mail sent to all Social Security employees:
    From: ^Human Resources Internal Communications
    Sent: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 10:58 AM
    Subject: Availability of Early Out Retirement for 2010 -- INFORMATION

    To: All SSA Employees

    From: Reginald F. Wells
    Deputy Commissioner
    for Human Resources

    Subject: Availability of Early Out Retirement for 2010—INFORMATION

    This is to inform you that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is offering early out retirement to all employees except:

    All employees in the Office of the Chief Actuary; and All employees in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

    By July 1, 2010, all eligible employees who wish to retire must advise their immediate supervisor of their intent to separate through the early out program and contact their servicing personnel office (SPO) to initiate their retirement processing. All employees must separate by August 31, 2010.

    Supervisors should ensure that all employees under their supervision (including those on extended leave) receive this information.

    AGE, SERVICE, AND OTHER REQUIREMENTS

    To be eligible, employees must have completed 20 years of creditable service and be at least 50 years of age, or have at least 25 years of creditable service at any age. (This must include 5 years of civilian service). Employees must be serving under a non-time-limited appointment and have been continuously on SSA's rolls since November 16, 2009. In addition, employees under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) must have served in a CSRS position for at least 1 year out of the 2 years immediately before retirement. This last requirement does not apply to employees under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). ...

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  • That Predicted Social Security Employee Retirement Wave ...

    That predicted wave of Social Security employee retirements? It may not be happening. At least, the predicted retirement wave of federal employees generally is not happening The Federal Times reports that the number of retirements of federal employees dropped last year to its lowest level in seven years.

    Has anyone seen any numbers on employee retirements just at Social Security?

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  • ALJ Gender

    Someone who says that he or she is a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has tried to figure out the gender breakdown of Social Security's ALJ corps based only upon their names. From the ALJ Discussion Forum:

    January 2010 ReportingTotal% of Total
    male name94771%
    female name31223%
    initials only used393%
    unisex (shortened or epicene) name383%
    total alj unique names1,336100%

    I am sure that Social Security knows the exact breakdown but I do not recall it ever being released.

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  • May 26, 2010

    Social Security Bulletin Released

    The Social Security Administration has released a new issue of the Social Security Bulletin, the agency's scholarly publication. This issue includes a brief remembrance of the late Robert J. Myers.

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  • Issues With ALJ Docket Regs

    On February 24 Social Security sent over to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a package of final regulations to "amend our rules to clarify that the agency is responsible for setting the time and place for a hearing before an administrative law judge." This proposal had originally been published in the Federal Register on November 10, 2008, shortly after the last Presidential election. This proposal has been controversial, particularly among Administrative Law Judges, since it would threaten to remove any control that ALJs have over their dockets. OMB approval is necessary before these regulations can be published in the Federal Register. OMB is part of the White House. Ordinarily, OMB is required to act on regulatory proposals within 90 days. It has now been more than 90 days but there has been no OMB action. The OMB website now notes "**REVIEW EXTENDED" for this item. This is uncommon. OMB can negotiate changes with an agency, send a proposal back to an agency for further review or simply refuse to accept an agency's proposal. Thus far, the Obama Administration has not flatly refused to accept any regulatory proposal and has sent only one regulatory proposal back to an agency for further review. There have been many negotiated changes in regulations, however.

    We cannot know exactly what is going on with this proposal but there is clearly some back and forth between the White House and Social Security.

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  • May 25, 2010

    One Overpayment In New Jersey

    From the Newark Star-Ledger:
    Angelina Maria Colabella doesn’t have to pay.

    Earlier this month, Colabella, who receives Social Security disability benefits, received a letter from Social Security. It said through the years, the agency had overpaid Colabella nearly $59,000 and she had 30 days to pay it back.

    Colabella had her meeting with the agency and it reviewed her case.

    "Social Security reversed its decision in my favor," Colabella said. "I’m just thrilled. I don’t have to worry anymore." ...

    "There was a string of times she went over one month or more, but by averaging the year she was under," said Bill Hayden, an attorney with the Community Health Law Project, who represented Colabella at the SSA meeting. "It never should have gotten that far." ...

    Hayden said mistakes like this are not uncommon in his experience. He said there is a delay before Social Security receives a beneficiary’s earnings records, but usually only a year or two.

    ‘‘For this, someone went back 10 years to retroactively do it," he said.

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  • May 24, 2010

    No COLA This Year -- Again?

    The signs are that there will be no Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in Social Security benefits this year, for the second year in a row.

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  • Social Security "Death Panel"?

    From the Neiman Watchdog blog:
    President Obama and the leadership in Congress have delegated enormous, unaccountable authority to 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals. The 18 individuals are meeting regularly, in secret, behind closed doors, until safely beyond this year’s mid-term election. If they reach agreement, their proposal will be voted on in December by a lame duck Congress, without the benefit of open hearings and deliberations in the pertinent committees and without the opportunity for open debate and amendment on the floors of the House and Senate. ...

    They are the members of President Obama’s newly-formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. ...

    “Everything is on the table,” they say, but the members appointed by the minority leaders in the House and Senate have made clear that they do not believe that the problems in this country stem from under-taxing, rather from overspending. ...

    The co-chairs, in particular, seem to have a clear agenda. Even before the commission held its first meeting, Erskine Bowles went on record before the North Carolina Bankers' Association saying that if the Commission doesn't "mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security ... America is going to be a second-rate power" in his lifetime. (And he is already 64!) Alan Simpson, known for giving ugly voice to harsh, ageist stereotypes, described the future of the fiscal commission: "It'll be a bloodbath. Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn't affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60. This makes no sense. You've got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. Those people are lying... [They] don't care a whit about their grandchildren...not a whit." ...

    We write to raise questions and encourage press inquiry now, before the commission reports, at which point its recommendations could be on track and moving fast. Here are a few angles to explore: ...

    Q. Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?

    Q. Mr. Peterson has been on a decades-long crusade against Social Security. The day after the first meeting of the commission, which focused heavily on the need to cut Social Security, the co-chairs and two other members of the commission participated in a Peterson event that reinforced the same message. A Peterson-funded foundation is supplying commission staff. ...

    Q. Why the urgent focus on Social Security? In the past, Social Security has always been considered under the normal legislative process, with the opportunity for full amendments. According to the program’s actuaries, it is able to pay all benefits in full and on time for over a quarter of a century. Even its most diehard critics, who try mightily to convince the rest of us that the program is in crisis, can’t mount an argument that there is a problem for another five years or so. So what is the rush? What is the need for such an unaccountable, fast-tracked process when one has never been needed before? Why, in spite of the evidence that Social Security is working as intended and that there is growing need for the kind of broad and reliable protection provided under the program, is it being singled out by Bowles and Simpson and seemingly by the White House for a major trimming?

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  • May 23, 2010

    Reinstating Social Security Benefits For College Students?

    The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) has published a study recommending that Social Security benefits be reinstated for the children of retirees and decedents who are in "post-secondary school." Benefits were paid to these students until 1982. Nothing is impossible but the chances of this happening are slim.

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  • May 22, 2010

    "Gotta Be Crazy, On Dog Food"

    From WAVE in Louisville:
    A local retiree is outraged at the federal government. First, he finds out the government mistakenly overpaid his Social Security benefits for years. Then he had to give back more than $10,000 to settle up. Now, a second government accounting error could cost him thousands more. ...

    Last summer, the Social Security Administration told Thurman because of an accounting error, the agency had accidentally paid him too much. For almost five years, Thurman got a disability payment and a full Social Security payment. ...

    When it finally caught the mistake, the agency told Thurman he had to give back the overpayment, or his benefits would get cut. So Thurman went down to the social security office in Louisville and agreed to settle up.

    "What's it take to pay you people off so I'll be totally clear?" Thurman said he asked the SSA worker. "They said $10,155. I said all right I'll give you your money right now. She said you're going to give it to me? I said yeah."

    Thurman received two letters from Social Security showing he paid what he was asked, and that he and the government were square. ...

    But just weeks later, Social Security told Thurman they goofed up again, making yet another accounting error. This time, Social Security told Thurman the amount repaid was thousands short of what he really owed. Social Security wanted another $6,758. And once again, the agency threatened to cut Thurman's benefits if he didn't pay.

    "I thought these people gotta be crazy, on dog food," Thurman said with a laugh. "Something's wrong with em you know?"

    Thurman went back and forth with Social Security for months. He even asked Congressman John Yarmouth's office for help, without any luck. But after we started asking questions, the Social Security Administration looked into Thurman's case and said mistakes were made.

    "We have apologized to him," said Patti Patterson, a Social Security Administration spokesperson.

    Patterson said SSA is now going back to the beginning to find out exactly how much Thurman was paid, and how much he should have been paid because they still aren't sure.

    "It's unfortunate that not only have we not paid him correctly, we have not given him clear information," Patterson said. "And we're going to correct that." ...

    Patterson told us mistakes like this do not happen often and said Thurman's case is more complicated than most because of the nature of his disability payment. Patterson said SSA hopes to be finished with its review and have a decision on the case within a week.

    Field office employees: Do you think this one qualifies for an "against equity and good conscience" waiver? I suppose it happens but I don't think I've ever seen a field office do a waiver of that sort. And to non-field office employees: This exact problem is uncommon but overpayments due to Social Security errors are not rare and difficulties in computing the amount of an overpayment are routine.

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  • Negative OIG Report On PASS Plans

    From a recent report of Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
    The Social Security Act authorizes the exclusion of the income and resources of an individual who has a disability or is blind when the individual needs such income and resources to fulfill an approved PASS [Program for Achieving Self-Support]. The income and/or resources the individual uses to pursue the PASS will not be counted in determining eligibility or payment amount for SSI [Supplemental Security Income], thus potentially allowing for SSI qualification and/or an increase in the recipient’s SSI payment over the amount otherwise payable.

    Each PASS must have an occupational goal. The individual should have either a specific work goal or a description of the type of job he or she expects to have at the end of the PASS plan. ...

    To perform our review, we identified 2,622 SSI recipients who participated in the PASS program in Calendar Year (CY) 2005. We randomly selected 50 cases from this population for detailed analysis. ...

    Of the 50 recipients in our sample, 20 had a completed PASS that did not result in savings to SSA. These 20 recipients received a total of about $243,000 in additional SSI payments because of PASS income exclusions. None of these recipients had earnings after the PASS ended that reduced or suspended their SSI or DI benefits. ...

    Of the 50 recipients in our sample, 20 had a completed PASS that resulted in savings to SSA. These 20 recipients received a total of about $307,000 in additional SSI payments because of PASS income exclusions. All 20 recipients worked after the PASS ended, and their work caused benefit reductions or suspensions that resulted in about $221,000 in savings to SSA from the date the PASS ended until October 2009. Additionally, in 9 of these 20 cases, savings are ongoing because the recipients’ benefits are currently suspended or reduced due to wages. ...

    We found that the PASS program provided assistance to some recipients who wanted to return to work. Based on our review, we estimate that about 1,050 (of about 2,100) recipients who had a PASS in CY 2005, completed it and were able to move further toward independence. However, we also found that the program costs outweighed the savings. We estimate that SSA paid approximately $28.8 million in additional SSI payments because of PASS income exclusions, but only $11.6 million was saved as a result of the recipients earning enough through their work to result in a reduction or suspension of benefits.

    Therefore, we recommend SSA reinforce to its PASS cadres that PASSes should be for feasible and realistic goals that are expected to increase (a) the recipient’s prospect for self-support and (b) the likelihood of savings to SSA’s programs.

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  • Texas Board Of Education Adopts Curriculum Requiring Discussion Of "Long Term Entitlements"

    On Friday, the Texas Board of Education adopted Social Studies standards requiring that teachers discuss "alternatives regarding long term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio."

    Actually, this is one of the saner items in the new Texas Social Studies curriculum. The problem is that not one teacher in one hundred could intelligently lead such a discussion, about Social Security not because the topic is all that complicated, but because most of what most people, including teachers, think they know about Social Security is not true. I have no doubt that every one of the Board members who voted for this have an ardent belief that Social Security is doomed in the long run and that the only hope is to begin a transition to a privatized Social Security system, a belief that is rubbish. There are fairly simple solutions for Social Security's funding problems. Any sort of transition to privatization makes the problem much worse.

    And don't even think about trying to have an intelligent discussion of Medicare. Medicare really is complicated!
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  • May 21, 2010

    Instant Karma's Gonna Get You


    I generally do not run stories about privacy and identity fraud issues concerning Social Security numbers. These stories are numerous and have almost nothing to do with the Social Security Administration. However, I cannot resist this one. From the Mobile, AL Press Register:
    LifeLock CEO Todd Davis was so confident in his company's ability to protect people from identity theft, he plastered his own Social Security all over the companies ads.

    According to Wired, however, Davis' ads backfired and his identity has been stolen 13 times since June 2007, despite his claim that paying LifeLock $10-a-month makes identity theft impossible.

    First, somebody used Davis' identity to get a $500 loan from a check-cashing company. Davis was duped 12 more times, with various thieves using the CEO's identity to rack up a $2,400 AT&T bill, receive a $573 bank loan and to accrue several other small debts from utility and credit companies.

    In March, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined LifeLock $12 million for deceptive advertising. "In truth, the protection they provided left such a large hole... that you could drive that truck through it," chairman Jon Leibowitz told Wired.

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  • May 20, 2010

    Legionnaire's Disease At Philadelphia Field Office

    From KYW in Philadelphia:

    An employee at the Philadelphia office of the Social Security Administration has come down with a case of Legionnaire's disease, and health officials are stressing that this is an isolated incident.

    The unidentified female worker was stricken early this month. Another employee has tested positive for Legionella bacteria but hasn't picked up any symptoms.

    No one is panicking. Social Security spokeswoman Terry Lewis says an investigation has found that there's no reason to believe that the bacteria is lurking the building, at 4th and Spring Garden Streets:

    "Because of the fact that Legionnaire's disease is generally through the air or air conditioning systems or water, we had a number of experts come in and do extensive testing of both of those systems and no presence of Legionella was found in either the air or the water."

    The Philadelhpia Department of Health says Legionnaire's disease is not uncommon. It handles 25 to 50 cases each year. Symptoms include fever, chills, abdominal pain, and pneumonia.

    You may remember that Legionnaire's disease takes its name from a mass outbreak of the disease at a convention of the American Legion. That convention was in Philadelphia. I imagine the people there remember that event.

    By the way, how does a radio station in Philadelphia have call letters that start with "K?" I thought that only stations West of the Mississippi started with "K." I know that only the oldest stations have only three letters. There must be some history here.

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  • Plan To Reinstate Recon Not Popular In Michigan

    From the Detroit Free Press:
    [There are] about 40,000 Michiganders waiting for Social Security to decide their pleas for disability benefits, a backlog among the nation's worst because of the state's lingering economic problems.

    The Social Security Administration told Congress last month that it may use Michigan for an experiment to cut the wait. ...

    "It's going to make a bad situation worse," said Cliff Weisberg, a Southfield attorney whose firm handles about 2,000 cases a year. "What good is it ... if by the time you get to a hearing, the client is dead?" ...

    The agency has boosted efforts to clear the backlog, opening new hearing offices in Livonia and Mt. Pleasant, while allowing Michiganders to appeal their cases to administrative law judges in other states with video hearings. Yet Social Security Administrator Michael Astrue told a U.S. House committee last month that Michigan was still stuck with "some of the most backlogged hearing offices in the country."

    That has led Social Security to consider bringing back a step it eliminated in 1999 known as reconsideration. ...

    "That's a huge mistake," said Carl Anderson, a Detroit attorney who handles Social Security cases. "The same people who didn't pay the case the first time, didn't pay the case the second time." ...

    "I probably rescue something like 12 people a year from homelessness," said Lisa Welton, a Southfield attorney. "There are probably twice that many living in a relative's basement, and a much larger number that wouldn't be living in their homes if their case didn't go through."

    The inspector general of Social Security also has questioned the plan. Patrick O'Carroll said at a House hearing last month that if the agency makes the change in Michigan, people who win reconsideration will likely wait only nine months. But people who seek an appeal after reconsideration would wait at least 2 1/2 years. ...

    In response to a question from the Free Press, Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter said the decision to bring reconsideration back in Michigan "is currently on hold," adding "a final decision has not been made."

    I still like my idea of increasing the time allowed to file an appeal from 60 days to six months. I do not think the reaction would be so negative -- it might even be a positive -- and the effect on the backlogs would be much the same. People will procrastinate in filing appeals but the delay will be their fault instead of Social Security's. If backlogs are increasing at the initial and reconsideration levels, why make them worse by reinstating reconsideration in those states where it has been eliminated?

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  • May 19, 2010

    Budget Trouble Brewing

    From the Capitol Insider, a publication of the Disability Policy Collaboration:
    House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) told human services advocates that the FY 2011 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education could be cut by 2.3 percent. The escalating budget deficit and election year politics will make it extremely difficult to meet rising human service needs.
    Social Security's administrative budget is part of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.

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  • May 18, 2010

    AFGE Unhappy

    The American Federation of Goverment Employees (AFGE), the labor union that represents most Social Security employees, is not happy with the progress of contract negotiations with Social Security. Having to negotiate with a Republican agency head during a time when Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress must be frustrating but, to be frank, the union seems perpetually outraged about something. That seems to be not merely their default mode but their only mode. Take a look at what the union has to say here, here and here.

    Also, take a look at this notice withdrawing a story from the union's newsletter. There must be a story behind this. I will guess the story involves a threat of a defamation lawsuit.

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  • May 17, 2010

    OIDAP Extends Time Period For Comments

    A notice received by e-mail from the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP):
    On May 4, 2010, the Social Security Administration published a Request for Comments on the recommendations contained in the report of the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel entitled Content Model and Classification Recommendation for the Social Security Administration Occupational Information System, September 2009. The comment period is extended to June 30, 2010.
    For additional information, or to provide comments on the report, please see the attached notice and visit http://www.regulations.gov/search/Regs/home.html#docketDetail?R=SSA-2010-0018. If you submitted comments prior to this notice, you will be contacted by project staff to determine if you wish to post your comment to the internet website.
    I encourage anyone reading this blog to study the OIDAP report and to make comments. As our Vice President would say "This is a big ___ing deal." OIDAP is dealing with the most important policy issue faced by the Social Security Administration in more than 30 years. Something is going to happen. This is not going away. There is an excellent chance that this will bring about a complete redesign of disability determination by people whose main interest is the contracts they can obtain from Social Security, people who have no idea of the practical effects of what they are doing.

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  • Texas Textbooks And Social Security

    From TPM (emphasis added:

    With the long-running Texas history textbooks standards fight scheduled to end with a final vote by the State Board of Education Friday, arch-conservative board member Don McLeroy is proposing a new set of changes that read like a tea party manifesto.

    The new amendment (.pdf), which is expected to get a vote on Thursday, would require high school history students to "discuss alternatives regarding long term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio" and also "evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U. S. sovereignty."

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  • May 16, 2010

    Regard The Scuttlebutt As True

    Paul Mariani has written an article for First Things on Michael Astrue and his poetic alter ego, A.M. Juster. Mariani is a poet and professor at Boston College. First Things describes itself as "...an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." I think it would be fair to say that First Things expresses primarily a right-wing, Roman Catholic perspective on the world.

    Here are a few excerpts from the article titled, "Regard the Scuttlebutt As True" (a phrase of Astrue's invention):
    [Astrue] belongs to a type of quiet and careful civil servant that Caesar Augustus would have recognized. As would Phillip II and Napoleon and Gladstone, for that matter. Powerful governments have always needed this kind of man: the senior administrator, the superior public official who (to reverse the entropy the Irish senator W.B. Yeats feared) makes the center hold and keeps things from falling apart. ...

    This formal and clever poet must find some such sense of the comic necessary, as he changes places each morning with that formal and intelligent commissioner of Social Security—since, as you’ve probably already guessed, they are one and the same person. Michael J. Astrue is the best poet ever to hold a truly major appointed position in the American government. And A.M. Juster is the best senior civil servant of whom American poetry can boast.

    The question, of course, is why this double life of a public persona? Why has this former head of a major biotech firm, a lawyer, and a public servant chosen to share the same shadow as this very private poet with the sensitivity of a W.H. Auden mixed with the scathing wit of a Jonathan Swift? An even more fascinating question is why Astrue has for so long insisted on keeping these two identities separate. Years ago, when the poet X.J. Kennedy asked him why he insisted on using a pseudonym, Astrue told him that the main reason was that he didn’t want to be known as a novelty act—which, in truth, is more a dodge than an answer. ...

    While interviewing and researching Michael J. Astrue, I have come to see him as an admirable and even kenotically selfless individual. But poring over his poems and translations, I find something even deeper. There is, undoubtedly, a fascinating and nuanced self that operates on the linguistic and sonic levels in the man’s best poems. Even within their formal edifices, Astrue reveals someone who—like Lord Byron or the late Bill Matthews, and (perhaps more to the point) Jonathan Swift—has learned to manifest his own too human vulnerability while at the same time protecting himself with his savage wit. Think of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in which the artist Parmigianino gestures with his hand in the painted convex surface, as if welcoming us, even as the figure in the mirror pulls away. ...

    It’s worth mentioning that Astrue, like a surprisingly large number of the old New Formalist crowd, is a serious Catholic, a man who sees his work at the Social Security Administration as nothing short of a vocation to do “both the right and the compassionate thing.” ...

    And make no mistake about it: Michael Astrue is a very private person. Even his poetry—clear as it is—offers as many unresolved questions as it provides us with answers. ...

    There’s a moral precision about him as a man and as a public servant; without being prissy or showy in his moralism, he sets himself to the Stoic task of seeing that the jobs at hand are those that will be done. When the center holds in the midst of all the mess and madness of politics, it holds because quiet men do quiet work of public purpose.

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  • May 15, 2010

    Social Security Seeking iPhone App

    From a contracting notice posted by Social Security:
    The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting a market survey to determine the availability and technical capability of qualified businesses with experience developing mobile applications for the iPhone and other mobile phone platforms. SSA is seeking contractor support with developing a mobile iPhone application that permits the public to access select periodic statistical records of SSA consistent with the Office of Management and Budget's direction for transparency and open government.

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  • May 14, 2010

    New Mental Listings Coming

    Social Security and other federal agencies must obtain the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, before publishing any proposal to amend its regulations. In the waning days of the Bush Administration, Social Security had obtained OMB approval for new Listings on mental disorders. The Listings are not the only way that people are approved for Social Security disability benefits but a very important one, especially for mental illness. The mental Listings changes approved during the Bush Administration were never published in the Federal Register. Now, a new version of the mental impairment Listings have been sent to OMB by Social Security. Probably, these are different than what the Bush White House approved but we will not know what they say until they appear in the Federal Register.

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  • I Hate To Post This, But ...

    The birthers, who claim that President Obama was born outside the U.S. , don't give up despite the existence of definitive proof that they are dead wrong. They are now claiming that there is some irregularity concerning the Social Security number assigned to Barack Obama. I have no idea what this would prove even if it were true. And did you hear that Google is trying to suppress this story?
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  • May 13, 2010

    From The NOSSCR Conference

    The order of events at the conferences of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) is long established. Thursday morning is the plenary session with the most important speakers, most of them from Social Security, followed by Nancy Shor, NOSSCR's Executive Director. This plenary session was huge. The attendance at this conference is the highest in NOSSCR history, about 1,130.

    Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue was scheduled to speak but backed out. In his stead was Many Ann Sloan, Social Security's Regional Counsel for the Atlanta Region, and Glenn Sklar, the head of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). There was virtually nothing that I heard from either of them that was noteworthy. Sloan said that her office had recently added 80 new attorneys. To put it mildly, Social Security has a lot of work for its attorneys! Sklar said that ODAR plans to hire 226 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) this year. Sklar was kind enough to take questions. One question concerned what is sometimes referred to as the "rocket docket." The term "rocket docket" is used in different ways at different offices. The "rocket docket" referred to by the questioner is a practice of scheduling unrepresented claimants for very brief hearings soon after their request for hearing on the assumption that most will not show up or will say they want more time to hire an attorney. The cases of those who do not show up can be dismissed fairly quickly, making the office's statistics look better. I was surprised to hear Sklar say he had not previously heard of this sort of rocket docket. It is fairly common.

    There were two speakers from Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). I will not bother trying to summarize what they had to say. I heard nothing new; it was mostly mind-numbing jargon that would give the average listener little idea of what is going on with OIDAP although, to be fair, it is difficult to summarize what OIDAP is up to even if you want to. I am not so sure these speakers wanted to help anyone understand what they are up to.

    Among other things, Nancy Shor mentioned the huge backlogs developing at Social Security's initial and reconsideration levels of review. She wondered what will happen when all those cases finally get to ODAR. I wonder whether there would have been much improvement in backlogs at the ODAR level but for the increased backlogs earlier in the process. This was not the intention but it has been the effect. Shor mentioned that the the reconsideration step would be returning to the so-called prototype states, where recon had been dispensed with. This has been known for some time now but there was an audible gasp in the room when Shor said this. The news must not have gotten around. Shor expressed considerable concern over the centralized printing already going on at ODAR and the proposed centralized scheduling of ALJ hearings that may be coming. I do not understand why Social Security thinks that centralizing everything is a good idea. My experience is that Social Security's disseminated work processes work far better than its centralized work processes.

    Nancy Shor is on OIDAP. She did not speak about OIDAP but turned the mike over to Tom Sutton, a NOSSCR member who has been following OIDAP's work closely, to speak to this, basically to give NOSSCR's institutional response to what is going on at OIDAP. Sutton made it clear that NOSSCR is extremely disturbed by the implications of what OIDAP is doing. Sutton referred to OIDAP as having a "radical approach." He indicated that NOSSCR's board of directors agrees with the recent report of the National Academy of Science that urged that Social Security not adopt its own independent occupational information system but work with the Department of Labor (DOL) to find ways to make changes in the DOL's O*NET occupational information system so that it could be used by Social Security. Sutton referred to Social Security's effort to create its own occupational information system as the "fox guarding the hen house." Sutton expressed a belief that there is major "mission creep" at OIDAP with a complete rewriting of all of Social Security's disability determination process in the making.

    While Sutton's words may have seemed harsh to the speakers from OIDAP, they seemed measured to me. As a group, NOSSCR is greatly alarmed by the long term implications of OIDAP. If Social Security continues on its current path with OIDAP, I see open warfare ahead.

    I do not know the intentions of whoever it was who recommended that Nancy Shor be on OIDAP but if the desire was to co-opt NOSSCR, it did not work. NOSSCR is greatly alarmed by OIDAP. Putting Nancy Shor on OIDAP and talking in jargon will not change that.

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  • May 12, 2010

    Staying In The Workforce

    From Science Daily:
    The decline in the generosity of Social Security benefits for workers who recently reached their 60s has been the leading cause of the trend toward delayed retirement of older men, a new national study suggests.

    Between the periods of 1988-1992 and 2001-2005, there was a 4.7 percentage point increase in the number of men aged 55 to 69 in the workforce.

    The new study found that between 25 and 50 percent of that increase can be explained by declining Social Security benefits, said David Blau, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University. ...

    The study identified two Social Security changes in particular that have led older men to work longer: the increase in the full retirement age beyond age 65, and the financial incentives offered to older workers to delay retirement even beyond the full retirement age.

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  • May 11, 2010

    OIG On EAA

    Social Security's recent relations with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most of its employees have been frosty, to say the least. One of the major flashpoints in this relationship has been the union-run Employees' Activity Association (EAA) at Social Security's central offices. At the request of Senator Charles Grassley Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently investigated, to some extent, this relationship. I will not try to summarize the report since I do not understand the issues. I have a feeling that there will be some comments on this matter, however.

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  • NADE Isues Newsletter

    The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), a voluntary group composed of personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims, has issued its Spring 2010 newsletter.

    NADE's response to the recent Federal Register item requesting comments on Social Security's drug abuse and alcoholism policies is in the newsletter. NADE seems satisfied with the current policies. They only want clarification although they do not seem to have much idea about how things could be clarified. NADE opposes considering tobacco use as a drug addiction.

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  • May 10, 2010

    Generic AP Story On Backlogs

    From the Associated Press:
    Nearly 2 million people are waiting to find out if they qualify for Social Security disability benefits. It will be a long wait for most, even if they eventually win their cases.

    The Social Security system is so overwhelmed by applications for disability benefits that many people are waiting more than two years for their first payment. In Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and other states, the wait can be even longer.

    Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue says the delays are unacceptable, particularly for people who have paid payroll taxes for years to support the system and now are unable to work because of debilitating medical problems. Astrue has had some success in reducing a case backlog that has plagued the system for years. But a spike in new applications, linked to the economic recession, threatens to swamp the system again.

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  • May 9, 2010

    Fee Payments Increase

    Here is an updated report on the fees paid to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants.

    Fee Payments

    Month/Year Volume Amount
    Jan-10
    32,227
    $111,440,046.23
    Feb-10
    29,914
    $105,708,101.59
    Mar-10
    34,983
    $122,874,426.87
    Apr-10
    44,740
    $153,478,589.32

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  • May 8, 2010

    Union Official On Radio

    Witold Skwierczynski, the leader of the union local that represents most Social Security employees, was interviewed by Federal News Radio yesterday. You can hear the interview online.

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  • May 7, 2010

    Most Popular Baby Names

    From Social Security, here are the most popular baby names for 2009:
    Boys: 1) Jacob Girls: 1) Isabella
    2) Ethan 2) Emma
    3) Michael 3) Olivia
    4) Alexander 4) Sophia
    5) William 5) Ava
    6) Joshua 6) Emily
    7) Daniel 7) Madison
    8) Jayden 8) Abigail
    9) Noah 9) Chloe
    10)Anthony 10)Mia

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  • Social Security Employees Recognized

    The Partnership for Public Service, a private nonprofit group, has announced the names of 32 finalists for Service to America Medals awarded to outstanding federal employees. Social Security employees Shane Kelley and Eva Ristow are finalists for the medal presented for social services. Here is some information on their achievements:

    Position: Director, Center for Automation (Kelley) and Project Manager (Ristow)

    Agency: Social Security Administration, Denver Region

    Location: Denver, Colorado

    Residence: Commerce City, Colorado (Kelley) and Westminster, Colorado (Ristow)

    Achievement: Improved the delivery of Social Security benefits to citizens living in impoverished and remote locations through an innovative two-way video service.

    The Social Security Administration (SSA) has found it difficult to serve Americans living in remote and poor regions of the country, particularly on Indian reservations in the West where disabled and elderly citizens often have failed to take advantage of benefits that they desperately need.

    Shane Kelley and Eva Ristow have helped bridge this gap, linking difficult-to-serve Indian communities in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah to Social Security claims officials hundreds of miles away through an Internet-based two-way video conferencing system called Video Service Delivery (VSD).

    “VSD’s greatest impact is its ability to bridge distances to help government reach the customer rather than expecting the customer to reach government,” said Kelley.

    This vast six-state geographic area is home to 29 Indian reservations, where life can be difficult. The two million acre Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, contains three of the poorest counties in the United States. Infant mortality is five times the national average, the adolescent suicide rate is four times the national average and unemployment hovers around 80 percent. Additionally, life expectancy is about 50 years, and 49 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line.

    The delivery of Social Security services to such poor, remote locations is a challenge. Although connected by telephone and periodic visits, Social Security representatives have not always been able to achieve the consistent “visual” communications essential in establishing an understanding of benefit programs. As a result, many applicants missed their scheduled interviews, leading to incomplete claims.

    Social Security beneficiaries in these areas can now go to designated local libraries, public health clinics or other facilities close to home and get service “on demand” via the two-way video connection. Thanks to this added accessibility, VSD has increased the number of benefit applications by nearly 80 percent among Native Americans at some of the reservations.

    “Some of these individuals have an average annual income of $3,000. Helping them receive disability or retirement benefits has had a huge impact,” said Jan Foushee, a senior executive program specialist with Social Security. “The money they receive can help support entire families and has an impact on the communities as well.”

    The program has grown from a handful of units to hook-ups in about 70 locations in the Western states. The agency has now begun implementation of the system in the nine other Social Security regions around the country, with about 180 VSD units having been deployed so far.

    Nancy Berryhill, the Social Security regional commissioner in Denver, said the concept was first tested in 2003, before Kelley came on board, by connecting the Minot Social Security Office in North Dakota to the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation.

    But she said he took over the slow moving project in 2007, handled key technical details, found suitable sites for installation, promoted it to regional commissioners around the country and made it a model that now has unlimited possibilities to improve service.

    “Without Shane’s leadership and vision, this would not have become a reality,” said Berryhill. “There was really no road map, but Shane is a problem solver. For him there are no problems, just opportunity.”

    One recent successful connection has linked Hawaii with its remote satellite office in American Samoa. Social Security also has linked VSD units in high-traffic offices in New York City to locations in upstate New York. The upstate claims representatives now assist the beneficiaries in the city through the video service.

    In addition, Social Security is planning to extend the video claims service, in cooperation with the State Department, to reach Americans living in Canada and possibly Europe, and is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on a project called “VA Connect” to assist disabled veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Besides receiving VA benefits, veterans can be connected via VSD to Social Security officers who can help them get the assistance they need. The first SSA/VA Connect claim came from a veteran undergoing treatment for stage four colon cancer and it was approved in just two days.

    Kelley led the VSD effort for three years until a recent promotion, and has since worked alongside his colleague, Ristow, the current VSD project manager.

    Kelley said he realized early on that they would need to prove to Social Security colleagues and the public that the equipment was secure, cost-effective and able to improve the delivery of services. He initiated a program in several Wyoming libraries, and the success of these efforts led to rapid expansion.

    “As soon as I saw how clear the video connections were, I knew VSD would greatly enhance the way SSA delivers service to the public,” he said

    Martha Lambie, Social Security deputy regional commissioner in Denver, said the project never would have materialized into anything substantial without Kelley. “He took a concept and made it a reality,” she said.

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  • May 6, 2010

    Poll

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  • May 5, 2010

    It Started With A Spider Bite

    From WSPA-TV in Greenville, SC:

    David Voss said a bite from a brown recluse spider in 2001 led to a series of health problems so severe he eventually became an amputee.

    "When they started amputating my toe, and then my next toe, and then my leg I'm done," Voss said.

    Voss said he can't work.

    "I can't do what I used to do," Voss said. "I couldn't drive my truck. I couldn't sell equipment like I was. I've been living in my truck for six months because I couldn't find a job."

    Voss said in March he got a spot at a home for homeless veterans in Greenville but he can only stay for four months and then he's back out on the street. He said he's applied several times for assistance through the Supplemental Security Income program with the Social Security Administration. The program pays benefits to the disabled who have limited income. But Voss said SSA kept turning him down saying his condition is not expected to remain severe enough for 12 months in a row to keep him from working.

    "How they figure it ain't gonna last more than 12 months," asked Voss. "I've been measuring my leg and it still ain't growed none and I ain't found two toes popped out either."

    Two days after 7 On Your Side asked the SSA about Voss's case he was approved. When we asked SSA spokesperson Patti Patterson if there was something specific they received recently that helped SSA to change it's mind about his case Patterson replied, "No. He filed his application on March 1st. We were able to make that decision on April 30th based on all the medical records that we had."

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  • Regulatory Proposal On Partially Favorable Prehearing Reviews

    There are many steps in the process by which a federal agency adopts new regulations. One crucial step is obtaining the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House. Social Security just requested OMB approval of the following:
    We propose to revise the procedures for how claimants who request hearings before administrative law judges (ALJs) may appeal their fully favorable revised determinations based on prehearing case reviews or fully favorable attorney advisor decisions. We also propose to notify claimants who receive partially favorable determinations based on prehearing case reviews that we will still hold the requested ALJ hearing unless all parties to the hearing tell us in writing that we should dismiss the hearing requests. We expect that these changes will lessen the confusion claimants may experience in these processes and free scarce administrative resources that we can better use to reduce the hearings level case backlog.

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  • May 4, 2010

    Social Security's Online Services Rate Highly

    A press release from Social Security:

    Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the agency’s online services continue to be the best in government and exceed the top private sector sites in customer satisfaction. In the latest results from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), Social Security’s online Retirement Estimator and benefit application remain in the top spots, each with a score of 90, and the Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Costs application placed third with a score of 87.

    “Online services are vital to good public service and I am pleased that Social Security continues to provide the best in both government and the private sector,” Commissioner Astrue said. “The Internet provides the public with the ability to conduct business at their convenience and at their own pace, without the need to take leave from work, travel to a field office, and wait to meet with an agency representative. It also reduces the time spent by our employees processing claims and frees them up to spend more time handling complex cases.”

    Social Security’s three top-rated online services also meet or exceed the private sector’s highest score, Netflix, with a score of 87. The ACSI notes that this shows “that government sites can satisfy visitors just as well as, or even better than, private-sector sites.”

    The ACSI is the only uniform, national, cross-industry measure of satisfaction with the quality of goods and services available in the U.S. According to ACSI, “Any website, whether in the private or public sector, that scores an average of 80 or higher can be considered superior in meeting site visitors’ needs and expectations.” Social Security’s Business Services Online, with a score of 82, also meets this superior threshold.

    To view all of Social Security’s online services, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices.

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  • You Really Ought To Study This And File Comments

    From today's Federal Register:
    We are requesting comments on the recommendations submitted to us by the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (Panel) in its report entitled ``Content Model and Classification Recommendations for the Social Security Administration Occupational Information System, September 2009.'' The complete Panel report (including appendices) is available online at: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/oidap/Documents/FinalReportRecommendations.pdf.

    DATES: To ensure that we receive your feedback in a timely manner for consideration as the project develops, please submit your comments no later than June 30, 2010. ...

    We strongly recommend that you submit your comments via the Internet. Please visit the Federal eRulemaking portal at http://www.regulations.gov. Use the Search function of the Web page to find docket number SSA-2010-0018.
    I keep telling everyone that this is of immense importance. Mostly, the response is a yawn. That scares me.

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  • The Sky Is Falling?

    Social Security's Chief Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recently sent out a memo to the agency's ALJs that included a link to a Congressional Research Service piece on ALJs. Apparently, some ALJs are concerned that this means that Social Security is considering replacing ALJs with some other type of adjudicators -- and yes, I have seen more evidence that a fair number of ALJs are concerned about this than a few entries on a webboard.

    You can read the piece and judge for yourself. It looks basic and harmless to me. Perhaps what this reveals more than anything is a lack of trust between Social Security and its ALJs.

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  • May 3, 2010

    Remand Policy

    From a recent Bulletin issued by Social Security's Chief Administrative Law Judge:
    Remands of service area realignment cases in which the hearing office servicing the claimant’s address has changed since the initial hearing will remain at the servicing hearing office and will not be transferred to the hearing office of the ALJ who heard the case. ...

    Remanded cases returning to the hearing office servicing the claimant’s current residence address which were heard in another hearing office as a result of a permanent case transfer, will be heard by an ALJ in the servicing hearing office.
    I was under the impression that this was always the policy. It is good to see it in writing, however.

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  • May 2, 2010

    NOSSCR Bad Luck For New Orleans Area?

    In the Fall of 2005 the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) was scheduled to have a national conference in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in late August of that year. The conference was abruptly shifted to Orlando. Once again, NOSSCR has a national conference set for New Orleans. It will begin on May 12. Another disaster is just starting for the New Orleans area as a massive oil spill is coming ashore, threatening to do enormous damage to Louisiana's fragile estuaries.

    Will New Orleans ever allow NOSSCR to return?

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  • May 1, 2010

    There's A Lot Of This

    From the Petaluma Press-Democrat:
    You'll have to forgive Morgan Hayes if she's a bit skeptical of the latest letter she received from the Social Security Administration saying she does not need to repay a $15,300 overpayment.

    Hayes, a Petaluma senior citizen, was threatened in March with having to repay that sum after a seven-month Social Security payment snafu.

    Late last week, she was notified that she isn't responsible for fixing the government's error.

    Hayes' saga began in September, when Hayes was credited with $13,733 and was told her monthly payment would increase by $260. Repeated letters said the lump sum was to rectify years of underpayments to her.

    After multiple assurances from Social Security that the money was hers to spend, Hayes used it to pay down debt and get a newer used car.

    But then in March, the government reversed itself and said the credit and monthly increase were mistakes and it wanted the money back, $15,329 in total. Worse, she was told she had 30 days to send in the full amount or her benefits would be completely cut off until it was repaid.
    Yes, there are ways to take care of this sort of thing. Thank goodness Ms. Hayes eventually got help. The problem is that most people have no idea what to do. Since these cases cannot be done on a contingent fee basis most people are unable to hire someone like me to help them.

    Update: The overpayment has now been waived.

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