Apr 30, 2008

Message From Commissioner

A broadcast e-mail from Commissioner Astrue (emphasis added):

Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: Ways and Means Hearing

Last week, I testified before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S House of Representatives, one of our two authorizing committees in the Congress. I want to share with you some highlights of what I shared with lawmakers. You also can see the full testimony at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/legislation/testimony_042308.htm.

We are using the additional $148 million allotted to us this fiscal year to not only replace losses, but to hire additional front-line service personnel, Administrative Law Judges and support staff.

More money alone will not solve all of the service challenges we face. We also must innovate, and we are making great strides on that front as well.

Using alternative forms of authentication, retirees born in this country no longer need to present their birth certificate as proof of age. Eliminating this requirement is already easing the burden for both the claimant and our employees.

Soon we will unveil a new look to our website. In addition, in a few months, we plan on launching an easy-to-use and highly accurate online benefit estimator. In September, we will turn on a simplified retirement application that will make filing over the Internet much easier.

We are testing other concepts that can help our busiest field offices, including kiosk computers in waiting areas and office television monitors that silently inform visitors of the documents they need for each service, as well as a menu of services they can use by phone or computer from their home or office. Our notices also need updating so that we tell people more completely and clearly what they need to provide to us in order to receive the quickest response.

On the disability front, the national rollout of Quick Disability Determinations is allowing thousands of truly disabled applicants to receive both a decision and a benefit check within weeks. A pilot later this year with compassionate allowances should further reduce the number of cases requiring an appeal.

We are embracing technologies like the electronic file, video hearings and the new National Hearing Center, which enables us to shift work away from the busiest hearing offices. I am very excited about an upcoming pilot allowing claimants to attend video hearings at their attorney's office. This could be another win for both the agency and the people we serve.

We continue to make updates to the Listing of Impairments that determine whether someone meets the definition of disability. Some important listings have not been updated in decades. I'm pleased to report that we now have a schedule in place to update all medical listings every five years, and were going to try to do even better than that.

A proposal requiring claimant representatives to use iAppeals will eliminate an enormous amount of unnecessary repetitive work in our hearing offices.

Important discussions are under way with the states in New Orleans today over a unified IT system to replace the 54 separate COBOL-based systems currently employed by the various Disability Determination Services. If we can obtain a sufficient degree of consensus, I will ask Congress to fund this critical project in FY 2010.

On October 1, we will be forced to absorb more than $400 million in automatic inflationary increases. These costs, combined with an extended Continuing Resolution, would have devastating consequences for our forward momentum. Timely support of the President's budget is critical to maintaining our progress, and you can be sure that I am personally making our case to as many Members of Congress as possible. Today I have two meetings with Members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Aside from the hearing, I also want to let you know that we are working hard on drafting a new Agency Strategic Plan, which we hope to complete this summer. It should give you a better sense of how we will move forward in a time of rising workloads.

Finally, thanks again to all of you for all you do for the American public. With all the talk of data and technology, I never forget that our foundation is the care and hard work of our employees.

Michael J. Astrue


Paying Benefits Overseas

The Washington Times, a right wing newspaper affiliated with Reverend Moon's Unification Church, publishes items from time to time about audit reports of Social Security's Office of Inspector General. I would infer that Social Security's Inspector General is alerting the Washington Times. Here are some excerpts from an article in today's Washington Times:

The Social Security Administration is paying out more than $100 million a year to people getting benefits overseas despite rules that say recipients cannot live outside of the United States, a new government audit has found.

The report by the SSA's Office of Inspector General says the agency relies on people to "self-report" absences from the United States, but estimated that as many as 40,000 recipients in foreign countries were overpaid more than $225 million from 2005 to 2007.

"Despite SSA's efforts to identify residency violations, we estimate a substantial number of violations have not been detected, resulting in millions of dollars in overpayments," Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll Jr. concluded.
Of course, the article is misleading since it strongly suggests that it is improper to pay Social Security benefits to those living overseas. Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, that is benefits paid based upon earnings and taxes paid, are properly payable to American citizens living overseas. There is nothing controversial about that. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is normally not payable to those living outside the United States. The actual audit report concerned SSI benefits, an important fact not revealed in the article.

The Inspector General accessed the bank account records of some 250 foreign born SSI recipients and found ATM withdrawals at locations outside the U.S. for 10 of those 250 people. While it is possible that some of those 10 people had remained in the U.S. but used ATM cards to transfer money to relatives in other countries, most of these people were ineligible for benefits for some period of time because of being outside the U.S.

I am not sure that it is appropriate to extrapolate as much as the Inspector General did from such a small sample. For example, the Inspector General was unable to contact six of the ten individuals identified as having foreign ATM withdrawals -- and concluded that they were ineligible for anything. Maybe, but plenty of native born SSI recipients are hard to get up with it. The Inspector General report explains the small sample by noting that the audit was a labor intensive process.

The Inspector General report also fails to mention that lack of personnel at Social Security is a major contributing factor to this and other systemic problems at the Social Security Administration. Calling for more personnel at Social Security is something that does not fit into the right wing agenda. Blaming foreigners for every sort of problem imaginable does fit into the right wing agenda, however.

Trying To Save An Office

From the Clinton, Iowa Herald:
The Clinton City Council held a special council meeting Tuesday afternoon to approve a resolution requesting that the Social Security Administration office in Clinton remain open.

The resolution states the city “has concerns that the local community may not be adequately served if the Social Security Office closes” and requests the local office remain open and serve the local community. A copy of the resolution will be forwarded to Congressman Bruce Braley’s office in Davenport.

Galveston Loses Social Security Office -- And Regional Communications Director Misspeaks

Why not just tell the truth from the beginning? From the Galveston Daily News:
A crowded waiting room, upstairs training area and lack of private conference space is driving the island Social Security office to move to League City, said office manager Patsy Lewis.

Rent for the office ... had nothing to do with the decision to move, she said.

While Wes Davis, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration, had said it wasn’t cost-effective to keep the office in Galveston because rent on the office was expected to rise three to four times higher than the government pays now, Lewis said that wasn’t true. Lewis said the space doesn’t meet their needs. ...

Davis has said the administration would not consider staying in Galveston.

Some disabled and elderly islanders might have trouble getting to the Social Security Administration office if it moves from Galveston to League City.

Many people who qualify for Supplemental Security Income won’t be able to afford the taxi ride to and from League City, said Frank Avery, who works for the island-based Transitional Learning Center, a brain injury rehabilitation center. For some, it might come down to paying for medicine and food or catching a cab to ensure their Social Security checks continue, he said.

Rep Payee Steals $6,500

From The State of Columbia, SC:

An Alabama woman has pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing Social Security benefits from a handicapped Lexington man, a U.S. attorney’s office news release said.

Patricia Butler England, 35, was asked by the man to serve as his representative payee and received more than $6,500 in disability benefits meant for him between May and August 2006, the release said.

She used the money to buy illegal drugs for herself and faces up to 10 years in prison when sentenced, the release said.

Apr 29, 2008

Corrected List Of Locations For ALJ Openings

I had posted a list of locations for which the Social Security Administration was seeking Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Apparently, that list was incomplete. Here is what I believe is a complete list, but again, I have cribbed this from another site. Note that the list gives the region in which the job opening is located and then the city and state. The region is identified by Social Security's region number.
  • 01 Hartford, CT
  • 01 Portland, ME
  • 02 Albany, NY
  • 02 Bronx, NY
  • 02 Jericho, NY
  • 03 Charleston, WV
  • 03 Harrisburg, PA
  • 03 Pittsburgh, PA
  • 03 Richmond, VA
  • 04 Atlanta, GA
  • 04 Charlotte, NC
  • 04 Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • 04 Greenville, SC
  • 04 Jackson, MS
  • 04 Jacksonville, FL
  • 04 Lexington, KY
  • 04 Louisville, KY
  • 04 Memphis, TN
  • 04 Miami, FL
  • 04 Montgomery, AL
  • 04 Nashville, TN
  • 04 Orlando, FL
  • 04 Paducah, KY
  • 04 Raleigh, NC
  • 05 Cincinnati, OH
  • 05 Evansville, IN
  • 05 Fort Wayne, IN
  • 05 Milwaukee, WI
  • 05 Orland Park, IL
  • 06 Albuquerque, NM
  • 06 Alexandria, LA
  • 06 Dallas (DT), TX
  • 06 McAlester, OK
  • 06 New Orleans, LA
  • 07 Creve Coeur, MO
  • 07 St. Louis, MO
  • 09 Downey, CA
  • 09 Los Angeles (DT), CA
  • 09 Orange, CA
  • 09 San Bernardino, CA
  • 09 San Francisco, CA
  • 10 Eugene, OR
  • 10 Portland, OR

No Help In Upstate NY

From the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY:

Despite a national effort to cut down the backlog of pending disability cases in Social Security offices, local legislators and advocates say disabled people in the Rochester area will keep waiting to get their cases heard in Buffalo.

Earlier this month, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue announced 135 new administrative law judges in offices throughout the country, including 10 in New York, to help take on the mounting requests for appeals hearings. None were assigned to Buffalo, which handles most local cases.

Apr 28, 2008

Congressional Hearing Alert

From a press release issued by the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee:
Congressman Michael R. McNulty (D-NY), Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security of the Committee on Ways and Means, today announced that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on current and proposed employment eligibility verification systems and their impact on the ability of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to fulfill its core mission of administering Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. The hearing will take place on Tuesday, May 6, 2008, in room B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 10:00 a.m. ...

The effect of a national system on SSA’s costs and workload is subject to substantial uncertainty. Mistakes committed by employers and inaccuracies in SSA’s database would combine to produce millions of erroneous non-confirmations. Unless the cost of this workload is fully funded, every year, a national system would disrupt not only hiring decisions, but also SSA’s ability to conduct its core operations related to administration of Social Security benefits. Also, existing programs under which employers must match data with SSA have very high rejection rates. For example, ten percent of the 240 million wage reporting forms (W-2s) received annually by SSA do not match the names and Social Security numbers in SSA’s records. Last year, SSA testified that seven of every 100 workers checked were initially rejected by E-Verify because of mismatches with SSA records, and that three of every 100 workers contacted SSA in response to an E-Verify “tentative non-confirmation” letter.

New Cancer Listings Proposed

The new proposed listings for cancer were published in the Federal Register today.

Social Security Turns To Technology -- And Plans To Make You Use It

From the Federal Times (emphasis added):
The Social Security Administration is hoping a series of technology upgrades planned for this year and next will help the agency improve its efficiency and whittle down its backlog of unheard benefit claims cases....

SSA’s first upgrade will come next month, when it relaunches its Web site with a revamped retirement application program. Astrue said the current online application was hastily created eight years ago and does not work well — it is used by only about 10 percent of the public. Astrue wants half of retirement applications to be filed online in five years to keep field offices from being overwhelmed with paper applications. ...

SSA has gone back to the drawing board to replace one tool that has consistently underperformed since its 2006 debut, Astrue said. The Electronic Case Analysis Tool, or eCAT, is intended to help disability examiners decide whether someone qualifies for disability benefits and document their cases. For example, the system can prompt examiners to ask certain questions or to review necessary documents.

But the original version of eCAT was rushed to the field before it was ready and “failed miserably,” Astrue said. The Government Accountability Office in January found that eCAT frequently crashed because of technical glitches and lost information. Astrue said eCAT even created backlogs in some places, such as New England, that previously had none.

The new version of eCAT will not be rushed, Astrue said. SSA will not pilot it until 2009 at the earliest, Astrue said, and it will be closely reviewed as it is rolled out to one or two states. He promised that eCAT will eventually help examiners make and document their decisions faster and better.

“Now, we’re trying to do it right,” Astrue said.

SSA recently digitized its appeals process with a new program called iAppeals, Astrue said. This program lets claimants or their representatives file an appeal online. Previously, appeals were filled out on paper forms and mailed to field offices, where SSA staffers entered the information into a computer system....

SSA plans to require all claimant representatives to use iAppeals; unrepresented claimants would still be able to file their appeals on paper.

Apr 27, 2008

Hearing Update

There have been so many press releases concerned with this past Wednesday's House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security's budget and backlog problem that I am going to sweep them into one post.

Senators Schumer and Clinton of New York put out a press release expressing outrage at Commissioner Astrue's assertion that lack of office space was behind the failure to add more Administrative Law Judges to the Buffalo hearing office. They are demanding more information from Astrue.

Mike McNulty, the chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee issued a press release on the day of the hearing.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia put out a press release shortly before the hearing, trying to drum up press attention.

Representative Xavier Becerra issued a press release and put his comments during the hearing onto YouTube.

Becerra also put up a second YouTube video from the hearing that contains some answers from Commissioner Astrue about staffing and office closures.

Finally, the ACLU has put out a press release commending the House Ways and Means hearing.

Waiting In The Shadows Of Woodlawn

The Frederick News Post of Maryland is running an article about a man who had to wait two and a half years before being approved for Social Security disability benefits. The man was waiting for a hearing before a Social Security Administrative Law Judge based in Baltimore. Woodlawn, Maryland, where the Social Security Administration has its headquarters, lies between Baltimore and Washington.

By the way, this is another newspaper article apparently generated by Allsup's public relations offensive.

Apr 26, 2008

NCSSMA Newsletter

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has issued its April 2008 Newsletter. Here is a small excerpt written by a teleservice center manager, with my comments and explanations in brackets:
The TSCs [Teleservice Centers] are wrapping up their Peak Period , our busiest time of the year [the first few months of each calendar year are always the toughest for several reason, such as the release of SSA-1099s]. In fact the first six months of this Fiscal Year were very busy for the 800 Number. Through February 2008 the Average Speed of Answer was 50 seconds over the same period last year [that is a very big jump in the length of time it takes them to answer the phone --and that is a bad thing]. The Agency is somewhat concerned that we may not meet the goal of 330 seconds this year [the goal is answering the phone in five and a half minutes -- and they don't think they can meet it -- and that's just the average, which means it's a lot worse at times]. Average Busy Rate has begun to improve and we are on track to meet this year’s goal of 10% [10% busy rate is their goal. How many businesses shoot for a 10% busy rate? How many callers get frustrated and hang up after being on hold for several minutes?]. As of February, Handle Time, the total time it takes an agent to handle a call, is 15 seconds higher than the same period last year [Not a good sign. The calls are taking longer because they're getting more complicated]. It appears this trend has peaked and handle time is beginning to come down. The Agency greatly reduced SPIKE hours [the time that payment center employees are taken off the regular jobs of putting people on benefits and put to work answering the phone, which delays people getting put on the benefits for which they've been approved] this fiscal year. This means more time processing Payment Center workloads. We all enjoy the benefits of less SPIKE hours! There is good news - TSCs have hired many TSRs [Teleservice Representatives], bringing staffing levels closer to the FTE [Full Time Equivalent] floor. We probably won’t see the effects of these hires until next fiscal year as it takes time for training and for a new TSR to become proficient.
I suppose some wonder why I link to this sort of thing. This newsletter was not written to embarrass the Social Security Administration. These are just people talking about their work. Read this sort of thing and the day to day problems that Social Security employees and Social Security claimants have to face become clear. How would you like to be a Social Security employee having to deal with a confused, mentally ill claimant who had to call the 800 number a couple of times before getting through and then had to wait more than five minutes before talking with someone? How would you like to do this all day, every working day? Could you deliver high quality service? Is it the sort of service that taxpayers deserve?

Haven't Noticed Much Of This At SSA

From the Washington Post:

Joseph Wassmann thought he had a secure position producing videos for the U.S. Military Academy, but not long ago he found his job on the line because of a Bush administration plan to inject more efficiency into the federal bureaucracy.

Wassmann, 40, was among a group of information management employees at West Point who had to prove that they could do their jobs better and more cheaply than a private contractor. If they could not, they were told, the work would be outsourced. It was all part of President Bush's government-wide plan to reduce costs by inviting contractors to bid on about 425,000 federal jobs that could be considered "commercial" in nature.

The West Point competition dragged on for more than two years. In the end, Wassmann and most of his co-workers won, but only by agreeing to downsize from 119 employees to 88. And the mood has never been worse, he said. ...

The public-private face-off at West Point illustrates just what Bush envisioned when he proposed the "competitive sourcing" initiative in 2001 as part of his management agenda. It turned on a simple idea: Force federal employees to compete for their jobs against private contractors and costs will decrease, even if the work ultimately stays in-house.

But as Bush's presidency winds down, the program's critics say it has had disappointing results and shaken morale among the federal government's 1.8 million civil servants.

Private contractors have grown increasingly reluctant to participate in the competitions, which federal employees have won 83 percent of the time.

The article says that 210 Social Security employees' jobs were threatened in this way and that 84% of those employees kept their jobs. It makes you wonder why Social Security brass seem convinced that they can get much better productivity out of their employees when private enterprise seem unwilling to compete with the productivity that Social Security is already getting from those employees.

Oregon Congressman On Wednesday's Hearing

This Wednesday's House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security's budget and backlog problems did not garner much media attention, but not for lack of effort by members of the Committee. Here are some excerpts from a press release from Congressman Earl Blumenauer:
“Our nation is facing a serious problem with Social Security,” said Congressman Blumenauer. “In Oregon, where the Portland field office ranks among the worst in the nation, people are waiting an average of 705 days for their claims to be processed. ...

Due to the combination of rising claims as the baby boom generation ages and prolonged underfunding, Social Security and SSI disability claims backlogs have reached unprecedented levels. The Portland field office ranks 131 out of 145 field offices, and the wait time is 705 days for a claim to be processed.

Apr 25, 2008

New ALJ Jobs To Be Filled

According to posts on the ALJ Discussion Forum, the Office of Personnel Management has certified additional names of applicants for the position of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at Social Security. These folks may be considered for the second round of ALJ hiring. The following is the list of locations for which ALJs will be hired (with the number of Social Security's region given first):
  • 03 Charleston, WV
  • 03 Harrisburg, PA
  • 03 Pittsburgh, PA
  • 03 Richmond, VA
  • 04 Atlanta, GA
  • 04 Charlotte, NC
  • 04 Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • 04 Greenville, SC
  • 04 Jackson, MS
  • 04 Jacksonville, FL
  • 04 Lexington, KY
  • 04 Louisville, KY
  • 04 Memphis, TN
  • 04 Miami, FL
  • 04 Montgomery, AL
  • 04 Nashville, TN
  • 04 Orlando, FL
  • 04 Paducah, KY
  • 04 Raleigh, NC
  • 05 Cincinnati, OH
  • 05 Fort Wayne, IN
  • 06 Albuquerque, NM
  • 06 Alexandria, LA
  • 06 Dallas (DT), TX
  • 06 McAlester, OK
  • 06 New Orleans, LA
  • 07 St. Louis, MO

Oregon Public Radio On Wednesday's Hearing

Oregon Public Radio is running a piece on Wednesday's House Ways and Means Committee hearing. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer described the hearing as "one of the most depressing days" he has had in Congress and said the situation is a "national scandal." You can hear the broadcast online.

New Cancer Listings Proposed

New proposed Listings for Malignant Neoplastic Diseases, otherwise known as cancer, will appear in the Federal Register on Monday. You can read it today, however. At first glance, I do not detect anything startling.

McCain On Disability

From the Drudge Retort (this is the anti-Drudge site):

Sen. John McCain has long said he is in robust health and is strong enough to hike the Grand Canyon, but he also is receiving what his staff Monday termed a "disability pension" from the Navy. When McCain released his tax return for 2007 on Friday, he separately disclosed that he received a pension of $58,358 that was not listed as income on his return. On Monday, McCain's staff identified the retirement benefit as a "disability pension" and said that McCain "was retired as disabled because of his limited body movements due to injuries as a POW."

McCain, as I expect most people know, is also drawing his Social Security retirement benefits, since he is well above full retirement age.

Editorial On No-Match Rules

From Tyler Moran of New America Media(emphasis added):
On March 26, 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a proposed rule that attempts to turn a Social Security Administration (SSA) benefits program into an immigration enforcement tool. If implemented, the rule will result in tens of thousands of lawful immigrant workers and U.S. citizens losing their jobs and the loss of at least $1 billion dollars to businesses each year.

Each year, SSA sends “no-match letters” to workers and employers when the names or Social Security numbers (SSNs) listed in an employer’s records do not match SSA’s records. ...

The Bush Administration wants to use these letters as evidence that employers knowingly hired undocumented workers. The DHS rule states that if workers named in the letter are unable to correct their Social Security records within a 90-day period, the employer must fire them or risk being prosecuted for violating immigration laws.

The problem is that the letters make no statement regarding a worker’s immigration status. SSA databases that generate no-match letters do not even contain complete or accurate information about workers’ immigration status. And, of the 17.8 million discrepancies in the SSA database that could result in a no-match letter, 12.7 million (or over 70 percent) pertain to native-born U.S. citizens.

There are many reasons why a worker might receive an SSA no-match letter, including errors in SSA’s database, clerical errors made by the employer or worker in completing paperwork after being hired, the fact that the worker might have used a different name convention (such as a hyphenated name or multiple surnames) when applying for a Social Security card than he or she did when applying for a job, and name changes due to marriage, divorce, or when a worker became a naturalized citizen.

If the rule is implemented, tens of thousands of workers will be fired and businesses will lose at least $1 billion dollars per year. In its economic analysis of the proposed rule for DHS, Econometrica, Inc., estimated that up to 3.9 million employment authorized and U.S. citizen workers will receive no-match letters and need to physically go to an SSA office to correct their records. Of those, up to 70,781 workers will be fired because of their inability to resolve the discrepancy within the specified time period in the proposed rule. ...

The deadline for comments on the proposed rule is April 25, 2008.
I cannot imagine what will happen if a tsunami of almost four million Americans descend upon Social Security offices in a short period of time demanding to correct their records so they can keep their jobs. It is almost inconceivable.

I do not understand why Michael Astrue is not sending out press releases containing stark warnings. Actually, I can guess why he is saying little. He wants to be a loyal member of the Bush Administration and he expects that a court will enjoin this insanity.

If these no-match rules come to pass, will Astrue be called upon to explain why he did not speak up loudly and clearly to say that his agency was unprepared? It is not as if this is hard to foresee. Even those in the most isolated, out of touch, upper reaches of Social Security have to know that no-match will be a disaster for the agency.

OMB Having Problems With Final Regs On Ticket To Work

All federal agencies must submit any regulations they wish to propose or to finally adopt to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, for approval before publishing them in the Federal Register. Usually, OMB approves Social Security regulatory filings in a few weeks at the most.

On February 11, 2008 Social Security submitted to OMB proposed final regulations that would change the Ticket to Work program. The proposal is still at OMB awaiting disposition after two and a half months. That is rather long for a Social Security regulatory proposal to remain pending. The delay suggests that OMB is having some problem with the proposed regulations. I have no idea what the problem is. It could nothing more than a small disagreement over the computation of whatever budget effect the regulations might have or it could be a more serious policy disagreement, but there is some sticking point or these regulations would have been out quite some time ago.

Court Rules For Blind Claimants

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

[A] federal judge in San Francisco ruled Wednesday that the Social Security Administration must accommodate the needs of blind recipients of benefits when announcing decisions that affect them.

Under the Social Security Act, the agency sends certified letters, makes follow-up phone calls, or takes other steps to communicate decisions to those who are receiving benefits solely because of their blindness, but does not accommodate visually impaired people who get Social Security because of their age or other reasons.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the agency is also covered by an anti-discrimination law that requires the federal government to provide access to disabled people in all federally funded programs, including audio recordings, Braille and other aids for the blind.

Alsup gave the Social Security Administration the option of adopting regulations on visual aids or allowing the changes to be determined in further proceedings in a suit filed by the American Council of the Blind and eight individuals.

Apr 24, 2008

Social Security, Cobol And E-Cat

From Federal Computer Week:
The Social Security Administration plans to lessen its dependence on mainframe technology during the next decade or so and make many other information technology improvements during that time, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told the House Ways and Means Committee today.

The agency’s core systems comprise about 36 million lines of Cobol, Astrue said. “Given the huge amount of code we inherited,” he said, "it’s going to take some time” to shift to a more modern platform, but he promised to start the process. “I think the agency got comfortable with the Cobol technology,” Astrue said, and that now makes it more difficult to automate SSA operations. ...

Astrue said the agency wants to replace the disability determination systems used by the 50 states and four territories. SSA provides the systems, and the states operate them. Each system is different, and maintaining the separate systems is expensive and inefficient, he said.

“We’ve been negotiating with the states for about nine months” to obtain consensus on a single new system, Astrue said. “It will be an enormous step forward if we can do that.”

A new software tool called the Electronic Case Analysis Tool (eCAT) will help disability examiners collect the correct information faster, he said. An early version of eCAT was fielded prematurely “and failed miserably,” but a better development process and extensive testing should result in a different outcome next year, he said. ...

A new online application form for Social Security benefits will debut in September, replacing an 8-year-old form used by only about one in 10 retirees. The new, simplified form can be completed in one-third the time and with fewer errors, he said.

Visitors to SSA offices soon will go first to a kiosk where they will check in and register the reason for their visit. Also, waiting areas will have PCs where some visitors may be able to accomplish their business with SSA electronically ...

However, Sylvester Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, said eCAT development was not coordinated with the system’s users. “There appears to be a lack of a holistic electronic-systems strategy…linked to a well-thought-out process structure that is properly resourced and that emphasizes the interdependence of the operating components,” he stated.

Lack Of Space Argument Goes Over Poorly With One Congressman

At yesterday's hearing, Commissioner Astrue claimed that office space shortages were preventing him from adding more Administrative Law Judges. I think he was mostly talking about some particular locations, rather than generally, but it mostly sounded like a make weight argument to me. In any case, Astrue's comments about office space did not sit well with one Congressman. Here is a press release from Congressman Brian Higgins:
Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) was critical of comments made by Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue at an April 23 congressional committee hearing in which the Commissioner suggested that it would be difficult to increase the number of Administrative Law Judges and support staff at the Buffalo Hearing Office because of insufficient available office space.
Just last week Congressman Higgins and Senator Hillary Clinton wrote letters to the Commissioner insisting on more Administrative Law Judges in the Buffalo-area hearing office. The Buffalo-area office service area includes: Erie, Chautauqua, Niagara, Genesee, Ontario, Monroe, and Cattaraugus counties. According to March 2008 statistics, it takes 669 days (nearly two years) for the average Western New Yorker to have their SSA case heard and processed in the Buffalo Hearing Office and each Administrative Law Judge in Buffalo has an average caseload of 895 SSD applicants.
“Persons with disabilities are waiting two to three years for their case to be heard and the Commissioner is worried about office space,” said Congressman Higgins. “We need the Social Security Administration to re-think their priorities.”
The Social Security Administration has announced 135 Administrative Law Judge appointments in Fiscal Year 2008. Ten have been assigned to New York: 3 in New York City, 2 in Queens, 3 in Syracuse, and 2 in Albany. No new judges have been assigned to Buffalo even though the backlog has been well-documented by the Social Security Administration itself.
“If the problem is office space, I would be happy to find them available space in downtown Buffalo tomorrow,” Higgins added, pointing out that according to a Militello Realty report on downtown Buffalo property, as of January 779,228 square feet of Class A office space was vacant in the immediate downtown area.
Congressman Higgins noted that staffing shortages aren’t exclusive to the Administrative Law Judges. Staffing at Western New York field offices have decreased substantially – by approximately 170 employees - over the past 25 years, even though the need for services has increased.
The Congressman has long supported increased funding for the Social Security Administration. In January, Congressman Higgins introduced H.R. 5110, the Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act which if enacted would provide Members of Congress with detailed information on the operation and staffing of Social Security offices in their districts and around the country. Members of Congress should have ready access to this type of information, not only because it is exactly the type of information necessary to measure the effectiveness of government agencies, but also because when citizens aren’t treated properly at their local Social Security office, they immediately reach out to their local Member of Congress for expedited assistance.
“The hard-working people of Western New York who paid into the Social Security system deserve better treatment from their government,” said Congressman Higgins. “We are talking about people here, not numbers, - people who deserve an answer, one way or another, so they can plan for their future and live each day without the fear and frustration these backlogs create. An immediate alleviation of these caseloads is essential.”

House Ways And Means Committee Press Release

A press release from the House Ways and Means Committee (emphasis in original):

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The House Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing to investigate the large backlog of disability claims currently awaiting a decision by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In recent years, SSA’s workload has grown significantly due to the aging of the population and new responsibilities stemming from Medicare and homeland security legislation, yet the administrative funding SSA has received has been well below the level needed to keep up with this growing workload.

“Today, more than 1.3 million disabled Americans are waiting for Congress to do the obvious: find a solution,” said Income Security and Family Support Chairman Jim McDermott (D-WA). “We’re taking steps to fix this, because these disabled Americans deserve nothing less. The backlog in processing disability claims is a burden and barrier for disabled individuals who are waiting for critical cash assistance and health care coverage.”

The hearing focused on SSA’s backlog, its impact on applicants with severe disabilities who are awaiting a decision on their claim, and SSA’s plan to reduce the backlog.

"Due to this backlog, applicants who are suffering from severe disabling conditions often must wait for years with little or no income, and in many cases without health insurance," said Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Michael R. McNulty (D-NY). "No one can hear their stories without being convinced that we must fix this problem, and fix it soon."

Due to the combination of rising claims as the baby boom generation ages and prolonged underfunding, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability claims backlogs have reached unprecedented levels.

"Perhaps no group has faced a greater challenge as a result of these backlogs than those who are applying for Supplemental Security Income," continued Chairman McDermott. "The SSI program is often referred to as the safety net of last resort for the disabled and elderly. These folks are being forced to wait for years when many don’t have sufficient resources to buy food for the next few weeks. Making matters worse, these people often don’t have access to health care coverage, either."

More than 1.3 million applicants for disability benefits are currently awaiting a decision on their claim, and total waiting times often extend into years. In addition, as SSA tries to address the backlog crisis, the agency is forced to divert its limited resources away from its day-to-day operations in field offices and payment processing centers in order to try to manage the disability backlog. The result is an increase in long lines, delays, busy signals, and unanswered telephones, and growing concern about closures of local field offices.

"The root of the problem is simple," said Chairman McNulty. "For too long, SSA has been severely underfunded. The consequences of prolonged underfunding also extend beyond the disability backlogs. Service to the public in SSA’s local offices across the country has also declined due to staffing shortages. Our constituents increasingly face long lines, busy signals, and other delays, and field office closures are a growing concern. We cannot allow these conditions to continue. The American people deserve better."

Notice that unlike Commissioner Astrue, these committee members do not blame Administrative Law Judges for much of the problem.

Charges Against Alleged Crooks Dropped

Remember the story from January about two really stupid crooks, or I should say, alleged crooks, in New York city who wheeled a dead man through the streets in an effort to cash his Social Security checks?

The charges were dismissed. There was not enough proof that the man, who died of natural charges, was dead at the time they wheeled him through the streets.

Astrue Blames ALJs For Backlog Discrepancies

I was unable to watch the entire hearing and missed this part. From the Houston Chronicle:
Nearly six years after a top federal official promised improvements in the way disability cases are handled in Harris County, a Social Security administrator told a congressional committee Wednesday that Houstonians get different levels of service depending on which office hears their case.

Under questioning by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue acknowledged that wait times for hearings at an office in far southwest Houston are about 40 percent longer than at the downtown Houston office.

"It's our view that the issue with that office is a human issue," Astrue told the House Ways and Means Committee.

The commissioner chalked up the problem to hard-to-discipline, lifetime appointees.

He described three of the 11 administrative law judges in the southwestern office on Bissonnet as "historically very unproductive."

Calls to the Bissonnet office were referred to an administration spokesman, Mark Hinkle, who confirmed Astrue's testimony.

Hinkle would not give any further information, including the names of the judges, because, he said, "it is considered internal personnel matters."

The Association of Administrative Law Judges, the judges' professional organization, did not respond to a request for comment. ...

The average time between an appeal and hearing at the southwest office is 522 days, well above the national average of 503 days, the Social Security Administration says.

By contrast, the wait time at the downtown office is 374 days. ...

Under questioning from Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, Astrue said judges nationwide have had "serious misconduct issues and serious productivity issues." ...

"There's no accountability," Astrue said, adding, "Many commissioners have given up trying to discipline administrative law judges."

Brady praised Astrue for his plain speech. "I've never heard a commissioner as candid as he was in identifying a personnel problem," he said after the hearing. "It's refreshingly candid."

CCD Budget Recommendation

The Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), an extremely important umbrella group representing dozens of non-profits interested in disability issues, has issued its budget recommendations. Here is what they had to say about Social Security.
Limitation on Administrative Expenses
In millions
FY 2007 9,298
FY 2008 9,745
FY 2009 President's recommendation 10,327
FY 2009 CCD recommendation 11,000

Due to the serious consequences of the persistent and cumulative under-funding of SSA’s administrative expenses, CCD recommends that SSA receive for its FY 2009 Limitation on Administrative Expenses (LAE), at a minimum, the President’s request of $10.327 billion plus $240 million. However, in order for SSA to meet its responsibilities, CCD estimates that the agency needs a minimum of $11.0 billion for its FY 2009 administrative budget. This amount will allow the agency to not only significantly reduce the backlog, but also keep local offices open, provide adequate telephone services to the public, and maintain the integrity of its programs by performing more continuing disability reviews and SSI redeterminations.

Six Months For Cashing Dead Mother's Checks

From WTNH of Connecticut:

A federal judge has sentenced a Willimantic woman to six months home confinement for cashing her dead mother's Social Security checks.

Patricia Macha, 66, had pleaded guilty in January to one count of theft of government property.

Prosecutors say that between February 2001 and February 2007, Macha received more than $64,000 in Social Security benefits to which she was not entitled.

Macha has been ordered to pay full restitution at $50 per month, which will be deducted directly from her Social Security disability checks.

If my math is correct, it will take Ms. Macha over 100 years to pay back the money.

Confusing People In 15 Languages

The Social Security Administration has announced that it now offers information on the internet in the following 15 languages other than English:


Italian, but not German? Portuguese, but not Japanese? Korean, but not Hindi-Urdu? Greek, but not Swahili? There are choices to be made. Perhaps they based it upon the frequency with which they encounter immigrants speaking a particular language. Perhaps, they are working on others.

Apr 23, 2008

Rick Warsinskey On Marketplace Radio

Rick Warsinskey, the former head of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, was on Marketplace radio this morning, talking about Social Security's backlogs and budgets. You can listen to the piece online.

Excerpt From Written Statement Of Marty Ford

A very short excerpt from a much longer written statement by Marty Ford, Co-Chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Social Security Task Force, a large and important umbrella group representing many non-profits concerned with helping the disabled.
In addition, CCD also urges Congress to separate SSA’s LAE budget authority from the Section 302(a) and (b) allocations for discretionary spending. The size of SSA’s LAE is driven by the number of administrative functions it conducts to serve beneficiaries and applicants. Congress should remove SSA’s administrative functions from the discretionary budget that supports other important programs. The LAE would still be subject to the annual appropriations process and Congressional oversight.
I present this excerpt since I think this seemingly technical issue is of huge importance. There is likely to be a serious effort to remove Social Security from the budget or at least to remove it from the sort of budget limitations that apply to other agencies.

Statement Of Witold Skwierczynski

Some excerpts from the statement of Witold Skwierczynski, President of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of Social Security Field Operations Locals:
I present this statement on behalf of approximately 50,000 bargaining unit Social Security employees who work in over 1500 facilities nationwide. ...

The primary message the Union wants to convey to this Committee is that Social Security is in dire need of both additional administrative funding and Congressional oversight of its service delivery practices. ...

Claimants find it difficult to interact with a Social Security employee when they need assistance. 25 % of the calls to the 800 number are unanswered. If a claimant calls their local office they can’t get through 51% of the time. ...

Few claimants attempt to navigate the SSA hearings appeal system without representation. However, SSA has plans to encourage and assist 3rd parties in expanding the menu of services that they offer claimants for a fee. ...

Commissioner Astrue has decided to hire and train insufficient support staff that each new ALJ relies upon to prepare cases for hearing and write and process post-hearing decisions. ...

So far in FY 08 more than 61 percent of Social Security disability claims for benefits are approved in the Washington DC DDS, while just 30 percent of those who file for benefits are approved in the South Carolina DDS. New Hampshire approves the most initial SSI only disability cases with more than a 55 percent allowance rate. However, residents of Michigan, Ohio, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia are approved less than 30 % of the time by their respective DDS. ...

Removing SSA’s LAE [Limitation on Administrative Expenditures, Social Security's operating budget] from discretionary spending caps will allow Congress to assess SSA’s administrative requirements without regard to the competing budgetary demands of the Departments of Labor, HHS and Education agencies. ...

Because potential payments are involved, SSA is required to send letters to people who fail to keep appointments and notify them that their benefits will be protected for up to six (6) months. If SSA does not send this letter, the protective filing date is left open and a person could be paid years of retroactive benefits if the matter is not dealt with promptly.

However, SSA has decided NOT to apply this law to Internet claims. Under the current system, when someone initiates an application on SSA’s Internet site but cannot complete it, SSA issues a confirmation number to the individual to re-access the application but the Agency does not consider the unsuccessful attempt to file evidence of a desire to file which would protect the date of filing. ...

In fact, SSA intends to solicit 3rd parties to engage in bulk filing of electronic claims for multiple claimants. This will enable for profit companies to offer a filing service for claimants in return for a fee. ...

Additionally, AFGE records indicate that in 2007 SSA closed a record number of offices. In 2007, the Administration closed 17 offices including:

Burbank, CA

Industry Hills, CA

San Fransisco-Parkside, CA

SF Western Addition, CA

San Pedro, CA

Hallandale, FL

Miami-Central, FL

St Louis NW, MO

Warrensburg, MO

Auburn, NY

Bay Ridge, NY

N Charleston, WV

Nacogdoches, TX

Cheektowaga, NY

Bronx River, NY

Carbondale, PA

Brentwood, PA

Scheiber Statement To Ways And Means: 43% Of Re-Recons Approved

An excerpt from a much longer statement by Sylvester Schieber, Chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, to the House Ways and Means Committee:
One of the initiatives in the Commissioner’s Plan to Eliminate the Hearings Backlog is the informal remand process. Cases that were denied by the DDS and are waiting for a hearing at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) are being screened and where appropriate returned to the DDS for another look. The program has been in place for about a year now and the cases that are sent back have been purposely selected because they are the most likely to be proper allowances. Nonetheless, out of the 34,000 cases informally remanded so far, the DDSs have allowed 43 percent and well over two-thirds of those were allowed without any additional development.

Astrue Says ALJs Who Want More Staff Promote "A Fiction Designed To Sidetrack Some Of Our Productivity Initiatives"

Some excerpts from Commissioner Astrue's written statement to the House Ways and Means Committee (emphasis added):

I would like to start with Social Security’s front door, the field office. The past few years have been tough for field offices. As overall agency employment dropped from 63,569 in 2003 to 60,206 at the end of 2007, field offices felt the effect of staffing losses more intensely because so many of our activities mandated by law are performed in our field offices.

As staffing fell, workload burdens grew. The general population continued to grow, and it got older, which meant more retirement applications and more disability applications. New state laws aimed at illegal immigrants increased the number of people seeking replacement Social Security cards. New federal statutes required claims representatives, teleservice representatives, and other field staff to take on complex and time-consuming new responsibilities in Medicare Part D. This year, our field offices are processing additional requests for 1099s to help taxpayers file for payments under the stimulus bill.

Our field offices do their best, but simply cannot provide the level of service the public expects from the Social Security Administration at recent levels of funding. This Committee has recognized this problem and I would like to thank you for providing SSA with the resources to better fulfill our responsibilities to the American public. The 2008 appropriations was the first time that Congress has appropriated at or above the President’s Budget request since 1993. ...

The resource distribution problem [at ODAR] is neither obvious nor is its cause clear to me. Nonetheless, when you look at where we were a year ago, it is clear that there was a longstanding imbalance in Office of Disability Adjudication and Review resources. In particular, the Chicago and Atlanta regions were dramatically under-resourced compared to the rest of the country. The hearing offices in many of the most backlogged cities – such as Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit – were receiving 3-4 times as many filings per administrative law judge as offices in Southern California and New England.

We have moved swiftly to correct this problem. Where we can address it by changing jurisdictional lines in adjacent locations, we have done so. As an example, our suburban Pittsburgh office now serves Youngstown and other parts of eastern Ohio to take some of the burden off overloaded offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For the same reasons, we have reassigned responsibility for cases scheduled for video hearings to less busy offices. At our site in Toledo, we have video hearing capability, so that now administrative law judges in Boston assist the Toledo office with their video hearings. ...

With the allocation of the 175 newly-hired administrative law judges, we have made equalizing resources a priority even though we have received some criticism for doing so. We are sending 10 to Ohio and just 1 to New England. That is not a regional bias – I am from Boston myself – but a data-driven decision that recognizes that there is a strong correlation between filings per administrative law judge and cases pending. ...

We have also received some criticism that we are not providing adequate support staff for our administrative law judge corps. In my opinion, that is a fiction designed to sidetrack some of our productivity initiatives. Since I began as Commissioner, I have increased the number of support staff per ALJ from 4.1 to 4.4. The number of staff needed to support a disposition will change as we fully implement the backlog plan, but at the moment that number is difficult to project with any certainty. We know that automating many of our clerical functions will reduce the amount of time spent by staff on more routine tasks, and allow them to absorb additional workloads. We are also working to standardize our business process, which should result in additional staff efficiencies. We will continue to monitor the appropriate staff to ALJ ratio as the new processes are implemented. ...

We have other possible improvements in the pipeline. In June, we expect to start a 6-month pilot program with the National Organization of Social Security Claims Representatives, an association primarily comprised of lawyers. In this pilot, we are testing a program that will allow representatives to conduct video hearings from their offices. This initiative should offer convenience and comfort for many claimants, save time for attorneys, and cut down on our investment in bricks and mortar, a cost which increases above the rate of inflation year after year.
I did not realize that I and the vast majority of ALJs were promoting a fiction designed to sidetrack productivity gains at ODAR. To be blunt, how does Michael Astue have enough experience at Social Security to make such an inflammatory statement impugning the motivations of ALJs with many years of experience on the frontlines? Astrue is making enemies of ALJs whose cooperation he needs.

Watch Ways And Means Committee Hearing

Today's House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security's backlogs and staffing problems will be available in live streaming video at 10:00 EDT.

C-SPAN is not planning to broadcast it. They are doing a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Darfur instead. It is a shame that we cannot get George Clooney interested in Social Security matters! Of course, you have to figure in that C-SPAN's fourth most watched program recently was a Ralph Nader campaign event and its sixth most watched program was entitled "Proust Was A Neuroscientist."

Bill To Require Plain Language Advances

This is Social Security Legislative Bulletin 110-21:

On April 14, 2008, the House of Representatives passed on a motion to suspend the rules H.R. 3548, a bill to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing plain language as the standard style for Government documents issued to the public, and for other purposes. Of interest to SSA:

• The bill would require Federal Agencies, including SSA, to use plain language when writing documents that will be viewed by the public on how to obtain a benefit or service. This would include updates to already established forms and other publications; effective within one year after enactment.

• The bill would require Federal Agencies, including SSA, to follow the guidance of the Plain English Handbook published by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, or their own plain language guidance as long as it is consistent with the Federal Plain Language Guidelines; effective within one year after enactment.

• The bill would require, within six months of enactment, the head of each Federal Agency, including the Commissioner of SSA, to submit to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs an initial report describing how it would: (1) communicate the bill's objectives to agency employees; (2) train agency employees to write in plain language: (3) ensure ongoing compliance; (4) meet the requirement to use plain language in new documents within one year of the date of enactment; and, (5) designate a senior official to be responsible for implementation, and, to the extent practicable and appropriate, use of plain language in regulations promulgated by the agency. (NOTE: Agencies would not be required to write regulations in plain language.).

• The bill would further require the head of each Federal Agency, including the Commissioner of SSA, to submit to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs a report on the agency's compliance with the bill and efforts to meet the objectives described above annually for the first two years following enactment and then once every three years thereafter.

"Legalized Thievery Of Attorney Fee Payments"

From the Ada Evening News of Oklahoma:
According to a letter sent to Oklahoma congressman Dan Boren by Ada lawyer Casey L. Saunders, recent legal decisions in the Muskogee area may affect the availability of residents to find legal representation for social security disability appeals.

Saunders wrote in his letter that “the Treasury and the Social Security Administration (SSA) are working in concert throughout the country to promote the placement of all Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) attorney fee payments into the name of the plaintiff and then to use these payments to offset the plaintiff’s federal debts whenever possible.

“This policy involves legalized thievery of attorney fee payments. The federal government has no right to these payments which are intended to compensate attorneys for their work in representing social security disability claimants.

“It is incomprehensible that the federal government would involve itself in this sleazy practice.”

Previously when attorney fees were paid by the government, the funds usually went directly to the attorney.

Big LTD Case To Be Heard By Supreme Court Today

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in Met Life v. Glenn, a big case involving Long Term Disability (LTD) benefits under company pension plans. The Associated Press is reporting on the case which presents the issue of whether there is an impermissible conflict of interest in an insurance company deciding upon appeals of denials of LTD claims when the insurance company has to pay the benefits out of pocket. If the disabled person wins, LTD will be changed forever, probably dramatically.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Solicitor General has filed a brief in favor of the disabled woman and against the insurance company.

Apr 22, 2008

ABC Is Interested In Tomorrow's Hearing

From Tom Shine's blog, Politics As Usual, at ABC (the capitalization is Shine's and the bolding is mine):
She lived in Key West, Florida. One day her husband shot her 5 times in the liver and abdomen and then killed himself. In AUGUST 2004 she applied for social security disability benefits. Her disabilities were caused by the 5 wounds and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After a delay, her claim was denied. In APRIL 2006, she requested a hearing. It took nearly two years, but in EARLY MARCH of 2008, she got her hearing. In LATE MARCH of 2008 SHE DIED. AFTER hear death social security ruled in her favor.

He lived in Charlotte, North Carolina and worked for 15 years as a pipe insulator. He usually also worked a second job. At age 52 he was suffering from congestive heart failure, chronic atrial fibrillation, pneumonia, obesity and peripheral artery disease. He applied for social security disability benefits in MARCH of 2006. He was denied. In NOVEMBER of 2006 he requested a hearing. He DIED on AUGUST 21, 2007. FOUR MONTHS LATER, on DECEMBER 27, 2007, social security RULED IN HIS FAVOR WITHOUT A HEARING.

Tomorrow, a group called the consortium for citizens with disabilities will testify before a house ways and means committee. They have a lot of stories to tell.

According to committee staffers, currently more than 1.3 MILLION Americans are waiting for a decision on their application for disability benefits. For those who APPEAL the wait for a decision can be as long as TWO to FOUR YEARS.

Severely under funded and understaffed, the Social Security Disability program has not been a priority for the President or most members of Congress.

Syracuse TV Station On Backlogs

From WSYR in Syracuse, NY:
If you get so sick or injured that you can’t work anymore, Social Security disability kicks in. But it may take a few months for benefits to go into effect.

Currently, it takes nearly three months just to process disability applications. If they go to hearing, it could take up to a year and a half.

The report deals with the issues associated with the five month waiting period for Disability Insurance Benefits, using the example of a man with pancreatic cancer who may not live that long.

I Hope This Doesn't Involve Many Employees

A notice posted by the Social Security Administration seeking a contractor to do medical testing of employees for asbestos contamination:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a known requirement for a contractor to provide complete occupational medical testing services for SSA employees exposed to asbestos concentrations. The contractor shall arrange to provide examinations from a self-contained MOBILE UNIT ON-SITE at the SSA facility located at 6401 Security Boulevard, Woodlawn, MD 21235 when at least 10 employees are to be examined. If fewer than 10 employees are to be examined the employee(s) may visit the contractor’s site upon a one-week notification from SSA.

Apr 21, 2008

Is HALLEX Defunct?

Social Security has a manual for its Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), called HALLEX. Almost two years ago, ODAR basically stopped updating HALLEX, at least so far as one can tell by looking at it online. Clearly, HALLEX is out of date now -- if the publicly available version of HALLEX can be trusted.

What is the explanation? Is HALLEX defunct? Is it still valid, but just not up to date because of lack of manpower at ODAR? Has it been updated, but ODAR is just keeping the updates confidential? Most of Social Security's Emergency Messages are being kept from the public. The only reason that I can imagine for trying to keep them secret is a general increase in pointless federal government secrecy during the Bush Administration. I hope that the answer is not "Well, the updates are really boring and we thought you wouldn't be interested, so we just didn't bother to post them online." You might be amazed at how interested I and other attorneys can be in these boring things, especially when it looks like someone is trying to keep them secret.

Master And Sub Accounts -- And Allsup

From today's Federal Register:
We are issuing this notice to obtain public input regarding an anticipated change to an Agency payment procedure that permits benefit payments to be deposited into a third-party's ``master'' account when the third party maintains separate ``sub'' accounts for individual beneficiaries. We anticipate changing our current procedure in light of concerns about how high-interest lenders are using this master/sub account procedure. We are also seeking comments on the practice that some beneficiaries follow of preauthorizing their banks to transfer their benefits to lenders immediately after the benefits are deposited into their accounts.
I think this has also been used by Long Term Disability (LTD) insurers to collect their offset against Social Security disability benefits. Allsup, which represents many LTD recipients before Social Security at the behest of their LTD insurers, advertises its "Overpayment Recovery Service", through which Allsup "Withdraw[s] overpayment funds directly from claimant’s bank account using our patented electronic process."

This my explain why attorneys who represent Social Security claimants, such as myself, exhibit some disdain for Allsup.

Witness List For Ways And Means Committee Hearing

The House Ways and Means Committee has released the following tentative witness list for its full committee hearing on Wednesday on Social Security's backlogs:


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


Sylvester J. Schieber, Chairman, Social Security Advisory Board

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

Witold Skwierczynski, President of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of Social Security Field Operations Locals, Baltimore, Maryland

Mara Mayor, Member, AARP Board of Directors, Bethesda, Maryland

The Honorable Frederick Waitsman, Administrative Law Judge, Social Security Administration, and Vice Chair, Social Security Section of the Federal Bar Association, Atlanta, Georgia

The hearing is at 10:00 and should be available in streaming video. I would guess that there is a good chance that C-SPAN will be broadcasting the hearing, but we will have to wait to see on that one. I have to keep emphasizing that this is a full committee hearing, which makes it a much bigger deal than a Social Security Subcommittee hearing, not that a Subcommittee hearing is unimportant.

Commendation For Field Office Operations Supervisor

From the Tacoma News Tribune:
Lisa Black of Bonney Lake said she learned all she needed to know about handling handcuffs from watching “COPS” on TV.

That knowledge came in handy last month at the South Seattle Social Security Administration office where she works. A knife-wielding man tried to enter the office minutes before it opened and stabbed the office guard.

Black’s actions earned her a commendation this month from Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson for her “bravery and humanitarian spirit in the face of life-threatening danger.” The certificate was presented at a City Council meeting.

Black, 45, is the operations supervisor for the office and a 13-year SSA employee. She said the real heroes were office guard John Robinson, 45, of Tacoma and a parking attendant from the building.

The morning of March 19, Black said, the sound of the office alarm going off sent her running toward the front door shortly before 9 a.m. There she found Robinson lying on top of two other men.

Blood covered his face and head where he had been stabbed. He couldn’t see because of the blood in his eyes.

Beneath Robinson was the parking attendant who just happened to be passing by when the fight erupted in the small hallway leading to the door. The attendant saw the man with the knife fighting with the guard. He and Robinson brought the assailant to the floor.

“I was kind of holding John’s hand, and the guy started struggling,” Black said. “He said, ‘Get off me!’ He started moving around.

He was a big guy, at least 250 pounds and over 6 feet tall, she said.<

The parking attendant told her he may not be able to hold the assailant’s wrists much longer.

Black reacted. She knew Robinson had handcuffs on a clip on his utility belt, so she grabbed them.

“I had watched ‘COPS’,” she said. “I knew how to open them.

“I just acted. I didn’t have a thought pattern. I knew I had to do everything necessary so he wouldn’t get up,” she said.

Black had to pull his one hand closer and finally secured the handcuffs on him. The man gave up struggling and the police arrived.

Black, who is the mother of two daughters, ages 15 and 26, said the blood on her clothes and hands was easily washed away. Robinson, on the other hand, was hurt and is still home recuperating. He is employed by Federal Protective Services, a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Asked why she jumped into the fray instead of standing back like others in the hallway, Black said: “This is my office. He (Robinson) is my friend. I couldn’t just watch.”

Upset and loud people are a part of her federal office, she said, but one attack like that in a career is enough.

“I’m hoping I never have to do that again.”

New Cancer Listings Coming

All federal agencies much clear new Notices of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRMs) with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House before publishing them in the Federal Register for public comment. OMB has just cleared the following item, which should appear in the Federal Register shortly:

TITLE: Revised Medical Criteria for Malignant Neoplastic Diseases (3429P)
** COMPLETED: 04/18/2008 COMPLETED ACTION: Consistent without Change

Oh, yes. Malignant neoplastic diseases means cancer.