Jun 30, 2009

E-Pulling Has E-Failed -- And An Attempt At An Explanation Why Such A Foolish Idea Ever Got Tried

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (emphasis added):
Our objectives were to (1) assess the results of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Electronic File Assembly (ePulling) pilot project and (2) determine whether the assessment procedures were effective in deciding when the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review's (ODAR) hearing offices were ready to implement ePulling. ...

ODAR expects ePulling to increase the efficiency of the EF preparation process and reduce the time it takes to prepare a case for hearing. ODAR estimates that ePulling may result in an annual reduction of 402 work-years and a savings of $16.6 million. ...

From June through December 2008, ePulling was used to prepare the files for 773 cases. ...

The 773 cases prepared using ePulling contained 250,938 pages. For each page, ODAR assessed the ePulling software's accuracy in identifying four categories of information: type of document, document's source, document's beginning date, and document's ending date. ODAR found that multiple corrections were required for the pages processed. In fact, 433,790 corrections were required for the 250,938 pages processed. ...

Since June 2008, the contractor has made five enhancements to the ePulling software. To determine whether the enhancements improved the accuracy of the software, ODAR processed the same 10 cases through each ePulling software enhancement. In addition to the 10 cases repeatedly tested, ODAR selected 5 to 10 new cases to test each enhancement. ... As shown in Table 2, following the January 2009 enhancement, the accuracy rates computed from this limited number of cases in the areas of type of document (65 percent) and source of document (75 percent) show accuracy rates comparable to the rates ODAR calculated for the 773 cases (see Table 1). In the area of dates of document (64 percent), the accuracy rates were slightly better for the 15 to 20 cases as compared to the accuracy rates reported for the 773 cases, which was in the 40-percent range. However, accuracy rates declined between June 2008 and January 2009. ...

We interviewed six employees in the Tupelo, Mississippi, Hearing Office and three employees in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hearing Office who prepared cases using ePulling. All nine employees stated that ePulling increased case preparation time when compared to the traditional EF preparation process. ...

We recommend that SSA:

1. Perform a complete assessment of the ePulling pilot project results before expanding the use of ePulling to other hearing offices. The assessment should ensure that ePulling will not adversely affect file preparation time or any other aspect of the hearings process.

2. Consider if historical data can corroborate or improve upon the current 3-hour case preparation time estimate used to assess ePulling's impact on hearing office productivity.

3. Determine whether the ePulling pilot testing should also include cases with more than 300 pages. ...

SSA agreed with our recommendations.

Regular readers may recall that I have been extremely skeptical about e-pulling. I wish I could claim great prescience, but I cannot. I think that almost everyone familiar with pulling exhibits knew from the beginning that e-pulling could not work.

Lisa DeSoto appears to be the person most directly responsible for the e-pulling experiment. She is now gone from Social Security. We may never know whether e-pulling had anything to do with her departure. However, I do not want to blame Ms. DeSoto too much. The underlying problem is that Social Security was being given grossly inadequate resources to perform its mission. Social Security management knew that things were falling apart, but they were under enormous pressure to manage their way out of the problem. They resorted to a variety of "Hail Mary passes" such as e-pulling. All or virtually all of these "Hail Mary passes" failed, wasting money and staff time. These "Hail Mary passes" also misled Congress about the resources the agency needed to get its work done. Why give Social Security more money and personnel when Social Security managers are promising that "Hail Mary passes" are going to save the day? But, of course, Social Security managers were only telling Congress what it wanted to hear.

The real problem was that the Republican controlled Congresses between 1994 and 2006 were just irresponsible. They underfunded Social Security to the point that its managers tried desperate measures. I am sure that the Democratic controlled Congresses since 2006 have made and will continue to make mistakes, but they are not starving Social Security to the point that its managers repeatedly try "Hail Mary passes." Even a Republican like Michael Astrue should be able to appreciate that.

$215,000 Fraud

The Pittsburg Tribune-Review is reporting on a $215,000 Social Security fraud that extended over 14 years. That is the biggest one that I can recall hearing of, at least by one individual.

Jun 29, 2009

Employment At Social Security Dipped

Below are the March 2009 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. The agency was operating on a continuing funding resolution for most of that time between September 2008 and March 2009 which probably accounts for the slight dip in the number of employees. The next report should show a significant increase in the number of employees at Social Security.
  • March 2009 63,229
  • 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

Jun 28, 2009


From a recent transmittal of Social Security's HALLEX Manual:

If the representative or claimant does not file a fee agreement before SSA makes a favorable decision on a claim with which the representative is involved, yet files a fee agreement before SSA makes another favorable decision in that claim, the decision maker will disapprove the fee agreement for the following reason:

The Social Security Administration did not receive the written agreement before making the first favorable decision that the representative worked toward achieving in this claim.

And what is the legal basis for this? Maybe there is some explanation that escapes me but this sounds like someone is trying to create a problem where none existed previously.

Jun 27, 2009

Union Newsletter

Most Social Security employees are members of Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a labor union. Council 220 has released the June 2009 edition of the National Council Digest, one of its two newsletters. I have never been able to figure out why they need two newsletters.

Federal Employee Salaries

You can now search a database to see what any federal employee made in 2008. I am told that this site is getting such heavy use that there may be delays in getting data.

Jun 26, 2009

Not Proving What You Think

From a press release issued by Allsup:
The average time to process initial Social Security disability claims is increasing by 20 percent this year ... according to Allsup, which represents tens of thousands of people in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) application and hearing process each year. ...

"Those who apply for benefits with Allsup's expert assistance may be more likely to bypass the long wait and get their SSDI benefits even earlier," Mr. Stein said. "Typically, 54 percent of those who use Allsup will be approved at the application level, but only 35 percent will be approved if they go it alone." ...

About 70 percent of Allsup customers do not have to attend a hearing because Allsup requests an on-the-record decision and presents the judge with a well-developed claim file prior to a hearing.
Actually, what this shows is that Allsup only takes on what it thinks are gold-plated, cannot lose cases. If you take on only this type of case, it does not matter quite as much that the person representing the claimant meets the claimant for the first time on the day of the hearing.

Jun 25, 2009

New Office In Tanner's District

NWTN Today (Northwestern Tennessee?) reports that John Tanner, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, was on hand Tuesday for the opening of a new Social Security field office in Union City, a town in his district. Social Security's Commissioner Michael Astrue and Regional Commissioner Paul Barnes were also on hand. Here is an interesting excerpt from the Commissioner's remarks:
... “I get dozens of pieces of mail from the public every day thanking me for the work that some particular person has done and helped them through some problem,” Astrue said. “And that compassion that you show on a regular basis is such an important part of our mission.” He added that he sees the “difficult” things, too, such as violence reports each and every day. Three years ago, SSA was receiving three to five threats a day. But with the downturn of the economy, “and as the fabric of the country has been torn,” threats have increased to 10 a day.
I wonder how many field office opening ceremonies the Commissioner attends.

IARP Recommends Updating DOT

The International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals (IARP) publishes a professional journal called "The Rehabilitation Professional." A recent issue of this journal contains an article written by a committee established by IARP to study replacements for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a fundamental basis for disability determination at Social Security. The title gives away the findings of the committee: "A Call to Update the DOT: Findings of the IARP Occupational Database Committee."

The study details the unreliability of the DOT at the time it was originally published as well as the far more serious problems with using the terribly outdated DOT today. Products already on the market which purport to be replacements for the DOT are discussed, but in the end the committee recommends updating the DOT.

The idea of updating the DOT gives Social Security a bunch of headaches. Here are some of them:
  • The DOT was far from perfect even at the time the last edition was published. It will take quite some time to figure out exactly how to update the DOT so it will be better.
  • Gathering and compiling the data to update the DOT will take years.
  • Gathering and compiling the data to update the DOT will cost a lot of money.
  • Social Security does not have the money or expertise needed to update the DOT. It is far from clear that the Department of Labor (DOL), which should update the DOT, has any interest in doing so or that DOL can get the money to do so or will have any urgency about the task if it tries to do so.
  • No one knows what a new DOT will show. The current grid regulations may have to be scrapped or dramatically changed based upon a new DOT.
Social Security really should have started taking this problem seriously a long time ago -- like ten years ago -- but the agency chose to put off difficult decisions. Delaying action for the next decade or so is unrealistic. It is amazing that there has not been litigation on this issue already. I might have litigated it myself if I were not in the 4th Circuit.

Other than staffing shortages, the DOT is, by far, the biggest problem facing the Social Security Administration. The staffing problems affecting Social Security are much simpler to solve, however. All that is required is money and time. Congress and the Office of Management and Budget are already well aware of the staffing problem and trying to help. The DOT problem is far more complex. It is probably already too late for a good solution to the DOT problem.

Jun 24, 2009

Labor-Management Partnerships Coming

These had been instituted in the Clinton Administration but disbanded in the Bush Administration. Restarting the partnerships has been a major goal of federal employee unions.

Jun 23, 2009

Reginald Wells Receives Award

From Alyssa Rosenberg at Fedblog, writing about the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration awards dinner last night:
Reginald F. Wells, deputy commissioner for human resources of the Social Security Administration, received the David O. Cooke Award for Leadership in the Public Service. The award, which recognizes career achievement in federal service, was presented by Office of Personnel Management director John Berry and by Myra Howze Shiplett, a recognized leader in human resources management issues, who remarked on Wells' many contributions in the human capital arena.

Another Decomposing Mom Story

From the New York Times:
A South Florida woman pleaded guilty to collecting her dead mother’s federal benefits for six years after her death, all the while the mother’s decomposing body remained in the house the two women shared. ...

Ms. Jordan was arrested in March after the authorities responded to complaints by her neighbors of an overwhelming stench emanating from garbage on her property and the presence of numerous feral cats.

With Ms. Jordan’s consent, the police entered the dilapidated house and discovered it was cluttered with garbage. After repeated inquiries by detectives about her mother’s whereabouts, Ms. Jordan admitted that her mother, Timmie Jordan, had died some time ago. She then directed the officers to a bedroom where they found the mother’s decomposed body clad in a nightgown and covered in a sheet.

Detective Rich Snell said Ms. Jordan told him she did not have the money to bury her mother, “so she left her in bed.”

Jun 22, 2009

New Teleservice Center Coming

From a press release issued by Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the agency plans to open a new teleservice center (TSC) in Jackson, Tennessee, which will be the first new call center opened by Social Security in more than a decade. The Jackson TSC will employ about 175 people once it is fully operational. ...

Social Security currently has 35 TSCs operating in locations all across the country. rking closely with the General Services Administration to facilitate the process for opening the new TSC. The process provides for open competition and normally takes 18 to 24 months to complete.

Update: Jackson is in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District. That District is represented by John Tanner, the Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. Tanner seems quite pleased by the announcement.

Associate Commissioner For Disability Programs Job Open

Social Security is advertising the position of Associate Commissioner For Disability Programs. According to the announcement the occupant of this position:
... is the senior executive responsible for the development and promulgation of Agency policy and guidelines in the administration of its disability programs including medical, evaluation, disability process, and administrative appeals process policy. Additionally, the incumbent is responsible for analyzing legislative and regulatory specifications and budgetary impacts of legislation on programs administered by SSA.
Glenn Sklar, pictured above, had this job. I understand that Sklar is now the Assistant Deputy Commissioner to the Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Quality Performance.

Fee Cap To $6,000 Today

Effective today the fee cap for representing Social Security claimants under the fee agreement process goes to $6,000. Social Security has just issued staff instructions on handling this increase.

Jun 21, 2009

The Most Important Facts About Social Security Disability Benefits

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) newsletter

Jun 20, 2009

Swine Flu And Social Security

From a press release issued by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees:
The Social Security Administration has taken no action to close two offices in Wisconsin despite several of its employees being exposed to the H1N1 flu virus. “This has become a matter of public safety and SSA needs to act,” stated Loni Schultz, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1346, which represents employees in several SSA offices in the Wisconsin area. “We have an employee who was diagnosed with swine flu on June 16th. This employee had been to multiple offices prior to, and on the day of being diagnosed, including the Milwaukee DT Reuss Building and the Waukesha, Wisconsin SSA office. There now are four employees at the Waukesha, Wisconsin office with suspected cases. It is appalling that SSA has taken no action to close or sanitize these offices, or notify the public of this exposure.” ...

According to a GAO report released this week, SSA is one of three government agencies that have no operational pandemic plans in place.

Occupational Information Development Advisory Committee Meeting Scheduled

A teleconference meeting has been scheduled for July 14. It is possible to listen in.

Is This Misleading?

The Chicago Daily Herald is reporting on how to look for employment at Social Security. The article says that non-disabled job applicants should check Social Security Careers regularly, but does that website list the Federal Career Intern positions at Social Security? That is the knock on Social Security's hiring. Are many, perhaps most, job openings at Social Security filled without public notice of a job opening? Is that appropriate?

Jun 19, 2009

Happy Juneteenth!

Happy Juneteenth!

Who's Your Daddy?

The California Appellate Report blog reports on a surprising decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2004 the 9th Circuit ruled in Gillett-Netting v. Barnhart, 371 F.3d 593 that a child conceived using artificial insemination after the death of the father could be considered the child of the decedent for Social Security purposes. However, the Court has just decided in Vernoff v. Astrue that another child conceived in a similar manner after the death of the father could not be considered the child of the decedent. There are differences in the facts between the two cases, but not enough that I would have expected this.

Jun 18, 2009

Can Anyone Explain This One To Me?

The Associated Press reports that the American Medical Association has gone on record in opposition to defining obesity as a disability since physicians might be unable to discuss obesity with their overweight patients if obesity were defined as a disability.

Heart disease can certainly be considered a disability now. Does this mean that doctors are already unable to talk about heart disease with their patients? I think it might be difficult to be a cardiologist if that were true!

"Simply Because Their Pay Comes From A Federal Source"

From the Honolulu Advertiser:
Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday defended her furlough plans for state workers from an objection by the federal Social Security Administration.

The federal agency warned that furloughs of federally funded workers in the state Department of Human Services could cost the state $1.9 million in federal money and delay the processing of about 3,000 Social Security claims over two years.

In a letter to the Social Security commissioner, the governor wrote that her decision to furlough all state workers "recognized that employees working side-by-side, whether their paychecks come from federal funds, state funds, special funds, or other taxpayer resources, should be treated in the same, even-handed manner."

"It is troubling that some would argue they are 'special' or should be set apart from their brethren, simply because their pay comes from a federal source." ...

The state's congressional delegation, citing the Social Security Administration's objections, called Lingle's furlough plans troubling and urged the governor to reconsider. The delegation warned that other state workers who are federally funded could be in a similar situation as workers at the disability determination branch.

E-Verify Delayed

From the Adjunct Law Prof Blog:

E-Verify is an Internet based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration (SSA) that allows participating employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees. E-Verify is free and voluntary.

However, federal contractors will shortly be required to use this system. The effective date, however has been pushed back until September 8, 2009.

The News You Need To Know

From the New York Daily News:

A Brooklyn man who police said dressed in drag to impersonate his dead mother and collect $115,000 in Social Security check and rent subsidies was indicted Wednesday on 47 counts of grand larceny, forgery and conspiracy.

Thomas Prusik-Parkin's alleged accomplice, Mhilton Rimolo, was also indicted and both men face up to 25 years in prison if they're convicted. ...

Prusik-Parkin's alleged scam began in 2003 when his mother, Irene Prusik, died at age 73.

Her son allegedly gave the funeral director the wrong Social Security number and date of birth for his mother so that her death would not be registered in government databases.

He began collecting $700 a month in Social Security in her name, in addition to his own disability checks, sources said.

Jun 17, 2009

Occupational Information Development Project

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel has posted a summary of its recent meeting in Chicago. I am not sure what this panel is up to. That makes me nervous. This subject may seem incredibly technical and unimportant to many readers of this blog, but let me assure you that it is central to Social Security disability determination. Far more disability claims could be allowed or far more could be denied based upon what this panel does. This is very close to the bone.

Where New ALJs Are Going

There is an unconfirmed report on the ALJ Discussion Forum about the offices to which the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) just hired by Social Security will be going. Note that the number before each location refer to the Social Security region in which the office is located. Note also that when the name of an office appears more than once, that the office is getting more than one ALJ.

Obama Administration To Alter Real ID

The Washington Post reports that the Obama Administration wants to scale back the "Real ID" provisions passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. State governors were rebelling at the onerous requirements of "Real ID." Social Security would have had major problems with the "Real ID" program.

Jun 16, 2009

Budget Cuts Ahead?

From the Federal Times:

Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag told agencies in a June 11 memo to submit three 2011 budget plans to OMB by Sept. 14. One plan would be capped at the 2011 figures that were outlined in Obama’s proposed 2010 budget request. A second alternate plan would cap spending at 2010 levels. And a third alternate plan would cap spending at 5 percent less than the 2011 levels outlined in the 2010 budget.

“Regardless of your agency’s discretionary target, your submission should include significant terminations, reductions and administrative savings initiatives (five at a minimum) that reduce costs below fiscal 2010 levels,” Orszag added. ...

In addition, Orszag told agency heads they will be expected to make “significant progress” in speeding up their hiring processes over the next year. He gave no targets for how much faster hiring should be, but he directed agencies to start mapping out their current hiring processes so goals can be set.

Jun 15, 2009

Case Processing System Sought

The Social Security Administration has posted a request for information from vendors interested in working on a case processing system for disability cases. Here is what the agency wants, a rather ambitious list.

There is no question about it. If a contract is awarded, it will be huge. Money spent on this will be money not spent on additional personnel for the Social Security Administration. Whether a contract for this is a better way to spend money than additional personnel is a question that cannot be answered until after Michael Astrue leaves office. However, in the short run, additional personnel would be more important.

Chairman Of NY Comp To Become Social Security ALJ

The Associated Press reports that Zachary Weiss, the chairman of the New York workers compensation system, is becoming a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ job pays more money. Apparently, the New York workers compensation system has some problems that parallel Social Security's problems.

Jun 14, 2009

Psychiatrist Writes Guide To Social Security Disability

Dr. Samuel Okpaku, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, has written "Psychiatric Disability: A Step-by-Step Guide to Assessment and Determination" for Psychiatric Times. It will be of help to clinicians.

Jun 13, 2009

Off Topic -- Depressing Medical News

From the New England Journal of Medicine:
The average person will spend about 5 years suffering from the common cold, and 1 year of that time will be spent with a cold that is severe enough to require bed rest.

Jun 12, 2009

Average Processing Time At Hearing Offices

This is from the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR).

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
  • April 24, 2009 -- 505 days

ALJs Have A Beef

Alyssa Rosenberg reports on FedBlog that federal Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are unhappy that a decision of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) prevents them from accumulating sick leave at the same rate as other senior-level federal employees. The ALJs are seeking legistlation to resolve the dispute. The vast majority of federal ALJs work for the Social Security Administration.


From an American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) press release:
A myriad of problems facing the Social Security Administration (SSA), including underfunding and eroding leadership, will be addressed this week on AFGE's "Inside Government" radio show. The show will air on Friday, June 12 at 10 a.m. EDT nationwide on Federal News Radio at www.federalnewsradio.com and 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C., area.

Two leaders from AFGE's National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, President Witold Skwierczynski and Legislative Chair Dana Duggins, will break down the agency's issues. Skwierczynski will start by detailing efforts to remove Commissioner Michael Astrue, including a vote of "no confidence" by the union and a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office. Duggins then will expand upon a gag order instructing employees to stop assisting claimants as they had in the past.

Jun 11, 2009

Proposed Rules On Military Pay And SSI

From today's Federal Register:
We propose to revise our rules to clarify that, for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) purposes, we do not consider any combat-related military pay as income when we determine whether spouses and children of members of the uniformed services are eligible for SSI.

One In Seven To Face Cuts In Benefits

From a press release issued by The Senior Citizens League:
Close to seven million seniors -- one in every seven -- will receive a smaller Social Security check next year... Millions of other seniors who do not have their Medicare premiums automatically deducted from their checks will also have fewer Social Security dollars leftover next year.

These seniors will be affected because their Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is forecast to be zero next year, while their Medicare Part B (doctors' visits, tests, and outpatient hospital care), Part C (Medicare Advantage) and/or Part D (prescription drugs) premiums are forecast to rise.

Affected seniors generally fall into one of two groups, if not both:

  1. MEDICARE PART B: HOLD HARMLESS PROVISION: Approximately three million seniors will endure cuts because they are not protected by a "hold harmless" provision that prevents the vast majority of beneficiaries from receiving smaller Social Security checks in years when Medicare Part B premiums exceed the COLA. Two groups of seniors will not receive hold harmless protection in 2010:
    1. MEANS TESTING: 2,121,500 beneficiaries who pay higher premiums due to Part B "means testing." Individuals with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) above $85,000 and couples over $170,000 are affected.
    2. NEW ENROLLEES: 848,000 new enrollees will pay the 2010 premium rate, forecast by Medicare's Trustees to be $104.20 per month, instead of the current rate of $96.40 per month that tens of millions of seniors will continue to pay next year due to hold harmless.
  2. MEDICARE PARTS C & D: More than 3.8 million other seniors will see smaller Social Security checks next year due solely to likely increases in Medicare Parts C and D, for which no hold harmless provision exists. Note: Millions of other seniors will also be affected, as our estimate includes just those who will have automatic reductions to their Social Security checks. Additional millions of seniors who pay plans directly will also have fewer Social Security dollars leftover next year.

Jun 10, 2009

SSI Stats By County

Social Security has released the 2008 edition of its report on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients by state and county. The disparities between rich and poor counties in my state, North Carolina, are stunning. One of 18 residents of Robeson County, NC is on SSI. Only one of 87 residents of Wake County, NC is on SSI.

Jun 9, 2009

Representing Claimants In New York From Idaho

Gabe Hermann reports in his New York Social Security Disability Lawyer blog that the Westchester Department of Social Services has contracted with an organization based in Idaho to represent Social Security disability claimants in his area. Apparently, this is being done to help get people off General Assistance (GA) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The Idaho outfit is trying to get Mr. Hermann's clients to fire him.

I think this is outrageous for at least a couple of reasons.

Jun 8, 2009

Getting Ready For A Party

Social Security turns 75 on August 14, 2010. Social Security is already soliciting suggestions on how to celebrate the occasion.

Jun 7, 2009

Fee Payment Info

The Social Security Administration has posted updated information on fees paid to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Jun 6, 2009

"Truth, Justice and the American People" -- I'm Not Being Sarcastic -- Read To The End

From: |||ODAR ODC

Sent: Friday, June 05, 2009 3:00 PM

Subject: Deputy Commissioner Broadcast for June

Deputy Commissioner Broadcast
Date: June 5, 2009

Subject: Disability Hearings Backlog Continues to Go Down

Incredible job, everyone. This is the fifth consecutive month that our pending has declined. Each of you is to be commended for your commitment to work down the disability hearings backlog. Your hard work and dedication are improving the lives of many Americans who are in dire need.

State of the Disability Backlog

Again in May, we exceeded our disposition target and continued to reduce the pending. We are now at 750,601 cases – a drop in the disability backlog of 5,506 cases. Our pending is currently at 10,212 cases below the fiscal year (FY) 2009 opening pending, and we are 3,999 cases below our end of the fiscal year goal.

Processing Time

Our processing time remained at 505 days in May. The fiscal year to date processing time is 494 days – 22 days below the revised fiscal year target of 516 days.

Moving Off the Low Performing Hearing Office List

Congratulations to the Seattle and Oklahoma City hearing offices for their increased productivity and hard work.

Hiring Update

By the end of the FY 2009, I expect that we will have hired an additional 959 new staff – over and above the hiring we do for attrition.

Earlier this year, we hired 140 new staff.

For the 710 new hires that we are presently working on, we have commitments from 88% of those we have made offers to and approximately 70% are already working in offices nationwide. All the Regions are stepping up to the plate to make the June 30 deadline.

Recently, the Commissioner gave us permission to hire an additional 109 new staff – 36 in the Regions and the remainder in Falls Church.

We have made 151 offers to new ALJs and hope to soon hire an additional 6. In October, we hope to hire an additional 25-50 new ALJs. Also, of great importance to our efforts to work down the disability backlog, is our ability to hire 208 new ALJs in FY 2010. We are working with OPM to get the ALJ register refreshed as soon as possible.

New ODAR Offices

We expect the offices to be completed and ready for occupancy by September 2010. Headquarters and the Regions are working well together to make this happen.

Hearing Offices

Akron,OH Madison,WI Tallahassee, FL

Auburn,WA Mt. Pleasant, MI Toledo, OH

Covington,GA Phoenix,AZ Topeka, KS

Fayetteville,NC St. Petersburg, FL Valparaiso, IN

Livonia, MI

Satellite Offices Office Expansions

Anchorage,AK Las Vegas, NV

Boise, ID Rochester, NY (satellite office)

Fort Myers, FL Sioux Falls, SD (satellite office)

Harlingen, TX

We are still working with the Regions to find space for all the centralized units.

Senate Finance Committee Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee hearing, originally scheduled for May 19, was postponed.

National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR)

In mid-May, I spoke to NOSSCR at their conference in Washington, DC, and shared with them a list of best practices for claimants’ representatives compiled from people in the Regions. They are posted at http://odar.ba.ssa.gov/odarweb/ocalj/Best_Practices.htm.

Disability Determination Services (DDS) Forum

The SSA/DDS Forum convened in Detroit last month was the first such national meeting to focus on the DDS/ODAR relationship. I have asked Robbie Watts, my Senior Advisor, to find ways to improve the relationship between ODAR and the DDSs.

Good Discussions with Unions

I have now personally met with representatives from each of the unions and our discussions have been very constructive.

Also, I have shared ODAR’s current Service Delivery Plan with them and intend to post the document to the Intranet in the near future, so all can see.

CD Burning Initiative

We are working with the Office of Systems to identify alternatives to the current CD burning process, which has caused many of our systems performance issues. We expect to implement the CD burning initiative in the 2nd quarter of FY 2010. I had hoped that we would have been able to move faster on this initiative.

I am committed to providing the information and resources necessary for you to carry out our mission. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. We should be very proud of our efforts to date. However, there still remains much to be accomplished.

David V. Foster

Deputy Commissioner

"Truth, Justice and the American People"

Jun 5, 2009

Way Off Topic

This has nothing to do with Social Security and is way off topic, but it does involve the intersection of two subjects that interest me -- the law and college sports. Take a look at this article about Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Is it conceivable that Justice Thomas was involved in an NCAA recruiting violation unknowingly -- or worse, intentionally? If any of you are in the same category as myself -- a contributor to a college athletic fund -- you have been told firmly not to do anything like what Justice Thomas did.

Things Not Looking So Good For ABT

From a September 2008 report of the Government Accountability Office:
Over the last decade, SSA has initiated 14 demonstration projects under its authority to test possible DI [Disability Insurance] and SSI [Supplemental Security Income] policy and program changes; however, these projects have yielded limited information for influencing program and policy decisions. Of the 14 projects, SSA has completed 4, cancelled 5, and had 5 projects in progress as of June 2008. In total, SSA spent about $155 million on its projects as of April 2008, and officials anticipate spending another $220 million in the coming years on those projects currently under way. Yet, these projects have yielded limited information on the impacts of the program and policy changes they were testing. ...
From a Presolicitation notice just posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps:
As part of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999, Congress mandated the SSA conduct a demonstration project testing a program under which Title II disability benefits are reduced, or offset, $1 for $2 above a specific amount of earnings. SSA moved forward with this Congressional mandate by competitively awarding design contract number SS00-04-60110 in 2004. This contract stated that upon successful completion of a design, SSA would award an Implementation and Evaluation contract to the design contractor on a sole source basis. Contract #SS00-04-60110 ended in September 2008 and SSA is ready to implement and evaluate the $1 for $2 demonstration project.

We have now concluded that “successful completion of the previous contract” does not meet any of the exceptions in the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA). Additionally, the President issued a Memorandum on March 4, 2009 directing Executive Agencies to make every effort to use a competitive process for contract awards. We have thus determined that a sole source contract award based upon previous contract performance is no longer appropriate. For all of these reasons, we will award the Implementation and Evaluation contract through a competitive procurement process.
ABT Associates had the BOND contract. Social Security's Inspector General has been critical of ABT's performance on this contract.

Jun 4, 2009

Instructions On Those $250 Payments

You might think that by now all of the $250 economic stimulus payments to Social Security beneficiaries have been paid. Wrong. Claimants are still becoming newly eligible for those payments as they are retroactively approved for benefits during the appropriate time period. The vast majority of these are disabled individuals who delayed in filing claims or had to wait for Social Security to adjudicate their cases. Those claimants can become eligible for $250 payments through the end of next year. Social Security has issued staff instructions saying that these payments will not be made at the same time as the back benefit payments to the claimants. They will be batched and paid every three months as separate payments.

Also, some recipients just do not want their $250 economic recovery payments. Social Security has also issued staff instructions for dealing with those folks. Basically, they say to tell the claimant to please take the money and then make a gift to the federal government but there are also instructions for claimants who return their checks.

Oregonian Wins Award

The Oregonian newspaper has won an award for the series of articles it ran last year on the terrible backlogs at Social Security.

Jun 3, 2009

Furloughs At Hawaii DDS

Hawaii is yet another state furloughing its state employees. This is described as a near 14% cut. The newspaper article does not say so, but I am told that state Disability Determination Services employees are included in the furloughs.

Overdraft Fees And Social Security

From the Los Angeles Times:
The California Supreme Court unanimously overturned a billion-dollar class-action award against Bank of America Corp. on Monday, ruling that banks can collect overdraft fees from accounts in which government benefits intended for subsistence are directly deposited.

What Does This Have To Do With The DOT?

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel is having a meeting on June 10 and 11. Here are a couple of items on the agenda:
  • Clinical Inference in the Assessment of Mental Residual Functional Capacity -- Panel Discussion and Deliberation
  • Subcommittee Chair Report – Mental/Cognitive Panel Discussion and Deliberation
I thought this panel was supposed to work on a replacement for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which has been used to determine whether alternative work exists that an impaired individual can perform when he or she is unable to perform past relevant work. What do these topics have to do with replacing the DOT? Do we have mission creep here? Do we have a panel working towards an entirely new method of determining disability?

Blind Man Has Trouble With Social Security

From WSPA in Greenville, SC:

When I first met 61-year-old James Beck it was easy to tell just how difficult it was for him to get around.
“I have to ask somebody whether it’s daylight or dark,“ Beck said.

Beck is legally blind and he says he has the paperwork from his doctors to prove it.

“It’s bad just living in the dark all the time you miss so many things, the sunset and the sunrise and all and you can’t see television but I enjoy listening to it,“ said Beck.

The Social Security Administration says he can work denying him disability benefits for more than two years.

“That man at Social Security said blind people works,“ said Beck. “Well I haven’t been able to find a job.“ ...

SSA’s spokesperson, Patti Patterson, talked with us by phone from Atlanta. She told us a senior attorney denied Beck’s claim in January but a judge approved it after we called, without any new evidence.

Jun 2, 2009

Lots Of Hiring? Committed To Talking With The Union?

From the Federal Times:
Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue is overseeing one of the largest federal hiring efforts currently under way. He wants to bring in about 6,500 new employees by fall to reduce claims backlogs and address other needs. In an interview with Federal Times last week, he emphasized the importance of diversity in hiring and the challenges of training a workforce with so many new employees. ...

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the fiscal 2009 appropriations gave SSA significant allocations for hiring. What advances are you making in hiring?
Astrue: We’ve hired as of [May 26], since the first week in March, about 3,700 people. So we have almost another 3,000 to try to hire between now and the end of September. If we get Congress passing the president’s budget on a timely basis, we’ll continue hiring. We should be up over about 68,000 employees at that point. We’ve dipped as low as about 60,000 in the past. So this makes a big difference, particularly in our ability to serve the public.

Q: What about administrative law judges to adjudicate decisions on the nearly three-quarters of a million in disability claims backlogged?
Astrue: We are, this week, hiring 157 new administrative law judges, and the budget for next year calls for hiring another 208. We lose about 60 to 65 a year. [Currently, 1,150 are on board.] That means we’re also opening up a lot of new hearing offices; so we have 17 new hearing offices [for a total of 157] ... and two new national hearing centers [for a total of four]....

Q: How have you approached working with the unions?
Astrue: You try to talk directly, develop relationships. Sometimes that’s worked well; sometimes that worked well for a while, and then did not work very well … In general, if you commit yourself and this is true on both sides of the table, to talking regularly, candidly and professionally, people find common ground. There’ve been some instances where, once we’ve talked about things or where things were raised for us, they’ve expected to have opposition, and we weren’t opposed. But if you don’t talk on a regular basis, you miss some of those opportunities.

Personally Identifiable Info On Lexis/Nexis?

This is the entire report released by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):

Quick Response Evaluation: Access to Personally Identifiable Information Available in the LexisNexis Total Research System (Limited Distribution) (A-07-09-19059)

Our objective was to determine whether the Social Security Administration's policies and procedures safeguard personally identifiable information (PII) in LexisNexis from improper use by Agency employees.

Our review found that SSA needs to establish policies and procedures to adequately safeguard PII available in LexisNexis applications from improper use by its employees. SSA also needs to establish the related instructions for restricting this access.

This report contains restricted information for official use. Distribution is limited to authorized officials.

Jun 1, 2009

Delays In Minnesota

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
Don Gunnon was the breadwinner until his back gave out. Then he found himself in the bread line. ...

For decades, Don ... paid taxes — to the federal government, the state, the county, the city. They never had a reason to take advantage of the safety net they helped fund. ...

Don's taxes included coverage for Social Security Disability Insurance, and now he was disabled. ..

Like 60 percent of Minnesotans who applied, Don was denied on his first application. He asked for a reconsideration — a request to have a different pair of eyes look at the application. He was denied again. The next step was to file a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. That's when he discovered he was caught in a backlog of scandalous proportions: In 2007, about 746,000 claims were pending at the hearing level, 9,000 of them in Minnesota. Some cases had been on the back burner for three years.

For those all-important hearings, it's best to hire a lawyer, but Don, who was broke, could ask only for free help through Hennepin County. Don said his representative, who wasn't a lawyer and whom he met only a few days earlier, kept shushing him when he tried to object to incorrect information. Six years after he started the process, he was denied disability insurance payments for the third time.

Some Emergency Messages

Last year I made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Social Security Administration for all the recent Emergency Messages that the agency has been withholding from public view on the grounds that they are too "sensitive" to be released. I have finally received a partial response to my request. 121 pages of records were released to me. Another 68 pages are still being withheld.

I am of the opinion that as a result of a recent order from President Obama and a recent Memorandum from the Attorney General that the agency has no basis for withholding these records from me. I have filed an appeal.

I am not going to try to post the entire 121 pages I have received. Most are truly trivial. If you want them, please let me know and I can e-mail the whole thing to you.

I have posted five of the more interesting ones on the separate Social Security Perspectives blog.
  • EM-07084 contains instructions for implementing "Informal Remands", also known as "re-recons." Because of its length and Blogger's limitations, this is broken up into Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. I think that any reasonable person familiar with the subject will agree that this should have been released to the public. As an attorney who represents Social Security claimants I should have had access to this. Ironically, the "Informal Remands" are now about to end just as we finally find out how they are being implemented.
  • EM-08081 shows that several large Long Term Disability (LTD) companies have entered into an agreement to provide the Social Security Administration with medical records on their insureds.
  • EM-08087 shows how the Social Security Administration is administering the HEART Act which provides for special treatment of certain veterans annuities, special pay and allowances to military service members and AmeriCorps payments. It is clearly a policy document that should have been released to the public.
  • EM-08093 is a great example of the absurdity of Social Security's treatment of these Emergency Messages. This "sensitive" document shows how Social Security was working with the Postal Service and the Department of the Treasury to move up the delivery date of checks in advance of Hurricane Ike in September 2008. I have no idea why Social Security would want to keep this secret. The absurdity did not end in 2008. Take a look at the document. Social Security has redacted the portion of the document showing the zip codes affected. The only explanation is "Ex. 2." This refers to the Exception 2 in the FOIA which allows agencies to withhold materials "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency." I do not think those who received their checks early thought that this matter related only to the agency. Even if one can imagine a twisted justification under FOIA for this redaction, what is the point? The recent order from President Obama specifically directs agencies that their should be a "clear presumption" for release of records. The Attorney General's memorandum warns agencies that the Department of Justice will defend FOIA cases only if some interest protected by the FOIA would be harmed by the disclosure. What is there to even think about here?
  • EM-08105, which is broken down into Part 1 and Part 2 due to its length, contains information about how Social Security is interpreting and applying the SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act. It seems obvious to me that this policy material should be freely available to the public.