Feb 29, 2008

Written Statements At House Appropriations Hearing

The House Appropriations Committee has not posted the written statements made at yesterday's hearing. I have obtained those statements and have posted them as best I reasonably can on the separate Social Security Perspectives Blog. However, the statements of Ron Bernoski on behalf of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and Patrick O'Carroll, Social Security's Inspector General were only available to me in a PDF format that would not allow easy text extraction, so I have not posted them.

Here are the statements that I was able to post:

A Remembrance Of The Extraordinary Bob Ball

From Gene Sperling:
During the battle over President George W. Bush's plan to partly privatize Social Security, many of us engaged in the debate received long, lucid memos from a former Social Security commissioner. I used to receive similar notes from this particular person years before, when I was in the Clinton White House.

What was extraordinary was that the individual pounding out and faxing these memos was at the time 91 years old. It just didn't seem like a big deal to most of the Washington policy community, because everyone had just come to expect that from Bob Ball, who died four weeks ago at age 93. ...

Nostalgia for Ball's accomplishments -- or even for his energy level -- doesn't do justice to his future-oriented spirit. Even in his 80s and early 90s, Ball was putting forward plans that were designed to both ensure Social Security's long-term solvency and its guaranteed benefit.

The whole article is worth reading.

Feb 28, 2008

More On Appropriations Hearing

From Congressional Quarterly (subscription required):
Astrue recommended lawmakers give him more authority to discipline judges and hold them accountable for productivity. Astrue said some “bad apples” among the judges “tend to be corrosive in the workplace.”

...under questioning from the subcommittee’s chairman, David W. Obey, D-Wis., Astrue said the agency will not be able to process a disability claim faster than nine months, on average, before 2013.

...Obey noted that Astrue had independently requested $76 million more from Congress in fiscal 2009 than President Bush requested for the agency. Astrue said the difference was due in part to differences in cost estimates by SSA and the Office of Management and Budget, and the true difference was more like $20 million, which he called “marginal.”

Astrue drew some additional heat while discussing the administrative law judges. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., charged that the “150 or so” new judges Astrue plans to hire this year would mostly just replace retired judges.

“You’re really not increasing the number of judges at all, are you?”

“Actually, we are ...” Astrue responded, then began to detail the hiring plan. McCollum cut him off.

“Do you have enough judges?” she said.

“We don’t,” he said. “We think the minimum we need on an ongoing basis — and this might be a little low — is 1,250.”

He expects to have 1,175 by the end of the year.

First Reports On Appropriations Hearing

Here is part of a report on the February 28 House Appropriations Committee from the Associated Press:
An infusion of cash from Congress and President Bush will help the Social Security Administration cut into the months long backlog for disability benefits for thousands of Americans, officials said Thursday.

However, advocates said a one-time budget increase won't be enough to solve the problem, and they urged Congress to give the agency another cash infusion to battle the long waits faced by those seeking disability benefits. ...

...advocates said the 2009 increase still isn't enough, considering the influx of baby boomer applications that Social Security is about to confront. Astrue said they expect retirement claims to rise by 40 percent and initial disability claims will go by nearly 10 percent. ...

"In order for SSA to meet its responsibilities, we estimate that the agency needs a minimum of $11 billion," said Matt Ford, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. ...

Ronald G. Bernoski, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the judges won't be able to do anything if they don't have support staff, he said. "To hire 175 new judges without hiring the necessary staff is like buying 175 new trucks but only enough fuel to operate 20 of those trucks," Bernoski said.

The Washington Post's Stephen Barr indicates that Astrue used the hearing to continue his attacks upon Administrative Law Judges:

Astrue said most ALJs do a good job, but he made it clear he has no power to discipline bad apples in their ranks. He said he is frustrated by his inability to deal with "gross misconduct" by judges, especially those accused of fraud, domestic violence and soliciting prostitution.

Disciplinary actions brought against ALJs end up before the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears federal employee appeals, resulting in months of litigation and, in Astrue's view, a "paid vacation" for the accused. "I'm offended by that," he said.

"Prototype" and "Single Decisionmaker" Experiments To Be Reinstated?

I have heard a credible report that New Hampshire will be reinstated as a "prototype" state in the disability redesign tests and that Maine and Vermont will be reinstated as "single decisionmaker" states. This is to return these states to the status they were in before the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan that former Commissioner Barnhart tried to implement and that current Commissioner Astrue ended.

This does raise the issue of whether the Social Security Administration should continue the "prototype" and "single decisionmaker" experiments. It is about time to fish or cut bait.

No Webcast On House Appropriations Committee Hearing

The House Appropriations Committee website indicates that many of its hearings are available by webcast, but not all. Apparently, there is no webcast of today's hearing on Social Security's appropriation.

New Hearing On Compassionate Allowances

The Office of the Federal Register may have labeled it yesterday as a "proposed rule," but what came out today in the Federal Register is a notice of a new public hearing on "Compassionate Allowances," to be held on April 7 in Boston. Unlike last time, the public will be allowed to attend this hearing but only invited witnesses will be allowed to speak. There will be a live webcast.

Jail Time For Threat

The Boston Globe reports that a Rutland, VT man has been sentenced for telling a therapist that he was going to blow up a Social Security office.

Feb 27, 2008

$220 Million Contract For Paragon

From the Atlanta Business Chronicle:

Tri-S Security Corp. unit Paragon Systems has won a 10-year, $220 million contract from the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Atlanta-based Tri-S (NASDAQ: TRIS) said the contract period starts April 1 and it will provide about 500 guards, supervisors and administrators to the Social Security Administration's national headquarters and its national computer center. Both are in Woodlawn, Md.

Federal Register Item Coming

This is from the Documents on Public Inspection that are to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. The full text is not available online; just this summary.



Compassionate Allowances for Cancers; Office of the Commissioner, Hearing, E8-03720 [SSA 2007-0053]

I do not know what the part about "Office of the Commissioner, Hearing" means.

Defendants Cry Entrapment

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Federal and state prosecutors rounded up 83 people last month and charged them with ripping off the Social Security Administration by falsely claiming benefit checks were lost, getting a replacement, then cashing both.

But defendants are crying foul, saying Social Security knew fully well they had cashed both checks, but for years treated it as a debt issue rather than a crime, according to court filings. The agency required recipients to pay it back, but took no other action until they were charged, the filings say.

In a rarely used legal argument called entrapment by estoppel, defense attorneys contend the government encouraged people to break the law and then charged them.

IRS To Send Rebate Info To Social Security Recipients

Social Security benefits recipients will receive rebates from the federal government this year only if they file tax returns. Normally, most Social Security benefits recipients do not have to file tax returns.

Commerce Clearing House is reporting that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be sending notices to recipients of Social Security benefits in late March warning of the need to file a tax return in order to receive the rebate check.

Feb 26, 2008

Social Security Offering 144 ALJ Jobs

A news release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the agency has begun making offers to 144 of the 175 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) it will hire this fiscal year. Due to litigation and budget cuts, the agency has about ten percent fewer ALJs than it did a decade ago. During that same time, the number of cases waiting for a hearing decision has more than doubled.

“The hiring of these new ALJs is a critical step in our plan to reduce the backlog of disability cases,” Commissioner Astrue said. “They represent one of the largest investments in ALJs this agency has ever made. When these ALJs are fully-trained, and combined with the other steps we are taking, we will be able for the first time in this decade to reduce the number of cases waiting for a disability hearing. I can hardly wait for them to start.”

The new ALJs will be brought on board in phases with the first hires reporting for duty in April, when they will begin an intensive orientation and training program. While initially handling a reduced docket, newly hired ALJs should be scheduling a full docket of cases by the end of the year.

“I have been very impressed with the caliber of the candidates eager to take on the challenging role of a Social Security ALJ,” Commissioner Astrue noted. “These new ALJs are top-notch legally and comfortable working in an electronic environment, which is of utmost importance as we strive to increase the efficiency and productivity of our ALJ corps.”

Hiring of additional ALJs is only one component of the plan the agency has put in place to reduce the backlog of disability cases. The agency also continues to make progress in many other areas including opening the National Hearing Center, completing the nationwide roll-out of the Quick Disability Determination process, implementing compassionate allowances and eliminating aged cases. More information about Social Security’s plan is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/disability under the heading What’s New.

“In May of last year, I presented Congress with a detailed plan to reduce the backlog of disability cases,” Commissioner Astrue said. “I am pleased to report that, with the strong support of the President and Members of Congress from both parties, we have been able to move forward with that plan. I urge Congress to continue its support with timely action on the President’s fiscal year 2009 budget request for Social Security. A delay in fully funding the President’s request will undermine the many positive steps we have taken this year.”

Backlogs In Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana

From the Kentucky Post:

Thousands of people in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are waiting right now for benefits they earned, but can't get. We're talking about Social Security disability benefits, something you pay for in taxes deducted from every paycheck.

The I-Team's Hagit Limor has been looking into a huge backlog that's costing some people their lifelong savings. She found delays of up to four years from the time people apply. They can't work due to their disabilities but are too young for social security, so they need disability pay.

Hagit first reported last year that Uncle Sam hasn't hired enough judges to hear these cases. Since our report, the government's taken some action, but Tri-Staters desperate for help tell us, it's not nearly enough. ...

"It's just a terrible, terrible situation. There has to be fundamental reform if it's going to be fixed," says Jim Allsup. He used to work for Social Security. Then he started a company that handles claims like Stegeman's for a fee. ...

Allsup’s company is not the only one that’s sprouted up to handle these cases. Some lawyers are becoming specialists too. It's like hiring a CPA to do your taxes. People are giving up a part of what they earned so someone else handles the bureaucracy, hopefully faster.

Effects Of No Match

A few months ago only a restraining order from a federal court prevented Social Security from sending out a huge number of no-match letters notifying employers that they had workers whose names and Social Security numbers did not match and threatening action if these situations were not resolved. It seems likely that the no-match letters will eventually go out.

Here is a report from CBS2 in Chicago on what happened in their area recently:
A workers right group says about 70 workers walked off their jobs at a Batavia plant in solidarity with 10 others who were fired after being notified of problems with their Social Security numbers.

Tim Bell of Chicago Workers Collaborative says the workers, all Hispanic, were fired from the Proex Incorporated packaging plant after refusing to verify their employment eligibility.

Bell says company officials told workers they received notices from the Social Security Administration informing them of discrepancies in the workers' stated identity information. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the administration from sending such letters to crack down on illegal workers.
Think about the consequences of multiplying what happened in Batavia by many thousands, both for the Social Security Administration and the country.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

What is your highest educational attainment?

Less than high school (2) 2%
High School (5) 5%
Some college (11) 11%
Bachelor's degree (21) 21%
Graduate or professional degree (60) 61%

Total Votes: 99

Congressional Opposition Blocks Reducation In Field Office Hours In Kansas

From a press release posted by Congresswoman Nancy Boyda of Kansas:
Congressman Dennis Moore (Kansas Third District) and Congresswoman Nancy Boyda (Kansas Second District) praised the decision this week by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to suspend its plans to institute a pilot program that would limit public office hours in Kansas City’s SSA field offices.

In October 2007, the SSA announced their proposed pilot program to close public office hours of selected field offices, including those in Kansas. According to SSA, this effort was created to help address their current backlog of benefits and disability cases by improving the processing of claims and inquiries. ...

In response to the proposed pilot project, Rep. Moore and Rep. Boyda authored an October 2007 letter to SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue, expressing their deep reservations about the pilot program and asking that the SSA not only delay the start of the pilot program, but that the SSA field offices in Kansas be removed from the pilot program completely. Rep. Moore and Rep. Boyda reiterated their strong reservations in a November 7, 2007, meeting they organized with Commissioner Astrue and the Kansas congressional delegation. ...

The pilot project was originally scheduled to begin on November 1, 2007, but was temporarily postponed until March 2008. Rep. Moore and Rep. Boyda received a letter from Commissioner Astrue dated February 5, 2008, announcing the indefinite postponement.
Michael Astrue is likely to get some questions on the subject of field office service when he testifies before the House Appropriations Committee. Closing field offices or reducing field office hours is generating great opposition in Congress.

Ticket To Work Panel Backs Off

I have not been paying much attention to the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel (which I will refer to as the Panel), because I regard it as inconsequential. Others have been paying attention, however. The minutes of the October 31, 2007 panel meeting show that Berthy de la Rosa-Aponte, the Panel Chairperson, was at pains to defend the Panel from outside criticism.

The minutes say that she referred to a letter from some Congressmen stating that the Panel had gone beyond its charge. Apparently, the letter said that the Panel had been listening too much to a "self-selected group of beneficiaries who have an interest in work, who have the capacity to participate in [the Panel's] discussions, and [that] the folks [the Panel was] hearing from aren’t really representative of the typical Social Security beneficiary."

The Chairperson also told the Panel that she had met with Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and that he had told her that the Panel's draft final report went beyond the Panel’s charge.

Marty Ford, Chairperson for the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) spoke at the same meeting and warned that the Panel's recommendations should "not threaten necessary income supports for individuals with disabilities." She told the Panel that the CCD did not "support radical changes in the existing Social Security and SSI disability programs. " She urged the Panel to "first and foremost do no harm.'" She asked the Panel not to recommend changes in Social Security's definition of disability or that participation in work activities be made mandatory or that disability benefits be subject to time limits.

Thus far, I have been unable to find a copy of what the Panel was considering. However, in the end, it looks like the Panel listened to its critics. The final report urged only that:
Congress and the Administration should take action to evaluate the impact of modernizing the Social Security definition of disability by defining disability in a manner that acknowledges the interaction between the person’s impairment and the environment and does not require the individual to prove their inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.
There was no recommendation of time limited benefits or mandatory work activity or anything else radical.

Feb 25, 2008

Appropriations Hearing On February 28

Even if the House Social Security Subcommittee is not ready to bring the Commissioner of Social Security in for a hearing, the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services of the House Appropriations Committee is -- and David Obey, the Chairman of the full Committee is Chairman of this Subcommittee. From the Subcommittee's website:

The Disability Backlog at the Social Security Administration

February 28, 2007 10:00 AM, 2358-C Rayburn

Michael Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration

Patrick O'Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General

Richard E. Warsinskey, Immediate Past President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations

Marty Ford, Co-Chair, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force

Ronald G. Bernoski, President, Association of Administrative Law Judges
This should be available by webcast.

Federal Register Items Coming

All federal agencies, including independent agencies such as the Social Security Administration, must obtain approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, before publishing new regulations in the Federal Register. OMB has just cleared the following items, which should be appearing in the Federal Register in the near future (and note that OMB forced change in one of them, although I do not know what the change was):

Agency: SSA
RIN: 0960-AG67
TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating HIV Infection (3466A)
COMPLETED: 01/31/2008 COMPLETED ACTION: Consistent without Change

TITLE: Amendment to the Attorney Advisor Program (3398I)
** COMPLETED: 02/22/2008 COMPLETED ACTION: Consistent without Change

TITLE: Compassionate Allowances (3427P)
COMPLETED: 02/21/2008 COMPLETED ACTION: Consistent with Change

About Time For A Hearing

The last time that Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, appeared at a hearing before the House Social Security Subcommittee was May 1, 2007, almost ten months ago.

I think we are overdue for another hearing.

Astrue: "Our Field Office Structure Is Under Siege"

From a Federal Times article about backlogs and staffing problems at federal agencies (and note the use of "Democrat" rather than "Democratic", which Democratic Senators and Representatives would find annoying, as Astrue well knows, but apparently forgot while doing this interview, or maybe he just does not care):
Years of tight budgets have also hurt agencies. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue described his agency as a victim of its own “reputation for competence”: Congress appropriated less than the president’s budget request for 12 of the last 14 years.

That has forced the agency to reduce its staff of administrative law judges, who adjudicate claims for disability benefits. The agency is down from 1,200 such judges to almost 1,000, almost as low as during the mid-’90s.

“It wasn’t a Republican thing or a Democrat thing. … It was easy to bleed us dry when they were fixing a problem someplace else,” Astrue said. “And our field office structure is under siege. We’ve maintained the same number of field offices, but the population [needing our services] has gone up, and Congress adds a significant new workload every year.”

Among the recent new additions to the agency’s workload: processing claims under Medicare’s Part B insurance program and Part D drug plan, and verifying immigrants’ status through Social Security numbers.

Feb 24, 2008

Quick Disability Determination

After television station KATU in Portland, OR ran a story on two local individuals who were suffering through the long wait for a hearing on their Social Security disability claims, both were suddenly approved. See the story.

It's Bad In Kansas And Getting Worse

From the Lawrence, Kansas Journal-World & News:

Thursday’s sleet and snow didn’t stop Glenda Endriss from having her day in court.

She had waited too long — more than two years — to stay at home.

Endriss is among the thousands of Kansans whose Social Security disability case has taken years — not months — to decide. Unable to work and without an income, the wait for the Social Security Administration to rule on a disability case can leave applicants struggling. ...

In August, Kansas was named the worst state in the country for its backlog of disability cases. Since then, the time it takes to get a hearing by a Social Security administrative law judge has increased.

As of January, the average wait for a hearing in Kansas City was 686 days — about two months shy of two years. It is a month and half longer than what the wait was in August.

For Wichita, it takes 529 days — almost a year and half — and more than a month longer than what the wait was in August.

Feb 23, 2008

Ohio Congressman On Disability Backlogs

Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, has held a news conference and issued a press release on the Social Security Administration's disability backlog problems.

Wilson is not a member of any committee having jurisdiction over the Social Security Administration.

It will be interesting to see whether other Congressman choose to publicize their stand on this issue as we head to the election.

CNN Doing Social Security Disability Story

Linda Fullerton reports on the Social Security Disability Coalition board that CNN is doing a story on Social Security disability and is seeking to talk with people who have suffered great financial distress while waiting for Social Security or to the survivors of those who died while waiting on Social Security.

Feb 22, 2008

Astrue Misses Missoula Event

Michael Astrue, Social Security's Commissioner, got stuck in Arkansas and did not make the public meeting scheduled in Missoula, MO with Senator Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Nancy Berryhill, Social Security's Denver Regional Commissioner substituted for him.

The Missoulian reports that Charles Drinhill, the father of a Social Security disability claimant, and the son's attorney, Susan Gobbs, showed up to express their frustration with delays in adjudicating Social Security disability claims. In response Berryhill talked of her pride in Social Security's internet presence. That did not satisfy Drinhill or Gibbs.

Feb 21, 2008

Social Security Working With Wal-Mart

The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas reports that the Social Security Administration is working with Wal-Mart to get more people signed up for Part D of Medicare, the prescription drug benefit.

Congresswoman Criticizes "Culture Of Denial"

From the Tuscon Citizen:
After Randall Burger's lifelong epilepsy became uncontrollable, the Oro Valley man applied for Social Security disability payments.

His claim was denied.

The federal agency turns down 64 percent of initial claims for disability, said U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Her office stepped in to help Burger and his application was approved on appeal.
Giffords, in Tucson Tuesday to talk about the issue, said she is concerned about the "bureaucratic red tape" and what appears to be a "culture of denial" in the Social Security Administration.

Dead Man Walking

I hate to post another story about a man mistakenly labeled as dead by the Social Security Administration, but wow! From the Times-Tribune of Pennsylvania:

The 64-year-old Green Ridge resident said a Social Security Administration worker admitted the agency mixed up a digit in his Social Security number and confused him with a dead man somewhere in California.

“I just want this resolved,” Mr. Bethel said from his Olyphant Avenue home. “I’m not speaking from the grave. At least, I don’t think I am.”

Mr. Bethel said his ordeal began in September 2005, when he received a letter from the Social Security Administration’s Scranton office notifying him he would soon begin receiving monthly payments on or about the 21st of each month.

The letter, which was followed by a timely benefits payment, was the beginning of “the end” for Mr. Bethel and his wife, Alma.

The following month, when his benefits check failed to appear in his checking account, Mr. Bethel questioned a teller who suggested he call Social Security.

“When I got home, I called them, and they asked me my name, birth date and mother’s maiden name, and I said I simply wanted to know what happened to my money,” he said.

The answer was downright chilling.

“Our records show that you’re dead,” Mr. Bethel said he was told. ...

“I was told to bring proof to the Social Security Administration, which is located at the Oppenheim building downtown. It was a weird thing, because all of their files were being moved and the office was being relocated to another floor. I was sitting at this table, and a worker comes back and tells me again that I’m dead.”

After the worker shared laughs with colleagues, joking that Mr. Bethel was a “dead man walking,” he was escorted to his bank, where things appeared to have been cleared up.

Mr. Bethel’s resurrection turned out to be short-lived.

Later, he was told to go to the Social Security Administration’s Wilkes-Barre office so he could resume receiving his benefits payments, which had ceased because of his “death.”

“The workers then informed the bank to disregard any notice of my being dead,” he said. However, after the bank received a subsequent deposit to Mr. Bethel’s account, the notice to disregard was, well, disregarded. Social Security Administration officials declined comment.

Mrs. Bethel received a letter from PennStar Bank expressing condolences over her husband’s “death” and informing her she was required to reimburse $841 in Social Security payments. ...

Mr. Bethel received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service dated April 27, 2007.

“According to the information provided to the IRS by the Social Security Administration, the primary Social Security number entered on your tax return is that of a deceased individual,” the letter stated. ...

Mr. Bethel followed that letter with one of his own, again including proof he is alive. On May 29, 2007, in an attempt to ensure the matter would be resolved, Mrs. Bethel called the IRS and was told by an agent to wait for a written response that would be mailed soon.

No response from the IRS ever came. Three weeks ago, however, the Bethels received a letter from the Social Security Administration’s Wilkes-Barre office.

“We are writing to you about earnings reported in your name ... because we’re not sure whether the earnings belong to you or someone else,” the letter read. ...

The Bethels recently filled out what they called a “mountain” of paperwork to refinance their home only to be told by the bank that Mr. Bethel is deceased and that it is the bank’s policy not to lend money to a dead person.

“I gave up on the refinancing,” he said. “I wasn’t going through that again.”

Last week, the Bethels spoke with Social Security officials and are optimistic they are finally close to resolving what has been a three-year mission to prove he’s alive.

Social Security Audits A Claimant

From the St. Charles, MO Journal:
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas my wife and I received a letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA). It was not a "happy holidays" wish.

The first paragraph of the letter stated, "Each month, the Social Security Administration asks a few people who file an application for Social Security benefits to help us make sure that we handled their claims properly. Your claim was chosen this month for one of these reviews. It was chosen entirely by chance, NOT because we have any special question about you or your benefits." ...

The social insurance specialist who sent the letter - I'll call her Alice, since she survives within a governmental wonderland - directed us to review all enclosed information and mail her the originals of our birth certificates and marriage license. ...

Alice suggested we call a toll-free number she provided if we had any question. Disbelief and concern for legality spurred me to call. I connected with the Social Security Administration, Office of Quality Assurance and Performance Assessment in Kansas City. Alice worked there. The letter was legit.

I said to my wife, "It's fact! We're being audited by Social Security. Can you believe this?"

She replied, "No! It's bizarre." ...

On the appointed date and at the exact time, Alice called. She was acutely courteous. She explained that both our claims were being reviewed under what's called a stewardship review within the Retirement, Survivor, Disability Insurance Quality Review program. ...

When Alice finished her questioning, I boldly asked, "How many Social Security recipients receive these audits each year?"

She answered, "In fiscal year 2006, 1,440 cases were selected nationally."

Fear Mongering

From the Californian.com (emphasis added):

The Social Security office in Salinas has made a move to improve service to the community, even as potential candidates for the presidency debate the existence of the system.

While the financial fate of the Social Security Administration hangs in the balance, the Salinas office was transplanted from its former location on Alvin Drive to 928 E. Blanco Road, in part to be able to treat customers with more dignity, Social Security officials said.

I do not know this reporter's motivations, but this looks like a ridiculous effort to turn a simple story into a propaganda piece.

Feb 20, 2008

Poll -- Education

Head Of GAO Resigning

David Walker, the Comptroller General who is head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is resigning effective March 12 to run a foundation "which is to focus on such national sustainability issues as entitlement program and health care costs, trade and budget deficits, energy consumption and the education system" according to Fox News.

Walker, a Republican, was appointed to his 15 year term by President Clinton, but spoke out to support "reform" of Social Security during President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. Walker's new job suggests that he will continue to promote similar goals after leaving the government.

Under Walker's leadership GAO was a cheerleader for former Commissioner Barnhart's hapless Disability Service Improvement (DSI) plan that was ended by the current Commissioner. Indeed, even after DSI had failed miserably, GAO was wondering why it had to be canceled without giving it more of a chance.

GAO in recent years has constantly harped upon the theme of management weakness at Social Security and has consistently downplayed budget as a factor in Social Security's backlog situation.

In leaving, Walker said "
As Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO, there are real limitations on what I can do and say in connection with key public policy issues, especially issues that directly relate to GAO's client -- the Congress," suggesting that he was leaving because he is unhappy at dealing with a Congress controlled by Democrats.

It seems unlikely that the Senate will confirm anyone nominated by President Bush to replace Walker.

Feb 19, 2008

I Don't Think Many People Will Take This Advice!

From the Boston Globe (emphasis added):

If you're retired and are interested in having a higher income for as long as you live, you have two main options.

You can buy a life annuity. This will provide you with an income, with or without inflation adjustments, for as long as you live. ...

Fortunately, there is a simple alternative. It will work nicely for retirees in their late 60s or early 70s who opted, years ago, to take Social Security benefits at a relatively young age. That's millions of people.

If you did this, you know your benefits were reduced because taking benefits early meant Social Security would have to pay benefits for more years.

But you easily can reapply from scratch. Visit the local Social Security office. Make use of a little-known and seldom-exercised provision - request a "Withdrawal of Application." By filing an SSA Form 521, Social Security will treat you as if you had never applied for benefits. It will let you immediately reapply for benefits - at your current age.

Yes, there is a catch. And it's a big one. You must repay every dime you've received in past benefits.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

When were you born?

1929 or earlier (1) 1%
1930-1939 (3) 2%
1940-1949 (35) 26%
1950-1959 (47) 35%
1960-1969 (20) 15%
1970-1979 (22) 17%
1980-1989 (5) 4%
1990 or later (0) 0%

Total Votes: 133

Feb 18, 2008

CCD Lays Out Its Agenda

Groups are already laying out their agendas for what they expect to be a Democratic party ascendancy to come next year. The Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) is the major umbrella group representing just about all groups of any consequence who advocate on behalf of the disabled. The CCD has issued a Statement of Principles on work incentives and other issues affecting Social Security's disability programs. I am sure that the CCD would be happy to get any of this enacted this year -- and it is possible that a little could be enacted this year -- but mostly this is the CCD agenda for the next Congress and the next President. This deserves close attention. In my opinion, much of this is likely to become law if Democrats capture the White House as well as larger majorities in both Houses of Congress, something which looks likely at the moment.

Here are what I think of as the major points from CCD's statement of principles:
  1. No change in Social Security's definition of disability, nor anything designed to force disabled people back to work, such as time limited benefits;
  2. An increase in the earnings limits for Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
  3. Changing work incentives in Title II of the Social Security Act so that the disabled lose one dollar for each two dollars they earn;
  4. An indefinite presumptive disability status for those whose disability benefits end due to return to work;
  5. Allowing health insurance expenses to count as Impairment Related Work Expenses;
  6. Improving the ability of child SSI recipients to make the transition to work;
  7. Eliminating the five month waiting period for Disability Insurance Benefits;
  8. Improving Ticket to Work;
  9. Improving tracking of earnings for disabled people who return to work to help avoid large overpayments;
  10. Eliminating the 24 month waiting period for Medicare;
  11. Allow premium fee access to Medicare for beneficiaries who return to work;
  12. Allow individuals to get on Disabled Adult Child (DAC) benefits despite some work activity after becoming 22 years of age;
  13. Exempt DAC recipients from the family maximum if they live outside the family home;
  14. Eliminate the DAC marriage penalty;
  15. Improve the minimum benefit;
  16. Repeal the seven year prescribed period for disabled widows and widowers; and
  17. Increase disabled widows benefits
I cannot understand why the CCD does not want to pull the plug on Ticket to Work. It is nothing but a bottomless money pit. Merely sounding like it would be a good idea does not make it a good idea.

I cannot understand why CCD would talk about improving disabled widows and widowers benefits, but not mention ending the actuarial reduction in disabled widows and widowers benefits. Is it possible that CCD does not understand the actuarial reduction? I know that the phrase "actuarial reduction" sounds like it must be something impossibly complicated. Let me make it simple. The younger the disabled widow or widower is when he or she goes on benefits, the less he or she receives in disabled widow or widower benefits. Does it make sense to penalize people for becoming disabled at an earlier age?

NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of people who work at the state Disability Determination Services, has issued its Winter 2008 newsletter.

One small note from the newsletter: Pat Owens who had been Associate Commissioner for Disability at Social Security in the 1980s and who was later employed by UNUM, the country's largest writer of Long Term Disability Insurance, is now working for the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Feb 17, 2008

Astrue To Visit Missoula

From Montana's News Station.com:
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus says Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has accepted his invitation to attend a community forum in Missoula on Feb. 21.

Baucus says the invitation was part of his ongoing efforts to cut down the time it takes for Montanans to get Social Security retirement and disability benefits. He says the forum will allow Astrue to see how the Social Security filing process is faring in Montana, and to discuss ways to improve it.

Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security.

Feb 16, 2008

Republican Congressmen Promote Biometric Social Security Cards

The Chicago Tribune reports that two Republican Congressmen from Illinois are introducing a bill requiring that Social Security cards include a photograph, fingerprint, computer chip, bar code and magnetic strip. The idea is to help prevent identity theft. The Congressmen described this as only a "modest upgrade."

If this were to happen, the Social Security Administration would be dramatically transformed, perhaps doubling its staff.

Feb 15, 2008

CLE Webcast

The Disability Advocacy Section (which is basically the Social Security section) of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers is putting on a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) on March 28, 2008 entitled "An Overview of Medicare and Medicaid" for attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. The CLE is available as a webcast. You do not have to be a member of the section or of the NC Academy of Trial Lawyers. The issues being discussed are national. Registrants from outside North Carolina are welcome. CLE credit is available. Information is available online.

What Is Going On With Emergency Messages?

Yesterday, I posted the text of an "Emergency Message" from the Social Security Administration about Social Security's role in the economic stimulus package. Shortly after I posted the Emergency Message or EM, it disappeared from Social Security's website.

Social Security has used EMs, or their predecessor, Emergency Teletypes, for many years to convey important information to Social Security employees. Usually, EMs are not concerned with true emergencies. They just convey staff instructions, usually concerning new issues. As such, they are a matter of legitimate interest to anyone dealing with the agency.

Take a look at Social Security's online list of EMs. Note that they seem to be numbered sequentially. The most recent EM shown is 08013. It appears that the "08" part is the year and the number thereafter is a sequential number. Note how many gaps there are in the sequence. We are up to EM-08013 online, but there are only two EMs showing up online for 2008.

What is going on? JOA on the SSAConnect Board tells us that Social Security is labeling many EMs as "sensitive" and distributing them only to Social Security employees. Apparently, Social Security decided to make EM-08-021 "sensitive" after first posting it online. It appears to me that Social Security has been labeling more and more EMs as sensitive and trying to withhold them from the public.

Why is Social Security doing this? I cannot say, but it is hard to imagine that anything being made available to tens of thousands of Social Security employees is truly sensitive. If the EM that I posted is an example of what Social Security is labeling "sensitive", you have to wonder what the criteria are for determining what is so "sensitive" that it must be withheld from the public. The only thing "sensitive" about that EM was the revelation that the Social Security Administration wants to stay out of the business of advising claimants on how they can obtain a check under the economic stimulus plan. I suppose that this might be embarrassing to the agency brass since Social Security is getting a $31 million appropriation for its part in the economic stimulus plan or because it illustrates the fact that Social Security is short-handed, but that hardly seems to me to make it "sensitive."

Trying to keep these secret seems contrary to Social Security's publicly stated position that "Administrative staff manuals of the Social Security Administration and Instructions to staff personnel that contain policies, procedures, or interpretations that affect the public are available for inspection and copying."

If nothing else, trying to suppress an emergency message that clearly contains no sensitive information after the emergency message has already entered the public domain just makes the Social Security Administration look ridiculous.

I have made a Freedom of Information Act requests for all of these sensitive EMs since the beginning of 2007. Once I get them, I will post all of them. We will eventually see what Social Security is trying to keep from the public. How soon that may be is unclear.

Over The Top Press Release

This appeared in the Corsicana Daily Sun. It is obviously a Social Security press release, although it is attributed to the local District Office manager. I do not blame Social Security for trying to promote online services, but this is ridiculous.
As you’re preparing your Valentine’s cards, you may also want to join the millions of users who have fallen in love with Social Security’s online services. Here’s our own Valentine’s sampler of things you can do at www.socialsecurity.gov. ...

Whether you’re ready to apply for retirement benefits this month or you’re just interested in getting an estimate for future benefits, check out our website at www.socialsecurity.gov and go to the “What you can do online” section. We won’t try to take the place of your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, but you may fall in love with our online services.

Feb 14, 2008

Social Security Role In Economic Stimulus

This is Social Security's Emergency Message EM-08021. This went out yesterday (Later addition: Since I posted this, the Social Security Administration has taken down the link. I can only guess that the EM was too blunt. Anyway, here it is for all to read, so it can hardly be described as a secret.):
President Bush signed an economic stimulus bill on February 13th which will result in stimulus payments to over 130 million individuals starting in May 2008.

Attached is an IRS fact sheet which provides more details and eligibility information regarding the stimulus payments. NOTE: it is not SSA’s role to explain the stimulus program to the public, so you should not offer verbal explanations of information on the factsheet—except as it relates to the need for a 1099 (see item 3 below).

There are four key points:

1. This is an IRS program and we need to refer questions about the stimulus payments to IRS, at either their website (www.irs.gov) or their 800 number (1-800-829-1040).

2. To receive a payment, individuals must file a tax return for 2007. There are approximately 20 million Social Security beneficiaries who would not normally file a tax return for 2007, but will need to file a tax return for 2007 to receive a stimulus payment.

3. All beneficiaries received an SSA-1099 earlier this year related to their 2007 Social Security payments. Some of the 20 million beneficiaries may have discarded their 1099. They do not need a replacement 1099 because IRS will accept an estimate of Social Security benefits received in 2007 in line 14A of the 1040A. A beneficiary can just multiply their 2007 monthly benefit amount times the number of months they received benefits in 2007. IRS will match this estimate against the 1099 file that we provide them to determine if the person meets the income threshold.

4. Receipt of SSI benefits does not count in determining eligibility for stimulus payments.

FO Instructions

Processing Inquiries-

Please print the attached IRS fact sheet in sufficient quantities to distribute to visitors who inquire about stimulus payments. You may also want to provide the fact sheet to any visitor who is a Title II beneficiary. If someone calls the FO about the stimulus payment, please refer them to the IRS web site at www.irs.gov and the IRS 800 number (1-800-829-1040). Do not mail them the fact sheet.

If a beneficiary insists on receiving a replacement SSA-1099 you can issue it to them following the instructions in POMS GN 05002.220.

Counting Inquiries and Replacement 1099s-

It is important that we capture data on the number of FO visitors whose visit is prompted by the Economic Stimulus program. When a field office visitor inquires about the Economic Stimulus Bill or requests a replacement 1099, follow these instructions:
      1. Make sure they are checked into VIP.
      2. Change the “Number of Interviews” box on the “Add Visitor Information” or “Modify Contact Information” screens to the number 99.
      3. Finish the interview and close out VIP using standard procedures.

Do not capture telephone inquiries using this VIP procedure. Instructions for capturing field office telephone inquiries will be forthcoming.

800 Number Instructions

An upfront message will be added to the 800 number this week directing callers with questions on the stimulus payments to contact IRS. If a caller reaches an agent and has a question about the stimulus payment, refer them to the IRS web site (www.irs.gov) and 800 number (1-800-829-1040). Do not discuss the IRS factsheet nor mail the caller a copy of it.

If they ask about a replacement SSA-1099 tell them that IRS will accept an estimate, advise them to estimate the amount of benefits received by multiplying the monthly benefit amount in 2007 times the number of months they received benefits. If a beneficiary insists on a replacement SSA-1099, see TC 37001.030.

Instructions for capturing the volume of 800 Number calls involving Economic Stimulus Package inquiries will be forthcoming.

FS-2008-16 (exceptions) UPDATE.pdf

Representative Johnson On ALJ Accountability

A press release from Representative Sam Johnson, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee:
Yesterday the Office of Inspector General of the Social Security Administration (SSA) released a report which evaluated the caseload performance of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). The report found that SSA's efforts to reduce the growing backlog will be negatively impacted by the under-performance of many existing ALJs. Social Security Subcommittee Ranking Member, Sam Johnson (R-TX), released the following statement:

"The report by the Inspector General sends a clear message that no meaningful reform of the disability process can be complete without addressing the inability of certain ALJs to perform at an acceptable level. Not only does this report show that certain judges are under-performing, it also points out that the SSA has no process to hold them accountable. This is simply unacceptable.

"Last December, Chairman McNulty (D-NY) and I asked the Inspector General to dig deeper into this issue and provide the Congress with a full report on ALJ performance. I am confident that a complete investigation will better inform Commissioner Astrue and the Congress on how to best address this issue. The American people must know that their tax dollars are spent wisely and efficiently.

"American citizens should not have to wait years to learn whether they are eligible to obtain a benefit they have earned. I look forward to receiving the additional findings of the Inspector General's review, and continuing to work with the Commissioner to better serve those in need."

Administrative Law Judges hold impartial hearings and review on appeal determinations involving retirement, survivors, disability, and supplemental security income benefits

Feb 13, 2008


AFGE News Release

A news release:
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 25,000 employees in the Social Security Administration (SSA) field offices, today expressed deep concern over the administration’s ability to continue to service the American people amid severe budget constraints. As part of a coalition to garner public support for additional funding, AFGE held a news conference today urging Congress to pass the Higgins Bill, H.R. 5110. The new legislation known as the Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act was introduced before the House of Representatives in January and provides Congress with additional oversight in staff levels, office closures and SSA budget estimates.

“Over the past ten years the Social Security administrative budget has been constricted by upwards of $1.3 billion,” said AFGE Council 220 President Witold Skwierczynski. “Further cuts to the SSA budget, as 76 million baby boomers enter the system, could prove to be disastrous.”

SSA field office employees, already inundated with backlogs, are concerned that a lack of sufficient funding will adversely affect their ability to effectively serve tax payers. Employees have already received anecdotal reports from the public that previous office closures forced clients to travel 50 to 100 miles to their nearest SSA field office.

“In order to prevent proposed office closures nationwide, which would severely limit public access, Congress must provide funding and oversight through H.R. 5110-the SSA desperately needs,” added Skwierczynski.

AFGE has continuously lobbied for an increased the Social Security budget, but the needs of the administration have been continually ignored.

The 7% Problem

From the New York Times:

The number of businesses taking part in a voluntary program that allows them to verify electronically their newly hired employees’ legal authorization to work in the United States is soaring, the federal government said Tuesday.

About 52,000 employers are now using a Web-based system, known as E-Verify, compared with 14,265 a year ago. The system has been growing in the past year by 1,000 employers a week, said the United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services, which runs the program with the Social Security Administration. ...

About 93 percent of the employees checked in the program receive authorization in a manner of seconds

Let us do a little math here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 138.1 million people employed in the United States. Seven percent of 138.1 million is 9,670,000 people whose names and Social Security numbers would not match. If this program became mandatory-- and that is what the Bush Administration and many in Congress wish in order to cut illegal immigration -- those people would be descending upon offices of the Social Security Administration and they would rightly regard their problem as urgent since it would threaten their continued employment.

The Social Security Administration is not ready for this.

Feb 12, 2008

Press Release On First Baby Boomer On Social Security Retirement Benefits

A press release from Social Security:

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, the nation's first Baby Boomer, today made history as the first of her generation to receive a Social Security retirement benefit. Having applied online for benefits at www.socialsecurity.gov, Ms. Casey-Kirschling, who was born at one second after midnight on January 1, 1946, today received her first payment by direct deposit.

“Like many of her fellow boomers, Kathy leads a full and busy life,” said Jim Courtney, Social Security Deputy Commissioner for Communications. “By choosing direct deposit, Kathy’s benefit is safely and conveniently deposited into her bank account. No matter where in the country - or the world - Kathy is, her money is as close as the nearest ATM or just a mouse click away through online banking.”

As the nation’s first Baby Boomer, Ms. Casey-Kirschling is leading what is often referred to as America’s silver tsunami. Over the next two decades, nearly 80 million Americans will become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, more than 10,000 per day on average. Ms. Casey-Kirschling is setting the example for millions of her fellow boomers by receiving her retirement benefits in the safest, most convenient way possible.

"Direct deposit is a win for everyone,” said Judith R. Tillman, Commissioner of Treasury’s Financial Management Service (FMS). “For the last three years, Treasury has led a campaign called Go Direct to educate Americans about the many benefits of direct deposit. We at Treasury congratulate Kathy on receiving her first Social Security payment and on her decision to Go Direct.”

Direct deposit eliminates the risk of lost or stolen checks, reduces fraud, helps protect against identity theft and gives people more control over their money. Direct deposit also saves taxpayers millions of dollars. In fact, according to FMS, if every current federal benefit check recipient switched to direct deposit, it would save taxpayers about $130 million a year.

At an event today in Vero Beach, Florida, Social Security also premiered a new video public service announcement, featuring Ms. Casey-Kirschling, that promotes filing online for retirement benefits. (View the video)

“Kathy is a trendsetter for her generation,” Social Security’s Courtney said. “Just as she led the way by filing for her benefits online, we hope she leads the way for baby boomers to receive their benefits by direct deposit.”

I think that they may be trying to promote online filing and direct deposit.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

What Do You Think Of The President's Proposed Administrative Budget For Social Security?

It's excellent (5) 8%
It's good (5) 8%
It's OK (6) 10%
It's poor (22) 35%
It's terrible (24) 39%

Total Votes: 62

Dead Again

The "Social Security mistakenly declares someone dead" stories in the media are so frequent that I do not bother to post about them, but I had to link to this one, from the Auburn, NY Citizen:
A 57-year-old New Jersey woman has been declared dead twice in the past year by the Social Security Administration, despite the fact that she is very much alive. Susan Lindsley, who is developmentally disabled and works about 10 hours a week, relies on Social Security income to get by.

Two months after the Summit, N.J., resident's husband died, the SSA not only stopped her disability and her widow's benefit payments, but also dipped into her bank account in July to reclaim several thousand dollars. ...

The mix-up was cleared up, but two weeks later she was declared dead again. Lindsley's brother had to call eight elected officials for help before she was resurrected once and for all.

India And U.S. Negotiating Totalization Agreement

From the Economic Times of India:
India and the US have started work on a totalisation agreement under which Indians employed for a stipulated period in the US will not have to contribute to social security.

According to government estimates, Indians working short-term in the US contribute up to $1 billion to the US kitty every year as social security contribution. While talks are in the initial stage, India is happy that the US has agreed to have a discussion on the issue.

Earlier, the country was unwilling to consider a totalisation pact because of differences in India and the US social security structure.

Speaking to ET, official sources said a team from the US government had visited India recently to examine India’s social security system.

New Items Filed With OMB

All federal agencies must file any rule-making actions with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and obtain approval before their publication in the Federal Register. The Social Security Administration filed the following items with OMB late yesterday:

TITLE: Amendments to the Ticket To Work and Self-Sufficiency Program (967F)

TITLE: Compassionate Allowances (3427P)

Feb 11, 2008

Fraud Alleged In Texas

From the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
Dale A. Lowery, 54, and Brenda G. Lowery, 48, both of Troup, were indicted on charges of theft of government property, concealment of an event to secure disability benefits and making a false statement.

From March 2003 through June 2007 in Smith County, the Lowerys allegedly stole about $28,300 in Social Security disability benefit payments, for a benefit of a child to which they were not entitled, the indictment states. They also allegedly concealed that the child was no longer living with them and they made false statements to federal agents investigating the case.

Social Security Managers Say SSA Needs 5,000 More Employees -- In Field Offices Alone

From the Federal Times:

SSA [Social Security Administration] expects to be able to replace all the field office employees who retire [under the Bush budget for fiscal year 2009], the National Council of Social Security Management Associations said many more are needed to answer phones, process claims and help people who walk into the offices. SSA needs at least 32,000 field office employees and it now has about 27,000, said Rick Warsinskey, former president of the council.

“We're not doing a good job answering calls,” Warsinskey said. “Our [phone lines’] busy rates are running at 50 percent, and staff keeps getting diverted to handle the people coming in because they can't get through on the phones.”