May 31, 2007

Social Security Subcommittee Schedules Hearing

From the House Social Security Subcommittee:
Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Advisory No. 3 -- Congressman Michael R. McNulty (D-NY), Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security of the Committee on Ways and Means, today announced that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on current and proposed employment eligibility verification systems and the role of the Social Security Administration in authenticating employment eligibility. The hearing will take place on Thursday, June 7, in room B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 10 a.m.

Fraud In Charleston, WV

The Charleston, WV Daily Mail reports on Brenda Sue and Ray Jude who pleaded guilty to fraud for misrepresenting their income and living arrangements to obtain SSI benefits from the Social Security Administration.

May 30, 2007

What Astrue Didn't Talk About

I have given summaries of what Commissioner Astrue said at last week's Senate Finance Committee hearing. It is worth listing some things he did not talk about, or at least did not talk much about.
  • Any plan for quickly working off Social Security's enormous backlog in holding administrative hearings. Even though Astrue has apparently been told if he does not come up with a plan that Congress may enact statutory time limits on holding hearing and issuing decisions, the best that Astrue can come up with is a plan that maybe, possibly, hopefully would reduce the backlogs to a near acceptable level in five years, but no guarantee on that.
  • The "brute force" approach to eliminating Social Security's backlogs that the Commissioner had talked about at his confirmation hearing. Astrue used this phrase once. He did talk about increasing Social Security's workforce. However, in general, Astrue concentrated upon management approaches to reducing backlogs, an approach which has failed miserably in recent years.
  • Any modeling of what could be done at Social Security given various budget funding levels. Astrue seemed to be promising exactly this at his confirmation hearing, but stayed away from this subject last week.
  • The Social Security Administration's own recommended budget for fiscal year (FY) 2008 of $10.44 billion.
  • The Congressional budget for Social Security which will probably be about $10.1 billion for FY 2008. Astue wanted only to talk about President Bush's much lower proposed FY 2008 budget for Social Security, even though it is a dead letter. Astrue continued the, at best, unprovable line first advanced by his predecessor that there would be no backlog problem if Congress had just adopted President Bush's budgets for Social Security over the years. I think most knowledgeable people just roll their eyes at that one. Why is Astrue so concerned with deflecting responsibility away from President Bush? Astue is supposed to be independent, unconcerned with making Bush look good or bad.
  • Social Security's budget for years beyond FY 2008. Should he not already be lobbying for the FY 2009 budget and beyond?
  • Any plans for dealing with Social Security's staffing shortages at its Field Offices, Teleservice Centers and Payment Centers.

OIG Report On SDW

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on Phase 6 of Social Security's Special Disability Workload (SDW).

So what is the SDW? SDW concerns 466,000 SSI recipients who appeared to be insured for Title II benefits, but who were not getting those benefits, basically as a result of the agency's failure to take all appropriate claims. As a result, more appropriated funds were spent on SSI benefits and those people, most of them disabled, did not receive all the benefits they were due. Many were underpaid by huge sums of money.

The SSI recipients entitled to SDW review were identified through computer searches of Social Security's databases. Social Security started working through those 466,000 cases in 1999 and is still not finished. This report has only to do with some of those scheduled for SDW review who could be properly excluded from review by a more advanced database search, but the report gives a good background on SDW. The public has paid little attention to SDW, but it has been and remains a very big deal for the Social Security Administration and for the affected claimants.

May 29, 2007


To Recap The Astrue Plan

Here is my recap of what Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced as his plan for dealing with Social Security's enormous hearing backlog, with my comments in brackets after the items of his plan:
  • Wants to get the caseload per ALJ down to 360 cases with a processing time of 250-275 days. [That's the best you can do as a goal! Historically, the processing time has seldom been as high as your goal.]
  • Most aggressive timeline for eliminating backlog is five years. [Gee, with an unlimited budget, I promise I could do it in less than two years.]
  • Hire enough Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to get to 1,250 ALJs in fiscal year (FY) 2008, which ends on September 30, 2008. [Why not more? What is the plan for more ALJs beyond FY 2008?]
  • Appoint Senior ALJs and bring in some ALJs who have been working in other agencies. [Trivial, especially considering that the plan, apparently, is to only let the Senior ALJs work at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) central offices in Falls Church, VA. Those who would be interested in working -- but somewhere else -- are apparently to be told that they are not needed. Why?]
  • Hire more ALJ support staff. [Definitely needed]
  • More overtime at hearing offices. [Definitely needed, but overtime is expensive.]
  • Hire 492 personnel at hearing offices in this fiscal year. [Not bad, considering Social Security's budget, but not enough to replace normal attrition.]
  • Reduce the number of aged cases, basically working first on the oldest cases, to get that number down. [This helps equalize the hardships, but does nothing to reduce the overall backlog.]
  • Compassionate allowances. [Apparently nothing more than a new name for Quick Disability Determinations, which was little more than a new name for procedures already in place for quickly approving the most obvious allowances.]
  • Going to paperless files as quickly as possible. [Has anyone noticed productivity gains from paperless files? It may be useful in the long run, but it is not doing anything about the backlogs, other than to make them worse in the short run.]
  • Directly place documents into the e-file that currently have to be printed and then scanned, such as earnings records and appeal forms. [It is an indictment of the eDIB system that this cannot already be done.]
  • Provide shared access to electronic folders. Now, when the Appeals Council remands an e-file, it has to be printed out. [It is a terrible indictment of eDIB that this is not already possible.What is the point of eDIB if everyone cannot share the same file?]
  • Allow attorneys to access their clients' files online. [That would be great. Will Michael Astrue still be Commissioner of Social Security when this become possible?]
  • Will streamline "pulling" exhibits for remaining paper files. [Tell me more -- much more.]
  • Authorizing ALJs to hold hearings on unworked files. [They were already authorized to do this. Why not require ALJs to hold hearings on unworked files? Astrue does not mind upsetting the ALJs by saying he wants legislation to give him more control of ALJs. At least demanding that ALJs hold hearings on unworked files is for a good cause.]
  • Discourage claimant attorneys from submitting duplicate medical records. [Giving attorneys earlier access to their clients' files would help -- but only so much. We are talking about basic human nature here.]
  • Wants e-pulling of exhibits. [It will never work. This will just waste money. Some things take manpower. This is one of them.]
  • Will study senior attorney decisions. [He must study this because he needs the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for new regulations. My guess is that OMB will not approve, because if they were going to approve, they would have done so before the hearing. Of course, Astrue could have gone ahead with senior attorney decisions without OMB approval, simply by labeling those decisions as reconsideration decisions, but that might have annoyed OMB. What is the problem with OMB approving senior attorney decisions? It will lead to more claimants being approved more quickly. If you think about why OMB would not like that, you begin to understand why Astrue's plan is not more aggressive.]
  • Wants each ALJ to issue 500-600 decisions per year. May increase this to 500-700. [Why not just make the number 1,000 a year and solve the problem that way? I am being sarcastic. Quality has long since been sacrificed to get to the current production level. No further productivity gains should ever be asked of ALJs, in my view, since I believe that we are already well past any realistic limits on what will ever be possible without sacrificing quality, no matter what technology is deployed. Assuming that further productivity gains can be ordered from above is folly.]
  • Update technology at hearing offices. [Fine, but every dollar spent on technology is one less dollar spent on more warm bodies to get the work done. On the whole, I would rather see Social Security err on the side of less technology and more personnel. Technology is a one time purchase. New employees keep costing money and are hard to get rid of. OMB prefers to avoid new hires.]
  • Use computer generated profiles to determine which cases can be reversed on the record, that is, approved by an ALJ without a hearing, and which cases can be allowed with further development and which cases can be remanded to reconsideration for allowance. [Basically, this is re-recon. It worked in the past and should work now. Get it going quickly!]
  • Use medical expert (MEs) witnesses who work with ODAR offices to screen cases for possible on the record reversal. [Interesting, but there is one huge problem. Social Security has few of these MEs available anymore since they have not raised the rate they pay MEs in many, many years.]
  • Open National Hearing Center at ODAR central office in Falls Church, VA. [Foolish idea that does nothing about the backlogs. Because Social Security does not trust ALJs, it wants to have them close by agency brass so they can be carefully supervised. That has been the plan for Medicare ALJs. Bad idea.]
  • Centralize printing of ODAR notices. [Sounds like over-centralization to me.]
  • eScheduling of hearings through the use of electronic calendars. [Could be useful, but I am not sure that there is enough potential productivity gain to justify implementation at a time when staff is already stressed out by workloads and an overload of change.]
  • Make the Findings Integrated Template (FIT) method of drafting ALJ decisions mandatory.
  • Allow electronic signing of ALJ decisions.
  • Develop a quality assurance program for the hearing process. [Where have I heard this idea before? This keeps getting mentioned but never happens because there is no way of defining quality much less measuring it. Even if you could define it and measure it, trying to do so would almost certainly violate the Administrative Procedure Act.]
  • Enhance Hearing Office Management Information System. [So you can get accurate, timely and depressing reports on just how far behind you are.]
  • Wants legislation giving Social Security more authority over ALJs. [Why, why, why does Astrue want to waste time and effort on this. It should not happen and it will not happen. The ALJs have far more credibility than Social Security management does. Congress will never give Astrue this kind of power. Get over it!]
  • Co-locating future remote hearing sites with field offices. [Mildly useful, maybe, but it really does nothing about the backlogs. Without a separate entrance for each remote hearing site, there will be many complaints from ALJs, attorneys, and claimants.]
  • Wants to get video equipment in all hearing rooms. [In general there are already enough hearing rooms equipped for video to cover the need. More video rooms costs money which could be better spent on more personnel. Quit looking for technological fixes. Astrue was on the right track when he were talking about using "brute force" to deal with the backlogs.]
  • Wants to redraft the Listings of Impairments to add more conditions so that more people would be approved as meeting the Listings. [I will believe this when I see it. This project will drag on until Astrue leaves office. In the end there will be virtually nothing to show for the effort. Sounds a lot like Barnhart's Disability Service Improvement plan in that regard.]
  • Reorganize the Office of Disability and Income Support Programs. [Does nothing about the backlogs.]
  • Field office personnel will be detailed to help the hearing offices -- 5,000 hours of work. [There is no excess capacity at the field offices. They have major problems of their own. 5,000 hours is a drop in the bucket anyway.]
  • Develop a new case processing and management system for the Appeals Council. [Might be a good idea, but every dollar spent on technology is a dollar less spent on personnel.]
  • Have Appeals Council issue final decisions whenever possible. [I thought they already did this.]
  • Increase propagation of data from other parts of Social Security into ODAR's database system, known as CPMS. [If this were easy to do, it would have happened a long time ago.]
  • Improve training for Hearing Office management teams. [More personnel would help these management teams look a lot smarter.]
  • Encourage more cooperation and communication between Hearing Offices and other parts of Social Security. [Useful, but it does nothing about the backlogs. Those backlogs have nothing to do with failure of cooperation and communication.]
  • Work with Office of Quality Performance (OQP) to standarize business processes regarding electronic folders. Apparently, this will involve something like time motion studies gathering data on how much time is taken on each function at a hearing office. [Quit dreaming that you can manage your way out of this hole. The task can be accomplished with "brute force."
  • Establishing production standards for decisionwriters and produce a lot of reports on decisionwriter productivity. [I thought that productivity standards were already in place. Reports take time that could be used to write decisions.]
  • Re-align hearing office territories to balance workloads. [I thought this had been happening since forever.]
  • Continue inter-regional transfers of cases. [There should have been more of this. There has been way too little regional cooperation, leading to significant backlog imbalances between the regions.]
  • Requiring management reports from ODAR offices on a weekly basis instead of a monthly basis, because now much of the work seems to get done at the end of each month.
  • Develop a better process for dealing with complaints of ALJ misconduct. [If it were easy, it would have already happened. Does nothing about the backlogs]

May 28, 2007

Enormous Expansion Of Social Security

In what may be the largest expansion of any country's Social Security system in history, the UPI reports that the Indian government plans to expand its Social Security system to cover 390 million non-union workers who had not previously been covered. Those making more than $160 per year will have to contribute 1 cent per day. The Indian goverment will make the contribution for those making less than $160 per year.

May 27, 2007

An Image From 1989

Social Security Hearing Backlogs Draw Criticism In Seattle

I had earlier posted about the story that Seattle television station KING did on the hearing backlogs at Social Security. Readers might want to take a look at the often emotional responses that story received on the KING website. Has the depth of the anger and outrage over these backlogs has registered with Commissioner Astrue?

Public relations and a Republican Congress that was willing to look the other way allowed former Commissioner Barnhart to get through her years as Commissioner without treating this as a crisis. Michael Astrue is nowhere near as good as Barnhart at public relations, but it is way too late for public relations to work anyway. A Congress controlled by Democrats is not going to let go of this. Sooner or later there is going to be a crash program to get these backlogs down. Michael Astrue could try to get out in front but at the moment, it looks as if he will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into creating a crash program, most likely with statutorily imposed deadlines, or at least the threat of them.

May 26, 2007

Buffalo News Editorial On Backlogs

The Buffalo News has run articles and editiorials about the terrible delays experienced by Social Security disability claimants in getting hearings on their cases. Here are a couple of excerpts from an editorial the newspaper is running today:
Bow your heads and pray tonight that you never have to claim Social Security disability benefits. Not only would that mean injury, but injury compounded — by the long stretch of years it can take to collect. ...

Much, if not all, of this despair could be alleviated if Congress would stop cutting into Social Security Administration funding, leaving the agency with too few resources to keep up with the flood of applicants. Buffalo is one of the worst, as claimants typically wait nearly two years for an appeals hearing.

Social Security Press Release For Memorial Day Weekend

From a Social Security press release:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, wants active duty personnel and their families to know that Social Security has procedures in place to expedite survivors applications and disability claims that apply to any injured military service member, regardless of where the injury occurred.

“I want to assure the brave men and women of our Armed Forces and their families that they will not have to wait for these needed benefits,” said Commissioner Astrue. “The special process is just one way Social Security can show our military personnel how much we appreciate their service.”

May 25, 2007

Monthly Statistical Packages Released

Social Security's Office of Policy has issued its monthly compilation of statistics on Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Get E-Mails From Social Security About Program Developments

The Social Security Administration has now set up a convenient central point for registration to receive e-mail delivery of various agency newsletters and reports.

Social Security Releases 2005 Statistical Report

That is no typo. The Social Security Administration just released its 2005 Annual Statistical Report, a compilation of just about every Social Security statistic you could ask for.

Contracting News?

Perhaps someone can advise me whether the notice reproduced in part below that Social Security recently posted is a big deal. Has Social Security been contracting out mailroom services at its central offices in the past? If this is new, will any Social Security employees be displaced? I would think that mailroom services for Social Security offices would be a major endeavor. I recall hearing that mail comes into Social Security's central offices literally by the trainload.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) intends to issue a solicitation (Request for Proposal/RFP) for a contractor to provide staffing to operate SSA Headquarters mailroom operations services located in Baltimore, Maryland (and to SSA components located in outlying locations). The contractor selected for contract award shall furnish all management, supervision, labor, required to collect, process and deliver mail.

Hit Map

Above is a map provided by Google Analytics showing the geographic location of U.S. visitors to this blog over the last three weeks or so, since I began using that service. The map does not show every last hit. I have trouble interpreting the information provided with the map, but I think it only shows locations with more than a few hits. This map does not show the geographic location of visitors from the domain since May 8. On May 8 I posted that this blog was receiving about one third of its visitors from the Baltimore area. Later that same day some obscure change was made in Social Security's computer network to block the relaying of geographic location information from computers accessing the internet from the domain. As best I can tell, it is unusual for a domain to block the relaying of geographic information. I should say that there were signs of other changes at Social Security's domain at the time, such as a switch from labeling the domain to labeling it, so the geographic change may have had nothing to do with this blog. Of course, this map still shows a lot of hits from the Baltimore area since it still shows hits from home computers.

May 24, 2007

Payment Center Direct Contact

Below is a statement from a recent issuance from Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS). POMS is Social Security's most important employee manual.

The general, but simple, rule is that a PC [Payment Center] employee will not refer development to the FO [Field Office] unless face to face contact is required, or where the FO is responsible for making a final determination on the issue (such as a representative payee determination).

The PC will always obtain information, statement clarifications or required evidence via DIRCON [Direct Contact with the claimant or others] unless a face to face or field contact is needed, or one of the exceptions in GN 01070.305C. or D. below applies.

I believe this is new and significant. Can anyone help me on this?

The Most Important News This Year On Social Security

We heard what is probably be the most important news about Social Security so far this year -- and I did not immediately recognize its significance. What is this important news? Michael Astrue said at yesterday's Senate Finance Committee hearing that the Social Security Administration could not comply with statutorily mandated time limits on holding Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings without more power to control ALJ behavior.

What is so important about this? Let me share the evolution of my reactions to this.
  • My first reaction was "How typical of Social Security management! They have always hated independent ALJs."
  • My second reaction was "This is silly. More controls on ALJ independence would do almost nothing to get the hearing backlog down."
  • My third reaction was "Astrue will never get Congress to agree that ALJs should be less independent. Social Security management has wanted this for decades, but has never gotten it. When will Social Security management realize that despite whatever problems the ALJs may have with their "outliers", that the ALJs have more credibility with Congress than Social Security management."
  • My fourth thought was that the important thing here was that Astrue was talking about statutorily imposed deadlines on Social Security holding ALJ hearings. Astrue would be talking about deadlines only if he was hearing about deadlines from Congress and only if he thought that there was a good chance that statutory deadlines would pass. That is of much greater importance that Michael Astrue's puny plans for dealing with Social Security's hearing backlogs. What Astrue has in mind is little more than enough to stabilize the situation. His plan will hardly make a dent in the backlog. Statutory deadlines would force the Social Security Administration to propose what is really needed -- ramping up to 2,000 or more ALJs with another 8,000 or so support staff. That is not going to happen without statutory deadlines or the serious threat of them.

Baltimore Newspapers Ignore The Area's Largest Employer

Neither the Baltimore Examiner nor the Baltimore Sun covered yesterday's Senate Finance Committee hearing on Social Security. The Social Security Administration is Baltimore County's largest employer, yet the local newspapers ignored this major hearing. Neither of the papers has published an interview with Michael Astrue who took over as Commissioner of Social Security more than three months ago.

Buffalo News On Backlogs

The Buffalo News is running a story on Social Security's hearing backlogs. An excerpt:

It’s clearly a broken system. As of February, about 717,000 Americans were waiting for the kind of hearing that Chini received. And if history is any indication, a majority will eventually get the benefits they deserve under the safety net Congress created decades ago for disabled Americans who can’t work.

But for many, the wait is agony — and in Buffalo, it’s longer than in most places.

Social Security Administration figures show that as of January, the typical disability claimant at the agency’s Buffalo office will have to wait 688 days — or nearly two years — for an appeals hearing.

Of the 142 Social Security offices nationwide that process such claims, the appeals delays in the Buffalo office were the seventh-worst.

May 23, 2007

Important Addendum To Astrue's Testimony

Commissioner Astrue's statement to the Senate Finance Committee is available through the Committee's website -- with one big exception. There was an important attachment to Astrue's testimony that is not currently available through the Committee website that is available through Social Security's website. Here are a few excerpts (emphasis added):
... The most aggressive timeline for eliminating the backlog is 2012 ...

We project 360 cases per judge as the ideal pending to maximize service to disability claimants without compromising our mission of providing both timely and legally sufficient hearings and decisions. That caseload of 360 cases per judge would result in an average processing time, or the time it would take a claimant to go through the hearings process from the point the request for hearing was made, in the range of 250-275 days. ...

... we are studying the experiment of 1995-2000 that authorized Senior Attorney Advisors to issue fully favorable decisions. ...

Several of our initiatives will be in place within six months. For example, we intend to fill ALJ hearing dockets by streamlining folder assembly on our remaining paper cases; remand likely allowances to the Disability Determination Service disability examiners; and mandate the Findings Integrated Template (FIT) Decision Writing System ...

To make more cases available for review, we are authorizing a streamlined approach to file assembly. Many judges advise us that they do not use the exhibit list, and it is virtually impossible to place all medical evidence in strict chronological order. They have volunteered to hold hearings with files that are not re-assembled and to review files assembled in the same format used by the disability examiners at the DDSs. We are authorizing this practice to support these judges and the claimants they serve. ...

This streamlined approach to file assembly will be used for the 225,000 backlogged paper folders and will be done on a limited basis, starting with ALJs willing to hear cases in this streamlined format. We expect to complete assembly of the paper folders by the end of this calendar year. We are working on acquiring software to automate this function for electronic folders. ...

We ask the ALJs to issue 500 – 600 dispositions each year. We may increase this range to 500 – 700. ...

Using profiles developed by the Office of Quality Performance (OQP), cases will be screened and triaged to determine whether an allowance can be issued without a hearing, whether an allowance may be issued with further development without a hearing, or whether the case requires a hearing. Cases that can be handled at the DDS will be remanded to DDSs for a determination of whether an allowance may be issued. ...

When screening by hearing office staff identifies cases likely to result in favorable on-the-record (OTR) decisions with medical input, we will have those cases reviewed by hearing operation medical experts (MEs) before assignment of the case to an ALJ. ...

Based upon receipts of 550,000 cases per year, the hearing operation could save significant numbers of workyears with the implementation of centralized noticing and printing. ...

Additional software enhancements are needed to implement eScheduling by incorporating calendaring functionality. These enhancements would facilitate the scheduling of ALJs, claimants, representatives, expert witnesses, hearing reporters, interpreters, and hearing rooms through the use of calendars. ...

Working with the OQP [Office of Quality Performance], we will develop and implement a quality assurance program for the hearing process. This quality assurance program will ensure that all offices follow Agency policy. ...

We will be moving toward co-locating all possible future remote hearing sites with field offices where necessary to accommodate the public.

Baucus Press Release On Social Security Backlogs

Senator Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee issued a press release following the hearing before his committee today. Here are a few excerpts:
At a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee today, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said it’s “unacceptable” that massive case backlogs at the Social Security Administration have left Americans waiting as long as four years for disability benefits. ...

“This whole situation is tragic. I can’t believe our country, the United States of America, has let this happen. It’s an outrage,” said Baucus. ...

Astrue said that at the funding level recommended by the White House, which is higher than last year’s appropriation but $430 million less than Congress’s budget recommendation, it’s unlikely the agency could end backlogs entirely within the next five years. ...

The Commissioner also said that more authority to push administrative law judges to increase their productivity ... will be essential to progress on the backlog problem.

Some More Points From Senate Finance Committee Hearing

  • Testimony was taken from the witnesses as a single panel. Over the years, the Commissioners' testimony was taken first. The Commissioners and their entourages then left before other witnesses testified -- removing about half of the audience and greatly annoying the other witnesses. The method used today must have been far more satisfactory to everyone other than Commissioner Astrue.
  • Astrue is trying to get video equipment in all hearing rooms.
  • Astrue called "e-pulling" of exhibits "exciting. [My opinion is that it is a good way to waste a lot of money on something that will never work.]
  • The Findings Integrated Template (FIT) method of drafting decisions will now be mandatory.
  • Astrue is working with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on legislation concerning agency authority over Adminisatrative Law Judges (ALJs).
  • Rick Warsinskey of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) testified that Social Security's Voice Over Internet (VOIP) transition will cost $1 billion and that it is urgently needed. [No doubt it is needed, but $1 billion spent on VOIP is $1 billion less spent on personnel to reduce backlogs.] Update: I have been told that Warsinskey said "up to" $1 billion, rather than $1 billion.
  • Astrue seemed to talk more about getting tools that would allow the agency to get more productivity out of ALJs than about hiring more ALJs, although he certainly talked about hiring more ALJs.
  • Astrue was asked twice what he would need to make a quick dramatic reduction in the hearing backlogs. He talked a lot, but never gave any answer to the questions. I would not go so far as to say he was deliberately trying to avoid answering the questions, but he certainly was not trying hard to give responsive answers.
  • The tone of the hearing was friendly. No noticeable tension or flashes of anger.
  • The video technology did not work. I was able to hear the hearing, but not view it.

Listings As "Low-Hanging Fruit"

In his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee today Commissioner Astue talked of Social Security's Listings of Impairments as representing "low-hanging fruit", apparently meaning that too few people may be getting approved under the Listings, because the Listings are not extensive enough. He said that the Department of Health and Human Services has volunteered help from physicians on their staff to update the Listings.

Social Security Legislative Proposals?

Commissioner Astrue testified today that he has legislative proposals pending at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB cannot prevent Astue from sending legislative proposals to Congress, but they have to "score" them for their budget impact. OMB opposition can also make it difficult to get an agency proposal enacted.

What would these legislative proposals be? On the face of it I see little need for Social Security to propose anything legislatively. If anything, Social Security needs fewer legislative changes to adjust to.

One concern is that Astrue talked about needing more "control" over Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) if the agency is to achieve any time deadlines. This could mean that Astrue wants to use the backlog situation as justification for reducing or eliminating ALJ independence.

Time Frame On New ALJs

In his testimony today, Commissioner Astrue said that it would be late October of this year before a new register will be available from which Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) could be hired and that it would take four months thereafter to hire more ALJs. It would then take time to train them. Realistically, it will be a year or more from now before more ALJs are holding hearings at Social Security.


My initial interpretation of what I heard Commissioner Astrue say was that re-recon was not on the table. However, Astrue's written statement is now available and he has this to say in the written statement:
In addition, we will screen our oldest cases using profiles developed by the Office of Quality Performance to identify cases where there may be a high probability that an allowance can be issued on the record without a hearing. During my visits to hearing offices in Atlanta and Boston, many employees expressed their belief that cases that were initially denied because an applicant did not meet the durational definition of a disability could, at this stage in the process, now meet the time requirements associated with our programs. If true, we could make a significant impact on our backlog. This screening initiative will begin next month.
This sounds a lot like re-recon.

First Impression Of Senate Finance Committee Hearing

Michael Astrue has virtually nothing new to offer in his opening statement. The only things he said in his opening statement that he has not said previously is that he is "studying" and will "evaluate" senior attorney decisions and that some Field Office personnel will be detailed to help work up files for Administrative Law Judges to hear -- 5,000 hours of work, which is trivial. This sounds as if he will not try to go ahead with senior attorneys unless the Office of Management and Budget approves. Re-recon and short form decisions were not mentioned. He has referred only to the President's budget proposal as a goal, never to Social Security's own budget proposal.

Watch Senate Finance Committee Hearing

Today's Senate Finance Committee hearing on Social Security's administrative costs is available in streaming video. It will be available live or later as a recording at the Committee website.

Medicare Rights Center On The Waiting Period For Medicare

I am often asked by my clients who are awarded Title II Social Security disability benefits why they have to suffer through what amounts to a two and a half year waiting period for Medicare. The Medicare waiting period is two years itself, but this is on top of a five to six month waiting period for Title II Social Security disability benefits. My clients long for some rational explanation. I have to tell them the plain truth. The only explanation is that it saves money. Period. The cruelty of this waiting period has been acknowledged by everyone for decades now, yet nothing has been done.

The Medicare Rights Center has issued a report: Too Sick To Work, Too Soon For Medicare: The Human Cost Of The Two-Year Medicare Waiting Period For Americans With Disabilities. The report appears to be an early step in a campaign to eliminate the Medicare waiting period. This will not happen while George W. Bush is president, but activists are already trying to set an agenda for the next president.

Social Security Bulletin Released

The Social Security Administration has released the most recent issue of the Social Security Bulletin, a magazine featuring basic Social Security statistics and historical and statistical articles.

May 22, 2007

Presidential Candidates On Social Security -- Republicans

Here are the views of the top tier Republican candidates for President, as gleaned from various websites:

Rudolph Giuliani
Giuliani agreed that long-term costs and solvency are an issue and that private accounts should be part of the solution, adding that "people should have some choice" in how their accounts are handled.
John McCain:
...supports giving workers the option to set aside a small fraction of their Social Security contributions to be conservatively invested in retirement funds. These accounts would not be so large that they overshadow the existing system, nor would it threaten promised benefits in any way. They would simply supplement the design of the current system to give younger workers greater retirement security. Most importantly, they would act as a lock box to protect the Social Security surpluses Congress raids every year
Mitt Romney
Romney won’t propose changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the government entitlement programs that are growing at unsustainable rates — but instead will press for all sides to come to the bargaining table ...

The Big Picture -- A Credit Union Adjusts To a Downsized Social Security Administration

Sometimes you have to step back quite a way to see the big picture. There used to be an entity called the Social Security Baltimore Federal Credit Union. The winwin partnership reports that they are now called the Securityplus Federal Credit Union. The credit union had to change because the Social Security Administration's employment in the Baltimore area dropped over the last 15 years from 30,000 to less than 15,000. Because of the erosion in their customer base, the Securityplus Federal Credit Union has shifted its focus as well as its name. In addition to serving Social Security employees and retirees, the credit union now tries to serve underserved, presumably low income, areas in the Baltimore region. As a result, their business is growing.

May 21, 2007

Presidential Candidates On Social Security -- Democrats

Here are what the top tier Democratic candidates for President have said recently about Social Security, drawn from their campaign websites and senatoral websites:

Hillary Clinton:
I think it is essential that the Administration and Congress take the necessary steps to secure the solvency of this important program for current and future retirees. ... There are several key reasons why replacing Social Security with a privatized system would be harmful for Americans.
John Edwards:
I oppose diverting payroll taxes to private accounts but support offering matching accounts to workers on top of Social Security. I oppose raising the retirement age or cutting COLAs.
Barack Obama:
We need to modernize our social safety net to help senior citizens meet these new challenges, but we also must preserve those elements, such as Social Security and Medicare, that have enabled us to fulfill our moral commitment to our parents and grandparents.

House Ways And Means Committee On Backlogs And Budget

The House Ways and Means Committee has prepared a summary of information about the disability claims backlogs at Social Security which discusses Social Security's budget situation for fiscal year (FY) 2008, which begins on October 1, 2007.

Widows Not Getting All The Social Security They Should

Some individuals are dually entitled to both disability benefits based on their own earnings history and widow's benefits based on their deceased spouses' earnings. Although disability benefits are generally not reduced based on the age of the beneficiary, widow's benefits are reduced when beneficiaries elect to receive them prior to their FRA [Full Retirement Age. However, if the widow's benefit started when the disability benefit began or later, the widow's benefits are adjusted-and the reduction for age is eliminated-when disability ends and retirement benefits are awarded. Usually, this occurs when the beneficiaries attain FRA. In December 2005, about 3.6 million beneficiaries were dually entitled to both retirement benefits and widow's benefits. ...

n November 2006, an SSA employee informed us of a population of 10,210 widows whose benefits appeared to not have been properly adjusted when they attained FRA. ...

We found that the benefits to most of the widows in our population were not properly adjusted when the beneficiaries attained FRA. As a result, the widows were not paid all of the benefits that were due them. Based on the results of our sample, we estimate that about 9,751 beneficiaries were underpaid approximately $113.7 million through November 2006. In addition, if SSA does not take action to correct the benefits paid to these widows, we estimate they will continue to be underpaid about $137.8 million over the rest of their lives.

May 20, 2007

Witness List For Wednesday Senate Finance Committee Hearing

Senate Finance Committee Hearing May 23 at 10:00

Funding Social Security's Administrative Costs: Will the Budget Meet the Mission?
  • Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, MD
  • Nancy Shor, Executive Director, National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  • Richard E. Warsinskey, President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Inc., Washington, DC
  • Charles Schimmels, President, National Association of Disability Examiners, Oklahoma City, OK

An Image From 1965

Arizona Republic On Hearing Backlogs

The Arizona Republic has a story up on Social Security's backlogs in holding Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings. That newspaper joined the growing list of newspapers running articles on this subject.

This backlog grew dramatically in 2001, but virtually no newspaper was covering the story. For several years, the backlog has been terrible, but there were few newspaper stories on the issue. One gets the feeling that the traditional media feels that the Democratic victory in the 2006 election somehow makes it "safe" for them to report on the situation.

May 19, 2007

Social Security And Terrorism Investigations Or Is It Just Illegal Immigration?

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

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

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

Only the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have referred more terrorism-related cases for prosecution, according to the Syracuse records, which are based on data compiled by the Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys."

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

May 18, 2007

A Fresh Approach

A press release from uTANGO and Kelton Research tells us that "...the majority of young Americans (94%) would trade their consumer loyalty and become long-term, loyal customers of major retailers in order to earn up to a $1 Million nest egg for retirement", because their survey shows that nine of ten Amernicans between 18 and 40 do not trust the government to solve the problems facing Social Security. Apparently, uTANGO is already trying to set up such a plan which it suggests as a replacement for Social Security.

Dude, you're trying too hard with that name, uTANGO. Also, your idea, is, like, weird.

Cleveland TV Station On Hearing Backlogs

Cleveland television station WKYC is reporting on the huge backlogs of Social Security disability claimants awaiting a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The backlog is currently 13,000 in the Cleveland area.

OIG On ODISP: Was Martin Gerry Fired Because Of Some Wrongdoing?

In March of this year Martin Gerry was abruptly fired as head of Social Security's Office of Disability and Income Security Programs (ODISP). Also, in March of this year, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue asked Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to review "the organizational structure and functions of ODISP." OIG has now delivered its report.

The crucial question for many people is "Did this OIG 'review' cause the firing of Martin Gerry?" This question is crucial since there have been rumors that Gerry was fired as a result of an OIG investigation, which would imply some wrongdoing on Gerry's part. The rumors are understandable, since OIG has the task of rooting out corruption in the agency and OIG has been investigating ODISP over the last couple of months. However, OIG has the more mundane task of doing studies of agency organization and efficiency.

There is nothing about the report to suggest wrongdoing on Gerry's part. Everything about the report suggests that it was directed at determining whether a reorganization of ODISP was a good idea and, if so, what kind of reorganization would be a good idea. Everything also suggests that the investigation started only after Gerry was fired.

It is conceivable that OIG was looking at something more than how ODISP is organized, but there is nothing in this report to suggest they found anything more than an organizational structure that ought to be looked at and "poor communications."

Here is a summary of the recommendations of the report, which does contain thinly veiled criticism of Martin Gerry, but the criticism merely concerns management style:
Our review of the structure and functions of ODISP found that this component is not focused solely on planning and program policy issues, but instead is responsible for several operational functions. Specifically, we found that some functions within ODISP may be better aligned to improve coordination and productivity and some other functions appear to be inconsistent with ODISP’s mission and may be better managed elsewhere in SSA.

Additionally, throughout our interviews with about 17 percent of ODISP’s employees as well as several of ODISP’s customers, a consistent theme was poor communication within ODISP and between ODISP and other SSA components.

SSA may be better served from a functional point of view if ODISP’s main focus were program policy. Therefore, we recommend the Agency:
  • Re-direct ODISP’s focus to program policy.
  • Align similar/related functions within ODISP.
  • Delineate more clearly the role of ODISP with respect to other components.
  • Improve communications within ODISP and other components.
  • Consider renaming ODISP and SSA’s Office of Policy to clarify the roles of each component, or combining ODISP with the Office of Policy.
The criticism that Gerry did not foster good communications is no surprise. Many had noted for years that both Gerry and former Commissioner Barnhart were secretive. By the way, if all Social Security managers who exhibited poor communications were fired, Social Security's management ranks would be decimated. I think you could say that about just about any organization.

Here is an interesting little nugget from ODISP's response to the report, that contains some information that I had not heard before:
This is a particularly critical time for PolicyNet since we are working with all involved components to totally revamp the ”look and feel” and functionality of the Program Operations Manual System (POMS), which is by far the largest policy repository on PolicyNet. We have worked with contractors to create system prototypes and demonstrations and we have created a management structure which includes an AC-level Steering Committee and intercomponent workgroups.

May 17, 2007

New Social Security Cards Coming?

There was a major agreement today on a new immigration bill. The bill may go through many more changes before it passes, if it ever does, but this agreement is a major step forward. While the bill has many implications, this blog is concerned with the question of what effect it will have on the Social Security Administration. Here is part of a story in the Los Angeles Times:
The bill focuses heavily on border security and work-site enforcement, two areas that the senators spent weeks negotiating in painstaking detail. ... Work-site enforcement would include a tamper-proof ID, probably a Social Security card, that some Senate aides said would have to be presented in combination with a passport or tamper-proof driver's license.
Assuming this "tamper-proof ID" is a Social Security card (and it is hard to imagine what else it might be) would this be a big deal for Social Security? The new Social Security card might require a photograph of its holder or some form of "biometric" information. Getting the equipment and personnel to create such cards just for those who need a new or replacement card would be a major undertaking.

However, everyone in the United States would have to get one of these new Social Security cards sooner or later. Most Americans would have to get a new Social Security card within the next few years. Thereafter, everyone might have to get a new Social Security card periodically as their appearance changed. This has the potential to make Social Security offices resemble drivers license bureaus. How much additional staff might this require? We will have to know the details to get a better picture and even then it will take much study to get a good idea, but a wild guess is that this might require a Social Security Administration that is double or triple its current size.

Let me be the first to say that if this happens, it may end up being wonderful news for the Social Security Administration. Currently, few Americans have the misfortune of having to deal with the critically understaffed Social Security Administration. That will not be the case if Social Security has to start issuing tamper-proof Social Security cards. The terrible service that Social Security provides at the moment would never last once large numbers of Americans have to start dealing with the agency.

Budget Resolution For SSA At $10 Billion

A Congressional conference committee has reported out a final version of the Congressional budget resolution. Thus far, I have been unable to access the actual resolution. However, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has put out a press release saying that the final fiscal year (FY) 2008 budget resolution for Social Security is $400 million over the President's recommendation, which would make the total for Social Security $10 billion. While considerably better than President's budget, this is still down from the House of Representatives version of the budget resolution, which was $10.1 billion. FY 2008 begins on October 1, 2007.

Remember that the budget resolution is not money that an agency can spend. It is merely a guideline used by the Appropriations Committees who determine exactly what each agency gets -- and to some extent how each agency can spend it.

From The Encyclopedia Of Ethical Failures

Stephen Epstein, Director of the Defense Department's Standards of Conduct Office, maintains the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures, which catalogues ethical lapses at all federal agencies. Here are the excerpts concerning Social Security employees, although (no offense to the vast majority of honorable Social Security employees) I think there are more that he has not heard about:

A Social Security Administration employee and her husband were convicted for soliciting bribes from individuals seeking Social Security benefits for themselves or family members. The couple approached citizens who were having difficulty qualifying for Supplemental Social Security benefits. They would offer to arrange to have benefits reinstated or to complete paperwork for the individual. Afterwards, they demanded payment for their services.

At their 1997 trial in Louisiana, a judge ordered the employee to 46 months imprisonment followed by three years probation. The employee's husband received 30 months imprisonment followed by three years probation. They each paid back $23,809.33.

Conflict Of Interest
The Facts: In the "off-time" from her work with the Social Security Administration, a senior attorney opened her own legal practice and represented clients with claims against that very same Administration. For her double-duty, she was sued by a U.S. Attorney and ended up agreeing to a settlement that required her to pay the United States $113,000 for this and other violations—not a typical attorney's fee!

Hatch Act

Two federal employees, one at the Environmental Protection Agency, the other at the Social Security Administration, were disciplined for violations of the Hatch Act. Although federal employees are entitled to support the political candidates of their choice, the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. ... the SSA employee favored George W. Bush, and while on duty, sent a similar email to 27 of his co-workers and other individuals. It was irrelevant which candidate each employee supported, both were found to have violated the Hatch Act because sending emails in support of any candidate while on duty constitutes prohibited political activity. Disciplinary action for violations of the Hatch Act range from 30-day suspension without pay to termination from federal employment.

Katherine Thornton Is New Staff Director At SSAB

This is from an e-mail from the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB), now posted on the SSAB website:
I am pleased to announce that the Social Security Advisory Board has selected Katherine Thornton to serve as its next Staff Director. She will be replacing Joe Humphreys who is retiring at the end of July. Ms. Thornton has served as Deputy Staff Director of the Board since February, 2005. Prior to joining the Board staff, she had a distinguished career with the Social Security Administration serving in a variety of positions including seven years as Director of the Center for Disability Programs in the Philadelphia Region.

May 16, 2007

Senate Finance Committee Schedules Hearing For May 23

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for May 23 at 10:00 on the subject, "Funding Social Security’s Administrative Costs: Will the Budget Meet the Mission?" No witness list has been released, but Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue should be the main witness. He will have to answer questions in public about how much money he is seeking for his agency.

Andrew Biggs Nominated Again!

Dow Jones is reporting that President Bush has re-nominated Andrew Biggs to become Deputy Commissioner of Social Security.

I do not understand. Just a short time ago, the Senate refused to consider Biggs' nomination for this position and Bush gave Biggs a recess appointment. The recess appointment would only be good until December 2008, while Biggs' term would extend to 2012 if he were confirmed. Why would Bush think that the Senate would be prepared to consider the nomination now?

Biometric Social Security Cards Proposed As Part Of Immigration Bill

From Wired News:

The Social Security card faces its first major upgrade in 70 years under two immigration-reform proposals slated for debate this week that would add biometric information to the card and finally complete its slow metamorphosis into a national ID.

The leading immigration proposal with traction in Congress would force employers to accept only a very limited range of approved documents as proof of work eligibility, including a driver's license that meets new federal Real ID standards, a high-tech temporary work visa or a U.S. passport with an RFID chip. A fourth option is the notional tamper-proof biometric Social Security card, which would replace the text-only design that's been issued to Americans almost without change for more than 70 years.

A second proposal under consideration would add high-tech features to the Social Security card allowing employers to scan it with specially equipped laptop computers. Under that proposal, called the "Bonner Plan," the revamped Social Security card would be the only legal form of identification for employment purposes.

Without a truly vast infusion of resources, the Social Security Administration is simply incapable of implementing any biometric Social Security card, whatever "biometric" means. Even with a vast infusion of resources, it might take several years before Social Security would be ready to implement this.

Social Security Budget Picture Not Looking So Good

Things are not going well on getting the Social Security Administration an adequate budegt for the next fiscal year (FY), which begins on October 1. See the attached letter signed by the Chairmen and Ranking Minority members of both the entire House Ways and Means Committee and its Social Security Subcommittee. This letter was sent to their counterparts on the House Appropriations Committee.

So what is the problem? At first glance, this just looks like a nice letter to help get a good budget for Social Security. Let us go back. The FY 2007 Social Security budget is $9.3 billion. The President's proposed FY 2008 budget is only $9.6 billion. Social Security's requested budget for FY 2008 is $10.4 billion. A few weeks ago, the House and Senate Budget Committees seemed to be agreeing on approximately $10.1 billion for Social Security. There is no final agreement on a budget resolution and the budget resolution provides only rough guidelines on what the actual appropriations will be, but things were looking fairly good just a short time ago.

It is the Appropriations Committees which reports out the actual hard numbers which determine how much money each agency gets. Judging by this letter and particularly by its next to last paragraph, it looks as if we are at the President's number of $9.6 billion and merely hoping to get to $10 billion, instead of at $10.1 billion and trying to go up. The Appropriations Committees seem less inclined to give Social Security additional money than the Budget Committees.

What happened? Commissioner Astrue has been meeting with Appropriations Committee members. I am told that he is asking only for the President's budget proposal of $9.6 billion, even though his own agency asked for $10.4 billion. Astrue seems to be discouraging additional money for his agency, even though his agency had earlier asked for the money. Everyone else is advocating for $10 billion and up, except for the Office of Management and Budget and the Commissioner of Social Security.

I begin to understand why the House Social Security Subcommittee was so hard on Commissioner Astrue at the May 1 hearing. Dealing with Social Security's backlogs and staffing shortages appears less important to Commissioner Astrue than fealty to the White House. There have been rumblings for some time that Social Security as an independent agency has been a failure. This is more proof that Social Security Commissioners are not independent. Commissioner Astrue may need to worry about being reorganized out of a job if there is a Democrat in the White House after the 2008 election.

Aren't There More Important Things For Disability Advocates To Worry About?

From the Patriot-News of Pennsylvania:

Heidi Notario-Smull cringes every day when she drives along Cameron Street and sees one of the signs posted along the busy corridor.

The sign marks Asylum Run, a creek that starts in Lower Paxton Twp. and winds through the grounds of the former Harrisburg State Hospital in Susquehanna Twp., eventually emptying into Paxton Creek.

But it's just not a sign for a creek -- the name perpetuates negative stereotypes of people who live with mental disabilities, said Notario-Smull, an advocate specialist with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.

Her agency and a dozen more like it have been trying to get the creek's name changed to Recovery Run, which Notario-Smull said better characterizes the focus of today's mental health care system.

May 15, 2007

Diversity In Social Security's Workforce

Reginald Wells, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources and Chief Human Capital Officer testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the subject of workforce diversity at Social Security. His written statement included the following interesting table on race and ethnicity in Social Security's Senior Executive Service (SES) workforce:



Civilian Labor Force *
















† SSA workforce profile as of March 31, 2007

* CLF data based on 09/30/2005 OPM figures

Administrative Law Judge Pay

The Association of Administrative Law Judges has posted the current pay ranges for Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Those applying for these positions may already know this, but those who are not may find it interesting. There are higher pay rates in some localities, but the following is the base ALJ pay:

















Toledo Blade On Social Security Backlogs

Some excerpts from the Toledo Blade:
Far too often people with disability claims have petitioned the Social Security Administration only to wait more than a year for a hearing, and in some cases, much longer...

It's scandalous that there's such a backlog of cases. Nationwide more than 730,000 such claims are waiting for decisions, and 40,000 of them are right here in Ohio. The new commissioner of the agency, Michael Astrue, says at least another 160 administrative judges are needed to reduce the backlog. The additional judges would help him meet his goal of having the problem addressed "on my watch."

But Americans awaiting decisions are tired of empty promises. The last commissioner, Jo Anne Barnhart, also visited Ohio and promised to address the problem. That never happened, although the average length of time to get a hearing dropped slightly during her tenure, from 20.6 months in fiscal 2004 to 19.2 months last year.

Social Security Wants Good Production Values On Its Videos

From a notice posted by Social Security indicating the agency's intention to purchase a particular brand of video camera:
The Agency plans to award a commercial item Purchase Order for the purchase of one (1) Tiffen Steadicam Ultra 2 System, Model Number U2MZHORH8CPSG7.

The Steadicam Ultra System is necessary for SSA to continue a high quality of broadcasting and to prepare for the migration that is occurring as commercial and public broadcasting in the United States move to High Definition Television (HDTV). SSA is seeking to invest in technology upgrades that can support current work, while assuring a seamless move into HDTV when the time comes.

The purchase of a Steadicam system will provide a more fluid visual imagery for its recipients. The Steadicam system is a camera support system that will be worn by the camera operator, and will replace the traditional floor-standing fixed tripod or heavy dolly used in the past. This allows the camera operator to carry a full camera rig with excellent mobility and image steadiness, enabling shots that were difficult or impossible with older camera support technology.
I thought money was tight at Social Security, but, I guess there is always money available for "more fluid visual imagery."

May 14, 2007

What Would You Say To Michael Astrue?

I could not come up with a good idea for a poll this week, so I thought that I would just set up an open thread. Post your comment to respond to this question:

If you had the chance to meet with Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue what would you most like to tell him or ask of him?

Survey Of Social Security Managers Shows Severe Staffing Shortages

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an association of Social Security management personnel, conducts an annual survey of its members. The report on this year's survey is a depressing account of an agency at its all time low, barely able to continue operating. Here are some highlights (or perhaps lowlights):
  • Recent funding for SSA [Social Security Administration] has been inadequate to provide for the immediate needs of the public. Only 6.6% of respondents thought that the SSA budget was sufficient to provide good public service. An overwhelming 87.1% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the budget was sufficient. The effects of the budget restrictions are most directly related to service delivery through inadequate staffing of FO [Field Office] and TSC [Teleservice Center] facilities, the front-lines of SSA service delivery.
  • There is presently insufficient staff to keep workloads current. 79.0% of managers report that they do not have adequate staff to keep up with the work. 78.0% of the respondents to the 2005 NCSSMA Survey of Management also reported that their office staffing was inadequate. On average, managers estimate that they would need a staffing increase of 16.7% to provide adequate public service.
  • Telephone service in Field Offices is poor. 62.9% of FO managers report that prompt telephone service is provided in their office less than half of the time. When provided a choice of possible fixes for poor telephone service, 88.9% of FO managers reported that additional staffing would be the best remedy. NCSSMA believes that the public still wants and expects reliable telephone service from their local Social Security Administration Field Office.
  • Public waiting times in Field Offices continue to increase. In the 2005 Survey, 72.0% of respondents said that their staffing was not sufficient to maintain reasonable waiting times. This year’s survey indicates that the situation is even worse now. 81.5% of FO managers report that waiting times in their offices are longer now than they were two years ago. When asked to identify the main causes of excessive waiting times in their offices, managers listed inadequate staffing and the high volume of walk-in traffic significantly more than any other causes.
  • Field Office and Teleservice Center staffing levels are at a critical point. In the last year, 64.1% of FO and TSC managers report that staffing has declined and in many cases the decline has been dramatic. 36.4% percent report a decline in staffing of at least 10.0% in the last year alone. To compound the situation, over 50.0% of the managers report that at least 26.0% of their staff (excluding management) will be eligible to retire by 2010.
  • Deferral of Field Office Workloads has had no effect on work backlogs. For the last two years, some FO workloads such as medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and SSI redeterminations of eligibility have been deferred. The deferral of this work, which invariably will lead to more and larger overpayments and subsequently even more work when completed, has been cited as a justification for the extremely limited hiring in Field Offices during this period. Additional workloads, however, have more than taken up those resources made available through the deferrals of redeterminations and CDRs. 84.1% of FO management report that the deferrals have had no practical effect on other backlogs because the work hours have been redirected to other mandated workloads.
  • Systems upgrades/maintenance, especially in recent months, has been problematic and has resulted in service delivery problems and wasted resources. Since late November, Field Offices and Teleservice Centers have been plagued by systems downtime and unacceptably slow systems response times. This results in work being done twice, first on paper and then via transmission when the processing systems are available. 63.5% of managers reported that processing systems in their components have been unavailable or unacceptably slow at least four times per month. 59.8% estimated that they lost, at a minimum, 25 hours per week of production time due to systems problems.
  • There is great frustration among Field Office and Teleservice Center management regarding implementation of the Medicare Modernization Act. The resource demands of SSA’s involvement in administering the Medicare Modernization Act have been vastly underestimated. The ongoing confusion regarding payment of Part D premiums and the blurred lines of responsibility among SSA, CMS [Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services], and the insurance companies has both bewildered and angered the public and makes SSA appear to be powerless to correct problems.
  • Job satisfaction among management remains high. The dedication of the SSA workforce has long been considered a strength of the agency. Despite severe public service challenges faced by FOs and TSCs, job satisfaction among management remains high. 63.7% of management report that their job satisfaction is good or very good. The commitment of FO and TSC managers to the mission of the agency is also evident in many of the comments that are included in this report. Managers believe in SSA’s mission and are committed to providing the best service possible with the resources available.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

Social Security Commissioner Astrue testified that Social Security could only absorb 150 additional Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in the next fiscal year. Under the circumstances that Social Security faces at the moment, how many ALJs do you think that Social Security should add in the next fiscal year?
0-100 (11) 12%
100-200 (22) 24%
200-300 (29) 32%
300-400 (12) 13%
More than 400 (18) 20%

Total Votes: 92

May 13, 2007

An Image From 1991

Social Security Ticket to Work Meeting

Social Security's Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel has scheduled a teleconference meeting for June 13, 2007. It is possible for the public to listen in and to speak.

May 12, 2007

Send Feedback To Social Security News

On the right side, near the top of this page, readers will see a feedback button. I have reproduced it below. This will make it easier for readers to give their feedback. Those sending feedback can do it anonymously, if they wish.

get this gear!

May 11, 2007

Empire Justice Center Publishes Benefits Management Manual For Working People With Disabilities

From the Empire Justice Center:

A practical, comprehensive and affordable reference book which covers the many aspects of how work activity affects a person’s right to Social Security, SSI, Medicaid and Medicare. This is our twelfth edition of the Manual and the 2007 version is the best ever.

The Manual contains the latest citations to all relevant Social Security laws, regulations, policies and selected case law, with many tips to assist advocates through this maze of regulation and policy. The Manual is written in an outline format which makes it easy to use as a reference book. Many examples are used to illustrate various points and forms are included to show how to develop a PASS proposal and calculate the amount of an SSI check. The Manual is a handy resource tool whether you are an advocate, rehabilitation counselor or consumer.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are governed by federal law, regulation and policy. Therefore, the material in the Manual applies to every state of the country.


Edwin J. López-Soto is a 1981 graduate of Cornell Law School and is a former Staff Attorney with the Greater Upstate Law Project, Inc., in Rochester, New York, where he provided research, technical and litigation support to attorneys and paralegals for more than 15 years, as part of a statewide Social Security advocacy project. Currently, he is employed by Cornell University’s Program on Employment and Disability as a lead trainer and technical assistance specialist.

James R. Sheldon, Jr. is a 1978 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School and is Supervising Attorney of the Disability Law Unit at Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo, New York. Mr. Sheldon currently supervises three work incentives projects, including a regional Work Incentives Planning and Assistance Project. With Mr. López, he is the co-editor/author of The Benefits Planner, a quarterly newsletter on SSI and SSDI work incentives.*

* Available at

Social Security Posts Attorney Fee Payments Data

Social Security has posted updated data on payments of fees to attorneys and others eligible for direct payment of fees for representing Social Security claimants. After being at very low levels in January and February of this year, fee payments went up dramatically in March and April, probably due to the authorization of overtime for payment center employees. These fee payment figures track closely with payments of benefits to claimants who have been recently approved for benefits. Increased payments of these fees indicate reduction in backlogs of payments to claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Social Security Employees Beware Of Rudolph Giuliani's Workforce Plans

Fedblog says that candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani was talking recently about the wave of retirements about to hit the federal workforce. About 42% of federal civilians will retire during the next two presidential terms. Giuliani's response: "Some politicians assume that we'll just replace all of them," he said. "I bet there are some politicians in the other party -- I don't know, maybe in ours -- that think we ought to increase them. . . . Here's what I would do: I would seek to replace only half of them."


Here is the text of a letter posted on the ALJ Improvement Board concerning the problem that many of Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) have with meeting a recent requirement of the Office of Personnel Management that they maintain active bar membership. Many of the ALJs have not been taking enough Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses to meet the requirements necessary to keep their bar membership current:
Henry Reuss Federal Plaza, Suite 880
310 W. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wl 53203

April 23, 2007

The Honorable Frank Cristaudo
Chief Judge
Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
Social Security Administration
One Skyline Tower, Suite 1500
5107 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041-3255

Re: OPM Final Rule Regarding Bar Status of Administrative Law Judges

Dear Chief Judge Cristaudo:

Effective April 19, 2007, Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") issued a Final Rule that requires active state bar membership as a qualification for service by incumbent Administrative Law Judges. Although we have had discussions with OPM regarding our objections to the Final Rule, and we have instituted a legal challenge to the Final Rule, there are several practical questions regarding the implementation of the Final Rule.

As you may be aware, there are a significant number of SSA Administrative Law Judges who are not currently compliant with the active state bar membership requirement. OPM has taken the position that these Administrative Law Judges are not qualified to serve as Administrative Law Judges because they fail to meet a continuing requirement of their position. As to those affected Administrative Law Judges, we would like guidance regarding:

  • whether they are obligated to advise the claimants in their pending cases that they do not meet a continuing requirement for their position under the Final Rule;
  • whether they must cease scheduling cases until they can come into compliance with the Final Rules' requirements;
  • whether they are required to cease the adjudicatory process on cases pending before them, i.e. decision making processes; and
  • whether they have to take any action to notify claimants in cases where a decision has been rendered, whether on appeal or not, that they did not meet a continuing requirement for their position under the Final Rule when they issued their decision?
We raised these issues with OPM in our informal discussions, but OPM directed us to raise these concerns with the individual agencies. As you know, there is a substantial backlog of cases at the Social Security Administration. We hope that your response to this inquiry will help alleviate any possible disruptions to the adjudication process caused by the issuance of the Final Rule

In view of the importance of the issue, I trust that you will give this matter your attention and respond to this inquiry as soon as possible.


Ronald G. Bernoski