Feb 5, 2008

Astrue E-Mail To Staff On Budget

An e-mail from Commissioner Astrue, with my comments bolded and in brackets:
^Commissioner Broadcast

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 2:00 PM


A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: FY 2008 and FY 2009 Budget News

I am pleased to share several items of good news about the agency’s budget.

First, the President’s Budget for FY 2009, submitted to Congress yesterday, provides $10.46 billion for Social Security’s administrative expenses. That’s a 6 percent increase over FY 2008. [But what about the larger budget that you asked for, but which the President was unwilling to give you. And why is an independent Commissioner of Social Security so eager to praise the President?] If enacted by Congress, this would be the largest increase SSA has received in some time. [Really, you could have had more this year, if the President had not vetoed it.] As you know, Social Security is facing an avalanche of disability and retirement claims at the same time that we must address large backlogs due to years of limited resources. The FY 2009 budget will put us in a better position to handle the onslaught of work we are confronting. [Better position? How? The proposed budget provides for almost no additional personnel.]

I am urging Congress to enact this budget quickly. [Come on, Astrue, you know as well as anyone that Democrats are going to enact whatever budget they feel like -- after Bush leaves office and the budget they enact will probably be larger than what is in the Bush budget.] Over the next couple of weeks, I will be joining Chief of Staff David Foster and staff from the Office of Budget, Finance and Management and the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs as we make our case for timely and adequate funding for SSA. [It is a shame you are unwilling to do what you say and actually ask for adequate funding.]

Now here is the good news regarding the current fiscal year. As you may know, for the first time in 15 years, Congress appropriated funding for SSA above the President’s budget. [Which Astrue opposed.] Specifically, Congress provided us with an additional $148 million in FY 2008. As a result of this appropriation, I am able to lift our current hiring freeze and provide some needed hiring flexibility across all SSA components. Each Deputy Commissioner will determine where to direct these critical hires to best address the agency's mission. [But don't expect any hiring binge. We're still going to be losing employees.]

ODAR will be able to replace all of their staff losses this year and hire 175 Administrative Law Judges. [How can I restrain my excitement? In the face of large increases in workload, ODAR will be allowed to keep its staffing level stable.] Our FY 2008 funding also allows me to provide Operations with additional hiring authority to increase the number of Teleservice Representatives in the Teleservice Centers. [But it looks like payment center staff will be cut.]

The agency will continue implementing our Hearings Backlog Reduction Plan. We will use the additional resources to build a firm foundation for the future with automation improvements, fast-track reviews, Administrative Law Judge hiring and other initiatives so that we can significantly reduce waiting times at all steps of the disability process while improving accuracy. The waiting time for a hearing has just dropped below 500 days, even though the oldest cases take the longest. [Dropped below 500 days. What do you mean?] ODAR is doing the right thing for the claimants in tackling this workload, and with these additional resources, I fully expect to see further improvement in processing times by early in the next fiscal year. [But will Astrue be around to see the improvements he predicts?]

Funds for Information Technology Systems will be sufficient to move forward with critical information technology projects, which will help SSA improve the disability programs and prepare for the millions of baby boomers who are beginning to apply for retirement benefits.

For most components, overtime will be provided at FY 2007 actual levels. Operations will be given additional overtime to begin addressing our critical backlogs, so that we can provide better service to the millions of beneficiaries who count on us each and every day. Other expenses, such as training, travel and supplies, will be funded at least at the FY 2007 level. [Funding them at the same level is the same as cutting funding when you factor in inflation.]

As the year progresses, we will be reassessing our staffing and hope to provide some additional hiring authority or overtime. I know that adequate funding is essential to providing the level of service that the American public deserves, and I have great hope that in future years we will be able to build upon the progress we make this year.

I want to thank all of you for your hard work, patience and ingenuity during the tough budget times we have faced in recent years.

Michael J. Astrue

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