I am not in Los Angeles for the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). Eric Schnaufer is there and has sent this summary of what he has heard so far:
At the plenary session today at the NOSSCR conference in Los Angeles, there were four speakers: Commissioner Michael Astrue, Deputy Commissioner Lisa deSoto, Chief ALJ Frank Cristaudo, and NOSSCR Executive Director Nancy Shor. In this message, I summarize the most important news for claimants' representatives.
1. Commissioner Astrue will not use his authority to increase the fee-agreement amount from its current $5,300. On an annual basis, he will consider raising the amount. The Commissioner stated that there was political pressure from advocates for claimants (not their representatives) not to increase the fee-agreement amount. Commissioner Astrue would not increase the amount to avoid a "political controversy." There was a "zero-sum game" between claimants and their representatives regarding the amount. He stated that some Agency employees in the Old Guard (not his term) had a "chip on their shoulder" (his term) regarding the amount.
Nancy Shor stated that NOSSCR was working "very hard" to have the amount increased, that only legislation will change the amount, and that NOSSCR planned to ask its members to lobby Congress during the next NOSSCR conference in D.C.
2. Commissioner Astrue stated that the Agency will not issue new regulations for three to four months after the new administration takes office. He anticipated issuing final regulations before then for the NPRM regarding firms as representatives. He stated that the Agency recognized that there were technical errors in the firms as representatives NPRM. He solicited additional comments, the deadline for which is 11/7/08. NOSSCR will meet with the Commissioner on 10/28/08 regarding the NPRM. (Charles Hall has presented extensive comments on this blog.)
3. The budgetary situation is grave. The Agency will operate under the Continuing Resolution until March 2009. Commissioner Astrue stated that the Agency really has no independence with respect to its budget. Commissioner Astrue stated that there was a 1-3 hiring freeze in the Agency and a 1-1 replacement in ODAR. The Agency will hire 70 FTEs in FY09.
4. Judge Cristaudo stated that ODAR's goal was to have 90-day hearing notices. However, he emphasized that ODAR must use shorter notices to keep hearings scheduled. Judge Cristaudo noted that at least 1 firm has asked ODAR not to schedule so many hearings. The Judge stated that that was unacceptable.
Judge Cristaudo proposed an open dialgoue between representatives and their local Hearing Office Chief ALJs and Hearing Office Managers.