Nov 9, 2010

Cardiovascular Disease And Compassionate Allowance Hearing

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today hosted at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the agency’s sixth public hearing on Compassionate Allowances. Commissioner Astrue joined Susan B. Shurin, Acting Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, and other Social Security officials in listening to testimony from some of the leading experts on cardiovascular disease and multiple organ transplants regarding possible methods of identifying and implementing Compassionate Allowances for both adults and children.

“Compassionate Allowances and the Quick Disability Determination process are making a real difference for disabled Americans by ensuring those with devastating disabilities receive their benefit decisions quickly and accurately,” Commissioner Astrue said. “This fiscal year, about 150,000 people will benefit from these fast-track disability processes. With this hearing, we continue to look at broader categories of conditions to determine if a subset or certain diagnosis might clearly meet our disability standards and qualify as a Compassionate Allowance.”

Social Security implemented Compassionate Allowances in October 2008 to expedite the processing of disability claims for applicants with medical conditions so severe that their conditions by definition meet Social Security's standards. There currently are 88 specific diseases and conditions that qualify as a Compassionate Allowance. To learn more and to view a web cast of today’s hearing, go to

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in America,” said Commissioner Astrue. “More than 95,000 people are currently waiting for an organ transplant and nearly 4,000 are added to the waiting list each month. Today’s hearing will help us move one step closer to ensuring quick and accurate disability decisions for those with the most severe conditions.”

Labor-Management Councils

President Obama ordered all federal agencies to create labor-management forums. Social Security is the last agency to adopt a labor-management forum plan. Below is a copy of what I am told is the plan adopted by Social Security. I do not have complete confirmation that the main union involved, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has signed off on this.

Click on each page twice to view full size.

Nov 8, 2010

Is Social Security Still Hiring Under FCIP?

In the wake of the decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) that the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) is inconsistent with veteran's preference statutes has Social Security sent any directions to its managers? Is it business as usual until the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) acts? Has OMB acted? Is FCIP hiring still going on? Are managers trying to complete FCIP hiring under the current rules before they are told to stop? I realize that the MSPB did not order an immediate halt in FCIP hiring but it is clear that any FCIP hire may bring about a complaint to MSPB and the complaint is likely to be sustained.


Andrew Biggs, writing on his blog, gives three reasons why liberals are not interested at the moment in addressing Social Security's long term financing issues. I think his third reason is the only one that really matters:
Time is on their side: If we knew the share of the Social Security deficit that must be filled with higher taxes, it would make sense to apply those tax increases immediately. Spreading a tax increase (or benefit cut) over as many people as possible lowers the necessary increase on each person. But delaying reform puts more people into the system, after which point their benefits are effectively sacrosanct, and tilts the political calculus toward tax increases and away from benefit cuts. It’s like the conservative “starve the beast” strategy in reverse.
Actually, though, the benefits are already sacrosanct. Right wingers just don't accept this well-established fact.

VA Watchdog Ceases Publication

I am sorry to report that the VA Watchdog is ceasing publication due to the ill health of Larry Scott, its founder and editor. This is a great shame. The VA Watchdog has done a great job. I wish someone could pick up where Scott has to leave off.

Nov 7, 2010

Federal Career Intern Decision

That decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board on the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) is available online. Some key excerpts:
We hold that FCIP is inconsistent with the Civil Service Rules that govern placement of positions in the excepted service under 5 U.S.C. § 3302(1) -- a law relating to veterans’ preference -- because it allows an agency to invoke an appointing authority reserved for “positions . . . for which it is not practicable to hold a competitive examination” after the agency holds a competitive examination that yields highly-qualified preference-eligible candidates.

We wish to emphasize what we do not hold. Amicus NTEU [National Treasury Employees Union] asserts ... that FCIP violates the merit system principles because it allows hiring without “fair and open competition.” ... The cases before us, however, arise under the VEOA [Veterans Employment Opportunity Act]; the sole issue is whether the appellants’ rights under a statute or regulation relating to veterans’ preference have been violated. ...

In this connection, we overrule the statement in Gingery v. Department of Defense, 105 M.S.P.R. 671, ¶ 9 (2007), rev’d on other grounds, 550 F.3d 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2008), that FCIP is “a valid exception to the competitive examination requirement” because it is “authorized by an Executive Order.” ...

The Board has recognized that in unusual cases its decisions may have such a far-reaching impact on the workings of the government that the normal timeline for compliance should be extended. ... This appears to be such a case. At the same time, untold numbers of veterans are potentially being shut out of job opportunities for which they would have preference, because the agencies are filling the positions under FCIP without public notice. ... Balancing the foregoing considerations, we conclude that OPM must comply with 5 U.S.C. § 3302(1) within 120 days of the date of this decision instead of the customary 30 days.
This will have a massive effect upon future hiring at Social Security and other agencies. FCIP was probably intended to be a small part of federal hiring but has come to be a major way in which federal employees are hired. Of course, because of the elections results, Social Security may not be doing much hiring over at least the next two years.

Updated Fee Payment Numbers

Social Security has posted these updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and certain others who represent Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Nov 6, 2010

MSPB Rules Against Federal Career Intern Program

From a press release issued by the American Federation of Government Employees:
The American Federation of Government Employees today applauded the Merit Systems Protection Board’s ruling that the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) violates competitive hiring and veterans preference rules under Title 5. AFGE had filed an amicus brief in the case urging the board to strike down the FCIP.

In the Nov. 2 decision, MSPB ruled that the FCIP is inconsistent with Civil Service Rules that govern placement of positions in the excepted service because it does not require agencies to justify placing positions in the excepted service as required by statute. Under Title 5, excepted service authority should be granted only for “positions … for which it is not practicable to hold a competitive examination.” The board therefore ordered the Office of Personnel Management to comply with Title 5.
Social Security has made extensive use of FCIP. This will be a major change in hiring for Social Security if this holds up.


From an update to Social Security's HALLEX Manual:
HALLEX Sections I-2-5-42 Obtaining Medical Expert Opinion Through Interrogatories and I-2-5-57 Obtaining Vocational Expert Opinion Through Interrogatories are amended to reflect that administrative law judges (ALJ), attorney adjudicators, and hearing office (HO) staff (with the authority to issue interrogatories in cases not yet assigned to an ALJ under the direction of the Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ)) need not proffer proposed pre and posthearing medical expert (ME) and vocational expert (VE) interrogatories to claimants or representatives prior to submission to the ME or VE. After the completed interrogatories are received, they must continue to be proffered to claimants and representatives.
This is the first update for HALLEX since August 7, 2009.

I'm Glad Republicans Aren't Getting Carried Away

From the Washington Post:
To make good on their campaign pledge to reduce the size of government, Republicans say they are planning a series of quick moves to slash spending soon after they take control of the House in January. Among the likely options: a massive rescissions package that aides said would slice 20 percent from most domestic agency budgets and enact $160 billion in additional cuts endorsed by visitors to Cantor's "YouCut" Web site. ...

Conservatives, meanwhile, dismissed the proposal as too puny to satisfy a public fed up with three years of bailouts, deficit-spending and other far-reaching government programs.
Could someone explain to me how they get the Senate to pass this and either get the President to sign it or get both houses of Congress to override his veto?

Nov 5, 2010

Senate Hearing In Ohio

From the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs:
FIELD HEARING - Improving Social Security Disability Insurance Claim Processing in Ohio

Monday, November 15, 2010
09:00 AM - 10:30 AM
Main Place Building, 3rd Floor Conference Room, 121 S. Main, Akron, Ohio 44308


Panel 1

  • The Honorable Michael Astrue
    Social Security Administration
  • The Honorable Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr.
    Inspector General
    Social Security Administration
Panel 2
  • Mr. Richard Warsinskey
    Cleveland Downtown District Office Manager and Past President
    National Council of Social Security Management Associations
  • Mr. Randy Frye
    Association of Administrative Law Judges
The only Subcommittee member from Ohio is the ranking minority member, George Voinovich.

From The Great State Of Texas

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is proposing that states be allowed to opt out of Social Security for all the citizens of their state. He likens Social Security to the federal government dictating "the size of tube socks that you’re gonna wear down in Texas."

Update: Perry maintains that some public employees in Texas opted out of Social Security years ago and are doing just fine. Actually, maybe not. The Texas Attorney General thinks there are real problems.

Nov 4, 2010

AARP On Social Security's Looming Continuing Resolution Problem

A press release from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP):
Washington, DC – AARP, along with dozens of organizations representing stakeholders of Social Security, sent a letter to House and Senate leadership today requesting that Congress fund the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the recommended level of $12.379 billion for FY 2011. This funding level was requested by the President and recommended by key Appropriations committees and subcommittees. The organizations also called for funding SSA at a higher level under the possible scenario of an extended Continuing Resolution in order to address the significant backlogs in disability claims, appeals and hearings, along with increased assistance needed for SSA’s field offices

Key excerpts of the letter are below:

“As organizations representing stakeholders of the Social Security Administration (SSA), we respectfully request that as you work to finalize FY 2011 appropriations levels you retain the full President’s Budget Request of $12.379 billion for SSA…

“This level of funding is absolutely critical for SSA to address the increase in requests for assistance from the American public due in large part to the economic downturn. SSA teleservice centers, hearing offices, Disability Determination Services (DDSs), and the nearly 1,300 field offices are in critical need of adequate resources to address their growing workloads.

“The greatest concern for SSA remains the rising number of new claims and appeals coming into the agency, especially disability claims… In the 25-month period ending in October 2010, the number of claims pending a disability medical decision rose from 556,670 to 851,812, an increase of 53 percent.

“SSA was making steady progress in addressing the enormous backlog at the hearings level until recently…Unfortunately, for the last four months the number of hearings pending has increased and as of the end of October is at 718,196. The reason for the sharp increase is the number of new hearings being filed, due in large part to our distressed economy.

“… Processing time for a hearing has been reduced from 491 days for all of FY 2009 to 377 days in the month of October 2010. Unfortunately the number of claims and hearings pending is still not acceptable to the thousands of Americans who depend on Social Security or Supplemental Security Income for their basic income, meeting health care costs, and support of their families. Adequate funding must be made available to continue to reduce the number of cases pending and the time it requires to process these cases.

“SSA field offices continue to see a record number of visitors. In FY 2010, 45.4 million customers requested assistance from the field offices. The field offices are also responsible for processing an additional 1.2 million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) redeterminations in FY 2011 as compared to FY 2008, an increase of 100 percent.

Encrypted Files

Social Security provides CD disks to attorneys of their client files. The agency plans to start encrypting these CDs in the near future. Apple computers will be unable to decrypt these CDs. I have heard a report that Social Security plans to deal with this problem by giving attorneys who use Apple computers priority for signing up to access their clients' files online. I do not yet have details on how this will work. At best, I do not think this is going to fully solve the problem. Apparently, even some Windows users will have problems decrypting the files, depending upon the exact version of Windows they are using. Also, an attorney who uses an Apple computer but who does only occasional business with Social Security is likely to object to having to learn to navigate Social Security's online access process. Of course, it may not be a completely bad idea to discourage dabblers but Social Security needs a better solution for the problem.

The Old Obsession

Peter Orszag, who was President Obama's Director of the Office of Management and Budget for about a year and a half, thinks this is a wonderful time to take on Social Security "reform." He notes that private accounts are off the table "for now" and so are tax increases so why would Democrats have a problem tackling Social Security "reform"? All they would have to do is cut benefits. Who could be against that?

The oddest thing about this is that Orszag acknowledges that compared to Medicare the long term funding problems at Social Security are minor. Why is it that Orszag and many others are obsessed with Social Security "reform" when they should be obsessed with health care reform?

Update: Orszag's piece gets a bad review from Nancy Altman. Writing on the Huffington Post, she calls it "fear-mongering" and "tin-eared."

A further update: Richard Eskow also has a bone to pick with Orszag but respectfully.

Sulu To Make Ads For Social Security

By the way, Takei, a Japanese American, was interned as a child during World War II. He ran for office as a Democrat in 1972. More recently, he was a regular on the Howard Stern radio program. He has been active in the gay rights movement.

Nov 3, 2010

Where Do The Election Results Leave Social Security?

The election results do not change the prospects for major Social Security legislation. There is virtually no chance of that happening in the next two years. We will see if Republicans in the House of Representatives want to do something less major. Nothing comes to mind. Republicans keep talking about Social Security going broke but are seldom interested in more mundane Social Security matters.

The more likely effect of the election is to give Social Security a real appropriations headache. House Republicans have promised to roll back appropriations to the 2008 levels. Social Security would be devastated by that. Thousands of employees would be furloughed. It would be hard to keep the doors open. Fortunately, rolling back appropriations to 2008 levels might pass the House of Representatives but could not possibly pass the Senate much less be signed by the President.

Some Republicans have declared that they are willing to shut down the government by refusing to act on appropriations if they do not get their way on appropriations. That did not work so well for Republicans when they tried it in 1995. I would be surprised if they try it again. However, Republicans have also promised to block appropriations for implementation of health care reform. Social Security's appropriation is part of the Labor-HHS appropriation bill so it could be caught up in this fight. Republicans may be somewhat less unlikely to shut down some agencies in an attempt to make it impossible to implement health care reform. A shutdown even for a few days would be awful.

If there is no governmental shutdown there are two possibilities. Either an appropriations bill that includes Social Security will be passed that the President will sign or Social Security will be on a continuing funding resolution for the entire fiscal year (FY), perhaps for two entire FYs. Under a continuing resolution (CR) the agency would continue to operate but would be limited to fiscal year 2010 budget levels.

A CR is not that bad for most agencies. Appropriations have gone up substantially since FY 2008. There is little or no inflation. Most agencies can get by fairly well on their FY 2010 appropriation. Social Security is not most agencies. Social Security's workloads are going up substantially, primarily due to the aging of the baby boom population. Social Security needs and deserves more money to deal with increased workloads.

At best, there will be a prolonged struggle over FY 2011 appropriations, leaving Social Security operating on a CR for many months into the future. There is a good chance that Social Security will be operating on a CR for two years. This may cause major problems at Social Security. We will see if Republicans are indifferent to these problems.

Pomeroy Loses

Earl Pomeroy, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, has lost his race for re-election to the House of Representatives.

Better But Not Good Enough

From Customer Waiting Times in the Social Security Administration's Field Offices, a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
... [W]e believe SSA [Social Security Administration] is focused on providing timely service to its customers—and, the majority of customers we interviewed agreed that SSA was successful in this goal. However, SSA faces many current and future challenges in maintaining and improving this level of service.

For example, a significant number of customers still waited more than 1 hour for service. Additionally, many others left SSA field offices before receiving service. Specifically, during the period March 1, 2009 through April 30, 2010 (the last 14 months of our audit period), about 3.1 million visitors waited more than 1 hour for service, and of those visitors, over 330,000 waited more than 2 hours. Further, in FY 2009, about 3.3 million visitors left a field office without receiving service. ...

To SSA’s credit, wait times improved during our audit period. During the first 14 months of our 21-month audit period, 7.5 percent of visitors waited more than 1 hour for service. In comparison, during the last 14 months of the audit period, the percentage of customers who waited more than 1 hour decreased to 6.1 percent. This improvement occurred despite an increase of over 1 million visitors. Additionally, the average visitor wait time for customers without appointments decreased from 21.8 minutes in FY 2009 to 20.1 minutes during the first 7 months of FY 2010.

Nov 2, 2010

That's A Big Mistake

From Bloomberg Businessweek:
The Social Security Administration asked its inspector general to investigate how a $32.3 billion mistake skewed its statistics on 2009 wages in the U.S.

Two people were found to have filed multiple W-2 forms that made them into multibillionaires, an agency official said yesterday. Those reports threw statistical wage tables out of whack and, in figures released Oct. 15, made it appear that top U.S. earners had seen their pay quintuple in 2009 to an average of $519 million.

The agency yesterday released corrected tables that showed the average incomes of the top earners, in fact, declined 7.7 percent to $84 million each.

Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter provided few details about the W-2 forms and declined to answer questions about how they were filed, how many were filed by the same two people, or if a hoax was suspected. “We call it erroneous, you call it fictitious. It’s the same thing,” Lassiter said. “There were some invalid, I guess is the best way to put it, W- 2s.”

To make it clear, this was a mistake in a statistical table. This would have had no effect upon anyone's Social Security benefits. I cannot guess why anyone would do this intentionally.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (emphasis in original):
Three years ago, the Social Security Administration’s Atlanta offices had the nation’s worst backlog of pending disability cases. Some very sick people, who initially had been turned down for Social Security benefits and were awaiting appeals, were losing their homes, or even dying, before getting a cent. ...

But these days, the average wait time to get an appeal hearing has been cut by more than half. The Social Security Administration has hired more staff; opened its third hearing office in the Atlanta area, in Covington; and overhauled its operations here and around the country. ...

Social Security’s downtown Atlanta office now takes 366 days on average to resolve a claim, down from 900 days — almost 2 1/2 years — in 2007, when it often had the worst turnaround time in the nation. It’s now in the middle of the pack among Social Security’s hearing offices. ...

But such numbers only count the time people spend waiting for a hearing, and don’t count several months that most cases spend in the initial phases. ...

In Georgia, the average time at the initial stages jumped from about 86 days in 2007 to 141 days this year — now a month longer than the national average. The Social Security Administration is shifting cases to other states to catch up.

Nov 1, 2010

Report On Representative Payees

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a report on representative payees at Social Security. Here are the recommendations:
  • SSA [Social Security Administration] should expand its recent efforts to identify cases with the greatest risk of misuse by making greater use of available data, in order to target selection and monitoring activities in the most efficient way.
  • SSA should establish criteria for data-driven selection and monitoring of representative payees. The agency is legally required to obtain from representative payees an annual accounting for benefit payments. It should develop a data-driven approach to obtain those accountings in a way that is tailored to different risk groups.
  • SSA should increase its efforts to avoid selecting as payees people or organization that have interests which conflict with the best interests of the vulnerable beneficiaries whom they would be serving.
  • SSA should implement an annual quality review sample of its payee activities, including capability determinations, payee selections, and misuse determinations.
  • SSA’s Inspector General should annually review a sample of site visits to organizational payees to ensure that those visits are effective in preventing misuse and ensuring compliance with SSA policies.
  • SSA’s Inspector General should examine a sample of beneficiaries with fee-for-service payees to see how the payee’s fee impacts meeting the beneficiaries’ food, shelter, and personal needs.
  • SSA should take steps to improve coordination and establish automated data exchanges with other agencies that also serve SSA’s beneficiaries. There are numerous agencies that use payees or other fiduciaries or that provide protective services. The Veterans Administration, state courts, state Adult Protective Service agencies, Protection and Advocacy agencies for people with disabilities, and state foster care agencies all serve populations that include SSA beneficiaries. Improved coordination and data exchanges can better protect the people that each agency serves.

India To Press For Social Security Treaty

From the Hindustan Times:
India will press with the US during President Barack Obama's visit here next week for a social security pact aimed at providing relief from double taxation to over one lakh [100,000] Indians working there who pay nearly $ one billion annually as social security tax. ...

If the pact comes through, then Indian professionals working in the US on short term contract up to five years will not require to make any social security contribution provided they continue to make the payment in India.

The US has not been forthcoming in signing such a pact with India as US gets over $ one billion as social security tax from the Indians working. However, top Indian IT companies including Infosys and TCS have been pushing for such a pact with the US.

"Compared to Indians working in the US, the number of American professionals working here is very less. So US feels the pact will only benefit India but we have argued that as nuclear commerce with US expands, lot many US professionals will require to work here and they will also be benefited from the pact," the official said. ...

"There are indications that formal negotiations will begin following Obama's visit," said the official. Obama will be in New Delhi on November 7 and 8 during which he will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders.

Oct 31, 2010

New Hearing Offices In Michigan

From the Central Michigan Morning Sun:
Michigan residents have been waiting two or even three years to have their disability cases heard before the Social Security Administration.

New Social Security hearing offices in Mt. Pleasant and in Livonia are intended as ways to alleviate those long waits.

The Mt. Pleasant office opened Oct. 19; Livonia's opened in August. ...

"We already have reduced the average time it takes to process hearings in Michigan from 693 days in fiscal year 2008 to 533 days this year."[said Carmen Moreno, Regional Communications Director for Social Security] ...

A new office in Marquette is planned next year.

Oct 30, 2010

Happy 70th Birthday Appeals Council

A belated Happy 70th Birthday to Social Security's Appeals Council, which was established in January 1940!

Oct 29, 2010

State Government Furloughs And Social Security

Social Security has posted an impressive website giving information about the effects of state government employee furloughs on Social Security disability claim adjudication. Social Security is dependent upon state government employees to make initial and reconsideration determinations upon disability claims. Many states have furloughed these employees even though all costs associated with them are paid for by Social Security. This website brings home just how widespread the problem is, how long it has been going on and how much it is costing.

I am curious. Have these furloughs been an issue in gubernatorial races around the country, particularly in California?

Oct 28, 2010

A View Of The Future

From the likely chairman of the Ways and Means Committee if the Republicans control the House of Representatives after the election:
I support voluntary personal accounts for younger workers that would allow them to build a nest egg for retirement that they would own and control, and could pass on to their families. This will permanently strengthen Social Security, without changing benefits for those now in or near retirement, and without raising payroll taxes on workers. Inheritance rights in personal accounts would especially help widows who depend on Social Security and eliminate the need for cumbersome regulations that too often deny individuals from receiving their benefits in a timely fashion.
Note that he is only talking about voluntary private accounts. Of greater importance, he is dead set against increasing any tax and quite open to cutting future benefits, presumably using the presumably using the voluntary accounts as a cover.

Oct 27, 2010

ACUS Re-Established

The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) was established by statute in 1964 as a federal advisory committee to promote better administration of federal agencies. After Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, ACUS was defunded. Although the authority for ACUS remained on the books, ACUS received no appropriation and ceased to operate. ACUS finally received renewed funding in this fiscal year and resumed operations in March. Michael Astrue, as Commissioner of Social Security, is a member of ACUS.

I do not recall any ACUS report on Social Security that had any useful effect. It was and is now composed primarily of law school professors and attorneys at large Washington, D.C. law firm, none of whom have any particular knowledge or experience with Social Security. This is unfortunate since the Social Security Administration simply does more administrative law than all other federal agencies combined. Nevertheless, it is good to see ACUS back in operation. I hope that any studies they do of Social Security are done after consultation with people who do have Social Security experience.

I never understood what the Republicans had against ACUS other than their desire to make government so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Oct 26, 2010

Bob Bynum

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 12:54 PM
To: Undisclosed recipients

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: Robert (Bob) Bynum

I am sad to report the passing of Bob Bynum on October 16, 2010, at the age of 89. Bob began his 32-year career in 1948 as a Field Assistant in Montgomery, Alabama and retired in 1980 as the Deputy Commissioner for Programs. Bob also served as the first District Manager in Selma, Alabama, the Associate Commissioner for Program Operations, and the Regional Commissioner for Atlanta. After retirement, Bob continued to serve through volunteer work.

To learn more about his legacy, see the transcript of a 1996 interview by visiting An obituary is available at

Michael J. Astrue

Jackson Teleservice Center

From a press release:
Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today joined Congressman John Tanner and local officials at a groundbreaking ceremony for the agency’s new teleservice center (TSC) in Jackson, Tennessee. The Jackson TSC will be the first new call center opened by Social Security in more than a decade. When completed, it will create almost 200 new jobs for residents in the Jackson area. ...

The Jackson call center ... is expected to open by late 2011.

Little Rock Punitive Damages A First

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is saying that the punitive damages awarded in arbitration to a Social Security employee in Little Rock is a first for the agency. $100,000 in punitive damages were awarded for a wrongful termination. The $100,000 in punitive damages were in addition to $100,000 in compensatory damages.

No COLA On Anything

Social Security made the official announcement in the Federal Register today that there will be no cost of living adjustment (COLA) on anything this year. Contrary to an earlier rumor, there will be no adjustment in the "bend points" used in benefit computation.

Mob Scene In Port St. Lucie

From "TC Palm", one of the many newspapers that goes out of its way to keep its true name off its internet edition:
The grand opening Monday of the new Social Security Administration building at 6810 S. U.S. 1 resembled a “mob scene” at the shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving, as one resident described.

People lined up outside the building at 8 a.m., but the doors didn’t open until 10 a.m.

“It was like Black Friday at Best Buy,” said Port St. Lucie resident Peggie Nattutat. “When the door started to open, people came down on it like it was the flood.”

Daniel Borello, Social Security Administration district manager, said the administration moved into the new 14,000-square-foot building Friday and encountered a few glitches Monday, but now everything is OK.

Social Security Employees To Get Extra Day Off At Thanksgiving

From Government Executive:
Social Security Administration employees this year will receive an extra day off to celebrate Thanksgiving, according to a report from Federal News Radio's Mike Causey.

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told nonemergency employees they do not have to report to work on Nov. 26, the Friday after Thanksgiving. Thursday is a federal holiday. Friday won't be considered a holiday for pay and leave purposes, but workers will receive their normal pay, according to Astrue.

According to Causey's report, Astrue said SSA employees have "faced unprecedented workloads and unprecedented hostility from an increasingly stressed public. While many government agencies understandably have moved backward in this climate, you have moved forward."

It's not clear yet whether other agencies and departments will follow SSA's example.
The day after Thanksgiving AND Columbus Day AND President's Day?

Oct 25, 2010

Social Security Loses A Big One In Little Rock

Social Security just suffered a big arbitration loss in Little Rock, Arkansas. (I uploaded this to Yousendit. It can only be downloaded 100 times.) The American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents most Social Security employees, had requested the arbitration over the firing of a union member. The employee was alleged to have engaged in misconduct in approving the use of Social Security's Critical Payment System for a $57,354 fraudulent payment made to another Social Security employee. The actions of the employee involved in this arbitration in approving the payment were only alleged to have been negligent. The employee involved in this arbitration was not alleged to have profited from her mistake. Another employee was guilty of fraudulent conduct and did profit from their fraud. That employee faced criminal charges.

Inconsistency in Social Security's treatment of its employees involved in this matter was a major issue raised by the union. One huge problem for Social Security was that the agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) had investigated what had happened in Little Rock but the agency refused to disclose the entire OIG file, leading the arbitrator to presume that the agency was hiding exculpatory information.

The end result in this arbitration was that the employee was ordered restored to her job and was given $100,000 in compensatory damages and another $100,000 in punitive damages. I am not familiar with this sort of thing. Does it get worse than this for an agency?

Oct 24, 2010

Social Security Helps Bring Fugitive To Justice

From the Contra Costa Times:
Pacifica police Capt. Fernando Realyvasquez got a letter in 2007 he had waited 14 years to receive.

It was from the Social Security Administration and said the agency had located a man named Dedy Idris, who was wanted for allegedly molesting several young girls in Pacifica.

Today, nearly three years after that envelope landed on Realyvasquez's desk, Idris, 65, is slated to be sentenced in San Mateo County Superior Court on 10 counts of child molestation. ...

Idris had applied for benefits, and a routine check had turned up the 14-year-old arrest warrant.

Oct 22, 2010

Threat To Florida Social Security Office

From WEAR-TV in Pensacola, FL:
A suspicious package at a central Florida Social Security office turned out to be a box with two kittens.

Authorities say the box was found early Friday on the front steps of the building. A bomb squad examined the box and found the kittens. One of them ran away and hasn't been found. The other will be taken to an animal shelter.
That kitten certainly looks vicious to me!

Former Social Security ALJ Kept Her Silence About Clarence Thomas

From the Washington Post:
For nearly two decades, Lillian McEwen has been silent -- a part of history, yet absent from it.

When Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his explosive 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Thomas vehemently denied the allegations and his handlers cited his steady relationship with another woman in an effort to deflect Hill's allegations.

Lillian McEwen was that woman.

At the time, she was on good terms with Thomas. The former assistant U.S. attorney and Senate Judiciary Committee counsel had dated him for years, even attending a March 1985 White House state dinner as his guest ...

Now, she says that Thomas often said inappropriate things about women he met at work -- and that she could have added her voice to the others, but didn't.

Over the years, reporters and biographers approached her eager to know more about Thomas from women who knew him well. But McEwen remained mum. She said she saw "nothing good" coming out of talking to reporters about Thomas, whom she said she still occasionally met. ...

Today, McEwen is 65 and retired from a successful career as a prosecutor, law professor and administrative law judge for federal agencies.
McEwen apparently began her career as an ALJ at Social Security not long after the Thomas confirmation hearing. She later moved on to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Social Security's Real Estate Plans For Baltimore

From the Maryland Gazette:
The JBG Cos. of Chevy Chase won the bid to develop a 538,000-square-foot Social Security Administration campus opposite the new Reisterstown Metro station to replace offices in downtown Baltimore, city officials announced Tuesday.

The $150 million complex will transform the northwest corner of the city, an area of low-slung retail and residential properties that Maryland and Baltimore officials have targeted for transit-oriented development. JBG will design and build two office buildings, five and seven stories tall, with a parking garage and day care center.

Construction of the office building, which includes 1,076 parking spaces, is to start next year and be completed in 2014. ...

The new center, 6100 Wabash Ave., will replace the existing Social Security Metro West center. ...

The federal agency has had a long and tortured relationship with the city since it opened its headquarters near Baltimore's waterfront in 1936. It served as a path to middle-class security for thousands of residents, including many blacks who otherwise were shut out of most jobs in the segregated city.

But Social Security's biggest expansion and economic impact came in 1960 when it moved its headquarters to Woodlawn in Baltimore County, spurring an explosion of growth north of the city. The agency eventually opened a new city office complex at 300 N. Greene St. on Baltimore's downtown west side in 1980, but employment there has steadily dwindled.

Problems With Federal Workers Compensation Offsets

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently looked at a sample of 50 people who were receiving both Social Security disability benefits and federal workers compensation benefits. Of that group, 32 had overpayments because their federal workers compensation benefits had not been considered in computing their Social Security disability benefits. Additionally, OIG looked at another 50 who were receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and federal workers compensation and found that 21 of them were being overpaid.

Before you assign the blame to Social Security, let me tell you that the federal Office of Workers Compensation Programs (OWCP) has a longstanding reputation for being incredibly incompetent. There are many attorneys who have handled one federal workers compensation case and decided that they never wanted to mess with OWCP ever again. At the moment, I am not sure that there is any attorney in the state of North Carolina who regularly takes on federal workers compensation cases. Around here, even the federal employee unions do not know who to refer these cases to. OWCP is the biggest mess of any agency, federal or state, that I have ever dealt with. Social Security has real problems with workers compensation offsets in general but difficulty in getting information from OWCP almost certainly exacerbates the problem for claimants receiving federal workers compensation benefits.

Oct 21, 2010

Disability Claims Spike In Georgia And Tennessee

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Judy Duncan had worked in the same place for more than 40 years.

Over that time, her knees began to give out and, when she was laid off three years ago, she already was medically disabled, she said. ...

At 63, the East Ridge resident was able to get by in her job as an insurance company office clerk because she knew the job like the back of her hand and her employer accommodated her limitations, she said.

But when she found herself unemployed at the start of a worldwide economic crisis, her physical problems made it impossible to get back into the work force. ...

Duncan, with the help of her attorney, was approved for disability compensation seven months after losing her job.

There are thousands of other Americans just like Duncan, and they are fueling a large spike in applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

Nationally, applications were up 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. In Georgia and Tennessee, applications are up more than 25 percent in the same time frame, Social Security Administration numbers show.

Claims have risen so much, Georgia requested another 100 federally funded staffers to sort and handle the paperwork. Starting in mid-November, 35 of those employees will staff a new Claims Adjudication Office in Dalton, Ga. ...

Disability claims have been on the rise for years because of aging baby boomers whose ailments make work too difficult. But the latest spike, seen over the last three years, is fueled by both boomers and the economy, officials say.

A View Of The Future?

From the Sun Journal of Maine:
Thousands of people in the River Valley area, and Oxford and Franklin counties are expected to visit the Rumford Public Library soon for their Social Security needs rather than drive to Auburn.

Late Wednesday morning, representatives from the U.S. Social Security Administration, and Maine offices joined congressional, state and local officials in touting the administration's new real-time video service program.

The program, which allows people to file a claim or complete Social Security business face-to-face via a two-way video monitor with a representative about 50 miles away in Auburn, is the first of its kind to debut in New England, Jennifer M. Bowie, Social Security district manager in Portland, said.
For the record, I have no problem with this for sparsely populated areas. I am afraid that there are some who see this as a way of centralizing service delivery for Social Security. My experience is that Social Security's field operations are vastly more successful than its centralized operations such as the payment centers and the teleservice centers. There have always been those in Social Security management who are mistrustful of field operations and desire greater centralization. I do not understand their thinking.

Republican Plan Would Cut Social Security Dramatically

From a press release issued by the House Ways and Means Committee:
Ways and Means Social Security Chairman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) today released the results of a study from the Chief Actuary of Social Security analyzing several proposals, including those advanced by Republican Congressional leaders, as ways to reduce the long-term cost of Social Security. The analysis reveals that, contrary to the assertions by their proponents, these proposals would have a profoundly negative impact on the retirement security of middle-class seniors in addition to high-income retirees. ...

The Office of the Chief Actuary analyzed several proposals - including those by Budget Committee Ranking Member, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) - that claim to make "modest" changes affecting higher-income seniors in order to "save" Social Security.

"The new analysis reveals that these proposals result in benefits cuts ranging from ten percent to as high as 50 percent,” continued Pomeroy.
Update: The Washington Post has a story on this actuarial report which gives a response from one Republican:

Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said [Social Security's chief actuary, Stephen] Goss did not analyze the full effect of Ryan's plan to balance the federal budget and ignored Ryan's proposal to guarantee a higher minimum benefit to low-income retirees. More to the point, Sweeney said, failing to overhaul Social Security - which is already paying out more than it collects from payroll taxes - will cause more immediate harm.

"According to the Social Security Administration, Congressman Pomeroy's do-nothing plan will impose painful, across-the-board benefit cuts on current seniors and those nearing retirement," Sweeney said. "It is deeply irresponsible for elected leaders to stand idle with icy indifference as the social safety net collapses."

I expect that Republicans will attempt to harass Stephen Goss if they gain control of either house of Congress after the election. They do not like hearing just before an election that their plans for Social Security have serious problems. Of course, I am not sure how they can harass Goss since he is just telling the truth.

Oct 20, 2010

Social Security Warns Of Scam

Watch out for callers who try to get your personal information, Social Security warns.

The latest telephone scam appears to be targeted at the Latino community. In this scam, the caller tells beneficiaries that they will be receiving additional payments from Social Security. All they need to do is verify their bank account information and Social Security Number in order to receive these funds. The caller also told beneficiaries that they would not receive the money unless they provided the requested information by a specified date.
Click here to find out more!

As a general rule, Social Security will not call you for your personal information such as your Social Security Number or banking information.

"If something about a call doesn't feel right, it probably isn't legitimate," Social Security Regional Communications Director Leslie Walker warned.

Financial Literacy Plan Runs Into Obstacles And Opposition

From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG), responding to a request from House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy (footnotes omitted):
In a May 20, 2010 letter, you requested that we conduct an audit of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Financial Literacy Initiative. Specifically, you requested that we determine (1) why SSA considered its Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC) necessary; (2) whether SSA coordinated with other agencies or the Office of Management and Budget to ensure research and development efforts were not duplicative; and (3) what SSA’s expert panel found when reviewing the FLRC grant proposals. ...

In April 2009, SSA published a Request for Applications (RFA) soliciting research proposals for a 5-year cooperative agreement for which SSA would award grants. ...

In the first stage of the review process, SSA deemed all 10 applications received to be responsive to the RFA criteria.

The second stage called for an expert panel to conduct a technical review and score applications. SSA selected a 12-member expert panel to provide seasoned and respected input. The panel was highly diverse with respect to expertise, organizational representation and outlook, and personal demographics. The panel included Federal executives, experts from the private sector, and academia. ...

After the official review and scoring was complete, some panel members discussed the non-scoring feedback they provided to SSA. Because many had concerns about the proposals, 8 of the 12 expert panelists signed and submitted a letter to SSA contracting personnel. The letter stated that panel members did not believe SSA should fund any of the submitted proposals because they did not address the needs discussed in the RFA. The letter also stated that SSA should cancel the RFA and develop a new one if it wished to focus on improving financial management and decision-making among lower- and middle-income Americans. ...

Results of Review ...

When developing the RFA, requesting resources for the initiative, and ultimately funding the proposed activities of the research centers, SSA coordinated with OMB, other Federal agencies, academia, and leading experts in the field of financial literacy. Although avoiding duplication with other research and development activities may not have been SSA’s primary goal, the Agency was proactive in briefing numerous stakeholders regarding its plans. ...

In our interviews with 11 of the 12 expert panel members, almost all echoed the concerns outlined in the letter they sent to SSA contracting personnel after reviewing and scoring the FLRC grant applications. In fact, although only 8 of the 12 panel members signed the letter, 10 of the 11 we interviewed generally agreed with the concerns expressed. ...

Because SSA officials did not believe Federal grant-making rules allowed them to discuss the concerns expressed in the letter with the expert panel members, SSA did not directly respond to the panel’s letter. ...

In response to congressional questions about duplication of other initiatives, the Commissioner of Social Security responded, “Now that I am aware of these concerns, I have directed staff to closely monitor the progress of the FLRC . . . I will thoroughly review this situation and determine if further action is necessary.” ...

In addition to the concerns expressed in their letter, some panelists told us they had other concerns with the FLRC review process. For example, most of the panelists told us there was a lack of communication with SSA during and/or after the FLRC review. One panelist told us that SSA representatives who were present during the full panel meeting did not want to address panelists’ concerns. In fact, one panelist told us if SSA decisionmakers had addressed their concerns during the panel meeting, they probably would not have written the letter. ...

One panel member stated that, to an extent, the panel’s criticism of the proposals reflected criticism of the financial literacy initiative as a whole. He said that SSA was “reinventing the wheel” in that the proposals were similar to efforts already undertaken by other Federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. ...

One panel member believed the panel was uncertain what the RFA was trying to accomplish. She believed the centers receiving the panel’s top scores were already receiving substantial funding from other sources, and she did not think any of the proposals would accomplish more than what was already being done in the area.
Was this plan in the works before Michael Astrue took office?

Watch Out Houston!

From a presolicitation notice posted by the Social Security Administration on
The Social Security Administration (SSA) , Region VI Dallas Region, intends to solicit for Fraud Investigation Services for the Dallas Region VI Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit (CDI) located in Houston, TX. The requirement is for the investigation of suspected fraud activities against the Social Security Administration's Title II and Title XVI Disability Programs (including Title XIX Medicaid) in the Houston, TX metropolitan area. The contractor shall provide the necessary personnel, materials, services, equipment and perform all tasks necessary for or incidental to providing the required services. The contractor must be able to provide the following: (1) State wide arrest authority as defined by the statutes and regulations of the State of Texas; (2) Access to reports which are restricted to law enforcement officials; (3) A license to carry a concealed weapon (must be armed); (4) Training in arrest techniques and (5) A valid certification by a Class A Law Enforcement Department (6) Ability to testify in court.

Oct 19, 2010

I Predict No Response Before The Election And A "Hell No" After The Election

From Political Brief:

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote to his counterpart today asking for GOP support on helping social security recipients who will not receive cost-of-living adjustments next year.

In a letter to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Reid urges the Republican to support Democratic legislation that would provide one-time $250 checks to seniors in 2011. ...

Reid’s letter was co-signed by 18 other Senate Democrats ...

OIDAP Asks For Comments

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) has posted a notice in the Federal Register requesting comments on its plan for Social Security to develop its own new occupational information system.

Raising Retirement Age Unpopular In France

From the Associated Press:
Masked youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn. Hundreds of flights were canceled, long lines formed at gas stations and train service in many regions was cut in half. ...

The protesters are trying to prevent the French parliament from approving a bill that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 ...

Study On CEs

The Social Security Administration recently released a 2008 study of consultative medical examinations (CEs) performed by Comprehensive Occupational Medical Services (COMS), a contractor. Not all, but many, disability claimants are sent to these exams conducted at Social Security's expense. I have no idea why Social Security took so long to release this. Here are a few findings from the study:
  • The mean Quality Rating (QR) of the CE’s reviewed was 2.97 within a range of 1-5: “1” represents an unsatisfactory and unredeemable CE Report and “5” a superbly documented, consistent, and logical report. This finding implies that the majority of CE Reports reviewed were sufficient to provide the DDS with enough clinical information to make an informed claim decision, but were deficient in the amount of clinical detail provided. The common deficiencies noted included: an inadequate history of present illness(es), failure to note medications or medication dosages, an absent or incomplete review of systems, omissions of important details of the physical findings, most commonly involving the musculoskeletal or neurological body systems, and an absent or qualitative medical source statement (MSS).
  • Medical evidence of record (MER) was often not forwarded to CE providers. On the other hand, when MER was forwarded, it was unusual to find in CE Reports an adequate description of what items of MER were reviewed by the CE provider. COMS did not find any current policy or regulatory guidance requiring the inclusion of such information in CE Reports.
  • The mean QR for CE’s associated with allowance decisions was statistically higher than for denials.
  • COMS found that about 25% of X-Rays purchased by DDS’s as part of the CE process were probably unnecessary. Also, most purchased X-Rays, even when apparently indicated based on other CE findings or MER, do not demonstrate important pathological findings for SSA purposes.
  • A consistent theme expressed by the DDS’s is that it is difficult at current fee levels to recruit and (retain) CE providers, especially specialists.

Oct 18, 2010

This Is Odd

From a notice posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps:
Region X of the Social Security wishes to identify vendors who may provide Verbatim Hearing Recordings (VHR) at various locations. The government contemplates the pursuit of up to three Indefinite Quantity Indefinite Delivery type contracts. One contract would provide all VHR needs in the States of Washington and Idaho, one contract would provide all VHR needs in the State of Oregon, and one contact would provide all VHR needs in the State of Alaska. The period of performance would be one year, with four one-year option periods.
There are a couple of things that I find surprising about this notice. First, my understanding is that Social Security has been contracting with individuals who perform this service rather than trying to contract out the service for an entire state. Second, on April 27 of this year Social Security Commissioner Astrue told the House Ways and Means Committee that "We are in-sourcing verbatim hearing reporting to further improve ALJ productivity."

Can someone tell me what is going on? This is not such a small thing to the hundreds of people who work as hearing reporters.

Processing Time Report

Below are a couple of reports from Social Security on processing times and workloads at Social Security hearing offices. Click on each page twice to view full size. These come from the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). That newsletter is not available online.

Compare the processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days
  • April 24, 2009 -- 505 days
  • June 3, 2009 -- 505 days
  • September 29, 2009 -- 472 days
  • July 5, 2010 -- 415 days
  • July 30, 2010 -- 410
  • September 5, 2010 -- 398 days

Oct 17, 2010

Obama Supports $250 Payments

From the Chicago Tribune:
President Obama will press Congress to send a one-time payment of $250 to senior citizens to help them get through another year without an increase in their Social Security benefits, White House officials said Friday. ...

But the plan faces opposition in the Senate, which defeated a similar measure last year, and among Republicans concerned about long-term funding of the Social Security system.

AFGE Questions Progress On Backlogs

From a press release:
The American Federation of Government Employees questions the validity of SSA management claims that progress is being made on disability claims backlogs; and that efficient management practices are improving office performances. “While resources are limited and field office staffing levels have not increased in relation to additional workloads, SSA management continues to use smoke and mirrors in measuring the amount of work completed at field offices,” noted Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s Council of Field Operations Locals for the Social Security Administration. “SSA management has been manipulating the disability claims process, making it appear that offices have become much more efficient due to management improvements, when the biggest increase has been in claims that are denied on technical grounds.”

Such manipulations include processing claims for individuals who clearly are ineligible for benefits, and padding statistics by taking unnecessary actions such as reissuing Medicare cards to every client in the office whether or not they request such cards. ...

“It’s outrageous that some SSA managers are condoning the practice of using system tricks and having employees do unnecessary work to better statistical performance. These practices adversely affect service delivery at SSA and detract from the mission of the agency to assist those in need,” concluded Skwierczynski.

Oct 16, 2010

The Importance Of Social Security

Doubleclick on the thumbnail of a page from a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll to get an idea of what Americans think about Social Security.

Benefits Slashed In Britain

From the Daily Mail:

Hundreds of thousands of claimants are to lose their disability benefits as Britain’s bloated welfare budget takes the strain of public spending cuts.

More than £1billion is due to be slashed from the disability living allowance bill, forcing around 400,000 to seek work. ...

[Chancellor George] Osborne also plans to introduce tough new medical assessments for the three million claiming disability living allowance.

Oct 15, 2010

President Favors Raising Income Cap

From Reuters:
President Barack Obama said on Thursday he favored raising more revenue for Social Security to prolong the solvency of the U.S. retirement fund, rather than just cutting benefits or making people work longer.

Obama told a televised youth town hall event that he thought the best approach was to increase the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes above the current cap set around $106,000, but he did not rule anything out.

Resignation From OIDAP

Professor Mark Wilson has resigned from the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). Click twice on the thumbnail to read his letter of resignation. Note that he says that "I no longer feel that the management of this project can bring about the occupational information system that the agency and the country needs and that the panel envisioned."

It's Official: No COLA This Year

The Social Security Administration has made it official. There will be no cost of living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security benefits this year.

Vote On $250 Payments To Social Security Beneficiaries -- After The Election

The Associated Press is reporting that the House of Representatives will vote on Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy's plan for a $250 bonus payment to each Social Security beneficiary since there will be no cost of living adjustment (COLA) this year. The vote will come in the lame duck session of Congress after the election.

I am unable to comprehend why Democrats did not schedule this vote done before the election. I have to guess that Representative Pomeroy pressed for a vote before the election.

Non-Attorney ALJs?

From the Federal Register:
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is proposing to eliminate the licensure requirements for incumbent administrative law judges who are covered under the Administrative Law Judge Program.

Oct 14, 2010

SSI Computation Problem

I have no idea whether this is serious but Social Security has issued an emergency message to its field offices telling them to stop work on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) "5B diaries, 5H diaries, and the associated redeterminations and limited issues" because of incorrect or duplicative data received from the IRS. This may affect just a few people or a lot. It appears that it would have affected the computation of SSI benefits.

An Embarrassment

From The Oregonian:
A federal magistrate on Wednesday ordered Social Security lawyer Daniel A. Bernath to undergo anger management counseling after an altercation with a judge on a downtown Portland elevator last spring.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul J. Papak found Bernath guilty of disorderly conduct for the March 31 dust-up with Dan R. Hyatt, a judge in Social Security's disability hearing office.

Papak dressed Bernath down for his behavior -- such as lampooning Hyatt on his web site as a Ku Klux Klansman and behaving like a pre-schooler fighting for a swing -- and said officers of the court are expected to treat judges with respect.

"This trial," said Papak, "is an embarrassment, in my mind."

The tiff on the lift climaxed a three-year war of words between Bernath, of Tigard, who represents clients in disability cases, and Hyatt, one of the judges who hears those claims at the Portland hearing office. Their squabbles -- which include dueling bar complaints, claims of slander and a $10 million lawsuit -- were chronicled in a July story in The Oregonian.

Oct 13, 2010

I Don't Know What This Means

A reader decided to take the figures that Social Security has posted on the number and gross amount of fees paid to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants and compute the average fee per case and then present that average in the form of a chart. Click above twice to see it full size. Notice that spike in July 2010? The reader did not know what that meant and neither do I. Could there be some problem with the data? Something as simple as a typo?

New Rules For QDDs And Compassionate Allowances

From today's Federal Register:
We are revising our rules on a temporary basis to permit State agency disability examiners to make fully favorable determinations in certain claims for disability benefits under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act) without the approval of a State agency medical or psychological consultant. These changes apply only to claims we consider under our rules for quick disability determinations (QDD) or under our compassionate allowance initiative.

Oct 12, 2010

Encryption Problems

I had posted earlier about Social Security's plan to encrypt the CDs of client files sent to attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. The comments this post received are worrisome enough that I think they are worth bumping up to a full post:
Anonymous said...

As an ME, I have been using this encryption system on cases from various California ODAR offices since March, 2010. The "transition" was without warning...discs simply arrived, and my follow-up calls yielded an instruction sheet. It has been very difficult for me, as I am an Apple computer user, and this encryption system is based solely on Windows. (I had just purchased a new Apple, with dual operating systems in January!) There was some ODAR acknowledgment that the encryption system was out of date, even before it was used Windows XP, which was no longer even on the market. It was to be updated to Vista (also out-dated) in mid-summer, with no time-line for updating to the current Windows version. Tech support from the ODAR offices amounted to comments that I should just buy another computer!

A local computer shop helped me, by finding a copy of Windows XP, but the 'work-around' is terrible. There is no way to use scroll functions within Exhibit documents, nor is there a way to get thumbnails. Each page has to be 'clicked through' to the last page in the exhibit, where the chronology usually begins. That is terribly laborious, and a waste of time. "Sizing" documents to make them readable also requires many more steps. Bottom line is that a file takes me at least twice as long to read.

I don't believe this is solely a problem related to using an Apple computer, as the hearing room computers I have been using have the same issues. In my opinion, SSA has invested in a system that was flawed even before roll-out, and I can see nothing has been done to correct the problems.

p.s. If anyone has other work-around ideas for me, I'd love to hear them.

10:02 AM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard about this nonsense at NOSSCR, and when I received the letter that Charles received I knew I was right, and that this would be a complete disaster. After reading the comment by the CA ME above, I am confident that this encryption system, while noble at heart, is another example of SSA taking a good idea and smashing it with a ball-peen hammer. I sure am glad I have online access through Electronic Record Express so I don't have to waste time with these encrypted discs.

11:36 AM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I commented on CONNECT message board that I, too, use a Mac at home, and do not want to have to buy a copy of Windows to install just to use these discs on my home computer. To the ME above, you may have bought an Apple computer with both operating systems included, but you paid extra to have the Windows OS installed. They don't ordinarily come with the two OSs installed. I would have to purchase and install Windows in order to do this.

And is it true that the encryption method is not compatible with Windows 7? If so, the ODAR tech support's "solution" to buy another computer is off-base, because no new computers are being shipped with Vista or with XP; they are all now Windows 7. So now that means that at my office I can't even sit at my own desktop computer, but will have to go find someone who will let me use their older computer with XP on it to look at these discs?

Tell me that, at least, if I can open the documents on one of these, I can convert it all to PDF?

What a crock.

12:03 PM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ME responding about the Apple problems...
My new Apple came with the usual Apple OS. Then I bought Parallels software (so I could use the Windows environment), plus Windows 7...several hundred $ extra for this. The encryption software would not work with 7...that's when the contact began with ODAR tech people. They were the folks who told me they knew 7 wouldn't work, that it was set up on XP, to later transition to Vista.
I have never been able to convert to pdf...

2:44 PM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really amazing to me that everyone wants to protect a person's(Claimant's) privacy.--If that's so why haven't any of the 20 or so envelopes I received from SS via the USPS been sealed,taped or licked shut-- they are always wide open---anyone who handles my mail can read everything about me-- sometimes I don't even get all of the pages of a decision.

4:58 PM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's so pleasing to see that the "professionals" working on cases apparently put their convenience ahead of protecting the privacy of the claimants. Whine, whine whine. Waahh, I use Apple. Grow up. If this is your attitude towards patient privacy, I certainly hope you aren't covered by HIPAA in your primary business because you are a fine waiting to happen.

Those CDs should have been encrypted 3 years ago, that's what the problem is and folks getting the CDs just need to either deal or move on. The world has changed whether you like it or not. 46 states have breach laws, HIPAA, HITECH apply to many and OMB directs federal agencies so get with the program.

The fact people are complaining about something so fundamental exposes a likely lax attitude towards other aspects of privacy protection.

Too bad SSA hasn't the staff to audit you folks.

6:09 PM, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous ME:

Yes you are right about what is needed to run Windows on a Mac. Now, it's a wonderful thing, that Macs will run dual operating systems, but it does cost more, and it's no excuse for SSA to not make their records available to all.

What about claimants? Are their files not encrypted? If not, then why is there not a concern about their privacy? Seems that as a representative, I will do a better job to maintain my client's privacy even without encryption - after all, I have an additional incentive to do so because of Bar rules governing my behavior toward clients.

The letter states "No additional software is necessary to read the information on the encrypted CD." Well, we've shown that this is not true. And hearing that these CDs are only readable on Windows XP, and that the next upgrade will be to Vista makes me question the comptetency of their IT department.

Dr. ME, with regard to converting to PDF: on a Windows machine, you need either the full Adobe Acrobat program, or a shareware add-on to convert documents to PDF. If you're new to Mac, you may not know that the ability to convert any document into PDF is built-in to the Mac's Print function. In the Print dialogue box, you'll see a PDF button on the far left of the bottom row. You can save as PDF, fax, email, etc. A real handy feature.

Mr. Hall, is there something we can do to head this off?

What I wonder is whether this encryption even helps secure these files. Doesn't Social Security have to send all the information needed to decrypt the files when it sends the CD to the person representing the claimant? A CD with no identifying information is useless. A CD with full identifying information can be decrypted by anyone. Social Security could send the CDs with just the name or the Social Security number but that is problematic. Unless the attorney is using a database -- and most do not -- sending just the Social Security number would not be enough to allow the attorney to figure out whose CD it is. For that matter, it is not difficult to go online and find out a person's identity using their Social Security number. Sending just the name would not be enough in many cases to allow identification of the claimant. A friend of mine who practices in Texas has told me that he has many clients with identical names such as Jose Rodriguez or Maria Hernandez. I do not have so many Hispanic clients but my firm certainly has clients with duplicate names. It happens all the time.