Mar 31, 2015

22 Minute Hold Time On 800 Number -- If They're Even Able To Answer The Phone

     Some numbers from the newsletter of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel (emphasis added):
Field Office Appointment Availability
• Beginning of FY [Fiscal Year] 2012: 74 percent of customers could get an appointment within two weeks. Less than 1 percent waited over a month for an appointment.
• End of FY 2014: 28 percent of customers could get an appointment within two weeks. 47 percent had to wait over a month for an appointment.
Field Office Waiting Times
• FY 2012: Customers waited an average of 18.8 minutes; and 4.8 percent, or 2.15 million customers, waited over an hour to be served.
• FY 2014: Customers waited an average of 28.2 minutes (50 percent increase) and 13.3 percent, or 5.42 million customers, waited over an hour to be served.
Field Office Telephone Service
• FY 2012: Busy Rate: 7.4 percent; Answer Rate: 82.9 percent
• FY 2014: Busy Rate: 20.1 percent; Answer Rate: 67.3 percent
800 Number Telephone Service
• FY 2012: Busy Rate: 4.6 percent; Time on Hold: 4 minutes, 14 seconds; Answer Rate: unavailable
• FY 2014: Busy Rate: 13.5 percent; Time on Hold: 22 minutes, 3 seconds; Answer Rate: 53.8 percent

Mar 30, 2015

The Problem With Special Needs Trusts

     From the Raleigh News and Observer:
Floyd Brown was awarded millions of dollars after being wrongfully incarcerated. But for weeks he couldn’t get money to buy flowers for his mother’s grave.
His $4.5 million has been earning interest while Brown, who is 49 and mentally disabled, lives on $733 a month in Supplemental Security Income benefits. ...
Brown has an IQ of less than 60 and the mind of a 7-year-old. ...
In 2012, when Brown was awarded damages for wrongful incarceration, his mental abilities once again defined his future. Brown’s attorneys asked a federal judge to create a type of Special Needs Trust often set up for people with disabilities. It allows Brown to remain eligible for public benefits, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.
But it comes with strict guidelines about how his money is spent.
Strictly speaking, none of it could go toward flowers for his mother’s grave. The money can only be used to benefit Brown....
After Brown’s repeated requests for flowers went unanswered, his sister Frances Staton contacted the Observer. Staton, who has been her brother’s legal guardian since 1994, questioned why he has so much money but can’t use it. “The attorneys are getting paid. Why isn’t Floyd?”
The Observer contacted Charlotte attorney Tony Giordano, who administers the trust. “I’ve got regulations I have to live by,” Giordano said. “If you read the terms of the trust, it has to be used to enhance his life.” ...
Asked why a less restrictive trust wasn’t set up, Giordano said the decision was made jointly among himself, Rudolf and Cogburn. “It was only because he had public benefits (related to his disability); that was the sole motivating reason,” Giordano said. “Hindsight is great.”
To gain flexibility, Brown would forfeit SSI and Medicaid benefits. Staton said there is no reason why her brother, who has millions, should be on public assistance – especially if it’s hindering his access to his money.
“Floyd doesn’t need to be on Medicaid,” she said. “Floyd needs a home.” ...

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy
Asked why a less restrictive trust wasn’t set up, Giordano said the decision was made jointly among himself, Rudolf and Cogburn. “It was only because he had public benefits (related to his disability); that was the sole motivating reason,” Giordano said. “Hindsight is great.”
To gain flexibility, Brown would forfeit SSI and Medicaid benefits. Staton said there is no reason why her brother, who has millions, should be on public assistance – especially if it’s hindering his access to his money.
“Floyd doesn’t need to be on Medicaid,” she said. “Floyd needs a home.”

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpyBrown has an IQ of less than 60 and the mind of a 7-year-old.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpyBrown has an IQ of less than 60 and the mind of a 7-year-old.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy
After Brown’s repeated requests for flowers went unanswered, his sister Frances Staton contacted the Observer. Staton, who has been her brother’s legal guardian since 1994, questioned why he has so much money but can’t use it. “The attorneys are getting paid. Why isn’t Floyd?”
The Observer contacted Charlotte attorney Tony Giordano, who administers the trust. “I’ve got regulations I have to live by,” Giordano said. “If you read the terms of the trust, it has to be used to enhance his life.”

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article16696583.html#storylink=cpy

Mar 29, 2015

Nostalgia

     I recently saw in a client's file a physician's brief handwritten note on a prescription pad saying my client was disabled. It wasn't something I had requested. I used to see that sort of note all the time but it's been a while since I've seen one.

Mar 28, 2015

Democrats Embracing Social Security Expansion

In the wee hours of [Friday] morning, when most people were sleeping, the Senate took a vote that has momentous implications for who will win in 2016 and beyond. In three resounding votes over the last two days, Democrats rediscovered and reclaimed their legacy. 
Just before recessing until April 13, the Senate passed a budget resolution. Prior to final passage, it voted on three separate Social Security amendments. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) offered an amendment protecting all Americans against cuts in their Social Security earned benefits. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) offered an amendment only protecting current beneficiaries from cuts. And around 2:30 a.m., Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) offered an amendment advocating the expansion of Social Security.  
The results were revealing and important. Every Democratic senator who was present but two voted to expand Social Security. Every Democratic senator but one voted against cutting Social Security's modest benefits.  
In sharp contrast, no Republican voted to expand Social Security. Every Republican but a mere six voted to keep open the option of cutting the earned Social Security benefits of every American except for those fortunate enough to already be receiving those benefits. (Sorry, those of you who are a month away from retiring or have a disabling or deadly illness or accident in your future. The Republicans refused to vote to protect you.)

Mar 27, 2015

Republican Senators Open To Social Security Cuts

     From The Hill:
Senators on Tuesday blocked an amendment from Senate Democrats aimed at protecting Social Security.  
Senators voted 51-48 on a procedural motion, after Democrats tried to override the decision of Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Budget Committee, to block the amendment. 
The amendment would have required any proposal that cuts benefits or raises the Social Security retirement age meet a “point of order” requiring a supermajority of 60 votes for passage.

Mar 26, 2015

Why Do Republicans Refuse To Fund Program Integrity At Social Security?

     Congressional Republicans loudly decry what they believe to be "rampant fraud" (their term, not mine) in Social Security's disability programs but they refuse to fund increased efforts to find and prosecute this fraud. Democrats support increased funding for program integrity while Republicans oppose it. Are Republicans interested in whatever fraud there may be only to the extent that it may be used as a political issue? Do Republicans have any actual interest in the proper administration of Social Security?

Mar 25, 2015

51 Senators Open To Cutting Social Security

     From The Hill:
Senators on Tuesday blocked an amendment from Senate Democrats aimed at protecting Social Security.  
Senators voted 51-48 on a procedural motion, after Democrats tried to override the decision of Sen. Mike Enzi's (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Budget Committee, to block the amendment.  
The amendment would have required any proposal that cuts benefits or raises the Social Security retirement age meet a “point of order” requiring a supermajority of 60 votes for passage. 
But, Enzi blocked the amendment, saying it was not "germane" to the budget.

Mar 24, 2015

Online Appeals System Not Working

     Last week Social Security started up a new system for filing online appeals. The new system allows users to upload documents along with an appeal. This week I'm hearing many reports of difficulty filing appeals online, regardless of whether a document is uploaded at the same time. It's become just about impossible to file an appeal online. I can't say that the current problem is related to the new system but that seems likely.
     I'm sure that someone is working on the problem but it would be nice if the agency would communicate better on technical problems like this. Requiring that attorneys who represent claimants before the agency file appeals online at a time when the agency has no workable system for filing appeals online could cause some frustration.

Mar 23, 2015

How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

     I'm wondering how widespread this is. A Social Security disability claimant who has requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge is asked whether he or she objects to a video hearing. The claimant objects. Later, the hearing office ignores the claimant's wishes and attempts to schedule a video hearing anyway -- unless the claimant objects a second time. Anybody else seeing this?

Mar 22, 2015

An Interesting 4th Circuit Opinion

     The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an interesting opinion last week in the case of Mascio v. Colvin. Here are a few excerpts:
Here, the ALJ has determined what functions he believes Mascio can perform, but his opinion is sorely lacking in the analysis needed for us to review meaningfully those conclusions. In particular, although the ALJ concluded that Mascio can perform certain functions, he said nothing about Mascio’s ability to perform them for a full workday. ... 
[W]e agree with other circuits that an ALJ does not account “for a claimant’s limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work.” ...
Mascio’s argument stems from the ALJ’s use of the following language in his opinion:
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment. 
We agree with the Seventh Circuit that this boilerplate “gets things backwards” by implying “that ability to work is determined first and is then used to determine the claimant’s credibility.” ...
[A] claimant’s pain and residual functional capacity are not separate assessments to be compared with each other. Rather, an ALJ is required to consider a claimant’s pain as part of his analysis of residual functional capacity.

Mar 21, 2015

21 Month Sentence For Former Social Security Employee

     From the Dallas Morning News:
A former Social Security Administration employee was sentenced Friday to 21 months in federal prison for accessing the agency’s electronic databases to steal government money, the U.S. attorney’s office said. 
Carwin Shaw, 33, of Arlington, was also ordered to pay $78,165 in restitution for his role in the scheme.  ... 
He also caused unauthorized payments to be issued and to have duplicate payments issued for his conspirators. Shaw had more checks sent to his accomplices by reporting that their initial checks were lost or stolen. He then split the money with them, authorities said.

Mar 20, 2015

White House Criticizes GOP Effort To Force Social Security Showdown

     From TPM:
A top adviser to President Barack Obama on Friday slammed a House Republican maneuver aimed at forcing a showdown on Social Security as early as next year, signaling that it won't fly with the White House.

"The House provision was un-constructive and at odds with how this issue has been addressed time and time again in a bipartisan manner," Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president, told reporters at a breakfast downtown hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "It is just not tenable to walk away from what has been a very clear bipartisan approach to addressing the [disability fund] issue." ...
Deese said the president would welcome a conversation about Social Security but said the "right way to address this issue" is what Obama's budget released in February proposed: a "clean" reallocation to shore up the disability fund, something congressional Democrats also support.

ALJ Sues Over Alleged Discrimination

   From the Portland (Maine) Press Herald:
A judge who rules on disability cases for the Social Security Administration has sued the federal agency, accusing her supervisors of age and gender discrimination and retaliating against her for filing complaints about her treatment.
Administrative Law Judge Katherine Morgan, one of seven judges in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Portland, said in the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland that she was targeted by the office’s chief judge because of her age. She is 71.
Morgan, who has been a judge since 1994, filed a written complaint to her immediate supervisor, Chief Judge Guy Fletcher, after she was told on Dec. 11, 2013, that she was being targeted in an investigation by the Social Security Administration for her performance. The investigation focused on Morgan’s high production rate in deciding cases, for approving a high number of appeals and for attendance issues, according to the lawsuit.
“Chief Judge Fletcher repeatedly falsely accused Judge Morgan of time and attendance violations for documenting her time and attendance in exactly the same manner as the other judges, who were not accused,” the lawsuit says. ...
Morgan approved more appeals than any other judge in the Portland office. She approved 65 percent of disability claim appeals, dismissed 20 percent and denied 15 percent. She decided 148 cases from last Oct. 1 to March 11. ...

Mar 18, 2015

Empty Threats

     In the narrative explanation of its budget proposal, the House Budget Committee says that "There should be no raiding of the Social Security retirement program to bailout another, currently unsustainable program." The "unsustainable program" it's talking about is Social Security disability which has its own Disability Trust Fund separate from the Retirement and Survivors Trust Fund. Since the most recent projection is that there is a long term 20% shortfall in the Disability Trust Fund, they must be planning to pass a 20% cut in Disability Insurance Benefits since that's what will happen absent some legislation. If they actually mean what they say, their message is "You must agree to our plan to cut Social Security disability by 20% or Social Security disability will be cut by 20%." How many members of Congress, Democrats or Republicans, would vote for that?
     If you look at the actual budget numbers, the only cut in Social Security projected in the House budget is an unexplained $1 billion a year cut beginning in 2020. If you're cutting Social Security disability by 20%, the reduction in total Social Security benefit payments would be far more than $1 billion a year and it would start in 2017, not 2020.
     Do I have this right -- House Republicans are threatening cuts they couldn't possibly pass and that they don't even intend to propose?

Doesn't Seem Fair

     From BuzzFeed:
Two legal nonprofit groups filed a class action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration Tuesday for its treatment of married same-sex couples after the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prevented the federal government from recognizing their marriages. 
For almost a year after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in June 2013, the SSA continued to treat Hugh Held and Orion Masters as unmarried.
Despite Held asking the local Social Security branch office in Los Angeles whether the court’s ruling, in light of his 2008 marriage to Masters, would mean a change to his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, he continued to receive his benefits of $877.40 a month.
Then, in June 2014, Held’s benefit was reduced to $308.10 a month on account of his marriage to Masters.
Held and Masters were fine with that change, but they are not OK with the $6,205 bill that the Social Security Administration (SSA) also sent Held, the amount, SSA asserts, that Held was overpaid in benefits since the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor. ...

Mar 17, 2015

Hiltzik On 60 Minutes Piece

     Michael Hiltzik didn't think much of the 60 Minutes piece on the problems with Social Security's Death Master File (DMF). Here are a few excerpts from his column:
[60 Minutes] implied that it had turned up this scandal through its own digging, so it didn't mention that errors in the DMF is a hardy journalistic perennial, like reports on how bad the traffic is in your town or sweeps-week TV pieces on gourmet restaurants flunking sanitary inspections. ...
Most news reports on the DMF errors have a few things in common. They all seem to reflect the assumption that keeping an error-free master death list should be easy. And they blame the Social Security Administration for the flaws. ...
The biggest hole in the "60 Minutes" segment was the lack of suggestions about what to do about what is plainly an enormous headache for people wrongly listed as deceased. But it's not rocket science. To begin with, although the DMF is public, Congress should outlaw its use by any financial institution to take action against an account holder without verifying the information independently. ...
The news program also might have asked what it would cost the Social Security Administration to make the Death Master File rock-solid and error-free, and whether Congress would be willing to appropriate the money. Expecting the agency to maintain a perfect list, when the roll was never designed to become the raw material for bank and credit decisions, is ridiculous--especially in an era when Congressional cuts to the agency's administrative budget has forced it to close field offices that service tens of millions of benefit enrollees. ...
Should Social Security continue to do its most important job of serving its beneficiaries, or should it respond to blather from Congress and inflated headlines from "60 Minutes"?

Social Security Offices To Be Open Four More Hours Per Week

     From a Social Security press release:
Social Security announces as a result of Congress’ approval of the fiscal year 2015 budget, the agency will expand its hours nationwide and offices will be open to the public for an additional hour on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, effective March 16, 2015.  A field office that is usually open from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. will remain open until 4:00 p.m.  Offices will continue to close to the public at noon every Wednesday so employees have time to complete current work and reduce backlogs.
“This expansion of office hours reaffirms our commitment to providing the people we serve the option of top-notch, face-to-face assistance in field offices even as we work to expand online services for those who prefer that flexibility,” said Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security.  “The public expects and deserves world-class customer service and thanks to approved funding, I am pleased we will continue our tradition of exceptional service.”
In recent years, Social Security reduced public office hours due to congressional budget cuts, growing backlogs and staffing losses.  The agency began recovery in fiscal year 2014 by replacing some field office staffing losses and providing overtime support to process critical work.  With the commitment of resources in fiscal year 2015, the agency is able to restore some service hours to the public.

New Ruling On Interstitial Cystitis

 A new Social Security Ruling on the evaluation of interstitial cystitis in disability claims will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow but you can read it today. The Ruling replaces SSR 02-2p.

Hope This Works

     Maybe my complaint about Social Security's ineffective process for notifying the public of office closings did some good. Here's an e-mail I received from the agency:

You are subscribed to the Social Security Administration’s Office Closings and Emergency Information page. 
Now you can sign up to receive email or text messages when Social Security offices in your state or territory close down or open late because of severe weather or emergencies. 
To sign up for your state or territory, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/agency/emergency and click on this button:
 button to Subscribe to a state or territory for updates

Upload Documents When Filing Appeals

     Social Security says you can now upload supporting documents when filing an appeal.
Embedded image permalink

Mar 16, 2015

60 Minutes Report On Death Master File Problems

Blame CBS for the formatting problems here. Here's a link to watch it properly formatted.

Mar 15, 2015

Well, You Looked Dead To Me

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on Social Security's efforts to deal with situations in which the agency receives some information suggesting the possibility that a beneficiary has died but not definitive proof of death. Two of the situations identified by OIG were mail returned as undeliverable or a beneficiary who cannot be located. Not surprisingly, there are often overpayments in these cases when it turned out that the beneficiary had died. The agency often failed to recoup the money in these cases. OIG identified 58 cases involving about $1 million where that happened.
     This is one of those reports where you wonder whether OIG considers the collateral costs of what it is recommending. Sometimes people move and fail to leave a forwarding address. Sometimes the Post Office fails to properly implement a forwarding address. Sometimes a John Smith is reported to have died but the agency needs the death certificate to make sure it doesn't cut off benefits to the wrong John Smith. Sometimes people just disappear. Sometimes they reappear.  An overly aggressive approach to these types of cases could  save money but it could also cause benefit terminations for a lot of people who aren't dead. That's an enormous hassle for those whose benefits are wrongly terminated. Social Security doesn't have an army of employees with time on their hands to quickly investigate and sort out these cases.

Mar 14, 2015

Makes For Nice Headlines

     It doesn't even show up on the Committee's website but apparently the House Social Security Subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on Monday on the reports that there are millions of names shown in Social Security's database as being alive at age 112 or older, even though only 13 of them are receiving benefits and there's a date of birth error in each of those cases. 
     There's legitimate concern that the database inadequacy could be exploited for non-Social Security related criminal purposes but no sign that's actually happened. Declaring all those people dead would create havoc for many thousands of people whose date of birth was inaccurately entered in a database. This issue makes for great headlines but this shouldn't be a major story.

This Matters Far More Than Some Stupid WSJ Op Ed

Mar 13, 2015

Mar 12, 2015

Does Social Security Have A Policy On This?

     The Social Security Administration allows electronic signatures on its Form SSA-827, "Authorization To Disclose Information To The Social Security Administration." The agency allows most claims and appeals to be filed online. What about Form SSA-1696, "Appointment of Representative." What about fee agreements between attorneys and their clients? Does Social Security have a policy on acceptance of electronic signatures on these forms? Are "wet" signatures still required?

Mar 11, 2015

Age 112 And Still Not Dead On Social Security's Books

     From a recent audit report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
SSA did not have controls in place to annotate death information on the Numident records of numberholders who exceeded maximum reasonable life expectancies and were likely deceased. To illustrate, we identified approximately 6.5 million numberholders age 112 or older who did not have death information on the Numident. 
     This report is drawing attention from Congress and the media.
     The important thing to note is that Social Security isn't paying benefits to these deceased numberholders. There are a few people who are supposedly 112 or older who are receiving benefits but these are mostly due to errors in inputting date of birth, that is the people are actually younger than 112. For instance, somebody input 2/2/01 when they meant to input 2/2/91. There are a few other people receiving benefits on an incorrect account due to transposition errors in inputting their Social Security number when they applied for benefits. These folks are as likely to be underpaid as overpaid. These cases are only a very minor problem.
     OIG's point is that the Social Security numbers of people who are dead are sometimes used for identity fraud that doesn't involve Social Security benefits. This leads back to Social Security's longstanding complaint that it's set up to issue benefits to those who are entitled to benefits, not to administer a de facto national identification system. 
     It may be tempting to say that Social Security ought to declare dead everyone identified in their database as 112 or older but Social Security already knows that it has an incorrect date of birth for many people. It just doesn't know which people. Declaring someone dead when they are alive creates major problems. That already happens way too often. Declaring everyone dead who is down in Social Security's records as being 112 or older will lead to howls of outrage from thousands of people who would wrongly be declared dead and whose lives would be badly disrupted. It's not just Social Security. Other government agencies and financial institutions rely upon Social Security's Death Master File.
     OIG has a legitimate interest in preventing fraud, whether it's fraud on the Social Security Administration or identity fraud involving a Social Security number. However, OIG seems unconcerned with the problem of collateral damage to innocent people from overaggressive efforts to prevent fraud.

Mar 10, 2015

Hit Piece In The WSJ

     The Wall Street Journal has an op ed piece titled "Disability Claim Denied? Find The Right Judge." It's behind a pay wall. I'll just extract a few phrases and sentences to give readers the flavor of the piece:
  • "morphed into a benefit bonanza that costs taxpayers billions of dollars more than it should"
  • "judicial impartiality has declined significantly"
  • "Congress should also institute 15-year term limits for judges"
  • "Congress can limit this gamesmanship by allowing only one application per claimant in a three-year period."
  • "Decades ago workers ages 50 or 55 might have been considered retiring, but this is no longer generally the case. Novel job-training programs also make it easier than ever for workers to move into new fields and make up for low levels of education, and new disability criteria would account for these changes."  
     Michael Hiltzik takes down some of the nonsense in this piece but there's so much more. I'll limit myself to one sentence in the piece. What are these "novel job-training programs" that make it easier for handicapped people to move into different fields? I have no idea what he's talking about. Older people are less adaptable. That's just a fact of human existence. There's no program, old or new, that can change that. Making up for low levels of education? Adult basic education has been around for a very long time for those who are able to take advantage of it. The problem, however, is that the most common reason for people having low educational attainments is that they have limited cognitive abilities. That's an unpleasant truth that both liberals and conservatives prefer not to talk about. Sure, the limited cognitive abilities often have their genesis in childhood poverty but limited cognitive abilities are largely irreparable regardless of their cause. I'd be happy to substitute IQ tests for educational attainments in disability determination.