Oct 31, 2006

Astrue Nomination Coming To A Head Before Election?

The Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid and the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, have written Michael Astrue, President Bush's nominee to become the next Commissioner of Social Security. Note two things in the letter that is reproduced below. First, Reid and Baucus are obviously concerned about Astrue being in office during the term of President Bush's successor, whom they hope will be a Democrat. Second, and more interesting, the two Senators are demanding answers to questions on Astrue's views on privatization before the election and make only the most thinly veiled threat to block Astrue's confirmation if he fails to answer before the election. The fate of Astrue's nomination may be determined in the next few days.

October 31, 2006

Dear Mr. Astrue:

Congratulations on your nomination to be the next Commissioner of Social Security. This position is one of the most important in the Federal Government because the Commissioner is responsible for maintaining a program that many Americans depend on for their financial survival. Indeed, if the Social Security program did not exist, more than 50 percent of our seniors would be living in poverty. Therefore, we and the other members of the Congress will examine your qualifications for this position very closely.

Given the importance of the Social Security program, Congress established the Social Security Administration as an independent agency in 1994. One important aspect of the Agency's independence is that the Commissioner serves a six-year term, in contrast to the four-year term for the President. Additionally, a President can only fire the Commissioner of Social Security for willful misconduct. With these two features that make the agency and the Commissioner independent, it is quite possible that a Commissioner could be in office during the term of a President who did not appoint him or her. Thus, Congress clearly contemplated the possibility that a Commissioner may have different views on some issues than the President who is in office at the same time.

A critical issue facing the Social Security program is the challenge of shoring up its long-term finances. Under current law, the Social Security program can be fully financed until 2046, according to information on Congressional Budget Office. After that, the program can pay 79 cents of every dollar of benefits. Clearly, we must make some changes to pay full Social Security benefits in the future. The sooner we make these changes, the more time future workers and beneficiaries will have to adjust their retirement plans.President Bush has proposed a privatization plan that would change the Social Security program dramatically, and this proposal is fully reflected in the proposed Budget he sent to the Congress last February. The proposal has two major elements." President Bush has proposed a privatization plan that would change the Social Security program dramatically, and this proposal is fully reflected in the proposed Budget he sent to the Congress last February. The proposal has two major elements.

The first major element would privatize Social Security by allowing workers to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private savings accounts, rather than into the Social Security Trust Fund. We have strong objections to this change. The diversion of payroll taxes into private accounts would worsen -- not improve -- Social Security's long-run solvency problems, thereby leading to benefit cuts, it would increase Federal debt held by the public by $5 trillion during its first twenty years in operation, and it would expose Social Security benefits -- which are the sole or primary source of income for many seniors -- to financial market risks.

The second major element of the President's proposal would further cut Social Security benefits deeply by changing the formula by which initial Social Security benefits of future retirees would be determined. As a result of this change, many middle-class retirees would suffer enormous reductions in their benefits. For example, workers with yearly earnings equivalent to $59,000 today would have their future Social Security benefits reduced by 42 percent. Workers with earnings equivalent to $37,000 would suffer a 28 percent reduction in their future benefits. We think that such huge cuts in benefits are not acceptable.

To adequately evaluate your nomination, it is important for us to know your answers to two questions:

1. What are your views on each major element of President Bush's privatization plan?

2. To what extent will you speak out and take actions to support President Bush's privatization plan in public or in private?

In order for us to proceed expeditiously, please provide your answers no later than Nov. 3.

We look forward to hearing your responses to these two important questions and to working with you to keep the Social Security program strong for future beneficiaries.


Harry Reid, Senate Democratic Leader

Senator Max Baucus, Ranking Member, Committee on Finance

FASAB And Social Security

Ever heard of the FASAB? Those initials stand for the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board. So what could that have to do with Social Security? The Associated Press reports that the FASAB has issued a 150 page report proposing that federal government financial reports show future Social Security benefits as a current unfunded liability, basically to apply accrual accounting to Social Security. Interestingly, Bush Administration appointees to the FASAB have opposed the proposal.

Oct 30, 2006

Social Worker Case Manager Job Advertised

Social Security has now advertised five job openings for "Social Worker (Case Manager)." This is part of the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) experiment. The job appears to be nearly identical to the Nurse Case Manager positions advertised earlier, only the job applicants do not have to be nurses. However, a masters degree in social work is required. One might guess that Social Security had trouble finding enough nurses to fill the positions. Below is the job description:
Provides psychiatric/medical policy, procedural, and technical advice and guidance to DDSs, ROs, ALJs, the DRB, OQP and the national network of experts affiliated with the OMVE on complex issues encountered in making the determination or decision in a disability claim. This technical advice and guidance includes confirming what medical, psychological and vocational expertise is needed as well as verifying the need for additional medical or lay evidence, tests, or a consultative examination. Verifies that the request is in accordance with disability law, regulations, and policy.

Provides expert psychiatric/medical advice and guidance to the DDSs, ROs, ALJs, DRB, OQP and the national network of medical and vocational experts.

Ensures that the disability adjudicators in the DDSs and ROs and the ALJs have requested expertise or development that is needed and appropriate.

Ensures consistency in medical disability determinations by the DDSs, ROs and/or ALJs in accordance with established regulations and national practices.

Determines if beneficiary contact, current psychiatric/medical evidence and/or consultative examinations are required; assists DDSs, ROs, ALJs, DRB and OQP in obtaining appropriate evidence and examinations; and, as necessary, contacts sources (Medical Consultants, national network of experts, etc.) for assistance in interpreting medical evidence and/or determining whether additional evidence is required

Oct 29, 2006

Monthly Statistical Packages Released

Social Security has issued its monthly package of statistics on Title II and Title XVI (SSI) of the Social Security Act.

Oct 28, 2006

Emergency Message On Attorney Registration

Social Security has issued an Emergency Message to its staff on the upcoming requirement that attorneys representing Social Security claimants register with Social Security and provide their Social Security number and direct deposit information. The Emergency Message indicates that training for Social Security staff starts on November 8, 2006. Because of budget problems, SSA does not intend to start issuing 1099s to attorneys until 2009 for calendar year 2008.

Oct 27, 2006

Obesity Was Impairment Used In Alleged Disability Fraud In Miami

Yahoo News reports that the alleged disability fraud ring in Miami was using phony claims of disability due to obesity to obtain Social Security benefits. This report lists the names of the 32 individuals indicted. Disability fraud cases are not that common. I doubt that there has ever previously been any alleged Social Security disability fraud on this scale.

Who does this hurt? Obviously, those who have been indicted are in serious trouble, but the damage can go much further. This may be spectacular enough that a Congressional committee will want to hold a hearing -- and if there is such a hearing, Social Security's Inspector General will undoubtedly claim (with no proof) that there is much more of this going on that could be uncovered if he just had more resources. Claimants in general and those suffering from morbid obesity, in particular, may be hurt by an unnecessarily heightened concern over fraud. A state disability determination agency employee is alleged to have been involved in fraud, so there may be new procedures that will slow things down even further at these agencies. Non-attorney representatives are alleged to have been involved in fraud. This cannot help their effort to make withholding of their fees for representing claimants permanent. This could cause Social Security to become suspicious of all medical evidence submitted by claimants or their attorneys or representatives.

More On Florida Fraud Indictments Apparently Involving Non-Attorney Reps And DDS Employee

From LawFuel.com:
According to the Indictment, defendant Carlos Barker was employed by DDS, and was responsible for determining disability eligibility. In essence, the defendants conspired to obtain Social Security disability benefits by preparing and filing fraudulent applications, which included false supporting medical documentation in the names of fictitious physicians or actual physicians who had never examined the named beneficiaries. More specifically, the Indictments allege that the defendants used a company, called Benefits Consultants of Florida (“BCF”), located at 30620 SW 154th Avenue, Miami, FL 33088, to prepare and submit false applications for SSI disability benefits. Defendant Migdalia Interian was the registered agent/director of BCF, and defendant Yoanka Interian was the president of BCF.

According to the charges, various defendants recruited individuals who would agree to submit false applications and supporting medical documents to the SSA to fraudulently qualify the applicants for disability benefits. In exchange for their services in preparing and submitting the false applications, defendants Carlos Barker, Francisco Castro, Migdalia Interian, and Yoanka Interian would keep the first Social Security benefit payment, known as the “retro check,” which would include retroactive payments from the time of the application. Thereafter, the named beneficiary would receive monthly disability payments from Social Security.

New Regs On Medicare Part B Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount

Social Security has published in the Federal Register final regulations on Medicare Part B income-related monthly adjustment amount.

Alleged Social Security Fraud In Florida Appears To Involve Non-Attorney Reps And DDS Employee

From the Miami Herald:
Federal authorities today broke up a Miami-Dade County ring that schemed to defraud $2 million in disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, the U.S. attorney's office said.

A federal grand jury returned 25 indictments that accused 34 local residents of participating in the conspiracy, allegedly masterminded by an employee with a state disability agency and a consulting benefits business.

The alleged ringleaders were identified as Carlos Barker, an employee with the Florida Office of Disability Determination Services, and Migdalia Interian and Yoanka Interian of Benefits Consultants of Florida.

They're charged with preparing and filing fraudulent disability applications to the Social Security Administration over the past decade, according to the indictment. They kept the first benefit payments for their work, then the bogus beneficiaries received monthly disability payments.

The 34 defendants, according to court documents, were born between 1938 and 1972.
Click here to find out more!

Oct 26, 2006

Don't Know How To Make The DRB Work? -- Hire A Contractor

Under the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) experiment currently underway in Social Security's Boston Region, the Appeals Council is being replaced by a Disability Review Board (DRB). Claimants will no longer be able to request review by the Appeals Council after they are denied by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). This plan has been criticized on the grounds that it would lead to a dramatic rise in Social Security cases being appealed to the Federal Courts. Social Security's response has been that the agency would avoid such a dramatic effect upon the Federal Courts by having the DRB identify cases that are likely to be appealed to Federal Court and then reversed or remanded. The DRB would correct errors in those decisions without the claimant requesting review. When questions have been raised about how this could be done, Social Security's responses have been vague.

We now know why Social Security was so vague on how the DRB would prevent a huge increase in Federal Court filings in Social Security cases. They had nothing more than a vague notion of how they could do this. Social Security has issued a "presolicitation notice" indicating that the agency is seeking a contractor to develop a computer system to screen ALJ decisions for cases that are likely to be appealed to Federal Court and then reversed or remanded.

It is entirely possible that a contractor can develop a system that will work. It is also entirely possible that this will fail miserably, most likely because Social Security's databases do not contain enough data fields to predict results in such a complex situation and it would be too expensive to add those data fields. Even though there is no proof that this computer system will work, Social Security has already enshrined the DRB in regulations. All Social Security can do now is hope a contractor can pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Here is the text of the notice:
The purpose of this notice is to advise interested parties that the Social Security Administration (SSA) intends to release a Requests for Proposals (RFP) for the services of a contractor to develop an automated, Section 508 compliant, profiling/screening tool (software) for identifying Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) disability decisions to FedBizOpps and will upload the solicitation document when issued.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a requirement for the services of a contractor to develop an automated, Section 508 compliant*, profiling/screening tool (software) for identifying Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) disability decisions that are likely to be appealed to federal district court and remanded or reversed by the court. The contractor may also recommend the purchase and/or modification of an existing Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) software package for the profiling/screening tool if an existing product can be identified.

On March 31, 2006, SSA published the final rules establishing a new disability determination and administrative appeals process effective August 1, 2006. Under the new rules SSA is gradually phasing out the Appeals Council?s review of disability claims and replacing it with a review by a Decision Review Board (DRB). The DRB will focus on identifying decision-making errors as well as policies and procedures that will improve decision-making at all levels of the disability determination process.

SSA intends to select ALJ decisions for review by the DRB in several different ways, including the use of computer-based predictive screening tools. It is envisioned that a sophisticated computer-based profiling/screening tool could be developed to help identify unfavorable ALJ decisions that contain characteristics associated with federal district court appeals and remands or reversals. The profiling model will be developed using data recorded at the time of the initial level determination, ALJ decision, Appeals Council review, and the court action. This information includes the applicant?s age, education years, primary impairment, reason for the court remand, etc. The methods for selecting cases for DRB review are expected to evolve over time as more data are available and SSA gains more experience and knowledge in the use of computer-based tools. Any software will make use of current SSA databases and systems architecture already available, if applicable.

COLAs Announcement

You have already heard about the costs of living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security benefits, but that is not the only COLA that Social Security computes. The agency has published in the Federal Register the full list of COLAs for 2007. Here is a summary:
1) A 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), effective for December 2006;
(2) An increase in the Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly benefit amounts under title XVI of the Act for 2007 to $623 for an eligible individual, $934 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse, and $312 for an essential person;
(3) The student earned income exclusion to be $1,510 per month in 2007 but not more than $6,100 in all of 2007;
(4) The dollar fee limit for services performed as a representative payee to be $34 per month ($66 per month in the case of a beneficiary who is disabled and has an alcoholism or drug addiction condition that leaves him or her incapable of managing benefits) in 2007;
(5) The dollar limit on the administrative-cost assessment charged to attorneys representing claimants to be $77 in 2007;
(6) The national average wage index for 2005 to be $36,952.94;
(7) The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) contribution and benefit base to be $97,500 for remuneration paid in 2007 and self-employment income earned in taxable year beginning in 2007;
(8) The monthly exempt amounts under the Social Security retirement earnings test for taxable years ending in calendar year 2007 to be $1,080 and $2,870;
(9) The dollar amounts (``bend points'') used in the primary insurance amount benefit formula for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2007 to be $680 and $4,100;
(10) The dollar amounts (``bend points'') used in the formula for computing maximum family benefits for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2007 to be $869, $1,255, and $1,636;
(11) The amount of taxable earnings a person must have to be credited with a quarter of coverage in 2007 to be $1,000;
(12) The ``old-law'' contribution and benefit base to be $72,600 for 2007;
(13) The monthly amount deemed to constitute substantial gainful activity for statutorily blind individuals in 2007 to be $1,500, and the corresponding amount for non-blind disabled persons to be $900;
(14) The earnings threshold establishing a month as a part of a trial work period to be $640 for 2007; and
(15) Coverage thresholds for 2007 to be $1,500 for domestic workers and $1,300 for election workers.
Everyone's pay went up except for attorneys who represent Social Security claimants. Their pay will go down by $2 a case.

Oct 25, 2006

Candidates Oppose Private Accounts

From the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP):
President Bush's plan for private accounts as part of the Social Security program is a dead issue, if a recent survey of 45 heated Congressional races is an indicator. It found only one candidate out of 20 in 10 of the closest Senate races indicated support. It was even worse in 35 of the top House races where only two candidates voiced support for private accounts. An earlier election poll by AARP found 72 percent of older American voters also oppose the idea.
And yet, President Bush is preparing a new push for private accounts after the election?

Oct 24, 2006

Bush Still Believes In Social Security Privatization

Bloomberg reports that even today, with every sign of impending electoral disaster for his party, President Bush still intends to pursue his vision of Social Security reform as one of his top priorities after the election.

And it is not just the print media that Bush is talking to about privatization. Here is a video of Bush talking about Social Security phaseout. It is hard not to see all of Bush's recent Social Security appointees as being part of a plan for achieving this goal.

Oct 23, 2006

Recess Appointment To Social Security Advisory Board

President Bush has used a recess appointment to get Jeffrey R. Brown on the Social Security Advisory Board. Brown is well known as a proponent of Social Security privatization. There was a hearing quite some time ago on Brown's nomination. Here is what Senator Max Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee had to say at the time::
Members of the Board are chosen to serve on the Advisory Board based on their expertise in the field of Social Security. In fact, the authorizing statute requires members of the Board to be chosen based on their " and experience." Jeffrey Brown meets this high standard. He is a professor of finance at the University of Illinois. And he is a former senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Mr. Brown is a widely published scholar in the field of Social Security privatization. His work includes articles in academic journals, and op-eds in major newspapers advocating a privatized Social Security system. I do not agree at all with the privatization policies he supports. But I have tremendous respect for his intellect and experience. He has the ability to be a valuable member of the board. I am, however, troubled that Mr. Brown is not accompanied by a Democratic nominee today. A Democratic slot remains open on the board. And in order to retain balance on the board, the Democratic position needs to be filled along with the Republican slot that the President has nominated Mr. Brown to fill. In nominating an individual to fill the Democratic slot on the Social Security Advisory Board, the White House must consult with Democrats in Congress. There are many highly qualified individuals ready to serve on the board in the open Democratic slot. I look forward to working with the White House and the Senate Democratic leader to fill that position as soon as possible.
Thus, it appears that Brown was not confirmed because of President Bush's refusal to appoint a Democrat who opposed privatization to the Social Security Advisory Board.

Why would Bush give Brown a recess appointment now? On the face, it makes little sense. A recess appointment is only good until the end of the Congress. This Congress ends in less than three months. Why bother with a recess appointment now? The only guess that comes to mind to explain this recess appointment is that a near majority on the Social Security Advisory Board wants to issue a report strongly endorsing privatization, but lack the votes. Brown may be needed on the Board to issue the report. This is only speculation, but it is not speculation that the President intends to pursue privatization again in 2007. This has been loudly trumpeted. It is hard for anyone to take it seriously, but Bush appears to be determined to go back at it in 2007. Given that, it is hard not to interpret anything President Bush does that concerns Social Security as being connected with his desire to privatize.

This recess appointment can only make Senators look harder at Michael Astrue's nomination as Commissioner of Social Security.

Delays In Utah

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports on Don Uchida, the director of Utah's disability determination agency. Uchida is unhappy with his agency's performance. He blames it, in part, on a 30% annual turnover of employees. The interesting part is that Uchida had to go through the process of filing a claim for disability benefits for his adult daughter who is autistic. He found it tough going.

Oct 22, 2006

Social Security Beneficiaries By County

Social Security has published statistics showing the number of Social Security beneficiaries by type and by county of residence. Sound like an enormous bore? Maybe, but it is also vital information for an attorney who wants to figure out where potential Social Security disability clients might live -- and no, you cannot figure that out just by considering population. Wealthy, populous counties may have few claimants, while smaller, poorer counties may abound with Social Security disability claimants.

Oct 21, 2006

Baltimore Sun Discovers Social Security Budget Problem

You would hardly know that Social Security's headquarters are in Baltimore if your only source of news was the Baltimore Sun. Despite the fact that Social Security has to be one of Baltimore's larger employers, the Baltimore Sun hardly ever mentions the agency. Although the newspaper has not yet discovered that President Bush has nominated Michael Astrue to be the new Social Security Commissioner, the newspaper has finally discovered that Social Security has a budget problem. Of course, the article does not get it right, saying that the agency is only hiring one new employee for each three who departs, when SSA is actually hiring just about no new employees. The article also suggests that the threat of furloughing SSA employees is merely a negotiating ploy to get more money, when it is a stark necessity, and that SSA faces budget problems due to its own inefficiency, when the agency has cut its work force by about 33% over the last 20 years while its workload has soared.

Oct 20, 2006

Astrue Resigns From ArQule

In a display of confidence that he will be confirmed Michael Astrue, President Bush's nominee for Commissioner of Social Security, has resigned from the board of directors of ArQule, Inc, a Boston area biotech company.

Social Security Rewards A Jail

The Birmingham News reports on Social Security's program to reward jails which report incarcerated SSI recipients. The reward is $400 per inmate if the report comes within 30 days after the imprisonment and $200 for reports from 31 to 90 days after imprisonment. Sound like small potatoes? It amounted to $228,000 to Jefferson County, Alabama over the last four years.

Three Members Of Family Indicted For Social Security Fraud

Three members of a Missouri family have been indicted for concealing a 1997 death in order to collect the man's Social Security benefits, according to a KSHB article. The allegation is that the man's body was secretly buried on the family farm.

Oct 19, 2006

Big Fraud Ring Alleged In Wisconsin

The La Crosse Tribune reports on charges brought against 19 people for fraud against the Social Security Administration. The alleged fraud happened at several Social Security offices in Wisconsin. Authorities allege that the defendants filed false claims that Social Security checks had been lost or stolen. Those involved are said to have cashed both the original check and the replacement check. There may have been more than 1,000 illegal transactions.

Oct 18, 2006

COLA Announced

The Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security for this year is 3.3%, according to the Associated Press.

New Regs On Rep Payees And Penalties

Today's Federal Register contains new final regulations from Social Security on represetative payee policies and penalties for false or misleading statements or withholding information. These regulations have been relatively uncontroversial.

Oct 17, 2006

Work Incentives Planning And Assistance Projects

From today's Federal Register:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) announces its intention to competitively award cooperative agreements to establish community-based work incentives planning and assistance projects in thefollowing locations:

  • State of Alabama, the counties of Autauga, Baldwin, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Dallas, Elmore, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Mobile, Monroe, Montgomery, Pike, Russell, Washington, and Wilcox;
  • State of Indiana, the counties of Clark, Crawford, Daviess, Dearborn, Dubois, Floyd, Gibson, Greene, Harrison, Hendricks, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Knox, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Ohio, Orange, Parke, Perry, Pike, Posey, Ripley, Scott, Spencer, Sullivan, Switzerland, Vanderburgh, Vermillion, Vigo, Warrick, Washington;
  • State of Kentucky, the counties of Bath, Bell, Bourbon, Boyd, Bracken, Breathitt, Carter, Clark, Clay, Elliott, Estill, Fleming, Floyd, Garrard, Greenup, Harlan, Harrison, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Laurel, Lawrence, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Lewis, Madison, Magoffin,
  • State of Ohio, the counties of Ashtabula, Mahoning, Portage, Stark, Martin, Mason, McCreary, Menifee, Montgomery, Morgan, Nicholas, Owsley, Pendleton, Perry, Pike, Powell, Robertson, Rockcastle, Rowan, Whitley, and Wolfe;
  • State of Nevada, all counties;
  • State of New York, the counties of Albany, Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Ulster, and Westchester; Summit, and Trumbull; and
  • Pacific territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, andAmerican Samoa.

New Rules On Suspending Benefits For Failure To Cooperate

Social Security has published final rules on suspension of disability benefits for failure to cooperate with a continuing disability review.

Social Security Advisory Board Draft Report On Social Security Hearing Process

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a draft report on Social Security's hearing process, by which they mean the way in which Social Security claimants get hearings on disputed Social Security claims, usually disability claims.

The report contains the following paragraph demonstrating clearly the bizarre lack of current concern about the enormous current backlog of claimants awaiting hearings, as compared to concern in the past about much lower backlogs:
In 1976, Congress enacted legislation to facilitate an expansion in the number of ALJs. It characterized that legislation as being of an “emergency” nature to address the “tremendous” backlog of approximately 105,000 cases, with the objective of eliminating that backlog and reducing the average processing time for hearings to 90 days. In 1991 SSA was concerned about a 229-day processing time and formed a Strategic Priority Workgroup to deal with the problem. Average hearing offi ce time for SSA cases soared in the mid 1990s, as the wave of initial claims filed in the early 1990s made their way through the system. In 1995 when processing time hit 350 days, SSA launched a Short Term Disability Project. After falling to 274 days in 2000, processing times rose to 415 days in 2005. It should be noted that this average includes dismissals and decisions made on the record without a hearing. The average processing time for a claimant who has a hearing and waits for a decision is closer to 500 days.
The SSAB describes the current situation as "an intolerable burden on claimants and simply unacceptable."

The report includes the following recommendations:

• The selection process for ALJs should be reformed to make it more responsive to the needs of SSA.
• The ALJ pay system should be revised to provide additional incentives to recruit and retain hearing offi ce chief ALJs (HOCALJs). SSA should also explore with the Office of Personnel Management the possible use of pay for performance for ALJs, with due care for the need to protect decisional independence.
• SSA should address the de facto dual management structure for the hearing offi ce process, which results in confusion and lack of accountability and should provide HOCALJs with the tools and supports they need to do their job well.
• SSA’s multilevel appraisal system should be expanded to all parts of the hearing process. Appraisals should be based on quantifi able performance data, including both quality and quantity of work performed.
• There is a need for additional training and ongoing professional development.

SSA Multilingual

The Lake County News-Sun has published a Social Security press release touting new web-based Social Security information in Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian-Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

As I have indicated before, while Social Security has a website on which it supposedly links its press releases, it still issues many press releases which it does not link.

$5.6 Billion Overpayment

It seems that the Social Security Administration does not just make overpayments to claimants. This is from a statement by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget:
In FY 2006, Social Security Administration (SSA) outlays were $586 billion, $5 billion below the MSR. SSA received a refund from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for $5.6 billion as a result of overpayments SSA made for tax years 1999-2005 under the voluntary income tax withholding program for Social Security benefit payments. Payments made to individual beneficiaries were not impacted. This refund reduced outlays and receipts by equal amounts with no effect on the deficit.

Oct 16, 2006

Fraud In West Virginia

WTAP reports on a Mineral Wells, WV couple who have been indicted for defrauding the Social Security Administration out of $90,000 by operating a business without notifying Social Security. One or both of the couple had been on Social Security disability benefits.

$102,452 Overpayment -- Whose Fault?

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on a case in which Social Security claims a $102,452 overpayment to a mentally retarded Highland Springs, VA woman who worked off and on after starting to draw Social Security disability benefits. The woman's brother insists that he told Social Security about the work and was told there was no problem.

One person quoted in the article suggests that many people in this situation are overpaid because they fail to report the work activity. It is possible that that is what happened here, but one should not jump to conclusions. In 2004, Congress had to enact legislation to require Social Security to adopt a system for recording reports of return to work. This was done after many reports that Social Security had no system to record reports of return to work, leading to large overpayments, even after claimants reported return to work.

Oct 15, 2006

Delays -- Where Does The Fault Lie?

Tim Moore at My Social Security Disability SSI Blog posts about what has become an all too common problem. A claimant for Social Security disability benefits files a claim or an appeal and the claim or appeal sits for many monhts on the desk of someone at a Social Security field office without being forwarded to the office that is supposed to adjudicate the case. How could this happen? Why would the field office employee not just put the claim or the appeal in an envelope and mail it? The answer is not given by Moore, but it is not too hard to figure out. The problem is that all that information was handwritten by the claimant or their attorney on Social Security's paper forms -- forms that have become longer and longer over the years. Someone at the Social Security field office must then type all that information into Social Security's computer system before sending the information along to an adjudicator. Field office staff has been and is being cut dramatically. No one has time to do all the data entry, so the file sits and sits. This is a significant problem already and threatens to become a horrific problem over the next year, given the near total hiring freeze at Social Security.

Oct 14, 2006

Social Insecurity in Quincy

The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, MA reports on the Social Security disability problems facing Theresa Vidito in an article called Social Insecurity -- A Bureaucritic Nightmare. Ms. Vidito appears to be caught in a serious bind as Social Security attempts to straighten out her case. The problem appears to have started with an ambiguous decision by a Social Security Administrative Law Judge. The problem may not be all that complicated, but the effect for Ms. Vidito is terrible. The article talks of a relatively new group of Social Security disability claimants called the Social Security Disability Coalition.

Oct 13, 2006

Case On Consitutionality Of Deficit Reduction Act Continues

The constitutionality of the Deficit Reduction Act has been challenged on the grounds that the bill did not pass both houses of Congress in the same form. That Act, assuming it truly is an Act of Congress, includes Social Security provisions, most prominently delays in the payment of back SSI benefits. Thus far, all of the District Courts that have considered the matter have unheld the Deficit Reduction Act on the basis of a old Supreme Court decision.

The most prominent of the cases on the Deficit Reduction Act was brought by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. That case has now reached the Court of Appeals and Public Citizen has filed its brief with the D.C. Court of Appeals. Because of the sweep of the Deficit Reduction Act, a win for Public Citizen would have dramatic consequences not just for Social Security, but for the government as a whole.

Oct 12, 2006

Lockheed Martin Touts E-DIB

Government Computing News has an article which must be based upon a Lockheed Martin news release touting Social Security's e-DIB paperless processing system. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for this project. The article claims that "SSA has nearly completed the rollout of the Electronic Disability System for online case processing." The reality is that SSA has years to go before E-DIB is fully implemented. Further, the article claims that "Operating without paper, eDib streamlines SSA disability processes to such an extent that the agency projects a reduction of 100 days in the average time to process a claim ..." But what has been seen so far are productivity losses as a new system is implemented. Any gains in processing time remain speculative.

The article claims that "
SSA has rolled out e-Dib to all states and territories except parts of Nebraska, New York and the District of Columbia, which will be completed by the end of the year", but it is not clear what is meant by "rollout" since SSA has often talked about "rollout", when all that was meant was having each employee process a token number of e-DIB cases on a trial basis.

The article includes the following claim that few people close to the situation would take at face value:
"The eDib system is beginning to demonstrate benefits. Even with a 25 percent increase in filings, the number of cases pending has decreased by about 50,000. SSA so far has carved off seven days from the claims processing time. "

Oct 11, 2006

Nurse Case Manager Positions Advertised

Despite the fact that Social Security is in a near total hiring freeze, the agency has just announced job openings for 15 Nurse Case Managers. This position must be of the absolute highest priority for the Social Security Commissioner. The job description contains the following ominous language:
Ensures consistency in disability determinations by the DDS, ROs, and /or ALJs in terms of the regulations and national practices associated with disability examining and adjudication as it relates to medical and vocational expertise.

Interview With Social Security CIO

Tom Hughes, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Social Security, sat down for an interview with Mary Mosquera of Government Computer News. Hughes mostly talked about computer security at Social Security. Whatever problems SSA may have otherwise, the agency certainly excels at computer security.

Oct 10, 2006

Privatization Proposal Costing GOP

Steven Thomma of the McClatchy newspaper chain reports on the political cost to Republicans of President Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security. Several Republican congressional candidates are in deep trouble because they touched the "third rail of American politics." Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Representative Deborah Pryce of Ohio, Representative Clay Shaw of Florida (former chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee) and Rick O'Donnell of Colorado are all facing uphill election battles because of Social Security.

Overpayments Of Attorney Fees

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on overpayments of attorney fees by SSA. The report concludes that:
During Calendar Years (CY) 2003 and 2004, we estimate SSA issued 594 improper payments to attorneys totaling approximately $2.2 million. While this represented a small portion of the approximately 458,000 attorney payments issued during this period, additional controls could have prevented these improper payments. For example, SSA staff had the ability to bypass system warnings and process payments without indicating the reason for the override or obtaining supervisory approval. We also found the Agency improperly recorded the processing fees collected from each attorney payment. As a result, collected fees associated with the attorney payments may be overstated.
From my experience, I would have to say that this is almost certainly an understatement of the problem.

OIG also found that over one third of the time the attorney did not return the excess fee, although I would wonder how long OIG gave for repayments to come back and be recorded. It can take some time after an attorney returns an excess fee before Social Security's records show this. I have been billed for overpayments long after I returned the money. Also, there are some attorneys who wait to repay money until they receive a bill from Social Security.

Oct 9, 2006

Using The Confirmation Process

A little history may help us see the direction the confirmation process will take for Michael Astrue, President Bush's nominee to become Commissioner of Social Security.

The fee agreement process, the most common way in which attorneys receive fees for representing Social Security claimants, was passed by Congress in 1990. The maximum fee was capped at $4,000 at that time. The law allows, but does not require, the Commissioner of Social Security to adjust the cap for inflation since January 1, 1991. The cap has been adjusted only one time to $5,300, shortly after Jo Anne Barnhart was confirmed as Commissioner of Social Security. If the cap were adjusted now for inflation, it would be $6,059.60, through August, the last month for which inflation figures are available, according to InflationData.com.

What happened to persuade Jo Anne Barnhart to adjust the fee cap at the beginning of her term in office, but not again, despite 15% inflation since? Could it have had something to do with her confirmation as Commissioner? The matter did not come up during Barnhart's confirmation hearing. However, the Senate confirmation process is more than just the public hearing. There are also private meetings between a nominee and members of the Senate committee having jurisdiction over the nomination. A nominee to an executive branch position may be asked to make commitments either during the public hearing or during the private interviews. Members of the public and interest groups may ask Senators to request that a nominee make commitments about what they will do if confirmed. Did Barnhart's increase in the attorney fee cap come because of a private commitment she made during the confirmation process? Probably.

Michael Astrue, President Bush's nominee for Commissioner of Social Security, is almost certain to be asked to commit to an adjustment in the fee cap. Indeed, Astrue may be asked to commit to making annual adjustments in the fee cap. But attorney fees will only be a small part of what will be asked of Astrue. Regardless of who controls the Senate after the November election, Michael Astrue has little chance of being confirmed unless he makes important commitments to Democratic senators. Democrats have every reason to block a Republican nominee whose term in office will continue for four years after the current president leaves office, especially when that person is being nominated to head an agency as beloved by Democrats as the Social Security Administration and when he is nominated by a president as despised and mistrusted by Democratic senators as President Bush.

The threat of a filibuster can prevent Astrue from being confirmed, even if Democrats fail to gain a majority in the Senate. Democrats can easily find political cover for a filibuster. During the confirmation hearing they can demand that Astrue answer questions about his views of President Bush's privatization plan. Astrue probably supports privatization, but even if he opposes it, he is unlikely to bite the hand that nominated him by openly criticizing the President's plan. Democrats can threaten to filibuster Astrue because of his views on privatization. Few Republican senators would want to force that issue and they would need 60 votes to break a filibuster if they did. Either Astrue makes the promises that Democratic senators want him to make or he cannot be confirmed.

A recess appointment for Astrue is still possible, if Republicans control the Senate after the election. (A recess appointment is unlikely if the Democrats control the Senate after the election, since they will probably arrange to keep the Senate technically in continuous session to prevent recess appointments. Michael Astrue may not be that important, but John Bolton is.) However, a recess appointment only lasts until the end of the Congress, which would only keep Astrue in office until January 2009. A recess appointee might also have a more difficult time dealing with Congress. If the House Social Security Subcommittee is controlled by Democrats after the election, as now seems likely, Astrue's life as a recess appointee could be difficult.

Michael Astrue has personal reasons to make whatever promises are necessary to get the job. He was proposed previously by President Bush for Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, but never formally nominated because of Senate opposition. Does he want to fail again in an effort to obtain high government office? A look at Astrue's resume shows why he might be highly motivated to do what is needed to get confirmed. He had a spectacularly successful stint in government service during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. His career since, while not unsuccessful, has not been all that one might expect from someone who showed as much early promise as Michael Astrue. Also, he is jut about unemployed at the moment.

So what might sort of commitments might be asked of Astrue? Let me list a few that Democratic senators on the Finance Committee may request:
  1. Keep the Social Security Administration out of politics, including any renewed effort at privatization or other "reform" of Social Security. Senator Max Baucus, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and the likely chairman of the Committee if Democrats gain control of the Senate, has already signaled his intention of insisting upon this, saying that the public does not support privatization and that Astrue "should commit to maintaining the critical role that the Social Security program currently plays in providing income security for retirees, disabled workers, survivors, and their families." Baucus Comments On Social Security Nominee. If Democrats control either house of Congress after November, this should be an easy one to agree to, since even President Bush will have to understand that there will be no hope of enacting his plan if Democrats control either house of Congress.
  2. Officially withdraw the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would increase the age requirements of the grid regulations. This one may not be difficult for Astrue to commit to. Apparently, this proposal did not arise out of policy considerations. It was merely a means of saving money. It certainly was not Astrue's idea.
  3. Do something NOW about the backlog of pending requests for hearings at Social Security. What specifically can Senators ask for? We know that the senior attorney program, under which certain agency attorneys are authorized to approve certain claims of those awaiting a hearing, under certain circumstances, worked in the past to reduce a backlog. We also know that "re-recon" worked. "Re-recon" is a process for diverting new requests for hearing to what amounts to a new reconsideration review, through which some will be approved. Pledges of even more dramatic action, such as the appointment of temporary administrative law judges, as was done when there were bad backlogs after the introduction of the SSI program, could be demanded. Again, Senator Baucus has signaled that he wants a commitment to some action on the backlogs, saying that Astrue "will also need a plan to speed and improve service to the public, particularly those applying for disability benefits." The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) might not like this one, but many Republican senators would support doing something on an urgent basis.
  4. Speak publicly about Social Security's budget problems. Even though she must have done so privately, Jo Anne Barnhart never criticized the Social Security budget proposed by the President and barely raised a peep about the lower budgets that were passed by Congress. Even with her agency facing staff furloughs next year she has been unable to bring herself to issue a press release on Social Security's budget problems. Democratic senators may demand that the next Commissioner release publically his own budget proposal showing what he feels is needed to provide adequate public service. OMB would certainly oppose this, since it would mean that the Social Security Administration would become a truly independent agency, but even some Republican senators might like to see a truly independent Social Security Commissioner.
In the end, it should not matter to Democratic senators that Astrue is a registered Republican or that he privately believes in privatization of Social Security or that he has been nominated by a president they despise. It is what Astrue would do in office that is important. If Astrue will promise to do those things that Democratic senators want him to do as Commissioner, there is every reason to confirm him.

Oct 8, 2006

Attorney Fee Payments For September

Social Security has released the September statistics on payments of fees to attorneys and others eligible for direct payment of fees for representing Social Security claimants. Payments were up 16% in September over August 2006 and up 30% over August 2005.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Fee payments also include payments made to eligible non-attorneys participating in the demonstration project authorized by section 303 of the Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (Pub. L. 108-203).

Oct 7, 2006

"Disability Summit" Deadline Extended

There is a report that the deadline to apply to attend the "Disability Summit" sponsored by the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel has been extended to October 13.

Oct 6, 2006

Sign Up For E-Mail Notification Of Attorney Fee Direct Deposits

With direct deposit of attorney fee scoming up soon, attorneys who represent Social Security claimants need to sign up for the Treasury Department's PAID system which gives e-mail notification of direct deposits from the federal government. The PAID system is already useful for EAJA direct deposits and will soon be essential for regular attorney fee direct deposits.

Oct 5, 2006

Beneficiary "Summit"

The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel has scheduled a "beneficiary summit" for February 6 and 7 in Atlanta. The deadline to request to participate is October 6. The address to send an application to participate is , although one might also complain to them that they have done virtually nothing to publicize this. Apparently information about this "summit" was given only to a select group and not everyone who wants to attend this "summit" can attend. You have to be "selected" to attend. They may be paying travel expenses.

This sounds like a stage-managed event designed to make Ticket to Work look like something that it is not -- a success. It also sounds rather expensive.

NADR Announces Albuquerque Conference

The National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR) has announced its annual conference to be held in Albuquerque from March 25-28, 2007.

New Chief Of Information Security At SSA

GCN reports that John T. Smith has been hired as Chief Information Security officer for the Social Security Administration. He comes to Social Security from the Department of the Interior.

Federal Reserve Chairman Pushes Social Security "Reform"

Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was pushing the idea of Social Security "reform" in a speech in Washington yesterday, according to McClatchy-Tribune. He urged action now so that the nation would not have to drastically cut benefits, cut other government spending or raise taxes later. Since it seems clear from the context of his remarks that he does not want any increase in taxes, either now or later, or any decrease in funding for other governmental activities, he must be calling for dramatic cuts in Social Security benefits.

Oct 4, 2006

Four Experienced SSA Employees Nearing Retirement

Dale Moss, writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal reports on Ellen McCoskey, Donna Whiteley, Carol Lanham and Betty Denbo, four Social Security employees in one field office, each nearing retirement after a career spanning 40 years.

The article notes that the office manager is begging the women to continue working and for good reason. The sad fact is that under current circumstances when these four women retire they will not be replaced. The loss of their experience would be unfortunate anyway, but when nothing replaces that experience, not even a new employee, some of the 150 people who come into that office every day seeking help may wait in the office all day and never be seen by a Social Security employee. How long will it be before people who need to do business with Social Security in person have to line up before daybreak outside Social Security offices, as is often the case already with Immigration and Naturalization offices?

Report From SSAB On Disability Benefits

The Social Security Advisory Board has published a report entitled "A Disability System For The 21st Century." The report concerns the Holy Grail of Social Security disability benefits -- rehabilitating far more people so that they can get off Social Security disability benefits or, better yet, never get on benefits in the first place. As in the Arthurian legends, the quest to return the disabled to work is a noble undertaking, but like the quest for the Holy Grail, no one ever seems to find the path that leads to the prize.

So far, the quest for rehabilitation has brought about mandatory referrals of Social Security disability recipients to Vocational Rehabilitation, the Trial Work Period, the Extended Period of Eligibility, the PASS program, the end of the minimum disability benefit, expedited re-entitlement, the Ticket to Work program, etc. None of this has worked to any appreciable extent. There are no examples that I am aware of from other country in which rehabilitation programs have had any significant effect upon Social Security disability programs. Private disability plans have shown what appears to be dramatic success, but once you look closer, it becomes obvious that these plans have only used rehabilitation as a tool to harass disabled people and to cook up justifications for stop benefits, with no meaningful rehabilitation accomplished.

Below, I will give my opinion why these efforts are doomed. What follows immediately are some excerpts from this report:
The Social Security Act equates disability with inability to do any substantial work. This core definition is as old as the program itself. It was adopted at a time when attitudes about the capabilities of people with disabilities were markedly different than they are today. As the Board pointed out in the 2003 report, The Social Security Definition of Disability, the definition was adopted for a program that was limited to individuals approaching retirement age, and the program was explicitly viewed as representing a kind of early retirement. It was adopted by a Congress that could not have foreseen the great advances that would take place over the next fifty years in medical science, adaptive technology, and rehabilitative practice and therapy.

... [I]n the extensive study the Board has undertaken since 2003, the Board has also heard concerns expressed about what it would mean to modify the definition of disability used for Social Security programs. Changing the definition could result in narrowing eligibility in ways that would exclude individuals who have no alternative but to depend upon the benefits those programs provide or could result in broadening eligibility so as to increase the costs of the program and provide benefits to individuals beyond the currently intended scope. We recognize the validity of these concerns. It is our purpose in this report to suggest neither that the existing disability programs should provide coverage more broadly nor that they should be contracted to prevent individuals who are unable to engage in substantial work from receiving their benefits. The problem that we see is in the way in which those programs are, or rather are not, integrated into an overall approach to disability that supports the aspirations of people with disabilities to achieve their maximum potential. Correcting this problem will require a statutory change to define disability in a way that encompasses such an integrated approach. ...

One question that might arise is whether such decreased expenditures or possible savings, or much of them, could be achieved by doing a better job of screening applicants for disability benefits so that those who have the ability to work do not become beneficiaries in the first place. Similarly, will doing a better job of rehabilitating those on the rolls so that they stay on for a shorter period result in large savings? Although these are logical questions, the answer to both is no. Certainly, every effort should be made to make initial eligibility determinations accurately. And, certainly it is worthwhile to try to support and encourage rehabilitation efforts by those who do find themselves on the disability benefit rolls. However, past experience has shown that these approaches are largely ineffective and are likely to remain so. The reason is that by the time an individual applies for disability benefits and, even more so, by the time he or she is actually placed on the benefit rolls, the best opportunity for restoring or retaining the capacity for self-support has already been lost. In the absence of a disability system designed to manage toward self sufficiency, the realistic possibilities of someone with a work limitation remaining productive begin to fade. The process itself tends to make an individual who might have been able to work at an earlier point in time less and less capable of doing so. Attachment to an employer, the maintenance and improvement of skills, the sense of belonging to the workforce, the mindset that work is possible—the loss of all of these factors, combined with the passage of time and with the program requirements that reward inability to work, conspire to transform a person from an “impaired individual” with potential into an individual who, in fact, has come to meet the definition “unable to work.” ...

We believe that it is time to set aside old paradigms and look more broadly at what is possible. Clearly, a shift in public policies is needed to sustain the employment of people with disabilities. It is time to reexamine our national disability programs with a view to investing in human capital — our most valuable asset. A new disability system must incorporate elements that embrace change and:
• provide assistance and support to individuals and strive to maximize employment outcomes to the extent of each individual’s capabilities;
• facilitate a culture shift within society to establish the expectation that individuals with disabilities can and should work to the extent of their capabilities and that society should assist individuals with disabilities in that endeavor;
• recognize and accommodate the dynamic nature of disability and its sometimes cyclical impact on work capacity; and
• facilitate rehabilitation and employment by coordinating and integrating the various sources of assistance and support that are now inconsistently provided by multiple uncoordinated programs.
So why will none of these noble ideas advanced by the SSAB work? First of all because they are incredibly fuzzy. The SSAB says that a new definition of disability is needed, but cannot give any idea what the new definition of disability would look like. They deny that they want to approve or deny more claims, but any change in the definition of disability will inevitably result in a change in who gets approved. If there is no effect upon who gets approved, what is the point in making a change? The SSAB wants more emphasis on rehabilitation, but where is the evidence that more emphasis on rehabilitation will do anything other than waste money? Why would this rehabilitation effort be any more effective than what already exists? The SSAB wants to divert people who want to file claims for Social Security disability benefits into rehabilitation before they even get a chance to file a claim, but how do these people support themselves while they are awaiting the miracles of rehabilitation? The SSAB has noble ambitions but no answers to any of these questions.

The basic problem is that the well-intentioned people writing reports such as this have little idea of who applies for disability benefits. Those who write such reports live in a nice well-educated middle class world where they seldom interact with Social Security disability claimants. When they think of disabled people, they think of automobile accidents and wheelchairs, but automobile accidents and wheelchairs are not nearly as commonly the cause of disability as other health problems, such as schizophrenia and osteoarthritis. The scourge of schizophrenia is invisible to most people in this country and osteoarthritis seldom disables people who work in offices. Disability due to osteoarthritis happens to blue collar workers. People who write reports such as the SSAB has released know few blue collar workers and spend little time thinking about what their lives are like.

Why is rehabilitation such an elusive goal? Most of the disabled people I see professionally present at least one and usually more than one of the following problems, any one of which is likely to make rehabilitation impractical:
  1. The claimant has a chronic, progressive disease such as diabetes or osteoartritis. Rehabilitating such a person is like trying to hit a moving target. By the time you get the claimant rehabilitated so that they can work with the limitations they had when they first saw you, they will be sicker and have more limitations, making all the rehabilitation efforts a waste.
  2. Many, many Social Security disability claimants suffer from chronic pain. It is impossible to do much work if you are in severe pain or if you have to take narcotic medication for pain on a regular basis. There is no solution on the horizon for this problem. Rehabilitation will not make pain go away.
  3. Most Social Security disability claimants are older. As we age our adaptability diminishes. This is a problem for which modern medicine and rehabilitation have no solution. Rehabilitation has some hope of working with carefully selected younger people. With people in their 50s, it is almost always hopeless.
  4. We do not live in Lake Wobegone. All of the children are not above average and neither are the adults. A high percentage of people filing claims for Social Security disability benefits have IQs in the low average or borderline mentally retarded range. Such folks have little or no ability to benefit from rehabilitation, since they have limited learning ability.
  5. In a related vein, many claimants have low educational attainments. Before they can take advantage of any rehabilitation, these claimants need to get a GED, but that can be difficult and time consuming. By the time they do this, they will probably be sicker and they will certainly be older. And, of course, the usual reasons that people fail to get a high school diploma are that they had a low IQ or were already suffering from mental illness when they were in school and those problems usually do not go away.
  6. Many, many claimants suffer from life long nagging psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders. These problems were not enough to completely exclude work, but they always made it tough. When the person had good physical health, he or she could work, although usually not too successfully. Once their health declined, they had little to fall back on. Psychiatric treatment is of only modest benefit to such individuals.
  7. Many Social Security disability recipients suffer from major psychiatric problems, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Few people who suffer from schizophrenia work on any regular basis. That is just a fact. Many with bipolar disorder do, but there are plenty of others with bipolar who are just unable to work and all the psychiatric treatment and all the rehabilitation in the world will not return these folks to work.
In the end, even though the SSAB members are mostly conservative politically, they make the classic naive liberal mistake of believing in the perfectability of human beings.

Oct 3, 2006

Reassurance On SSA 1099s To Attorneys

Everett Jackson, who is in charge of Social Security's plan to collect Social Security number information on attorneys and others qualified for direct payment of fees for represesting Social Security claimants, was kind enough to call me in response to an e-mail I had sent.

The information from him is that attorneys will provide their individual SSNs on each client, but will also provide their firm's Employer Identification Number (EIN) on a one time basis. Social Security will then issue 1099s to the individual attorneys and to the law firms as well. The 1099s to the attorneys will show the income in Box 14, but the IRS does not pay attention to the information in Box 14. The law firm's 1099 will show the income in Box 7, which is the one that the IRS pays attention to. Social Security will use a database to link the individual attorney information into the composite 1099 for the firm.

Jackson also told me that there will be another Federal Register notice on November 18 concerning direct deposit of attorney fees.

The concern that I have with direct deposit is identifying the client to whom the direct deposit pertains. That can already be a problem with checks, but may be even more of a problem with direct deposits, depending upon the electronic information that accompanies the check. He was unaware that this might be a problem, but seemed willing to work to make sure we can solve the problem.

From NCSSMA The Question: Will Social Security Field Offices Be Replaced By H&R Block?

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management employees has posted the minutes of its September Executive Committee meeting. It is obvious from the Minutes that the overriding concern during this meeting was the perception that Social Security is being forced by budget problems to move away from field office service to Social Security claimants, even at a time when there is more demand for field office service than ever before.

The NCSSMA Executive Committee wondered if there was some plan to privatize service to Social Security claimants, as this segment of the Minutes shows:
Linda [McMahon, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Operations, who met with the NCSSMA Executive Committee] feels that we should be talking with 3rd party organizations and finding out how they want to work with us [by using electronic means to file claims]. There is a huge untapped potential and Linda believes that we need to find out how to make it work. The Agency is looking to work with large employers and working through their HR departments. A question was raised about whether our eGov strategy includes encouraging private sector companies to help applicants file for benefits with SSA electronically, like H&R Block helps them with taxes. Linda said it is not in our strategy to take a position but we can certainly tap into one if one exists.
There was discussion suggesting that SSA is devising more creative ways of discouraging claimants from staying on the line when they make 800 phone calls to SSA:
In FY07, we will see something called “screen splash”. This is where 6 questions for verification will be asked through voice activated questions before the caller gets to an agent. The questions would be asked and then show up on the screen to the agent – to show which ones verified and which ones didn’t. At that point, the agent may only have to re-ask a few questions. This saves 30 seconds at a minimum per call. By saving time, it frees up capacity.
The NCSSMA Executive Committee heard that Social Security will not have a budget for fiscal year 2007, which began on October 1, until after the election and that if Democrats take control of the House of Representatives there may be no budget until sometime into 2007. Efforts are underway to restore funding for SSA.

The minutes reveal that NCSSMA is hearing that the agency is now looking to spread out the effects of any furlough of agency personnel that may be required by the fiscal year 2007 budget, probably meaning that the agency would close for only one day at a time and that these days would be spread out over a long period. This was somewhat controversial with the NCSSMA executive committee since some saw it as disguising the severity of the problem.

There was the following discussion of the provisions that recently came into effect that spread out SSI back benefits in almost all cases:
Employees are spending large amounts of time explaining why all the money can’t be released at once. Only under certain circumstances can the money be released in one payment. This issue is regulation and part of the budget process. This workload is an unfunded mandate.
The minutes contained this brief report on the early days of the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) initiative:
Offices are busy preparing for DSI. Boston’s experience so far has been very good. The quick decisions cases are being decided well within the 20 days. In fact Connecticut had one decided in 3 hours. Overall the impact on the field offices has been minimal. Some regions have mandated quality reviews on their disability cases which are very onerous.

Oct 2, 2006

New Mod Assignments At SEPSC

Social Security's Southeastern Program Service Center has reassigned Social Security number ranges to the modules, usually called "mods", which do most of its work. Here are the new assignments:
  • 1 0000-0624 (205) 801-3015
  • 2 0625-1249 (205) 801-3025
  • 3 1250-1874 (205) 801-3035
  • 4 1875-2499 (205) 801-3045
  • 5 2500-3124 (205) 801-3055
  • 6 3125-3749 (205) 801-3065
  • 7 3750-4374 (205) 801-3075
  • 8 4375-4999 (205) 801-3085
  • 9 5000-5624 (205) 801-3095
  • 10 5625-6249 (205) 801-3105
  • 11 6250-6874 (205) 801-3115
  • 12 6875-7499 (205) 801-3125
  • 13 7500-8124 (205) 801-3135
  • 14 8125-8749 (205) 801-3145
  • 15 8750-9374 (205) 801-3165
  • 16 9375-9999 (205) 801-3175
This confusing alignment is the best that Blogger will do.

Federal Register Notice On Attorneys Providing SSNs

As expected, Social Security published a notice in the Federal Register today requiring attorneys who represent Social Security claimants to submit their Social Security numbers as a condition of getting direct payment of fees for representing Social Security claimants. To do so, an attorney must undertake two actions. First, the attorney must complete a form SSA-1699 on a one time basis. Second, the attorney must complete a form SSA-1695 for each individual case. The form SSA-1695 appears to not be ready yet. This will result in attorneys receiving SSA-1099 forms showing their payments from Social Security. Eventually, this will require direct deposit of attorney fees, although that is apparently not being required for now.

There is a problem with the notice that will affect all attorneys who practice in a corporate form or who work for another attorney. This is an e-mail I sent today to , whose e-mail address is shown on the Federal Register notice, as the person at SSA to contact for further information:
I have just read the notice published this morning in the Federal Register and I'm confused, or perhaps I should say it appears to me that Social Security is confused.
My law firm is a professional corporation. It has its own taxpayer identification number. It files its own corporate tax return. We have 6 attorneys all representing Social Security claimants. All of the fee checks we get go into the firm's bank account and are reflected on the firm's tax return, not our individual returns.
If each of us provides our individual SSN, we will each get an SSA-1099, but we will not be reporting that income on our individual tax returns. If we do it the way this notice says we are supposed to, each of the attorneys in the firm will have a problem with the IRS every year, since we will have a good deal of income shown on our SSA-1099s under our individual SSNs that is not reflected on our individual tax returns.
I don't think that SSA is requiring those who contract with the agency to provide goods and services to provide their individual SSNs. You recognize that there are such things as corporations. I think you need to recognize that fact when you deal with attorneys. In fact the act that requires SSA to issue these 1099s, talks of TINs, as your notice indicates, but the notice seem to be contradicting the statute to require SSNs.
SSA needs to publish a new notice making it clear that we can provide TINs.

Oct 1, 2006

Upcoming Meetings and CLE

If you know of one that I have missed, please e-mail me at charles[@]charleshallfirm.com.