Dec 31, 2006

Does This Make Sense?

See the notice below, recently posted by Social Security. Perhaps there is some good explanation, but it is hard to understand why this contractor is moving so slowly on something that does not sound all that complicated -- or why they even need to have "a conference of expert consultants" at a time when Social Security is so short of money that it may furlough staff. And who are these "expert consultants?" Indeed, why did Social Security need a contractor for this to begin with? If the whole idea is to change to something simple, would it not be simple to set up a test? Why does Social Security's Inspector General spend a lot of time chasing down penny ante claimant fraud while ignoring wasteful expenditures for contractors?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) intends to modify its contract with Abt Associates, Inc. (contract #SS00-04-60110), $1 for $2 Benefit Offset Demonstration in accordance with FAR 6.302-1, to include the contractor?s work to facilitate a conference of expert consultants from the Four State Benefit Offset Pilot programs that will serve to complement pre-implementation tasks under the contract. BACKGROUND: On September 30, 2004 SSA awarded a 2-year contract to Abt Associates for design of a multi-site, demonstration project that tests alternate methods of treating work activity in the Title II disability program. After the design is completed, subsequent phases of this demonstration will be awarded to the same contractor on a sole source basis for the implementation, data collection and evaluation and management of the project, conditional upon successful performance of the design phase. REQUIREMENTS: Abt will be responsible for arranging all necessary activities related to planning and facilitating the aforementioned conference. Interested sources that believe they have the capability to perform the services required should submit a capability statement to Daniel Walker via email at Responses shall be marked CONF - CAPABILITY STATEMENT, and shall be received no later than January 12, 2007, 2:30PM EST. All responsible sources will be considered. If no responses are received by the cutoff date, a modification will be effected against the Abt contract referenced above. All questions must be submitted in writing to Daniel Walker via the email address listed above. Telephone calls will NOT be accepted.

Dec 30, 2006

Retirement Of Social Security Employee Illustrates Social Security's Problems

This short and seemingly unimportant article from The Express-Times, a Pennsylvania newspaper, contains themes which reflect widespread problems at Social Security. A long time Social Security employee who is well regarded by those with whom he has dealt is retiring. Social Security has many long time employees nearing retirement. This is because the number of Social Security employees has declined dramatically over the last 25 years or so, which means that relatively few new employees have been hired at Social Security over the last 25 years. As these long term employees retire, the agency is rapidly becoming less experienced. This retiring employee is not being replaced, which is indicative of Social Security's terrible budget problems. The retiring employee is concerned that Social Security is rapidly phasing out face to face service in favor of toll free number service, which he knows is much less satisfactory.

EASTON | Ray J. Little had job offers from two federal agencies after passing the civil service examination.

He initially planned to work for the Internal Revenue Service, but a friend steered him to his second choice -- Social Security.

At the IRS, the friend told Little, his job involved trying to collect money from people.

"That's no fun," the friend told Little. "With Social Security, you have people coming in, and you're trying to give them money, and it's a lot easier."

So Little took a position with the Social Security Administration -- in 1960.

The Palmer Township resident will retire today after 46 years. He spent much of that time working out of Easton, acting as the unofficial face in this area of the agency that is charged with disbursing benefits to millions of Americans, including thousands in Northampton, Warren and Hunterdon counties.

Little's job -- public affairs representative or field specialist -- included duties such as speaking before area groups and generally getting the word out about Social Security programs.

Grateful representatives of area agencies say Little went beyond the call of duty.

"We share many clients, so he's been helpful," said Elsie Luciano, executive director of Easton Area Neighborhood Centers Inc.

"He did so much and helped so many people that we know of in our chamber," added Bill Brackbill, former president of the Nazareth Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber recognized Little in May 2005 when the agency opened its Downtown Easton office at 134 S. Fourth St.

Little's job essentially will be eliminated, according to John J. McCann, the Easton office's district manager, who hopes to provide fill-in speakers either through his office or through regional public affairs officials.

The retiring Little believes face-to-face contact helps beneficiaries, but it's something he said Social Security is doing less of in recent years, with the agency providing a toll-free telephone number and Internet access.

Little said he has helped some people receive benefits earlier than they realized. Some widows still send him Christmas cards every year, he said, after they learned from him years earlier about being able to apply for benefits sooner than they had thought.

"You can't file for Social Security until you're 62," said Little, repeating an oft-cited government phrase. "But a widow can file as early as age 60."

"He does a tremendous job developing relationships with people," said Brackbill of Little. "You call Ray and you might get his answering machine, but you get an answer back He's always quick to respond."

For now, Little said he has no definite retirement plans. He intends to take a few months to relax then explore possible part-time offers from area agencies to become a resource for Social Security.

He'll also be able to fine tune his monthly benefit check, though Little added a surprising twist: Part of the reason he took retirement now is that he would lose money by working full-time.

It's in part because of cuts approved by the government in recent years involving government workers who held other positions for which they could collect Social Security, and to help ensure Social Security's solvency.

"Really, I'm going to miss it, because I enjoy it," said Little, who participated in some lighthearted banter with McCann while the two looked at old photographs and articles about Little's early career.

"I enjoy dealing with people. That's why of all the jobs I've had the best job as far as I'm concerned is the job I have now."

McCann, who has been Little's boss since 1999, said Little worked hard at chasing down fraud referrals and deciphering the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, which has been in effect more than one year.

"He also brought a lot of humor in the office," added McCann.

The impeccably dressed Little, who on this day sported a Social Security button on his jacket lapel, indeed was always quick with a quip.

"You wouldn't dare put my age in," he said when the question arose. "Just put down there good looking, intelligent and humble."

Dec 29, 2006

Gerald Ford On Social Security

Gerald Ford had a somewhat different attitude towards Social Security than the current Republican President, who is firmly opposed to any tax increase and wishes to privatize Social Security. It is amazing to think that Ford, a Republican, made the following remarks in 1976, which sound like the sort of thing that even a Democrat might be scared to say today:

WHILE the press is here, I think it might be appropriate to point out to them the reason for this meeting.

As everybody knows, I submitted to the Congress a very constructive proposal for the purpose of maintaining the financial integrity of the social security trust fund. This was submitted at the time of our budget or economic program, at the time of the State of the Union and, unfortunately, it appears that the Congress is going to fail to recognize the problem and tragically fail to do anything to solve the problem.

This concerns me very greatly, because we have 39 million individuals, most of them older, who are depending upon the financial soundness of the trust fund. And we leave literally millions and millions more who are paying into the trust fund, who are counting on the financial integrity of that fund.

This administration feels an obligation to protect the investment of those who are retired and those who are counting on retirement. The purpose of this meeting is for me to get the up-to-date information from the responsible people in the executive branch who, I'm sure, are likewise concerned, as I am, about the current situation.

The Congress cannot fail the older people and others who are either on retirement or about to retire. We expect some action. They cannot fail to respond to this very important and, I think, critical need.

Simple arithmetic indicates that the social security trust fund is headed for trouble. Unless the Congress acts to ensure that the fund takes in as much as it pays out, there will not be adequate security for old or young.

In my State of the Union Message in January, I proposed a payroll tax increase of .3 percent each for employees and employers, to increase revenues into the trust fund to ensure that benefits will be available to all who have earned them.

My proposed increase would cost workers, with a maximum taxable income, less than a dollar a week. This increase will help stabilize trust funds so that current and future recipients can be assured the benefits that they have earned. I urge the Congress to take the earliest possible action on my proposal to preserve the integrity of the social security trust fund.

Ticket to Work Meeting

Social Security's Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel has scheduled a teleconference meeting for January 10 from 2:00 to 4:00. Members of the public may listen in by calling 1-888-790-4158 and using the pass code: PANEL TELECONFERENCE.

Empire Justice Center Newsletter

The Empire Justice Center has issued its November 2006 edition of Disability Law News, its newsletter mostly dealing with Social Security disability issues.

Determining Disability Is Tough

Determining whether a person is disabled is tough, whether it is Social Security or workers compensation doing the disability determination, as this item from the Insurance Journal shows:
People who receive higher disability ratings for work-related back injuries don't necessarily fare worse over the long term than those who get lower ratings, a Saint Louis University study finds...

"A disability rating is supposed to reflect the amount of impairment a person has at the time that a case is closed. The presumption is that levels of impairment are stable and related to day-to-day levels of function. I was shocked that the associations between disability rating and subsequent levels of function weren't stronger," said Raymond Tait, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Disability ratings also differed between African-Americans and Caucasians. According to Tait, those differences probably reflected differences in treatment: whites were four times more likely to have surgery than blacks. Those who had surgery received larger settlements for their injuries, Tait said.

"While surgery inflated disability ratings, there appeared not relationship between surgery outcomes and how a person did thereafter," he said.

Tait and colleague John Chibnall, Ph.D., also a professor of psychiatry at Saint Lois University, looked at about 1,500 Missouri workers – 580 African-Americans and 892 Caucasians – whose Workers' Compensation claims for lower back pain were settled between Jan. 1, 2001 and June 1, 2002.

Researchers interviewed the employees 21 months after their settlements about how they were doing. They asked questions about pain intensity, general physical and mental health and whether they currently were working.

Tait and Chibnall said that their findings "raise questions about both the validity and the fairness of the current disability determination program. Disability settlements are designed to give people money toward a fresh start. Those settlements do not appear to reflect the residual levels of disability that people actually experience."

SSA Definitely Closing On January 2

President Bush's order shutting federal offices for former President Ford's funeral allowed agency heads to make the decision on which offices should stay open for "essential public business." There was little chance that Commissioner Barnhart would use this to keep Social Security offices open, since they were closed for the funerals of former presidents Nixon and Reagan. The word has now come down that Social Security offices will be closed on January 2.

Dec 28, 2006

Jo Anne Barnhart's Father Dies

The father of Jo Anne Barnhart, Commissioner of Social Security, passed away on Christmas day, according to TCPalm, a website associated with several Florida newspapers.

Bush Orders Federal Offices Closed On Tuesday

President George W. Bush To Close Federal Offices in Tribute to Former President Gerald R. Ford

Washington, D.C. -- By Executive Order of President George W. Bush, all executive departments, independent organizations and other agencies of the Federal government shall be closed on Tuesday, January 2, 2007, as a mark of respect for Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Linda M. Springer notified Cabinet Secretaries, Agency Heads and Chief Human Capital Officers governmentwide about the closure shortly after President Bush signed the Executive Order on December 28, 2006. Springer provided agency leaders with a copy of the President's proclamation, which designates Tuesday, January 2, 2007, as a National Day of Mourning.

The closure order includes Federal offices, with the exception of those offices and installations, or parts thereof, in the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, or other departments, independent organizations, and governmental agencies whose agency head determines should remain open for reasons of national security or defense, or other essential public business.

Former President Ford's Funeral Scheduled

The Associated Press reports that the state funeral for former President Gerald Ford has been scheduled for Tuesday, January 2, 2007. President Bush has not yet announced that federal offices will be closed that day, but it would be a major surprise if he does not do so.

Dec 27, 2006

Social Security Probably Closed On January 2

The early report from USA Today is that the state funeral for former President Gerald Ford is likely to be on Tuesday, January 2, which means that federal offices, including Social Security, will likely be closed that day.

GAO Report On Implementation Of Medicare Part B Income-Based Premiums

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on Social Security's implementation of income-based Medicare Part B premiums. This is a big workload that Social Security does not need at a time when it is already struggling to cope with severely limited funding. Below is the cover letter to the Senate Finance Committee Chairman and Ranking Minority Member summarizing the report.
November 17, 2006

The Honorable Charles E. Grassley Chairman
The Honorable Max Baucus Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Finance United States Senate

Subject: Social Security Administration: Short Time Frame and Workload Challenges Could Affect Timely Implementation of Income-Based Medicare Part B Premiums

Beginning January 1, 2007, the premiums for the Medicare Part B Supplementary Medical Insurance program will be based on income, which will raise the premiums for approximately 1.65 million higher-income beneficiaries to as much as 80 percent of the full cost over the 3-year phase-in period. This change, which may be unknown to some beneficiaries, will affect single individuals with incomes over $80,000 and married couples who file jointly with incomes over $160,000. Medicare Part B is a voluntary program administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that covers doctors’ services, certain outpatient services, and other care. Currently, Medicare Part B beneficiaries generally pay a flat premium of 25 percent (the standard monthly premium) of the cost of the program, with the remaining 75 percent subsidized by the federal government. While CMS administers the program, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for determining and assessing Medicare Part B income-based premiums once CMS has set the standard premium amount for the year. To better understand how SSA is implementing such premiums, the Senate Committee on Finance requested that we review the process that SSA has established to determine and assess the new premiums.

Enclosed (Enclosure I) is an updated version of the briefing that we provided to your staff on November 7, 2006 describing the status of SSA’s implementation efforts as of November 6, 2006. At this writing, SSA is still in the process of calculating premiums and expects to finish this task by mid-November. Once the calculations are completed, SSA will include the new premium in its cost of living adjustment notices, which will be mailed to affected beneficiaries in late November. Beneficiaries will have 60 days after receiving the notice of the premium increase to file an appeal. However, they may also request a new determination without filing an appeal if they have experienced a life changing event that results in a significant reduction in their income, or they have more recent, amended or corrected tax return information. Time frames for requesting new determinations vary depending on the reason that beneficiaries cite for making such a request. SSA is conducting a number of training efforts to assist staff in dealing with inquiries from affected beneficiaries. For field offices with a high volume of affected beneficiaries, SSA plans to move the resulting work as needed to offices with fewer affected beneficiaries. Despite SSA’s planning efforts, there are various issues that could affect its implementation of income-based premiums. For example, SSA has about a month to determine and assess the premiums, and faces an anticipated field office workload increase when beneficiaries contact them for help in understanding the higher premiums or challenging the premium assessment.

To address the Committee’s request, we reviewed relevant statutes and program regulations on income-based premiums, interviewed officials at SSA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and CMS, and obtained supporting documentation on their plans for implementing the income-based premiums. We evaluated these plans based on the time frame established in the law for SSA’s receipt of income-based data from the IRS and SSA’s schedule to implement the income-based premiums by the effective date. We also interviewed managers and staff at various SSA field offices and spoke with Medicare advocacy groups. We did not assess the procedures used to test IRS and SSA systems for implementing the income-based premiums. We performed our work between May 2006 and November 2006 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

We provided a draft of the briefing to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration on November 9, 2006. In response to our statement that beneficiaries might not be aware of the income-based premiums, SSA noted that this information was provided in the 2007 “Medicare and You” handbook, which was sent to all Medicare beneficiaries by the end of October 2006. SSA also noted that the current hiring freeze, which could affect SSA’s ability to respond to income-based premium inquiries, was a result of the continuing resolution under which SSA is currently operating. We considered these comments, as well as SSA’s technical comments, and made changes as appropriate. We have included the agency’s comments in Enclosure II. We are sending copies of this briefing to the Commissioner of Social Security, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and other interested parties. Copies will also be made available to others upon request. In addition, the report will be available at no charge on GAO’s Web site at Please contact us at the number shown below if you or your staff have any questions about this report. Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last page of this briefing.

Sincerely yours,

Barbara D. Bovbjerg Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues

Ford's Death Probably Means Federal Employees Get Extra Day Off

It has been traditional to close federal offices on the day of the state funeral of a former president. These state funerals take time to arrange and seem to always occur on what would otherwise be a workday. Funeral plans have not yet been announced for former President Ford who just died, but we can probably add another day to each of Social Security's backlogs.

Dec 26, 2006

Furlough Worries Continue

From the minutes of a December 12, 2006 conference call of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel:
A press release from leading Democrats about continuing funding for a long-term CR [continuing resolution for funding of federal government operations] for the entire FY [fiscal year] 2007 was shared with the EC [executive committee] late yesterday. The details are trickling in and there is not a great deal of specifics available at this time. We will be working to come out as best as possible in the CR. NCSSMA will continue to make contacts in the House and Senate to seek an increased level of funding for SSA above the FY 06 level. ...

On the furlough issue, Rachel [Emmons, NCSSMA's lobbyist] thinks after looking closely at the language in the CR that the mechanism has been provided to prevent agencies from having to implement furloughs during the time from now through February 15 (expiration date of the current CR). If the entire year CR is enacted at the Senate-recommended level of funding it represents a $54 million cut from FY06. NCSSMA needs to be focused on impacting the CR number as positively as possible for SSA. Rachel says it is way too early in the process for us to know exactly where we stand. Rick [Warsinskey, NCSSMA president] believes that we still have a good possibility of having furloughs after February 15 if the full year funding is written so that adequate funding is not provided for SSA. He believes that is why we need to work on a strategy where we can focus on getting information to the appropriators. We will ask members to send in information about what is going on in their offices. We need to get this information in by mid-January. We will reach out to the organizations that worked with us on the Snowe-Conrad SSA funding letter as we continue to work on the FY07 appropriations and the FY08 budget as well.

Dec 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all readers of the Social Security News Blog.

Dec 24, 2006

Bush Retains Belief In Social Security Reform

It sounds as if the President is interested in a deal that would go something like this. Democrats would get to raise the FICA tax and cut Social Security benefits (and we all know they are eager to raise taxes and cut benefits) and the President would get some sort of private accounts as an add-on to Social Security. Basically, the President wants to reluctantly agree to let the Democrats do the unpopular stuff, while he takes credit for anything that might be popular. From the Washington Post:
Bush's new flexibility on Social Security is part of a larger White House plan to renew the effort to tame the rising costs of government entitlement programs as the nation's population ages. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who enjoys strong credibility among Democrats and Republicans, has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to talk about restructuring Social Security, emphasizing that there are no preconceptions.

Administration officials have said the White House is willing to listen to other ideas, including personal savings accounts that do not involve diverting Social Security payroll taxes, as well as higher payroll taxes to help cover the expected growth in the program's costs. Still, Bush emphasized that young workers should be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts, a proposal that went nowhere in Congress last year.

"I will tell you this: In an issue like this, unless the president tries, nothing is going to happen," Bush said. "Without presidential involvement, nothing will happen. So we have a chance, and I'm going to work it."

Dec 23, 2006

CCD Annual Meeting

The Coalition for Citizens with Disability (CCD) is an umbrella organization with a membership composed of many non-profits involved in helping "citizens with disabilities" as their name says. The CCD is a major player in Social Security disability matters, especially when Democrats control Congress. The CCD held its annual meeting on December 19. The CCD received a report from its Social Security Task Force and gave its annual Chairperson's Award to Jo Anne Barnhart, the outgoing Commissioner of Social Security.

Dec 22, 2006

Settlement On Food Stamps Loss In Welfare To SSI Transition

After "welfare as we know it", which was actually Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was dramatically altered during the Clinton administration to something now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), it became clear that many who had been receiving AFDC were really disabled. They had gone on AFDC because dealing with the welfare bureaucracy was less difficult than dealing with the Social Security bureaucracy to get SSI, which says something about the Social Security bureaucracy. After the switch from AFDC to TANF made staying indefinitely on "welfare as we know it" impossible, most of these folks ended up getting on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In the process, many ended up losing Food Stamps because of bureaucratic mistakes, at least in New York state. There has been litigation over this. The New York Times reports that the case has now been settled and 100,000 New York residents will be getting a total of $4.3 million to make up for the errors. Whether this problem extended to other states is a good question.

Dec 21, 2006

Good News On 1695s

Beginning January 1, 2007 attorneys and others entitled to withholding of fees for representing Social Security claimants must file a new form 1695, which provides Social Security with the attorney's or representative's Social Security Number. This will allow Social Security eventually to prepare 1099s giving the attorney or representative and the IRS information about fees received. The 1695 form appears to require the attorney or representative to list the name and Social Security Number of each of a claimant's dependents who may receive benefits on the account. Providing the dependents' names and Social Security Numbers may sound like a minor matter, but it would be a major burden on attorneys and representatives and, for that matter, the data entry would be a major burden on Social Security itself.

I have received word today from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) that Social Security has decided that providing the dependent names and Social Security Numbers is optional. There will be no punishment for failing to provide the information.

Dec 20, 2006

Social Security Nominations And Appointments

The Social Security Administration has a useful web page showing the current status of Social Security nominations and appointments. It shows that there are plenty of possible confirmation battles ahead if the President continues to nominate people who will vigorously advocate Social Security privatization.

FOIA Suit For Employer Data

From the Judicial Watch website:
Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, announced today that it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Social Security Administration (Judicial Watch v. Social Security Administration, Case No. 1:06CV02034). Judicial Watch is seeking documents identifying the top 100 corporations in the United States receiving the highest number of "no match" letters from the Social Security Administration.
The problem of getting information from Social Security under the Freedom of Information Act goes well beyond this case. As a general matter, Social Security tries hard to avoid giving information out of its databases, even when the information is a compilation that does not identify any individual.

Dec 19, 2006

Staff Instructions On Attorney Registration

Social Security has issued staff instructions in its Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) on the new system by which attorneys and others representing claimants must register with Social Security and must submit a new form 1695 for each claimant they represent. This is being done so that Social Security can start providing 1099 forms to the attorneys and other representatives.

The crucial question of whether the attorney or other representative must include the name and Social Security number of all of their clients' dependents who may obtain benefits on the account of their clients, as suggested by the form itself, is not answered in the instructions. Trying to obtain this information would be a big burden for attorneys representing Social Security claimants. Doing the data entry for all these names and Social Security numbers would be a big administrative burden for Social Security. There seems to be no crying need for obtaining and entering this information and a huge potential for error, yet Social Security has been unable so far to say that they really need the data or why they need it.

Dec 18, 2006

Rescission Of Acquiescence Ruling

From today's Federal Register:
On June 23, 1988 we issued SSR 88–10(c) to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in Galbreath v. Bowen, 485 U.S. 74 (1988), in which the Court held that the relevant statutes did not permit withholding past-due Supplemental Security Income benefits for attorney’s fees in title XVI cases. As the Court noted at the end of its decision, the earlier Congressional decision not to extend attorney fee withholding to title XVI would stand ‘‘[u]ntil Congress [saw] fit to override its original decision, by amending Title XVI in a way that manifests an intent to allow withholding.’’

In the Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (SSPA), Public Law 108–203, Congress enacted such legislation. Section 302 of the SSPA amended section 1631(d)(2) of the Social Security Act to extend the attorney fee withholding and direct payment procedures to claims under title XVI. We began paying fees directly to attorneys in title XVI cases effectuated on or after February 28, 2005, the date the amendments made by section 302 took effect. While this provision will only be effective for 5 years, we believe that SSR 88–10(c) should be rescinded for this period and we will later determine if there is a need to reinstate it.

Dec 17, 2006

Monthly Statistics Released

Social Security has released its monthly statistical packages for Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Dec 16, 2006

New Urban Legend

Here is a brand new urban legend, or, at least this preposterous tale is new to me, fresh from a web board:
Have you heard anything about Social Security numbers, African Americans and the 5th digit of your SSN? Supposedly, if you are an African American or a minority, the 5th digit in your SSN is even and odd if you are white!

It has been said if you take a poll, most African Americans will have an even 5th digit. Rumor has it, some companies are looking at potential employees SSN to discriminate. Why not send this email to every African American and Minority that you know! I'm sending this to everyone I know. Mine was even, what's yours?
This absurd urban legend is attributed to Tavis Smiley, an African American man who has a talk show on Public Radio International, but Smiley would probably be appalled to know his name was connected to this nonsense.

No Social Security Furloughs Through February 15 -- And Maybe None Period

[A spokeswoman for Senator Byrd, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee] said the joint resolution [which is planned to fund government operations for the rest of the fiscal year] would not rely on a formula like that used in the current continuing resolution [which funds Social Security at such a low rate that the agency says that if it is continued for the entire fiscal year that employee furloughs are inevitable], but will "evaluate broad priorities and look at areas in desperate need." In that way, it would more closely resemble an omnibus spending bill, but she said the joint resolution would be different in that it would be "a lot more bare bones," with no policy direction. ...

At the Social Security Administration, where Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart has publicly warned that proposed budget cuts would require furloughs of about 10 days agencywide, that flexibility could mean the agency gets sufficient funding to stay open as usual. A spokesman said Wednesday that SSA could continue to operate through mid-February [when the current continuing funding resolution runs out] without needing to make a decision on furloughs.

Dec 15, 2006

Furlough Worries At SSA

The article below is from the Baltimore Sun. The only good thing is that the article does not mention the prospect of a furlough before Congress can reconvene. One has to wonder if this could have been avoided if Barnhart had been willing to speak out publicly about this budget problem before things got this bad, but she was unwilling to do this until it became clear that she would not be reappointed and by then it was too late and she had made too many statements promising dramatic productivity gains from her Disability Service Improvement plan.

The Social Security Administration may still have to close offices nationwide for several days next year after the Republican-led Congress failed to act on nine of the 11 spending bills for 2007 and incoming Democratic leaders announced that they would hold spending at current levels until Oct. 1.

Agency spokesman Mark Lassiter said this week that extending 2006 spending levels through the entire 2007 fiscal year would "leave the agency open for the furlough."

When Congress returns in January, Lassiter said, one way to avoid sending workers home without pay would be to set Social Security spending at $9.29 billion, the amount approved by a House subcommittee for 2007 and $146 million more than what the agency is operating with now.

Outgoing Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart said in an interview last week that once Congress dips below that figure, "there's no place left to give."

Barnhart has been warning of a potential furlough since September, which she characterized as the culmination of Congress allotting the agency less than the president requested for five straight years.

"Let me assure you, there is no strategy here," said Barnhart, a former congressional staffer. "As the person who's responsible for a program that delivers benefits to 48 million people, I think it's my responsibility to make sure Congress understands the consequences of its planned actions. If I had waited until after Congress signed off on appropriations bills and said, 'Gee, that's not enough money. We need to do a furlough.' I think they'd be a little annoyed with me."

Barnhart said that if Congress had supported the president's requests, people applying for disability benefits and challenging denials would not be faced with the long delays they are experiencing now.

Lassiter said Wednesday that the agency has instituted a hiring freeze until at least Feb. 15, almost a month after Barnhart's term expires. The agency had been hiring one employee for every three who left.

"The point is, there's a very direct correlation between service and getting the president's request and not getting the president's request," Barnhart said.

Until late last week, when the spending bills failed to get off the Senate floor, the agency's lobbying efforts had been gaining ground with 54 senators, including 12 Republicans, sending a letter to the chamber's leadership calling for enough money to avoid service disruptions.

"On the philosophical level, I certainly feel the agency is enjoying a victory, but on the practical side we're still piling on," Barnhart said. "We could absorb the House's proposal, but it's not going to be an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination."

Richard Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said that agency budget officials estimate that for every $20 million the agency loses from the House's 2007 budget proposal, offices would shut down for one day.

"So if we stick with our current funding level, we're looking at a seven- or eight-day furlough," Warsinskey said. "It's not looking good."

Dec 14, 2006

NOSSCR Board of Directors

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) has announced its officers and board of directors for 2006-2007.

Dec 13, 2006

Social Security Budget To Be Decided Early On

The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have jointly announced that they intend to pass a year long continuing funding resolution early in the next Congress for the entire government. If this resolution is the same as the continuing funding resolution already approved through February 15, 2007 (and that will certainly be the starting point), Social Security is in deep trouble, with staff furloughs inevitable. The furloughs might be the most dramatic problem, but the agency would avoid even longer furloughs only by a near complete hiring freeze, no overtime and a very limited budget for things like equipment purchases and travel. All of this put together would certainly cause dramatic increases in the agency's already terrible backlogs. Social Security must now seek urgently to get an adjustment in the continuing funding agreement to allow more operating funds, but this effort may be crippled since the two top positions at the agency, Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner, will soon be vacant, leaving Social Security almost leaderless.

SSAB Meeting Agenda

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has announced the following agenda for its meeting on December 15, 2006.

Social Security Advisory Board
Meeting Agenda
Friday December 15, 2006

10:30 a.m. - 1145 a.m. Linda Maxfield, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Policy,

Social Security Administration

1:30 p.m. - 3:15 p.m. Richard V. Burkhauser,

Professor and Chair,

Department of Policy Analysis and Management,

Cornell University

Debra Bailey Whitman,

Specialist in the Economics of Aging,

Congressional Research Service

The meeting will be held in the Board's conference room, Suite 625

400 Virginia Avenue, SW

Washington, DC

The agenda suggests that the Board is trying to come up with some dramatic proposal for "Social Security reform." There are even some straws in the wind suggesting that the SSAB wants to propose something before the next Congress convenes. The rest of us may roll our eyes upon hearing that there are actually people who believe that there will be some agreement in the next two years on "Social Security reform" that will satisfy Congressional Democrats and Republicans and President Bush, even though none of the parties has any interest in raising taxes or cutting benefits and most of the Republicans still suffer from the delusion that adding some sort of private accounts to Social Security will help the situation instead of making it worse.

Social Security ALJ Pleads Not Guilty

The Associated Press reports that Douglas Combs, Jr., a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), has pleaded not guilty to federal mail fraud charges. The charges relate to Combs' service as a Kentucky Circuit Court Judge before becoming an ALJ.

Dec 12, 2006

Aloha Disability Claims

The Honolulu Star Bulletin reports on Vikky Nakamura, a supervisor at the Hawaii Disability Determination Branch, in its series, "Hawaii at Work." Even in paradise there are disability claims.

Dec 11, 2006

SSA Semi-Annual Regulatory Agenda

Social Security has published its semi-annual regulatory agenda, showing the regulations that the agency is working on. The list seems to lack anything surprising or mysterious. There usually seems to be at least one item that is described in such a sketchy way that it is impossible to tell whether it is important, but not this time.

Dec 10, 2006

New NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of employees of state disability determination agencies, has published its Fall 2006 Newsletter. The Newsletter contains this little piece of new information from Sylvia Karman of Social Security's Office of Disability Evaluation Policy:
Draft final regulations of Silvera-Vargas pending at the executive level. This regulation will clarify illiteracy and inability to communicate in English as an education level and its impact on potential skill transferability.

Dec 9, 2006

Family Burns Father 's Body To Keep Social Security

The Jefferson City News Tribune reports that the widow and two children of a Missouri man have pleaded guilty to concealing his death in order to keep getting his Social Security retirement benefits. Larry McWilliams died of natural causes in 1997. His family burned his body to conceal the death. The family members were improperly paid $130,000 in Social Security benefits as a result of the fraud.

Dec 8, 2006

Social Security Funding Stays Low Until February 15

The House of Representatives has just adopted H.J.Res 102, a continuing funding resolution that will keep the government running through February 15, 2007, on a roll call vote. The resolution keeps Social Security funding at the same low level in effect since the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1. This means that Social Security will be operating for at least four and a half months under a budget that the Commissioner of Social Security has said would require ten days for furloughs for Social Security employees over the course of the entire fiscal year. The Commissioner does not have the relative luxury of planning how to use what is available now over the course of the entire fiscal year, but must deal with almost day to day limitiations on spending money. Purchases may be deferred and payments to vendors may be delayed slightly, but there is a real risk of serious problems at Social Security over the next two months.

In fairness, Commissioner Barnhart must share in the blame for this fiasco. She has spent over five years doing her best to convince Congress that she could bring dramatic improvements in productivity through the EDIB electronic file program and the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) reorganization. Congress ended up taking her seriously, even though EDIB has hurt productivity in the short run and few now believe that it will ever yield more than modest productivity gains and even though DSI will have almost no effect, either good or bad, on Social Security productivity until well into the future. The failure of Commissioner Barnhart to pull the promised rabbit out of the hat leaves Social Security painfully short of manpower for at least the next two months.

Lawsuit On Benefits To Immigrants Awaiting Citizenship

Legal immigrants can obtain Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for seven years after coming to the U.S. Their benefits are then stopped unless they have become citizens. The problem is that there are huge backlogs preventing immigrants from obtaining citizenship within those seven years, even though they fully qualify and are vigorously seeking citizenship. Some immigrants who are eligible for citizenship and actively seeking citizenship are losing SSI because the FBI cannot complete background checks on them so that their citizenship applications can be granted. This has led to a lawsuit in Pennsylvania, brought by Community Legal Services, according to a Philadelphia Daily News article.

Dec 7, 2006

Mental Retardation Fraud Alleged In Tacoma

From The Olympian in Washington State:
TACOMA - For nearly 20 years - ever since he was 8 - Pete Costello's mother has collected disability benefits on his behalf. In meetings with Social Security officials and psychologists, he appeared mentally retarded and unable to communicate. His mom insisted he couldn't read or write, shower, take care of himself or drive a car.

But video of Pete contesting a traffic ticket in a Clark County courtroom earlier this year seems to refute that, according to federal prosecutors who are pursuing fraud charges against the Vancouver pair.

National Review Faces Reality And Talks Social Security

Most conservatives seem to be in a state of denial about what can be done about Social Security's long term funding issues. Most, including the President, seem to believe that privatization is still possible, despite the fact that Democrats control Congress and are firmly against privatization. The National Review, perhaps the country's most prominent conservative publication, may be an unlikely place to find ideas which could be a starting point for fruitful negotiations on legislation to improve Social Security's long term funding, but it looks as if its editorial board is starting to face reality. Check out this recent National Review piece that may actually provide a useful starting point:
First, the program could be put on a sound fiscal footing by reducing the future growth of benefits. Republicans will like this proposal better than Democrats, but few Democrats have ruled it out. Second, the government could provide tax credits to help low-income workers begin investing. Democrats have proposed this policy for years, and Republicans have objected. But if Republicans are as interested as they say they are in expanding the investor class — and they should be — they should drop their objections. Third, the taxes that fund Social Security could be made more progressive. There is a cap on the amount of wages that is subject to the payroll tax. That cap could be raised. This is where Democrats want to go, and Republicans have good reasons for resisting: It would increase marginal tax rates for the affected workers quite a bit, and it would not raise much money. But if the cap were not raised much, and the revenues gained were used to fund the tax credits or to lower the payroll-tax rate, Republicans might find their objections dwindling.

Dec 6, 2006

SSA Posting Job Vacancies

Ordinarily, this would not qualify as news, but the Social Security Administration is advertising two job openings. This is the first sign that there may be some hope for Social Security's administrative budget situation. Social Security is being squeezed by a drastically short operating budget under a continuing funding resolution. Perhaps, this is a sign that there is hope that the new continuing funding resolution, due by Friday, will not be so draconian. Certainly, there is every reason to expect better funding once Democrats take over control of Congress next year, but Social Security has to get through the next two months or so first -- and avoiding a staff furlough during this time period is essential.

India Totalization Agreement

There was a prior report from the Indian side that there were efforts underway to negotiate a totalization agreement with India. There is now a report on ANI, an Indian new agency, quoting the U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade as saying that negotiations will start soon on such a treaty. There are many Indian immigrants in the United States and most of them are middle class individuals who might have been covered under India's Social Security system.

Dec 5, 2006

SSAB Nominations Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee is holding a hearing today (December 5) on the nominations of Dana Bilyeu and Mark Warshawsky to the Social Security Advisory Board.

User Fee Increase In Effect Now

From Social Security Emergency Message EM-06094 (emphasis added):
Effective with fees paid December 1, 2006 and later, the user fee increases from $75.00 to $77.00 or 6.3% of attorney fee, whichever is lower. The cap was adjusted based on annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) rounded down to next lower $1 for the current calendar year.

Automated fee computations, fees processed manually, or paid by A-OTP, will use the increased fee assessment cap to compute the user fee for fees paid on or after December 1, 2006.

U.S. Marshall's Process Service Form Available On-Line

The U.S. Marshall's Service has posted on-line a fillable version of their form USM-285 which is supposed to be used for in forma pauperis cases in the United States District Courts. This form is used frequently by two groups -- prisoners filing pro se complaints and attorneys representing Social Security claimants.

Dec 4, 2006

What Will New Continuing Resolution Say?

The current continuing funding resolution under which Social Security is operating expires on Friday, December 8, according to the Library of Congress. There will be a new continuing resolution before the end of this week. The big question is what it will say. Congress has passed no budget for the Social Security Administration for the current fiscal year, which began on October 1. The agency is operating under a continuing funding resolution that allows the agency to spend money only at a very low rate. If the current continuing resolution provisions are continued, Social Security cannot hire new employees to replace any who leave and there is a threat of a furlough for current employees, simply because there may not be enough money to keep the offices open every day. It is already clear that there will not be a budget for the current fiscal year until after the new Congress convenes in January. It is not clear how long it will take the new Congress to produce a new budget. Will the new continuing resolution continue funding only at the current very low level which may require a furlough of Social Security employees before a new budget is passed or will the funding level be increased so that Social Security can operate effectively until a new Congress can pass a funding bill?

Dec 3, 2006

POMS On Administrative Sanctions

Social Security has added a new section to the Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) issuance entitled "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions" on the administrative sanctions program, by which Social Security can punish claimants for making false statements. The POMS issuance gives many examples of situations in which it would be appropriate to apply the administrative sanctions process.

Dec 2, 2006

Upcoming Meetings and CLE

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

Dec 1, 2006

SSAB Meeting Agenda

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) had a meeting yesterday. The agenda was not posted until just about the moment the meeting began. The agenda is below. It suggests that the SSAB is considering some general Social Security reform proposal. It is almost amusing that Republicans still believe that they a "reform" proposal put forward, in essence, by the Bush Administration has any hope of adoption.
Social Security Advisory Board
Meeting Agenda
Thursday, November 30, 2006

9:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. Dan Crippen; Chair, Technical Panel on Assumptions and Methods

1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. Stephen Goss; Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration