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Sep 30, 2011

The Wall Street Journal Reports On The End Of The Fiscal Year Anomaly

From Damian Paletta at the Wall Street Journal (the rest of this is behind a subscription wall):
Managers in the Social Security Administration, struggling to handle a skyrocketing number of disability cases, had an unusual request for their workers this week: slow down. ...
Social Security judges and employees in Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and Arizona were among those instructed to set aside disability cases this week, with the slowdown allowing managers to boost their performance numbers for the coming fiscal year, which starts Monday.
Top officials, in a bid to meet goals to win promotions or thousands of dollars in bonuses, directed many employees to refrain from issuing decisions on cases until next week ..
Update: I have now seen the entire article. Here are a couple of more excerpts:
On Monday, the Social Security Administration's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review closed out 230 cases nationally, compared with the roughly 3,000 it usually averages a day, a government official said. No cases were closed in the SSA's Boston and Denver regions on Monday, that person said, and the Seattle region closed just one case....
On Wednesday, the agency's chief judge, Debra Bice, sent a memo to all judges ordering them to close cases normally.

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  • The Republican Plan For Social Security's Appropriation -- Don't Worry So Much About Putting Anyone Else On Benefits; Just Try To Cut Them Off

         A draft of the House Appropriations Committee's Labor-HHS Appropriations bill (the Social Security part begins at page 122) is out. That bill would give Social Security approximately $12 billion. This seems to compare favorably to the version reported out of the Senate Appropriations Committee which called for only $11.6 billion but not really. The House version specifies that a whopping $896 million would have to be spent on continuing disability reviews and SSI eligibility redeterminations. The Senate bill would appropriate $139.5 million for the more generic category of "program integrity activities." I cannot say exactly how things would work out if the House bill became law. There might be dramatically increasing backlogs, while Disability Determination Services would be working overtime and hiring rapidly to do huge numbers of continuing disability reviews. Basically, the philosophy expressed is "don't worry about putting anyone else on benefits; just find ways to take people off benefits."
          The Hill tells us not to worry that this is going to happen anytime soon since two Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee wants to cut more money from the bill, exactly where being uncertain. Also, the bill as written could not become law since it would make it impossible to spend money to implement the Affordable Care Act and the Senate is not going to agree to that, nor would the President sign it.
         The bottom line is that we should expect a prolonged appropriations dispute which may cause a government shutdown as early as November when the current continuing resolution ends.

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  • Sep 29, 2011

    New Office in Franklin

    Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue was in Franklin, TN yesterday for the official opening of a new hearing office, one of eight opening this year.

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  • Sep 28, 2011

    One User Fee Goes Down

    From today's Federal Register:
    We provide limited fee-based Social Security number (SSN) verification service to private businesses and other requesters who obtain a valid, signed consent form from the Social Security number holder. ...
    To use [this system], interested parties must pay a one-time non-refundable enrollment fee of $5,000. Currently, users also pay a fee of $5.00 per transaction in advance of services. We agreed to calculate our costs periodically for providing [these] services and adjust the fees as needed. ...
    Based on the most recent cost analysis, we will adjust the fiscal year 2012 fee to $1.05 per transaction. New customers will still be responsible for the one-time $5,000 enrollment fee.

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  • Quiz Answer



    Question: For purposes of Disability Insurance Benefits, what is the date last insured of the 43 year old claimant whose earnings record is shown here?
    • June 30, 2010
    • September 30, 2011
    • March 31, 2012
    • June 30, 2012
    • September 30, 2012
    • Never since never fully insured
    Answer: September 30, 2012. The claimant needs only one quarter of coverage for each year after turning 21 so is easily fully insured. If you count backwards until you reach the 20th covered quarter, you appear to get to the second quarter of 2002 but quarters of coverage can be moved around within a calendar year (but not stacked). Thus, the 20th covered quarter counting backwards is the fourth quarter of 2002. Counting forward 10 years from there, you reach the third quarter of 2012 and the last day of the quarter is always used.
         If you did not know where to start in figuring out the answer to this question, please realize that your expertise in Social Security, which may be considerable, is far from complete.

    Update: The results of this quiz dismay me. Confusion about fully insured status! Confusion about everything! This is basic. The earnings record I displayed was plain vanilla. Nothing tricky. If you are working with disability claims, you need to know how to do this. If you rely upon Social Security's computer's you will not know what to do when presented with evidence showing additional earnings that will not be posted for months to come, for instance. If a claimant does not meet the earnings requirement, you need to be able to understand why and be able to sort of explain it. If you represent claimants you need to understand how correcting an earnings record or obtaining additional earnings will affect a claimant who is just short of meeting the earnings requirement. And there are claimants who have off again, on again coverage. No one should rely upon the computers if the claimant had a prior period of disability, especially when the claimant turned 31 soon after going off disability.

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  • Sep 27, 2011

    Quiz


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  • Sep 26, 2011

    Really?

    From an anonymous poster on the ALJ Discussion Forum:
    Although this is the final week of the Federal Government's Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] decided that last week would be the final "countable" week for FY 2011 dispositions/decisions, next week will be the first week for FY 2012 dispositions/decisions, and that this week will be a "stand alone" week, with nothing that is done this week being credited to either fiscal year. My (rather obvious) prediction: this will easily be the least productive week of the year, to the obvious disservice of the claimants.

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  • Sep 25, 2011

    Social Security Employees Like Their Jobs

    The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) does an annual survey of federal employees. Social Security scored well on this year's survey, coming in at number 4 in leadership and knowledge management and number 4 in employee job satisfaction.

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  • Sep 24, 2011

    Why Appropriations Matter

         From a letter sent by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union the represents most Social Security employees, to the Democratic members of the "Supercommittee" that is supposed to come up with means to reduce federal budget deficits (emphasis added):
    Recently, AFGE’s Social Security Council was provided with a comprehensive briefing by SSA [Social Security Administration] officials regarding the impact of different budget reduction scenarios on SSA services and programs.   It was made quite clear that any reductions below the FY [Fiscal Year] 12 Budget Request will have adverse consequences.    Further cuts below the current FY 11 baseline will lead to furloughs, staffing reductions, office closings, longer wait times and general dissatisfaction with the Social Security system itself.  The union was informed by SSA officials that for every $25 million of cuts below the FY 11 appropriation, SSA will be forced to furlough both SSA federal employees and State Disability Determination Service workers 1 day.
    With respect to office closings, S.S.A. has closed or proposed to close 19 offices to date in 2011.  AFGE expects that number to increase significantly before the end of the year.   Each of those offices has less than 15 employees and was targeted in 2007/2008.  However, SSA is aggressively proceeding with its plans and not waiting for leases to expire.  AFGE’s Social Security Field Council has determined that more than 515 offices could be at risk of closure. 
    The letter includes this summary that must have come from SSA (again with emphasis added):
    FY 2011 Current Status
    1. S.S.A FY 2011 administrative expenses appropriation is $11.4 billion, nearly $1 billion below the amount the President requested.
    2. S.S.A-wide hiring freeze with the exception of hearings operation (ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review]).
    3. Overtime spending has been severely reduced despite increasing workloads and reductions in personnel..
    4. S.S.A will lose about 2,500 federal employees and 1,000 DDS (Disability Determination Service) State employees.
         o    As a result, S.S.A is facing geographical disparities in service as some offices are facing more losses than others.
    5. S.S.A did not open 8 new hearing offices and the Jackson, TN Teleservice Center.
    6. S.S.A stopped service in most contact stations and remote sites.
    7. S.S.A temporarily suspended mailing the Social Security Statement.  Neither the union nor the public were notified in advance of this change.  Social Security statements are an important link between young contributors and the benefits they will receive when they retire.  
    8. S.S.A closed Social Security field offices to the public 30 minutes early each day beginning August 15, 2011.  Yet the agency has provided no evidence or cost analysis to show that this reduction in hours will in fact save money.

    FY 2012 at Level  Funding
    9. Level funding in FY 2012 would effectively leave us with about $800 million below our FY 2011 funding:
         o    In FY 2011, S.S.A is using approximately $450 million of IT [Internet Technology] no-year funding, which S.S.A will not have in FY 2012. (See table for available funding.[table not included in AFGE letter])
         o    S.S.A also expects to incur approximately $350 million in growth of mandatory cost increases, such as rising health care costs for our employees and increases in rent and guard costs, etc.
    10. S.S.A would lose another 4,400 SSA and DDS employees in FY 2012.  This would be on top of the 3,500 S.S.A expects to lose this year for a total reduction of 7,900 employees in two years. 
    11. S.S.A would complete 568,500 periodic medical CDRs (Continuing Disability Reviews) and 2.622 million SSI non-disability redeterminations, consistent with the Budget Control Act.
    12. S.S.A would complete 2.8 million disability claims, nearly 400,000 less than in FY 2011, with pending levels rising from 845,000 to about 1.2 million and processing time exceeding 4 months.
    13. It would greatly delay other less visible workloads, as S.S.A faces a snowball effect of staffing losses two years in a row.  
    FY 2012 Budget at Below Level Funding
    14. If FY 2012 funding is below the FY 2011 funding level, our performance would be substantially worse, and it would be difficult to avoid furloughs and closing our doors to the American people.
    15. An across the board reduction in agency spending of 5 percent will result in the imposition of 24 furlough days for every S.S.A and D.D.S. employee.
    16. Each furlough day would result in approximately 19,000 retirement claims, 11,000 initial disability claims, and 3,000 hearings S.S.A would not be able to complete.
    17. Each furlough day would also result in 2,400 periodic medical CDRs and 10,500 SSI redeterminations that S.S.A could not complete. These reviews more than pay for themselves and are vital to protecting taxpayer dollars. 
    18. Substantial cuts in our administrative budget will result in significantly higher program costs and negatively affect the economy. 
     By the way, why isn't SSA releasing this information directly to the public?

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  • Sep 23, 2011

    Both Republicans And Democrats Love Ticket To Work -- Why?

    An excerpt from the written report of Daniel Bertoni of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testifying at today's House Ways and Means Committee hearing:
    Lack of performance measures may send the wrong message to ENs [Employment Networks -- Ticket to Work contractors], whose staff may be unclear about program goals and send mixed messages to ticket holders about expected outcomes. Of the 25 ENs we interviewed, representatives of 15 said SSA had not adequately articulated performance expectations for serving ticket holders. SSA’s EN handbook does state the ultimate goal of the program is to reduce dependence and, whenever possible, eliminate reliance on benefits. Yet, an EN, which had the fourth-largest payment amount from SSA in fiscal year 2009, stated in its last three annual periodic outcome reports that 100 percent of its ticket holders placed in jobs had earnings of less than $10,000 per year—equating to less than the SGA level [Substantial Gainful Activity  -- if the ticket holders earn over the SGA level they eventually lose their Social Security disability benefits, which is the pretty much the whole point of Ticket to Work as far as Congress is concerned], if earnings were accrued regularly over the course of 12 months. In fact, this EN’s recorded phone message states that DI [Disability Insurance] ticket holders can work part time indefinitely without reducing SSA benefits, and its Web site says most of its positions are designed so ticket holders stay below income thresholds for benefit cutoff. With assistance from our investigative staff, we found multiple ENs among those with the largest payment amounts communicating through their Web sites, recorded phone messages, or in our discussions with representatives that as long as DI ticket holders’ earnings stay below the SGA level, they can keep full disability benefits ...

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  • User Fees Being Studied

         Sam Johnson, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, asked Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to determine whether there are additional activities performed by the Social Security Administration for which a user fee might be charged. OIG's study is so preliminary that it is almost worthless but it does reveal that the Social Security Administration itself has formed a "user fee workgroup." 
         The important things here are that Republicans in Congress have some interest in charging fees for some activities at Social Security and that Social Security is studying how it can best do this.
         Let me make it clear that, so far, they are only studying fees for services such as providing replacement Social Security cards but it is only a short distance from there to charging a fee for filing a claim, processing an appeal or answering a question.

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  • Sep 22, 2011

    GENEX Gets Into PR Game

         For years Allsup has been using public relations to promote their business of representing Social Security disability claimant. The efforts often take the form of getting a newspaper or television station to run a story about a Social Security disability claimant who has had a long struggle getting on Social Security disability benefits and finally won with Allsup's help. Two can play that game. GENEX has just gotten the "I-team" at WBAL in Baltimore to run a story promoting GENEX's services.
         Both Allsup and GENEX are primarily involved in working for large insurance companies who administer long term disability (LTD) plans. The LTD plans have an offset for Social Security disability benefits so the insurers have a big interest in getting the LTD recipients on Social Security disability. They employ Allsup or GENEX to "represent" their LTD recipients before Social Security. I put "represent" in quotes since there are reports that Allsup and Genex are quite willing to sell out the claimants they "represent" by providing the insurance companies with any medical evidence that comes into their possession that could be used to cut off the LTD benefits of the people "represented." I do not know whether anyone else thinks that is a problem but attorneys think that is an unconscionable conflict of interest. 
         Allsup and GENEX are also interested in the retail trade which is why they get into PR, apparently figuring that it is cheaper than advertising. It must have been working for Allsup since they have been doing it for years. 
         By the way, Allsup's website boasts of a 98% success rate. Assuming that number is not a complete fabrication, that tells me that Allsup really hates to fly someone in to represent a Social Security disability claimant at a hearing. They mostly have to fly someone in since they are nowhere near big enough to have offices all over the country. They won't fly someone in for a merely gold-plated case. It have to be solid 24 carat gold. The good thing about that, as far as I am concerned, is that it dramatically limits their potential for expansion into the retail business.

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  • Sep 21, 2011

    Social Security Ends Gender No-Match Letters

    From Metro Weekly:
    The National Center for Transgender Equality announced this evening:
    The Social Security Administration (SSA) has confirmed that it has ended the practice of allowing gender to be matched in its Social Security Number Verification System (SSNVS). This will result in the immediate cessation of SSA sending notifications that alert employers when the gender marker on an employee's W-2 does not match Social Security records.
    Asked about the decision, White House spokesman Shin Inouye told Metro Weekly, "The White House welcomes this move by Social Security Administration."
    A Freedom of Information Act request from NCTE showed that 711,488 gender no-match letters were sent in 2010 alone.
    NCTE executive director Mara Keisling said in a news release about the development, "Ending this practice, which has endangered transgender people and our jobs, has been a priority for NCTE and we are pleased that the SSA has updated its policy."

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  • Senate Bill Would Give SSA $208 Million More

    From a press release issued by the Senate Appropriations Committee concerning the subcommittee markup of the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill that covers Social Security:
    Social Security Administration--The bill includes $11.6 billion, an increase of $208 million over the fiscal year 2011 level, for the SSA’s administrative expenses. This increase includes $139.5 million for program integrity activities and $68.8 million in base administrative expenses. As SSA faces sustained record levels of core workloads, the increase for base administrative expenses will allow SSA to provide targeted increases to parts of the agency facing the highest demand for services while maintaining the goal of eliminating the disability hearings backlog by the end of 2013.
    The House Appropriations Committee has twice delayed taking up its version of the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill.

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  • Quiz Answer

    Question: How long is the extended period of eligibility for Disability Insurance Benefits?

    Answers:
    • 9 months
    • 12 months
    • 36 months
    • 60 months

    Correct Answer: 36 months

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  • Sep 20, 2011

    Quiz


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  • Sep 19, 2011

    8,000 Jobs To Be Eliminated In Next Two Years?

    From NorthJersey.com (emphasis added):
    The Social Security Administration (SSA) field office at 201 Rock Road in Glen Rock [New Jersey] will be closed permanently as of Friday, Sept. 23.
    SSA area director Dean Frank told the Glen Rock Gazette that the local operation will be absorbed by the agency's Hackensack field office at 22 Sussex St. He said local employees are being transferred to the Hackensack location....
    The office closure is aligned with ongoing cost consolidation efforts in response to recent funding cutbacks by Congress and the heightened need to reduce operating costs. Frank said the Glen Rock closure will save the agency an estimated $3 million over a 10-year period. ...
    According to an SSA representative to the American Federation of Government Employees [a union which represents most Social Security employees], the budget action [planned by Republicans in Congress] could result in additional office closings, layoffs and furloughs in fiscal 2012, with up to 8,000 jobs eliminated in the next two years.

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  • The Embarrassment Continues

    From The Oregonian last October:
    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.
    Bernath has not given up. See the video below.

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  • Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Scheduled

         The Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittees on Social Security and Human Resources have scheduled a hearing for September 23 at 9:00 on Social Security's work incentives.
         I wish they would take a serious look at ending Ticket to Work and dramatically simplifying the existing work incentives. I also wish they would be realistic about what can be achieved. Anyone who thinks that there is any possible policy that would cause a significant percent of Social Security disability recipients to return to work has no feel for who is receiving Social Security disability benefits.

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  • New Hearing Office In Georgia

         I asked recently when the next Social Security hearing office would open. It's about to happen in Augusta, GA. That new office is to have 10 Administrative Law Judges and 50 other employees. 
         I should have asked when the next one will open after the end of this fiscal year. The increased appropriations that have allowed new offices to open over the last couple of years have dried up. Instead of trying to improve service, Social Security is now trying to avoid furloughing employees. While service may improve in a few spots, service will unquestionably deteriorate across the country -- and I'm not just talking about the wait time to get a hearing.

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  • Sep 18, 2011

    Updated Fee Payment Numbers

    Social Security has released tho following updated stats on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants:

    Year 2011

    Fee Payments

    Month/Year Volume Amount
    Jan-11
    34,467
    $113,459,847.04
    Feb-11
    33,305
    $107,796,771.38
    Mar-11
    34,885
    $112,463,768.46
    Apr-11
    48,033
    $153,893,755.37
    May-11
    36,479
    $115,159012.77
    June-11
    33,568
    $104,782,743.07
    July-11
    40,451
    $123,981,011.36
    Aug-11
    35,575
    $109,778,785.74

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  • Sep 17, 2011

    Like Moths To A Flame

    From the Associated Press:
    Most of the top Republicans running for president are embracing plans to partially privatize Social Security, reviving a contentious issue that fizzled under President George W. Bush after Democrats relentlessly attacked it. ...
    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a version. Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas have said younger workers should be allowed to invest in alternative plans. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has raised the idea of letting whole groups, such as state and local government workers, opt out of Social Security.

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  • Sep 16, 2011

    Braunstein Wins Award For Compassionate Allowance Program

         A press release from Social Security:
    Diane Braunstein, now the Associate Commissioner for International Programs, received the 2011 Citizen Services Medal from the Partnership for Public Service at last night’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal Awards Gala.  Ms. Braunstein oversaw the development of the Compassionate Allowances program, which fast-tracks disability decisions to ensure that Americans with the most serious disabilities receive their benefit decisions within days instead of months or years.
    “All of us at Social Security are very proud of Diane and the results of her hard work on Compassionate Allowances,” said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security.  “Through her efforts, this expedited process has already helped about 100,000 people with severe disabilities get benefit decisions within days instead of months or years.”
    The Compassionate Allowances initiative identifies claims that are likely allowances because the nature of the applicant’s disease or condition clearly meets the statutory standard for disability. With the help of sophisticated new information technology, the agency can quickly identify potential Compassionate Allowances and then quickly make decisions.
    Social Security launched the program in 2008 with a list of 50 diseases and conditions.  It recently announced 12 new conditions involving severe heart diseases, which increased the total number of Compassionate Allowances conditions to 100.  The conditions include certain cancers, adult brain disorders, a number of rare genetic disorders of children, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and other disorders. The agency is continually adding new conditions or diseases to the list, and recently announced a small grant program for graduate students that will help Social Security improve its list.
    The legacy of Ms Braunstein’s work with Compassionate Allowances will expand access to disability benefits to Americans with the most severe disabilities while reducing the backlog of disability applications.  Quicker decisions and expedited processes reduce the burden on the medical community because they no longer need to provide extensive medical records for these cases.  If a person reports a condition found on the Compassionate Allowance list, Social Security simply confirms the condition with the medical source.  The program also reduces the burden on businesses of producing employment records.
    The application process is now faster for people applying under the Compassionate Allowances program.  The online disability application at www.socialsecurity.gov recognizes conditions that qualify for Compassionate Allowances and streamlines the application by omitting information not needed for the agency’s decision.
         I would like to celebrate this achievement but I have seen no evidence that compassionate allowances amounts to anything more than meaningless public relations. The same people would have been approved in the same time frame.

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  • Sep 15, 2011

    No Social Security Changes To Be Proposed By President

    From Reuters:
    U.S. President Barack Obama will not recommend changes to the government's Social Security retirement program in his deficits proposals to Congress next week, the White House said on Thursday.
    "The president's recommendation for deficit reduction will not include any changes to Social Security because, as the president has consistently said, he does not believe that Social Security is a driver of our near and medium term deficits," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.
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  • Proposed CR

    House Appropriations Committee Republicans have put forward a continuing resolution (CR) that would keep the government running after September 30 when the current federal fiscal year ends. As I read it, and these things are difficult to read and comprehend, the CR would continue Social Security and most other agencies at the same spending rate as in the current fiscal year less 1.409%. However, there would be the threat that the eventual appropriation would be less -- if there ever is a real appropriation passed. I do not see any contentious riders in the proposed CR but maybe I don't know what to look for.

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  • Scare Tactics Work But Not Nearly Enough To Threaten Social Security's Existence

    From a CNN/ORC poll:
    Please tell me which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion about the Social Security program: (READ IN ORDER)
    The Social Security program has no serious problems, certainly none that require changing the current system 4%
    Social Security has minor problems that can be fixed with minor changes to the current system 28%
    Social Security's problems are serious and can be fixed only with major changes to the current system 55%
    Social Security's problems are so bad that the system should be replaced 12%
    No opinion 1%

    The Social Security system has been described as a "monstrous lie" and as a failure. Do you think those phrases are an accurate description of the Social Security system, or don't you think so?
    Accurate 27%
    Not accurate 72%
    No opinion 1%

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  • Sep 14, 2011

    The Accuracy Is "Quite Good"

    From the San Diego  Union-Tribune:
    The two highest-earning state civil-service employees working in San Diego County made hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses last year reviewing Social Security disability claims.
    Both of the psychiatrists work for the California Department of Social Services, which uses federal money to employ dozens of physical and mental health analysts who review claims for disability benefits.


    Dr. Robert B. Paxton, 62, made $440,068 last year including $306,315 of bonus, making him the top-paid across California among the analysts in this field and the ninth-highest earner in the overall state workforce.


    Dr. Kelly J. Loomis, 45, made $368,917, of which $237,168 was bonus.


    The bonuses come from a program that pays them $27 for each case in excess of 18 that they review in a day.
    Social Services officials would not say how many cases Paxton reviewed in 2010, what their outcome was or how many days he spent at work. When reached by telephone, Paxton said he was told not to comment for this story.


    Assuming Paxton took all state holidays, 21 required furlough days and one week’s vacation, that left him 221 weekdays to work. He would have had to review about 70 cases per weekday, or more than 15,000 in a year, to earn the bonus he was paid. ...


    A substantial number of the cases are hundreds of pages long, according to attorneys with decades of experience representing disability claimants. Those attorneys questioned the quality of the reviews. ...


    According to Washington, the consultants’ cases are subjected to a quality review process performed by their supervisor, then by the state office, and finally by Social Security. For each review, a sampling of cases is checked for errors and any inaccurate cases are sent back for correction. Social Security spokesman Lowell Kepke said California’s performance is on par with that of other states.


    “Generally, our reviews show that California’s accuracy is quite good, and better than 90 percent,” Kepke said.

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  • Quiz Answer

         Question: Mr. C starts work after graduating from high school at age 18. He has regular, substantial earnings until he becomes a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident when he is 21. He goes to live with his healthy 59 year old mother who has no other children and who is not working. She was married to Mr. C's father who is now deceased. She has not remarried. Mr. C files claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and disabled adult child (DAC) benefits on the account of his late father. Both claims are approved. He receives only DIB since it is higher than the DAC. What Social Security benefits, if any, can the mother be paid, assuming she applies for them?
    • Wife's benefits
    • Mother's benefits
    • Widow's benefits
    • Aid and Attendance Benefits
    • None
        Answer: Mother's benefits. Wife's benefits are not available since her husband is deceased. She is too young anyway.  She is too young for widow's benefits unless she is disabled and she is not. There is no Social Security "Aid and Attendance" benefit, although there is a VA benefit by this name. Even though no DAC benefits are being paid to Mr. C, he is technically entitled to DAC.  Since he is technically entitled to DAC, his mother has a child of the decedent in her care, making her eligible for mother's benefits. Although mother's benefits are normally available only until the youngest child turns 16, there is no such limit if the child is disabled.
         If you are wondering, this was a real case that I had. I dealt with people at the field office and payment center who were initially skeptical but also intrigued. They all eventually agreed that the woman in question was clearly eligible for mother's benefits. If you are familiar with the concept of technical entitlement, which Social Security unquestionably accepts, I think you have to come to the same conclusion.

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  • Sep 13, 2011

    How Long Until The Next New Hearing Office?

    From KRCG:
    COLUMBIA, MO. -- Social Security Officials dedicated a newly expanded hearing office in Columbia. Social Security staff at the office will help ease the backlog of disability cases that are waiting for hearings. When fully staffed, the Columbia hearing office will have 8 administrative law judges and 43 support staff. Staff members will serve clients in 12 Mid-Missouri counties ...

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  • October 1 Is Rapidly Approaching

         The federal fiscal year ends on September 30, only 17 days from now. No appropriation for Social Security has passed Congress. There is an urgent need for a continuing resolution (CR). The House Appropriations Committee has announced in passing that it intends to take up a government-wide CR next week. There are a couple of potential problems. First, there is little doubt that the House of Representatives will add a number of "riders" to the CR with the most important riders aimed at preventing implementation of health care reform. This could make coming to an agreement difficult. Second, while the top line number for all appropriations has been fixed by the budget agreement, there is no agreement on what individual agencies get. The House of Representatives has passed a budget resolution that would require approximately 15% cuts in the Labor-HHS appropriations, which includes Social Security. If the CR contains an across the board 15% cut in the rate at which agencies covered by the Labor-HHS CR can spend money, Social Security is in immediate trouble with dramatic furloughs inevitable. I could see Social Security shutting down for one day a week. Social Security has to fare far better than other agencies covered by the Labor-HHS appropriation or thing will start to fall apart very quickly.

       Update: And here we go with signs that there may another round of brinksmanship on the CR.

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  • Is This No More Than A Minor Technical Change?

    From today's Federal Register:
    We propose to give adjudicators the discretion to proceed to the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability when we have insufficient information about a claimant's past relevant work history to make the findings required for step 4. If an adjudicator finds at step 5 that a claimant may be unable to adjust to other work existing in the national economy, the adjudicator would return to the fourth step to develop the claimant's work history and make a finding about whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. This proposed new process would not disadvantage any claimant or change the ultimate conclusion about whether a claimant is disabled, but it would promote administrative efficiency and help us make more timely disability determinations and decisions.

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  • Quiz


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  • Sep 12, 2011

    A Blow To Claimants Awaiting A Social Security Hearing

         While there has been a good deal of improvement in the backlog of Social Security claimants awaiting a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), we should not think that the problem has been resolved. Claimants in places like Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and Buffalo are still waiting for 17 months on average. Most claimants are still waiting almost a year.
         The lack of adequate administrative funding for Social Security may soon start to make these backlogs worse. Social Security ALJs have always been helped at hearings by personnel who work in the hearing room, taking care of a number of functions, such as operating the recording equipment. In years past, this was done by some regular hearing office employees as part of their job duties..Social Security began contracting out this work some years ago. "Hearing reporters" paid by the case replaced regular Social Security personnel. This freed up regular Social Security employees to do other vital work.
         I heard this past week that the two Social Security hearing offices that my firm deals with most often, Raleigh and Fayetteville, NC are doing away with the hearing reporters for hearings held at the main hearing office. I was sorry to hear this since the hearing reporters I know do a fantastic job. I hate to see them lose their jobs. The bigger problem is that they will be replaced by regular hearing office personnel. This would be satisfactory if Social Security were hiring more personnel to take up the slack but I know that is not going to happen.
         This amounts to a cut in staffing at these two hearing offices. I cannot say exactly what the percentage cut in staffing will be. Perhaps, a reader can tell us what the Social Security Administration is expecting. I will give a ballpark figure that this amounts to a 5% cut in staffing but that is no more than a somewhat informed guess. I also cannot say how widespread this change will be. There are reports that this is only being done on a pilot basis but the fact that two hearing offices in one state are affected suggests that this may be a widespread change.
         This will certainly cause bottlenecks and increase backlogs at hearing offices wherever it is implemented. This is not happening because Social Security management wants to create bottlenecks or increase backlogs but because the agency is facing a serious lack of funding.

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  • Sep 11, 2011

    September 11, 2001


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  • Sep 10, 2011

    A Rare Thing For Social Security: A New Idea -- And AARP Likes It

    From Jed Graham, writing at Investors.com:
    It’s not every day, one can safely assume, that AARP’s chief policy guru John Rother offers supportive words about a specific approach for cutting Social Security benefits.
    So it was to my great surprise that I received an email from Rother recently with relative praise for a new approach to Social Security reform called Old-Age Risk-Sharing that has flown under the radar of policymakers....
    Of all the options, reducing COLAs [Cost of Living Adjustments] is among the worst approaches because it could make retirement at 62 look like a better financial decision than it really is — before the Social Security safety net is gradually unwound by inflation over the next few decades in retirement. 
    Here is a brief case for a new approach that works in the opposite way — providing the biggest cut, though in a progressive way, in the first year of retirement in order to avoid any benefit cuts in very old age...
    [I]in Old-Age Risk-Sharing, ... the steepest benefit cuts would come in the first year of retirement; the cuts would be progressively smaller for lower earners; and they would gradually unwind over 20 years to provide robust support for retirees of all income levels in very old age, when almost everyone will depend on it.

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  • Sep 9, 2011

    New Ruling Coming Out On Monday

    Social Security has a new Ruling coming out on Monday concerning disability determination in younger adults. It's very long.

    Here are a couple of excerpts (footnote omitted):
    If a young adult has a substantial loss of one or more of the basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work, the occupational base will be significantly eroded, despite vocational factors that we would ordinarily consider favorable (for example, young age, college education, and skilled work experience).The basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work include the
    abilities to:

    • Understand, remember, and carry out instructions;
    • Make simple work-related judgments typically required for unskilled work;
    • Respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations; and
    • Deal with changes in a routine work setting. ...
    [A] child’s impairment(s) that met or medically equaled a part B listing [as a child] will often meet or medically equal a part A listing at age 18 unless the impairment(s) has medically improved.

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  • FICA Tax Cuts Are Centerpiece Of Obama's Plan

    From a New York Times report on the President's speech to Congress last night:
    The centerpiece of the bill [proposed by the President], known as the American Jobs Act, is an extension and expansion of the cut in payroll taxes [the FICA tax that funds Social Security payments], worth $240 billion, under which the tax paid by employees would be cut in half through 2012. Smaller businesses would also get a cut in their payroll taxes, as well as a tax holiday for hiring new employees.

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  • What Is The Problem?

    The Subcommittee markup of the appropriations bill that covers Social Security has been postponed once again. It had been scheduled for 9:30 this morning. The new federal fiscal year begins on October 2, which is only 22 days away.

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  • New Rules Will Require Attorneys To Use Electronic Services

    This will appear in the Federal Register on Monday:
    We are revising our rules to require that claimant representatives use our electronic services as they become available on matters for which the representatives request direct fee payment. In the future, we will publish a notice in the Federal Register when we require representatives who request direct fee payment on a matter to use our available electronic services. We are also adding the requirement to use our available electronic services on matters for which the representative requests direct fee payment as an affirmative duty in our representative conduct rules. These revisions reflect the increased use of technology in representatives’ business practices. We expect that the use of electronic services will improve our efficiency by allowing us to manage our workloads more effectively. These rules do not require claimants to use our available electronic services directly; they only require their representatives to use the services on matters for which the representatives request direct fee payment.

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  • Sep 8, 2011

    The Two Leading Candidates For The Republican Nomination For President On Social Security:

     From last night's Republican Presidential debate:
    HARRIS: Governor Perry, you said you wrote the book "Fed Up" to start a conversation. Congratulations. It's certainly done that in recent weeks.
    In the book, you call Social Security the best example of a program that "violently tossed aside any respect for states' rights." We understand your position that it's got funding problems now. I'd like you to explain your view that Social Security was wrong right from the beginning.
    PERRY: Well, I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what's been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time. And rather than spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doing back in the '30s and the '40s, it's a nice intellectual conversation, but the fact is we have got to be focused on how we're going to change this program.
    And people who are on Social Security today, men and women who are receiving those benefits today, are individuals at my age that are in line pretty quick to get them, they don't need to worry about anything. But I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program, and it is a monstrous lie.
    It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right....
    HARRIS: Vice President Cheney though said it's not a Ponzi scheme. You say it is.
    PERRY: Absolutely. If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program that we have in place today, and young people who are paying into that, expect that program to be sound, and for them to receive benefits when they research retirement age, that is just a lie. And I don't care what anyone says. We know that, the American people know that, but more importantly, those 25-and-30-year-olds know that....
    ROMNEY: Well, the issue is not the funding of Social Security. We all agree and have for years that the funding program of Social Security is not working, and Congress has been raiding the dollars from Social Security to pay for annual government expenditures. That's wrong. The funding, however, is not the issue.
    The issue in the book "Fed Up," Governor, is you say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure. You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it.
    The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security.
    We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need, and our seniors have the need of Social Security. I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure. We save Social Security.
    And under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it's a failure. It is working for millions of Americans, and I'll keep it working for millions of Americans. And we've got to do that as a party.

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  • Social Security Workforce Continues To Dwindle

    The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at Social Security. Here they are, with earlier numbers for comparison purposes.
    •  June 2011 67,773
    • March 2011 68,700
    • December 2010 70,270
    • June 2010 69,600
    • March 2010 66,863
    • December 2009 67,486
    • September 2009 67,632
    • June 2009 66,614
    • March 2009 63,229
    • December 2008 63,733
    • September 2008 63,990
    • September 2007 62,407
    • September 2006 63,647
    • September 2005 66,147
    • September 2004 65,258
    • September 2003 64,903
    • September 2002 64,648
    • September 2001 65,377
    • September 2000 64,521
    • September 1999 63,957
    • September 1998 65,629

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  • Sep 7, 2011

    House Appropriations Markup Scheduled For Friday

    The House Appropriations Subcommittee markup of the appropriations bill covering Social Security has been scheduled for Friday at 9:30. This will be our first opportunity to see what House Republicans are planning.

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  • $40.3 Million To Deceased Beneficiaries

     From CNN Money:
    While many Americans worry that the Social Security Administration won't have enough money left to pay their benefits when they retire, the agency is doling out millions of dollars to people who aren't even alive.
    The Social Security inspector general estimates that the agency has made $40.3 million in erroneous payments to deceased beneficiaries -- even though the administration had already recorded their deaths in its records. The estimate is based on a sample tested during its most recent audit in January 2008, the watchdog agency said.
    One man told CNNMoney that he notified Social Security four years ago that his mother had passed away, but he still can't get the agency to stop sending her checks every month.
    Dennis Marvin, a Cleveland-based financial advisor, said several of his clients have grown frustrated by how long it took them to convince Social Security to stop sending payments to deceased family members. ...
    The inspector general estimates that as of January 2008, nearly 2,000 deceased beneficiaries were receiving benefits for months or even years after the agency had been notified of their deaths. If those payments were not stopped, the SSA likely dished out another $7 million in additional payments over the course of 2008, the inspector general estimated.

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  • Researchers Say Chained CPI Would Be Cut In Benefits

    The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has released a brief report on the effects if a "Chained CPI" were substituted for the Consumer Price Index in computing Social Security's Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). The key findings: 
    • The chained index, which allows spending patterns to shift as prices change, would rise more slowly than the current index.
    • The current index likely understates the inflation faced by the elderly, and the low-income elderly may have little flexibility. 
    • Moving to a chained CPI would be a cut in benefits 

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  • Quiz Answer

    Question: If a determination is mailed to a 48 year old claimant on August 15, 2011 terminating Social Security disability benefits on the basis of medical improvement and that determination is received by the claimant in due course, what is the last day upon which he or she may appeal and be granted interim benefits, assuming no good cause for a late request?
    • August 25, 2011
    • August 30, 2011
    • September 19, 2011
    • October 19, 2011
    Answer: August 30, 2011 There is a 10 day limit from the date of receipt of the notice which is presumed to be 5 days after it is sent.

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  • Sep 6, 2011

    Quiz


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  • Sep 5, 2011

    What's On The Agenda?

    All federal agencies must provide a list of regulatory changes they are working on, called their regulatory agenda. The regulatory agenda includes regulatory proposals those that have not yet resulted in a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM), which is the first time that the public can see the contents of a regulatory proposal. Below are three items from Social Security's regulatory agenda. Note that the first three could be quite significant or quite minor. There is no way to know at this point. We know the third one, which has already resulted in an NPRM, is major. Note also that the dates given are not binding. These things are often delayed by many months, even years. Sometimes they are withdrawn. Also, agencies can suddenly decide to add an item to their regulatory agenda and rush it into the Federal Register.

    Title: Clarify Applicability of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel   
    Abstract: This proposed rule would clarify the applicability of res judicata and collateral estoppel in our administrative review process....
    NPRM  04/00/2012

    Title: Clarifying Changes to the Title II Regulations (3374P)   
    Abstract: These rules amend our regulation to clarify several eligibility criteria for benefits under the Act....
    NPRM  08/00/2011

    Title: Administrative Waiver of Overpayments   
    Abstract: We propose to revise and clarify our regulations addressing the Commissioner's discretion to use blanket waivers for the recovery of an overpayment. Under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), the commissioner "shall" seek repayment of overpayments, unless waiver is appropriate. We believe the Act allows us broader discretion in granting blanket waivers than we currently use. ...
    NPRM  01/00/2012
    Title: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Mental Disorders (886F)   
    Abstract: Sections 12.00 and 112.00, Mental Disorders, of appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404 of our regulations describe those mental impairments that we consider severe enough to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity, or that cause marked and severe functional limitations for a child claiming Supplemental Security Income payments under title XVI. We will revise the criteria in these sections to ensure that the medical evaluation criteria are up-to-date and consistent with the latest advances in medical knowledge and treatment.  ...
    ANPRM [Advanced NPRM] 03/17/2003  68 FR 12639 
    ANPRM Comment Period End  06/16/2003 
    NPRM  08/19/2010  75 FR 51336 
    NPRM Comment Period End  11/17/2010 
    Final Action  03/00/2012 

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  • Sep 4, 2011

    Michael Astrue And His Religious Faith

    The Washington Examiner has a question and answer piece with Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, focusing on his Roman Catholic faith. Here are a couple of excerpts:
    Is there one person that most influenced your faith? 
    This is sort of a hard thing. I was about 10 when Vatican II came in, and everything changed very dramatically. I had a priest growing up who was very influential in guiding me and some of my friends through all that. So it was very hard many years later to discover he was one of the worst abusers in the scandals in Boston, and not just sexually, but the single most violent. The church's struggle in Boston has been something that I've taken very personally. ...
    Do you think your faith improves your leadership?
    Yes. Again, if you're motivated by trying to make the world a better place, you're probably more balanced, you treat people better, you try to help them be leaders too and bring out the most in them. I think if you're in government for other reasons you might not behave the same way. And I think a lot of people don't behave that way. For me it's not about the money and it's not about power. It really is for me primarily about the satisfaction of knowing that if I go in and do my job well, life will be better for a lot of people.

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  • Sep 3, 2011

    Another Posthumous Child Case

    From Beeler v. Astrue, ____ F.3d ____ (8th Cir. August 29, 2011):
    This case requires us to determine whether a child conceived through artificial insemination more than a year after her father’s death qualifies for benefits under the Act. ...We conclude that the Commissioner’s interpretation is, at a minimum, reasonable and entitled to deference, and that the relevant state law does not entitle the applicant in this case to benefits.
    By the way, it appears that there has been a petition for rehearing en banc in the similar recent case of Schafer v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 49 (4th Cir. 2011).

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  • Sep 2, 2011

    Mandatory Use Of Electronic Process Clears OMB

         The final regulations to require that those who represent Social Security claimants use Social Security's electronic services has cleared the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and should appear in the Federal Register in the near future. There was some change in the regulations at OMB but we will probably never know what was changed. This proposal was originally linked to changes that would have recognized entities such as law firms as representing claimants. Those proposed changes were confused and unworkable. The appearance is that because its proposal was trashed by attorneys, Social Security has just decided to do nothing.
         People talk about reducing the regulatory burden on the American public. It is hard to imagine anything more absurdly burdensome than Social Security's bizarre policies on attorney fees. These policies burden claimants as well as attorneys. They make it difficult for a claimant to move from one attorney to another. Imagine a claimant in Buffalo who hires an attorney for their Social Security disability claim and not long thereafter moves to Raleigh. The attorney in Buffalo withdraws from the case and waives any fee. I pick up the case and move forward to a successful conclusion. Under Social Security's policies, my fee is cut in half. Why? Would you take on the case if you were me? What is the person moving from Buffalo to Raleigh supposed to do? What value is being protected by this policy?

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  • 43% Increase In Threats To Social Security Personnel In One Year -- What's Going On?

    From today's Federal Register:
    We are publishing the process we follow when we ban an individual from entering our field offices. Due to escalating reports of threats to our personnel and our customers in our offices, we are taking steps to increase the level of protection we provide. ... In FY 2010, we received nearly 2,800 reports of threats to our employees across the Nation, an increase of 43% from FY 2009.

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  • Sep 1, 2011

    Despite Questions Social Security Plans To Plow Ahead With $500 Million National Data Center

         From Gazette.Net:
    Plans for a $500 million office building for the Social Security Administration predicted to bring 200 jobs to Frederick County are progressing after the recent sale of an Urbana property.
    A letter from the Frederick County Board of Commissioners to the Social Security Administration on Tuesday expressed the county’s excitement over the project. ...
    The new building is planned for use predominantly as a primary data operations center for the administration, along with some office space.The 400,000-square-foot building will incorporate sustainable technologies using energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, on-site renewable energy sources, water conservation, and the use of sustainable materials, according to the county’s letter.
    Construction is expected to begin in early 2012.
          Meanwhile, Vivek Kundra, the Chief Information Officer for the Obama administration until last month, has written an op ed piece for the New York Times arguing that "governments around the world are wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary information technology" because of what he calls the "I.T. cartel ... [a] powerful group of private contractors encourages reliance on inefficient software and hardware that is expensive to acquire and to maintain." He argues for cloud computing, noting that the General Services Administration cuts its information technology costs by 50% using cloud computing. He states that cloud computing is "often far more secure than traditional computing, because companies like Google and Amazon can attract and retain cyber-security personnel of a higher quality than many governmental agencies." 
         This comes on the heels of the firing of Ephraim Feig, who had been Social Security's Associate Chief Information Officer for Vision and Strategy. Feig was apparently advocating the same position as Kundra. This also comes on the heels of news that the federal government is closing 800 data centers at the moment.
         As tight as money is at Social Security, there is an urgent need for a Congressional hearing on Social Security's planned national data center. I do not have the knowledge to debate the wisdom of building an expensive data center for Social Security but there is an obvious controversy that needs a public airing. There is too much money at stake not to fully explore the issues.

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