Jul 31, 2009

Sad And Confusing Story

From WHO-TV in Des Moines:
A 42-year-old Newton woman is almost out of medical supplies needed for dialysis. The Social Security benefits she has relied on for two years to pay for the supplies have been canceled. ...

Garner has had problems with her kidneys since she was a child. Two years ago the situation worsened.

"A doctor told me within five years I'd have be going on dialysis; five years turned into one month later and they put a catheter in," says Garner.

Diagnosed with the end stages of kidney failure, Dawn was forced to give up her position as a certified nurse's assistant. ...

She spends eleven hours each day on a home dialysis machine. The only way to pay for it is by drawing disability benefits through Social Security. This past month she learned the benefits were canceled. ...

According to the Social Security Office in Marshalltown, Dawn's husband received an inheritance when his father passed away in 2007; therefore Dawn was over paid more than $10,000 in benefits.

Dawns says the couple has been separated for over a year and the divorce will be final on September 12th.
This makes no sense to me either. I hope it can be sorted out soon.

Disability Claims Surging

The Associated Press reports that Social Security is expecting a wave of disability claims in coming months. The agency now expects 3.3 million new disability claims in the next year, an estimate that went up from 3 million in just the last five months. The number of people awaiting an initial determination on a disability claim has gone up from 556,000 to 736,000 over the last eight months.

Update: A Scripps story on the same topic says that Social Security is expecting 40% more disability claims this year than last.

Big Contract For Verizon

From a press release:

Verizon Business has won a new $140 million task order to continue work for the Social Security Administration under the company’s existing contract with the government agency.

Verizon Business, a unit of Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), that is based in Ashburn, will provide Internet protocol (IP) and data services to the administration through 2017 under terms of the new order, if all options to continue the work are exercised.

Work will include updating the portion of the administration’s network it uses to connect with external business partners to a new IP platform based on multi-protocol label switching technology. Verizon Business already completed a similar update for the Social Security Administration’s internal network.

Jul 30, 2009

Senate Subcommittee Reports Out Appropriations Bill

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee having jurisdiction over Social Security's operating budget has reported out a bill that would fund the agency in fiscal year (FY) 2010 at the same rate as proposed by President Obama. The same amount has already been passed by the entire House of Representatives. The bill must now go on to the full Senate Appropriations Committe and then to the full Senate before going to a Conference Committee to work out differences between the House and Senate. Final passage before the beginning of the FY 2010 on October 1 is not assured, but things are looking vastly better than in recent years when Social Security was forced to work under a continuing funding resolution for many months into the fiscal year. The uncertainty caused by working under continuing funding resolutions has been extremely problemmatic for Social Security.

Compassionate Allowance Hearing

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today [Wednesday] hosted the agency’s fourth public hearing on Compassionate Allowances. Commissioner Astrue was joined by Marie A. Bernard, M.D., Deputy Director of the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, and other Social Security officials. They heard testimony from some of the nation’s leading experts on early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias about possible methods for identifying and implementing Compassionate Allowances for people with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“This year, through Compassionate Allowances and our Quick Disability Determination process, over 100,000 Americans with severe disabilities will be approved for Social Security disability benefits in a matter of days rather than the months and years it can sometimes take,” said Commissioner Astrue. “We are now looking to add more diseases and impairments to these expedited processes. With today’s hearing, we are expanding our focus from specific rare diseases and cancers to look at subgroups of much broader conditions. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is a rapidly progressive and debilitating disease of the brain that affects individuals between the ages of 50 and 65 and clearly deserves our consideration.”

In October 2008, Social Security launched Compassionate Allowances to expedite the processing of disability claims for applicants with medical conditions so severe that their conditions by definition meet Social Security's standards. To learn more and to view a web cast of today’s hearing, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances.

“With the aging of the baby-boomers, we are beginning to see more, younger working Americans diagnosed with this devastating disease,” Commissioner Astrue said. “I want to thank the Alzheimer’s Association and their staff, particularly Harry Johns, President and CEO. Their help has been invaluable and many of the witnesses are here at their suggestion. Together, we hope to identify the most severe cases that can be included in our Compassionate Allowances process.”

Jul 29, 2009

Big Contract For AT&T

From a press release:
The AT&T Government Solutions business unit has won an award worth approximately $80 million from the Social Security Administration (SSA). ...

Under the terms of the award, AT&T Government Solutions will serve as the secondary data network service provider for the SSA's Enterprise-Wide Network Infrastructure (SSANet), which provides the critical foundation for all information exchanges with the agency's enterprise network.

Jul 28, 2009

Senior Attorney Job Openings

From the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) which represents staff attorneys at Social Security:
I am pleased to announce that the Commissioner has decided to substantially increase the staffing of the Senior Attorney positions over the next 15 months. The Agency plans on initially re-promoting most of those employees that held senior attorney positions in the 1995 Senior Attorney Program and then doing at least four series of vacancy announcements starting with the end of this fiscal year. I have already requested specifics regarding the number and exact time frame of the promotions.

I emphasize that these are all permanent positions. It has always been my “number one” priority to obtain permanent GS-13 positions for those attorneys unfairly demoted in 1998 and to give promotional opportunities to the deserving attorneys unfairly stagnated at the GS-12 level. This is a giant step toward reaching that goal as we more than double the number of NTEU represented Senior Attorneys.

This is all very good news. It is the result of many years work by the Union. Why has it finally come to fruition? The answer is simple: The administration of Commissioner Michael Astrue. As you are aware, since becoming Commissioner, Mr. Astrue has addressed the many needs of SSA and particularly the disability program with a great deal of vigor. He is determined to eliminate the backlog and is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary. There have been massive hires of ALJs and supporting staff. The level of these hires is far in excess of any in the past. Additionally, many new hearing offices will be created and staffed during the next year. The list of other changes and initiatives launched by Commissioner Astrue is extensive.

NTEU does not agree with all of the Commissioner’s initiatives. However, when it comes to improving service, the Commissioner has demonstrated an interest in working cooperatively with NTEU. The Commissioner is an attorney, and he recognizes the unique skills that attorneys bring to the Social Security Administration. He also recognizes that NTEU has a long history of working cooperatively with the Agency to improve the service we provide the public. We approached him in such a mode and he has responded favorably. He listened to our presentation regarding the benefits of attorney adjudication, and despite his initial skepticism, reviewed the facts we presented and decided it was in the best interest of the Agency’s goals to launch the Attorney Adjudicator Program. During the last year we have advocated a substantial increase in the Attorney Adjudicator Program and have discussed the matter with the Commissioner and his senior advisers on multiple occasions. The Commissioner has determined that it is in the best interest of the Agency’s goals to significantly increase the staffing of the Senior Attorney position. The Commissioner’s decision to promote many GS-12 attorneys into the GS-13 Senior Attorney position demonstrates a major commitment to Senior Attorney adjudication.

Eligibility for these promotions for the first slots is limited to those with 3 years experience as an attorney adviser in ODAR with at least one year at the GS-12 level. Eligibility for the remainder of the promotions is predicated on one year at the GS-12 level in ODAR. In addition to the promotions, the Agency will charter a high level workgroup with NTEU having a prominent role. The charter will be to improve the current Attorney Adjudicator program and study the need for GS-14 supervisor and bargaining unit positions.

These promotions are the result of a long series of discussions based on cooperation between the Union and Management for the purpose of better serving the public. We intend, and I believe the Commissioner intends, to continue the policy of cooperation with those who seek to improve the disability process.

Finally, congratulations to all those who will be promoted.

-- Jim Hill
You note the distinctly different tone of this message from what you read from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees. I am not trying to explain what is cause and what is effect, just noting the difference.

Jul 27, 2009

YouTube And Social Security Disability

From News4 in Tuscon, AZ:
With the help from a friend, Gayle Debilbiss posted a YouTube video as a last ditch effort. At 54-years-old, she's too young for Social Security and according to the government she's not disabled enough for disability.

Debilbiss has a number of ailments but in January was diagnosed with stage three and four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. ...

A spokesperson with the Social Security Administration says they will re-review Debilbiss' case to make sure everything was done right.

However, he says Social Security Disability has some of the strictest qualifications, basically only people who are severely disabled, for more than a year, or who have an illness expected to end in death can qualify.

Jul 26, 2009

Alzheimer's Group To Attend Hearing

From the Cedar Rapids Gazette:
A dozen Linn County residents will attend a Social Security Administration hearing [held by Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue] Wednesday in Chicago to learn about benefit changes for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

The Alzheimer’s Association is pushing to eliminate a two-year wait for disability benefits [they must mean Medicare] after someone is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, said Kelly Hauer, executive director of the group’s Eastern Iowa chapter. Typically, those people lose their jobs and their insurance, causing financial and emotional distress, she said.

It would help if Social Security permitted them to collect a so-called “compassionate allowance,” Hauer said.

The Linn County delegation, including Alzheimer’s sufferers and their care partners, was invited to attend the hearing in Chicago. They won’t testify but will submit written statements.

“It’s a big deal,” Hauer said.

Jul 25, 2009

"Doesn't Necessarily Mean You're Fine"

From the Rochester Post-Bulletin:

Three years into retirement, William Dunn of Rochester thought all was going well. Then he received a nine-page letter from the Social Security Administration that caught him off guard.

The letter, dated May 11, said he'd been overpaid and owed the administration $6,114....

"I've been enjoying retirement too much to work," he said. "I knew something was messed up."

Dunn appealed the letter and is waiting for the administration's investigation to be complete....

Carmen Moreno, communications director for Social Security in the Chicago region, said, "Just because you're getting benefits doesn't necessarily mean they're fine."

If you went only by what you heard from Social Security's Office of Inspector General you would believe that overpayments happen only because of fraud by claimants. There is some of that, but there is also a lot of what happened to Mr. Dunn.

Jul 24, 2009

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Markup Scheduled

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 appropriations bill that covers Social Security has been reported out of the House Appropriations Committee and should come up on the floor of the House of Representatives in the near future. The Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that covers the Labor-HHS-Education bill that includes Social Security has scheduled a markup session for Tuesday, July 28. This does not guarantee that the appropriations bill will be enacted by October 1, 2009, the beginning of FY 2010, but Congress is making much more progress towards that goal than in other recent years.

Jul 23, 2009

President Talks Social Security "Reform"

From the transcript of a telephone interview that President Obama gave to the Washington Post, mostly concerning health care legistlation (emphasis added):
What I think has to happen is if we can show that we have a disciplined health care reform package that is serious about cost savings and is deficit-neutral, you combine that with the pay-go rules that we have been promoting and I believe that we can get through Congress, and you are imposing some discipline on the appropriations process -- and I thought that the F-22 victory yesterday was a good example of us starting to change habits in Washington -- then I think we're in a position to be able to, either at the end of this year or early next year, start laying out a broader picture about how we are going to handle entitlements in a serious way.

It may start with Social Security because that's, frankly, the easier one. And I think that it's possible to also look at tax reform and think about are there ways that we can maybe even lower marginal rates but eliminate all the loopholes and have that a net revenue generator. I think there are going to be a bunch of things that we can take a look at, but I think health care reform combined with pay-go, combined with how we deal with appropriations bills over the next six months will help lay the foundation for us to be able to make some of these broader structural changes....

Hiatt: And you'd be willing to look at a commission -- I mean, beyond Social Security that sort of puts everything on the table?

Obama: Yes, I think everything is going to have to be on table.

Recovery Act Lobbying

The economic recovery act signed by the President on March 20 gave the Social Security Administration a good deal of extra funding, but there were some catches. The act requires all federal agencies to disclose contacts between agency personnel and registered lobbyists concerning recovery act funds. Social Security has issued instructions to its staff concerning the disclosure provisions. Disclosure forms are supposed to be posted online. Thus far, no disclosure forms have been posted to Social Security's "Recovery Act and Lobbyists" website, which notes that the reports of contact "will be posted as received." I have a hard time believing that there have been no contacts.

Jul 22, 2009

Government Agencies Staying Away From Resorts

From the Wall Street Journal:

What do Reno, Orlando and Las Vegas have in common? To some pockets of the federal government, they just seem like too much fun.

Instead, employees at some big agencies, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are being encouraged to host meetings in more buttoned-down places such as St. Louis, Milwaukee or Denver. ...

The Department of Justice "decided conference[s] are not to be held in cities that are vacation destinations/spa/resort/gambling," according to a May email from an FBI employee obtained by the U.S. Travel Association and viewed by The Wall Street Journal. "Las Vegas and Orland[o] are the first 2 on the chopping block." ...

According to an Agriculture Department employee familiar with the guidelines, the agency issued internal travel guidelines in the spring that encourage employees to hold meetings in cities that display three key attributes: a travel hub; low in cost; and "a non-resort location."

Tales Of Woe In Tidewater Virginia

From the Newport News Daily Press:
Last week's column about a Newport News woman denied Social Security benefits after she was disabled by brain surgery struck a nerve.

"My husband was severely injured when he fell 30 feet off a roof," wrote a reader named Cheryl. "He was unable to work for six years. ...

"It was VERY obvious he could not work. ... We applied for Social Security disability and (were) outright denied. It was unbelievable."...

I've seen it too often, too: People debilitatingly ill or badly injured trying to wrest disability payments from a system that seems hell-bent on hanging on to every dime.

For years I've heard of initial claims routinely denied. That you need a lawyer to get any traction on appeal. That the third time's a charm. ...

If you qualify for federal disability, you should get it first time out of the gate. Approval shouldn't hang on an uncrossed T or undotted I.

You shouldn't have to wait years for final approval. Or have to pay 25 percent of your retroactive benefits — standard nowadays — to a lawyer or professional claims company just to get what's rightfully yours. ...

As the population ages and the economy worsens, the system is more backlogged. About 7.5 million Americans are drawing federal disability today — more than twice the number in 1990. Meanwhile, the number of staffers to process 3 million new claims every year has dropped by about 5 percent. ...

You have to wait five months just to apply. Then the average wait nationwide for a decision is three to six months. The first appeal will take another four to six months. The final appeal will take another 505 days — almost 17 months. ...

Jul 21, 2009

Average Processing Time At Hearing Offices

Here is the most recent report on average processing times at Social Security's hearing offices. Click on each image to see it full size.

Compare the average processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • May 25, 2007 -- 523 days
  • July 28, 2007 -- 528 days
  • August 31, 2007 -- 523 days
  • November 30, 2007 -- 500 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • May 30, 2008 -- 523 days
  • June 27, 2008 -- 529 days
  • July 31, 2008 -- 530 days
  • September 3, 2008 -- 532 days
  • November 5, 2008 -- 476 days
  • December 3, 2008 -- 480 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days
  • April 24, 2009 -- 505 days
  • June 3, 2009 -- 505 days
  • June 29, 2009 -- 495 days

Jul 20, 2009

Revolt In San Diego Quashed

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

From their nondescript eighth-floor offices in Golden Eagle Plaza downtown, nine administrative law judges of the Social Security Administration work in near-total anonymity. ...

Despite the obscurity, the judges wield an impressive amount of power. Each year they conduct thousands of hearings and issue opinions on individual claims for Social Security benefits – such as retirement, disability and Supplemental Security Income – that the agency initially denied.

But behind the placid scenes of this little-known court system, a quiet revolt has been simmering for months.

One day in November, eight of the judges took the extraordinary step of signing a petition demanding the removal of the longtime chief judge of the San Diego office, Edward D. Steinman. ...

The petition was sent to the chief administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., who oversees all 1,200 judges in the Social Security legal system spread across 141 offices around the country.

Two investigators sent from Washington interviewed several of the ODAR judges earlier this year, one judge in the San Diego office said. The judge would speak only if he were allowed to remain anonymous because judges are not allowed to speak to the media.

Weeks later, two other officials announced the results. “They decided the chief judge would stay and there was no rationale for removing him,” the judge said. ...

Judge David Wurzel wrote that Steinman “put himself first by commandeering support staff for his own use. He takes the best clerks and writers for himself, and manipulates assignment of cases to enhance his own numbers. That enhances his own productivity but lessens the overall productivity of the office.”

This Will Sure Help The Contract Negotiations

From a July 16 letter from Witold Skwierczynski, the President of Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) which will shortly open contract negotiations with Social Security, to Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security:
Recently SSA has received a great deal of adverse publicity as a result of the Management Tango Conference in Phoenix AZ the week of July 6, 2009. ...

AFGE is outraged that you would condone, approve and participate in such an extravagant waste of taxpayer dollars. The Union is especially disturbed that SSA would spend such enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to treat managers to the comforts of a luxurious resort that featured such amenities as 8 swimming pools, 7 tennis courts, two 18 hole golf courses, a spa and 5 restaurants. ...

AFGE has discovered that the Phoenix tango is not an isolated event. Management officials have conducted or are scheduled to conduct in the near future similar management conferences for hundreds of SSA management officials at sites such as Ft. Lauderdale FL, San Francisco CA, San Antonio TX, Boston MA, Hunt Valley MD, New Orleans LA, New York City, Kansas City MO, Bellevue WA and Austin TX . SSA is apparently spending $ millions in travel and per diem costs, hotel set up fees and salaries for participants to these events. Although AFGE has not seen agendas for all these conferences, if the Phoenix meeting agenda is reflective of the conference agendas, these meetings constitute gross misuse of SSA’s appropriated funds. ... Scheduling 1 ¾ hour lunches during which managers danced and boogied on government time is outrageous.

While virtually all the management officials in the San Francisco region were in Phoenix networking, dancing and taking extended catered lunches, SSI recipients were informed that SSA could not issue emergency payments to them because there were no management officials available to approve such payments. One office even posted a sign to that effect. ...

While the Agency is demanding more resources from Congress to process increasing workloads and eliminating backlogs, you have created a situation in which SSA is now a subject of public ridicule regarding the wasteful expenditure of tax dollars for frivolous management conferences. ...

Two years ago you cancelled sending 40 year SSA employee’s travel to Baltimore to attend the awards ceremony where they were to receive their 40 year certificates. SSA had paid for these trips in the past as a reward and in appreciation of the long time service of such veteran SSA employees. You cancelled these trips to Baltimore for employees in the field to receive their awards to save money.

AFGE Newsletter Critical Of Social Security Management

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union which represents most Social Security employees has issued its July 2009 newsletter. Here is a little excerpt from one article:
Nepotism is alive and well at Social Security -- and Union officials believe some managers are using the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) as a way to bring their family members and friends into the agency.
I do not have a dog in the fight over FCIP. However, my gut feeling based upon only limited knowledge of the program is that Social Security management needs to think about whether extensive use of FCIP is a good idea. Council 220 goes over the top at times, but that does not mean that they are always wrong.

And there is also this information in the newsletter:
Senior Executive Service (SES) Performance Awards were given on December 24, 2006 (Christmas Eve) to the following individuals. They are considered 2007 awards:
  • Linda McMahon, Deputy Commissioner for Operations $25,000
  • Milt Beever, Associate Commissioner, Office of Labor- Management and Employee Relations (OLMER) $8,000]
Regional Commissioners:
  • Paul Barnes (Atlanta) $22,000
  • Nancy Berryhill (Denver) $14,000
  • Beatrice M. Disman (New York) $25,000
  • Michael Grochowski (Kansas City) $10,000
  • James F. Martin (Chicago) $12,000
  • Carl L. Rabun (Seattle) $10,000
  • Ramona Schuenemeyer (Dallas) $8,000
  • Manuel J. Vaz (Boston) $20,000
  • Laurie B. Watkins (Philadelphia) $20,000
More award money was also given throughout 2008. Most of them were SES Performance Awards and were announced on March 14 (except where noted).
  • Paul Barnes $22,000
  • Milt Beever $12,500
  • Nancy Berryhill $17,500
  • Beatrice Disman $26,150
  • Michael Grochowski $13,500
  • James F. Martin $12,000
  • Linda McMahon $26,150
  • Ramona Schuenemeyer (SES Rank Award; Sept. 30) $32,975
  • Ramona Schuenemyer $21,750
  • Pete Spencer (San Francisco Regional Commissioner) $26,150
  • Manuel J. Vaz (SES Rank Award; Sept. 30) $59,897
  • Manuel J. Vaz $23,375
  • Laurie Watkins $21,250
TOTAL for both years: $489,197

Jul 19, 2009

FY 2010 Appropriations Bill Reported Out Of House Committee

The House Appropriations Committee has reported out the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 appropriations bill that covers Social Security's administrative budget. Social Security would receive the same amount as the President recommended.

Mom On Ice Copycat

The Associated Press reports that Rosland Auslander of New York state has pleaded guilty to freezing the dead body of his 98 year old mother so he could continue to cash her Social Security checks.

Long time readers of this blog know that "Mom on ice" stories pop up on a regular basis on this blog. Criminals are so predictable.

Jul 18, 2009

Hearing Office For Alaska

This news is not all that new, but the Anchorage Daily News is reporting that the Social Security Administration plans to open a full hearing office in Anchorage in February of next year.

AFGE Jumps On Conference Criticism

From Al Kamen's Inside the Loop column at the Washington Post:
The American Federation of Government Employees [AFGE]... estimated the gathering -- which it said included receptions, door prizes, skits, a dance troupe, a lunchtime comedian and a trip to a casino -- cost $750,000, not including salaries. That, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the union's field office local, was a "callous waste of money when video conferencing is available."

He said SSA had recently installed a "state-of-the-art" interactive video system for training new and newly promoted employees. "These employees sit in an office and watch on IVT while trainers instruct them from remote locations," Skwierczynski said. "Apparently the folks who run SSA feel" that's fine for lower-level employees but "managers deserve the amenities of the Arizona Biltmore when they get instruction."

Annual Statistical Report On Disability Insurance Program

Jul 17, 2009

Senate Health Care Bill Does Not Address Medicare Waiting Period

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has reported out the Affordable Health Choices Act to address the increasing number of uninsured Americans. As best I can tell from the Committee's summary of the bill, it does not address the 24 month (really 30 month for most people) waiting period after becoming disabled before Medicare benefits begin.

It appears increasingly likely that a major health care bill will be passed and signed by the President this year. Whatever is passed will dramatically reduce the number of uninsured Americans but a very significant part of the remaining uninsured Americans will be individuals who have been or will be declared disabled by their government. I wonder whether the number of free clinics -- already inadequate -- will decrease once a health care bill passes, making it even harder for the disabled to obtain health care.

Social Security Explanation Of Phoenix Conference

The Social Security Administration has prepared an explanation of the recent Regional Management Training Forum it held at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. It is obvious that Social Security obtained an extraordinarily good deal from the hotel. I did not see an explanation of the motivational dance troupe, but that may have been covered in an attachment that is not available to me.

My problem with this meeting is not where it was held, but whether it should have been held at all. It would not have been much cheaper for the meeting participants to have stayed at a Motel 6 while meeting at Social Security's Western Program Service Center in Richmond, California. The problem I have is whether the meeting should have been held at all at a time when Social Security's field offices cannot answer their telephones. Does Social Security management understand the severity of the staffing problems at its field offices?

Gregory To Head NASI

From a press release:
Janice Gregory has been elected the tenth president of the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization made up of the nation's leading experts on social insurance. Gregory is the former Senior Vice President for the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), an organization that represents the health and retirement plans of major corporations, and a founding member of NASI.

“With Social Security once again emerging as a major issue in social insurance, NASI is fortunate that Janice Gregory has agreed to serve as its president. Janice Gregory is one of the most respected national leaders on social insurance and retirement security issues,” said Kenneth Apfel, NASI Chairman and Professor of the Practice at the Maryland School of Public Policy. “It is hard to imagine a better match between the issues that NASI and the nation will face in the years ahead and the talents of its new president.”

Gregory directed legislative affairs at the ERISA Industry Committee from 1984 through 2006. From 1979 through 1983, she coordinated activities of the Subcommittee on Social Security for its Chairman, the Honorable J.J. Pickle of Texas. She was awarded the Social Security Administration Commissioner’s Citation in 1984. She is a contributing author to Prospects for Social Security Reform and Checks and Balances in Social Security, and is principal author of The Vital Connection: An Analysis of the Impact of Social Security Reform on Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans and Getting the Job Done: A White Paper on Emerging Pension Issues. ...

Gregory succeeds Margaret Simms, Institute Fellow and Director of the Low-Income Working Families project at the Urban Institute, who was president of NASI for two years.

Jul 16, 2009

ABC Story On Social Security Conference In Phoenix

You know it's bad when the title of the piece is Social Security Execs Boogie Down at Lavish Phoenix Conference.

I have been to a lot of conferences but I have never been to one where a motivational dance troupe performed.

Update: From FederalTimes.com:
...[L]eading members of two House and Ways Committee panels are accusing the agency leadership of being tone-deaf in holding the retreat at such a posh resort at a time of high unemployment and record government deficits.

“At a time when millions of Americans are out of work and having to do more with less, and when the SSA has received significant new funding to address near record backlogs after longstanding funding requests made before our subcommittees, it is essential that great care be taken to use administrative funding wisely, in a way that brings the most value to the American people SSA serves,” the members wrote in a July 10 letter to SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue.

Reps. John Tanner, D-Tenn., and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Social Security subcommittee; and John Linder, R-Ga., who is the top Republican on the income security and family support subcommittee, wrote the letter.

The lawmakers asked Astrue to provide by July 17:
• Details of costs for travel, rooms, meals, speakers, entertainment, conference room rental and equipment charges.
• The number of official hours SSA employees used traveling and attending the conference, as well as the number of employees who attended and their job titles.
• The process used to select the retreat location, including “whether government contracting rules were followed and whether the hotel housing the conference was the lowest bidder.”

Jul 15, 2009

House Health Care Bill Does Not Eliminate Medicare Waiting Period

The Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives has released its version of a bill to improve health care in the United States. It is a very long bill and I could have missed something, but I do not think there is anything in it to eliminate the 24 month waiting period for Medicare after one becomes entitled to disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Actually, the waiting period is more like 29 or 30 months since it is on top of the five month waiting period after becoming disabled before entitlement to cash benefits begins -- and the five months must be full calendar months. Stop work on July 2 and you cannot count July as a waiting period month.

ALJ In Training Blog

Social Security has some recently hired Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in training somewhere in the D.C. area. One of them is keeping a blog. The latest: Sonia Sotomayor might be staying at the same hotel as the newly minted ALJs. But would she be staying at a Residence Inn?


The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAD) has issued a draft report on what it refers to as "The Social Security Statement," a document that Social Security refers to as the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES). This is the yearly report sent to almost everyone who had earnings in a year showing their earnings history and giving information on projected benefit payments under Social Security.

People spend little time reading their PEBES. I doubt that any improvement in PEBES will help.

Jul 14, 2009

House Appropriations Markup Scheduled

The Labor-HHS Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, which includes funding for Social Security, has been scheduled for markup by the entire House Appropriations Committee on July 17 at 9:00. I have still not seen the bill as it cleared subcommittee last week. However, the Chairman's "mark" which was the starting point for subcommittee work, had the same amount for Social Security as President Obama proposed.

Startling Numbers On DDS Backlogs

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) here are some numbers on backlogs at the Disability Determination Services (DDS) which make decisions at the initial and reconsideration levels on Social Security disability claims. The increases in receipts and backlogs are startling. I cannot understand the dramatic differences in new receipts between the states. Certainly, differences in unemployment rates do not explain what is going on.

Hearing Backlog Report

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) here is the most recent report on average processing times at Social Security's hearing offices. Click on each image to see it full size.

Compare the average processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • May 25, 2007 -- 523 days
  • July 28, 2007 -- 528 days
  • August 31, 2007 -- 523 days
  • November 30, 2007 -- 500 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • May 30, 2008 -- 523 days
  • June 27, 2008 -- 529 days
  • July 31, 2008 -- 530 days
  • September 3, 2008 -- 532 days
  • November 5, 2008 -- 476 days
  • December 3, 2008 -- 480 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days
  • April 24, 2009 -- 505 days
  • June 3, 2009 -- 505 days
Update: There is an error in the document provided by NOSSCR. The offices ranked 1-59 were not reproduced, but the offices ranked 60-188 were repeated. I am sorry, but I am dependent upon what NOSSCR supplies.

Further update: NOSSCR was kind enough to supply me with the correct first page. I have posted it above.

Jul 13, 2009

Attorney Advisor Program Extended

From today's Federal Register:
We are extending for two years our rule authorizing attorney advisors to conduct certain prehearing procedures and to issue fully favorable decisions. The current rule is scheduled to expire on August 10, 2009. In this final rule, we are extending the sunset date to August 10, 2011. We are making no other substantive changes.

Jul 12, 2009

Reaction To Fox News Attack Story

The Arizona Republic business section contains a reaction to the Fox News attack piece about the conference that Social Security held at the Arizona Biltmore, mostly expressing concern about the local tourism industry.

Jul 11, 2009

Non-Attorney Representer Expands

From a press release:
SSC Disability (a Social Service Coordinators company) has announced a name change to Freedom Disability and has expanded its operations into a new corporate headquarters in Shelton, CT. The larger 22,000 square foot facility will accommodate the continued growth of the business, bringing hundreds of new jobs to the state. ...

[T]he expansion to a new facility represents our commitment to the national Disability Services market, as well as our community here in Connecticut. We are pleased to be able to grow and offer new employment opportunities in an otherwise challenging economy. Not only will we be hiring in Shelton, but we will also be adding remote Disability Advocates across the country and in our regional offices in Florida and Arizona." ...

Updated Fee Payment Stats

Updated information on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Mock Hearing For Congress

From Sheri Abrams's blog:

In an additional effort to promote understanding of the hearings, the ABA [American Bar Association] sponsored a mock Social Security disability hearing for congressional staff members. The session showed them what occurs at the hearings, which ordinarily are closed to the public due to privacy concerns.

Members of the ABA presented the mock hearing May 27 at the U.S. Capitol. ... The Standing Committee on Governmental Affairs sponsored the program, and its chair, Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, served as moderator. The mock hearing was cosponsored by 12 ABA entities and staffed by the Governmental Affairs Office. Social Security Deputy Commissioner David V. Foster answered questions from congressional staff.

I Wonder ...

From today's New York Times:
Surging caseloads and a chronic lack of resources to handle them are taking a toll on judges in the nation’s immigration courts, leaving them frustrated and demoralized, a new study has found.

The study, published in a Georgetown University law journal, applied a psychological scale for testing professional stress and exhaustion to 96 immigration court judges who agreed to participate, just under half of all judges hearing immigration cases. The survey found that the strain on them was similar to that on prison wardens and hospital physicians, groups shown in comparable studies to experience exceptionally high stress.
I wonder what you would find if you did the same study with Social Security Administrative Law Judges.

Jul 10, 2009

First Mistake On Increased Fee Cap

I posted two days ago that my firm had just received the first fee check of $5,917, computed under the $6,000 fee cap that went into effect on June 22.

It did not take long for the other shoe to drop. Today, we received the first fee check for $5,217 that should have been for $5,917. How long will it take to get this corrected? How long will this sort of error continue?

House Appropriations Committee Markup Begins

The House Appropriations Committee has begun marking up the FY (fiscal year) 2010 appropriations bill covering Social Security. This markup is in subcommittee. The Chairman of the Committee, David Obey, has released a statement giving information about the chairman's mark, that is the starting point for the markup. Here is what it says about Social Security:
...[T]his bill sustains critical support for America’s most vulnerable children, families, and seniors. These investments include: ... $11.4 billion for the Social Security Administration, which provides the single largest dollar increase in the bill and the request – to help the agency process a rising number of retirement and disability claims, make progress in reducing the backlog of disability hearings, and improve services to the public.
The figure for Social Security is $200 million less than what President Obama had asked for. However, I would note that there are rumbles about a possible second economic stimulus bill. If such a bill happens, it will almost certainly include some additional money for Social Security.

Update: Chairman Obey's statement misled me. A more detailed summary of the Chairman's mark shows it to be the same as the President's proposed budget.

Fox News Criticizes Social Security Training Conference

Update: I do not want to claim credit or blame for this story, but you may recall that I had earlier expressed concern about expenditures for conferences such as this.

Jul 9, 2009

No Match Rule Being Rescinded

From the Washington Post:

President Obama will abandon a controversial immigration crackdown, sought by his predecessor, to pressure U.S. companies to fire 9 million workers with suspect Social Security numbers, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday.

Instead, Obama will mandate that federal contractors confirm the identities of 4 million workers against federal databases beginning in September ...

Compassionate Allowance Hearing

From today's Federal Register:
We will hold a hearing on July 29, 2009, to obtain information about possible methods of identifying adults with Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease and related dementias and the advisability of implementing compassionate allowances for people with these diseases.

DATES: This hearing will be held on July 29, 2009, between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., Central Daylight Time (CDT), in Chicago, IL. The hearing will be held at the Drake Hotel, 140 East Walton Place, Chicago, IL 60611. While the public is welcome to attend the hearing, only invited witnesses will present testimony.

You may also watch the proceedings live via Webcast beginning at 9 a.m. CDT. You may access the Webcast line for the hearing on the Social Security Administration Web site at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionate_allowances/hearings0709.htm.

Jul 8, 2009

First $5,917 Attorney Fee Check

Today my firm received its first fee computed under the new $6,000 cap on fees under the fee agreement process. This higher cap went into effect on June 22. The fee came to $5,917 after the user fee.

It has become not uncommon in the last two or three months for us to receive a fee this quickly after a favorable decision. The payment centers have been doing a great job in getting claimants -- and their attorneys -- paid quickly after favorable decisions in Title II cases. Backlogs remain, however, in doing windfall offset computations and the reconsideration units at the payment centers are a disaster area.

Off Topic: GS-13s Be Proud, Be Very Proud

According to Alyssa Rosenberg at Fedblog, Neil Armstrong was a GS-13 when he walked on the moon.

Jul 7, 2009

House Appropriations Committee Schedules Markup

The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a markup session for the FY (fiscal year) 2010 Labor-HHS Appropriations bill for July 10 at 9:00. The Labor-HHS appropriations bill includes Social Security.

The next step will be for the Chairman of the Committee, David Obey, to release the "Chairman's Mark" that will be the starting point for the markup session.

SSN Security Threat

From the Washington Post:
Researchers have found that it is possible to guess many -- if not all -- of the nine digits in an individual's Social Security number using publicly available information, a finding they say compromises the security of one of the most widely used consumer identifiers in the United States. ...

"For reasons unrelated to this report, the agency has been developing a system to randomly assign SSNs," which should make it more difficult to discover numbers in the future, Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said by e-mail. ...

CMU researchers Acquisti and Ph.D student Ralph Gross theorized that they could use the Death Master File along with publicly available birth information to predict narrow ranges of values wherein individual SSNs were likely to fall. The two tested their hunch using the Death Master File of people who died between 1972 and 2003, and found that on the first try they could correctly guess the first five digits of the SSN for 44 percent of deceased people who were born after 1988, and for 7 percent of those born between 1973 and 1988. ...

They were able to identify all nine digits for 8.5 percent of people born after 1988 in fewer than 1,000 attempts. For people born recently in smaller states, researchers sometimes needed just 10 or fewer attempts to predict all nine digits.

Jul 6, 2009

Press Release On Exempting DDS Employees From State Furloughs

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, expressed his appreciation that Vice President Joseph R. Biden also has urged Governor Edward G. Rendell, Chairman of the National Governor's Association, to exempt federally-funded state Disability Determination Service (DDS) employees from any furloughs, hiring restrictions, and other budget cuts. Earlier this year, Commissioner Astrue wrote his own letter to Gov. Rendell expressing his grave concerns that including DDSs in state-wide reductions saves no money and, in fact, hurts the most vulnerable residents.

"I thank the Vice President for helping us make the case to Governors across the country," Commissioner Astrue said. "Social Security funds 100 percent of DDS employees’ salaries as well as overhead -- that's about $2 billion nationwide this year. These funds cannot be used by the states for any other purpose, so states do not save money by cutting employees in DDSs – they only slow getting benefits to the disabled, which runs counter to what the President and the Congress were trying to do with the $500 million in the Recovery Act dedicated to accelerating disability decisions. Nevertheless, many governors are imposing across-the-board hiring freezes or furloughs that also affect DDS employees. For the good of the country, this has to end.”

To read the Vice President's letter, click here. Get Acrobat Reader

NCSSMA Meeting Notes

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has posted the minutes of its May 27 quarterly telephone conference meeting. This meeting involved representatives from Social Security's Office of Automation Support (OAS). The minutes are in a somewhat confusing question and answer format. They are probably of much more significance to Social Security field office personnel than to someone like myself who is outside the agency representing claimants.

Jul 5, 2009

When Social Security Had Only Five Employees

Social Security has released Volume 69, No. 2 of the Social Security Bulletin, its scholarly publication. One article that might be of interest is The Story of the Social Security Number which concerns an important part of the history of Social Security in the United States. A little excerpt:
... [C]reating the SSN scheme and assigning SSNs to U.S. workers was no easy task. Passage of the Social Security Act in August 1935 set in motion a huge effort to build the infrastructure needed to support a program affecting tens of millions of individuals. ...

Establishing the Social Security infrastructure was impeded for 3½ months by the lack of funds due to a filibuster of the 1936 Deficiency Bill (a government-wide appropriation bill similar to current Omnibus Budget Reconciliation bills) by Senator Huey Long (D–LA). ... As late as March 15, 1936, there were still only five employees of the Social Security Board's Bureau of Old-Age Benefits—including the director and his assistant ...

Jul 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Social Security Wants To Monitor Social Media

From Federal Computer Week:
Social Security Administration (SSA) officials plan to hire a contractor to monitor what the public is saying about their agency on social media Web sites such as MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, according to a contract request from SSA. ...

The monitoring will cover blogs, social networks, traditional media and video Web sites such as YouTube, the announcement states.
In a sense I can understand this, but in another sense I can imagine the company getting this contract might also get a contract to do the same thing for the Iranian government. What do you think?

Update: I have done a cursory search on Twitter and Facebook and am coming up with nothing of any consequence concerning Social Security. There is a Mike Astrue with a Facebook page, but I expect that it is bogus since that Mike Astrue is indicated to have only one friend. Are you aware of any social networking sites that would be of interest to readers of this blog?


From the St. Petersburg Times:
The days of automated phone calls, lines and long commutes could be coming to an end for local Social Security recipients.

In an effort to alleviate those problems, the Social Security Administration has created a pilot project called "eCongressional," which allows regional congressional offices to have access to sensitive Social Security information affecting local recipients.

Jul 3, 2009

It's Just A Form

From The Virginian-Pilot:

Struggling through what might be the last year of her life, Laura DeLong Smith heard some good news in late May.

A counselor from the American Cancer Society told her she qualified for a Social Security program that gives monthly disability checks to people with terminal cancer. She was elated.

The counselor coached her on what to say so that processors at the federal agency would steer her to the Compassionate Allowances Program.

Smith made the call, sat for a lengthy phone interview and went down to the Social Security office to sign a medical release form.

Then it got ugly.

She received an eight-page form at her Virginia Beach home asking question after question that seemed strange for someone with a terminal illness: Was she left- or right-handed? What were her hobbies? Did she have pets? Did she make her own meals? ...

She was told that she had to fill it out or she wouldn't get the money. Everyone has to do it, she was told. ...

"I hope that the next person who comes along with terminal cancer doesn't have to put up with this humiliating experience," she said. ...

Mae Novak, a Social Security Administration spokeswoman who looked into Smith's case, said the function report is used to determine eligibility for many programs, not just those serving the terminally ill. ...

"The agency is pleased at the speed at which she was being serviced."

"Many Left Uncounted In Nation's Official Jobless Rate"

You can read or view online the PBS report from last night that sought to make the point that the recession is increasing the number of people seeking Social Security disability benefits and that this partially masks the extent of the unemployment.

Jul 2, 2009

PBS To Run Story On Disability Backlogs

I am hearing that PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer will be running a piece tonight on the rising number of disability claims being filed. Apparently, they will tie the trend into the economy.

I am a contrarian. I think the recent rise in the number of claims filed has little to do with the economy. It has to do mostly with a public perception that the election of Barack Obama as President means that it will be less difficult to be approved for Social Security disability benefits. This causes some percentage of the large milling crowd of potential disability benefits applicants to decide to take the plunge and file a claim.

Who Will Be In That 3%?

Press reports indicate that Democratic Senators are working on a plan to improve health care. The plan would cover 97% of Americans. This begs an important question: Who would in the 3% to be left out? I am afraid that people who are disabled but who are trapped in what amounts to a 30 month waiting period for Medicare will be a major part of the 3% who are left out. Does anyone know?

Update: I have found a copy of the Kennedy-Dodd bill which is the hottest health care bill at the moment. I see nothing in it that would eliminate the Medicare waiting period. This would mean that disabled people would be prominent among the 3% left out.

Too Good To Be True?

From SafeLink:
SafeLink Wireless is a government supported program that provides a free cell phone and airtime each month for income-eligible customers.

And on another SafeLink page:

The process to qualify for Lifeline Service depends on the State you live in. In general, you may qualify if...

You already participate in other State or Federal assistance program such as Federal Public Housing Assistance, Food Stamps and Medicaid.

Your total household income is at or below 135% of the poverty guidelines set by your State and/or the Federal Government.

No one in your household currently receives Lifeline Service through another phone carrier.

You have a valid United States Postal Address. In order for us to ship you your free phone you must live at a residence that can receive mail from the US Post Office. Sorry, but P.O. Boxes cannot be accepted.

In addition to meeting the guidelines above you will also be required to provide proof of your participation in an assistance program, or proof of your income level.

I have a real problem getting up with many of my low income clients because they lack telephone service. Social Security has the same problem since they are dealing with the same population. Is this legit?

Jul 1, 2009

Astrue Talks About Public Service

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue gave an interesting interview to Federal News Radio recently. You can hear the interview online. Some points I took away:
  • Astrue hopes to open additional new Teleservice Centers in coming years.
  • Astrue has a longstanding belief that it is a bad idea to contract out customer service. That was his position when working for a drug manufacturer and it remains his position at Social Security.
  • Astrue has listened in on calls to teleservice centers and was surprised at the range of questions asked.
  • No site has been selected for the new data center. He hopes that the General Services Administration (GSA) will select that site by early next year. He gave no clue on where it will be.

State Cuts Hurt The Disabled

From the Topeka Capital-Journal:

Christy Tatum moved four times in two months and is praying for a fifth move to a place she can really call home.

Doctors have diagnosed Tatum, a Topeka resident, with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Social Security Administration, however, has refused her disability application twice, and she has heard the process to appeal that decision could take years she can’t afford.

Tatum now lives at the Topeka Rescue Mission and receives state aid, but she learned in June that the support — MediKan health coverage and $241 each month in general assistance — will disappear in five months.

The budget the Legislature approved for the fiscal year that starts today reduces MediKan and general assistance from 24 months to 18 months for residents for Social Security disability, and it removed the “hardship provision” for extensions. That means any Kansan “unable to meet federal disability standards” who has received the programs for 18 months since 2002 will be cut off. ...

Hancock said between 1,600 and 1,700 Kansans with pending disability cases will lose their MediKan and general assistance today because they have exceeded 18 months.

The "Content Model"

This morning's e-mail included a message from Nancy Shor, Executive Director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), sent to all NOSSCR members. The e-mail concerned Nancy's other duties as a member of Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). Attached to Nancy's e-mail was a message to NOSSCR members from Dr. Mary Barros-Bailey, the Interim Chair of OIDAP, to which was attached a document titled "What is a Content Model?" I have e-mailed the panel asking that they post the entire lengthy document.

It is obvious from what I received that the Social Security Administration and OIDAP are interested in going ahead with essentially recreating the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), although in a format that would be more usable to Social Security than the DOT ever was. This would be a very expensive and time-consuming effort.

Let me make some very preliminary observations.
  1. Even though the DOT was based upon many tens of thousands of job site observations, it is now widely accepted that the data in the DOT was far from authoritative even at the time it was published. Many jobs had only been viewed one time and data collection methods were inconsistent. Will Social Security be able to do better? People will be watching much more closely now than they were at the time the DOT was created.
  2. Creating a DOT replacement will be an expensive endeavor. Does Social Security have Congressional and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) backing for this endeavor?
  3. Will a DOT replacement created at the behest of Social Security have the credibility it will need? Nancy Shor's e-mail talked of possible Daubert challenges to whatever comes out of this. There is that problem, but a more direct problem is the Data Quality Act.
  4. If this DOT replacment is to be done, would it not be better to have it done by the Deparment of Labor rather than Social Security?
  5. The DOT replacment envisoned by the "Content Model" would include a good deal of information never previously gathered. How practical will it be to even gather this data? The "Content Model" may require collection of data about the mental demands of employment. Is it possible to define whether a job is "high stress" or "low stress" for instance?
  6. OIDAP and Social Security are interested in gatering data on the extent to which jobs may be restructed to accommodate workers' impairments. Social Security's position to this point has been that Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations to workers' impairments may not be considered in determining disability. There are many in the rehabilitation community who regard "disability" as essentially non-existent, that with sufficient accommodation anyone not in a coma can work and that it is the duty of society to provide whatever level of accommodation is required. I find this absurd and dangerous, not just for disabled Americans, but for the American economy. Basing disability determination on a theoretical level of accommodation that can never be achieved in the real world would have a devastating effect upon millions of Americans. In the real world the ADA is virtually a dead letter. The Courts have interpreted it almost out of existence. There have been recent legislative efforts to give the ADA more substance, but it is far from clear that these efforts will succeed. It will never achieve the goal of allowing any person to work regardless of the extent of their impairments. In my view any discussion at OIDAP about accommodation is cause for great alarm.

Dead And Not Dead

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Based on our results, we estimate that as of January 2008, about 6,100 beneficiaries in current payment status had a date of death recorded on their Numident record. We estimate that approximately 1,760 of the 6,100 beneficiaries were actually deceased, and that SSA made approximately $40.3 million in improper payments to the deceased beneficiaries after recording their date of death in SSA's records. Further, we estimate SSA would make approximately $6.9 million in additional improper payments over the next 12 months if these discrepancies were not corrected.
In the overall picture, this is a low error rate, but still, that is over 4,300 people who are listed as dead who are not dead. Goodness knows how many were erroneously denied benefits for months.

By the way, notice that OIG seems a lot more concerned with the erroneous payments than the erroneous denials of benefits, even though it looks like erroneous denials of benefits are a bigger problem. And, yes, I know that the report indicates that the 4,300 living people listed as dead in Social Security's records are actually still on benefits, but I imagine that many, perhaps all of these folks had to go to some trouble to get their benefits reinstated and remain at risk for disruption in their benefits.