Nov 27, 2014

Bill To End Benefits For Suspected Nazi War Criminals To Advance

     From The Hill:
The House will vote next week on a bill that would eliminate government benefits for suspected Nazi war criminals. 
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) office released a schedule Wednesday outlining next week's floor agenda that showed the bill, H.R. 5739, will be considered under a fast-track procedure, indicating that it will pass easily.
     There are no unrelated items in the bill, making it almost completely symbolic.  Far more money will be spent passing and implementing this than could possibly be saved.

Nov 26, 2014

Field Offices To Be Closed To Public On Friday

     I just got a tweet from Social Security saying that their field offices will be closed to the public Friday. I don’t know why they waited so late on announcing this. Social Security staff who aren’t taking the day off are supposed to be at work Friday.

Declining Disability Claims

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General


Nov 25, 2014

Fees For Representing Social Security Claimants Going Down

     As part of a virulently hostile piece about attorneys who represent the disabled, the Manhattan Institute, a right wing "think tank", posted this graph, which undermines their argument a bit:

Nov 24, 2014

Updated Disability Trust Fund Numbers

     The numbers are now available on the operations of Social Security's Disability Insurance Trust Fund through the third quarter of this year. To make it a little easier to understand, I'll give the net decrease in the Trust Fund balance for each quarter this year, in billions, and the comparison to 2013.
  • 1st Quarter 2014 -$6.4 billion, $1.5 billion better than in 1st Quarter 2013
  • 2nd Quarter 2014 -$4.1 billion, $0.2 billion worse than in 2nd Quarter 2013
  • 3rd Quarter 2014 -$10.1 billion, $0.3 billion better than in 3rd Quarter 2013
     The net is a reduction in the Disability Trust Fund of $20.6 billion through the first nine months of 2014, which is $1.6 billion better than during the same time period of 2013. The intermediate projection of Social Security's Chief Actuary was that the decline in the Disability Trust Fund would be exactly the same in 2014 as in 2013, $32.2 billion, so, thus far this year, the rate of decline is about 5% better than projected. Does that continue in the 4th quarter? More important, does the improvement continue next year and in coming years?

Nov 23, 2014

"Truly Disabled"


Senator Tom Coburn, who will be leaving the Senate in January, has some strong opinions he wants to share about Social Security disability.

Nov 22, 2014

Nov 21, 2014

Americans Demand Local Field Office Service

      Poll results reported by the Strengthen Social Security Coalition:
A majority of Americans want to be able to call or visit a local Social Security field office for various services. The vast majority of Americans — regardless of party affiliation, race/ethnicity, gender and age — believe that we need to have more or the same number of local field offices in the future. 
57 percent of people want to be able to call or visit a local office to request a new Social Security card. 
  • 35 percent of those surveyed would prefer to call a local phone number to speak with a live agent. 
  • 22 percent said that they would like to visit a local Social Security office in person. 
  • 24 percent would prefer to call a national 800 number to speak with a live agent. 
  • 11 percent prefer using the internet or email. 
  • 7 percent of participants prefer using an automated phone service. 1 percent would like to correspond through the mail and 1 percent are unsure of their preferred method. 
59 percent of people want to be able to call or visit a local office to get information when they are one or two years away from retirement . 
  • 33 percent of those surveyed would prefer to call a local phone number to speak with a live agent. 
  • 26 percent said that they would like to visit a local Social Security office in person. 
  • 21 percent would prefer to call a national 800 number to speak with a live agent. 
  • 12 percent prefer using the internet or email. 
  • 5 percent of participants prefer using an automated phone service. 1 percent would like to correspond through the mail and 1 percent are unsure of their preferred method. 
61 percent of people want to be able to call or visit a local office when it was time to actually apply for retirement benefits.
  • 32 percent of those surveyed would prefer t o call a local phone number to speak with a live agent. 
  • 29 percent said that they would like to visit a local Social Security office in person. 
  • 19 percent would prefer to call a national 800 number to speak with a live agent.
  • 13 percent prefer using the internet or email. 
  • 5 percent of participants prefer using an automated phone service. 1 percent would like to correspond through the mail and 1 percent are unsure of their preferred method. 
86 percent of Americans want more or the same number of local field offices in the future. 
  • 44 percent believe there should be more local field offices in the future 
  • 42 percent believe there should be the same number of local field offices in the future 
  • 8 percent believe there should be fewer local field offices in the future 
These results are from a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling who surveyed 1,207 registered voters on November 14 - 16, 2014.

Nov 20, 2014

Does This Line Keep Going Up And Up?

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General

Nov 19, 2014

Budget Cuts Opposed

     From Joe Davidson's column in the Washington Post:
In advance of feared Republican budget cuts, Social Security advocates gathered on Capitol Hill to ward off more hits to a basic federal program that serves nearly all American families. ...
[S]ervice reductions have been a reality for years, with Congress providing less money than President Obama requested. ...
From fiscal year 2011 through 2013, the Social Security Administration received $2.7 billion less than Obama requested, followed by a small increase in 2014, according to a Senate Special Committee on Aging report.
“The three previous years of low funding, combined with a wave of retirements and a hiring freeze that has been in place since 2010, led to a reduction in staffing throughout SSA’s operations,” the report said.
Staffing reductions mean service reductions. The notion of doing more with less only goes so far and that is not far enough to maintain service without cuts.
Citing data from the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, the committee said field-office staffing dropped 14 percent from 2011 to 2014. ...
Good luck to Social Security clients requesting a hearing after being denied benefits. They’ll need a great deal of patience. There are about 1 million cases in the hearing backlog. SSA estimates it will take an average, not a maximum, of 435 calendar days for those clients to get a decision.
“Shameful” is the word acting SSA commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, had for the backlog.
Colvin, whom Obama has nominated to be the full time commissioner, said, “I’ve had to make some very, very difficult decisions.”
Reduced funding prevented the agency from hiring administrative law judges who conduct the hearings. That led, Colvin said, to “a situation I find not acceptable.”
The agency lost 12,000 employees it could not replace. How do you manage a field office now staffed with two or three employees instead of the eight to 12 who once worked there, she asked. Her answer: “It’s almost impossible.”
 She assured the advocates that “there is no grand plan to close down field offices” and she has “absolutely no intention” of using technology to replace workers — particular concerns of Mikulski and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), whose members staff them. ...

I Don't Like This Press Release

     From a press release issued by the Republican majority on the House Ways and Means Committee: 
Last week, Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General (IG) Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., released a further response to the June 2014 letter sent by Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX), requesting a full and immediate investigation into the SSA’s mismanagement and failed implementation of the $300 million Disability Case Processing System (DCPS) ... Chairman Johnson issued the following statement:
“The news is not good for taxpayers based on reports received so far regarding Social Security’s failed implementation of a new disability case processing system. After spending close to $300 million, with efforts led by a team of multiple leaders using 46 vendors, Social Security spent almost $800,000 of hard-earned taxpayer dollars to pay an independent contractor to tell them they should have had one person in charge of the project. Worse, no one was fired and taxpayers will not get any of their misspent money back. It also raised questions about Social Security’s lack of transparency and more troubling efforts to possibly conceal information from the IG. Going forward, I will continue to hold the Commissioner fully accountable as she takes steps to right this wrong for taxpayers.”
Results of a criminal investigation regarding the implementation of DCPS are still pending.
     Criminal investigation? Give me a break. Read the actual IG report rather than just the press release. Nothing like that is suggested. Everybody knew that development and implementation of DCPS was going to be extraordinarily difficult since what it is replacing is a highly fragmented mess that developed over decades. Realistically, could DCPS have been managed better? Can it be better managed now? Maybe. I don't know. It's always easy to look back with 20/20 hindsight and say that mistakes were made along the way. That doesn't mean that the people who made those mistakes are fools or knaves. They just did the best they could under the circumstances. The idea that there is anything criminal seems absurd on its face. The IG report suggests nothing like that.
     Would DCPS have happened differently had John McCain or Mitt Romney been elected President? Probably not. Would this press release have been issued if there was a Republican president? Of course, not. The public isn't paying attention to DCPS. There's nothing here or likely to come out that would create any political advantage to either party.
     Can't we just get on with governing? Can't Republicans in Congress just do ordinary oversight (and ordinary second guessing) without this sort of press release? This sort of thing can't be good for day to day working relationships between Committee members, their staffs and Social Security officials.

Nov 18, 2014

Outreach To The Homeless Looks Successful, But ...

     The abstract of an article in the most recent issue of the Social Security Bulletin (emphasis added): 
This study uses administrative data to evaluate the outcomes of the disability applications submitted to the Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Benefits Entitlement Services Team (B.E.S.T) Demonstration Project and to determine if the project successfully increased access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments and/or Disability Insurance (DI) benefits for individuals experiencing homelessness. B.E.S.T—a unique partnership between the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, SSA, and the California Disability Determination Services—was a collaborative effort to locate homeless adults and assist them in applying for SSI payments and/or DI benefits. B.E.S.T facilitated the completion of SSI and DI applications, including the compilation of all forms and medical evidence needed to submit the completed applications to SSA. The findings show that B.E.S.T contributed to increased access to disability benefits for applicants. Relative to other disability cases, the B.E.S.T cases had high allowance rates and short processing times.
     The thing that concerns me is the degree of selectivity in the B.E.S.T. program. The article indicates that B.E.S.T. applicants had a 90% rate of success! There's no way of achieving that sort of "success" in this or any other population without being incredibly selective. In a law practice setting, I'd call it wildly overselective. Considering the frequency that homeless claimants are "lost to followup", as physicians put it, B.E.S.T. couldn't have just been insisting on gold plated cases. They must have been demanding platinum plated cases.
     This begs the question of what success means when you're trying to help homeless people.

Nov 17, 2014

OIG Report On ALJs With High Allowance And Disposition Rates

     The Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on "outlier" Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who have unusually high rates of approving disability claims and who also dispose of many cases is out.
     I have to repeat what I said in response to the press reports that this was coming: 
  • Where did OIG find the gold standard for determining who is and who isn't disabled?
  • Will OIG share this gold standard with the rest of Social Security? The agency has been seeking this gold standard for more than 50 years. 
     The OIG report gives essentially no information about the gold standard they found. It's not clear who administered this gold standard. What sort of training and experience did those people have?
     Of course, I and others keep wondering when OIG will take a look at ALJs with low allowance rates.

On Average Each Social Security Employee Responsible For Administering $45.5 Million Each Year

     The National Academy of Social Security (NASI) recently computed the amount of Medicare and Medicaid benefits per employee of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). I don't see that NASI has done a similar computation for Social Security. Let's give it a try. In 2013, Social Security paid out $2,764,431 million in retirement, survivors and disability benefits and $53,900 million in Supplemental Security Income (including state supplementation), for a total of $2,818,331 million in benefits. As of December 2013, Social Security had 61,957 employees. If my math is correct, that means that each Social Security employee was responsible for $45.5 million that year. 
     Given the vast sums of benefit payments that Social Security must administer, does the agency have enough employees to get the job done in an cost effective way? Does the agency have enough employees to provide adequate public service?

Nov 16, 2014

Options For Future Changes To Social Security

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 15, 2014

Inspector General To Issue Report On ALJs Who Approve Many Disability Claims

     From the Wall Street Journal:
A large number of Social Security disability cases approved by certain judges lacked “a well-supported rationale” for awarding benefits, the agency’s inspector general will say in a new report, potentially drawing renewed scrutiny to a program that grew sharply during the economic downturn. 
The Social Security Administration’s inspector general plans next week to issue a report that looks at benefits paid by administrative law judges who had both decided an unusually large number of cases and awarded an unusually high number of benefits. 
The agency determined there were 44 judges over seven years who met that criteria, a number that represented just 4% of the agency’s judicial corps. ... 
It examined 275 instances when those judges awarded benefits and found that just 31 of the cases were “properly processed.” Another 216 of the cases “had quality issues,” and 28 “had missing information that prevented us from reviewing the file,” according to the report. 
The inspector general concluded that 38 of the 275 cases should have ultimately been denied. It used these findings to determine that the agency “improperly allowed disability benefits on approximately 24,900 cases, resulting in questionable costs of about $2 billion.”
     Could someone explain to me how Social Security's Office of Inspector General came by the gold standard for judging who is and who isn't disabled?  I know that the rest of Social Security would love to see that gold standard. They've been looking for it for more than 60 years but they just can't seem to find it.

Fallacy Of The Day: People Are Living Longer So They Are Working Longer

     This is from an article in the Social Security Bulletin.
FRA refers to Full Retirement Age, which used to be 65, is 66 now and will become 67.
     In case you're having trouble understanding these charts, they show that the vast majority of men and women go on Social Security retirement benefits before full retirement age. Any increase in the full retirement age functions far more as a benefit cut than as an incentive to work longer. The vast majority of people can't make it to full retirement age now. How can increasing full retirement age affect them other than to cut their benefits?

Nov 14, 2014

Americans Overwhelmingly Reject Social Security Benefit Cuts

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 12, 2014

Americans Willing To Pay For Social Security

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 10, 2014

Americans Overwhelmingly Support Raising FICA Cap To Finance Social Security

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 9, 2014

Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Reducing Social Security Benefits Even If It Means More Taxes

          From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 8, 2014

Interesting

     Maximus, a corporation that has a major contract with the U.S. Social Administration to administer the Ticket to Work program, has just been awarded a major contract to do disability determination for the United Kingdom's version of Social Security, the Department for Work and Pensions. Maximus is replacing a prior contractor which was having major problems.

Nov 7, 2014

Information Matters

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 6, 2014

Big Class Action Settlement For SSA Employees With Disabilities

     From a press release:
Nearly a decade after Ronald Jantz, a deaf employee of the Social Security Administration, filed a class action claim against his employer alleging discrimination in promotions of employees with disabilities, the parties today jointly announce that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has preliminarily approved a class-wide settlement designed to make sweeping improvements to policies and processes impacting the careers of employees with disabilities at the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration, with approximately 60,000 current employees, is one of the largest federal employers of employees with disabilities. The class action settlement will also provide monetary relief to employees with "targeted disabilities." Targeted disabilities are a subset of disabilities that the EEOC, as a matter of policy, has identified for special emphasis, and include deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, epilepsy, severe intellectual disability, psychiatric disability, and dwarfism. With no finding of wrongdoing or discrimination, the parties set aside their differences and devoted their energy to creating a dynamic package of relief and enhancements for past and current SSA employees. 
Specifically, the Settlement Agreement includes a package of extensive programmatic changes that are designed to retain and support employees with disabilities and to broadly enhance the opportunities for career success and advancement of such employees. These programmatic changes include major revisions to SSA's reasonable accommodation processes, technology processes, training content, and provision of assistive supports for Agency employees with disabilities. The reasonable accommodation changes, in particular, will create a new centralized office where a multidisciplinary team of specialists will promptly and expertly handle requests that do not lend themselves to ready approval by a first-line manager 
In addition to the sweeping package of programmatic changes, the Settlement Agreement also establishes a separate fund of $9.98 million for the payment of claims to eligible class members, as well as Class Counsel's legal fees and expenses, and payments to Mr. Jantz and the other class agents, as well as administrative costs.

Nov 5, 2014

What Will The Election Results Mean For Social Security?

     My track record on predictions isn't good but I'll go ahead anyway knowing that my readers can respond with their own predictions.
     First, nothing will happen to Social Security's retirement and survivor benefits. Nothing can possibly touch them either now or in the future.
     Second, Carolyn Colvin won't be confirmed as Commissioner. Senate Democrats will try to confirm judges mostly in the lame duck session. There's no urgency to the Colvin nomination for Democrats since she remains on as Acting Commissioner until a new Commissioner is confirmed.
     Third, Republicans will hold more hearings trying to expose waste, fraud and abuse in Social Security's disability programs. I don't think they're going to find much to expose. There are many claims and many claimants so there's always something but I don't think there's anything major out there. House Republicans have been imploring Social Security's Inspector General for the last four years to please, please find something juicy. You can make your own judgment but I don't think what has been found amounts to much and I doubt there's much more to find. The low hanging fruit has already been plucked.
     Fourth, House Republicans will try to draft some legislation to deal with the possible exhaustion of the Disability Trust Fund but I don't think their heart will be in it. Cutting Social Security isn't popular, even when you're talking about disability benefits. They also have a technical problem. Republicans with real knowledge and experience with Social Security benefits are almost nonexistent. My guess is that if they can possibly delay this to 2017, they will and I think they can delay it so that the next Congress will have to deal with it. Nevertheless, pressure will remain on the Social Security Administration to do something to "save" the Disability Trust Fund so I expect some harsh regulatory proposals to try to propitiate the Republicans. That's pointless since Congressional Republicans don't want to be propitiated but the agency never learns.
     Fifth, I have no idea what sort of operating budget the agency will get. Probably, it won't be significantly higher any time soon but I'm not sure it will be cut. I don't think the GOP wants the blame for poor service at Social Security. My impression is that Congressional Republicans would like to hold hearings about poor service at Social Security, much like the hearings on service at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but again they have concern that the blame will be placed on them. The hearings on service at VA have resulted in a sharply higher operating budget for VA. I doubt that result is in the picture for Social Security. 

Nov 4, 2014

Disability Discharges Of Federal Student Loan Debt Made Less Difficult

     Federal student loans may be collected out of Social Security benefits. However, federal student loan debtors can qualify for a "total and permanent disability" discharge of their debts. An increasing number of Social Security disability recipients have student loan debts collected out of their benefits. A new Department of Education website now includes information on how to get a "total and permanent disability" discharge of federal student loan debt and there's an online application. Until recently, the Department of Education didn't even have a paper form specifically for applications for "total and permanent disability" discharge!
     I still say that the Department of Education and the Social Security Administration should do a data match and the Department of Education should summarily discharge student loan debts for Social Security disability recipients whom Social Security puts in the category "Medical Improvement Not Expected" which the Department of Education accepts as being "total and permanent disability." When this can be done automatically, why put everyone, including the agency, through the trouble of an application process?

Nov 3, 2014

Americans Favor Many Options For Increasing Social Security Benefits

     From a survey conducted by Greenwald and Associates for the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in June 2014:

Nov 2, 2014

Triple Dippers?

     Apparently at the request of Republican Senator Tom Coburn, the Government Accountability Office has done a study of the concurrent receipt of Social Security disability benefits, Veterans benefits and military retirement. Here is an excerpt:
Out of the 1.9 million DOD [Department of Defense] nondisability and disability retirees, we identified 59,251 individuals who received concurrent payments in fiscal year 2013 from DOD retirement, VA disability compensation, and SSDI.  The payments totaled over $3.5 billion.  From our population of individuals receiving concurrent payments, we also selected a random sample of seven individuals to provide illustrative examples.  These seven examples individually received from $19,210 to $152,719 in concurrent benefits.