May 31, 2009

Turnaround In Galveston

From The Daily News of Galveston County:
Eight months after leaving, the U.S. Social Security Administration will return to the island, easing fears that the services upon which many residents depend would remain on the mainland.

The administration will open its office, 4918 Seawall Blvd., at 9 a.m. Monday.

Although its island offices sustained minimal damage from Hurricane Ike, administration officials blamed the Sept. 13 storm for its decision in October to leave and lease office space at 2700 Marina Bay Drive in League City.

The return comes after much controversy about the administration’s long-term real estate strategies.

In April last year, the administration generated public outcry when it said it would make a permanent move to League City.

The decision angered island residents who worried the elderly and disabled would have trouble traveling to League City, which doesn’t have public transportation.

Although the administration secured an 18-month lease in League City, terms of the deal allowed it to terminate the agreement in six months, officials said.

Island resident Margaret Canavan collected 1,600 signatures on petitions opposing the move.

In July, administration officials agreed to halt the plans.

The administration, which complained about high rents on the island, has not abandoned its search for new office space, spokesman Wes Davis said.

May 30, 2009

Same-Sex Partners And Social Security

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act there is virtually nothing that the Social Security Administration can do to give recognition to same-sex partners for purposes of benefits payments. However, the Department of State has just given recognition to the same-sex partnerships of its employees, especially for purposes of the diplomatic service. There are vast differences between the Department of State and Social Security, but are there some things that Social Security could and should do for its employees who are in same-sex partnerships? What do you think?

May 29, 2009

Roundtable On Backlogs

From Government Executive:
The economic downturn, inadequate funding and red tape are at the core of an increasing backlog of Social Security disability cases, panelists said during a roundtable discussion in Washington on Thursday.

The government has tried for years to reduce the number of cases awaiting review from administrative law judges, but the recession is a significant setback, said Alan Cohen, senior budget adviser for the Senate Finance Committee.

"Initial claims are going to skyrocket in 2010," he said during the forum, organized by the Association of Administration Law Judges. "The tsunami hasn't hit the administrative law judges here." ...

"You just need the money to properly administer the program," said Kathryn Olson, staff director for the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. "Too much pressure to crank out cases really does undermine the integrity of the process." ...

Some panelists said SSA's plan to reduce the backlog by 2013 was forcing judges to take on too many cases.

"I am truly stunned by the suggestion that administrative law judges should review 500 to 700 cases per year," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Jillyn Schulze, referring to an expectation set by Chief Administrative Judge Frank A. Cristaudo in a 2008 letter to administrative law judges. "That is truly unconscionable."

"The Notes Of Your Horn Are Flat"

From an e-mail from Witold Skwierczynski, the head of the labor union that represents most Social Security employees, to Social Security Regional Commissioner Bea Disman:
I found the regional memo that you issued regarding SSA’s “Going Green” initiative particularly disingenuous. ... Increased use of mass transit will result in less carbon emissions, less pollution, less ozone layer depletion and a diminished greenhouse effect. ...

The economic stimulus package that recently passed Congress provided SSA [Social Security Administration] with an additional $1 billion in administrative expenses. The FY 09 budget resulted in an $834 million increase in SSA’s administrative expenses over FY 08. The stimulus package also contained an increase to $230/month for transit subsidies for federal employees. Other agencies increased their transit subsidies for their employees as a result of the stimulus legislation. SSA’s current transit subsidy is $105/mo. in the Washington DC area and $60/mo. everywhere else.

The Union asked Commissioner Astrue to increase the transit subsidy to the amount provided in the stimulus package. Despite the large amount of additional revenue that SSA is receiving in the stimulus package, the Commissioner refused to increase the transit subsidy. AFGE requested bargaining with SSA regarding the new legislation which increased the amount that agencies could pay to employees for transit subsidies. SSA issued a letter to the Union refusing its bargaining request. ...

So you can tout your horn regarding SSA’s “Going Green” accomplishments if you wish. Unfortunately the notes of your horn are flat and are not in sync with the instrumentation of other agencies of the government. ...

Guam Wants To Remove The Cap

The Pacific Daily News reports that Guam's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Madeleine Bordallo, is introducing a bill to remove the cap on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments to people living in U.S. territories such as Guam. The article says that because of the cap the average SSI payment in Guam is only about $100, rather than over $600 as it is in the U.S. proper.

I am confused. I thought that SSI was not payable at all in U.S. territories such as Guam -- and more importantly, Puerto Rico. When did this change and what is the cap?

May 28, 2009

Roundtable On Backlogs

The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) (the labor union that represents Social Security's ALJs) is holding a "roundtable" today from 9:00 a.m. to noon at the AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington to discuss Social Security's appeals backlogs. The roundtable is scheduled to include "Federal judges, experts on Social Security and key Congressional staff."

May 27, 2009

Senator McCaskill Has Questions

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri has a lot of questions for Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue.

May 26, 2009

Sotomayor On Social Security Disability

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who has been nominated for the Supreme Court by President Obama, is the author of two published decisions in Social Security cases.
In each cases the Appellate panel remanded the case. (Thanks to Eric Schnaufer for finding this for me. )

It should be noted that David Traver at CONNECT has found quite a number of unpublished Social Security decisions by appellate panels that included Judge Sotomayor.

Interesting Sidelight On Sotomayor Nomination

President Obama has nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to become an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that at age 8 Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I think many of the people who read this blog understand the significance of this history. Her diabetes is already raising concerns.

Stimulus Checks For Dead People

There is a report that Social Security has sent about 10,000 $250 economic stimulus checks to people it knew had died. The agency's excuse is that it did not have enough time to clean up its databases. Allegedly, one check was sent to a woman who had died in 1967.

Ten thousand mistakes sounds like a lot, but in context, it is far less than one mistake per thousand checks sent out. I doubt that this is anything to get excited about.

Social Security has given a contract to Oracle for computer work on a recovery system for these payments. The notice posted in FedBizOpps.Com estimates that there will be 15,000 to 20,000 incorrect payments.

May 25, 2009

For The Sake Of Comparison

From VA Watchdog dot Org:
According to the Monday Morning Workload Report (MMWR) of the Veterans' Benefits Administration dated January 5, 2009, the backlog for veterans' benefits claims stood at 808,607. Report is here

The same report for May 11, 2009 shows the backlog at 916,456. That report is here ...

This is an increase of nearly 108,000 claims in the backlog in just a bit over four months ... an increase of 13.3%.

May 24, 2009

Retirement Claims Surge

From the Los Angeles Times:
Instead of seeing older workers staying on the job longer as the economy has worsened, the Social Security system is reporting a major surge in early retirement claims that could have implications for the financial security of millions of baby boomers.

Since the current federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, claims have been running 25% ahead of last year, compared with the 15% increase that had been projected as the post-World War II generation reaches eligibility for early retirement, according to Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration.
This also has implications for workloads at Social Security field offices.

I Don't Endorse This

The Robing Room website allows anyone to rate a Federal District Court Judge or Magistrate Judge and to see the evaluations posted by others.

May 23, 2009

They Must Be Ergonomic!

A notice posted on FedBizOpps.Gov reveals that the Social Security Administration "is seeking quotations for a quantity of 8,800 ergonomic shaped water bottles with logo imprint."

May 22, 2009

Wouldn't It Be Nice

From the Federal Times:

Momentum has gathered behind the idea of advanced appropriations for the Veterans Affairs Department to the point that a chief supporter of says he would be stunned if anything derails what has become the top priority for veterans groups....

“It would be stunning if Congress or the administration backed away from advanced appropriations now,” [Peter] Dickinson [a lobbyist] said....

The bill passed by the committee, S 423, is called the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. It authorizes two years of funding for veterans programs instead of the traditional one year, beginning in fiscal 2011. The second year would be advanced funding for medical programs, including health care services, support and facility costs. Advanced funding would be based on projections of costs, including patient load and funding to cover increased medical costs.

The comptroller general, who is the head of the Government Accountability Office, would be responsible for overseeing both how the estimates are made and how the money is spent, a safeguard against low-balling the budget. The report on the adequacy and accuracy of the projects would be made public, allowing for debate over whether proposed funding is sufficient. ...

Two year funding for Social Security would be awfully nice, and so would more or less independent budget advice to help avoid low-ball budget requests. We have certainly seen low-ball budget requests at Social Security.

How Naive

David Wessel writing in today's Wall Street Journal:
For lots of workers, particularly those over 40, the alternative to looking for work is applying for Social Security disability benefits -- and dropping out of the labor force forever

Of course, many of those collecting disability truly can't work. But for workers with minor disabilities who could and, in many cases, would rather work, the Social Security benefits become the only way to pay the rent. Applications for Social Security disability in April were 20% higher than a year earlier. The application process can be arduous, often taking two years. Even among those whose applications are ultimately rejected, 60% never go back to work, says David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who has studied disability trends. ...

One approach is to tweak the disability benefit to encourage recipients, more than current rules do, to think of the benefit as a temporary, rather than an all-or-nothing, permanent condition. At a recent town-hall meeting, Mr. Obama was asked about lifting limits on the wages a person on disability can earn. The president's answer suggested he'd been briefed recently: "Social Security disability has gone up significantly during this recession. In principle...I would like to raise the income limits to encourage people to become more self-sufficient. In practice, it costs money on the front end, even though long term it may save money." But he made no promises: "What I'd like to do is examine this in the broader context of Social Security reform and Medicare/Medicaid reform," he said.
"Many" of those on Social Security disability benefits can't work? People with "minor" disabilities on Social Security disability benefits? The Wall Street Journal has not been the same since Rupert Murdock took over.

India Eager For Social Security Treaty

From The Times of India:
India on Friday said it is keen to have a social security pact with the United States, on the lines New Delhi has with the European countries, to address issues like double payment by companies of both the countries.

"We are interested in a social security dialogue. We have discussed with the US side on the conclusion of what is called a totalisation of agreement by our IT companies," India's new envoy to the US Meera Shankar said at a reception hosted in her honour by the US-India Business Council. ...

"From the US side, interests have been expressed in commencing negotiations on a bilateral treaty and we hope to do that as soon as the new government is in place," she added.
Few native born Americans care about a Social Security treaty between the U.S. and India but this blog gets a lot of hits whenever I mention the subject. This seems to be of considerable importance in India. I suspect the importance to Indians may extend past the financial dimension. Getting a Social Security treaty with the United States may be one of the many signs to Indians that urban India, at least, is moving out of Third World status.

Social Security Hiring The Disabled

Social Security disability claimants who have been denied often ask "If Social Security thinks I can work, will they give me a job?" Now there is someone at Social Security that the claimant can contact As noted earlier, Social Security intends to make a concentrated effort to hire the disabled. Here is a list of the people who will be coordinating the hiring:

Selective Placement Coordinators

Atlanta Region Alabama , Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee Stephanie.White
Social Security Administration
61 Forsyth St SW
Suite 22T64
Atlanta, GA 30303

Boston RegionConnecticut , Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont Denise Cole
Social Security Administration
JFK Building , Room 2175
Boston, MA 02203

Chicago RegionIllinois , Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, WisconsinKojuan Almond
Social Security Administration
600 W. Madison 3 rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60661

Dallas RegionArkansas , Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, TexasLinda Walters
Social Security Administration
Center for Human Resources
1301 Young Street, Suite 130
Dallas, TX 75202

Denver Region Colorado , Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming Nanci Tuggle
Social Security Administration
1961 Stout Street, Suite 844
Denver, CO 80294

Kansas City RegionIowa , Kansas, Missouri, NebraskaJennifer Minor

Social Security Administration
601 E. 12 th Street , Room 501 Kansas City, MO 64106

New York RegionNew Jersey , New York, Puerto Rico, Virgin IslandsJaclyn Lurker

Social Security Administration
Center for Human Resources, SPO-NY 26 Federal Plaza, Room 4020
New York, NY 10278

Philadelphia RegionDelaware , Maryland (except Headquarters), Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, District of ColumbiaNancy Torres

Social Security Administration
300 Spring Garden Street - 7 th Floor Philadelphia, PA 19123

San Francisco RegionArizona , California, Hawaii, Nevada, Guam, Trust Territory of Pacific Islands, American SamoaLynn Gonzalez
Social Security Administration
Center for Human Resources
1221 Nevin Ave. , 2 nd Floor Richmond, CA 94801

Seattle RegionAlaska , Idaho, Oregon, Washington

Darla Anderson

Social Security Administration Benefits and Employment Services Team, Suite 2900, M/S 292B
701 Fifth Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104-7075

Office of Central OperationsWoodlawn, MDYesenia Roman

Social Security Administration
Office of Central Operations
1500 Woodlawn Drive
Baltimore, MD 21241

Office of Disability Adjudication and ReviewNationwideLolita McLean Priestly

Social Security Administration
Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
5107 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041

Headquarters Woodlawn, MDJim Anderson

Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
2601-47 Annex Building
Baltimore, MD 21235

Waiting In Texas

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
Linda King says diabetes and heart problems forced her to quit her office job and apply for disability benefits in January 2007. ...

Two years and five months later, she still waits.

King, who was initially turned down for benefits, is among more than 750,000 Americans trapped in a backlog of disputed Social Security disability claims. Applicants who seek an appeal hearing sometimes wait years for one.

May 21, 2009

AFGE Not Buying That Social Security Is A Good Place To Work

From a press release sent out by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the labor union which represents most Social Security employees:
"While we applaud the noble endeavor of the Partnership for Public Service to recognize excellency in federal government agencies, we can't ignore the unfiltered facts that come to us from our members at SSA -- that the policies put in place by SSA Commissioner Astrue continue to press unnecessary hardships on employees and degrade one of the nation's most responsive and best-run public agencies into a troubled organization that no longer serves the best interests of retired and disabled Americans and their families." ...

"Since its inception, Social Security employees have delivered quality service to America's retired and disabled. It is tragic that their ability to perform this service has been hindered by faulty leadership," concluded [John] Gage [the head of the union].

CE Study

From a notice from Social Security posted on FedBisOpps.Gov:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a requirement for contractor services that provide SSA with independent analysis and documentation regarding the quality of current consultative exams (CEs) used in the determination of disability. Additionally, the contractor would assess if CEs are being requested in compliance with SSA regulations; determine the methodology of a functional data collection system; establish a baseline for CE quality; and determine those initiatives that will improve the quality of future CEs.

May 20, 2009

Ninth On The List

Alyssa Rosenberg reports on FedBlog that the Partnership for Public Service annual rankings of best large federal agencies to work for is out. Here is the list:
  1. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  2. Government Accountability Office
  3. National Aeronatics and Space Administration
  4. Intelligence CommunityNumbered List
  5. Department of State
  6. Environmental Protection Agency
  7. Department of Justice
  8. General Services Adminsitration
  9. Social Security Administration
  10. Department of Commerce
  11. Securities and Exchange Commission
  12. Department of Veterans Affairs
  13. Department of the Army
  14. Department of the Navy
  15. Department of the Air Force
  16. Defense Department (Tie)
  17. Department of the Treasury
  18. Department of Labor
  19. Department of Energy
  20. Office of Personnel Management.
Interesting who finished in last place.

Shutting Down A Scam

From Emergency Message EM 09039, issued on May 15:
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has advised SSA of an order against the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce in Stockton, CA to “cease and desist” their alleged unsafe and unsound bank practices involving Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit payments.

The FDIC’s investigation uncovered that the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce maintained a relationship with a third party, Petz Enterprises, Inc. (PEI), to solicit SSA/SSI beneficiaries for direct deposit of their payments and to deposit the benefits into a master account in the name of PEI. PEI, in turn, contracted out with check cashers, payday lenders, and retail merchants to enroll beneficiaries in their direct deposit program and disburse payments to the beneficiaries using questionable practices.

The investigation discovered instances where these check cashers; payday lenders and small retail merchants withheld the whole amount or a significant amount of the beneficiary’s benefit payment (e.g., transaction fees, cashing fees, short-term loans, and financing secured by upcoming benefit payments, repayment of loans, etc.) These practices left some beneficiaries in need of further short-term loans in order to meet their basic living expenses. ...

In response to the order to cease and desist, the Bank, FDIC, and SSA are working closely to inform the affected individuals of the need to make alternative payment arrangements by August 1, 2009 for receipt of future benefit payments.

When will Social Security shut down Allsup's similar arrangement?

May 19, 2009

Ticket To Work Remains A Sacred Cow

I did not have time to watch the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing today on the Ticket to Work program but judging by the prepared statements, none of the speakers was willing to be politically incorrect enough to call Ticket to Work what it is -- a well-intentioned but expensive failure. How much more money will be spent on this before Congress finally admits the obvious?

At Least Somebody Is Benefitting From Ticket To Work

From a press release:
MAXIMUS (NYSE:MMS - News) announced today that its Federal Services subsidiary has been awarded a five-year, $10.4 million contract by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to continue its work as the program data operations center manager for the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program. ...

In addition to the contract renewal for program data operation services, MAXIMUS continues to run operations support management for the Ticket to Work Program. Under the current support management contract, MAXIMUS provides critical oversight and process support in order to sustain ongoing program operations, including the management of call center operations and maintenance of employment networks.

Witness List For Today's Hearing

  • Bobbie Christensen, Ticket to Work Program Participant, Mesa, Arizona
  • Robin Clark, Ticket to Work Program Participant, Largo, Florida
  • Sue Suter, Associate Commissioner for Employment Support Programs, Social Security Administration
  • Cheryl Bates-Harris, Senior Disability Advocacy Specialist, National Disability Rights Network, on behalf of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Employment and Training Task Force and Social Security Task Force
  • Susan Webb, President and Co-founder, National Employment Network Association, Avondale, Arizona
  • Thomas P. Golden, President, National Association of Benefits and Work Incentives Specialists
  • Dr. Bruce Growick, Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Services, The Ohio State University College of Education, Columbus, Ohio
  • Dr. John Kregel, Center Associate Director & Director of Research, Virginia Commonwealth University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Workplace Supports and Job Retention, Richmond, Virginia
My first question is whether anyone will be politically incorrect enough to say the obvious -- that Ticket to Work is an expensive failure that should be stopped? My second question is whether they really found two sucess stories to present to the Subcommittee? That would not be easy to do.

May 18, 2009

I Don't Know Where The Ads Are Coming From

Ads have suddenly started showing up on this blog without my permission. I won't promise to never take ads, but the ads showing up now are unwanted, especially since I'm not being paid for them! I'm talking with Blogger.

What's Behind This?

A notice posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps.Gov:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a requirement for contractor services to collect, classify, and analyze occupational characteristics; job information; and functional limitation information documented in electronic claims of SSA adult title II and title XVI disability claims. Additionally, the contractor will perform a review of claims adjudicated at the initial and hearings levels for claims allowed or denied based on vocational factors at Steps 4 and 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process.

Results Of Most Recent Unscientific Poll

The $250 economic stimulus checks are coming out now. What response are you seeing to these checks?

I haven't been getting calls about the checks. (30) 42%
I've gotten a few calls about the checks, but nothing much. (12) 17%
I've been getting quite a few calls about the checks. (4) 6%
I've been bombarded with calls about the checks to the point that it's hard to get anything else done. (2) 3%
I'm not in a position to be getting calls about these checks. (19) 26%
$250 economic stimulus checks? What are you talking about? (5) 7%

Total Votes: 72

May 17, 2009

Viewpoints On The Trust Funds

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) sponsored a briefing on Friday where experts discussed the recently released Social Security Trustees report. Social Security's Chief Actuary Stephen Goss, Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institute and Charles Blauhous of the Hudson Institute, among others, spoke. The visuals prepared by the speakers are available online and are worth a look. Here is an excerpt from the materials prepared by Henry Aaron that caught my eye:

One-year change in value
Vanguard Prime Money Market [Mutual Fund]+ 1.97 %
Vanguard Total Bond Market Index [Mutual Fund] + 3.85 %
[Vanguard] Target Retirement 2010 [Mutual Fund] -19.23 %
[Vanguard] Target Retirement 2050 [Mutual Fund] -32.43 %
S&P 500 Index -35.31 %
[Vanguard] Total International Stock [Mutual Fund] -43.11 %
Social Security + 5.8 %
Social Security = Security

By the way, if I had to guess, I would guess that we are likely to see Congress enacting some increase in Social Security benefit payments next year, despite the fact that the statutory cost of living adjustment formula would not grant such an increase. I would be surprised to see any action to address the long term solvency issues with the Social Security trust funds. in the next two years. Barbara Kennelly of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare mentioned giving a "cost of living adjustment" to Social Security recipients despite the lack of an increase in the cost of living when she spoke on Thursday at the NOSSCR Conference. That was the first time I have heard that idea mentioned, but I am pretty sure that it will not be the last time I hear it mentioned. Doing this makes great political sense for Democrats. Yes, I know it is a bit irresponsible. The best defense I can give is that it is not nearly as irresponsible as ending the retirement earnings test, which the Republicans did just after taking control of Congress in 1994.

Update: Actually, the end of the retirement earnings test came in 1996 for those above full retirement age. It was part of the Contract with America Advancement Act.

May 16, 2009

New Role For Social Security?

From today's New York Times (emphasis added):
The government could rein in aggressive marketing practices of health insurance companies, regulate their premiums and allow workers to drop out of group health plans to seek a better deal on their own under legislation being developed by leading Democratic senators. ...

Under the Senate proposals, everyone would be required to carry insurance. The requirement would take effect in 2013 ...

In addition, most employers would be required to offer insurance to their full-time workers, or else pay a special tax. The government would set minimum standards for benefits ...

Consumers could sign up for insurance at hospitals, schools, Social Security offices and state departments of motor vehicles.

What Do You Think?

From a Social Security press release:

The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) has given Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, their Public Health Leadership Award. The award was presented at the 2009 NORD Gala at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The NORD Gala is an annual event at which researchers and others are honored for significant achievements to improve the lives of people with rare diseases.

In recognizing Commissioner Astrue, NORD noted “his focus on reducing the disability backlog and improving service to the public.” A key component of the Commissioner’s backlog reduction plan is the agency’s Compassionate Allowances initiative, a way to expedite the processing of disability claims for applicants whose medical conditions are so severe that their conditions obviously meet Social Security’s standards. Social Security worked closely with NORD in developing the expedited decision process which was launched in October 2008 with a total of 50 conditions -- 25 rare diseases and 25 cancers.

Updated Fee Payment Information

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

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

May 15, 2009

Speaking Of The King

May 14, 2009

I Wouldn't Read Much Into This

The Associated Press has an article about a question that President Obama answered today about the possibility of increasing income limits for recipients of Social Security disability benefits. He is not opposed but he would like any change to be part of a broader review of entitlement programs.

From The NOSSCR Conference -- Nancy Shor

Nancy Shor, the Executive Director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), spoke at the NOSSCR Conference (of course). Here are some points I picked up from her speech:
  • She is concerned about the concept of a revolving fund in the budget for efforts to reduce "fraud" at Social Security. She thinks this could create incentives for Social Security to go overboard with Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs).
  • Bills are pending in Congress to eliminate the five month waiting period for Title II Social Security disability benefits and the twenty-four month waiting period for Medicare for the disabled.
  • She hopes to have a Senate sponsor within ten to fourteen days for legislation that would raise the cap on attorney fees under the fee agreement process to the full extent of inflation, almost $6,300 and to include an automatic adjustment for inflation in the future. John Lewis is already sponsoring the legislation in the House.
  • She predicts that Social Security will not be able to send out 1099s to attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants even in 2010. The holdup is new regulations on recognizing entities as representing claimants.
  • Ms. Shor believes that Social Security may have to publish a new Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) on recognizing entities as representatives of claimants because things may change so much from the NPRM published last year.
  • Claimants' attorneys may have to use a "fob" device to obtain an code to access their clients' records electronically. Apparently, the fobs are easy to come by and inexpensive. These are already used to access some bank records.

From The NOSSCR Conference -- Barbara Kennelly

Barbara Kennelly, the Director of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, spoke at the NOSSCR Conference today. Here are a couple of points I picked up:
  • She fears that if there are cuts in Social Security that disability benefits will be cut more than retirement benefits.
  • She would like to see a 2% increase in Social Security benefits this year despite the lack of inflation.

From The NOSSCR Conference -- David Foster

David Foster, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, spoke today at the NOSSCR Conference. I will try to summarize what I got from his talk, but I must tell you that I had some difficulty understanding him. I found his speech pattern a bit disjointed. In a smaller forum where I could have seen his facial expressions there might have been little problem, but this was in a room with about 1,000 people. I hope I understood this correctly:
  • Foster had on a suit, but spoke in his shirtsleeves.
  • There was to have been a Senate Finance Committee hearing next Tuesday at which he would have spoken, but this has been postponed.
  • Social Security has seen a recent spike in disability claims filed.
  • He believes that Social Security turned the corner on the disability hearings backlog last month.
  • Informal remands (also known as re-recon) may end soon due to backlogs at the Disability Determination Services (DDS) offices.
  • Social Security hopes to adopt regulations recognizing entities as representatives of claimants by next February. Attorney and representative internet access to claimant electronic records is on hold pending these regulations. [See my next post for what Nancy Shor had to say on this subject. See below in this post for signs of bandwidth issues. that mighgt also delay this] He wants to include electronic access to earnings records to the e-file access.
  • Social Security's Vocational Experts have recently received a 10% increase in the fees they are paid for testifying.
  • A raise for Medical Expert witnesses testifying at ODAR is being complicated by possible effects upon the DDSs.
  • E-scheduling is about a year from proof of concept and at least two years from implementation. Foster seemed dubious about the concept. [I heard from some other attorneys about some experiment along these lines going on now, which confuses me. They did not seem to understand what was going on either.]
  • Robbie Watts (name?) was recently hired to help with coordination between ODAR and the DDSs. Watts, if I understood the name correctly, had been the director of the Natonal Council of DDS Directors.
  • He took a question concerning a controversy about how a claimant's attorney could help a claimant file a claim electronically. The problem is that Social Security is insisting that the claimant literally push the "send" button to do this. Foster seemed to be blaming the advocacy community for opposition to legislation on this subject. [I did not understand where he was coming from, but then I do not understand why Social Security seems to be persisting in obstructing electronic filing of claims for this reason, at the same time they are encouraging electronic filing of claims.]
  • ODAR is looking at centralized burning of CDs of claimant files for attorneys and representatives. He said that doing this locally was eating up too much bandwidth. [If this is eating up too much bandwidth, how can Social Security be seriously contemplating giving attorneys and representatives access to their clients' records online? That would eat up far more bandwidth.]

From The NOSSCR Conference -- Jim McDermott's Aide

Jim McDermott, the Chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Support and Family Security, was supposed to speak at the NOSSCR Conference today, but Congressional business kept him away. One of his aides, a Ms. Bernson, if I understood her name correctly, spoke in his behalf. It seemed that she was delevering a speech written for delivery by Representative McDermott. The only news which I got from her presentation was that Mr. McDermott thinks the earned income and resource limits in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program need adjustment, including an automatic cost of living adjustment -- and the subocmmittee he chairs has jurisdiction over SSI.

From The NOSSCR Conference -- Comissioner Astrue

To continue with the reports from the NOSSCR Conference, here are the points that I picked up from Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue's speech:
  • 55% of the $250 economic stimulus checks went out last week. Most of the stimulus checks going out to SSI recipients will go out in the next two days.
  • Astrue expects to send proposed regulations on "single decision-maker" to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval soon.
  • He expects to hold two more compassionate allowance public hearings this year -- on Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. [I have a suggestion. Why not just make a simple confirmed diagnosis of schizophrenia enough to meet the Listing. That is what is happening anyway.]
  • The actuaries predict a million more disability claims in the next three years as a result of the recession. Astrue seemed skeptical of the actuaries' ability to predict this. [I'm with Astrue, although maybe for different reasons. In my experience the number of claims filed has much more to do with public perceptions of the adjudicative climate at Social Security than with economic circumstances. At any given time there are several million people who could file a claim for Social Security disability benefits but do not have a claim pending. The decisions of members of this group to file or not file have little to do with the state of the economy.]
  • Precessing times at state Disablity Determination Services (DDSs) will get worse this year.
  • 8% of New York state DDS employees are being laid off due to state budget problems, even though Social Security is willing and able to pay for the New York DDS to hire 15% more employees.
  • He believes that Social Security is hiring at an "incredible" rate, attempting to hire 6,400 employees this fiscal year.
  • For four straight months the number of cases pending at Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) has gone down.
  • Social Security plans to send a proposal for an extension of the senior attorney program to OMB for approval.
  • ODAR will be adding 1,000 new staff on top of attrition this year. Many of those have already been hired.
  • 157 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are bing hired this month -- in the next week or so.
  • Another 208 ALJs are to be hired before the end of the next fiscal year (September 30, 2010), with perhaps 55 of those to be hired in September of this year (which would still be in this fiscal year).
  • Finding enough office space for additional ALJs is a problem which could hold back some hiring.
  • Social Security is now aiming for 1,400 to 1,450 ALJs total.
  • Social Security now has goal of an average ratio of 4.5 staff to each ALJ.
  • Astrue expects to open 14 additional hearing offices in FY 2010.
  • Astrue noted that it takes the General Services Administration (GSA) 18 to 24 months to lease space for federal agencies. This slows down the process.
  • Astrue said that Fayetteville, NC would have a full hearing office once space can be leased which will take time. In the meantime, a large remote video site would be opened. I had previously posted that I thought it misleading for Astrue to talk about opening a hearing office in Fayetteville when all that was planned was a large remote hearing site. Astrue made reference to this blog and to me by name in his remarks, though not in an unfriendly way. He did not think what he had said was misleading. [Local Social Security employees were unaware until quite recently that a true hearing office was coming to Fayetteville.]
  • Astrue hopes for a real turaround in electronic records in the next three years, which will help Social Security reduce the time it takes to adjudicate claims.

From The NOSSCR Conference -- Marty Ford

This morning I was at the general session of the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) in Washington. I will be summarizing the points that I found of interest in the presentations.

I start with Marty Ford, who is the Chairperson of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), the major umbrella organization of disability advocacy groups in the United States. I do not mean to slight Ms. Ford, whose presentation was mostly news to the audience, but the only thing that I heard from her that was more or less news to me, was that the twenty-four month waiting period for Medicare after one qualifies for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act is "on the table" at the Senate Finance Committee.

May 13, 2009

Most Popular Baby Names By State

Social Security has a website showing the most popular baby names by state. In my state, North Carolina, Aiden and Caleb are both more popular names for boys than my name, Charles. In fact, Charles isn't much more popular than Tristan!

May 12, 2009

Recession Hurting Trust Funds

From a Social Security Press Release:
The Social Security Board of Trustees today released its annual report on the financial health of the Social Security Trust Funds. The Trustees project that program costs will exceed tax revenues in 2016, one year sooner than projected in last year’s report. The combined assets of the Old-Age and Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds will be exhausted in 2037, four years sooner than projected last year.

Social Security Subcommitee Hearing Scheduled

From a notice posted by the Social Security Subcommittee:
Congressman John S. Tanner (D-TN), Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security, today announced a hearing on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) employment support programs for disability beneficiaries, including the Ticket to Work Program. The hearing will take place on Tuesday, May 19, 2009 ...

[A]n April 2009 report by the SSA Inspector General found that SSA was not acting quickly enough to terminate the benefits of disability beneficiaries who lose eligibility because they have returned to work. This has been a longstanding concern. Past testimony before the Subcommittee has reported that former beneficiaries have been overpaid tens of thousands of dollars due to SSA’s delays in terminating benefits, even if beneficiaries have informed the agency that they are working. The threat of receiving large overpayments which must later be repaid can be a significant work disincentive for disability beneficiaries. In addition, the failure to terminate benefits in a timely way increases costs to the Social Security Trust Fund, as overpaid funds may not be completely recovered.

Union Prepares For Contract Negotiations

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents most Social Security employees, has issued two different newsletters. One is called Unity and the other the National Council Digest. The newsletters feature articles about the union's preparations for upcoming contract negotiations with Social Security. Here is an excerpt from Unity:
... “Last November’s election results will certainly have a lot to do with our abilities to achieve success,” [Witold Skwierczynski, the President of Council 220] continued. “Under the Bush administration, the attitude was to diminish the Union’s strength and to de-unionize the workforce as much as possible. I expect just the opposite from President Obama.

“Unfortunately, current SSA Commissioner Astrue has cut off all communication with the Union and he has no inclination to provide employees with new benefits or better working conditions.” ...

“A grass roots employee movement will be the key to success, especially if Mr. Astrue doesn’t change his attitude toward SSA employees,” Skwierczynski believes.

Astrue On "Reforming" Social Security

There is nothing new in what Commissioner Astrue is saying, but I will repeat it here for the sake of reporting it all. From Financial Planning:
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue thinks the long-delayed discussion about reforming the government insurance program could be taken up as early as next year.

Astrue, who was in New York on Thursday to promote the $250 recovery payments that were sent out this week to people who receive Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, acknowledged that Social Security discussions could be delayed in favor of addressing healthcare reform, but doesn’t foresee the issue getting completely lost as it did during President Bush’s tenure. ...

“I think President Obama would like to have this conversation right now,” Astrue said in an interview. “But I think it will definitely happen during his first term.” ...

“We have a menu of hard choices and we have to suck it up and make those choices,” he says. ...

While there is little argument about the need to reform Social Security, Astrue also seeks to dispel the common notion that the program is in danger of going bankrupt.
By the way, I will dispute the author's smug assumption that almost everyone agrees that Social Security is in need of "reform." I think a lot of people dispute this. All Social Security needs is more revenue to replace the extra money being paid out since the Republican Contract with America ended Social Security's retirement earnings test.

May 11, 2009

Social Security Goes Viral

Update: People want to know if this came from Social Security. The answer is yes. Here is the link.


I'm going to bump this up.

New Kid On The Block

The Cochran Firm -- the one that is supposed to be related to the late Johnnie Cochran of the O.J. Simpson trial fame -- is now advertising, at least on the internet, for Social Security disability clients.

You have to wonder just how much they know about the subject since they seem to be seeking clients with Down Syndrome. Of course, Down Syndrome is disabling, but folks with Down Syndrome are almost always approved quickly and do not need an attorney. There would not be enough of a fee in the average Down Syndrome case to make it worth an attorney's time anyway.

There is also the issue that affects any outfit which tries to represent Social Security claimants nationwide -- how do you represent people who will be having hearings all across the United States? It would take hundreds of offices and thousands of employees all across the country to do this properly. No entity representing Social Security disability claimants has that kind of network. So what does the Cochran Firm do, work through local attorneys and non-attorneys, which means that the Cochran Firm exists for little more than advertising purposes, or try to deal with the claimant only over the telephone until the day of the hearing and then parachute in someone to represent the claimant at the hearing, which is expensive for the firm and not too satisfactory for the claimant? Either way, a "national" firm representing Social Security disability claimants has a lot of problems.

VOIP Problems

From a letter sent by the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, to Donnell Adams, Social Security's Associate Commissioner for the Office of Telephone Services about the agency's transition to a new telephone system based upon Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology (emphasis added):

Without question we need to replace our old telephone systems. ... This letter provides both a summary of our [recent conference] call and additional information and recommendations. ...

One office has been waiting 5 weeks to get names changed on two instruments. Two new employees have replaced two employees who left the office -- same position -- no change to the telephone system is needed except the name. A third employee who was promoted in January has been waiting to have his instrument properly updated since that time. These are easy actions....

We are concerned about the reported poor quality of VOIP calls, especially a call that is made to a non-VOIP phone. There are many echoes on the call, excess static, and low voice quality....

We are quite concerned about the extent of the problems with VOIP and the ability to support it as it expands. With only about a sixth of the Field Offices in the country installed, we are concerned that Headquarters and Nortel may not have the capacity to handle such an expansion. This is why we have suggested a moratorium on expansion until the necessary organization and contract issues are fully addressed.

Nortel is not big enough to handle this contract? That is a bit scary. Nortel is a big company.

May 10, 2009

Social Security Bulletin Released

The May edition of the Social Security Bulletin, a publication of the Office of Research, Statistics & Policy Analysis at Social Security, has been released. As usual, it includes basic statistical information about Social Security as well as statistically oriented scholarly articles.

May 9, 2009

The Greening Of Social Security

From the Social Security Update, a newsletter put out by the Social Security Administration:
...[Social Security's] eight-story Southeastern Program Service Center in Birmingham, Ala., boasts the largest green roof on any General Services Administration-leased building. The roof reduces the building's carbon footprint with oxygen-producing plants and vegetables. The building also features a raised floor system that provides better ventilation for improved air quality; a "natural light harvesting" system is designed to capture as much natural sunlight as possible; and accessible public transit allows more employees to use public transportation.

May 8, 2009

Most Popular Baby Names

Social Security has released its list of most popular names for babies over the last year:

Boys: 1) Jacob Girls: 1) Emma

2) Michael
2) Isabella

3) Ethan
3) Emily

4) Joshua
4) Madison

5) Daniel
5) Ava

6) Alexander
6) Olivia

7) Anthony
7) Sophia

8) William
8) Abigail

9) Christopher
9) Elizabeth

10) Matthew
10) Chloe
Chloe? And the press release says that Khloe is rising fast! I am feeling old and out of the loop.

Room For Debate?

Some excerpts from the Room for Debate blog at the New York Times:
From "The Editors":
The 2010 budget unveiled on Thursday by the Obama administration estimates that the government can generate huge savings if it devotes more resources to eliminating fraud, abuse and waste in Medicare, Medicaid and the Social Security disability insurance program. ...

In the Social Security program alone, the White House proposes to spend $4.3 billion over five years to fight fraud associated with disability claims — a problem, officials say, that stems from lack of oversight. Federal spending on disability insurance leaped 65 percent from 2001 to 2007, “yet the number of full medical reviews, one type of review for evaluating claims for eligibility for continuing disability payments, fell from 840,000 in 2001 to 190,000 in 2007, according to the Social Security Administration,” as The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

From Jennifer L. Erkulwater, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, and the author of “Disability Rights and the American Social Safety Net”:

Before we go looking for miscreants cheating the disability programs, it is important to realize that the growth in the Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance programs is perfectly understandable given bipartisan policy changes made two decades ago and current limits on what the Social Security Administration can do to ferret out fraud.

Between 1984 and 1990, Congress and the S.S.A. loosened the disability requirements, especially for children and people suffering from mental disorders. The agency also agreed that it would no longer cut off recipients it thought were “no longer disabled” unless it could show that their medical condition had improved, something that is exceedingly difficult to do. As part of welfare reform in 1996, Republicans in Congress did manage to tighten disability standards somewhat.

From Gary Burtless, a former Labor Department economist who now works at the Brookings Institution:

The federal government can certainly reduce the disability rolls and the cost of the disability program by conducting more frequent and tough-minded reviews of recipients’ disability status. There will be collateral damage, however. The reviews will impose real hardship on some disabled workers whose cases are reviewed.

It makes sense to conduct the reviews, but it would be sensible to focus reviews on workers with medical conditions that are most likely to improve. Resources should also be concentrated in parts of the country where statistics suggest that error rates are highest.

From Morley White, an Administrative Law Judge in Cleveland:
... I do not believe that there is as much fraud as the press and the public believe ...

I have advocated for a long time that the government needs to have its own representative in these hearings. I do not advocate making the hearings adversarial, but that government attorneys act as an ombudsman, charged with the duty of getting the pertinent facts.
Nice debate. "The Editors" know little, Gary Burtless knows nothing, Professor Erkulwater presents an argument that ignores the clear evidence that disability policy during the Reagan years was an aberrational nightmare rather than a Golden Age and Judge White, who actually has good knowledge about Social Security disability, decides to use his space to promote a hopeless cause that has little to do with the subject at hand.

Update: The Times has added two additional pieces to this "debate." One is from a disability examiner in North Carolina. His piece seems to have been edited into near complete incoherence. I am sorry for the author, because he might have had something useful to contribute. The other piece is from what I will refer to as a "disability denier," that is someone who feels that everyone can work. "Disability deniers" believe that the only reason that people are "disabled" is because of societal discrimination. With enough government funds, especially funds given to people like the "disability deniers", almost everyone on Social Security could be returned to productive employment. "Disability deniers" seem to believe that almost everyone who is disabled is in a wheelchair. Hey, a wheelchair is used as a symbol for disability, isn't it? Yes, I exaggerate the man's position, but not by much. The "disability deniers" are responsible for the Ticket to Work fiasco. Of course, their position would be that Ticket to Work failed because it was not given an adequate test, that more money for research is desperately needed. Baloney. The credulous usually believe that the "disability deniers" are important experts. I would really like to sit some of these "disability deniers" down with a roomful of Social Security disability recipients so that they could hear about the effects of chronic pain, chronic fatigue and chronic mental instability on ability to work. They might learn that people in wheelchairs are only a small fraction of the disabled population and that issues affecting them have little to do with the lives of most disabled people.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

What percentage increase in personnel is needed in order to give good public service at those parts of Social Security with which you have personal experience?
No increase needed (5) 4%
1-5% (4) 4%
6-10% (16) 14%
11-15% (14) 12%
16-20% (19) 17%
21-25% (15) 13%
26-30% (2) 2%
More than 30% (39) 34%

Total Votes: 114

The comments that people made on the poll are also worth a look.

4th Circuit Rules That EAJA Fee Belongs To Client

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has issued an opinion in Stephens v. Astrue that an attorney fee under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) belongs to the claimant and is subject to attachment for debts owed the federal government. This was fairly predictable since the 4th Circuit is, by far, the most conservative of the federal Courts of Appeal. Many, perhaps most, Social Security cases that go to the federal courts end with the government having to pay an EAJA fee. This issue is likely headed to the Supreme Court, probably in the next term. Legislative action on the issue is also possible.

Budget Details

The Social Security Administration has put out a useful summary of the President's proposed budget for Social Security for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins on October 1, 2009. The summary shows the proposed budget for Social Security is $11.6 billion, which is what had been earlier announced. The $12.081 billion figure I am quoted on Thursday apparently includes some items not normally included in budget announcements for Social Security. Federal budgeting is very technical and confusing.

Of particular interest in Social Security's summary are numbers for employment levels at Disability Determination Services (DDS). These are the state agencies which work under contract with Social Security. The full time equivalent (FTE) level for DDS was 13,605 in FY 2008, 14,369 in FY 2009 (the current year) and 15,128 in FY 2010 under the President's budget. 759 more employees are not going to make those backlogs at DDS go away.

By the way, the budget proposal calls for "research" at Social Security to go up from $35 million to $49 million. That is a much more dramatic increase than for anything else. Why?

May 7, 2009

Press Release On Budget

A press release from Social Security:

By requesting $11.6 billion for Social Security’s administrative expenses, a ten percent increase over the previous year, the President has demonstrated his commitment to help us reduce longstanding backlogs as well as handle the recession-related work that is flooding the agency. With this support, we can continue to drive down the hearings backlog, process increasing numbers of retirement and disability claims, modernize our information technology, and improve service in our field offices and teleservice centers.

It is critically important that Congress enact President Obama's budget proposal in a timely manner so that we can make the changes that will provide the American public with better and more timely service.

Full Obama Budget Proposal Out

I have criticized the current and former Commissioner of Social Security for not requesting a higher budget for the Social Security Administration. Almost every time I do this, I get one or more comments saying that I am off-base, that all budget requests for all executive branch agencies must be approved by the President, that the Commissioner of Social Security cannot legally do what I suggest. That would be true for all or almost all other executive branch agencies, but not for Social Security. The President has released his full budget proposal for fiscal year 2010 (which begins on October 1, 2009). Take a look at this excerpt from the budget for Social Security:
As directed by Section 104 of P.L. 103-296, the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, the Commissioner of Social Security shall prepare an annual budgetfor SSA, which shall be submitted by the President to the Congress without revision, together with the President's request for SSA.

The Commissioner's budget includes $11,949 million for total administrative discretionary resources in 2010. This represents $11,842 million for SSA administrative expenses and $107 million for the Office of the Inspector General. In addition, the Commissioner requested $750 million for replacement of the National Computer Center.
There may be practical reasons why the Social Security Commissioner will not communicate a budget proposal to Congress that really reflects what the agency needs, but there is no legal barrier.

The Obama budget for Social Security's operating budget (the Limitation on Administrative Expenditures or LAE) is $12.081 billion which is slightly higher than Astrue had requested. I should say that I find these budget proposals are confusing, so it is possible that I have misinterpreted something. It had been previously reported that the Obama budget for Social Security's LAE would be $11.6 billion. As I read the budget proposal, the difference between what had been reported previously and what this document says is additional allocations for improving program compliance. These additional allocations are expected to save money, so they will not really cost what they seem to cost. Again, I would appreciate any help that any real budget expert can give me.

The budget proposal says that Social Security's Full Time Equivalent (FTE) employee total was 60,744 in FY 2008, 63,469 in FY 2009 and projects it as 65,114 in FY 2010 under this budget proposal, which is about what we had heard. This is not nearly enough to significantly reduce the backlogs at Social Security or to significantly improve service. I am quite sure of that.

Business As Usual?

Social Security has made a lot of announcements lately on FedBizOpps.Gov seeking space or services for meetings. Here is a list:
Many of these meetings may be essential by anyone's definition. However, I have no doubt that the improvement in Social Security's budget situation has a lot to do with the length of this list.

Meetings like these are quite useful for purposes of training and morale. Under normal circumstances, I support them.

You know that a "but" is coming.

If one works at Social Security's central or regional offices, it may be easy to temporarily forget that Social Security is an agency in crisis. Social Security cannot answer its telephones or process its workloads. There are backlogs both visible and hidden all over the agency. The budget situation has improved since Barack Obama became President, but the crisis will not be over until Social Security hires something like 10,000 to 20,000 more employees. We are a long way from that.

Can an agency in crisis afford these meetings? Does scheduling these meetings suggest that some at Social Security think that we are back to business as usual? Some of this money being spent on meetings might be better spent on travel for Social Security brass to get out in the field more.

We will finally know that the crisis is over when Social Security field offices no longer have "private" telephone numbers not given out to claimants. Those "private" numbers are essential now because it is almost impossible to get through to these field offices if you use the phone number in the telephone book. Without the "private" numbers, a school nurse calling to report that the child of a field office employee is sick could never get through. Without the "private" numbers, Social Security management could never get through to the field offices. Discontinue the "private" numbers and I have no problem with these meetings.