Apr 30, 2009

Lawsuit Gets Results For Gay Father

From a press release from Lambda Legal:
... [T]he Social Security Administration (SSA) reversed its prior determination to deny benefits to the children of a disabled gay father in Lambda Legal’s case representing the family against apparent antigay discrimination by the federal government. ...

In February of 2006, Day completed the applications for Child Insurance Benefits for his children. He provided birth certificates and court documents that acknowledge him as a legal parent of the children. The SSA acknowledged that they received the application and promised to provide a response in 45 days.

After more than a year with no response, Lambda Legal sent a letter on Day's behalf seeking action by the agency. The SSA still did not provide an initial determination of eligibility citing unspecified "legal questions and policy issues" involved with the application. Day provided all the necessary documentation to establish a legitimate parent-child relationship and fulfilled all of the SSA's prerequisites, yet his family was left without the social safety net that Day had paid into for decades and that all other families are provided on a regular basis.

In May 2008, Lambda Legal, along with co-counsel from McDermott Will & Emery LLP, filed suit against the SSA compelling the agency to act on Day’s application and urging the SSA to recognize Day as a legal parent of the children. Today’s letter recognizes the legal relationship between Day and his children without discrimination based on his sexual orientation or family status.
This may have something to do with Social Security's limited recognition of the effects of civil unions. You do know that Social Security recognizes them to a limited extent, don't you? That was decided almost a year ago.

Apr 29, 2009

Telework Changes Coming

From Alyssa Rosenberg at Government Executive:

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on Wednesday announced a broad new telework plan for employees, in part to deal with growing concern over the spread of swine flu in the United States. ...

It calls for a council of program managers to develop standards for telework, and requires agencies to submit telework policies to that council for review. It also asks agencies to designate a telework managing officer and create an appeals process for employees who are denied permission to use the work arrangement. Additionally, it would establish training programs to prepare employees to telework and curb managerial opposition. OPM would be in charge of providing technical assistance.

NC Furloughs State Employees But Exempts DDS

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has just announced a furlough of state employees, but has limited it to those "whose salaries are paid in whole or in part from moneys appropriated" by the state, thus exempting employees of the North Carolina Disability Determination Service, (DDS) who make initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims, since their salaries are paid for by the federal government.

Update: Perdue's order seems clear to me, but employees at NC DDS remain uncertain about whether the furlough will affect them.

Plans Old And New

The written statements for yesterday's Social Security Subcommittee hearing are available online. Here are a few excerpts:
Mary Glenn-Croft, Deputy Commissioner for Budget, Finance and Management, Social Security Administration:
We will use a significant portion of this funding to hire and train new employees and to provide additional overtime so that we can process critical workloads. ...
  • Our field operations will hire 1,500 employees in local field offices, teleservice centers, and processing centers;
  • Our hearings offices will hire 550 new employees and 35 additional administrative law judges, and
  • State disability determination services (DDS) throughout the country will hire 300 additional disability examiners.
Robert Hewell, Acting Deputy Commissioner, Public Building Service, General Services Administration
[Schedule for new National Computer Center]:
  • Site Acquisition: 2nd quarter FY2010
  • Design-build contract awarded: 2nd quarter FY2011
  • Construction completion: 1st quarter FY2014
Valerie Melvin, Director of Information Management and Human Capital Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office:
Finally, a number of initiatives undertaken by SSA to improve the disability process and potentially remedy backlogs have faltered for a variety of reasons, including poor planning and execution. In fact, some initiatives had the effect of slowing processing times by reducing staff capacity, increasing the number of appeals, or complicating the decision process. Several other initiatives improved the process, but were too costly and subsequently abandoned. This was the case for several facets of a major 1997 initiative, known as the “Disability Process Redesign,” which sought to streamline and expedite disability decisions for both initial claims and appeals. In the past, we reported that various initiatives within this effort became problematic and were largely discontinued due to their ineffectiveness and high cost. Further, implementation of an electronic system enhanced some aspects of the disability claims process, but also caused delays due to systemic instability and shutdowns at the DDS and hearings offices.9 Further, the “Hearings Process Improvement” initiative, implemented in 2000, involved reorganizing hearing office staff and responsibilities with the goal of reducing the number of appeals. However, many of the senior SSA officials we spoke with expressed the opinion that this initiative left key workloads unattended and was therefore responsible for dramatic increases in delays and processing times at the hearings level.
[Is it churlish to point out that GAO was a cheerleader for all of these ill-considered plans?]

Update: The GAO report originally linked on the Social Security Subcommittee website was for the GAO testimony at the Social Security Subcommittee hearing in March. They have now updated their website to correctly link to the testimony delivered yesterday. This GAO report is extremely preliminary.

Sylvester J. Schieber, Chairman, Social Security Advisory Board

You might wonder why I would suggest that many in the American public would find taking five years or more to build a new computer center and another two to three years to get the operating equipment in place as laughable. I do not believe that most people would consider the five-to-eight-year time frame involved would reflect the urgency this project deserves given the national dependence on this agency. I do not believe that most people would accept that we could not do this on a more timely basis if we were truly committed to the task.

Apr 28, 2009

Employment Numbers

Below are the December 2008 figures for the number of employees at Social Security, recently released by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), along with earlier figures for comparison purposes. It is interesting that the figure remains almost identical to what it was in December 2006, shortly after the election that made Democrats the majority party in both houses of Congress.
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990
  • June 2008 63,622
  • March 2008 60,465
  • December 2007 61,822
  • September 2007 62,407
  • June 2007 62,530
  • March 2007 61,867
  • December 2006 63,410
  • September 2006 63,647
  • September 2005 66,147
  • September 2004 65,258
  • September 2003 64,903
  • September 2002 64,648
  • September 2001 65,377
  • September 2000 64,521
  • September 1999 63,957
  • September 1998 65,629

Apr 27, 2009

Furloughs Worthless

From the Central Jersey Courier News:
State officials have done the right thing in taking a hard line pushing through once-a-month furloughs of state workers.

But the goal of the furloughs is supposed to be saving money. So why is the program also swallowing up the state workers paid with federal funds? Those furloughs won't save the state a dime.

Officials have said only that it's a "policy decision," which can be translated as, "We don't have a reason we want to tell you, so stop questioning us." ...

Even the feds don't want the furloughs. The Social Security Administration, for instance, has requested exemptions in New Jersey and other states for the state workers it pays to evaluate disability claims. ...

We urge exemptions from furloughs for those state workers paid with federal funds.

Time Will Tell How Significant This Moment Is

This broadcast e-mail went out earlier today from David Foster the Deputy Commissioner for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) to all ODAR employees:
Date: April 27, 2009

Subject: Tipping the Backlog

It is my pleasure to report to you that this month, we turned the corner on the disability backlog. We started the year with a pending of 760,813 cases and we ended April at 756,107 cases. My congratulations to everyone.

I will be asking the office managers to find a way to celebrate this moment. While we are still a far cry from moving the disability backlog to 466,000 cases, these moments come rarely and they must be enjoyed.

Great job! David

Wintess List For Congressional Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee announced the following witness list for its hearing on Tuesday, April 28 on Social Security's implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA):
  • Mary Glenn-Croft, Deputy Commissioner for Budget, Finance and Management, Social Security Administration
  • Rob Hewell, Acting Deputy Commissioner, Public Buildings Service, United States General Services Administration
  • The Honorable Patrick O’Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration
  • Valerie Melvin, Director of Information Management and Human Capital Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office
  • Sylvester J. Schieber, Chairman, Social Security Advisory Board
Schieber has already posted what appears to be his written statement or at least an attachment for his written statement on the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) website. The title is "Bridging the Gap: Improving SSA’s Public Service through Technology." This is in line with Schieber's apparent belief that the way to solve Social Security's service delivery problems is by investing in technology.

I certainly agree that Social Security needs technological improvement, but it seems obvious at ground level that the only thing that will solve Social Security's service delivery problem is more manpower. We have not seen much from the SSAB about Social Security's manpower needs. This seems unbalanced and misleading to me.

It is interesting that there will be a witness from the Public Buildings Service at General Services Administration (GSA). If Social Security is going to hire many more personnel, it is going to need to lease additional office space. GSA does this for the federal government. GSA has a longstanding reputation for being incredibly slow at acquiring office space.

Apr 26, 2009

Union Newsletter

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a labor union which represents most Social Security employees, has posted its March 2009 newsletter. It contains articles about::
  • The union's hopes for the Obama Administration
  • The union's problems with some Social Security managers and policies,
  • A dinner in honor of the 50th year of service of Jim Marshall, who is head of AFGE Council 215 which represents most employees of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR)
  • Bonuses paid to Social Security management.


The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued an "Issue Brief" on the subject of Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), a concept used in the Social Security disability programs. Basically, if one is engaging in SGA, one cannot be considered disabled, but SGA is a term of art. Work may not be SGA if low earnings, unsuccessful work attempts, made work, subsidized employment, impairment related work expenses, trial work periods, etc. are taken into consideration. And don't get me started on self-employment as SGA or the effect of blindness on SGA.

There has been a consensus for some years that the whole concept of SGA needs a fresh look. One of the more common themes is that SGA should be a ramp instead of a cliff. I don't know how to quickly explain the ramp-cliff distinction but if you've read this far, you probably already know what I'm talking about. Despite the consensus, nothing has been done about SGA since doing something will probably mean more people will get on or stay on Social Security disability benefits. That costs money,which didn't appeal to either President Bush or Clinton.

Other than discussing the bizarre aspect of how blindness affects SGA the "Issue Brief" is mostly superficial, but still useful, since it does point to an area of the law that is long overdue for reform, at a time when reform may be politically feasible.

One suggestion: The biggest problem now is that SGA is just too complicated. Claimants have no idea how it works. Even many Social Security employees what should understand how SGA works, don't. The best work incentives imaginable won't work if claimants don't understand them and Social Security has great difficulty administering them. The first goal should be simplification. Going to a ramp instead of a cliff will help, but that would just be a start.

Apr 25, 2009

SSI: Crackpots With Money

From the website of the Social Security Institute (SSI):
The Social Security Institute (SSI) is a national, 501(c)(4) non-profit, non-partisan seniors’ advocacy organization working to promote the retirement security of today’s seniors and the seniors of tomorrow. SSI’s top policy priorities are to stop the raid on the Social Security Trust Funds, prevent cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, and protect seniors from health care rationing and other limitations on their access to health care.
And this is their explanation of what they mean by the "raid on the Social Security Trust Funds:"
The Administration intends to spend half the Social Security surplus during this year and next to bail out big, bad banks. The total Social Security surplus in 2009 is projected to equal $217 billion; the Obama Administration proposes to spend $125 billon of it to bail out the banks. The total Social Security surplus in 2010 is projected to equal $231.1 billion; The Obama Administration proposes to spend $125 billion of it to bail out the banks. Had enough? Mad enough? Riled up enough? Sign the petition to stop raiding Social Security and future generations to bail out big, bad banks and insurance companies.
OK, investing the Social Security trust funds in U.S. government bonds that go to pay for things that this group does not like is a "raid" on the Social Security trust funds. So, what should Social Security do with the money in the trust funds? Invest in the U.S. stock market? That doesn't look like quite as good an option as it did a couple of years ago to anyone, including this group The SSI website recommends that individuals invest in gold, foreign currencies and foreign stocks. Maybe that is how the group wants to invest Social Security trust funds.

I would guess that the SSI is quite well funded. Their website is well designed. They has at least three staff members.

By the way, the SSI website throws around the word "fascism" quite freely.

NCSSMA Newsletter

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has issued its April 2009 Newsletter. Among other things, the newsletter includes an interview with David Foster, the new Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), and a piece written by a woman who went from working in Social Security field offices to working as a group supervisor at ODAR.

Not Likely To Happen Here

The National Post reports that a court in Ontario, Canada has held that a Canadian law that excludes alcoholics and drug addicts from receiving disability payments violates the provincial Human Rights Code.

Apr 24, 2009

Notices About $250 Payments Already Causing Confusion

The notices that Social Security has sent out about the $250 economic stimulus payments are already causing confusion. See the short piece in the Miami Herald. Telling people about the SSI consequences of holding onto the $250 payment for more than nine months may have been TMI (Too Much Information).

Apr 23, 2009

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

What Brings About Your Interest In Social Security News

I work at Social Security Central Offices (33) 16%
I Work In Social Security Field Operations (35) 17%
I Work In Some Other Part Of Social Security (36) 18%
I Am Involved In Representing Social Security Claimants (71) 35%
I Work At A Non-Profit Interested In Social Security (1) 0%
I Am Involved In Lobbying (0) 0%
I Work In A Congressional Office (2) 1%
I Work For Some Government Agency Other Than Social Security (5) 2%
I Work At A DDS (8) 4%
I Am A Social Security Claimant Or Recipient (14) 7%

Total Votes: 205

Apr 22, 2009

Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee has announced an oversight hearing to be held on April 28 to review Social Security's progress in implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that gave the agency new funding to work down its backlogs and build a new national computer center and gave the agency new responsibilities in implementing a special $250 payment to most beneficiaries.

Is This Worth The Money?

Today's Federal Register contains an announcement that Social Security is planning to form a Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC) with the idea of encouraging saving for retirement. According to the announcement:
The Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC) will be an innovative, non-partisan multidisciplinary research and development (R&D)initiative to develop products to better inform the public about key financial literacy topics related to retirement savings and planning. We are interested in developing products--such as Internet tools as well as print materials--that help foster retirement and other savings strategies at all stages of the life cycle.
Encouraging people to save for retirement is certainly a good thing. However, I see little hope that the Social Security Administration can do anything to significantly encourage saving. This seems like a waste of money at a time when Social Security's budget is so tight that the agency has enormous backlogs and cannot answer its telephones. It is also a distraction from Social Security's core mission. This sounds like a Congressional earmark. Is it?

Apr 21, 2009

How To Spend $250?

The Social Security Administration now has a webpage that asks recipients of the $250 economic stimulus payments how they plan to spend the money. The agency plans to post some of the responses.

What Can I Say?

From the Greenwood (MS) Commonwealth(emphasis added):
Joseph Simpson Jr. walks with the pained shuffle of a man much older than his 53 years.

The lifelong McCarley resident has diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure, bad sinus problems and an unknown ailment that causes him pain both when he sits and stands.

What Simpson doesn’t have is health insurance or Social Security disability, even though he is qualified based on his 33 years of uninterrupted work.

The problem, according to his uncle, James Dukes of Carroll County, is Simpson didn’t pursue applying for disability like he should have when he quit being able to work in May 2007.

“He should have followed up, and he didn’t follow up,” Dukes said. “Social Security disability didn’t drop the ball. Junior dropped the ball.” ...

Simpson applied for disability before getting a diagnosis, though. When he was turned down, he hired a lawyer whose commercial he had seen on television.

That decision has been the source of most of his troubles, according to Dukes. They have never been able to speak with the attorney personally, and his secretary tells them the lawyer will do nothing until 20 days before a disability hearing date. Social Security has yet to schedule Simpson. ...

Last week, he let his attorney go and gave Dukes the ability to represent him.

Lockheed Martin And Social Security

From the Baltimore Sun:
Lockheed Martin, one of Baltimore County's larger employers, officially opened its sixth facility Monday in Woodlawn and announced plans to add 160 information technology jobs to a work force that exceeds 1,500.

The company's Information Systems & Global Services division has refurbished and rewired a nearly 42,000-square-foot brick building on Woodlawn Drive near the Social Security Administration complex. In the past year, the company has hired about 200 employees in its efforts to provide a wide variety of services to SSA, which is continuing modernization efforts.

The proximity of the service provider to its federal customer reflects a partnership fostered during the past two decades, William S. Gray, deputy commissioner for systems at SSA, said at Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. ...

"We have to have the best Web site in government and a seamless serving architect that makes sure the system is up and available continually," he told the crowd of about 100 officials and company employees. "Lockheed Martin has provided sound expertise and counseled us on how to improve."

Apr 20, 2009

Biden On Social Security

From the Pittsburg Tribune-Review:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced last month that Social Security beneficiaries will get one-time $250 stimulus bonus payments beginning in May.

He didn't mention that he will be one of the recipients.

The annual tax returns for Biden and his wife, Jill, released last week, show he began collecting Social Security benefits in 2008. He became eligible for full benefits in November when he reached age 66. ...

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is a year older than Biden, did not list any Social Security income on his final financial disclosure statement filed a year ago.

NADE Newsletter: Denials Are Less Accurate Than Allowances And The Meaning Of Relevance

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the people who make initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims, has issued its Spring 2009 Newsletter. It is not surprising that much of the newsletter is devoted to the furloughs hitting many NADE members, who are almost all state employees, but there are other interesting things discussed.

Here are a couple of excerpts from an article about a meeting between NADE officials and Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue:
SSA is continuing to explore the possibility of expanding the Single Decision-Maker (SDM) model and expanding the list of conditions to be included in the Compassionate Allowances (CAL) initiative. However the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is not considering any new regulations until the economic problems have been addressed ...

NADE also renewed its call for a reduction in the 15 year vocationally relevant time period to 5 years. The Commissioner reported that the Agency was seriously considering this proposal and Associate Commissioner Glenn Sklar reported he had formed a workgroup to examine this proposal and that he expected a reduction would be forthcoming. While it may not be 5 years, it would be considerably less than the current 15 years. [Apparently, they are thinking about ten years. See below.]
Here is a little nugget from an article about a meeting between the NADE Board of Directors and Kelly Croft, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Quality Performance:
The Office of Quality Performance has changed the pull [of disability determinations made at the initial and reconsideration levels by NADE members] for Pre-Effectuation Review (PER) cases to one that is more of an integrity review. ...

40,000 denials will be reviewed at random (with probably more reconsiderations being reviewed). Denial case accuracy runs 90-91%. Allowance accuracy rates are 97-98%.
Social Security agrees that initial and reconsideration allowances are much more accurate than denials. A lot of people who represent claimants have been saying that for years.

This article also says that "An Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel is in place and conducting a study to change the time frame for past relevant work (PRW) from 15 years to 10 years." I did not know that the definition of past relevant work was part of that group's charter. The article quoted above indicates that Glenn Sklar is forming a workgroup to study the issue. Sklar's workgroup and the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel's study on this issue may be the same thing.

While the issue of how far back past work may be considered relevant is heating up, it has been under study for years and may remain under study for many more years. The issue needs little study. The problem is that reducing this time period to five years would cost money -- probably not much, but some. It would be fairer, but when fairness in disability determination collides with budget considerations, the budget almost always wins.

Think about it. If you last worked at a job 14 years ago, do you think you could pick back up on that job and be able to perform it again without additional training? The answer is obviously "no" and the answer would be the same even if you reduced the time period to ten years or even seven. Resuming an old job without additional training after even five years could be a stretch. This may sound boring and technical but claimants are being denied based upon a policy that, as best I can tell, no one is willing to defend.

How Independent Is The Social Security Commissioner?

Michael Astrue was the keynote speaker at a TechAmerica meeting on March 3, 2009. TechAmerica is apparently a trade industry group. A video of the 50 minute presentation is available online.

The most interesting thing that I learned from watching this is that last fall Astrue won a longstanding battle with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Because of his victory he was finally able to tell Congress that his agency needed a new national computer center.

Some questions come to mind:
  • Why would Astrue need OMB permission to tell Congress that Social Security needs a new national computer center? The Commissioner of Social Security is not only allowed, but required, by statute to give Congress his or her own budget for the agency. The statute contemplates that the Commissioner of Social Security will have more independence than Astrue is able or willing to exercise.
  • When he was interviewed by the White House before being nominated to become Social Security Commissioner did Astrue make a promise to the Bush Administration that he would not exercise any budgetary independence? Does he still feel bound by such promises?
  • Is Astrue such a team player that he cannot imagine not getting the approval of the White House before telling Congress what Social Security needs?
  • Does OMB have so much power that Astrue feels that it would be suicidal for him to exercise the budgetary independence given him by statute?
  • Could it be that Michael Astrue would love to tell Congress and the American people how many employees his agency needs to properly do its work, but he is waiting for OMB permission?
  • If Social Security Commissioners have as little independence as Astrue is saying, why are we pretending that Social Security is an independent agency?

Apr 19, 2009

Iowa Helping New York

From Radio Iowa News
The employees at Social Security offices in Iowa will soon be busier helping congested offices in New York. Offices in Carroll, Creston, and Ottumwa will electronically handle hundreds of claims from thousands of miles away.

Social Security regional commissioner, Michael Grochowski, says the offices have the capacity to handle the additional work, especially compared to locations in New York.

"You can come into our office here without an appointment, and you're probably going to be served in five or ten minutes. If you've got an appointment, they serve you in two or three minutes, if not right on the dime. We have places in the country that you wait an hour. You wait a half hour if you have an appointment," Grochowski explains.

"We're going to pair up with some offices in the New York region, especially in their metropolitan areas, where they can't keep up with walk-in. When their doors open up, they have 100 or 150 people at the door everyday."


Just a few days ago there was a report that state employees who make disability determinations for the Social Security Administration in New Jersey might be furloughed because of a state budget shortfall, even though the federal government is paying all the costs associated with these employees. A South Jersey Courier Post article shows that this will soon be a reality. The article gives the following list of states who are furloughing or will soon furlough disability determination employees:
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
In New Jersey, 18% of state employees are funded by sources other than state appropriations. Almost all will be furloughed.

VOIP No Substitute For Warm Bodies

From the minutes of the March 16-19, 2009 meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel. The meeting included a session with Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and Social Security Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Linda McMahon:
TSRP/VOIP [Telephone Systems Replacement Project/Voice Over Internet Protocol] – The new equipment does little to help us answer phones more effectively. Nor does it revolutionize our service delivery. It would be helpful to be able to divert phone calls to another place, perhaps the TSC [Teleservice Centers, which are also overworked and would also like to offload some of their work to someone else]. We have a new phone system, which we have long needed; however, it does not enable the Field Offices to provide better public service. Human resources are still the answer to many of these issues. [Translation: We need more employees. to help us get our work done.] We continue to see more visitors despite Internet utilization. In addition, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to move Internet claims. Phone service is sacrificed. What will happen when we have VOIP reports to show where we really are in terms of not answering phones? Will we then have the same pressure we now have as a result of VIP [?] data? Metrics will only be one more thing to manage. We need, on average, at least two additional employees in each office just to be able to answer telephones. Quality is lacking in the clarity of our new telephone systems. ...

In many cases, VOIP provides less functionality than our old phone systems. For example, the paging feature is not available to all offices; only to those offices that were previously utilizing it. Both the Commissioner and Linda were surprised to learn of the problems we are having not only with VOIP but also with Nortel.
By the way, I am using VOIP technology in my office. There is nothing wrong with VOIP per se. It provides a clear cost saving advantage. However, in no way does VOIP substitute for warm bodies answering the telephone.

Apr 18, 2009

COBRA Assistance Won't Be There For The Disabled

I had earlier wondered whether the COBRA health care insurance continuation assistance now available for laid off workers would extend to those forced to leave work due to illness, on the theory that their departure from work was also "involuntary."

Unfortunately, it was the Internal Revenue Service rather than the Department of Labor (where separations from employment due to illness have long been held to be involuntary for purposes of unemployment insurance) doing the interpreting. IRS Notice 2009-27 defines involuntary termination to mean a separation from employment "due to the independent exercise of the unilateral authority of the employer to terminate the employment." The notice goes on to say that "absence from work due to illness or disability" is not enough to qualify one for the COBRA assistance.

Apr 17, 2009

Border Patrol

From a presolicitation announcement that Social Security placed on FedBizOpps.gov:
Investigative services to be performed under contract to verify claimants' U.S. residency for the purpose of establishing eligibility and continuing eligibility for receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for the Social Security Administration (SSA). ... The service area zones are located along the Mexico-U.S. border in Texas and New Mexico. ...

SSA officials will notify the contractor of the name and address for residency verification. Upon written request, the contractor shall perform an unannounced onsite visit to the claimant's reported address to verify residency, contact one non-relative neighbor who has first hand knowledge of individual's residence and submit a written report documenting the results.

Bad Blood At Social Security

From Joe Davidson's Federal Diary column at the Washington Post (registration required):

Like married couples who are lovey-dovey in public but have a tense relationship at home, the fondness that federal union leaders express for President Obama may not always reflect what's going on between local union leaders and managers in the workplace.

The problem is the emotional baggage left over from their previous relationship. ...

Mark Roth, AFGE general counsel, said "the relationship is now venomous on both sides." Referring to a potential presidential directive calling for labor-management partnerships in federal agencies, Roth said "you just can't layer an executive order over" the bad blood that lingers from the Bush days.

"I know that our Social Security activists are not in a mood to partner with" top Social Security Administration officials, he said. "They want them gone."

Speaking of unions and the Social Security Administration, the Association of Administrative Law Judges is celebrating a victory over the agency that allows the union to represent judges who hear cases involving disability benefits.

An arbitrator, Michael A. Murphy, ordered SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue to "cease and desist from refusing to recognize the union" and "from displaying anti-union animus."

Understaffing Costs Money

From an audit report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Our objective was to determine whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluated earnings reported to the Master Earnings File (MEF) for disabled individuals receiving Title II benefits. ...

In our July 2004 report, Disabled Title II Beneficiaries with Earnings Reported on the Master Earnings File, we stated that SSA did not evaluate all earnings reported to the MEF between 1996 and 2000 for disabled individuals receiving Title II benefits as of March 2002. We estimated that approximately $1.37 billion in overpayments resulting from about 63,000 disabled beneficiaries’ work activity was not identified.

To perform our follow-up review, we identified 25,904 disabled beneficiaries (from 1 Social Security number segment) who were receiving Title II benefits as of July 2007 and had earnings reported on the MEF between 2001 and 2006 that may impact their entitlement to benefits. ...

Based on our review, we estimate that approximately $3.1 billion was overpaid to about 173,000 disabled beneficiaries because of work activity. Although the Agency identified about $1.8 billion of these overpayments to approximately 141,000 beneficiaries, we estimate about $1.3 billion in overpayments to approximately 49,000 beneficiaries went undetected by SSA. ...

We recognize SSA’s efforts to improve the work-related CDR process. In addition, we acknowledge the Agency’s limited resources with which to perform this workload. However, we believe SSA may achieve greater savings in the long-term if it could provide the resources to perform more work-related CDRs.

Should Make For Interesting Reading

Under President Obama's Memorandum of March 20 executive branch agencies receiving funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) may not consider the views of any lobbyist about expenditures under ARRA unless those views are expressed in writing. These written communications must be posted online within three business days. This does not prevent in-person meetings or telephone conversations in addition to the written statement, but the agency must post a summary of such conversations within three business days.

As best I can tell, Social Security is not yet in compliance with this portion of the March 20 Memorandum. This is not unusual. The Sunlight Foundation reports that few agencies are.

You can already find out online who has been lobbying Social Security, but until now you have been unable to find out what they are saying.

Stay tuned.

Apr 16, 2009


Social Security To Concentrate On Hiring Disabled

From the Network to End Homelessness:
The Social Security Administration recently received funding to hire a significant number of employees throughout the country. This hiring initiative offers a unique opportunity for individuals with disabilities who may want to get a job with SSA. These jobs will be at various skill levels including a number of entry-level positions.

SSA will be holding a national teleconference on this issue specifically for Employment Networks, State Vocational Rehabilitation Staff and others who help people with disabilities go to work on Tuesday, April 21, 2009 from 1:00 to 2:30 PM EST. This session will build upon an earlier Webinar and provide more details regarding the initiative. A guest speaker from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will also discuss the Schedule A Hiring Authority. Please visit www.cessi.net/ttw to register for the teleconference. ...

In particular, the Agency is reaching out to Ticket to Work Ticket Holders who are trying to return to work, veterans with disabilities through programs such as the Wounded Warrior transitional program, and students with disabilities. Many individuals with disabilities will qualify for consideration under a special placement authority called “Schedule A.”

New ALJ In Wyoming

From the Casper Journal:

Administrative Law Judge Patricia Henry only has been in the state since January, but she's already making a difference for those in Wyoming who were denied Social Security benefits.

With 42 hearings a month, she's whittling away at a case load that includes 634 pending cases. Her goal is to decide 500 cases a year to try to cut down the time claimants have to wait for a decision to less than a year.

Henry is a native Texan who comes to Wyoming from an administrative law judge position in Pennsylvania.

Apr 15, 2009

New Mexico Gets Some Love

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today joined U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) for a tour of the agency’s new National Hearing Center (NHC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As a result of significant funding increases for Social Security over the past two years, the agency is able to open the NHC, as well as hire approximately 80 people for positions throughout New Mexico before the fiscal year ends in October. To further improve service to New Mexicans, Commissioner Astrue and Senator Bingaman also announced that Social Security plans to open an additional field office in the Albuquerque area in 2010.

“With Senator Bingaman’s leadership, Social Security has received additional funding to hire and fill jobs in New Mexico and throughout the nation, as well as invest in technologies that improve service,” Commissioner Astrue said. “This funding is crucial to our efforts to handle the increased workloads resulting from the economic downturn as well as the aging of the baby boom generation. Our employees are making positive strides toward driving down the hearing backlog and providing prompt service to the public. With sustained support, I am confident we can successfully address these challenges.”

“Commissioner Astrue has been working very hard to address the backlog of Social Security cases, and New Mexicans are already seeing results,” Senator Bingaman said. “I commend the Commissioner for his efforts, and will work to ensure he has the funding he needs to eliminate the backlog. With the opening of the National Hearing Center in Albuquerque and the new office in Rio Rancho next year, Social Security will be able to better serve local residents and those waiting for disability decisions around the country.”

The Albuquerque NHC utilizes electronic video technology that enables Administrative Law Judges to hold disability hearings remotely throughout the country to reduce backlogs. Albuquerque initially will hear disability cases for Kansas City and Portland, Oregon -- two of the most backlogged offices in the U.S. Social Security’s first NHC, located in Falls Church, Virginia, opened in December 2007 and has contributed to improved processing times in Atlanta, Georgia, Cleveland, Ohio and Flint, Michigan.

The agency is working with the General Services Administration on a location for a new field office in the Rio Rancho/north Albuquerque area to better serve the rapidly-growing population there. The new office is scheduled to open to the public in early 2010.

Bingaman is on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security.

Expect More Stories Like This

From the Charleston, WV Daily Mail:
Virginia Nesselrotte, 65, of Dunbar is upset about not getting a cost-of-living increase with her Social Security benefits this year. [They mean next year.]

"We'll lose $300 a year in 10 years," said Nesselrotte, a retired Verizon worker. "That kind of loss is going to be hard on a lot of people." ...

The Congressional Budget Office said in its latest budget estimates that inflation will dip so low that Social Security recipients will not qualify for annual increases in 2010 or for two years after that. ...

Scott McClanahan, executive director of Kanawha Valley Senior Services, said he sees tough choices ahead for senior citizens.

"It's going to be needs versus wants," he said. "Is it going to be medicines or food? Now some of the seniors are already cutting their meds in half in order to keep the longevity of the drugs to meet the dynamics of those meds." ...

Furloughs In Ohio

From the Columbus Dispatch:
Some employees of the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission will be forced to take unpaid furloughs for no good reason ...

The 550 employees of the Bureau of Disability Determination are paid out of federal Social Security Administration funds but work for the state. The bureau determines whether disabled Ohioans are eligible for federal Social Security benefits. ...

So why is Ohio making the employees take the unpaid time off?

It's required under a union contract covering thousands of state workers, said Steve Ostrander, spokesman for the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission. The 550 Bureau of Disability Determination employees are covered by an Ohio Civil Service Employees Association contract that requires workers to take 20 unpaid days off over the next two years.

Why would the union object to the Bureau of Disability Determination employees being exempted from the furlough? Has this been raised with the union?

Apr 14, 2009

Not A Good Sign

The El Paso Times reports that the local Social Security office will be conducting a free workshop to help people learn how to use the agency's website.

Such workshops would be unnecessary if Social Security had a truly user friendly website.

Apr 13, 2009

DDS Furloughs May Extend To NY and NJ

The New York Times has an article today on the furloughs at some state Disability Determination Services (DDS). The DDS offices make the initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims. The news in this article is that the furloughs may spread to New York and New Jersey. Here are some excerpts:
“We pay the full freight,” Mr. Astrue said. “States do not save any money when they furlough or lay off these employees. They only delay payments to disabled citizens who rely on the monthly benefits.” ...

Mr. Astrue has expressed “grave concern” over such personnel actions in letters to governors, including Jon Corzine of New Jersey and David A. Paterson of New York, both Democrats, and Mr. Schwarzenegger.

In a letter to New York employees last week, Mr. Paterson said he intended to lay off 8,700 state workers by July 1.

Peter E. Kauffmann, a spokesman for Mr. Paterson, said, “The governor is aware of the concerns raised by the Social Security Administration and will act carefully.”

Apr 12, 2009

Happy Easter

Apr 11, 2009

Even A Nutjob Can Make A Good Point

From the otherwise nutty LRC Blog:
So I went to the local Social Security office, with my original birth certificate, to prove that I am 64. Now, being Alabama, everyone was sweet and polite, including the armed guard and the bureaucrats. And there was the racial respect that characterizes the South, despite the MSM [Main Stream Media] morality tale. But what a room! There was that armed guard at the front, waiting citizens, surveillance cameras, and five thick lucite windows with chairs in front of them, like a prison visiting room. When your number was called, you talked to the clerk through a grid, and passed your documents through a slit. I thought: the state is terrified of the people.

Former Social Security Official Pleads Guilty

The Associated Press reports that Heriberto Sanabria, formerly manager of Civil Rights-Equal Opportunity at Social Security's Atlanta Regional Office ,has pleaded guilty to eight counts of theft of government funds. He admitted filing false expense accounts for thousands of dollars .

Apr 10, 2009

Checking Facebook To See Whether Claimant Disabled?

United Press International (I thought they were out of business) is reporting that a Canadian court has ordered a search of the hard disk drive of a man applying for disability benefits from the provincial insurance agency to see how much time he has spent visiting Facebook. This was felt to be probative.

Editorial Criticizes Furloughs

The San Jose Mercury News is running an editorial criticizing the decision to furlough employees of the state of California who do disability determination work for the Social Security Administration. As the editorial says, "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is clinging to the ridiculous notion that being 'fair' to all employees is more important than what's best for the people they serve — even if it costs California millions of dollars."

Apr 9, 2009

A Little Deceptive

I practice law in North Carolina. My firm handles cases throughout most of the central and eastern part of the state. North Carolina is not the only state to have backlogs that are worse than the national average, but the backlogs here are significant. Here is the average processing time at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) offices in North Carolina with the national average for comparison:
  • National 499 days
  • Raleigh 543 days
  • Charlotte 592 days
  • Greensboro 731 days
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has said in testimony before a Congressional committee that he will address these backlogs by opening an additional ODAR office in Fayetteville, NC. Opening an office in Fayetteville would be helpful to each of the existing ODAR offices in North Carolina, since each services a portion of the territory that would be served by a new ODAR office in Fayetteville. Greensboro ODAR got its huge backlog because it had most of the Fayetteville area for several years. Raleigh ODAR is building a larger backlog now since most of the Fayetteville area has been reassigned to Raleigh ODAR.

So, with a new ODAR office in Fayetteville, we must be heading towards a solution to the backlog problem in North Carolina? Wrong. The ODAR office planned for Fayetteville is not a real ODAR office. The plan is for an office with no employees. The "office" will have four hearing rooms that may be used for video hearings, but no employees.

Hearing rooms do not hold hearings. People hold hearings. This plan actually worsens service for claimants living in the Fayetteville area, since it means they are less likely to get a live hearing. This will lead to wild fluctuations in the number of hearings held, presenting practical difficulties for local attorneys. It also means that local attorneys will be relegated to dealing with a constantly changing array of Administrative Law Judges who have no familiarity with the area or local attorneys. To give an idea of the problem, Fayetteville is the home of Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. military base in the world. The area is crawling with retired military personnel. Their cases present some unusual aspects. Are you familiar with the medical condition known as "immersion foot?" You would if you heard cases in the Fayetteville area for long. Can someone who is still on active duty in the U.S. Army get Social Security disability benefits? You would know the answer if you heard cases in Fayetteville for long. See Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) §DI 10505.023 TN 7 (08-07) if you are interested in the answer. Have you ever dealt with a Social Security disability case in which a retired serviceman was suffering from PTSD as a result of taking "trophies" in a combat situation? The "trophies" I am talking about here are body parts of killed enemy soldiers. I imagine that ALJs in other areas of the country have seen this kind of case, but not nearly as often as ALJs in this area.

In my opinion, it is somewhat deceptive to say that Fayetteville is getting a new ODAR office. The difference between what Astrue has said and what is actually happening is significant.

Spin is part of government, but excessive spin reduces credibility. In my opinion, a Republican holdover like Michael Astrue ought to keep spin to a minimum. It would be better for him to be as blunt and straightforward as possible and, in general, to underpromise and overdeliver.

Apr 8, 2009

Astrue On Furloughs

From the Federal Times:
The state furloughs are “disappointingly cynical,” SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said in an interview with Federal Times. “They understand they’re not saving any money and that it’s actually anti-stimulus because it’s taking money away from state’s citizens.” ...

Astrue said states he’s talked to clearly understand the ramifications of furloughing DDS employees, but they decided not to exempt them out of a sense of fairness to other state employees — a “triumph of spin over compassion,” Astrue said. ...

Astrue said he’s made progress convincing some states to exempt DDS employees, but it’s an issue SSA may be tackling for the rest of the year, comparing it to the arcade game Whac-a-mole.

“We think we have a contained situation and we make progress, and just when you think you’re done, two or three more pop up,” he said.

Fugitive Felon Settlement: Social Security Loses Big Time

From Emergency Message EM-09-025:
As a result of a settlement agreement in Martinez, et al. v. Astrue, which should soon be approved by the court, this Emergency Message (EM) provides new instructions ... Martinez challenged the agency’s policy and procedures in applying non payment actions to fugitive felons and non-selection of fugitive felons as representative payees. ...

Effective immediately, SSA policy is to suspend or deny Title II and Title VIII benefits or Title XVI payments, and to prohibit an individual from serving as a representative payee only if the individual’s outstanding felony warrant was issued for one of the following three offenses:
    • Escape (offense code 4901),
    • Flight to Avoid prosecution, confinement, etc. (offense code 4902), and
    • Flight-Escape (offense code 4999). ...
Identification of individuals affected by the Martinez settlement will be done centrally and appropriate notices released.
This is a big step forward. Social Security had interpreted the fugitive felon provision in an extremely expansive way. Congress thought they were denying benefits to murderers and rapists on the lam, but many individuals were denied benefits even though they had no idea that there was an outstanding warrant for their arrest. Many of the alleged felonies were decades old and quite minor. Many, perhaps most, of those caught up in this had never been convicted. Records concerning the charges have often been unavailable. Claimants have been put in the difficult position of convincing a busy prosecutor to clear their name. The fugitive felon provisions fall into the "It sounded like a good idea at the time" category.

Pikeville Office Honored

From WYMT:

The Pikeville [KY] Social Security office received special honors in an awards ceremony.

The office was selected as the Social Security Administration's best level two office in the Atlanta region, which is one of the highest honors an office can receive.It's an indication of how well they work together. It's an indication of how much they care about people in this service area and I'm just really proud of the staff of this office,” Paul Barnes said.

The office was selected from more than 250 facilities in the Atlanta region, which includes seven other states.

Apr 7, 2009

McPaper Says Sky Falling

From the USA Today editorial page:
Preliminary damage estimates by the Congressional Budget Office aren't pretty. Projected Social Security surpluses over the next decade have all but disappeared. Next year's operating surplus, previously estimated at $86 billion, is now $3 billion. Ten years of cumulative surpluses, once seen at about $703 billion, are now projected at $83 billion. ...

Each year that the U.S. government fails to address its massive retirement and health care obligations raises the prospects of it defaulting on its debts, inflating its way out of them, or imposing punitive taxes to pay them off any of which would cause greater misery than the changes needed to stabilize the system. A commitment to shore up Social Security would serve as a clarion statement that the U.S. economy is a sound long-term investment. ...

For all the talk about "trust funds," Social Security essentially operates on a cash-in, cash-out basis. And once the amount being paid out in benefits exceeds the amount coming in — now expected in 2017 — the government will have to borrow billions of dollars to cover the difference. ...

Preserving Social Security for the long term isn't that complicated. It can be done by gradually raising the retirement age for able-bodied workers, curbing growth in benefits and making high-income workers pay more payroll taxes. The longer a solution is delayed, the more painful it will become.

Just a couple of errors here. First, we do not have to start borrowing money to pay Social Security benefits once more money starts flowing out of the trust funds than comes in. The trust funds are still large and can support net outflows for decades. Second, making high income workers pay FICA, the Social Security tax, on all their wages will pretty much solve the problem all by itself without raising the retirement age or cutting back on cost of living adjustments.

Update: USA Today also published another editorial with the title "Hands Off Social Security" offering an opposing viewpoint, although it does not mention raising or eliminating the ceiling on FICA.

Backlog Growing

This is from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) Forum. Click on the image to view it full size. Note that despite increasing productivity and considerable overtime there appears to be no sign of progress on reducing the backlogs. Depending upon how you look at it, the backlog may be growing.

Processing Time Per Hearing Office

From the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) Forum. Click on each page to see it full size.

Compare the average processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • May 25, 2007 -- 523 days
  • July 28, 2007 -- 528 days
  • August 31, 2007 -- 523 days
  • November 30, 2007 -- 500 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • May 30, 2008 -- 523 days
  • June 27, 2008 -- 529 days
  • July 31, 2008 -- 530 days
  • September 3, 2008 -- 532 days
  • November 5, 2008 -- 476 days
  • December 3, 2008 -- 480 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days

Apr 6, 2009

Social Security's ARRA Plans

The Social Security Administration is now releasing weekly reports on what it is doing with the extra funding provided the agency under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the President's economic recovery plan. Here are a few points from the most recent report:
  • Trying to submit a plan to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by April 10;
  • Plans to send out a mailer late in April to those eligible for the $250 payments under ARRA;
  • Plans to schedule a call with OMB to discuss a draft disability and retirement workload plan.
Interestingly, an earlier report mentioned a plan to post job openings under ARRA competitively using the USAJobs website. If this is being done, Social Security is doing almost no hiring under ARRA. However, it is clear from the reports that it is full speed ahead on the National Computer Center.

Apr 5, 2009

Fee Payment Stats

The Social Security Administration has released updated statistics on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Apr 4, 2009

How Much Hiring Is Social Security Doing?

The Social Security Administration currently has 26 job openings listed on USAJobs. Alyssa Rosenburg on Fedblog reports that as of Friday 46,990 job openings were listed on USAJobs for all federal agencies. USAJobs is not the only way that the Social Security Administration or other agencies announces job openings. Still, it looks like there may be some differences in approach between Social Security and other agencies. How much hiring is Social Security doing? How many job openings does Social Security have? Does anyone know?

Good News For One Claimant

From the Lake County News-Sun:

Erma Graham worked when she was able to work, even after she was diagnosed with manic depression, even with chronic back pain, even after uterine fibroids caused her to hemorrhage every day as she stood deep-frying chicken in hot restaurant kitchens.

... [T]he day came when she was just too weak to work as a fast-food cook and home health-care aide. That's the day, in October 2004, that she first filed for Social Security disability benefits. Her claim was quickly denied. She applied again in 2005 and again in 2006. ...

Graham persevered, with a friend's encouragement, even after an attorney suggested her case was unwinnable. Acting on her own in 2007, she filed an appeal. Last October, four years after she first asked for help, a hearing office in Evanston finally heard her case ... She received word of a favorable ruling in November. In January, she received her first disability check.

Graham is one of more than 13 million Social Security disability beneficiaries across the nation. While the federal government pays $12 billion in disability benefits each month, it fails to pay millions more because of huge appeal backlogs. The Chicago region has an average of 776 cases pending per ALJ, the second-highest pending caseload nationally, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives.

But the waits are shorter for Evanston, where all northern Chicagoland and Lake and McHenry county claims are heard. That office ranks 13 out of 143 hearing offices nationwide in turnaround time. Its average processing time is 463 days. ...

But Evanston's efficiency received an odd pat on the back from the federal government, which sent Evanston's 10 judges 2,000 more cases from backlogged Flint, Mich., the slowest hearing office in the nation.

Apr 3, 2009

Secret Law

From a recently issued section of Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS):

The RPC [Request for Program Consultation] website [http://ssahost.ba.ssa.gov/erpc/index.aspx] is supported by database management software that captures and maintains RPC data entered by the Disability Determination Services (DDS) and the Office of Disability Programs (ODP) users on the DDS RPC and ODP RPC Resolution templates.

The RPC database creates a repository of policy issues that can be used as a reference by all adjudicative components.
Of course, the link to the RPC website only works if you are on Social Security's network. We have a "repository" of Social Security policy decisions to be used by all parts of the Social Security Administration, but the public cannot access it. Does something sound odd about that?

Apr 2, 2009

Privatization Fantasies

From the Wall Street Journal:

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday where he generally blasted Republican budget proposals, a top Obama budget official said the administration would have to take a close look at the GOP proposal on Social Security, and hinted that the White House would have more to say on the issue soon.

Rob Nabors, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, reiterated the administration’s view that the most urgent budget problem in the entitlements area is not Social Security but the soaring cost of health care ...

But Nabors added that administration officials would spend some time “looking at” the GOP proposal on Social Security, and promised that the public will be seeing more from the administration on the issue as the budget process unfolds. ...

Working Harder, Enjoying It Less And Giving Poor Service

From Joe Davidson's Federal Diary at the Washington Post:
Workers at the Social Security Administration are working harder and enjoying it less, while its customers grow ever more frustrated.

That's a major take-away from a recent Government Accountability Office report detailing the negative impact of SSA staff cuts.

One important note: In contrast to a generally bleak assessment of the agency, the report did shine a light on the conscientious federal employees who sometimes sacrifice personal time to boost productivity....

Managers and staff told GAO investigators "that they often do not have time to take their breaks, including lunch. Some staff told us that they feel they are letting down their colleagues and feel guilty about taking time off, regardless of whether they use credit hours or annual leave." ...

The increasing demands on the staff has resulted in higher stress, lower morale and decreasing job satisfaction. And managers suffer from it the most, with 74 percent reporting high stress levels.

SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue put the blame on Congress for not giving the agency enough money. ...

Managers responding to a survey by the National Council of Social Security Management Associations [NCSSMA] "estimated that they would need a staffing increase of 16.7 percent to provide adequate public service," the report says.

So why was Michael Astrue telling Congress that those last two Bush Administration budgets were all his agency needed, when clearly they were not? And what does Michael Astrue think of hiring another 10,000 or so employees as the NCSSMA suggests? It seems to me that it is past time for Astrue to openly state his opinion on the number of new employees that Social Security needs to give adequate service to the public.

California Furloughs Criticized

From the San Jose Mercury News:
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently began sending state workers home on unpaid leave one day a month, he said the state needed to tighten its belt to save the cash-strapped state money. But in one instance, the furloughs are actually costing California millions of dollars. ...

Sending those employees home one day a month means the state will forgo about $10 million — or 5 percent of the agency's $210 million annual budget — from Washington, without saving state government any money. Meanwhile, it's taking the agency longer to process claims, delaying disability benefits at a time when such requests are soaring.

"There really is no reason to do this, it's a no-brainer," said Pete Spencer, the regional commissioner for the U.S. Social Security Administration, which oversees the disability claims program. "If the governor is saying he wants to take all the money the federal government is offering, this is one area he's not doing it." ...

"There's an equity issue there," said John Wagner, the Schwarzenegger administration's director for the California Department of Social Services.

The issue has caught the attention of California's congressional delegation. Twenty-three Democratic House members wrote the governor in February and complained that furloughing the disability agency employees makes no sense.
Why is it that only Democratic House members wrote about this?

Apr 1, 2009

Backlogs -- Astrue Still Defining Acceptable Service Downward

From the Associated Press:
For all the talk of an impending crisis in Social Security, one already exists: The system is clogged with hundreds of thousands of disputed disability claims, a backlog so big that some people wait years for a hearing. ...

"Workloads have gone up, resources did not go up proportionately, and the agency was too slow to embrace new technologies," said Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, explaining the backlog. "It's a combination of all those things." ...

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., introduced a bill that would require a hearing be held no more than 75 days from the time it is requested, and a final verdict no more than 15 days after that. ...

Astrue said Castor's proposal does not take into account the time applicants need to prepare their cases. He has set a goal of a nine-month maximum wait for a hearing.

I will be happy to prepare my clients' cases in 75 days. When I first started practicing Social Security law in 1979, the average wait time for a hearing was only about 90-120 days and some cases were scheduled in as few as 75 days. I coped just fine then and I would be happy to do so again. The fees were lower, but the work required per case was much lower. There was certainly much less stress. Until Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 it had rarely taken as long as nine months for a claimant to get a hearing on a Social Security disability claim at any time in history. When Michael Astrue worked at Social Security in the Reagan Administration, it was certainly not taking nine months to get a hearing. Astrue seems eager to define acceptable service levels at Social Security downward. Service during the era when Republicans controlled Congress from 1995 to 2006 was the exception, not the norm.

No COLAs For Three Years

From the Associated Press:

The recession is projected to wipe out annual cost-of-living increases for 50 million Social Security beneficiaries for the next three years, something that hasn't happened since automatic adjustments were adopted in 1975.

The Congressional Budget Office says in its latest budget estimates that inflation will dip so low that Social Security recipients will not qualify for annual increases in 2010, or for two years after that.

Medicare Waiting Period

From the Capitol Insider, put out by the Disability Policy Collaboration:
Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Reps. Gene Green (D-TX) and Lee Terry (R-NE) introduced the Ending the Medicare Disability Waiting Period Act of 2009 (S. 700/H.R. 1708). This bill would phase out Medicare's two-year waiting period for individuals with disabilities under age 65 who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Social Security Loses Arbitration Over National Hearing Center

Social Security has opened a National Hearing Center (NHC) with a few Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). The workflow in the National Hearing Center was arranged a bit differently and Social Security declared that the ALJs at the NHC were supervisors, making them ineligible to join the union that represents other Social Security ALJs. An anonymous poster on the ALJ Discussion Forum reports that the Social Security Administration has lost an arbitration on this issue. The ALJs in the NHC have been declared to not be supervisors and eligible to join the ALJ union.