Sep 22, 2017

Why Do More Experienced ALJs Approve More Disability Claims?

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
In FY [Fiscal Year] 2015, the most experienced ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] had, on average, higher allowance rates than ALJs who had fewer years’ experience. Also, on average, ALJs who had more experience had agree rates [the rate of accuracy according to Social Security management but I would submit that this number is meaningless since there is no way of validating these numbers, i.e., there is no gold standard of ALJ decisional accuracy] of about 84 percent — about 6 percent lower than the ALJs who had less than 5 years’ experience. 

     While I don't recall any prior studies on the issue, the increase in ALJ allowance rates with more experience is nothing new. Attorneys who represent Social Security disability claimants pay close attention to this sort of thing.It's been a matter of common knowledge among us for a long, long time. We've long speculated that this is caused by the training process for new ALJs. However, I have heard many new ALJs who had represented claimants in the past assure me that the training wasn't slanted. They were all surprised that it wasn't slanted.
     Although I've presented it here, I think the "agree rate" is meaningless. You're just fooling yourself if you think there's a gold standard of disability determination. It doesn't exist. It's never existed. It's never going to exist.

Updated CARES Plan

     From Social Security's newly updated CARES Plan for dealing with its hearing backlog:
The original CARES Plan issued in January 2016 assumed a certain hiring of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) – 250 ALJs in each of fiscal years (FY) 2016, 2017 and 2018 along with the corresponding support staff. While we were able to hire 264 ALJs in FY 2016, an agency-wide hiring freeze hindered the hiring of corresponding support staff. At the start of FY 2017, the agency-wide hiring freeze continued and included ALJs followed by an Executive Order initiating a government-wide hiring freeze. While we were able to obtain an exception for hiring staff in the hearings operation, our funding level in FY 2017 did not support hiring at the levels originally assumed in the original 2016 CARES Plan. Our 2017 Updated CARES and Anomaly Plan builds on the tactical initiatives laid out in the 2016 plan. We are also introducing new initiatives in 2017. ...

... Proactive Analysis and Triage for Hearings (PATH) – PATH is a new initiative introduced in FY 2017. However, this initiative builds upon successful screening and data analytic tools developed for the SmartMands and National Adjudication Team (NAT) initiatives from the 2016 CARES Plan. PATH also incorporates the robust use of na├»ve Bayes classification that will identify cases likely for allowance prior to hearing assignment. Through this initiative, we will assign appropriate staff to review and process cases identified through our screening methodologies. We plan to continue developing the PATH methodology in an effort to use this robust analysis at all levels of disability processing. Through PATH, we expect an increase in non-ALJ adjudications (reversals, on-the-record decisions), which will create a significant savings and opening a hearing slot for another case where a hearing is necessary. Our early projections for PATH modeling efforts in March 2017 suggested that approximately 3 percent (about 22,000) of unassigned cases pending at the hearing level could be identified by this model to be appropriately reviewed for a fully favorable decision without a hearing. We continue to monitor the percent of cases that are selected through the PATH model to validate our expected outcomes and will continue to update and improve our triage models as we learn from and incorporate the results of our efforts. ...
Move from Office-Based to National-Based First-In First-Out (FIFO) Model – This is a new initiative in FY 2017 that enhances the method of FIFO workload assignment by sharing resources across the country and matching up resource availability. This assists in prioritizing cases that have been waiting the longest. We will begin testing in the Seattle Region with the first stage of our process, when the hearing office first gets the case. We expect to see a balance in wait times and reduce bottlenecks in key parts of case processing (e.g., case intake, workup). ...
Pre-Hearing Conference (PHC) Expansion – We introduced this initiative with our original CARES Plan. As of December 31, 2016, over 30 participating offices conducted over 6,000 PHCs since May 2015. Data showed PHC participants had completed their hearing without postponement or rescheduling 56 percent of the time compared to 28 percent for those who did not participate in a PHC. Due to competing priorities, we paused this initiative in December 2016 to allow offices to focus on decision writing. With support from special anomaly funding, we will resume the PHC program on a limited basis in FY 2017, eventually normalizing the practice of PHCs for unrepresented claimants nationwide. Overall, we should see an increase the number of successful first time hearings a reduction in postponed hearings that needlessly take up hearing slots. ...
Voluntary Standby List – This CARES initiative is new for FY 2017 and may be supported by special anomaly funding for systems support to develop new notices. We will create the opportunity for claimants to have their hearings sooner by filling empty hearing slots on short notice. Participation will be voluntary, and participants must sign a waiver of advanced hearing notice should a spot become available. We expect to increase flexibilities with scheduling hearings by filling every available hearing timeslot. ...
     I salute those who drafted this document for trying but the only things that will really work are hiring more personnel and getting serious about screening cases for approval by a senior attorney or at what has been referred to informally as "re-recon." They can't do much hiring now because of budget constraints. While this plan talks of screening cases for early approval the way they have actually done this has been so restrictive that almost no cases have been disposed of. It appears to me that they are almost literally terrified of doing anything that results in more claims being approved even if, as here, it's just a matter of claims being approved earlier. Virtually all the cases approved in the past in the senior attorney and re-recon programs would have been approved eventually.
     Unfortunately, I'm not expecting anything but a worsening of the backlogs until there's a change in the control of the House of Representatives. That will get more resources for the agency and bring about different ways of thinking.
     By the way, the backlogs would have been much worse except for a major downturn in the number of Social Security disability claims filed. I hear that the agency's actuaries can't figure out the downturn. I can. Prospective claimants are discouraged by the huge backlogs and high denial rates. They delay filing claims. It may seem irrational to delay filing a disability claim because of bad backlogs. Wouldn't you want to get your place in line as soon as possible? Sure, if you're rational but humans are deeply irrational beings, especially when they're facing a crisis in their lives, as is the case with newly disabled people.

Sep 21, 2017

Caseload Analysis Report

     Below is a report that the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) obtained from the Social Security Administration and published in its newsletter. That newsletter is not available online. Click on the thumbnail to view it full size. The published original is a bit fuzzy but it's readable.

Sep 20, 2017

Another Editorial On Backlogs

     The Denver Post has published an editorial on the backlogs in processing Social Security disability claims. It's got a reference to fraud but I think that the Republican effort to portray the Social Security disability programs as being rife with fraud is fading. They could only go so far with that because it's just not true. Instead, we're seeing more reporting on the horrible backlogs.

CUFF That Impulse

     From a press release issued by the Coalition for Citizens with Disablities (CCD), the major umbrella group of nonprofits working to help the disabled:
On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, the House Ways and Means Committee passed an amended version of H.R. 2792, the Control Unlawful Fugitive Felons [CUFF] Act of 2017. This bill would cut off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits entirely for certain people with disabilities, as well as seniors. The proposed cut would bar payment of SSI benefits to people with an outstanding arrest warrant for an alleged felony or for an alleged violation of probation or parole. 
H.R. 2792 would revive an old, failed policy that had catastrophic effects for many people with disabilities and seniors, employing procedures that did not withstand judicial scrutiny. This proposal would not help law enforcement secure arrests. The Social Security Act already prohibits payments to people fleeing from law enforcement to avoid prosecution or imprisonment. The Social Security Administration (SSA) currently notifies law enforcement of the whereabouts of every person with a warrant for an alleged felony or an alleged violation of probation or parole who turns up in SSA’s databases. This bill would not change these policies and procedures.
Based on prior experience with SSA’s failed former policy, the people who would be affected are those whose cases are inactive and whom law enforcement is not pursuing. Most of the warrants in question are decades old and involve minor infractions, including warrants routinely issued when a person was unable to pay a fine or court fee, or a probation supervision fee. Many people are not even aware that a warrant was issued for them, as warrants are often not served on the individual. Some people will be swept up as a result of mistaken identity, or paperwork errors, which can take months or even years to resolve.
Resolving these warrants can be extremely hard and costly: people often must go before a judge in the issuing jurisdiction, and typically need counsel to assist them in navigating the process. Often, people have moved in the intervening years and live far from the issuing jurisdiction. ...
     Having seen this before, I definitely agree with CCD. This is the sort of thing that looks good from 30,000 feet. However, at ground level it's obviously unfair. People are deprived of their income over minor matters from many years earlier and sometimes they've done nothing wrong. They have to persuade prosecutors to dismiss ancient charges that couldn't possibly be prosecuted. Prosecutors are sometimes cooperative, sometimes hostile. It just depends upon the prosecutor. It's not fighting crime. It's not achieving any worthy goal. It's just harsh.

Sep 19, 2017

Equifax And Social Security

     Dave Lindorff at Salon wonders "How badly did Equifax breach damage the Social Security system?" The question arises because Equifax, which has suffered a massive hacking breach, has a contract with Social Security to help with security for the mySocialSecurity system that allows Americans to have some degree of access to their Social Security records.
     It's a reasonable question to ask. Unfortunately, when Lindorff asked Social Security, he got nothing. Their public affairs office refused to answer questions.
     Let my try to give the answer that Social Security should have given. Social Security obtains information from Equifax to verify identities but gives none to Equifax in return. For example, Social Security would ask Equifax for information on a person who is attempting to establish a mySocialSecurity account and those records might show that the person had recently purchased a car. Social Security would ask the person what brand of car they purchased. If the person attempting to open the mySocialSecurity account is the true number holder, they'd be able to answer the question and open the account. The key fact is that there is no information exchange. All of the information goes in one direction, from Equifax to Social Security. Equifax gets no information in return apart from the knowledge that Social Security was asking for information on that person.
     If there is a problem, it would be that the information hacked from Equifax could be used to open mySocialSecurity accounts but that risk quickly disappears assuming Equifax has stopped the data breach since Social Security is only using recent information to verify identity. Also, even apart from the Equifax hack, identity thieves have been able to access mySocialSecurity accounts to change bank deposit information to divert payments made to claimants. So far, Social Security has regarded this as a low level problem. To some extent that's true. It doesn't take long for people to complain about not receiving their Social Security benefits so little money is stolen and it's all eventually restored to the rightful people. However, it's a big problem for those who are deprived of their Social Security benefits for a month or two or three. Social Security seems to prefer that this not be publicized since it undermines their effort to get people to open mySocialSecurity accounts.
     I should say that Social Security eventually got its act together and was able to give a terse but accurate response when the Wall Street Journal asked the same question. The Wall Street Journal article is behind a pay wall.
     Update: Social Security really should have put out a statement on this as soon as possible after the Equifax breach became public. Two Senators have written a letter to  the Acting Commissioner asking about Equifax.

Brilliant Analysis

     The Scranton, Pennsylvania Times-Tribune has published an editorial saying that the Social Security disability "system is disabled and in need to rapid rehabilitation" It then goes on to cite the extensive backlogs at the agency. So what "rehabilitation" does this newspaper think is needed? They don't say. They just wonder why key staff shortages developed at Social Security and think someone needs to take a look at "whether the system’s earlier stages need to be improved to prevent so many appeals." 
     I don't expect a newspaper's editorial writers to have detailed Social Security knowledge but the research behind this piece must have taken less than a minute. I'm going to miss newspapers when they're gone but I'm not going to miss worthless editorials like this.
     Update: Here's a much better editorial on the same subject from a much smaller paper in Council Bluffs, Iowa showing what you can do if you put a little time into it.

Sep 18, 2017

People Want Smaller Government -- But Not For Themselves

     From Tom Margenau's column in the Arizona Daily Star: 
 I sure am glad President Trump isn’t considering me to be the new head of the Social Security Administration. What a thankless job! As about 10,000 people retire every day, and as thousands more file for disability and survivor benefits, the agency’s workforce keeps dwindling. And it’s going to get worse. ... 
The Trump administration has ordered the Social Security Administration (and almost all other government agencies) to downsize. At SSA, early retirement incentives have been offered to about 15,000 employees. That’s one-fourth of the agency’s total workforce of 62,000.That’s going to mean the closure of more local Social Security offices, which means fewer people available to answer the thousands of calls the agency gets every day. By far, the No. 1 complaint I hear from my readers is the overly long wait times when they call SSA’s 800 number. Well, all I can say is: Get used to it.
I’ve made this following point many times in this column. So many Americans claim they want smaller government. But if my e-mails are any indication, what they really mean is they want smaller government for everyone else — but not for themselves. ...
And if you also think that SSA, just like any other government agency , has a bloated administrative budget that could stand some trimming, well, think again. Out of every dollar collected in Social Security taxes, less than one penny goes toward running the agency that maintains earnings records for almost every American and pays monthly benefits to 1 out of every 6 Americans. ...
And if you think that these Trump cuts will merely be reversing all the growth in government that happened during the Obama years, you’re wrong. Between 2010 and 2016, SSA’s budget dropped by more than 10 percent. During that same period, its beneficiary base went up by 12 percent and its fixed costs increased by about $300 million each year....

Sep 17, 2017

You Can't Make Bricks Without Straw

     From the Associated Press:
More than 1 million Americans await a hearing to see whether they qualify for disability benefits from Social Security, with the average wait nearly two years -- longer than some of them will live. ... 
Last year, the agency's budget was $12.6 billion, roughly the same as it was in 2011, even though an additional 6 million people receive either retirement or disability benefits from Social Security. ...  
"No search for efficiencies, reprioritization of tasks or technological improvements can substitute for adequate resources," said Lisa Ekman of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives.

Sep 16, 2017

There"s No Mailing List For This Blog

     I keep getting e-mails asking from people asking me to add their e-mail address to the mailing list for this blog. There isn't a mailing list for this blog. There used to be but technical changes at Blogger made that impossible. If you want to access this blog, you have to come to this website on a regular basis.