Feb 28, 2007

Dual Monitors At NC DDS

Many of those dealing with paperless EDIB files at Social Security and state disability determination services (DDS) have dual monitor displays on their wish list. Dual monitors make it easier to deal with paperless files. An employee can view a claimant's file on one monitor and use a different program on the other monitor.

I can report that North Carolina DDS has recently made the transition to dual monitors. Are other state DDS's following suit? What about employees at Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR)? Readers can use the comment feature to respond.

Retardation Fraud In Tacoma

From CNN:

A woman admitted Monday that she coached her two children to fake retardation starting when they were 4 and 8 years old so she could collect Social Security benefits on their behalf.

Rosie Costello, 46, admitted in U.S. District Court that she collected more than $280,000 in benefits, beginning in the mid-1980s. Most was from Social Security, but the state social services agency paid $53,000.

Costello pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government and Social Security fraud. Her son, Pete, 26, pleaded guilty earlier this month. Federal prosecutors in Seattle said Monday authorities had not yet located her daughter, Marie.

According to the plea agreement, Costello began coaching her daughter at age 4, and later used the same ruse with her son. He feigned retardation into his mid-20s -- picking at his face, slouching and appearing uncommunicative in meetings with Social Security officials.

Social Security workers became suspicious and uncovered a video of Pete Costello ably contesting a traffic ticket in a Vancouver courtroom.

Social Security Disability Coalition

When it comes to Social Security, the voices of those who work for the Social Security Administration, those who represent claimants before the agency and some non-profit groups are heard. The one group that is seldom heard from is the most important one -- the Social Security claimants themselves. There is a very active online forum, however, where anyone can listen to Social Security disability claimants as they talk with each other. It is the Social Security Disability Coalition.

Feb 27, 2007

Disability Policy Seminar

A group of non-profit organizations hosts an annual Disability Policy Seminar in Washington. This year's conference comes up on March 6. Here is a link to some information about topics to be discussed at the seminar and here is a link to a fact sheet about Social Security issues prepared for the conference. Social Security is only one of many topics covered during the seminar.

NCSSMA Issues Newsletter

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has issued its February 2007 newsletter. The newsletter is dominated by the issue of staffing shortages. Here are a couple of excerpts from the NCSSMA President's message:
We do not believe SSA is in any position right now to handle more work by telephone. The 1-800 Number is at or near capacity and Field Offices, which receive over 50% more business related calls than the 1-800 Number, are well beyond capacity to answer more calls. Can the Internet relieve Field Offices? In the long run we believe it will provide some relief, but we do not think SSA can significantly ramp up Internet services until the applications provide less back end work for Field Offices. The Internet is not a magical solution. Speeding up the input without attention to how the output will be handled is ill-advised. ...

The public is walking through our doors in droves and our phone lines are being overwhelmed. We know what the public wants from us. They want good face-to-face and telephone service. The public has paid for and deserves the best service we can provide. But we must have more resources to provide this service. This is not whining. This is not posturing. It is a plain and simple fact demonstrated every day on the front lines of SSA.

Immigration Attorneys Concerned By Social Security Backlogs

Attorneys representing claimants before the Social Security Administration have obvious reasons to be concerned with agency backlogs, but lawyers in at least one other specialty have their own concerns about the agency's backlogs. Here is a quote from the ImmigrateUSA.com website run by attorney David J. Hart (emphasis added):

Backlogs at the SSA are not only felt by employers, most applicants for new SSNs are required to wait months before a number is issued to them. While most employers are aware that regulations do not require workers to present a SSN card to be authorized to work, the delays in issuance of new SSN cards still presents huge problems to new immigrants who are required a SSN card to open bank accounts, obtain mortgages for new homes, and other paperwork required in the usual move from one country to another. Currently in some regions it may take weeks to obtain a new SSN while in others it may take up to four months.

Plans To Jumpstart The Next Fiscal Year Starting To Take Shape

From the minutes of a January 29, 2007 telephone conference of the Board of Directors of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel:
Rick [Warsinskey, NCSSMA President] had conversation on the FY 2008 budget with Roger McDonnell [SSA Associate Commissioner for Public Services and Operations Support] voicing our concerns with the Field Offices receiving adequate resources. ... Roger said one major problem is that SSA needs to have enough money to cover any FY 2007 hires in next year’s budget. The Agency could hire near the end of the year saving dollars for this year but would then have to pay the new employees’ entire salaries and benefits next year. If the President’s budget submission for FY 2008 is insufficient, then SSA could be facing continued budget problems for next year.
The idea being expressed is that if Social Security has enough assurance that the fiscal year 2008 budget (that fiscal year begins on October 1, 2007) will be considerably higher than the budget for the current fiscal year that Social Security can start the process of hiring more personnel well before the end of this fiscal year and might be able to have some of those new employees start even before the end of this fiscal year.

One other thing that was not in the minutes of that meeting, but would have been obvious to all involved, is that if Social Security has a considerably bigger budget for the next fiscal year, that there will be a huge amount of overtime authorized for Social Security employees beginning on October 1. In years past Social Security has relied greatly (perhaps too much) on overtime to get its work done. This fiscal year there will be little or no money for overtime. This, along with attrition of employees who cannot be replaced, will cause backlogs to increase significantly throughout the agency between now and September 30. If the new budget is considerably higher, the recovery plan would have to be a lot of new employees hired as quickly as possible coupled with a lot of overtime. This can make things better in Social Security's field offices and payment centers fairly quickly, but full recovery will still take a lot more money than is likely to be available in the next budget.

Full recovery for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), where the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) work, is going to take much longer. Quickly working down the backlogs at ODAR to more "normal" levels (to, say a six to eight month backlog in hearing requests, which, really is still higher than it ought to be) might take a doubling or tripling of ODAR staff. That would be almost impossible to do even if the money were there. Realistically, working down the ODAR backlog will take several years, even with good budgets

Feb 26, 2007

Cleveland Plain Dealer Editorial On Backlogs

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an editorial up about Social Security's backlogs. They take a brave stand against the backlogs.

Here is an interesting sentence from the editorial: "Critics who talk about dynamiting the system and starting anew might just have it right." This is an example of a concern which I have. If Social Security becomes closely linked in the public mind with poor public service, the survival of the whole concept of social insurance is in danger in the United States. Frustration with the Social Security Administration itself could undermine Social Security as a concept. I do not think that those who wish to privatize Social Security are involved in some dark scheme to undermine confidence in the concept of social insurance by crippling public service at the Social Security Administration. They are indifferent to public service at Social Security, but the effect is the same.

NADE Newsletter For Winter 2007

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of workers employed in making disability determinations for Social Security, has issued its Winter 2007 newsletter.

It is interesting to note that the NADE president, Chuck Schimmels, recently spoke to the Association of Administrative Law Judges.

On another vein, here is a quote from the newsletter about eDIB, the paperless system that Social Security is struggling to implement:
eDib is still a work in progress and requires ongoing refinements, upgrades and improvements frequently needed to make the system work as efficiently and effectively as possible. The impact on the system as a whole when these changes are made is unpredictable, and currently results in a slowing or shutting down of the system, or parts thereof.

Since Disability Determination Services (DDSs) process over 2.5 million cases on an annual basis, any shut down or slow down of the case processing system equates to a significant loss of production capacity.
It is not surprising to hear that implementing a new system is difficult. The thing is that when an agency is struggling with huge backlogs due to inadequate staffing, implementation of a major new system will inevitably make the backlogs worse.

Feb 25, 2007

An Image From 1947

Fraud In Kansas City


Thomas W. Bradley, 61, of Kansas City, waived his right to a grand jury and pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Gary A. Fenner this morning to a federal information that charges him with Social Security fraud.

By pleading guilty today, Bradley admitted that he received more than $30,000 in Social Security disability insurance payments to which he was not entitled. Bradley applied for disability payments on Jan. 3, 2001, claiming inability to work due to a back condition. After undergoing back surgery, Bradley returned to work at Metropolitan Transportation Services without notifying the Social Security Administration. Bradley continued working for more than two years while receiving disability payments.

Feb 24, 2007

Wall Street Journal Poll On Social Security

From a press release issued by the Wall Street Journal and Harris Interactive:
A new Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance Poll found that despite the general uncertainty regarding the solvency of Social Security, a majority (65%) of respondents expect Social Security to be a primary source of income during retirement. However, as the age of respondents falls, the proportion of respondents who expect to rely on Social Security also declines. Forty one percent of those ages 18 to 34 say that Social Security will be a primary source as compared to 84 percent over the age of 55. Furthermore, only those ages 18 to 34 (59%) expect to rely on 401K plans more than Social Security, while those ages 35 to 44 expect to rely on Social Security and 401K plans equally (60% each).

Feb 23, 2007

Astrue Statement To Senate Special Aging Committee

Michael Astrue has been on Capitol Hill a lot. He testified at his Senate confirmation hearing and then at a House Social Security Subcommittee hearing just a few days after being confirmed. He also testified at a Senate Special Aging Committee hearing a day after the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing. His prepared statement for the Committee is very close to, if not identical to, his prepared statement for the House Social Security Subcommittee.

The hearing must have been an impromptu affair. It appears that the Senate Special Aging Committee did not even bother to send out a press release about the hearing.

AARP Poll On Social Security

From The Star Tribune of Minneapolis (but I cannot find anything about it on the AARP website):
A majority of Americans support potentially painful proposals to increase taxes and reduce benefits in order to ensure Social Security's long-term financial future, according to a poll released Wednesday.

"I think the public is ahead of Congress and the Washington debate when it comes to Social Security," said John Rother, policy director for AARP, the nation's largest organization for Americans 50 and older, which conducted the survey. ...

The poll found a strong bipartisan willingness to consider a range of changes, Rother said. A majority of respondents supported proposals which, taken together, would solve Social Security's long-term financial problem.

Appeals Council Processing Times

Try calling the Appeals Council at 703-605-8000 and then dial, in sequence, 1 -- 1 -- 3. You will get to a recording that gives information about processing times at the Appeals Council. The recording says that the average processing time is eight months, but that half of all appeals are disposed of in 105 days.

If you dispose of half of the cases in three and a half months but the average time is eight months, mathematically that other half must take a long time. The recording goes on to give some idea of the time frames for that other half, saying that it is "not unusual" for the Appeals Council to take up on 30 months to act on a case, but callers are assured that the Appeals Council will consider "expediting" cases that have been pending over 30 months, which is an unsubtle way of saying, "Please don't bug us about your case until it's been here at least two and a half years."

How are they able to dispose of some cases quickly but others take forever? The secret is picking out appeals that seem insubstantial, such as those filed by unrepresented claimants, and denying review on those quickly. That makes the average wait time seem not that bad, when one is looking merely at statistics, but it makes the wait time for serious appeals even longer.

There is no reason for the Appeals Council to quickly shove the easiest denials out the door other than to dress up its statistics, to make its backlogs appear less bad than they really are. The problem is that in the long run dressing up statistics to hide understaffing is self-defeating, because those preparing budgets do not realize how badly the agency needs more personnel. Playing statistical games like this is also a sign that agency personnel have internalized the notion that anything that is wrong at Social Security is due to agency disorganization and inefficiency. That is dangerous because it is untrue and because it undermines Social Security's institutional self-image. The message that this sends Social Security employees is that their employer is trying to hide its own ineptness. That message is devastating to employee morale and public service in the long run.

Another Wisconsin Flexiplace Problem

Some excerpts from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Julie Dable Stuart had been waiting more than three years for a decision on whether she qualifies for Social Security disability benefits when a large envelope arrived in the mail at her Waukesha home late last year. ...

The envelope contained copies of her medical information, work history and family information submitted to the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in November 2004. Those documents were submitted as part of her request for a hearing to determine her eligibility for benefits, which had been denied when she first applied in 2003.

Upset and confused, she immediately called the Social Security office.

"They told me there was no way these files ever leave the building," Dable Stuart said Wednesday.

William Jarrett, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said administrators had no knowledge of Dable Stuart's phone call to the agency about the documents mailed to her home until contacted by a reporter Thursday.

To this day, who mailed the confidential documents remains a mystery.

Social Security employees gave her only bits and pieces of information about documents missing from her file, and she said she didn't realize the full scope of the problem until reading a Feb. 19 story in the Journal Sentinel [about files that a Social Security employee had lost after being allowed to take them home to work on as part of the Flexiplace program]. ...

In late December, Dable Stuart received a letter from Social Security that said the agency was "reconstructing your file, which includes updating, reviewing and analyzing current and past medical records," records show. The letter was signed by the employee who had lost the files. ...

In early February, Dable Stuart received another letter. This one said that "hearing-related documents" from her file "appear to have been stolen from an employee of the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review."

Feb 22, 2007

The Baltimore Sun And Social Security

The Social Security Administration is the largest single employer in the greater Baltimore area, according to Greaterbaltimore.org.

The major newspaper in Baltimore is the Baltimore Sun. That newspaper's website allows one to search through its archives. Try entering "Astrue." You find nothing. Michael Astrue was recently nominated and confirmed as Commissioner of greater Baltimore's largest employer. He had a nomination hearing and was a witness at another Congressional hearing where his agency came in for biting criticism. Somehow, all of this escaped the attention of the Baltimore Sun. Can you imagine the Baltimore Sun ignoring a new president at Johns Hopkins University, which is probably the second largest employer in the Baltimore area? The Baltimore Sun is not the only local newspaper ignoring the Social Security Administration. Enter "Astrue" in the Washington Post search engine and you also get no hits.

One might think that someone at Social Security's Press Office would have telephoned someone at the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post to call this oversight to their attention.

Unfunded Liabilities

From USA Today:
The U.S. government has a bigger unfunded liability for military and civil servant retirement benefits ($4.7 trillion) than it does for Social Security ($4.6 trillion).

Another Columbus Dispatch Article On Backlogs

The Columbus Dispatch has another article on the backlogs at Social Security. Here are a couple of excerpts:

To tens of thousands of Ohioans who have applied for Social Security disability, waiting for benefits has become a living thing: menacing, frustrating, interminable.

Waiting two years for an appeal hearing chewed up Donald Riley’s income and his health, eventually sending the former diesel mechanic from Johnstown to Mount Carmel East hospital where yesterday he was recovering from his second heart attack.

Waiting since early 2005 drove Dorothy Siders of Columbus to bankruptcy and threatens to steal her home through foreclosure. It’s all she has left.

"It’s not like I haven’t worked all my life since I was 16 years old," Siders said. "If I could work, I would. …What are you going to do? You just feel hopeless." ...

Columbus attorney John R. Allen, who has been handling Social Security disability cases for three decades, said the long waiting time is an extreme hardship for claimants and their families.

"There is nothing worse than meeting with a client, knowing with some likelihood that we are going to prevail, and having to tell him that he’ll have to wait at least two years for benefits. Most have no idea how they are going to survive."

Feb 21, 2007

Chief Of Staff Hired

The ALJ Improvement Board has the following report that Commissioner Astrue has hired a chief of staff:
David V. Foster, Chief of Staff, serves as the principal advisor to the Commissioner of Social Security. He is the Commissioner’s liaison to the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, Cabinet-level Agencies, Members of Congress, international organizations, the Social Security Advisory Board and executives of state and local governments. Additionally, he is the Chair of the Agency’s Executive Resources Board.

Mr. Foster has held high-level positions in the federal government, having served in various capacities at the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC and the United States Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia. In the private sector, Mr. Foster has worked extensively in the health care field as the head of government relations for biotechnology firms and as counsel for the National Leadership Coalition on Health Care. He also has chaired committees for the American Bar Association, the Federalist Society and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Mr. Foster is a magna cum laude graduate of Bowdoin College and received his J.D. from Northeastern University.

Why Isn't SSA A Cabinet Level Department?

I thought I would compare employment at the Social Security Administration to that of departments in the President's cabinet and to other independent agencies that have more than 10,000 employees. This is based upon figures from the Office of Personnel Management.
  • Department of Defense (civilian) 668,450
  • Department of VA 239,689
  • Department of Homeland Security 168,635
  • Department of Treasury 106,623
  • Department of Justice 105,827
  • Department of Agriculture 105,488
  • Department of Interior 73,126
  • Social Security Administration 63,647
  • Department of HHS 63,506
  • Department of Transportation 53,861
  • Department of Commerce 40,544
  • NASA 18,457
  • Department of Labor 15,339
  • Department of Energy 14,950
  • General Services Administration 12,170
  • Department of State 10,208
  • Department of HUD 9,825
  • Department of Education 4,344
So why there has been never been a serious proposal for Social Security to become a cabinet level agency -- or at least not in a very long time? It cannot be because Social Security is not a big ticket item. Social Security involves more money than any agency other than the Department of Defense. It cannot be because what Social Security does is not important to the American people. About 50 million Americans rely upon Social Security for all of part of their income. Is it because we want to keep Social Security "out of politics?" The agency was part of a cabinet department for most of its existence without any sign of obvious harm. If anything, Social Security seems to have been more "political" since it became an independent agency. I do not recall anyone like Andrew Biggs working at Social Security before it became an independent agency. Also, I do not recall any President traveling around the country trying to privatize Social Security until after it became an independent agency.

Hiring Priorities

Social Security's funding is very tight. Few vacancies will be filled between now and the end of this fiscal year. However, Social Security has advertised a few positions, which give an idea of the agency's priorities. They are currently seeking the following:
  • 40 contact representatives for the teleservice centers in Albuquerque, Houston and Dallas
  • Four criminal investigators to be spread around the country
  • Two human resource specialists for Social Security's central offices in Woodlawn
  • "Many" Federal Reviewing Officers

Columbus Dispatch On Backlogs

The Columbus Dispatch has an article up on backlogs at Social Security's hearing office in Columbus, Ohio. The backlogs are up to two and a half years.

Feb 20, 2007

Is This How Social Security Employees See Themselves?

From Tom Shoop's Fedblog:
On 24 last night, supercounterterrorist agent Jack Bauer's evil father, who is apparently behind every bad thing that has happened on the show in the past two years, cornered Jack in a warehouse. In an effort to inflict maximum anguish on his son, he told him the most hurtful thing he could come up with: that Jack had turned his back on his family to become a mere "civil servant.

Productivity Gains And Soviet Five Year Plans

Let me pick out one last item from the February 14 Social Security Subcommittee hearing. This is from the written statement prepared by Commissioner Astrue:
Since 2001, SSA has improved productivity on average by 2.5 percent per year for a cumulative improvement of 13.1 percent.
The problem with this statement is that the productivity increases talked about by Commissioner Astrue resemble the productivity increases under the old Soviet Union's five year plans. That which was being measured increased, while everything that was not being measured went to hell, making the reported productivity gains meaningless.

In the old Soviet Union, a shoe factory might be required under a five year plan to increase its productivity by, let us say, 13.1% and would meet that goal, but the shoes made would be ugly, uncomfortable to wear and so poorly constructed that they fell apart quickly, making the productivity gain meaningless. The same sort of thing is happening at Social Security. For instance, more telephone calls are answered at teleservice centers -- but the people answering the calls are under huge pressure to get the callers off the line as quickly as possible so they can meet their productivity goals, so they often fail to help the callers, leading to frustration for Social Security claimants, repeated telephone calls and more in person visits to Social Security field offices. Probably, Social Security is not measuring how completely and accurately their teleservice center employees deal with telephone inquiries and they are certainly not factoring that into their productivity figures. At Social Security's field offices appeals filed by claimants are piling up rapidly because field office personnel lack the time needed to do the data entry required to process the appeals, but no one is measuring that or factoring it into the productivity figures. If anything, delays in processing appeals at the field offices make the delays at the hearing offices look less bad than they are. In many different ways this sort of thing is happening all over Social Security. Productivity is increasing rapidly according to Social Security's official statistics, yet the error rates, which are not being measured, are going through the roof, as are the backlogs in everything that is not being measured or factored into the gross productivity numbers that Social Security reports to the world.

Feb 19, 2007

An Image From 1937

Staffing Problems At Field Offices

I keep going back over the witness statements at the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing last week. This is an excerpt from the statement of Rick Warsinskey of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel (the emphasis is mine):
... SSA’s total staffing including staff in our community based field offices is being cut by approximately 4,000 positions from Fiscal Year 2006 to Fiscal Year 2008. --- It is interesting to note that total Executive Branch Employment is expected to increase 2.1% from FY 2006 to FY 2008 while SSA’s employment is expected to decrease by 6.2%. ...

Last year Field Offices could only fill one out of every eight vacant positions and this year they haven’t been able to replace any of the positions they have lost. The Field Offices have seen a reduction of 2,000 positions in just the last seventeen months. This cut works out to an equivalent reduction of ninety-five Field Offices with an average office having twenty-one employees. ...

The fact that the public can’t get through to SSA on the telephone is creating an overwhelming amount of walk-in traffic in many Field Offices. Waiting times in many Field Offices are running two to three hours long. Some visitors are even experiencing wait times over four hours.

To me, this sounds like Social Security's field offices are heading rapidly towards collapse. They are already unable to answer their telephones. Despite this, their staffing is still being cut. They are rapidly becoming unable to see all of the people showing up in person or to complete vital tasks such as putting those approved for SSI on benefits, processing appeals and handling myriad other matters such as arranging representative payees for incompetent claimants.

Major Flexiplace Problem

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The confidential files of six Wisconsin residents who had sought Social Security disability benefits were lost for months, as were documents from seven other files, after a Social Security employee took them home to work on them.

In a bizarre twist, the mother of one applicant received an anonymous call in November from a man who had "very specific" information on her son's medical condition, records show.

The caller told her that his Social Security file, along with others, had been found in a downtown Milwaukee Dumpster, according to federal investigative reports.

All of the applicants had been waiting at least two years for a final decision on whether they qualify for disability benefits when their files were lost, delaying decisions even further.

The Social Security Administration allows employees nationwide to work on confidential files at home under a program called Flexiplace, which has come under fire in the past because of privacy concerns.

The employee who took the files home told authorities she believes some were left behind when she fled her home last summer because of domestic violence. She told authorities she had kept them in a locked two-drawer file cabinet.

Four of the files were never found and two others, including the one involving the phone call, were anonymously mailed back to the office in early December, said Carmen Moreno, a Social Security spokeswoman.

Documents from the seven other files also were sent back anonymously to the agency's Milwaukee office in separate packages in early December. Social Security employees are gathering medical and other information for the four files that were completely lost, Moreno said.

All of the people whose files or records were lost had applied for a hearing on their request for disability benefits in 2004, Moreno said. One had a hearing in early February and the others are still waiting to be scheduled. ...

Moreno said that employees nationwide are allowed by union contract to take files home. In Milwaukee, 38 employees may take the files home. The documents must be transported in a locked briefcase and stored in a locked safe or file cabinet in the employee's home. The files are to be logged in and out with a supervisor's approval.

"There are numerous opportunities for things to go wrong when employees take these files home, and the situation in Milwaukee appears to reflect that," said Marty Ford, co-chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities task force on Social Security. Ford testified before a congressional committee in 2003 against the policy of allowing Social Security Administration employees to take the confidential files home.

"Even if there is total trust that the employee is not going to do anything wrong, you don't know who else is in the household. Guests? Visitors? These types of files contain incredibly personal medical information that nobody would want out in public," Ford said.

Feb 18, 2007

Disability Trigger In Bush's Proposed FY 2008 Social Security Budget

Here is a little nugget I missed the first time I looked at President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2008:
The 2008 Budget includes a proposal to highlight with a “funding warning” the escalating and persistent fiscal problems facing DI [Disability Insurance]. If SSA’s actuaries project a negative DI cash flow that is more than 10 percent of program cost for four consecutive years in the upcoming 10 years, the Board of Trustees will issue the warning in the annual Trustees Report. Issuance of a DI funding warning would require the President to transmit to the Congress proposed legislation to respond to the warning within 15 days after the date of the next Budget submission; the Congress would then consider this legislation. The analysis of DI’s budgetary impact will safeguard an important source of disability insurance while promoting sound fiscal policy.
I think this would be triggered fairly soon.

NOSSCR Posts CLE Schedule

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives has posted the schedule for its national continuing legal education (CLE) conference coming up in Baltimore from April 18-21, 2007. As of this point, Martin Gerry and Lisa DeSoto from the Social Security Administration are scheduled to speak. Undoubtedly, Michael Astrue, the new Commissioner of Social Security, has also been invited.

NADR Posts Conference Schedule

The National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR) has posted the schedule for its national conference in Albuquerque, NM from March 25-28, 2007. The schedule posted appears to be somewhat preliminary. Susan Brown and Joan Parks Saunders, the Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge for the Dallas Region, are the scheduled speakers from the Social Security Administration.

Feb 17, 2007

Commissioner Astrue's First Press Release

The first press release from Michael Astrue, the new Commissioner of Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today issued the following statement regarding the agency’s Fiscal Year 2007 Budget:

“President Bush has signed the Fiscal Year 2007 Continuing Appropriations Resolution that includes annual funding for the Social Security Administration. The good news is the $9.3 billion allocation includes sufficient funds to avoid employee furloughs, which were a real possibility if the agency had to operate at funding levels considered by Congress earlier in the year.

“The resolution is an increase of about $185 million for Social Security’s administrative expenses when compared to the agency’s FY 2006 appropriation. However, it is a reduction of about $200 million when compared to the FY 2007 budget President Bush requested for the agency.

“I want to thank the Administration and Members of Congress who worked to ensure our employees could continue to serve the people who depend on Social Security. I am confident that Social Security employees will continue to do all that they can to provide the public with the service they need.”

You would think from this that Astrue was satisfied with the budget his agency got.

Where Is The AARP?

The Social Security Administration cannot answer its telephones. The wait time if a person goes to a Social Security office seeking help with a problem is often hours. Backlogs are growing rapidly all over the agency. Until a few weeks ago, Social Security's budget situation was so tight that the agency was threatening to furlough its employees and close its doors for ten days.

Take a look at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) main website having to do with Social Security issues. Look at any of their webpages having to do with Social Security. You will find no mention of Social Security's dire budget problems. This is an organization which exists to protect America's seniors and nothing is more essential to America's seniors than Social Security, yet the AARP seems not to have noticed that the Social Security Administration can barely keep its doors open.

The AARP might respond that they are looking at the "big picture", trying to make sure that Social Security is not privatized, but having the Social Security Administration chronically understaffed and delivering terrible service to the public can only hurt the effort to protect Social Security from privatization. If the public's experience is that the Social Security Administration is almost impossible to do business with, one can reasonably expect the public to be receptive to alternatives to Social Security.

Bill To Be Introduced On Benefits For Foster Children

This is from a press release issued by First Star and Representative Fortney (Pete) Stark of California, who is the second ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and who is on its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, but not the Chairman of that Subcommittee:
First Star announced today that a Capitol Hill briefing will be held Friday, February 16, 2007, at 9:30AM in Room 318 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The briefing will focus on the common state practice of robbing disabled and orphaned foster children of Social Security and Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) benefits to which they are entitled. Congressman Pete Stark will introduce legislation which will enable the fair disbursement of such benefits to America's foster youth.
What: This briefing will highlight some of the real world
consequences that adversely affect the lives foster
children. Congressman Pete Stark will introduce the Foster
Children Self-Support Act that serves to ensure that foster
children are able to use their social security and SSI
benefits to address their needs and improve upon their
lives. This briefing is co-sponsored by First Star
(www.firststar.org), a 501(c) (3) public charity dedicated
to improving life for child victims of abuse and neglect.

Where: Rayburn House Office Building - Room B-318

When: Friday, February 16, 2007 at 9:30 a.m.

Why: Disabled foster children and those who have lost one or both
of their parents are eligible for Social Security and/or SSI
benefits. Unfortunately, instead of setting this money
aside to be used in the best interest of the child, states
are allowed to use this money as a funding stream by making
themselves the Social Security payee for children in foster
care and then keeping the money for themselves.

Who: U.S. Representative Pete Stark (CA-13th)
Jeff Hild, Office of Congressman Pete Stark
Shawnita T., Former foster youth
Daniel Hatcher, Esq., University of Baltimore Law School
Montella Smith, University of Baltimore Law School
Lewis Pitts, Esq., Legal Aid of North Carolina, Advocates
for Children's Services
Sherry Quirk, Esq., Co-founder, First Star and Partner,
Sullivan & Worcester LLP
Deborah Sams, CEO, First Star
Whytni Kernodle Frederick, Esq., Program Director, Legal
Projects, First Star

Muskogee Woman Sentenced For Fraud

The Ada Evening News reports that a Muskogee, Oklahoma was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay restitution of $13,189.36 for converting to her own use SSI benefits that she received as representative payee for a minor child.

Feb 16, 2007

Second Cleveland Plain Dealer Article

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a second article today on the backlogs at Social Security. This one deals with Social Security's problems answering its phones. Here is an excerpt:

"They open at 8 o'clock, you start calling a couple of minutes before 8 and make sure you have a phone that has redial," says Dave Rybka of Chesterland, who waited for more than two years to get disability benefits.

"I just call, hang up, hit redial, hang up, hit redial. If you're not in by 8:05, you're done. During the day, I've found, I never got through."

Commenting Enabled

I have enabled "commenting" on this blog on an experimental basis. I will evaluate it in a few days. I do not want to spend my time policing this site, but without comments I have little idea what other people think about what I am writing and that can be lonely. At least a reader of this blog can totally ignore the comments if they want.

Funding Resolution Passed

This one has not been reported in the newspapers, since no one is proud of it, but yesterday Congress finally passed and the President signed a continuing funding resolution that keeps the federal government operating through the end of September. This gives the Social Security Administration a budget that requires a near complete hiring freeze through the end of September, except for high priority jobs such as Federal Reviewing Officers.

Cleveland Plain Dealer On Backlogs

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an article on the backlog of claimants awaiting a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. At this end is this all too typical quote from a Social Security disability claimant:
In the beginning, I was angry. Now I just have a feeling of hopelessness. One day I was a working person with a car, packing my lunch and going to work. A couple of months later, I lost everything I had. Everything.

SSA Annual Performance Plan Issued -- Cutting Claimants Off Benefits More Important Than Hearing Backlogs

The Social Security Administration has issued its 2008 fiscal year annual performance plan and revised final 2007 fiscal year annual performance plan. The plan indicates a target of 524 days average processing time for hearings in 2007 and 541 days in 2008, which means that Social Security claimants who have asked for a hearing would have to wait more than a half month longer. The plan calls for dramatically more SSI non-disability redeterminations and continuing disability reviews in 2008 than in 2007. Giving priority to redeterminations and continuing disability reviews over hearing processing time may not sit well with Congressional Democrats.

Feb 15, 2007

Some More From Yesterday's Hearing

Some excerpts from the prepared statement of Sylvester Schieder, Chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB):
The number of hearings pending at the end of fiscal year 2006 showed an increase over the prior year from 708 thousand to 716 thousand, but that was far smaller than the 756 thousand projected at the start of the year. However, this was not because the agency processed more claims than it had expected to but rather because there were fewer appeals than expected. That sounds like good news, but at least part of the reduction in the number of new hearings cases is a reflection of the growing number of cases remaining undecided at the earlier, reconsideration stage.
There is another factor, unknown to Mr. Schieber, that I am pretty sure of, even though I have no statistics on it. There is a growing backlog of cases in which an appeal has been filed, but not yet logged into Social Security's computer system, because of staffing shortages at Social Security's field offices. This is a point referred to by Rick Warsinskey of NCSSMA whose statement for the record quotes from an e-mail he had received from a Social Security field office employee who complained, among other things, that his or her office could not "get to the appeals being mailed in."

Here is a table provided by Mr. Schieber, but even this downplays the funding problem, since Social Security was only asking for what it could conceivably get, not what it actually needed:

Social Security Administrative Funding






Fiscal Year





$ 6,997.0

$ 6,706.0

$ 6,572.0


$ 7,466.0

$ 7,134.0

$ 7,124.0


$ 8,122.0

$ 7,581.5

$ 7,569.6


$ 8,080.0

$ 8,282.8

$ 7,885.1


$ 9,018.0

$ 8,530.0

$ 8,313.2


$ 9,442.0

$ 8,878.0

$ 8,732.5


$ 10,240.0

$ 9,403.0

$ 9,108.6


$ 10,350.0

$ 9,496.0

$ 9,294.0


$ 69,715.0

$ 66,011.3

$ 64,599.0

Thank You, Representatives Jones and Pomeroy

I want to thank Representatives Jones and Pomeroy for their intemperate outbursts at yesterday's Social Security Subcommittee hearing. In a narrow sense, their remarks were unfair to the current Commissioner of Social Security and their criticisms were misplaced, but in a larger sense hitting the Commissioner with a verbal two by four was exactly the right thing to do.

Their remarks were unfair to Commissioner Astrue because he had just started on his job two days earlier. He can hardly be blamed for any mess at Social Security. It is a wonder that he was willing to show up for any Congressional hearing when he may not have even finished filling out his W-4.

The criticisms were also misplaced. Jones and Tubbs were focusing upon the narrow issue of why the Office of Personnel Management has still not produced a new register from which Social Security could hire Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) after having worked on the problem for ten years. This is absurd and unbelievable, but the sad fact is that even if OPM had produced a new register eight years ago, things would be little different at Social Security today. The problem is that there has not been enough money in the budget to hire as many ALJs as have been needed. Social Security has been able to hire the limited number of ALJs they could afford off the old register, making a new register less urgent than it might seem at first blush. Of course, Social Security may have told Jones and Tubbs and others in Congress that the problem was OPM instead of the budget or, at least, implied this. Anyone responsible for such a deception should be ashamed.

In a larger sense, there was an urgent need for the Social Security Subcommittee to demonstrate to upper management at Social Security that there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change. Social Security needs to understand that frankness about the agency's service delivery problems is essential. There can be no more happy talk that minimizes the current problems while promising that some grand plan to be implemented in the future will solve all of Social Security's problems. That is no longer an option. Upper management must realize that Social Security's staffing situation is dire and urgent action is essential. Solutions that were unthinkable last October because they could be criticized as "paying down the backlog" should be urgent necessities today.

Biggs Nomination Rejected

President Bush had nominated Andrew Biggs to become the Deputy Commissioner of Social Security. The New York Times reports that Senator Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has announced that his Committee will not hold a hearing on Biggs' nomination, nor consider it in any way. Biggs is currently the Associate Commissioner for Retirement Policy at Social Security, a position that was probably created just for him. Biggs is a huge proponent of privatizing Social Security.

Feb 14, 2007

Social Security Subcommittee Members Don't Want To Hear Any More "Crap" And "Lies"; Call Delays In Hiring ALJs A "God-Damned Outrage" And "Insanity"

The heated nature of the Social Security Subcommittee hearing today on disability backlogs should be making it clear to the Commissioner of Social Security that he will have to do something about those backlogs or Subcommittee members will make his life very difficult.

Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio pressed Commissioner Astrue on why Social Security had not hired more ALJs and demanded to ask questions about this of Deputy Commissioner Linda McMahon, who was along but not scheduled to testify. McMahon said she has been told that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is nearly done with a new register from which ALJs could be hired -- after a ten year delay. Jones made no effort to hide her anger about the situation and said at one point that she did not want to hear any more "crap" about regulations and (OPM) holding up getting more ALJs.

Representative Pomeroy of North Dakota said that he thought he had been "lied" to by former Commissioner Barnhart and others about the problems in hiring more ALJs. He said that he wants a Subcommittee hearing with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and former Commissioner Barnhart as well as the current Commissioner testifying so that he could get to the bottom of why more ALJs have not been hired. Representative Pomeroy talked about the incompetence of OPM and called it a "god-damned outrage."

If anything, my summary understates just how angry Jones and Pomeroy were.
I would not want to be the director of OPM if there is another hearing on the ALJ register issue -- and there probably will be.

Even the ranking Republican member, Sam Johnson of Texas, referred to the OPM situation as insanity.

I hope someone can post this hearing on You Tube.

Streaming Video Now Available

I am now able to access the live House Ways and Means Subcommittee hearing streaming video, although not without some problems, especially in video. I would be interested in finding out how to access a recording of this hearing. Please e-mail me at charles[at]charleshallfirm.com.

I have heard Commissioner Astrue say that Social Security would not be rolling out Disability Service Improvement (DSI) in one or two regions per year over the next few years.

One thing to remember in watching this is that the House Ways and Means Committee cannot appropriate one cent to the Social Security Administration. The Budget and Appropriations Committees control the money.

Witness Statements For House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee is holding a hearing today on Social Security disability backlogs. The hearing may be available streaming live over the internet, but the techology does not seem to be working for me at the moment. Below are links to the witness statements, with the statements from Schieber and Warsinskey seeming to me to be of the most immediate interest:



The Honorable Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration


Sylvester J. Schieber, Chairman, Social Security Advisory Board

Nancy Shor, Executive Director, National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Rick Warsinskey, President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio

James Fell, President, Federal Managers Association Chapter 275, Alexandria, Virginia

Institute Of Medicine Strikes Out

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has issued a report entitled "Improving the Social Security Disability Decision Process", which is available for the bargain price of $36.90. Before you buy it, you may want to read all the way to the end of their blurb on the study:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a time saving screening tool called the Listing of Impairments (Listings) to identify individuals who meet the Social Security definition of disability, but it is concerned with a substantial drop in the percentage of claims granted disability benefits based on the Listings over the past 25 years.

At the request of the SSA, the Institute of Medicine formed a committee which issued the report; Improving the Social Security Disability Decision Process, addressing the medical aspects of disability determination and recommending improvements. The committee recommended the SSA:
  • Investigate the reliability and validity of the Listings as a tool for identifying the truly disabled;
  • Incorporate condition-specific functional assessment tools in the Listings that demonstrate a strong correlation with work disability;
  • Strengthen the process for revising and updating the Listings;
  • Expand medical and functional expertise at the staff level; and,
  • Establish an external advisory committee system
The committee concluded that a better mechanism than the Listings does not exist at this time, although it recommends that SSA monitor and support promising alternative approaches to disability assessment.
One day I would like to read a report from one of these beltway bandits that says "There is no solution to the problem, so quit wasting your money on consultants." Instead we always get studies that advise things like setting up "an external advisory committee system" or "support promising alternative approaches", with the authors of the study being ready, willing and able -- for a hefty price -- to set up and man these external advisory committees and explore the "promising alternative approaches."

From The Weird Fringe

This has only a tenuous relation to the topic of Social Security News, but you ought to see the article about Social Security on The Fatherland Security State. I do not even know what this person's point is.

Lame Valentine's Day Press Release

This is from the HeraldStarOnline.com of Steubenville, Ohio. Clearly, it was written by some PR person at Social Security who is unfamiliar with the shaky state of online service at Social Security.

People falling in love with online services for Social Security


As you’re preparing your Valentine’s cards, you may also want to join the millions of users who have fallen in love with Social Security’s online services. Here’s our own Valentine’s sampler of things you can do at www.socialsecurity.gov.

See if you qualify for Social Security benefits. You can use our online screening tool to see what benefits you might be eligible for from any of the programs Social Security administers. Then, you can use our benefit planners to calculate your benefit amounts, whether you’re considering retirement or disability or the benefits available to your family if you die.

Apply for benefits. You can apply for Social Security retirement, spouse’s or disability benefits right over the Internet. If you are applying for disability benefits you’ll also need to complete the disability report, which is also available online. Need to take a break or look for some records to answer the questions? That’s just fine with us: You can leave and then come back to complete it. After you have applied, you can return to the Web site later to check for status.

Find the office closest to you. There is much you can do online, but sometimes you may want to visit a representative face-to-face. If that’s the case, your first step is to visit our online field office locator. Just type in your ZIP code and find the Social Security office closest to you.

Get a Password. If you already get Social Security benefits, there’s even more you can do online when you have a password. Anyone who gets benefits can get a password.

With a password, you can check the information and benefit amounts in your Social Security records and change your address, telephone or direct deposit account information without leaving the comfort of your home.

Whether you’re ready to apply for retirement benefits this month or you’re just interested in getting an estimate for future benefits, check out our Web site at www.socialsecurity.gov and go to the “What you can do Online” section.

We won’t try to take the place of your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, but you may fall in love with our online services.

(Reynolds is Social Security manager in Steubenville.)

Charlotte Observer Reports On Social Security Backlogs

Fred Kelly at the Charlotte Observer has written another article about Social Security's terrible backlogs in processing disability appeals.

Feb 13, 2007

Failed "Grand Plans" And Republicans

I have written about the string of "grand plans", re-engineering, Hearing Process Improvement (HPI) and Disability Service Improvement (DSI), tried at Social Security over the past twelve years, in an effort to produce dramatic productivity gains at the agency. The net result of the first two of these schemes was a dramatic worsening of Social Security service. DSI is just now being introduced, but I am convinced that it is also doomed to failure. This raises the question of why these failed and why would I believe that DSI is also doomed to failure? I also noted that this twelve year period corresponded exactly with Republican control of Congress. This raises another question. What do these schemes have to do with Republican control of Congress.

To answer the first question of why "grand plans" to dramatically improve efficiency at Social Security are doomed to fail, let us take a look at some fairly simple numbers. The Social Security trust funds currently total about $1,994 billion. The President's budget proposal for 2008 is $9.637 billion. Social Security annual administrative expenses come to 0.05% of the assets of the Social Security's trust funds. On it's face, does that not seem awfully low? By contrast, a report from the Cato Institute, which was clearly trying to promote privatizing Social Security, calculated the annual administrative costs of a privatized old age benefit plan at 0.3% to 0.65% of assets. Note that the Cato estimate is about ten times as high as the actual administrative costs for the Social Security Administration and the plan that Cato is promoting, unlike Social Security, does not include disability or survivors benefits which are much more expensive to administer. By comparison, the Social Security Administration looks incredibly efficient.

My point here is not that a plan to privatize Social Security would result in vastly greater administrative expenses. That is obvious enough, but privatization is not going to happen for many reasons and administrative efficiency is not even one of the more important reasons. My point is that the Social Security Administration is already incredibly efficient. The idea that Social Security could be managed into much greater efficiency is ridiculous on its face. Of course, not every Social Security employee is a dynamo and there are inefficiencies and some money wasted at Social Security. The agency is large and some problems are inevitable. However, the idea that major improvement in efficiency is possible at Social Security is ludicrous. The agency is already a model of efficiency. Any efficiency gains at Social Security are bound to be small -- or, perhaps, incremental to use a word that the new Commissioner of Social Security used during his confirmation hearing.

As to the second question of why we saw these silly schemes whose authors hoped to dramatically improve productivity at Social Security while Republican were in control of Congress, we have to look at ideology. It has long been an item of faith on the American political right that government agencies, particularly government benefit programs, are astoundingly wasteful and inefficient. A natural corollary is that Congress should put pressure upon agencies to become more efficient and that budgetary pressure is one good way of doing this. There was an incredible display of Republican ideology at the Astrue confirmation hearing. Republican Senator Jim Bunning, who was at one time in the House of Representatives and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Social Security, became irate in telling Astrue, and I will paraphrase, that he did not want to hear that Social Security did not have an adequate budget, because he knew that the problem was inefficiency. Bunning's display was astonishing because Astrue had said nothing whatsoever to provoke Bunning. How did Bunning know with such certainty that Social Security was so very inefficient? The facts strongly suggest that Social Security is already incredibly efficient. I cannot imagine any basis for Bunning's outburst other than that it was a display of irrational political ideology. Unfortunately, Bunning and others in his party were able to impose that political ideology upon the Social Security Administration over the past twelve years. Things got so bad by 2006 that Republicans in Congress thought that a Republican Commissioner of Social Security was bluffing when she warned that her agency would have to close its door for two weeks because the budget that Congress was about to enact was so disastrously inadequate. Probably, only the results of the November election prevented this catastrophe.

Cornell Law Review Symposium On Social Security

The Cornell Law Review issue for January 2007 includes a symposium on Social Security, with the following articles:
Medical Proof, Social Policy, and Social Security's Medically Centered Definition of Disability
Frank S. Bloch

The Social Security Administration's New Disability Adjudication Rules: A Significant and Promising Reform
Frank S. Bloch, Jeffrey S. Lubbers & Paul R. Verkuil

A Response to Bloch, Lubbers & Verkuil's The Social Security Administration's New Disability Adjudication Rules: A Cause for Optimism . . . and Concern
Robert E. Rains

Social Security and Government Deficits: When Should We Worry?
Neil H. Buchanan

Comment on Neil H. Buchanan's Social Security and Government Deficits: When Should We Worry?
Benjamin A. Templin

Social Security Reform: Lessons From Private Pensions
Karen C. Burke & Grayson M.P. McCouch

Transofrming the Role of the Social Security Administration
Colleen E. Medill

Professional Responsibility and Social Security Representation: The Myth of the State-Bar Bar to Compliance with Federal Rules on Production of Adverse Evidence
Robert E. Rains

The AFGE Should Be Ashamed

I hate to do this but Local 2452 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is stealing from me. In three separate instances they have copied complete items off this blog and posted them on their website without even an attribution. It would be copyright infringement to do this even with attribution. Trying to pass off items I wrote as if they had written them is something worse, plagiarism.

I e-mailed the local union to ask that these be taken down and got no response. I e-mailed the communications director for the national union and asked that he tell the local to take these down. I received no response.

Here are links to the items on their website with links to what I had written beside them:

NCSSMA Head On Fed Talk

Rick Warsinskey, the President of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, an organization of Social Security management employees, spoke on Fed Talk, a radio show, on February 9 about Social Security's budget problems and the issues that his organization is working on. The show is available for download.

Feb 12, 2007

Social Security Press Release On New Commissioner

Social Security has now sent out a press release on Michael Astrue who was sworn in today as Social Security Commissioner.

Witness List For Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The Social Security Subcommittee has released the following tentative witness list for its Valentine's Day hearing on the Social Security disability program backlogs:
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration

Sylvester J. Schieber, Chairman, Social Security Advisory Board

Nancy Shor, Executive Director, National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Rick Warsinskey, President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio

James Fell, President, Federal Managers Association Chapter 275, Alexandria, Virginia

NY Times Editorial

Some excerpts from a New York Times editorial (registration required):

In 2005, President Bush put his political capital where his mouth was, and lost. He went all-out to convince Congress and the American people that privatizing Social Security would be good and necessary. It’s neither — and his plan was justifiably and soundly rejected. ...

Mr. Bush is proving similarly tone-deaf when it comes to choosing members for the Social Security board of trustees.

There are six trustees, four of them administration officials and two outsiders. The job of the two outsiders — nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate — is to represent the public’s interest in decisions about the program. Last year Mr. Bush nominated the same two men who had served in his first term. That violated the rationale for having public trustees, which is to bring fresh perspectives. So Congress refused to consider the nominees, but Mr. Bush appointed them for another year while Congress was in recess. He has now renominated them for new four-year terms.

Mr. Bush won’t get his way. But he is alienating Congress and creating delays that will make it harder for the next two public trustees — whoever they are — to participate fully. ...

There Are Things That Can Be Done About Backlogs Now

The only longterm solution for Social Security's humongous backlog in holding hearings on disability claims is to give the agency a bigger staff. However, as practical matter Social Security is going to have fewer personnel during this fiscal year and it is unlikely that the agency's budget for the next fiscal year will include the vast infusion of money and personnel that is needed to get the job done quickly. The vast infusion will have to come, but it will take years.

This does not mean that there is no hope for the current fiscal year. Social Security does not have to wait years to start doing something about this backlog. There are things that can be done and done quickly that will prevent things from getting worse between now and the end of the fiscal year. They may even improve the situation a bit in the next few months. These quick fix solutions help only a little in the long run. Few of them would be good ideas if this was not such an unacceptable situation. These ideas can easily be criticized as "paying down the backlog" and that is why none of these ideas was utilized during the last six years, but if the current situation is unacceptable, there is no need to worry about this sort of criticism.

Here is my list of quick fix solutions to help Social Security's hearing backlog, listed by how quickly they can be implemented -- and the time frames I am giving are my estimates based upon the assumption that the Commissioner pushes hard for rapid implementation, since otherwise implementation might take decades:
  1. Hold hearings on cases without "pulling" exhibits. When case files come into ODAR they are a mess. There are duplicate copies of medical records. Medical records may have been requested from a single provider on several occasions, meaning that the records from that provider are spread out at several places in the file. Even when all of the records from a single provider are in one place, they may not be in chronological order. Even if they are in chronological order, the order will go forward in one set of records and backwards in another. The files are jumbles. A staff member "pulls" out the relevant medical evidence and places it in some order. This is extremely helpful for all involved and should never be abandoned permanently. However, staff shortages have made pulling exhibits a bottleneck. Many ALJs would like to hold more hearings but cannot because files have not been "pulled." Some hearing offices have abandoned "pulling" exhibits as a general matter. The exhibits are "pulled" only if a claim is to be denied. This is inconvenient for all concerned and can lead to confusion and misunderstandings, but there is no doubt that it improves productivity. Social Security seems to have no fixed policy on this. My opinion is that instructing ALJs to hold hearings routinely on unpulled files would improve productivity by at least 10%. This is a temporary expedient that should be abandoned quickly after the crisis is over. This could probably be implemented in less than three months, although the complaints about it would continue for years after it was over.
  2. Re-start re-recon and senior attorney decisions. Re-recon was never Social Security's term, but no one remembers what term Social Security was using. Re-recon was the term most people were using. When re-recon was last used, during the Clinton Administration, once a Social Security disability claimant was denied at the reconsideration (often called "recon") level and asked for a hearing, the case was quickly examined to see if it fit into one of several categories of cases that were frequently allowed by Administrative law Judges (ALJs). If the case fit into one of these categories, such as claimants over 55 or claimants suffering from chronic mental illness, the case was diverted to one of several special units where it was reviewed to see if the claim should be approved. The review was something like a new reconsideration review, hence the term re-recon. The re-recon review was done quickly. If the claim was approved, the case was over and done with in a month or two without any ALJ ever having to look at the file. If the case could not be approved at re-recon, the file was sent on for a hearing, with no delay for the claimant. I would give a guess that re-starting re-recon could reduce the number of cases requiring ALJ review by around 5% and the vast majority of the cases would have been approved by ALJs anyway. Social Security should have statistics showing what effect this had the last time it was done. This could be implemented in about six months to a year, without the need for new regulations, but Senior attorney decisions could be implemented more quickly since those personnel are already in place. Once case files reach ODAR, which is the office where ALJs work, they are routinely reviewed to see if the case can be approved without the need for a hearing. These are called on the record reversals, or ORRs or OTRs. Usually, it is a staff person rather than an ALJ who does the ORR initial review at ODAR. Once a staff person identifies a case that he or she thinks is a good candidate for ORR, he or she must get an ALJ to sign off on the ORR. Most of the time the ALJ does agree with the ORR, but there are some ALJs who seem to believe that virtually no case is appropriate for ORR and some other ALJs seem unwilling to take the time to review these case files, which may not be as unreasonable as it might sound when you consider ALJ workloads. In the senior attorney program, which was also employed during the Clinton Administration, Social Security's senior attorneys review case files for potential ORRs, much the same as now, but instead of taking potential ORRs to an ALJ for action, the senior attorney would be able to take action on his or her own to approve the claim. Like re-recon this can be criticized as paying down the backlog, but the vast majority of the time these claims would be approved by ALJs later anyway. ALJs do not like senior attorney decisions because they feel it reduces their status. Under the circumstances neither objection seems important. My estimate is that re-starting the senior attorney program would reduce the number of cases requiring ALJ hearings by 5-10%. Again, Social Security should have numbers showing what the results were the last time this was done. The problem with restarting the senior attorney program is that the regulations which allowed senior attorney decisions have lapsed, meaning that an official re-start of the program would require the approval of the Office of Management and Budget, which could take months, but the re-recon regulations are still on the books. There is nothing in those regulations that prevents the re-recon regulations from being used as authority for senior attorney decisions. Using this authority the senior attorney program could be restarted in less than three months, although again the complaints about it would continue for years.
  3. Raise the length of time a claimant has to request reconsideration or a hearing from 60 days to six months. This is my idea. It was not tried during the Clinton Administration or at any other time, as far as I know. However, the time limit for appeals was six months until the mid-1970s. I do not know why it was changed then. Because of the common tendency towards procrastination, going back to a six month time limit would temporarily reduce the number of reconsideration requests and requests for hearings, since it would increase the average length of time between a denial and an appeal. A good guess is that this would increase this average length of time by one to two months at each level, which would produce a temporary but dramatic reduction in the number of reconsideration requests and requests for hearings. This would be a nice breather for Social Security. This might also result in less churning. Many claimants are denied at the initial level, become discouraged or make an unsuccessful attempt to return to work, miss the 60 day cutoff to file an appeal and have to start all over again. It would be better for them and would mean fewer new claims for Social Security if they could just file an appeal. However, this regulatory change does encourage procrastination and that is not a good thing. This change could be done in three to six months, assuming there is no unusual holdup at the Office of Management and Budget, which has to approve changes in regulations -- and this one takes a change in regulations.
  4. Make a statistical review of cases in which ALJs reverse prior administrative denials to look for patterns showing which types of cases are most reversal prone and carefully consider adjusting policies and practices at the initial and reconsideration levels to allow more of these cases. This was done during the Clinton Administration and it worked. This was a part of something called Process Unification. I have my own candidates for types of cases that Social Security should look at. The most important type would be bipolar disorder. Social Security is turning down almost everyone who is bipolar at the initial and reconsideration level, but 80-90% of these claims are approved by ALJs. I have more clients suffering from bipolar disorder than anything else. It may be 10% of my caseload. The next biggest category is chronic pain syndrome. If the claimant is going to a pain clinic and being told to take methadone or some other powerful narcotic several times a day, they might just be in severe pain. However virtually all such claims are being denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, while the vast majority are approved by ALJs. Social Security probably ought to look at its policies on mental retardation, congestive heart failure, obesity and peripheral neuropathy as well. You could probably eliminate 10-20% of appeals to ALJs in this manner and the vast majority of these claims would have been approved by ALJs anyway. This would probably take at least a year to implement.