Jul 31, 2013

Change Reopening Rules?

     From today's Federal Register:
We are requesting information from the public regarding whether and how we should change our rules of administrative finality. These rules govern when we can reopen and revise a determination or decision that has become final and is no longer subject to administrative or judicial review. ...
We are considering changing our rules of administrative finality for a variety of reasons:
  1. We take our responsibility as effective stewards of the trust funds very seriously. Modifying our rules would enable us to take corrective action on more cases, and could decrease the amount of improper payments that we make. 
  2. Our current rules are complex to administer. The fact that our rules under title II and title XVI contain different timeframes for reopening for good cause can result in confusion for our adjudicators and the public, particularly in situations where an individual is concurrently receiving benefits under title II and title XVI of the Act. 
  3. The current rules may prevent us from making changes regardless of the possible outcome for the individual. For example, if an individual presents or we discover new and material evidence after the time period that would allow us to reopen, we cannot take corrective action and revise the determination or decision. Modifying our rules to change certain timeframes for reopening may enable us to take corrective actions on more cases. 
  4. The Office of the Inspector General has recommended that we review our rules on administrative finality to find ways that will allow us to correct more erroneous payments. 
  5. Some of our administrative finality rules have not been revised in sixty years. Over the years, there has been an increase in our workloads and the complexity of our programs. Updating the rules would allow us to reflect these changes. 
  6. Finally, modifying our current rules would enable us to streamline and simplify our rules on administrative finality. We believe this would allow us to operate more efficiently in a challenging, limited-resource environment.

SSA Employee Sentenced To Five Years In Prison

     From the Seattle Post Intelligencer:
A former Social Security Administration worker caught on camera masturbating to child pornography while on the clock has been sentenced to five years in prison.
Caught with a staggering 3,772 photos and videos showing children being sexually assaulted, Thomas Barrett Jr. was investigated after his Internet trolling for child porn brought a computer virus onto a Social Security network.
Investigators found Barrett, 50, had been searching for child porn on his work computer in November and set up a camera watching his work station, located at the Social Security Administration’s Seattle office.
Shortly thereafter, Barrett was recorded fondling himself while viewing photos of a man sexually assaulting a young girl. Prosecutors noted Barrett appeared to bounce between the child porn and his actual work in an apparent effort to hide the rape photos from his coworkers.

Jul 30, 2013

The Washington Examiner Has Lots Of Attitude

     The Washington Examiner is running a bizarrely slanted piece on Social Security disability benefits. I think this goes well past the line between journalism and propaganda, starting with calling Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits "unearned" disability benefits. You could call it that but I don't think anyone previously has called it that. I don't know why you would use that term unless you were deliberately trying to be pejorative. 
     The piece are headlines such as "Many say they're on disability simply because they can't find a job or are picky..." followed by a chart saying that 11% of SSI recipients report that  they cannot find a job they want, a result which may have as much to do with the way the question was phrased as anything else. Should you answer this yes or no if you cannot find a job you're capable of performing? Why would you want a job you're not capable of performing?
     If you want to believe that everyone drawing disability benefits is a lazy bum, you'll love this piece. Otherwise, you'll probably find it weird, annoying or just boring.

Jul 29, 2013

Three Notices In Federal Register

     Three notices from today's Federal Register:
I. This final rule adopts, without change, the interim final rule with request for comments we published in the Federal Register on January 12, 2012, at 77 FR 1862. The interim final rule modified our rules so that we may send a Ticket to Work (Ticket) to Ticket to Work program (Ticket program)-eligible disabled beneficiaries. Under our previous rules, we mailed initial Ticket notices to all Ticket-eligible beneficiaries immediately after they began receiving benefits, regardless of whether they were likely to participate in the program. This change did not affect Ticket eligibility requirements.

II. We are extending for 2 years our rule authorizing attorney advisors to conduct certain prehearing procedures and to issue fully favorable decisions. The current rule will expire on August 9, 2013. In this final rule, we are extending the sunset date to August 7, 2015. We are making no other substantive changes.

III. We are extending our pilot program that authorizes the agency to set the time and place for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). This final rule will extend the pilot program for 1 year. The extension of the pilot program continues our commitment to improve the efficiency of our hearing process and maintain a hearing process that results in accurate, high-quality decisions for claimants. The current pilot program will expire on August 9, 2013. In this final rule, we are extending the effective date to August 9, 2014. We are making no other substantive changes.

Jul 28, 2013

Like Chewing Styrofoam

     Words are important. They change the world by informing, inspiring and directing. However, they can also be empty and meaningless. That's the case with Facing the Challenges -- Envisioning the Future, a paper produced by the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB). Reading this paper is like chewing styrofoam. It is packed with blindingly obvious advice. As an example, the paper recommends that "the plan for the placement of field offices, indeed any SSA facilities, should be proactive, flexible and have the ability to customize services to circumstances such as geographic location, the individuals who live in the service area, and any other contributing factors." I'm sure that Social Security's leaders will keep this masterpiece on their desks.

Jul 27, 2013

Why No Action On Same Sex Marriages?

     The Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented Social Security from recognizing same sex marriages, was unconstitutional on June 26, 2013. That was more than a month ago. While Social Security has sent out a press release saying it is "taking" claims for benefits based upon same sex marriages, it has instructed its staff to do NOTHING with these claims. How much longer will it be before Social Security starts to act on these claims? 
     The dodge of saying "we're taking claims" can't work much longer. Eventually, the main stream media will figure out that simply "taking claims" is meaningless. It's what you do with the claims that counts. Holding them for months and months is little different from denying them. The main stream media will be asking questions in the near future. The agency and the administration can't just think about this subject for the next six months or so.

Jul 26, 2013

An Eventful Career

     From the Norman Transcript:
In his tenure with the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma and western Arkansas, Dennis Purifoy has weathered turbulence and change and navigated tragedy and triumph.
He’ll step down from the agency Aug. 2 after 40 years. ...
As a claims representative in Stillwater, Purifoy intended to work for the SSA for a couple of years before pursuing other opportunities. After 40 years, he is glad he stuck around.
“From Stillwater to Shawnee and then Hot Springs in Arkansas, I’ve enjoyed my job every step of the way,” Purifoy said. “I was the manager in the Clinton office, where I was introduced to my wife, before I went to OKC and was there during the bombing before coming here (Moore).”
Purifoy was inside the Oklahoma City SSA office, where 16 employees were killed, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed April 19, 1995. ...
“I wouldn’t call it a highlight, but, of course, it sticks in my memory,” Purifoy said, recalling the bombing. “That was a rough day, but,” he said, brightening, “we had the office open and serving people in Shepherd Mall, where it is today, in one month.” ...
That was not the last time Purifoy witnessed an emergency first-hand while at work. Four years later, he was conducting a pre-retirement class at the United Auto Workers Local 1999 union hall near the now-closed General Motors plant on Southeast 74th Street in Oklahoma City when it was destroyed by the May 8, 2003, tornado. ...

Jul 25, 2013

More On Astrue's New Job

     I don't want to get too deep in the weeds on former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue's new job with VIVUS but it looks like he was hired as part of the resolution of a shareholder lawsuit. It looks like the shareholders won and VIVUS' old management lost. It also appears that the shareholder lawsuit came about because VIVUS hasn't been doing so well.

Tests Extended

     From today's Federal Register:
We are announcing the extension of tests involving modifications to disability determination procedures authorized by 20 CFR 404.906 and 416.1406. These rules authorize us to test several modifications to the disability determination procedures for adjudicating claims for disability insurance benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (Act) and for supplemental security income payments based on disability under title XVI of the Act. ...
We are extending case selection for the prototype and the single decisionmaker tests until September 26, 2014.
     None of these "tests" ever work well enough to be made national but they never seem to end. Why?

Groups Push Social Security Expansion

     From CNN:
A coalition of progressive groups claiming to represent millions of Americans is planning a multi-state effort urging the expansion of Social Security benefits. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Democracy For America (DFA say they will be joined by several other groups including MoveOn.org in putting out a series of TV and online ads planned for the near future. ...
An email sent to the progressive coalition's supporters claims the bills would give Social Security beneficiaries an additional $452 per year by age 75 and $807 per year by 85.
The bill would also eliminate the cap on how much of individuals' earnings can be paid into Social Security. Currently, Social Security contributions are limited to the first $113,000 of income.
Eliminating that cap is aimed at making the wealthy "pay their fair share," the email says....

Jul 24, 2013

New Job For Astrue

     From a press release:
VIVUS, Inc. ... which recently began selling the obesity drug Qsymia (phentermine and topiramate extended-release) capsules CIV in the United States, today announced that its Board of Directors has appointed Michael Astrue to serve as its Chairman and Anthony Zook to serve as its Chief Executive Officer ...
Mr. Astrue said, "We intend to move quickly on our four main goals: 1) expand use of Qsymia through targeted patient and physician education; 2) find the right partner for Qsymia; 3) quickly create a pathway for approval in Europe; and 4) eliminate expenses that are not essential to expanding use of Qsymia....
     Astrue had worked in the biotechnology field before becoming Commissioner of Social Security.

Who Killed The Rabbit?

     From the Rome (GA) News-Tribune:
Rome police reported that vandals left a dead rabbit for staff to find at the Social Security office on Riverside Parkway on Friday morning and also left the water running outside. 
According to reports, the rabbit was found on a window sill behind the building along with a bag of shredded paper torn and scattered around the building Friday morning.

Jul 23, 2013

New Blog On Social Security Disability Issues

     Julia Mariani, an attorney who had been representing Social Security disability claimants, has shut down her regular practice and taken up blogging on Social Security disability issues. So far, her blog,  Disability Dunk Tank, has a different focus from mine. She is oriented just to disability issues and attuned to the issues that claimants face.
     I wish there was a wider profusion of blogs on Social Security issues. Social Security has a huge impact on America. It deserves widespread coverage by non-traditional media.

Jul 22, 2013

Unemployment And Disability Claims

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on Impact of Increases in State Unemployment Rates on the Social Security Administration’s Disability Programs. This subject could certainly use research. Unfortunately, OIG merely looked at states with high percentage increases in unemployment. There is no comparison of these states to states with low or no increase in unemployment over the same time period. There is this table in the report:

     Alabama, by the way, had a much larger increase in unemployment than Utah.

Jul 21, 2013

Today's Newspaper Stories On Social Security Disability

     The Sacramento Bee has an article on the growth in the number of people drawing Social Security disability benefits -- even though that growth ground to a halt almost a year ago -- and the Associated Press has an article on a doomed attempt to phase out the five month waiting period for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act.

You Crazy Right Wingers Are Such A Hoot!

     From The Examiner of Independence, MO:
U.S. District Court Judge Brian C. Wimes sentenced Charles Daniel Koss, 63, of Independence to seven years in federal prison and ordered Koss to pay $212,987 in restitution to the Social Security Administration and the Department of the Treasury. ...
Koss began receiving Social Security disability payments in 1987 for myoneural disorder and hypertension. In 1994, according to court documents, Koss began operating Embassy Mortgage, a real estate business, with his wife in Blue Springs. Koss was working as a loan officer and office manager for the business.
According to the indictment, when Koss learned that he would have to repay the government, he created a false negotiable instrument – which he called a “Registered Private Money Order” – purporting to draw on a bogus trust account held by the U.S. Treasury. He allegedly utilized the false negotiable instrument as payment for his debt and mailed it to the Social Security Administration.
Koss subscribed to what is known as the redemption theory, the indictment says, which claims that a “Birthright Trust” is created with the U.S. Treasury when parents of a newborn child pledge the child’s birth certificate to the government. Redemption theory involves bogus claims that when the U.S. government abandoned the gold standard in 1933, it pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow money. The movement also asserts that common citizens can gain access to funds in secret accounts using obscure procedures and regulations.
According to the indictment, adherents of the redemption theory sometimes call themselves “sovereign citizens.” The sovereign citizen movement is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who have adopted anarchist ideology. Its adherents claim that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to “restore” an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed.

Jul 20, 2013

Why No Statute Of Limitations?

      From KATU:
The Social Security Administration sent Lanier Schriner a shocking letter. It said the feds paid her too much more than 30 years ago, and now they are coming to collect.
More than three decades ago, Schriner was just heading to college along with small disability payments from her deceased father's Social Security.

"I received it before I went to college and then after I turned 18," she said. "Then you could still collect disability and disability payments if you're going to school."

Just last week, the payments came back to haunt her.

"I got this letter, 30-some years later, just the other day, that said I owed a $167 back payment," Schriner said.

It says she was overpaid at some point, but there are no specifics in the letter.

The amount's not important to her, but the time that's passed.

"I think it's ridiculous," she said. "I can give evidence that I don't owe it, but I'm not sure how to do that when I don't have any paperwork from 30-some years ago," she said.

Jul 19, 2013

Figures Never Lie ...

     The Heritage Foundation has put out an impressive looking chart showing that in 1960 the average person received $6.39 for each dollar they had to pay in Social Security taxes but that by 2013 the average person was receiving only 92 cents for each dollar of taxes and that by 2030 this will be down to only 84 cents. Wow! QED! Social Security is a bad deal!
     However, if you look at the study that the chart is based on, you notice that it's for "hypothetical workers with specific work histories and longevity characteristics." If you look further, you notice that those hypothetical workers don't become disabled nor do they die early leaving survivors who receive benefits, nor, in fact, do they have spouses who receive benefits on their account either before or after their death. In other words, the study is misleading since it excludes dependent benefits, survivor benefits and disability benefits.

Jul 18, 2013

We're Movin' In!

     From Social Security Works:
Oh, the sweet irony.
Pete Peterson is the conservative billionaire who is a major financier in the effort to dismantle, cut and privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Recently he and his foundation held a contest asking folks to submit videos on why it is important to “fix” the national debt of which, he and his foundation falsely claim, Social Security is a major contributor.
Sometimes the best-laid plans for a propaganda campaign can go awry. The winner of the $500 grand prize determined by popular vote on the website came from the completely opposite side of Peterson’s cut Social Security argument.

Jul 17, 2013

Confusing New Attorney Fee Instructions

     Social Security has issued new instructions on fees for attorneys and others representing Social Security claimants. The instructions have to do with fee agreement cases where the claimant appoints two or more people to represent him or her and then one or more of the attorneys or representatives withdraws. It would be an understatement to say the instructions are confusing. Take a look at these examples given in the instructions and see if you can tell me what the underlying theory is:
Example 2: The claimant appointed two representatives from Firm A, one representative from Firm B, and one representative who is a sole practitioner. The representative from Firm B waived his or her fee from any source. The sole practitioner waived charging and collecting a fee from the claimant or any auxiliary beneficiaries because a third party entity will be paying his or her fee. The two representatives from Firm A have an approved fee agreement that each of them signed, and SSA determines a fee of $6000. The representatives from Firm A will receive $3000 each.
Example 3: The claimant appointed two representatives from Firm A and one representative from Firm B. One of the representatives from Firm A signed a fee agreement. The second representative from Firm A and the representative from Firm B both waived charging and collecting a fee from any source. At the time of a favorable decision, the decision maker approved the fee agreement; subsequently, SSA determines a fee of $6000. The Firm A representative who had an approved fee agreement will receive $3000, but the “waived share” of $3000 for the second representative from Firm A should go to the claimant.
    Would you want to be the person implementing this "policy"?

Jul 16, 2013

Does Social Security Have A Functioning System Of Dealing With Complaints About ALJs?

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (footnotes omitted):
Claimants and their advocates or representatives may file a complaint against an ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] if they believe the ALJ was biased or engaged in improper conduct. ... The Division of Quality Service (DQS), within ODAR’s [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review's] Office of Executive Operations and Human Resources, reviews and resolves these complaints with the assistance of ODAR’s RO [Regional Office] staff, as appropriate. At the time of our review, DQS had assigned approximately 12 employees, including 2branch chiefs and permanent and detailed staff, to handle ALJ complaints ...
DQS closed 1,490 ALJ misconduct complaint cases in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011. ... [W]e determined the median times for various processing time frames in FY2011. 
  • The overall ODAR processing time, from the ALJ hearing to the closing of the complaint, was about 894 days since the AC needed to process the majority of the cases before DQS could initiate its own review.
  • DQS processing time was about 400 days. 
  • RO processing time, a subset of DQS processing time, was about 201 days....
Of the complaints closed in FY 2011, DQS substantiated 4 percent. DQS closed approximately 11 percent of the cases because the ALJ left SSA before DQS completed a full review of the complaint. About 5 percent of the decision fields was left blank in the system. DQS determined the remaining 80 percent of the cases were unsubstantiated....

SSA established the DQS process to ensure “Every complaint will be reviewed or investigated in a timely manner by an official who was not involved in the alleged improper conduct.” [According to the notice published in the Federal Register at the time the system was established] ... 
DQS management told us the Agency had not established time frames for reviewing and resolving complaints at every stage. However, during our review period, a DQS manager told us her office created its first report showing the age of pending complaints for internal use by DQS managers. In addition, this manager explained that DQS started tracking cases that were 1-year-old or older from the time DQS received them. DQS established a goal to close 60 percent of the year-old cases by the end of FY 2013. ...
[W]e reviewed one case DQS closed because the ALJ had retired. The ALJ held a hearing with the claimant in August 2007, and on December 2010 (3 years later), DQS closed the complaint before fully investigating the allegation because the ALJ had retired. We reviewed another case where 22 closed complaints related to 1 ALJ were labeled as ALJ No Longer With Agency after the ALJ was removed from the Agency because of improper behavior.
     Certainly many of the complaints lack merit. Others are legitimate complaints but concern an isolated instance of bad judgment by an otherwise good ALJ. Still, there is a small minority, perhaps 1-2% of ALJs, who are just bad ALJs, some of them ALJs who suffer from serious psychiatric problems, some of them ALJs who suffer from serious character flaws, but all of them people who are just in the wrong line of work. This is not a functional system of dealing with complaints about ALJ misconduct.  It takes far, far too long. Nothing is done for years and years about ALJs who are well known to be causing serious problems. Mostly, the agency just waits for the bad ALJs to retire. Not only do claimants and their attorneys deserve better, the vast majority of ALJs who do a good job deserve better than to be lumped in with these bad apples.

Jul 15, 2013

Interesting Map

     The Washington Examiner has a fairly predictable article that decries the number of people drawing disability benefits from Social Security. At least the piece has an interesting map showing the counties with the highest incident of disability. Hint: Disability hits hardest in rural areas represented in Congress by Republicans.

Jul 14, 2013

To The ALJ Association

     Dear ALJ Association:
      Take a look at the sort of thing that comes from claiming that because Social Security pressures you to hold more hearings and issue more decisions that the agency is forcing you to approve more disability claims. You're not getting back at your enemy, Social Security. You're not reducing the pressures you face to hear and decide cases. You're only aiding those who really want to influence how you decide cases or who just want to do away with your jobs altogether. The enemy of your enemy isn't necessarily your friend.
     I'm writing this as someone who agrees with you that ALJs are expected to hear and decide too many cases and that this reduces the quality of the process. I encourage you to stick to that message. I think it's a message that most people involved with the program have sympathy for. The "I'm being forced to approve claims" message is ridiculous.

Jul 13, 2013

One Of The Reasons Social Security's Death Master File Is Made Public

     From the AP:
More than $1.1 billion in unclaimed life insurance benefits have been recovered nationwide after an investigation, New York regulators said Wednesday.
The state's Department of Financial Services said many insurance companies were not using lists of recent deaths from the Social Security Administration to determine whether a policy holder had died. That meant if family members did not know there was a life insurance policy or forgot to file a claim, the policy went unpaid.
New York regulators say they directed insurers to use the Social Security master file to investigate unclaimed policies -- just as insurers used the list of recently deceased to determine when to stop annuity payments.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said state investigators working with insurance companies were able to make payments to 100,000 consumers nationwide, including more than 25,000 New York residents. The oldest claim dated to a death in 1960.

Jul 12, 2013

Unemployment And Social Security Disability; Also, What Are The Chances Of Chained CPI Being Adopted If The Chairman Of The House Ways And Means Committee Is Afraid To Even Use The Term "Chained CPI"?

     From a press release issued by the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee:
Yesterday, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) introduced H.R. 1502, “The Social Security Disability Insurance and Unemployment Benefits Double Dip Elimination Act of 2013.”  The legislation would keep people from receiving both Social Security disability benefits and unemployment benefits at the same time.  A similar proposal was included in the President’s FY2014 budget with estimated savings of $1 billion over 10 years.
     In addition, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is reporting that the House Social Security Subcommittee has introduced legislation to switch Social Security to the Chained CPI method of computing the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). There is a press release from the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee obliquely suggesting that this is under consideration. The word "bipartisan" is used over and over in this press release but the term "Chained CPI" is never mentioned.

Work Incentives Fail Everywhere

     Great Britain decided that there were too many people drawing disability benefits under their social security system. Their plan to deal with this was to get one in six disability recipients back to work. Their definition of "back to work" was quite modest -- holding down a job for three months or more -- yet according to The Guardian newspaper all they have been able to achieve is about one in twenty returning to work. If you were to apply that British definition of a successful return to work to recipients of U.S. Social Security disability benefits, I think we'd already be returning 5% or more of disability benefits recipients to work.
     Returning large numbers of disability recipients to work isn't doable, no matter what you try. I keep harping on this point since members of Congress keep pursuing the return to work dream despite the overwhelming evidence that they're wasting their time.

Jul 11, 2013

Man Found Guilty In Shooting Outside SSA Headquarters

     From the Baltimore Sun:
A Baltimore County man was convicted Wednesday in the nonfatal shooting of an employee outside the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn in 2011.
Gary Stokes, 23, was found guilty by a Baltimore County jury in the shooting that caused the Social Security complex on Security Boulevard to go on lockdown for more than an hour.
Police said Stokes robbed Obie Blackmon of his cellphone and then shot him in the arm as he was taking an afternoon walk in woods near the campus.

Former Lawmaker Pleads Guilty To Social Security Fraud

     From CNS:
Raymond E. Salva, a former Democratic member of the Missouri House of Representatives, has pleaded guilty to illegally taking $58,816 in federal disability payments while he was working as a state legislator earning $30,000 a year, according to the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. ...
In May 2003, about five months after he started working as a state representative, the SSA conducted a review to find out whether Salva was still eligible for disability payments. “As part of that review, Salva completed a form in which he affirmed that he was not able to return to work and that he had not done any work since being disabled,” reads a press release from the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). ...

Jul 10, 2013

Sympathy For Binder And Binder?

     Take a look at Jillian Kay Melchior's snarl on National Review Online. She's mostly targeting Charlie Binder of Binder and Binder but she goes way beyond him. The whole piece is just incredibly angry and mean-spirited. Among other things, Melchior says that Social Security pays a lot of money to people who never claim to be disabled. I suppose that's true if you're talking about retirement and survivor's benefits but it's certainly not true if you're talking about disability benefits. She mostly writes about a book published by Charlie Binder on Social Security disability benefits. I haven't read the book but it certainly sounds harmless. However, Melchior describes it as a "rotten little book" and says that it shows that Binder has a "radical political stance" basically because Binder thinks that Social Security, particularly disability benefits, is a good idea and because he suggests that Social Security is not always fair to disability claimants. She objects to Binder advising claimants who go before an Administrative Law Judge to answer only the questions they are asked. Melchior must have had no experience with lawyers. This is standard legal advice for anyone testifying in any sort of legal proceeding. I expect that it's been standard advice literally for centuries. I have to repeat that this piece is just incredibly angry and mean-spirited. Even if you're no fan of Binder and Binder, you'll find this attack disgusting.

Senate Moving Forward With Appropriations Bill Covering Social Security

     From the summary of a bill pending before the Senate Appropriations Committee:
Social Security Administration (SSA): The bill includes nearly $12 billion, an increase of $534 million, for SSA’s administrative expenses. This includes a $441 million increase for program integrity activities and a $93 million increase in core administrative expenses for SSA to keep pace with an aging population and record-high workloads.
     This bill was marked up in Subcommittee yesterday. It will now go to the full committee.
     The House of Representatives has yet to produce a draft appropriations bill covering Social Security. However, the House's budget plan for the Labor-HHS appropriations, the one that covers Social Security, is 25.9% lower than the Senate Labor-HHS appropriation bill.
     The Senate bill would worsen service at Social Security. A 25.9% decrease in Social Security's operating budget would lead to unimaginable consequences.

Jul 9, 2013

Don't Count On The Disability Trust Fund Going Bust In 2016 -- Or Ever

     Since I noticed that payments from the Social Security Disability Trust Fund have reached near stasis, I've been wondering about that projection from Social Security's Chief Actuary that the Disability Trust Fund will be exhausted in 2016. If you look at that projection, one of the first things you notice is that there isn't just one prediction. There are three. The one commonly cited is the "intermediate" prediction that the Disability Trust Fund will run out of money in 2016. Another is the "high cost" or pessimistic prediction that the Disability Trust Fund will run out of money in 2015. Another is the "low cost" or optimistic prediction that the Disability Trust Fund will not run out of money. That's right. The optimistic projection is that even though the Disability Trust Fund is losing money now, that this situation will turn around before the Disability Trust Fund ever runs out of money.
     How do the three projections look given the actual results so far in 2013? Let's compare:
2013 Actual -- through May:
Income 2013: $48.1 billion, an increase of 4.7% over the equivalent time period last year
Outgo: $58.4 billion, an increase of 3.0% over the equivalent time period last year

Pessimistic Projection: 
Income total for 2013: $110.2 billion, an increase of 1.0% over 2012
Outgo total for 2013: $147.0 billion, an increase of 4.8% over 2012

Intermediate Projection: 
Income total for 2013:$111.4 billion, an increase of 2.1% over 2012
Outgo total for 2013: $144.8 billion, an increase of 3.2% over 2012

Optimistic Projection:
Income total for 2013: $112.5 billion, an increase of 3.1% over 2012
Outgo total for 2013: $142.8 billion, an increase of 1.8% over 2012

     Thus, the increase in income so far in 2013 is much greater than even the optimistic projection while the outgo is a little better than the intermediate projection, suggesting that the optimistic projection would probably be the closest of the three projections to what has happened so far in 2013. Even that may understate how good these numbers are. I was comparing the first five months of 2012 with the first five months of 2013 to get that 3.0% increase in actual benefit payments but if you look at the last nine months, there's actually been a 0.6% decrease in disability payments!
     There's another, simpler way of looking at this which confirms the trend line shown above. The pessimistic projection was that the Disability Trust Fund would go down by an average of $3.1 billion per month in 2013, the intermediate projection was $2.8 billion per month and the optimistic projection was $2.5 billion per month. So far in 2013, the Disability Trust Fund has gone down by an average of $2.3 billion per month, which is significantly better than even the most optimistic projection of the Chief Actuary.
     Of course, what happens over the course of five months won't necessarily tell us what will happen over the course of the next few years but unless you're expecting a new economic downturn or a big increase in disability claims, things are looking pretty good for the Disability Trust Fund at the moment. If you're a Republican don't get excited about the prospect of using the exhaustion of the Disability Trust Fund as a means of forcing major cuts in Social Security disability benefits. That may never happen. If it does happen, it probably won't happen until after the 2016 election and that's a long way off.

Jul 8, 2013

SAAs, ALJs And OTRs

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):  
The SAA [Staff Attorney Adjudicator] Program [also known as Senior Attorney program] has contributed to both an increase in adjudicative capacity and improved average processing time. However, the number of SAA OTRs[On The Records] peaked in FY [Fiscal Year] 2010, and the decline continued through the first 5 months of FY 2013. Overall, SAA and ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] OTRs have been decreasing since FY 2008, consistent with ODAR management’s predictions. In addition, in an FY 2012 quality review, the Office of Quality Performance noticed a significant drop in its decisional agreement rate on SAA OTRs, though the Agency did not have sufficient data to determine whether the issue was specific to SAAs or more broadly related to OTRs. Finally, hearing office managers were interested in additional training and greater duties for their SAAs. Given the expected decline in SAA OTRs, which was the primary purpose of the SAA Program, SSA should decide before any future extension of the program, or expansion of the SAA corps, whether the program needs to be modified to address future hearing office workload needs. ...
The SAA Program has contributed to hearing office productivity and timeliness since its introduction in FY 2008, though SAA OTR decisions peaked in FY 2010. SAA OTR decisions decreased by 31 percent in FY 2012 and continued dropping through the first 5 months of FY 2013. OTR decisions as a percent of total dispositions, whether decided by SAAs or ALJs, also decreased over the same 5-year period, from about 17 percent in FY 2008 to about 10 percent in FY 2012. An OQP [Office of Quality Performance] quality review of FY 2012 SAA OTR decisions found a significant decrease in the decisional agreement rate from prior years. However, the Agency has not conducted similar quality reviews focused on ALJ OTR decisions, so we could not determine whether the quality issues related to SAAs specifically or OTRs in general. ...

     Social Security has employed non-ALJ attorneys for decades. They have assisted ALJs, mostly by writing decisions for them. One of their other duties has been to look for cases in which it would be appropriate to do an OTR. OTRs help get favorable decisions out more quickly to the most severely disabled people. The non-ALJ attorney would advise an ALJ that a particular case was appropriate for an OTR and, usually, but not always, the ALJ would agree and the favorable decision would be issued with the ALJ's signature. Social Security decided it would be best to eliminate the middleman -- the ALJ -- and let the attorneys, referred to as Senior Attorneys or SAAs issue the OTRs on their own authority, thereby saving the time that the ALJs had spent reviewing cases identified for possible OTR.  ALJs as a group have always objected to SAAs issuing decisions in their own right. Whatever anyone thinks of the SAA program, there's no doubt that the SAA program helped work down the terrible hearing backlogs. Those backlogs are less terrible now but we're certainly not at backlog levels that anyone should be comfortable with.
     Why did SAA decisions decrease after 2010? The 2010 election results are the obvious underlying reason but exactly why the change occurred may be a more difficult question. Was it a desire to somehow placate the new Republican majority in the House by approving fewer claims? Was it that then-Commissioner Astrue only used SAA because of pressure from the prior Democratic majority in the House and felt free to wind down the SAA program after Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives? Was it because reduced staffing forced the attorneys to stick to writing decisions for cases ALJs had heard instead of reviewing cases as SAAs? Was it simply because the backlog had come down enough that then-Commissioner Astrue thought that the SAA expedient could be phased out?
     I have no idea why OQP found a decrease in decisional agreement. Since there is no gold standard against which to measure SAA or ALJ decisions, I regard any report that OQP produces on decisional quality to be worthless. In any case, I'm confident in saying that there was no real change in SAA decisions. The change was at OQP.
     The most interesting question to me is why ALJ OTRs decreased. I can't explain it but I've certainly seen greatly increased ALJ reluctance to issue OTRs in the last three years or so. It's not unusual for me to have a hearing where the ALJ, in effect, tells me before the hearing begins that he or she has already decided to approve the claim. The ALJ wants to make sure I know so I get the hearing over quickly. This seems to be an effort to disguise an OTR. What's the point of this? Are ALJs afraid that if they do too many OTRs that something will happen to them? If so, who or what put this fear in them? What's the threat? To me, this just seems pointless. Some cases are appropriate for OTR, regardless of who the decision maker is. Who wants to slow down the process of approving people who obviously deserve to be approved?

Jul 7, 2013

What A Deal!

     From the National Journal (emphasis added):
With an anxious eye toward the coming debt-ceiling negotiations, House Republicans are drafting what members call a “menu” of mandatory spending cuts to offer the White House in exchange for raising the country’s borrowing limit.
This menu is more a matrix of politically fraught options for the Obama administration to consider: Go small on cuts and get a short extension of the debt ceiling. Go big – by agreeing to privatize Social Security, for example – and get a deal that will raise the ceiling for the rest of Obama’s term.
     For a more modest medium range extension of the budget ceiling, all Obama would have to agree to is ending Medicaid.

Up And Down With The Roller Coaster

      Social Security has issued updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and some others for representing Social Security claimants. These fees are withheld and paid by Social Security but come out of the back benefits of the claimants involved. The attorneys and others who have their fees withheld pay a user fee for this privilege. Since these fees are usually paid at the same time that the claimant is paid, these numbers show how quickly or slowly Social Security is able to get claimants paid after a favorable determination on their claims.
Month/Year Volume Amount
Jan-13
32,663
$96,690,734.65
Feb-13
35,508
$102,242,540.93
Mar-13
45,189
$130,690,281.94
Apr-13
33,178
$92,566,832.32
May-13
42,841
$122,781,135.03
June-13
33,954
$97,627,420.68

Jul 6, 2013

SSA Not Yet Implementing DOMA Decision

     Social Security has issued new instructions on dealing with same sex marriage cases. Social Security's Administrative Law Judges are now instructed to cancel any scheduled hearing dealing with this issue and to not make a decision in any case that has already been heard. I don't know how many of these cases there may be but I'd bet the vast majority of them are couples who still live in the state in which they were married. I know there are issues with cases where the parties to the marriage have moved to a state that refuses to recognize same sex marriage but there is no issue when the parties live in the state where they were married. How long should it take to write instructions for these cases?

Fair And Balanced

     From Media Matters:

Jul 5, 2013

Not Buying It

     Jay Barnes isn't buying the claims that Social Security is pressuring its Administrative Law Judges to approve disability claims.

Jul 3, 2013

Soaring Disability Payments?

     We keep hearing that Social Security disability benefit payments are soaring. They're going through the roof. It's ruinous how rapidly disability payments are rising. Funny thing about that. It's not happening, at least not anymore. Below is a chart showing Disability Insurance Benefits payments over the last two years. I know the chart contains some extraneous information but I couldn't copy just the month and the total benefit payments. Notice that benefit payments have gone up in the last two years by 8%, which is certainly significant but hardly a disastrous increase considering the aging of the baby boom population and considering the 3.6% cost of living adjustment at the end of 2011 and the 1.7% cost of living adjustment at the end of 2012. More interesting is that the increase in benefit payments has ground to a halt over about the last year. We seem to be near stasis. This is exactly what the actuaries have been predicting. Once the number of baby boomers reaching full retirement age, making them no longer eligible for disability benefits, started equaling the number reaching their prime years for disability, the boom in disability claims would be over. Well, it's happened. It's right there in the numbers you see below. Total benefit payments in June 2013 were less than they were nine months earlier in September 2012, despite the intervening cost of living adjustment.
DI Payment Summary
(in millions)
Year Month
paid
Total
benefit
payments a
Cyclical payments b Medicare
premium
deductions
All other
payments
Total Cycle 1Cycle 2 Cycle 3Cycle 4
2011 Jul $10,897 $9,116 $5,168 $1,305 $1,303 $1,341 $430 $1,351
2011 Aug 10,761 9,133 5,171 1,309 1,307 1,345 430 1,198
2011 Sep 10,818 9,169 5,189 1,315 1,313 1,352 433 1,216
2011 Oct 10,758 9,207 5,206 1,322 1,320 1,359 433 1,118
2011 Nov 10,638 9,235 5,222 1,326 1,324 1,363 435 967
2011 Dec 10,970 9,337 5,292 1,337 1,334 1,374 434 1,199

2012 Jan 11,278 9,668 5,459 1,391 1,388 1,429 428 1,182
2012 Feb 11,279 9,693 5,472 1,395 1,393 1,433 429 1,156
2012 Mar 11,522 9,730 5,490 1,401 1,398 1,441 438 1,354
2012 Apr 11,376 9,767 5,508 1,407 1,404 1,447 434 1,175
2012 May 11,247 9,811 5,529 1,415 1,412 1,455 436 1,000
2012 Jun 11,625 9,816 5,531 1,416 1,414 1,455 442 1,367
2012 Jul 11,434 9,841 5,539 1,422 1,419 1,461 442 1,152
2012 Aug 11,124 9,849 5,542 1,424 1,421 1,462 442 832
2012 Sep 11,847 9,846 5,542 1,423 1,420 1,461 449 1,551
2012 Oct 11,139 9,889 5,562 1,431 1,428 1,469 442 807
2012 Nov 11,219 9,894 5,568 1,430 1,428 1,468 449 876
2012 Dec 11,788 9,966 5,627 1,435 1,431 1,472 445 1,378

2013 Jan 11,583 10,079 5,676 1,456 1,453 1,494 471 1,033
2013 Feb 11,590 10,076 5,677 1,455 1,451 1,493 472 1,041
2013 Mar 11,827 10,089 5,684 1,456 1,453 1,496 475 1,263
2013 Apr 11,572 10,106 5,695 1,458 1,455 1,498 470 997
2013 May 11,786 10,136 5,716 1,460 1,458 1,502 471 1,179
2013 Jun c 11,734 10,136 5,717 1,460 1,457 1,501 475 c 1,123

Jul 2, 2013

Chief Actuary Projects Effects Of Immigration Reform On Social Security

     From a June 28 letter from Social Security's Chief Actuary Stephen Goss to Senator Marco Rubio:
I am writing in response to your request for estimates of the long-range financial effects on Social Security of Senate Bill S. 744, as reported out by the Judiciary Committee, amended, and passed by the Senate on June 27. ...
We estimate that enactment of this Bill would increase asset reserves for the combined Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Funds by $284 billion by the end of 2024, and would extend solvency of the OASDI program for an additional 2 years ...

Jul 1, 2013

Telephone Problems At ODAR Today

     I'm hearing reports that Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) offices nationwide are experiencing telephone difficulties today. It's not clear to me whether this is affecting other parts of Social Security as well.

Some Agencies Were Prepared For Supreme Court Decision On DOMA

     I wrote last week that Social Security seemed unprepared for the decision of the Supreme Court holding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Some agencies were prepared for this decision. See the memo from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued just a day after Social Security issued staff instructions to hold all claims filed by those in same sex marriages.

Payment Delays Reported

     There is a report of delays in direct deposits of Social Security benefits in the Wichita, KS area. If this report is accurate, the fault lies not with Social Security but with the Department of the Treasury which processes the direct doposits -- but Social Security will get the calls.

Continued Decline In Number Of Emloyees At Social Security

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at Social Security.These figures do not show the effects of reductions in overtime at Social Security.
  • March 2013 63,777
  • December 2012 64,538
  • September 2012 65,113
  • June 2012 65,282
  • March 2012 65,257
  • December 2011 65,911
  • September 2011 67,136
  • 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
  • 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
     Since the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January 2011, there has been a 9% decline in the number of employees at the Social Security Administration. 6,493 employees lost in about two and a half years at a time when the agency's workload is burgeoning.