Nov 30, 2006

New Form To Allow Attorneys To Get Fees Raises Host Of Questions

Social Security has issued a new form SSA-1695 which attorneys and others representing claimants before the agency must file in order to get withholding of fees. The form asks for the claimant's Social Security number, as well as the attorney's or representative's Social Security number. This will allow Social Security to produce 1099 forms for those representing claimants and to use direct deposit for payment of the fees.

The problem with the form is that it includes a section that asks the attorney or representative to "List below the Social Security Numbers and names of all other claimants not mentioned above. " Does this mean that the attorney or representative must list the name and Social Security number of all of the claimant's dependents who might receive benefits on the account? If it does not mean this, what does it mean? What is the point of requiring this information? Requiring it dramatically increases the compliance difficulty for the attorney or representative. Many attorneys and representatives routinely take down the names of their clients' dependents but it has not been routine to take down their Social Security numbers. For an attorney with a modest Social Security practice, which might be 200 clients, getting this information would take a good deal of effort. There would certainly be clients who would resist giving the information. Many claimants do not like the idea of their attorney or representative getting a fee out of the dependent benefits. There are many claimants who do not know their children's Social Security numbers and cannot readily obtain them because the children live with their mother and the claimant is estranged from the mother. What happens if the attorney does not list all of the children or does not get all of the Social Security numbers down accurately? Does the attorney or representative just not get a fee from those benefits? Why would Social Security want to go to the trouble of entering all this information in its own database anyway? What happens if the attorney or representative supplies the form to Social Security, but the data is not properly entered in Social Security's database? Social Security has problems already with data entry. This would add several hundred thousand new data entry items each year to Social Security's burden.

Nov 29, 2006

Poor Funding For SSA Under Continuing Resolution

Stephen Barr reports in his Washington Post column that the continuing funding resolution that Social Security is working under funds the agency only at the lowest level that had been under consideration in Congress, which answers my question as to why the agency does not drop the hiring freeze. It also means that Social Security may have little choice but to furlough employees before a real funding bill is passed.

Nov 28, 2006

Senate Letter On Social Security Funding

The Federal Times has now posted a copy of the letter signed by 54 senators, 12 of them Republicans and 42 of them Democrats demanding more funding for the Social Security Administration.

This raises the question. Should Social Security continue its hiring freeze? Commissioner Barnhart put a hiring freeze into effect because of fear that the agency would be stuck with the draconian budget put forward by the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives during the current Congress. It is now clear that no FY 2007 budget will be adopted for the agency during the current Congress. With Democrats in the majority in both houses of Congress when a budget is finally passed next year, it seems fairly clear that nothing like the draconian budget reported out of committee in the House this year will be adopted.

Nov 27, 2006

Senators Press For Adequate Funding For Social Security

This is from a November 22, 2006 press release:

WASHINGTON D.C. – U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Senator Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) urged Senate Majority and Minority Leaders and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee to provide additional funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA) budget in the final fiscal year 2007 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. The Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 Labor- HHS Appropriations bill in July of this year to provide $9.1 billion to the SSA for administrative expenses, $401 million less than the President’s budget request and $54 million below the FY 2006 appropriated level.

The impact of a 2007 budget shortfall could potentially require the Social Security Administration to layoff staff throughout the country, causing delays in service for Social Security recipients and impacting services to Medicare beneficiaries.

“This Social Security Administration funding shortfall could disrupt those essential services provided to millions of Americans and Mainers at a time when we can ill afford to leave Social Security recipients out in the cold,” Snowe said. “Our seniors need to have certainty – they need to know that if they have problems with their Social Security or Medicare benefits that the resources are available to fix the problem. If we under fund the administrative budget of the SSA then we will see longer waits and greater confusions for people across the country. I believe this shortfall must be closed when the Senate takes up this funding bill and I urge the bipartisan leadership in the Senate to find the funding to close this gap. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers are retiring, these budget cuts are wrong headed and irresponsible.”

Senator Snowe and Senator Conrad, joined by more than 50 Senators, sent the following letter to the bipartisan Senate Leadership.

Nov 26, 2006

India And US Negotiating Social Security Agreement

Rediff India Abroad reports that India is attempting to negotiate a Social Security agreement with the United States so that Indians temporarily working in the U.S. do not have to pay U.S. Social Security taxes.

Nov 25, 2006

So You Think We Have Social Security Problems In The U.S.?

The People's Daily Online reports that about $900 million has been misappropriated from China's Social Security system. Some of it went directly into private bank accounts. Other funds were illegally invested.

Nov 24, 2006

Washington Post On Social Security Staffing Problems And Medicare

From Stephen Barr's column in the Washington Post:
Staffing problems at the Social Security Administration could make it difficult for field offices to handle increased telephone calls and visits prompted by an upcoming increase in Medicare premiums, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Social Security began mailing notices of the higher, income-based premiums on Monday and expects all 1.6 million affected enrollees to have them in hand by the end of next week. Enrollees may request a recalculation of their premium if they think incorrect tax data have been used to determine their income and set their premium, or if they have recently experienced an income loss from a spouse's death, a divorce or some other "life-changing event."

In a letter sent last week to the Senate Finance Committee, the GAO warned that Social Security is coping with staff shortages and operating under a hiring freeze just as the agency's workload is expected to jump because of the premium increases. The GAO, the congressional auditing agency, noted that the premium change, though approved by Congress in 2003, may come as a surprise to some beneficiaries.

Mark Lassiter, a Social Security spokesman, said the agency plans to shift workloads among field offices if some offices "are getting disproportionately hit" by telephone calls and visits from Medicare beneficiaries.

He expressed confidence that the agency's 1,300 field offices will be able to handle any surge in work. "We do the work we are assigned to get done," he said. ...

The GAO said implementing income-based premiums will cost Social Security an additional $200 million in administrative expenses between fiscal 2006 and 2010.

The extra work comes at a tough time for the agency. Social Security has adopted a hiring freeze because Congress has not been able to complete work on the agency's fiscal 2007 appropriations bill. Agency officials also have warned that it could be forced next year to send employees home without pay, perhaps for as long as 10 days, if Congress does not reverse proposed budget cuts.

Here is a link to the GAO report.

Nov 23, 2006

A Year Old

This blog is one year old on this Thanksgiving day. There are now about 600 posts on this blog. As of this morning, Social Security News has been accessed 65,574 times.

I had long felt that what was needed was a better flow of information to all involved with Social Security. With the dramatic growth of the internet, more and more information has become available, yet no one was making a systematic effort to draw it together. I hope that this blog has helped in making information available more freely to everyone with an interest in Social Security matters. I have tried to stick mostly to the "Social Security News" title, by giving news primarily. Certainly, I have offered some opinions as well.

I have been asked a number of times why I do not allow those reading this blog to post comments. Your comments would be interesting, but deleting or editing inappropriate comments would be time consuming. I still have to earn a living as a Social Security attorney. I would be happy to hear comments by e-mail, however. My e-mail address is normall charles[at], but there could be some technical problems with that e-mail address until Monday or Tuesday of next week because of a recent office move. For now, comments may be sent to me at my home e-mail address: hallcity[at]

Nov 22, 2006

Georgia Couple Found Guilty Of Fraud

WGCL-TV reports that a Milledgeville, GA couple have been found guilty of fraud on the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration because the husband claimed and received disability benefits from both agencies for post traumatic stress disorder related to combat in Viet Nam, when the man had not seen combat in Viet Nam. It is not clear from the article what crime the wife was charged with.

Nov 21, 2006

No Congressional Action On SSA Appropriation

The House and Senate are now in recess until December 5. The Library of Congress Thomas site shows that no final action has been taken in either body on the Fiscal Year 2007 Labor/HHS/Education Appropriation Bill, which includes Social Security. There will be only a short Congressional session after the Thanksgiving recess before this Congress adjourns sine die. Republicans have already decided not to try to pass the spending bills according to the Associated Press, leaving Social Security operating off a continuing funding resolution until after the new Congress, controlled by Democrats, convenes.

Nov 20, 2006

New Vision Listing

Today's Federal Register includes new final vision listings for Social Security. The entire Federal Register item runs to three column pages. As has become usual, there is a lengthy preamble to the listing. Here is the key text of the new listing:
2.01 Category of Impairments, Special Senses and Speech

2.02 Loss of visual acuity. Remaining vision in the better eye after best correction is 20/200 or less.

2.03 Contraction of the visual field in the better eye, with:

A. The widest diameter subtending an angle around the point of fixation no greater than 20 degrees;


B. A mean deviation of –22 or worse, determined by automated static threshold perimetry as described in 2.00A6a(v);


C. A visual field efficiency of 20 percent or less as determined by kinetic perimetry (see 2.00A7b).

2.04 Loss of visual efficiency. Visual efficiency of the better eye of 20 percent or less after best correction (see 2.00A7c).

SSA Wants Info From "Bulk Providers"

Social Security posted a "Request for Information" today. The "bulk providers" they are talking about are, for the most part, attorneys and others representing Social Security claimants. This is an excerpt from what Social Security posted:
The purpose of this Request for Information (RFI) is to gather information on behalf of the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSA is investigating new ways for people to file applications for SSA Retirement and Disability benefits. Among the options being considered is a process to collect bulk data from third parties who wish to assist claimants filing for SSA and/or other types of benefits. The goal of this Request for Information (RFI) is to solicit input from potential third party providers to determine the need for and feasibility of SSA building a web service or other electronic means to obtain claims data in bulk from them.

The RFI results will enable SSA to project potential volumes, data quality, and other factors for a Cost Benefit Analysis of the concept. Ultimately, we will attempt to determine whether we can maximize the use of third party data to streamline the claims submittal process for both third parties and SSA, while ensuring there is sufficient data to constitute a claim for benefits upon which SSA can act.

Nothing in this document shall be construed as obligating the Government to issue a solicitation. NO CONTRACT WILL BE AWARDED BASED ON RESPONSES TO THIS RFI.

Treasury Secretary Pushes Social Security Reform

From Yahoo News:
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said on Monday the healthy economy creates an ideal chance to address concerns about the long-term financing concerns of the Social Security government retirement program and pledged to engage both political parties in debate.

"It's a good time to deal with it just because our economy's so strong and economic policies are working well, and we're better off dealing with this at a time of strength," he said in answers to questions after speaking to the Economic Club of New York.

Nov 19, 2006

New York Times Opposes Biggs Nomination

Some excerpts from the editorial page of today's New York Times:
A day after the midterm elections, President Bush announced that he had deputized Henry Paulson Jr., the secretary of the Treasury, to work with the new Congress on reforming Social Security. ... In an interview with The Times after the announcement, he [Bush] stressed the importance of bipartisanship. “We were going to have to build a consensus, no matter who won the election,” he said.

But then Mr. Bush nominated Andrew Biggs, a zealous advocate of privatizing Social Security, to a six-year term as the next deputy commissioner of Social Security. ...

Mr. Paulson — who has a reputation for pragmatism — could indeed be the right person to take the lead on developing a new set of reforms. But with the nomination of Mr. Biggs, Mr. Bush is signaling that he doesn’t want new ideas.

Mr. Bush’s choice of Mr. Biggs is also no favor to the man he has nominated to be the next commissioner of Social Security, Michael Astrue, a businessman who was an official in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. In a public exchange of letters before the election, Mr. Astrue told Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Max Baucus of Montana that he would follow the practice of the current commissioner, Jo Anne Barnhart, who has steered clear of the privatization debate....
The Times is mistaken on this last sentence. Astrue did not promise in his letter to stay out of the privatization debate. Astrue made a vague promise to be something like Barnhart, but made no specific committment on staying out of the privatization debate.Astrue may have already made some private committment to Democrats in the Senate, but his letter said no such thing. For that matter, Barnhart herself did not stay out of the debate completely, having contributed an op ed piece to the New York Times supporting privatization and having testified before the House Social Security Subcommittee more or less in favor of privatization, although her testimony, which came at a time when it was already clear that the President's plan would fail, did not sound like a ringing endorsement.

Monthly Statistical Packages Released

Social Security's Office of Policy has issued its monthly statistical packages for Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Nov 18, 2006

Baucus: "Don't Waste Our Time"

From the Helena Independent Record, in the home state of Max Baucus, the incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee:
The incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Thursday he wants to hold hearings on looming insolvencies in the Medicare and Social Security programs but said President Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security is dead.

‘‘Don’t waste our time,’’ said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. ‘‘It’s off the table.’’

Nov 17, 2006

New Regs Exempting Work Activity As Basis For Continuing Disabilty Review

The Social Security Administration has published new final rules on "Exemption of Work Activity as a Basis for a Continuing Disability Review" and another set of new final rules on issuance of work report receipts.

Annual Statistical Report On Social Security Disability Programs

A month and a half into the 2007 fiscal year, Social Security's Office of Policy has just issued its annual statistical report on the Social Security disability programs for 2005. Despite being late, the report contains a wealth of information.

Nov 16, 2006

Michigan State Bar Social Security Newsletter

The State Bar of Michigan Social Security Section has issued its Fall 2006 Newsletter. The Newsletter gives information on the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan, among other topics.

Nov 15, 2006

Marsha Katz Nominated To SSAB

Marsha Katz, of Montana, has been nominated by President Bush, to the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB), upon the recommendation of Senator Max Baucus, who will soon become the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Social Security. The Press Release says that this is an "appointment", but my understanding is that one has to be confirmed by the Senate to sit on the SSAB. Katz is identified by the Press Release as an advocate for the disabled. She wrote a manual on advocating for SSI and Social Security disability benefits for the disabled which was published by the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) of Michigan. She currently works for the University of Montana Rural Institute.

SSI Coalition Newsletter -- DSI Information

The SSI Coalition has published its September-October Newsletter. Despite the name, this excellent newsletter covers all of Social Security disability benefits. Since the SSI Coalition is based in Massachusetts, the Newsletter has extensive coverage of the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) project currently underway in Social Security's Boston Region. A few highlights:
  • As of October 12 there were already 15,000 DSI cases.
  • As of September 29, there were only 15 Federal Reviewing Officer claims pending. That will certainly change dramatically in the near future. Indeed, it has probably already changed dramatically.
  • Only 30 Federal Reviewing Officers have been hired as of last report, but that number should already be up to 70.
  • Only 5 nurse case managers have been hired.
  • Commissioner Barnhart believes that Denver will be the next region for DSI, but, of course, Barnhart will not be around to decide whether DSI will be expanded to any region, much less the Denver Region.

More Social Security Fraud In Oklahoma

I had posted recently about an Oklahoma woman who pled guilty to fraud for cashing her late mother's Social Security checks for ten years. The Tulsa World reports on two other Oklahoma cases of Social Security fraud. One was for cashing Social Security checks issued to a deceased relative and the other involved creating a fictitious identity as well as taking Social Security money intended for a disabled relative.

Astrue's Letter To Senators Reid and Baucus

Prior to the election, Senator Reid, who will soon become the Senate Majority Leader, and Senator Baucus, who will soon become the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to Michael Astrue, President Bush's nominee for Commissioner of Social Security, to demand answers from Astrue on his views on Bush's Social Security privatization plan. Astrue's response is now available.

November 3,2006

Dear Senators Reid and Baucus,

Thank you for your letter of October 31, 2006 and for your congratulations on my nomination as Commissioner of Social Security. I agree wholeheartedly with you that this position is one of the most important in the Federal Government, and I would be honored to serve in that role and to work with you on these important matters.

First, let me assure you that if I am confirmed, my goal as the Commissioner of Social Security will be to build consensus among Republicans and Democrats alike in addressing the many issues confronting this program. The Social Security system and the relevant challenges inherent in it are simply too important to the fabric of our nation to fall victim to partisan politics. For that reason, I was heartened to see that you and the President agree on one key aspect of Social Security--the need to shore up the system's long-term finances. I believe that the President and Congress have done a valuable service to the public by putting the issue of Social Security's impending insolvency on the nation's agenda. In fact, I have been disturbed by certain statements that I have seen by some academics and others suggesting that there is no real problem with the financing of Sodal Security and that we need do nothing now. For me it is simply not acceptable, in the face of the information we have from the annual Social Security Trustees' reports, to avoid an honest, data-driven debate about how we can best adapt the system so we can make sure that future generations receive the same type of income security that has been available to beneficiaries in the past.

Additionally, while I am certainly aware of the general details of what the President has previously put forth regarding personal accounts, as a nominee I have not met with or consulted with the technical experts at the agency and elsewhere in government about the specific details of the President's proposal, the critiques of the President's proposal, and the features of competing proposals. It would also be premature for me to seek out assistance trom Members of Congress, academic experts and interest groups until the Senate makes a decision on my qualifications, and it would be a bad start to make final conclusions on some very difficult issues until I have had an opportunity to consider those issues fairly. For that reason, I have maintained an open mind about any proposed solutions to address Social Security's impending insolvency, and the relevant criticisms of them. Finally, I would note that I do not know whether the Administration in January will be making significant changes in its Social Security proposals or not.

With regard to my role in the first two years of the term, my understanding is that the Administration is expecting from me substantial continuity with recent practice when it comes to the Commissioner's role. Moreover, I have not been involved in the preparation of the Administration's proposals for the next budget, and expect that those proposals will be submitted to Congress before I could begin work.

I do know the President will be holding me to a high standard of performance on the myriad of operational issues that confront the agency in a time of budget cutbacks and possible furloughs, and I expect that I will be significantly focused on those issues, particularly those related to the agency's expanding obligations under Medicare.

Thank you again for your letter and the opportunity to provide my views about protecting Social Security. Protecting Social Security for the long-term always requires bipartisan cooperation, and should I be confirmed, I look forward to working with both of you in that effort.


Michael J. Astrue

In essence, Astrue is politely refusing to answer the Senators' questions. Despite the statements in his letter, Astrue must have had conversations with White House officials about Bush's plan to continue his push for Social Security "reform" in 2007 and there must be some understanding between Astrue and the White House over what Astrue's role is to be in this debate. President Bush's other recent nominations strongly suggest that he expects Astrue to vigorously push whatever Social Security "reform" plan the President intends to pursue over the next two years.

Nov 14, 2006

Deep Freeze At Social Security

Social Security, an agency with about 59,000 employees currently lists no job openings anywhere in the agency. This is a dramatic sign of the severity of Social Security's budget problems.

Who Is Andrew Biggs?

Andrew Biggs, President Bush's nominee to be Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, is pictured to the right with the microphone in his hand. He was on the stage with the President campaigning for Social Security privatization in Raleigh, NC, as reported by The Daily Dispatch of Henderson, NC.

Biggs was a Social Security employee. The Executive Intelligence Review gives a summary of Bigg's activities at Social Security:

The 37-year old Biggs, a graduate of the London School of Economics, was the Cato Institute's senior Social Security analyst. In 2001, Cato made Biggs the lead researcher for the President's official Commission [on Social Security reform]. In May 2003, Biggs was promoted to Associate Commissioner for Retirement Policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), part of Cato's coup-effort to take over the whole agency. Biggs sits just below the Deputy Commissioner who runs the Office of Policy, who "is responsible for major activities in the areas of strategic policy planning, policy research, and evaluation," as well as all statistical analysis, according to the SSA.

... Last year, Biggs wrote a "policy brief" internal document that mandates that all Social Security managers are required to present the idea "that Social Security faces dire financial problems requiring immediate action," in the words of the Jan. 15, 2004 New York Times. It would require the SSA to "insert solvency messages in all Social Security publications"; that is, to say that Social Security is in crisis. It would make Social Security managers spread Wall Street-lies in every public forum, as well as at non-traditional sites like farmers' markets and "big box retail stores." ...

Biggs' activities at Social Security have drawn complaints from Democratic members of Congress, according to The American Federation of Government Employees also complained, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Prior to working for Social Security, Biggs was the assistant director of the Cato Institute's Project on Social Security Privatization. He wrote many, many articles for Cato promoting Social Security privatization. He wrote for the National Review, a conservative magazine, in February 2002 and again in April 2002 in support of Social Security privatization.

Curiously, Newsmax reports that Biggs argued at one time that homosexuals ought to support Social Security privatization because the current system unfairly denies them spousal benefits.

It would be hard to imagine a more inflammatory nomination that Bush could have sent to a Senate soon to be controlled by Democrats than that of Andrew Biggs. Biggs was nominated on the same day as John Bolton, whose nomination for Ambassador to the United Nations has also been extremely controversial. Biggs' nomination is the strongest possible sign that, despite the election results and despite widespread public opposition to privatization and despite the fact that privatization has little support among Republican Congressmen and virtually none among Democratic Congressman, President Bush intends to promote Social Security privatization over the next two years. It is a stunningly grandiose move.

Nov 13, 2006

Biggs Nominated As Deputy Commissioner

From the White House Press Office:
The President intends to nominate Andrew G. Biggs, of New York, to be Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, for the remainder of a six year term expiring 01/19/07 and an additional six year term expiring 01/19/13. Dr. Biggs currently serves as Associate Commissioner for Retirement Policy at the Social Security Administration. Prior to this, he served as a Social Security Analyst at the Cato Institute. Earlier in his career, he served as Director of Research at the Congressional Institute. Dr. Biggs received his bachelor's degree from Queens University of Belfast, his master's from Cambridge University and his PhD from the London School of Economics.

SSA Denies ALS Claim

The Carlsbad Argus reports on Robert Johnson's battle to obtain Social Security disability benefits. Johnson suffers from amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He has been denied at the initial and reconsideration levels and has now requested a hearing.

When asked about the case, the local Social Security District Office manager pushed the use of Social Security's online services.

Nov 12, 2006

Fraud In Oklahoma

KFDA reports that a Shawnee, Oklahoma woman pled guilty to endorsing her mother's Social Security checks for ten years after the woman died.

Nov 11, 2006

Investigations Of Social Security Managers

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security managers, has issued a letter to its members warning of an increasing number of investigations of Social Security management personnel. The letter does not say who is doing the investigations, but a good guess is Social Security's Inspector General. Here is an excerpt from the NCSSMA letter to its members:
During the past year the NCSSMA has become aware of a number of cases involving managers or supervisors who have been subject to "investigation" and subsequent discipline because of alleged non-criminal wrong doing. These cases involved such alleged offenses as improper personnel practices and systems sanctions violations. While the odds are that you will never be the subject of such an investigation, it is important for you to know what to do and how to conduct yourself should the occasion arise.

The first thing to know is that when such investigations materialize it appears that they come with little or no warning. In some of the cases with which we are familiar the individuals were not even aware that they were the subject of the inquiry. They were not told that their answers might lead to disciplinary action. They were merely confronted by investigators and asked to answer questions about a specific situation and, in one case, six months later served with a notice of proposed discipline
The letter goes on to give practical advice to managers who face these investigations.

Social Security Data Used In Terrorism Probes

From the Washington Post:
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Social Security Administration's vast databases of personal information have become a resource for federal investigators, who have asked the agency to check tens of thousands of records for number misuse and identity fraud -- potential precursors to terrorist activity. ...

The Social Security Administration is "the Fort Knox of identity information in the United States," said James Huse, the agency's inspector general from 1998 to 2004. "That's a pretty impressive investigative tool that no other agency possesses."

From just after Sept. 11 through 2005, Social Security officials sent prosecutors 456 referrals that were classified as terrorism-related, according to statistics compiled by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The review shows that 91 percent of those referrals led to prosecutions. ...

Still, few if any suspects in Social Security cases are ever linked publicly to alleged terrorist activity. Most cases referred to prosecutors in the months after Sept. 11 involved document fraud by Latino immigrants working at airports.

Nov 10, 2006

Ticket to Work Newsletter

Maximus, the prime contractor for Social Security's Ticket to Work program, has issued its Fall Newsletter on the Ticket to Work program.

Nov 9, 2006

NC Bar Certifies Specialists In Social Security Disability Law

The NC Board of Legal Specialization today announced the following list of NC attorneys who have become certified as Social Security Disability Law specialists:
Lynn Bishop
Laurie J. Burch
Vaughn S. Clauson
Amy L. Cox
James M. Duncan
Holly J. Fairbairn
James B. Gillespie Jr.
Diane S. Griffin
Charles T. Hall
Mason T. Hogan
Robert J. Jacobs
Robert A. Joneth
Janet M. Lyles
Deborah F. Maury
Christa A. McGill
Susan M. O'Malley
Virginia A. Noble
James W. Partin
Walter B. Patterson
Brian L. Peterson
George C. Piemonte
Rachel Pickard
Michele C. Pritchard
Brian M. Ricci
Kevin D. Rodgers
H. Russell Vick

This is the first group of attorneys certified as specialists in Social Security Disability Law by any state bar. The National Board of Trial Advocacy had also administered two exams to certify specialists in this field. To the best of my knowledge, Tennessee is the only state that fully accepts the NBTA certification, although attorneys in most, if not all other states, who are certified by the NBTA, can properly advertise that they had been certified as specialists, as long as they make it clear that it is the NBTA that did the certification rather than their state bar.

27 Questions

With Democrats taking over control of the House of Representatives and the Senate there are many Social Security questions. I wish I had answers for this long list of questions.
  1. Senators Max Baucus, who will become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Harry Reid, who will become the Senate Majority Leader, sent Michael Astrue, the nominee to become the next Social Security Commissioner, a letter on October 31 asking some tough questions. They said in their letter that they wanted a response by November 3. What did Astrue say in his response?
  2. What committments will Democratic Senators ask of Astrue?
  3. What committments is Astue prepared to make to Democratic Senators to get confirmation?
  4. Regardless of Astrue's answers and committments, can he be confirmed?
  5. If there is trouble getting Astrue confirmed as Commissioner, it would normally be possible for the President to give him a recess appointment, which would let Astrue be Commissioner until January 2008, when the next Congress ends, but the President can give a recess appointment only if the Senate is in recess. The Senate can prevent recess appointments by never officially recessing. Will Senator Reid, who will become the Senate Majority leader, avoid Senate recesses to avoid giving President Bush the opportunity to make recess appointments?
  6. It seems obvious that there will be an Acting Commissioner of Social Security in a couple of months, or maybe sooner, if Commissioner Barnhart does not want to hang around until the bitter end. Who will be Acting Commissioner?
  7. How well will Social Security operate under an Acting Commisioner?
  8. Will Social Security be operating under an Acting Commissioner until there is another President?
  9. Who will be the new Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee? Sander Levin is currently the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, but that means little once the Democrats take over the Committee. Levin may end up as Chairman of some other House Ways and Means Subcommittee. There is already speculation that Richard Neal of Massachusetts or John Lewis of Georgia will become the new Chairman of the Subcommittee.
  10. There have been rumors that the proposed regulations that would increase the age categories of the grid regulations by two years will not be adopted. Will these proposed regulations be officially withdrawn before the current Commissioner of Social Security leaves office? If not ficially withdrawn the proposed regulations could be revived at any time and quickly adopted.
  11. No budget has been passed for Social Security for fiscal year 2007, which began on October 1. The agency is operating on a continuining funding resolution. Will the lame duck Congress which will reconvene soon be able to pass a budget or will this issue be held over for the next Congress?
  12. Will Democrats in the Senate try to block passage of a budget in this Congress so they can redo the budget after taking over in January 2007?
  13. Regardless of when a budget is passed, will Social Security get adequate operating funds so that the agency can avoid furloughing employees in the current fiscal year?
  14. There are rumors that Social Security intends to furlough employees for two days before the end of this calendar year. Will this still happen if there is no budget before the end of the year but Democrats are promising that once they take over that they will pass a sufficient budget so that furloughs can be avoided?
  15. Social Security has terrible budget problems. Congressional Democrats will surely be sympathetic, but what can they do? They have also promised fiscal responsibility. Tax cuts and the costs of the war in Iraq leaves little money for the Democrats to work with.
  16. Will there be an effort to pass a supplemental funding bill for Social Security in 2007?
  17. Newly empowered Democrats will surely demand that Social Security do something rapidly about the enormous backlogs in holding hearings on Social Security disability claims. What, if anything, will Social Security do to meet these demands?
  18. Can Democrats in Congress pass legislation that will force action on the backlogs?
  19. What kind of legislation could Congress pass to force action on the backlogs?
  20. Would the President sign such legislation?
  21. Will be President be foolish enough to continue his plan to push Social Security privatization in 2007? The answer to this question seems obvious -- a resounding "NO" -- but that would have been the obvious answer to the question even before the election and, yet, Bush made it quite clear before the election that he was strongly committed to pushing privatization in 2007.
  22. What effect will change in control of Congress have on the regulation of fees charged by attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants?
  23. At the moment, both withholding of fees in SSI cases and withholding of fees for certain non-attorney representatives of claimants are set to expire before long. Republicans in the Senate were the biggest supporters of non-attorney withholding and previously held up SSI withholding to force inclusion of non-attorney withholding. Will Republicans be able or willing to do this again?
  24. If non-attorney withholding is renewed will there be increased requirements for non-attorneys to qualify for withholding?
  25. Will there be increased regulation of non-attorney representatives, who are current subject to almost no regulation?
  26. Will attorneys be able to achieve higher limits on fees they can charge?
  27. Could attorneys even achieve a substantial deregulation of Social Security attorney fees, so that Social Security issues a joint check to the attorney and client, leaving the fees to be determined by the marketplace?

Nov 8, 2006

Clay Shaw Defeated

In Florida, Representative Clay Shaw, former Republican chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee was defeated by Democrat Ron Klein. Shaw had recently been jockeying for the position of Chairman of the entire Ways and Means Committee, but will now be going into retirement.

Nov 7, 2006

Attorney Fee Payments For October

Social Security has released the figures for payments of fees to attorneys and other eligible for direct payment of fees for representing claimants before the agency. The figures for 2006 are below. Payments were down 29% in October from September 2006, but up 10% from October 2005.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Nov 5, 2006

Social Security Recipients By Zipcode

Social Security's Office of Policy has published statistics showing the number of Social Security benefit recipients by zipcode. The data is broken down by the type of benefit.

Nov 4, 2006

GAO Report On Medical Improvement

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report entitled "Clearer Guidance Could Help SSA Apply The Medical Improvement Standard More Consistently." This is a summary from the report:
Several factors associated with the medical improvement standard (the standard) pose challenges for SSA when assessing whether beneficiaries continue to be eligible for benefits. First, limitations in SSA guidance may result in inconsistent application of the standard. For example, SSA does not clearly define the degree of improvement needed to meet the standard, and the DDS directors GAO surveyed reported that they use different thresholds to assess if medical improvement has occurred. Second, contrary to existing policy, disability examiners in a majority of the DDSs are incorrectly conducting CDRs with the presumption that a beneficiary has a disability rather than with a “neutral” perspective. Other challenges associated with the standard include inadequate documentation of evidence as well as the judgmental nature of medical improvement determinations. All these factors have implications for the consistency of CDR decisions. However, due to data limitations, GAO was unable to determine the extent to which these problems affect decisions to continue or discontinue benefits.
GAO's belief that a medical improvement standard somehow means that there is no presumption that a claimant who has been awarded disability benefits remains disabled is ridiculous on its face and suggests a basic misunderstanding. One can read the Social Security Act and regulations to mean this, but it is a logical absurdity. We definitely have a medical improvement standard and that means there must be specific evidence of medical improvement to justify terminating benefits. This means, in fact, that there is a presumption of continued disability regardless of what the statutes and regulations say, because otherwise there is no medical improvement standard. This is the only way a medical improvement standard could be applied.

Like almost all GAO reports, this one suggests that Social Security give clearer guidance to decision makers and that decisions should be more consistent, but fails to suggest any specific ways in which Social Security could achieve these goals.

Interesting, the report shows that Social Security is performing fewer continuing disability reviews in recent years, but cutting the same or more claimants off benefits for medical improvement.

Nov 2, 2006

New Southeastern Program Service Center Mod Assignments






(205) 801-3015



(205) 801-3025



(205) 801-3035



(205) 801-3045



(205) 801-3055



(205) 801-3065



(205) 801-3075



(205) 801-3085



(205) 801-3095



(205) 801-3105



(205) 801-3115



(205) 801-3125



(205) 801-3135



(205) 801-3145



(205) 801-3165



(205) 801-3175

Nov 1, 2006

Upcoming Meetings and CLE

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