Oct 31, 2007

Deep Freeze

In case you have wondered just how serious the hiring freeze is at Social Security, currently the agency lists no job openings whatsoever -- at an agency with something like 55,000 employees.

One Big Reason Why Field Office Closures Matter

I have gotten many comments wondering why I keep focusing upon the closure or threatened closure of a few small Social Security field offices. I do not know if Michael Astrue was trying to surreptitiously put pressure on Congress to increase his agency's budget by threatening to close Social Security field offices at the same time as he stuck closely to the Bush Administration party line of opposing any increase in the Social Security administrative budget, but that was clearly the effect. Here is an excerpt from the Carlsbad, NM Current Argus on two Senators' motivation for trying to increase Social Security's budget:

[Senator] Bingaman also added an amendment to the FY2008 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Bill calling for a $150 million increase in Social Security administration.

"So they can deal with the enormous backlog of cases that are pending there in people applying for disability benefits," Bingaman told the Senate. "The average wait is 523 days now. If a person filed today for a hearing in Social Security, they would expect to get that hearing in June of 2009. That is unacceptable. We need to do better."

Maria Najera, a spokeswoman for Bingaman's office, said the senator is concerned with communities like Carlsbad.

"We want to use that money to fix problems like in Carlsbad where they are having staff problems," Najera said. Carlsbad officials are presently fighting to keep the Social Security Administration office here open, and the office has been understaffed for several years.

Domenici supported Bingaman's amendment.

"For citizens who are on disability to have to wait two years on an appeal, as the Senator said, is unacceptable," Domenici told the Senate. "The money this is providing will take care of that."

Senate Finance Committee Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for November 6 at 2:30 on "GPO [Government Pension Offset] and WEP [Windfall Elimination Provision]: Policies Affecting Pensions from Work Not Covered be Social Security." Senator John Kerry is the Chairman of the Subcommittee.

OPM News Release On ALJ Register

From the Office of Personnel Management (OPM):

Washington, D.C. -- The U.S. Office of Personnel Management today established a new register of candidates from which federal benefits and regulatory agencies may draw in filling Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) vacancies.

The new register is the result of OPM's administration of the new ALJ examination, which began in May of this year. Historically, OPM has revised the ALJ examination from time to time to take advantage of new knowledge and capabilities in the examining field. Pursuant to that practice, and concurrent with revising the rules for the ALJ program, OPM conducted a revision of the ALJ examination to ensure the agency continues to measure the key competencies necessary to identify those applicants who would be successful as ALJs. By using USA Staffing, which allows applicants to apply on-line, OPM incorporated new examining technology into the examination process.

The federal government's approximately 1,400 ALJs serve as independent and impartial arbiters of fact in formal proceedings requiring a decision on the record. The Social Security Administration employs the largest number of ALJs, who are located across the country. Social Security Administration ALJs rule on individuals' benefits eligibility.

Individuals were placed on the new ALJ register following a multi-part assessment of their qualifications. The process began with each candidate supplying a written Accomplishment of Record; those who scored among the highest group of applicants advanced to a Written Demonstration and Structured Interview. Applicants who successfully completed all parts of the ALJ examination were issued a final numerical rating, which included Veterans' Preference, as applicable.

The previous ALJ register has been terminated. As required by law, individuals on that register were invited to participate in the new examination for inclusion on the new register.

Oct 30, 2007

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

The best current The Daily Show correspondent/contributor is...

Samantha Bee (5) 19%

Lewis Black (5) 19%

John Hodgman (4) 15%

Jason Jones (0) 0%

Aasif Mandvi (1) 4%

John Oliver (3) 11%

Rob Riggle (8) 30%

Larry Wilmore (1) 4%

And one write in vote for Demetri Martin.

I detect the possibility of some poll skewing. Rob Riggle?
I am glad to know that someone likes Demetri Martin's jokes. The nervous, uncomfortable laughter I hear from the studio audience on those rare occasions when Martin appears suggests that I am not the only one who is unable to appreciate his brand of humor.

Beta Test Of Electronic Submission Of Disability Claims By Third Parties

From an announcement by the Social Security Administration:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is pleased to announce that, in 2008, the agency will develop and implement a Beta test of a web service which will allow the submission of Initial-level claims, including Disability applications and Adult Disability Reports, from companies who assist the public with filing for benefits.

In 2008, SSA plans to develop the web service to initially collect data on the Internet Social Security Benefit Application and Disability Report. Note that when a third party submits an application, SSA must contact the claimant before it is considered valid. In the initial phase, organizations will be able to submit claims data in bulk and receive a confirmation of receipt of the submitted data. In subsequent phases, the systems interface will also include the ability for organizations to check on the status of previously submitted claims information.

SSA would like to extend an invitation to companies who assist individuals with their Social Security benefit applications, to participate in this web service claims data exchange Beta test. The Beta test is structured to use the "consolidator" model, where the participating company serves as a conduit to receive claims data from their client base and electronically transfer the data to SSA.

After the initial disability claims data collection effort in 2008 is evaluated, SSA will add functional capabilities in future years to collect data on electronic appeal forms and integrated claims applications. This multi-year initiative will provide a comprehensive systems interface for companies to send claims data (including Title II Retirement and Spouse application data, disability data, and medical evidence) to SSA on behalf of their clients. The envisioned long-range solution beyond 2008 is a web service that will facilitate the collection of data through the entire life-cycle of Internet applications, including Title II and Title XVI initial claims and appeals.

New ALJ Register Finally

According to numerous anonymous posts on the ALJ Discussion Forum and the ALJ Improvement Board, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has barely beaten the gun and produced a "register", or list of candidates from which the Social Security Administration (SSA) may select new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). OPM was under great pressure from Congress to produce a new register by the end of this month.

The problem now is that SSA cannot hire any ALJs until it gets an appropriation. Currently, the agency is working under a continuing funding resolution and has no money to hire new employees. It may be next year before an appropriation is signed by the President and some time after that before new ALJs are hired.

Status Of Social Security Appropriations

From the Capitol Insider put out by the Disability Policy Collaboration:
House and Senate conferees are expected to resolve the differences ($1.9 billion) in spending for the FY 2008 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill [which includes Social Security]. This bill could be the first (out of twelve) FY [fiscal year] 2008 appropriations bill sent to the White House for action by the President. The President has continued to send out strong veto threats on this bill since it spends more than the Administration budget request for these three departments. The bill might be sent as a single bill or combined with another appropriations bill (e.g. Veterans Administration and Military Construction) that the President wants to sign into law.

Effect Of Proposed Procedural Changes

The procedural changes proposed by the Social Security Administration yesterday will cause significantly fewer disability claims to be approved. That is not my assessment, but the Social Security Administration's assessment. The regulatory proposal contains an estimate of the expected effect upon the Social Security trust fund. The estimate is that the savings peak in 2012 with a $215 million reduction in benefit payments and that the total savings in benefits paid over ten years are $1.531 billion. That is a lot of claimants whose cases who would be denied as a result of this proposal, probably thousands each year.

E-Mail Delivery Of Social Security News

You can now receive postings to this blog by e-mail. To sign up for e-mail delivery send an e-mail to Social Security News or go to Topica and register.

I had earlier warned that there might be technical problems early on. The only technical problem that I have seen was that my personal spam filter initially misidentified the e-mailed items from Social Security News as spam and routed them to the spam bin, but that was a simple matter to correct. Any subscriber with that problem would have to correct it on their own end.

Robert Ball On Cutting Social Security

Even this many years after leaving office, Robert Ball is Mr. Social Security. From the Washington Post:

In the Oct. 19 editorial " Mr. Giuliani's No-Tax Pledge," The Post stated: "It's no more responsible for Republicans to rule out tax increases [to strengthen Social Security] than it is for Democrats to insist on no benefit cuts." The Post praised, as a "bipartisan blend," President Ronald Reagan's acceptance of a 1983 fix that included both.

I take exception. It's the essence of responsibility, in my view, to insist on no benefit cuts.

n 1983, I served on the National Commission on Social Security Reform (better known as the Greenspan Commission) and represented House Speaker Tip O'Neill in negotiations with the White House. What was right in 1983 -- a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax increases as part, roughly half, of the final agreement -- would be wrong today.

Social Security benefits are modest by any measure and are already being cut -- by raising the age of eligibility for full benefits and by deducting ever-rising Medicare premiums from benefit checks. So the benefits provided for under present law will replace, on average, a lower percentage of prior earnings than in the past. To cut them further would undermine all that Social Security has achieved -- exposing millions of vulnerable people, both elderly and disabled, to needless economic hardship.

Social Security has never been more important to more Americans than it is now. Private pension plans continue to dwindle -- currently covering only about 20 percent of private-sector employees -- and the national rate of savings hovers around zero. We just can't afford to cut Social Security benefits further. There's no way to make up for the loss.

Social Security benefits are vital to nearly all recipients. About a third of the elderly rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income; two-thirds count on it to supply at least half of their income. The program lifts 13 million elderly beneficiaries above poverty.

Without Social Security, 55 percent of the disabled -- and a million children -- would live in poverty. The program is particularly important to women and minorities. It provides 90 percent or more of the incomes of almost half of all unmarried women age 65 and older (including those who are widowed, are divorced or never married), and it is the sole source of income for 40 percent of elderly African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Social Security is the nation's most effective anti-poverty program. But it's much more than that. For every worker it provides a solid base on which to try to build an adequate level of retirement income. To weaken that foundation would be grossly irresponsible.

The good news is that there's no need to weaken it. We can shore up Social Security for the future without cutting benefits -- or raising contribution rates. The program can be brought into close actuarial balance over the long run with just three revenue-enhancing changes that are desirable in any case:

¿Gradually increase the maximum amount of earnings covered by Social Security so that the traditional goal -- covering 90 percent of all earnings -- is once again achieved. This change would affect only the 6 percent of earners who make more than the maximum covered amount (now just under $100,000), and implementing the change gradually over the next 20 to 30 years would have only a minimal impact on them.

* Allow Social Security to improve earnings by investing some of its assets -- up to 20 percent, say -- in equities, as just about all other public and private pension plans do.

* Provide a new source of income by retaining a residual estate tax and dedicating it to Social Security. By 2010, the estate tax will affect only individuals with estates worth more than $3.5 million ($7 million for couples). Dedicating the income from the tax to Social Security would considerably improve the progressivity of Social Security financing as well as increasing revenue.

Presidential candidates should be expected to discuss Social Security financing. But in 2008 they shouldn't be held to a 1983 formula. We're in a different time, with different needs -- and there are much better options available than benefit cuts.

Robert M. Ball was commissioner of Social Security in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

Study On Social Security Disability Decision-Making

From the abstract of "How Large Are The Classification Errors In The Social Security Disability Award Process" by Hugo Benitez-Silva, Moshe Buchinsky and John Rust (emphasis added):
This paper presents an "audit" of the multistage application and appeal process that the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine eligibility for disability benefits from the Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. ... We find that approximately 20\% of SSI/DI applicants who are ultimately awarded benefits are not disabled, and that 60\% of applicants who were denied benefits are disabled.
And from the body of the report:
... our results suggest ...——that the high reversal rates by the ALJs actually serves to reduce the classication error rates. We find that the low initial award rate at the DDS level produces a high rate of rejection errors at this stage. The DDS centers appear to behave according to a philosophy of “when in doubt, reject”. However, self-selection is operative: we find that applicants who appeal an initial rejection by the DDS are more likely to be truly disabled than the initial pools of applicants that the DDS evaluated. Therefore, the relatively high acceptance rate by the ALJs, combined with the self-selection in the decision to appeal an initial rejection, signicantly reduces the rate of rejection errors without increasing the rate of award errors.

Oct 29, 2007

What Does The Proposal Mean?

I have heard some skepticism that the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in the Federal Register today really means that henceforth remands and reversals will be for closed periods of disability only. I do not blame anyone for being skeptical since this seems so bizarre. Here is the exact language of the NPRM:
The administrative law judge's hearing decision in your case adjudicated the issues relevant to your case for the period of time up to and including the date the hearing decision was issued. If you or another party files an appeal of that hearing decision, or if the Review Board decides to review the decision on its own motion, the appeal and any subsequent proceedings will consider only that period of time ending with the date of the first hearing decision in your case. If the original hearing decision in your case is set aside, in whole or in part, by the Review Board or a Federal court and remanded to an administrative law judge for a new hearing or decision, the proceedings on remand will consider your case only with regard to the period ending on the date of the original administrative law judge decision in your case.
Any interpretation of this language other than to mean that remands are for closed periods only seems awfully strained to me.

Proposed New Rules Would Limit Remands To Closed Periods Only

My first reading was that the proposed rules concerning Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions and the Review Board, which is to replace the Appeals Council, say that if the Review Board or a Federal Court remands a case that the ALJ may only consider the time period up to the initial ALJ decision. I am surprised to say that my second reading is the same. This would mean that on any remand, an ALJ could only award a closed period of disability up to the date of the initial ALJ decision.

To say this comes out of left field is to put it mildly. I had not heard anything previously indicating that such an idea had ever been under consideration. I cannot imagine that this was under consideration for more than a short time before publication, since word would have leaked out if this proposal had been around long.

I do not see how this comports with the medical improvement standard, which applies to closed period cases. In remand cases, benefits would be cut off even though the evidence would show no improvement and might well show a decline in the claimant's condition. Indeed, the claimant might be dead and yet his or her benefits would be summarily cut off as of the date of the first ALJ decision. The claimant would have to show all over again that he or she was disabled.

If the Social Security Administration has the power to do this, the logical corollary would be that the Social Security Administration has the power to limit any determination of disability at any level of review to a closed period of disability, meaning that once any claimant was approved for Social Security disability benefits, he or she would have to immediately begin a new claim for disability benefits if he or she wished more benefits. Obviously, this would make a mockery of the medical improvement standard and, indeed, would make Social Security disability benefits a never ending merry-go-round that would eventually exhaust any claimant, no matter how disabled.

I do not see how the Social Security Administration may limit the effect of a United States District Court remand in this way. I would expect that many District Courts would issue specific orders to the contrary.

I am surprised that the Social Security Administration would undertake such a dramatic change in its procedures without any prior notice to Congress as best I can tell. I think this will not play well with the Senate Finance Committee and House Social Security Subcommittee.

On a more personal level, why was it that neither Michael Astrue nor Lisa De Soto mentioned anything about this when they spoke at the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) just a weeks ago? They mentioned other items from this proposal but did not mention this dramatic item. (And, by the way, there are other bad items in this that they did not mention. This is just the most dramatic. I will get to the others as I have time.) Why speak at all if you are going to do this?

What is not completely clear to me is whether the proposal would limit the effect of any reversal by the Review Board or a United States District Court to a closed period. I think this is what is intended, but I have so far been unable to find any language in the proposal that specifically covers this situation. It would be inconsistent if this is not what was intended. The lack of clear language on this point adds to the impression that this part of the regulatory proposal was drafted hurriedly.

I think what bothers me the most about this is that it creates a classic trap for the unwary. Experienced Social Security attorneys can mostly get around the problem created by this provision by having the claimant file a new claim in addition to an appeal. By the time any remand happens, there will be a new claim to be consolidated with the remand in order to get full justice for the claimant. It will only be the claimants represented by inexperienced attorneys or who are unrepresented who will be hurt by this.

If Congress can add a budget rider that limits the Social Security Administration's ability to close field offices, Congress can certainly add a budget rider prohibiting the expenditure of funds for preparing final regulations based upon this proposal. It may be necessary for Congress to take action to preserve the status quo until the Bush Administration leaves office.

Former Social Security Employee Sentenced To Prison

From CitizensVoice.com of Wilkes-Barre, PA:
Cynthia Sweppenheiser, whose age and address were unavailable, went before U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon and admitted to converting government property.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Graham said Sweppenheiser was a customer service technician at the Luzerne County branch of the Social Security Administration in 2006.

On several occasions, she tried to divert social security payments to her personal bank accounts. In September 2006, she deposited into her accounts about $6,000 meant for a social security recipient, according to Graham.

If she had been successful in all of her attempts, authorities estimate she could have taken more than $30,000, according to court records.

Sweppenheiser has since resigned from her position at the Social Security Administration, Graham said.

Although the maximum prison sentence is 10 years, she’ll likely face no more than a year in prison under sentencing guidelines, according to court paperwork. She also may have to pay back the money she admitted to stealing, under the plea agreement filed Thursday.

Oct 28, 2007

An Image From Social Security History

Disability Claim In The Future?

I have already posted about Mike McNulty's expected retirement from Congress. McNulty is the Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, making him a VIP in the Social Security world. Now comes word of the probable reason for his retirement from Congress at a relatively young age -- 60. He has a history of childhood polio and has become less mobile in recent years. Post-polio syndrome? Hint to McNulty: File your Social Security disability claim the same day you stop work. Post-polio syndrome claims are often denied. Appeals can take a very long time.

Oct 27, 2007

Proposed Regulations Concerning ALJ Hearings And Appeals

These official publication date on these proposed regulations is Monday, but you can read them now. These will prove to be controversial. Here are a few excerpts from Social Security's summary:
We also propose to replace both the Appeals Council and the Decision Review Board with a new adjudicative body to be named the ‘‘Review Board.’’ ...

To ensure individuals have adequate time in which to prepare for the hearing and meet the deadlines for submitting evidence, we propose requiring ALJs to notify an individual of the time and place of the hearing at least 75 days before the date of the hearing, unless the individual agrees to a shorter notice period. ...

[N]o later than 5 business days before the hearing, they [claimants] must submit all of the evidence to be relied upon in a case. ...

The 5-day time limit for submitting evidence would be subject to exceptions, depending on when the individual attempts to present the additional evidence. If the individual requests to submit evidence within the 5 business days immediately preceding the hearing, the ALJ would accept and consider the evidence if:
1. Our action misled the individual (for example, if the wrong notice was accidentally sent to you, or you were provided misinformation over the phone);
2. The individual had a physical, mental, educational, or linguistic limitation(s) that prevented him or her from submitting the evidence earlier; or
3. Some other unusual, unexpected, or unavoidable circumstance beyond the individual’s control prevented the individual from submitting the evidence earlier. If the individual requests to submit evidence after the hearing but before the hearing decision is issued, the ALJ would accept and consider the evidence if the individual makes one of the three showings above and there is a reasonable possibility that the evidence would affect the outcome of the case. ...

At any time before the hearing begins, an individual could submit, or the ALJ could request the individual to submit, a prehearing statement on the issues arising in the case. In this statement, the individual should briefly discuss the issues; describe the supporting facts; identify witnesses; explain the evidentiary and legal basis upon which he or she believes the ALJ should find in his or her favor; and provide any other comments, suggestions, or information that might assist in preparing for the hearing.

The proposed rule differs from the current rule in that it specifies that the ALJ may direct a witness, other than the individual who requested the hearing, to appear by video teleconference if: (1) Video teleconference is available, (2) use of the technology would be more efficient than conducting an examination of a witness in person, and (3) the ALJ determines that there is no other reason why a video hearing should not be conducted. ...

In addition, this proposed rulespecifies that the ALJ would retain discretion at the time of the hearing to hold the record open for the submission of additional evidence. If an individual were aware of any additional evidence that the individual was unable to obtain and submit before or at the hearing or if the individual were scheduled to undergo additional medical evaluation after the hearing for any impairment that forms the basis of the case, the individual should inform the ALJ of the circumstances during the hearing. If the individual were to request additional time to submit the evidence, the ALJ could exercise discretion and choose to keep the record open for a defined period of time to give the individual the opportunity to obtain and submit the additional evidence. ...

Our proposed rule would specify that the ALJ must explain, in clear and understandable language, the reasons for his or her decision. ...

[W]e propose to extend the additional evidence requirements we are proposing for the hearing level to the Review Board level, with a further restriction that additional evidence offered by the individual may be accepted by the Review Board only if there is a reasonable probability that it, alone or when considered with the other evidence of record, would change the outcome of the decision. ...

[W]e propose to remove ‘‘new and material evidence’’ as a basis for reopening any decision made at the hearing or Review Board levels on a claim for benefits based on disability. ...

[W]e propose in these rules that throughout any appeal to the Review Board, and during any subsequent administrative proceedings on remand from the Review Board or a Federal court, the proceedings will consider only the claimant’s eligibility for benefits on or before the date of that first ALJ hearing decision on the claim for benefits.
The estimate given in the proposal is that if these regulations are adopted that over $1.5 billion will be saved over the next ten years.

Bristol Field Office To Stay Open -- For Now

Will it be possible for Social Security to close any field offices? From a press release issued by Representative John Larson (CT-D):
The Social Security Administration (SSA) told the Connecticut Congressional Delegation today that it has decided to keep the Bristol office open for at least another three months while they reevaluate their decision to close it.

Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, as well as Congressman John B. Larson CT-01, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, have worked tirelessly with the community and Administration to keep this office open. Most recently, Lieberman and Dodd were successful in getting an amendment introduced and included in an appropriations bill [which has passed the Senate, but not the House of Representatives, much less been signed by the President] that would prohibit SSA from closing the Bristol office until they meet certain requirements.

Oct 26, 2007

Federal Register Alert

The Social Security Administration has posted the following notice of an item to appear in the Federal Register on Monday:


Organization and procedures:

Administrative Law Judge, Appeals Council, and Decision Review Board appeals levels; amendments, E7-20690

Sign Up For E-Mail Delivery Of Social Security News

You can now receive postings to this blog by e-mail. To sign up for e-mail delivery send an e-mail to Social Security News or go to Topica and register.

The GAO Report Seems So Inadequate

The report of the Government Accountability Office on withholding of fees for non-attorneys who represent Social Security claimants and in SSI cases was issued last week. The report was more than three years in the making. One would think that after this length of time that the report would be exhaustive. However, the report is only 55 pages long and does not report information on the following topics that I would have expected to be covered:
  • Success rates of attorneys versus non-attorney representatives. The report says that Social Security cannot give meaningful data on this. I do not understand since Social Security has reported such data in the past. It is not that I was expecting dramatic differences. Older data showed only minor differences, but this is an important point and should have been covered if at all possible.
  • Disciplinary actions against attorney versus non-attorney representatives. It should have been possible to contrast the gross number of such actions against attorneys as opposed to non-attorneys. I think there should have been a discussion of the problems that Social Security has in regulating the conduct of both attorneys and non-attorneys. The effect of this shortcoming is lessened for attorneys because of the regulation provided by state bar licensing agencies. There is no comparable agency for non-attorney representatives. If non-attorney representatives are to become a major part of Social Security representation, some better mechanism for regulating the conduct of non-attorney representatives is needed. There are significant issues regarding conflicts of interest since some non-attorney representatives have simultaneously worked as contractors for the Social Security Administration. At least one non-attorney group has offered "finder fees" to those referring clients to them, including physicians, a practice forbidden to attorneys. A large set of rules govern attorney conduct. These rules exist to serve to protect the public. The public may need similar protection when non-attorneys take on functions historically reserved for the legal profession.
  • The sufficiency of the non-attorney examination. The report discusses the adequacy of the experience requirement for non-attorney withholding, but does not discuss the adequacy of the examination itself. Somehow, an exam consisting of 50 multiple choice questions does not seem like quite enough to me. My understanding is that a fair number of those who have taken the exam thought the same thing.

Tracking Immigration Judges

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University is using Freedom of Information Act requests to track various government functions, including Immigration Judges decisions. You have to wonder how long it will be before they start tracking Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in the same way.

Republican Candidates And Social Security

USA Today reports that the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) held a forum on Social Security's future in Sioux City, Iowa yesterday and invited the Republican Presidential candidates. The only two Republican candidates who showed up were Mike Huckabee and John McCain. By contrast, a similar forum for Democratic candidates sponsored by AARP was attended by all the Democratic Presidential candidates other than Barack Obama.

The AARP Social Security forum for Republicans was notable for Mike Huckabee's proposal to offer retirees the option of a one-time Social Security payout in lieu of monthly benefits. Huckabee stated his opinion that the only reason President Bush's plan for Social Security failed was that people kept talking about "privatizing" Social Security when they should have been talking about "personalized accounts."

McNulty To Retire?

Mike McNulty is Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. The second ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee is Sander Levin of Michigan. From CBS News:
Democratic Rep. Michael McNulty (N.Y.) will step down at the end of this Congress, according to the Albany Times Union. The N.Y. Daily News is reporting the same thing, although McNulty is not scheduled to make any public statement on his future until Monday.

Oct 25, 2007

Receive Social Security News As E-Mail

You can now receive Social Security News as e-mail. To subscribe, send an e-mail to Social Security News or go to Topica to sign up.

I think I have resolved the technical problems. We will see over the next few days.

Fraud In Granite City

From the Edwardsville [IL] Journal:
A Granite City man has been sentenced to five months in prison for defrauding the Social Security Administration.

Steven Ray Stevenson, 37, of the 2700 block of Mockingbird Lane, was convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the Social Security Administration, concealment of information from the Social Security Administration, and making false statements to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ...

In October 2002, Stevenson returned to work for an extermination company and received "payment under the table," the report stated.

Stevenson worked as an exterminator from 2002 through 2006. In June 2004, Stevenson lied on an application for food stamps, stating that he was unable to work, the report stated.

The case was investigated by SSA, Office of the Inspector General, The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Wednesday Closing Open Forum

I have just posted news articles about Social Security field offices either closing early or being closed altogether on Wednesdays in three areas of the country, but I guess that this is happening or will happen in other areas.

Let me set this up as an open forum. Do you know of other areas in the country where this is happening? Has some written directive been issued to Social Security's Regional Offices about this? What do you think about it, both in terms of the effect upon Social Security employees and the effect upon those doing business with the Social Security Administration.

Just hit the comment button below to chime in. You can do this anonymously.

COLAs, But Not For Attorneys

The Federal Register notice about Social Security cost of living adjustments is out and there is no increase in the fee cap for representing Social Security claimants. It has been stuck at $5,300 for more than five years. If it had been adjusted for inflation, it would be about $6,100 by now. However, the cap on the user fee for having fees withheld by the Social Security Administration went up to $79. Somehow it does not seem fair that attorney fees go down because of inflation. Here is the entire list:
(1) A 2.3 percent cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), effective for December 2007;
(2) An increase in the Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly benefit amounts under title XVI of the Act for 2008 to $637 for an eligible individual, $956 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse, and $319 for an essential person;
(3) The student earned income exclusion to be $1,550 per month in 2008 but not more than $6,240 in all of 2008;
(4) The dollar fee limit for services performed as a representative payee to be $35 per month ($68 per month in the case of a beneficiary who is disabled and has an alcoholism or drug addiction condition that leaves him or her incapable of managing benefits) in 2008;
(5) The dollar limit on the administrative-cost assessment charged to attorneys representing claimants to be $79 in 2008;
(6) The national average wage index for 2006 to be $38,651.41;
(7) The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) contribution and benefit base to be $102,000 for remuneration paid in 2008 and self-employment income earned in taxable years beginning in 2008;
(8) The monthly exempt amounts under the Social Security retirement earnings test for taxable years ending in calendar year 2008 to be $1,130 and $3,010;
(9) The dollar amounts (``bend points'') used in the primary insurance amount benefit formula for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2008 to be $711 and $4,288;
(10) The dollar amounts (``bend points'') used in the formula for computing maximum family benefits for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2008 to be $909, $1,312, and $1,711;
(11) The amount of taxable earnings a person must have to be credited with a quarter of coverage in 2008 to be $1,050;
(12) The ``old-law'' contribution and benefit base to be $75,900 for 2008;
(13) The monthly amount deemed to constitute substantial gainful activity for statutorily blind individuals in 2008 to be $1,570, and the corresponding amount for non-blind disabled persons to be $940;
(14) The earnings threshold establishing a month as a part of a trial work period to be $670 for 2008; and
(15) Coverage thresholds for 2008 to be $1,600 for domestic workers and $1,400 for election workers.

Kansas Field Offices To Close On Wednesdays

From the Lawrence, Kansas Journal-World:

Faced with the worst backlog of disability claims in the country, Kansas congressional leaders are saying thanks, but no thanks to a Social Security Administration pilot program.

In an effort to boost efficiency, Social Security offices in five cities could cut back the hours they are open to the public during part of the work week. ...

Under the proposal, they would be closed on Wednesdays.

“It makes no sense to me, and it is just counterintuitive that when there is a study that shows that Kansas has the biggest backlog of claims pending that they would pick Kansas to do an experiment,” said U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan.

The reduction in office hours originally was slated to start in November. SSA agreed to push the launch to March after Congress asked for more time to come up with funding, SSA regional spokesman John Garlinger said. ...

But Garlinger said the proposal could be a way to do more work faster. With rising claims and added responsibilities, Garlinger said SSA has the heaviest workload ever with fewer employees than the agency had 30 years ago.

“People the most affected by this are very excited about the possibility to move work more efficiently and effectively,” Garlinger said.

Buffalo Offices To Close Early On Wednesdays

From The Buffalo News:

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, is criticizing the Social Security Administration for proposing a pilot project that, beginning in March, would close the agency’s Buffaloarea offices to the public three hours early every Wednesday afternoon.

The agency says the program is under consideration as a possible way for office workers to catch up on the mounting backlog of work — growing larger with baby boomers beginning to sign up for retirement benefits and call volume threatening to surpass staffing limitations.

“I understand concerns about having insufficient staff to adequately handle the agency’s current workload, but I assure you that limiting access to the public will not solve that problem and will only create further backlogs, confusion and dissatisfaction among the members of the public whom your agency serves,” Reynolds said in a letter to Michael J. Astrue, Social Security commissioner.

Reynolds said the plan could backfire and adversely affect senior citizens and disabled people.

New Hours For Social Security Field Office

Who cares what the hours are for a Social Security field office? If you are reading this, you should, because announcements of this sort are a sign of the acute understaffing problems at Social Security's field offices. See this article from The Examiner of Jackson County, Missouri:

Effective Nov. 5, Social Security offices in the metropolitan area will have the following new hours: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Offices are closed to the public on Wednesdays.

The Social Security Administration says it is testing changes in office hours "to determine whether doing so will allow employees to more efficiently handle the large volume of work that needs to be done after visitors leave the office, to ensure they receive timely and accurate service." The test is scheduled to last a minimum of six months.

Interesting OGC Opinion On Pardoned Prisoners

Here is an excerpt from an interesting opinion from Social Security's Office of General Counsel (OGC). At least I find it interesting.


You have asked whether a convicted felon who was pardoned by the Governor of Florida and released from confinement in prison is entitled to Social Security benefits for the time he was confined in prison.


We conclude the applicant is not entitled to re-payment of benefits suspended during his confinement in prison.

Social Security's First Disability Program

A little history about a little known program from a 1997 Social Security Bulletin article:
Disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act became part of the law in 1956, and Medicare came into being in 1965. We might assume, therefore, that the first cash disability payments made by the Social Security Administration (SSA) occurred sometime around 1956, and the first medical benefit claims would have been processed sometime around 1965.’ But in the early months of 1943, a small team from the Social Security Board (the organizational forerunner to SSA *), and the Public Health Service Administration, began adjudicating disability claims and medical benefit claims under the Civilian War Benefits (CWB) program.’ From March 1943 until the program ended in May 1945, SSA adjudicated about 1,000 disability claims and assisted in the processing of thousands of claims for medical-care reimbursement. The CWB program continues even into the present day. As of September 1996, there were four CWB beneficiaries-three receiving survivors benefits and one receiving partial disability benefits. The total benefit payout in fiscal year 1996 for this vanishing program was $14,773.4 The idea behind this unique wartime program was that there are inevitably civilian casualties of war, civilians who become injured or killed through some action related to the hostilities of war, and the intent was to pay disability, survivors, and medical-care benefits to such civilians.

Michael Astrue's Paygrade

From Wikipedia:

Level I of the Executive Schedule

Level I of the Executive Schedule is the pay grade for cabinet officials. In addition to the fifteen cabinet secretaries, seven positions are listed in the Level I, of which only four (Administrator of the EPA, Director of the OMB, Director of the National Drug Control Policy, and the U.S. Trade Representative) are in the cabinet. The remaining three are:

Office Incumbent
Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Ben Bernanke
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Michael Astrue
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell
And the rate of pay for Level 1 of the Executive Schedule is $175,000 per year, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Oct 24, 2007

Bristol Office Closing Amendment

From the Bristol Blog of the Bristol Press, although this amendment applies to any Social Security office, not just the Bristol, CT office:
Senators Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and Chris Dodd (D-CT) took a significant step forward in the fight to prevent the Social Security Administration (SSA) from closing its field office in Bristol. The Senate unanimously passed an amendment introduced by both Senators to the appropriations bill that funds the Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services (HHS) that would not allow SSA to close the Bristol office until they meet certain requirements (outlined below). The bill now must go to President Bush. ...

The amendment requires SSA to provide the following to Congress before closing the Bristol field office:

• A thorough analysis of the criteria used for selecting field offices for closure and how the SSA analyzes and considers factors relating to transportation and communication burdens faced by seniors and the disabled as a result of field office closures;

• A cost-benefit analysis of closing the office that takes the following into account:
  • The savings anticipated by the closure;
  • The burdens placed on seniors and the disabled;
  • Any costs associated with replacing the services lost by closing the office.

Federal Register Alert

Social Security has sent over the following item to go in the Federal Register tomorrow:

Social security benefits and supplemental security income:

Cost-of-living increase, and other determinations, E7-21070

This may be a boring technical notice about non-discretionary matters, but it could contain something more interesting. I do not want to get people excited, but it could also contain an increase in the attorney fee cap.

Other Appropriations Amendments Affecting Social Security

Here is a list other amendments offered yesterday on the Senate floor to the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill affecting Social Security Administration and their fate:
Harkin (for Lieberman/Dodd) Amendment No. 3418 (to Amendment No. 3325), to prohibit the use of funds to close a field office of the Social Security Administration before submission of a report justifying the closure. Passed by unanimous consent

Ensign amendment No. 3342 (to amendment No. 3325), to prohibit the use of funds to administer Social Security benefit payments under a totalization agreement with Mexico. Passed 91-3

Ensign amendment No. 3352 (to amendment No. 3325), to prohibit the use of funds to process claims based on illegal work for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits. Passed 92-3

Oct 23, 2007

Senate Adds $150 Million For SSA

The Senate voted today for $150 million more in funding for the Social Security Administration, on top of the $125 million more than the President's budget that had already been reported out of committee. This means a total of $275 million more than the President's budget. This may be enough to not only prevent the hiring freeze, but to enable some additional hiring -- if it becomes final. See below for more information on what happened.

Remember that after the bill is finally passed by the Senate, it will go to a conference committee to work out differences with the bill passed by the House of Representatives. The House voted only for $100 million over the President's recommended budget. Even after the bill is finally passed by the Congress, the President has promised to veto it. Republicans in the House of Representatives have vowed to sustain the President's veto. The dispute over this appropriations bill could go on for several months and the ultimate outcome for Social Security and many other agencies is quite uncertain.

Fiscal 2008 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations - Social Security Administration

Oct. 23, 2007

Senate Roll Call Vote 389

HR 3043

Bingaman, D-N.M., amendment no. 3440 to the Harkin, D-Iowa, substitute amendment no. 3325. The Bingaman amendment would increase by $150 million the amount appropriated for the Social Security Administration's administrative expenses account, offset by a reduction from the Medicare Physician Assistant and Quality Initiative Fund. The substitute would appropriate $605.5 billion in fiscal 2008, including $149.9 billion in discretionary spending, for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education and for related agencies. It would provide $63 billion for the Education Department, $14.9 billion for the Labor Department and $479.1 billion for HHS.

Adopted by a vote of 88-6:




44-0 (Northern Democrats 39-0, Southern Democrats 5-0)



Vote Key

YEAS (88)


Alexander, L. (TN)

Dole (NC)

McConnell (KY)

Barrasso (WY)

Domenici (NM)

Murkowski (AK)

Bennett (UT)

Ensign (NV)

Roberts (KS)

Bond (MO)

Enzi (WY)

Sessions, J. (AL)

Brownback (KS)

Graham (SC)

Shelby (AL)

Bunning (KY)

Grassley (IA)

Smith, G. (OR)

Chambliss (GA)

Hagel (NE)

Snowe (ME)

Cochran (MS)

Hatch (UT)

Specter (PA)

Coleman (MN)

Hutchison (TX)

Stevens (AK)

Collins (ME)

Isakson (GA)

Sununu (NH)

Corker (TN)

Kyl (AZ)

Thune (SD)

Cornyn (TX)

Lott (MS)

Vitter (LA)

Craig (ID)

Lugar (IN)

Voinovich (OH)

Crapo (ID)

Martinez (FL)

Warner (VA)


Akaka (HI)

Feinstein (CA)

Murray (WA)

Baucus, M. (MT)

Harkin (IA)

Nelson, Ben (NE)

Bayh (IN)

Inouye (HI)

Nelson, Bill (FL)

Bingaman (NM)

Johnson, Tim (SD)

Pryor (AR)

Boxer (CA)

Kerry (MA)

Reed, J. (RI)

Brown, S. (OH)

Klobuchar (MN)

Reid, H. (NV)

Byrd (WV)

Kohl (WI)

Rockefeller (WV)

Cantwell (WA)

Landrieu (LA)

Salazar, K. (CO)

Cardin (MD)

Lautenberg (NJ)

Schumer (NY)

Carper (DE)

Leahy (VT)

Stabenow (MI)

Casey (PA)

Levin, C. (MI)

Tester (MT)

Conrad (ND)

Lincoln (AR)

Webb (VA)

Dorgan (ND)

McCaskill (MO)

Whitehouse (RI)

Durbin (IL)

Menendez (NJ)

Wyden (OR)

Feingold (WI)

Mikulski (MD)


Lieberman (CT)

Sanders (VT)

NAYS (6)


Allard (CO)

Coburn (OK)

Gregg (NH)

Burr (NC)

DeMint (SC)

Inhofe (OK)





McCain (AZ) ?


Biden (DE) ?

Dodd (CT) ?

Obama (IL) ?

Clinton (NY) ?

Kennedy, E. (MA) ?


Social Security Press Release

A press release just issued by Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the Social Security Administration published new rules that update its medical listings for people filing for disability benefits based on digestive disorders, including diseases of the liver, stomach and colon. Social Security’s medical listings are one of the key elements used in determining whether or not someone qualifies for disability benefits. The new rules are a key step in the Commissioner’s initiative to update and improve the medical listings used to evaluate people with disabilities. For the first time, the agency will use a composite of quantitative measures to ensure that people with severe liver disease receive benefits far more quickly than in the past.

“Social Security’s disability examiners are working with digestive listings that do not accurately reflect advances in the diagnosis and treatment of digestive disorders,” Commissioner Astrue said. “As a result many cases that should be resolved quickly are not being determined appropriately. The changes to our digestive listings are among the many steps we are taking in our effort to bring about accurate allowances for people who apply for Social Security disability.”

The changes to the digestive listings reflect state of the art advances in medical knowledge, treatment, and methods of evaluating digestive disorders and Social Security’s own program experience. In addition, Social Security has developed a new disability calculator tool that will be used for the evaluation of chronic liver disease in adults and children. This tool is the first of its kind used by the agency to help evaluate whether or not someone qualifies for disability.

“By improving our listings and predictors for digestive disorders, we can more appropriately identify those individuals who should qualify for disability benefits,” Commissioner Astrue noted. “Making these types of updates is one of the ways we can improve our service to the American people.”

While the agency is expanding its listings to include more digestive impairments, it is also removing some prior listings that no longer appropriately identify individuals who are disabled -- for example, the listing for peptic ulcer disease, which is rarely disabling. To learn more about the effects of various digestive disorders, please visit www.health.nih.gov/search.asp/5. To learn more about Social Security’s disability program visit www.socialsecurity.gov/disability.

The press release does not mention the following projected cost savings per fiscal year (FY) shown in the Federal Register notice on the new listings:

FY 2008 $10 million

FY 2009 $19 million

FY 2010 $27 million

FY 2011 $35 million

FY 2012 $42 million

Total for next five years $132 million

Make no mistake about it, this is a dramatic tightening of the rules and will result in far more claims being denied, particularly claimants suffering from liver disease.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

Do you think that withholding of fees for non-attorney representatives of Social Security claimants is a good thing for claimants?

Yes (35) 57%
No (20) 33%
Don't Know/No opinion (6) 10%

Total Votes: 61

How Do You Square This?

Quotes from Michael Astrue's September 13, 2007 letter to Senator Tom Harkin, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that deals with Social Security's budget:
This is America and it simply is not acceptable for Americans to wait years for a final decision on a claim. ...

In FY [fiscal year] 2009, we fully expect that the number of disability hearings pending will decrease. SSA's most optimistic projections are that the number of hearings pending will be reduced dramatically by FY 2013 under my plan ...

Hiring additional ALJs is an essential element in a successful plan for reducing the backlog. ...

What SSA will accomplish in FY 2008 is to build a firm foundation with automation improvements, ALJ hiring, and other initiatives described here, so that dramatic improvements will be achieved in FY 2009 -- a real turning of the tide. ...
However, Nancy Shor, executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) reports that while Social Security hopes to bring in 150 new ALJs in FY 2008, the agency only plans to bring in 125 new ALJs in FY 2009. This total of 275 new ALJs in two years is little more than enough to cover predictable attrition in Social Security's ALJ corps between now and September 30, 2009. It is unlikely to be enough to get Social Security up to 1,250 ALJs, the number that Michael Astrue has said the agency needs -- and I think that all who are familiar with the situation would agree that it will take far more than 1,250 ALJs to accomplish "a real turning of the tide."

There is an inconsistency between the soaring words in Astrue's letter and the sad reality that he is unwilling to ask for a high enough budget to achieve his goals. His rosy scenario is based upon absurdly optimistic assumptions about productivity gains. Astrue's predecessor may have been foolish or self-deluded enough that she really believed that her plan would achieve miracles. No one believes that Michael Astrue is foolish or self-deluded. I cannot square his words and his actions.