Aug 31, 2009

Cutting $2.2 Billion In Salaries Only Saves California $1.3 Billion

From the Los Angeles Times:
State worker Rochelle Johnson's $38,000 salary never allowed her family to live in luxury. Then the furloughs hit, cutting her pay by 14%.

Now Johnson, an appointment scheduler at a California agency that reviews disability applications, finds herself at the mercy of payday lenders, utility companies' patience -- they shut off her power once already -- and co-workers who share their lunch leftovers. ...

In some limited cases, the furloughs could be waived at little or no cost to the state.

The $2.2 billion in pay cuts is expected to save the state's general fund only $1.3 billion in this budget year. The other $900 million is paid from separate funds or with federal money. Most workers are paid through a combination of sources.

Rochelle Johnson's pay comes entirely from the federal government.

"Why are we furloughed if we are federally funded?" she asked. "I don't think I should have to put my child in danger because Arnold decided on what was best for me." ...

"We would be discriminating against other state employees if we said, based on your funding source, we're going to apply a different personnel policy to you," said Lynelle Jolley, a state Department of Personnel spokeswoman. ...

NPR Story On Delays

National Public Radio has a story today on delays in adjudicating Social Security disability claims.

Waiting On Congress

There are three major Social Security matters pending action by Congress.

The current federal fiscal year ends on September 30, 2009. The Labor-HHS Appropriations bill that will fund Social Security's administrative operations has been passed by the House of Representatives and has been reported out of committee in the Senate. It now goes to the Senate floor and then to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Will it be passed before the end of this fiscal year? We'll see. If not, Congress will surely pass a continuing funding resolution that will keep Social Security going at the rate of the preceding fiscal year, but continuing funding resolutions make planning tough.

Withholding of fees for certain non-attorney representatives of Social Security claimants sunsets in February 2010 unless this is extended by Congress. I do not want to alarm anyone but there is no visible sign of movement on this.

Withholding of fees for representing claimants for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) also ends in February 2010 unless this is extended by Congress. Again, I do not want to alarm anyone but there is no visible sign of movement on this.

Aug 30, 2009

Quotas On Disability Claims Approval Alleged

From the Press-Register (a newpaper which is based somewhere in Alabama, but try finding which city using their online edition!):

Some former medical consultants at the Alabama agency deciding thousands of Social Security disability claims each year say they were pressured to approve more applications, an assertion backed by e-mails obtained by the Press-Register. ...

The Social Security Administration's inspector general, a kind of an internal watchdog, is now conducting a review of how claims are handled, a spokesman said last week. Citing that review, Tommy Warren, director of Alabama's Disability Determination Service, declined comment on the e-mails. He said that for comparison purposes, the agency lets employees know what the allowance rates are in other Southern states, but added that it does not have goals.

The e-mails, sent by supervisors at the Birmingham-based agency between 2006 and last year, urged consultants to shoot for a 30 percent "allowance rate." ...

Among eight Southern states, the agency had the highest allowance rate (44.3 percent) statewide for applications for disability insurance. It ranked 5th for SSI claims at 29.5 percent allowance and, at 23.2 percent, was third in approving "concurrent claims" for both disability insurance and SSI.

That showing came some two years after a supervisor voiced concern about how Alabama stacked up in the region.

"If you have consistently had allowance rates below 30 percent, you need to look at your decisions very closely," she told dozens of consultants in a January 2006 e-mail. Similar exhortations followed in 2007 and last year.

"If your allowance rate is below 30 percent, refer back to your plans of action and continue to work on bringing your allowance rates up," another supervisor wrote in a May 2008 e-mail. ..

At a meeting last year, consultants were told "that our (office) had one of the lowest allowance rates in the country," said Samuel Popkin, a clinical psychologist hired to evaluate claims of mental impairment. "The tone and implication . . . was that that was not a good thing."

"I certainly felt the pressure, let's put it that way," said Gordon Rankart, also a psychologist.

Rankart, who worked for the Birmingham disability office for some 6½ years, said he was repeatedly "hammered" over his allowance rate. Both his and Popkin's contracts were not renewed. Popkin said he was not told the reason. Rankart said he was informed that his work had problems. "This has nothing to do with my work performance and I'm not going to pretend that it does," he said.

Again citing the inspector general's review, Warren declined to say whether allowance rates are a factor in renewing consultant contracts, but noted that the agreements can be ended by either side with 30 days' notice.

Begun in May and prompted in part by an anonymous complaint, the inspector general's review is aimed at ensuring that the Alabama agency's claims-handling process is fair and that applications are "being adjudicated the way they should be," said Wade Walters, the agency's assistant inspector general for external affairs in Baltimore.

The review is expected to be completed by year's end.

Let me throw out an explanation why Alabama should not have a low rate of allowance of disability claims. On the whole, Alabama's workforce is poorly educated, has weak job skills and has lousy access to medical care. This combination leads to a high rate of disability claims and should lead to a high rate of approval of those claims since the definition of disability that Social Security must use makes education and work experience relevant in determining disability and poor access to medical care leads inevitably to poor public health. Poor education, weak work skills and poor access to medical care are the case across most of the South.

The South is where I practice, so I have some knowledge of this. Indeed, I see this in a particularly vivid way since my office is in Raleigh, which has a well-educated population with high work skills and good access to medical care, but many of my clients live in poor communities 50 to 100 miles away. Compare the populations and the number of disability claims and disability benefits recipients in Robeson County and Wake County, NC sometime. The difference is stunning. It would be even more stunning to compare Cary, NC and Red Springs, NC. I can recall having a day of hearings in Robeson County some years age with a visiting Administrative Judge (ALJ) who had just came in from Boston. I had three clients in a row who were illiterate. The ALJ asked me pointedly if all my clients were illiterate. I told him that until the early 1960s Robeson County had had three separate school systems. The school system for whites was lousy, the school system for blacks was much worse and the school system for Lumbee Indians was much worse still. Most older Lumbees at that time were illiterate. (The passage of time since the integration of school systems has made this situation better, thank goodness.) I had happened to have had three hearings in a row with older Lumbees. In context, there was nothing remarkable about their illiteracy. The hearing assistant who was a local was nodding her head in strong agreement with what I was saying. The ALJ seemed stunned. (By the way, the story of the Lumbees is fascinating. They are one of the largest of native American tribes but remain unrecognized by the federal government largely because of the opposition of other Indian tribes and an extraordinary amount of simple discrimination which was aided and abetted for many years by Jesse Helms. Before I finish digressing, read about the 1958 battle -- and I do mean a battle -- between the Lumbees and the Ku Klux Klan, a truly great story.)

Poor education, weak job skills and lousy access to medical care are not spread evenly across the population. One very large group in Alabama, African Americans, is much more affected than others. I won't go any farther along this line since you can see where it leads.

The real story here is that Social Security may have quotas or goals for approval of disability claims. You can criticize this because you think the quotas or goals are too high or you can criticize this because you think the quotas or goals are too low or you can criticize the whole idea of quotas or goals. The way in which you criticize quotas or goals may suggest something about your political or social views.

Astrue: Agency "Moving Backwards"

From the Des Moines Register:
Todd Lindberg has lived for a year and a half in a storage garage in northwest Des Moines. He sleeps on a well-worn couch in a dark corner of the building, amid construction equipment, tools and snowmobiles.

With most of one foot amputated and part of the other missing, he qualifies for federal disability benefits that would pay for an apartment and groceries.

But getting those benefits is not easy.

A massive backlog of unresolved disability claims at the Social Security Administration has kept Lindberg and millions of others waiting years for benefits they earned while in the work force. The delays have led to splintered families, foreclosed homes and suicides.

Last year, a 49-year-old Missouri truck driver died in the lobby of a Social Security office while waiting to be called into the office for a hearing on his three-year-old claim for benefits. During the past year, the number of people waiting to have their claims processed has increased more than 30 percent, from 556,000 to more than 736,000. The head of the Social Security Administration, Michael Astrue, has acknowledged that the situation might soon get worse. The agency is "moving backwards" in its efforts to keep pace with a recession-driven influx of new claims, he said. ...

Social Security's West Des Moines hearing office handles most of the cases from Iowa. Individual judges there have tried to catch up on their workload by hearing 70 to 80 cases each month, as opposed to their usual 50 to 60 cases.

"That's too many cases," said Denzel Busick, the office's chief administrative law judge. "We can do that for a while," he said, "but you wouldn't want us doing that on a sustained basis because, as a judge, you start to think, 'What am I forgetting here? What am I overlooking?' ...

There is almost universal agreement about the cause of the disability backlog: Funding and staffing levels at the Social Security Administration have gradually dropped to their lowest levels since 1972, while the number of Americans applying for disability benefits has increased. Early this year, the number of unresolved cases was declining, but the economic crisis is making things worse: As the job market tightens, people with limited abilities have fewer job opportunities.
But in a sidebar, we get the traditional Republican response that Social Security must reorganize its way out of the backlogs:
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley said he is not sure additional spending by the Social Security Administration would help reduce the backlog. He said the agency needs to change its structure, in part by fast-tracking initial decisions on claims, improving the productivity of judges and transitioning to electronic record keeping."More money can't solve all of the problems," Grassley said. "You can never satisfy these bureaucracies if you always accept the excuse that they need more money."

Where Are The Grownups?

From the Wisconsin State Journal:

State officials are considering furloughing some 200 workers who determine Social Security benefits for the disabled at the same time they are forcing those employees to work costlier overtime hours.

To help close a gaping budget hole, the state is furloughing almost all of its employees, including the workers who help decide who can claim federal disability payments, even though furloughing those workers won’t actually save money because they’re paid by the federal government. ...

Aug 29, 2009

An Interesting Union Note

Joe Davidson in his Federal Diary column at the Washington Post notes that John Gage, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), used to work as a disability examiner for Social Security. AFGE represents a good slice of the federal workforce, including most Social Security employees.

Aug 28, 2009

Decision Time At OIDAP

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) has scheduled a meeting for September 16-17 in Los Angeles. Perhaps, I should say that Social Security scheduled the meeting since there are strong signs that OIDAP is almost completely controlled by Social Security. On the agenda, "discussion, deliberation and voting by the Panel on core recommendations to be included in the upcoming report to the agency."

OIDAP held its first meeting February 23-25, 2009 and they are going to be making major decisions less than seven months later? Social Security drags its feet on this issue for decades, but demands that the Panel make decisions with far ranging implications in such a short time? I have the strong impression that OIDAP is nothing more than an effort to provide cover for decisions that Social Security made before OIDAP was created.

By the way, I requested a copy of the briefing books that OIDAP has handed out to panel members at its meetings. No response from OIDAP even though OIDAP's website promises that "Materials presented are available on request." Social Security's occupational information system needs credibility. This is a poor way to develop that credibility.

ALJ Steverson Loses Job

Social Security brought charges before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSRB) seeking the removal of London Steverson, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). An ALJ working for MSRB issued an initial decision that suspended Steverson from his job for 35 days. Social Security appealed. The MSRB has now decided to remove Steverson from his job altogether.

Steverson had been charged with improperly using agency letterhead for personal purposes, storing sexually oriented material on a government computer, using a government computer for a personal business, giving misleading and incomplete responses when questioned about some of the charges and using the agency's address and mail for personal correspondence. The MSRB sustained all charges against Steverson.

Update: Wikipedia contains some information about London Steverson, probably self-supplied.

Aug 27, 2009

Health Vault

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced today that the agency has entered into an agreement with Microsoft to test the use of Microsoft’s HealthVault application in the disability process. HealthVault is a free online service that enables people to gather, store and manage their families’ health information, and share that information with their physicians and healthcare providers. These “personal health records” contain the same types of information that Social Security generally obtains from people applying for disability benefits.

“The use of personal health records holds great promise for ensuring that the medical information we collect from someone applying for disability benefits is accurate and complete,” Commissioner Astrue said. “Combined with other advancements in health information technology, our use of HealthVault should result in faster decisions for disability applicants. I look forward to working closely with Microsoft, a world-wide leader in information technology.”

Social Security and Microsoft are developing a technical prototype connecting the two organizations that will be available later this year. The agency also will collaborate with Microsoft to study current personal health record standards, gaps in those standards, and options for filling those gaps.

Social Security is a recognized leader in the use of health information technology. It is the first government agency to use the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN), a safe and secure method for receiving instantaneous access to electronic medical records. The NHIN is an initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services and is supported by multiple government agencies and private sector entities.

Land Acquired For Building To Replace Metro West

From the Baltimore Sun:
The Maryland Board of Public Works approved on Wednesday a transfer to the federal government of state-owned land in Northwest Baltimore where U.S. officials plan to build an office building to house some Social Security Administration operations.

The new structure, which federal and state officials say is needed by 2012, is planned near the Reisterstown Road Plaza Metro station. It would be one of the largest and most expensive federal office buildings in Baltimore in years. About 1,600 federal workers now at the federal agency's Metro West complex on Greene Street would move there.

Federal officials are seeking a private developer to construct a 538,000-square-foot office building and 1,076-space garage and lease it to Social Security. ...

Eventually, another 400 Metro West employees will be relocated to the Social Security Administration's national headquarters complex in Woodlawn, leaving none at Metro West.

Stimulus Checks For Prisoners

The Associated Press is reporting that 3,900 of the $250 economic stimulus checks sent to Social Security and SSI recipients went to prisoners. About 2,200 of the inmates were entitled to the checks because they had only entered prison recently. The other 1,700 were sent checks by mistake.

This information comes from Social Security's Inspector General, but the underlying report has not yet been released. Apparently, the Boston Herald got the story first. The Inspector General seemed to be leaking stories like this to the Washington Times in the past.

Most Popular Baby Names

Social Security has released its list of most popular baby names for 2008. By the way, John is now number 20 on the list and Mary is number 97. That is a huge drop for those traditionally most popular names.

Top 10 Names for 2008
Rank Male name Female name
1 Jacob Emma
2 Michael Isabella
3 Ethan Emily
4 Joshua Madison
5 Daniel Ava
6 Alexander Olivia
7 Anthony Sophia
8 William Abigail
9 Christopher Elizabeth
10 Matthew Chloe

Many Applicants For Attorney Jobs At Social Security

The New York Times had an article yesterday on the tough job market for recent law school graduates which reported that applications for attorney positions at Social Security had gone up from 800 last year to 2,000 this year.

Aug 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy And Michael Astrue

Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, like the late Ted Kennedy, is from Massachusetts. Astrue has some history with the late Ted Kennedy. Here is an excerpt from the Stromata blog for October 31, 2001:
Michael Astrue, a moderate Republican whom I know slightly, today withdrew his name from consideration as head of the Food and Drug Administration. He was known to be President Bush’s top choice for the position, but Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, announced that he would refuse to hold hearings on an the prospective nomination. Kennedy doesn’t accuse Astrue, a former general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services and current chairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, of harboring abhorrent right-wing opinions. His “disqualification” is that he has worked for Biogen, and the Senator opposes allowing anyone with a background in the pharmaceutical industry to be in charge of the FDA.
Kennedy did support, or at least did not oppose, Astrue's nomination to be Social Security Commissioner (see pages 61 and 62). Kennedy's letter to the Senate Finance Committee was not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Feinstein Asks For Sanity

The Associated Press is reporting that California Senator Diane Feinstein has written Governor Schwarznegger asking that he cancel furloughs for state disability determination employees. All salaries and other costs for these employees are borne by Social Security. The governor claims that the furloughs will not affect public service. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue is saying that the furloughs could postpone $15 million in federal payments.

Aug 25, 2009

Binder And Binder Offices

I always receive a ton of hits whenever I post anything about Binder and Binder, which is probably the largest entity representing Social Security disability claimants. Here is an interesting excerpt from a press release issued, apparently last year, by MGB, a construction company that did some work for Binder and Binder:

MGB served Binder & Binder, a social security disability law firm, as general contractor for a structural redevelopment, expansion, and a complete interior fit-out of the firm's 22,000 s/f, two-story office building at 34 Industrial St. The $3.3 million project encompassed the addition of a floor, including a floor slab, steel columns, and beams; construction of column foundations; exterior renovation; demolition of the pre-existing space; construction of new office interiors; and new mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and sprinkler systems. The MGB team installed a new sewer ejector system that incorporates a pump and a ¼-mile pipe connection to the city sewer line.

Binder & Binder administrative offices, designed by UAI Urban Architectural Initiatives, encompass an open plan area, private offices, and a large employee cafeteria. The building features a new elevator and a staircase.

Aug 24, 2009

Social Security Loses On Federal Career Intern Program

From Government Executive.Com:

The Merit Systems Protection Board has ruled that a disabled veteran can legally challenge the government's career internship program, reversing a 2008 decision by an administrative judge.

The ruling deals another blow to the Federal Career Intern Program, created by a 2000 executive order as a special hiring authority for the government. A July decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia allowed a separate lawsuit filed by the National Treasury Employees Union against the program to move forward.

The veteran, Alvern C. Weed, said the internship program cost him a job with the Social Security Administration in 2005. Weed had applied for the job during the first round of hiring by responding to an advertisement on the federal recruiting site, and was added to a list of candidates who had preference because of their veteran status. But the supervisor in charge of filling the position ignored that list, according to the case, and instead selected two candidates who responded to a newspaper advertisement.

Aug 23, 2009

No COLA This Year

From the Associated Press:
Millions of older people face shrinking Social Security checks next year, the first time in a generation that payments would not rise.

The trustees who oversee Social Security are projecting there won't be a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the next two years. ...

More than 32 million people are in the Medicare prescription drug program. Average monthly premiums are set to go from $28 this year to $30 next year, though they vary by plan. About 6 million people in the program have premiums deducted from their monthly Social Security payments, according to the Social Security Administration.

Millions of people with Medicare Part B coverage for doctors' visits also have their premiums deducted from Social Security payments. Part B premiums are expected to rise as well. But under the law, the increase cannot be larger than the increase in Social Security benefits for most recipients.

There is no such hold-harmless provision for drug premiums.

[Barbara] Kennelly's group [the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare] wants Congress to increase Social Security benefits next year, even though the formula doesn't call for it. She would like to see either a 1 percent increase in monthly payments or a one-time payment of $150. ...

"Seniors may perceive that they are being hurt because there is no COLA, but they are in fact not getting hurt," said Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Congress has to be able to tell people they are not getting everything they want."

A New Term -- Mega Disability Agencies

From the Texarcana Gazette:
A $9 million boost in federal funding will result in 150 new permanent jobs for an Arkansas state agency to process other states’ Social Security disability claims.

A legislative panel on Friday approved receiving the funds for the state Disability Determination for Social Security Administration.

“It’s manna from heaven,” said Sen. Steve Bryeles, D-Blytheville, before the request was granted without dissent.

Agency director Arthur Boutiette said Arkansas is one of five states to be designated as “Mega Disability Agencies” to handle other states’ claims.

“In the negotiations the last month or so, we told the federal government that we had some requirements of them,” Boutiette told lawmakers Friday. “This morning they did meet those requirements. These are new jobs for Arkansas, permanent jobs.” ...

The minimum salaries for the jobs will range from about $26,500 to more than $117,000. Typical starting salaries will be about $29,000. Boutiette said those will increase to $32,000 with satisfactory performance.

The agency currently has 281 employees.

Boutiette said the Social Security Administration asked Arkansas for help because nationwide, it is behind in processing about 750,000 claims.

“We’ve been No. 1 in the country the last four years in a row in quality,” Boutiette said. “We have one of the cheapest costs per case.”
Good thinking by Social Security and the state of Arkansas -- profiting from the foolishness of other states which have pointlessly furloughed disability determination employees during state budget crises even though the furloughs do nothing to help state budgets.

Aug 22, 2009

Probably Depends On How You Phrase The Question


Forty-nine percent (49%) of U.S. voters say working Americans should be allowed to opt out of Social Security and provide for their own retirement planning.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 37% disagree and do not believe Americans should be able to opt out of Social Security. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

A majority of voters under 50 say workers should be allowed to opt out. A plurality of those over 50 disagree.

Aug 21, 2009

Finding A Loophole

From Social Security Emergency Message 09-050:
The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-203) amended the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provisions to require that State and local government employees be covered by Social Security throughout their last 60 months of employment to be exempt from GPO. Prior to July 1, 2004, GPO did not apply if an individual’s last day of employment was in a position that was covered by both Social Security (under a Section 218 agreement) and a State or local government pension system.

The Educational Resource Center, Inc. (also known as John Wood Charter School or JWCS), located in San Antonio TX, hired 633 individuals to work for one day in order to meet the “last day” GPO exemption. SSA determined that work at JWCS did not qualify for Social Security coverage because JWCS had not entered into an approved 218 agreement between the State of Texas and SSA. Therefore, individuals who applied for their spouse’s or widow’s benefit after completing their “last day” at JWCS had GPO applied to their records.

The Attorney General of Texas was consulted and determined that an open-enrollment charter school, such as JWCS, is a governmental entity under Texas law. Since the Attorney General of Texas has rendered this decision, the State of Texas has taken the necessary steps to include JWCS in a Section 218 agreement that allows the entity to be covered by Social Security.
As an attorney, I have some appreciation for loopholes, but the involvement of the state of Texas in creating this loophole seems questionable to me.

Aug 20, 2009

I Understand The Target Practice But That's Still A Lot Of Ammo -- And Why Does OIG Need Shotguns?

From a contracting notice posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps:
Social Security Administration seeks to purchase ammunition for 39 Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General’s locations. ...

Item: 357 sig bonded 125 grain jacketed hollow point pistol ammunition for law enforcement

Quantity: 209,000 rounds ...

Item: 12 gauge 00 9 pellet buckshot 2 ¾” for law enforcement (250 rounds per case)

Quantity: 25 cases ...

Item: 12 gauge rifled slug 2 ¾” low recoil for law enforcement (250 rounds per case)

Quantity: 31 cases

New Building At Reisterstown To Replace Metro West

From the Baltimore Sun:
Nearly 30 years after the Social Security Administration opened its $92 million Metro West complex on Baltimore's west side, federal officials are planning to move 1,600 employees from there to an office building to be constructed near the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station in Northwest Baltimore.

The GSA is seeking a private developer to construct a 538,000-square-foot office building and 1,076-space garage and lease it to the Social Security Administration.

According to state and federal officials, the building is needed by 2012 to accommodate 1,600 SSA employees who work in "functionally obsolete" space at the Metro West complex at 300 N. Greene St. About 400 more Metro West employees will be relocated to the Social Security Administration headquarters complex in Woodlawn, leaving none at Metro West.

The Reisterstown Plaza project will be one of the largest and most expensive federal office buildings to rise in Baltimore in years. The GSA has not disclosed a construction price, but using an industry standard of $200 per square foot, it would cost more than $100 million to build. It is expected to result in the creation of hundreds of construction jobs and to bring federal employees to a section of Baltimore that has been hard hit by the recession.

"This is not a stimulus project, but it will do exactly what stimulus money is meant to do," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, whose district includes 6100 Wabash Ave. "It is really an economic generator for the next 40 years." ...

According to public officials, the 15-story tower and two five-story wings no longer meet the needs of the Social Security Administration for a variety of reasons, including technological inadequacy and the security risk posed by a sky bridge over a major highway. According to Gilliam, the GSA's goal is to "dispose of" the Metro West facility after the SSA moves out. One potential user is the University of Maryland, whose Baltimore campus is several blocks to the south.
What do those of you who work at Metro West think?

Aug 19, 2009

Social Security Number Issues

The Associated Press is reporting on an odd Social Security number problem. The Federated States of Micronesia is an independent nation. It has its own Social Security system and assigns its own Social Security numbers to Micronesians. The Micronesian Social Security numbers have only eight digits while U.S. Social Security numbers have nine digits. The United States has a treaty with Micronesia which gives the U.S. certain defense rights but gives Micronesia certain rights, such as receiving loans and grants from the U.S. after disasters. U.S. federal agencies collect Social Security numbers from loan recipients. When working in Micronesia they collected the Micronesian Social Security numbers. Some computer programs automatically assigned a "0" an the end of the Micronesian Social Security number to make it nine digits. Some of the Micronesians defaulted on their loans and then U.S. federal agencies started using debt collectors who tried to use the Micronesian Social Security numbers as if it were U.S. Social Security numbers. The debt collectors started trying to collect the debt from the U.S. citizen whose Social Security number was the same as the Micronesian Social Security number with a "0" added to the end. Credit reporting agencies were also notified. Apparently, there are 200 or so of these cases already. The problem has been around for years and no one seems to be doing anything about it.

Social Networking At Social Security?

I am curious about Social Security's policies on social networking sites. Are agency employees blocked from accessing sites such as Facebook and Twitter through agency computers? What websites, if any, are blocked on Social Security's network?

I realize that severe workload pressures at Social Security have to hold down the usage of these sites anyway, but there is still lunchtime and breaktime.

A Republican Congressman's Take On Social Security And Health Care

From the Tuscaloosa News:
Social Security could face a deficit within two years, according to U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus [Republican] who met with The Tuscaloosa News editorial board Tuesday.

“The situation is much worse than people realize, especially because of the problems brought on by the recession, near depression,” said Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, in an interview with the Tuscaloosa News editorial board.

Bachus, the ranking member of the House Committee on Financial Services, said most people seem unaware of the impending crisis. He initially said Social Security could face "default" within two years, but his staff responded later saying the Congresssman intended to say "deficit." ...

The solvency of Social Security, which provides pensions for people older than 65, has not played a major role in the current debate about health care in Congress. Bachus said it will not likely be addressed in any health-care bill the House eventually passes, although if a Social Security bailout is needed, it will invariably have an impact on government health-care programs. ...

“We could raise the retirement age, or in the worst case, cut back on some benefits,” he said. “But that is something we are just now beginning to get a handle on.”

Michael Jackson And His Mother And Social Security

From the Entitled to Know blog for July 27:
Chances are Katherine Jackson never imagined Social Security would be her only source of income. But truth be told…that’s probably the case for countless other Americans, rich and poor, who face retirement in a much different fiscal situation then they had dreamed. That’s why these short references buried in all the recent coverage of Michael Jackson’s death really caught our attention:

“Lawyers for the estate wrote: ‘We are informed that Mrs. Jackson was also financially dependent upon Michael Jackson and that other than extremely modest social security benefits, Mrs. Jackson has no independent means of support.’… Jackson’s children will receive Social Security benefits, which have been applied for but payments have not yet started. Their monthly stipends from the estate may be reduced, depending on much money they receive from Social Security, the filings state.”

Sounds like Mrs. Jackson might qualify for parent's benefits. I wonder if she has applied.

Aug 18, 2009

When Will Deputy Commissioner Be Nominated?

Barack Obama has yet to nominate anyone for Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, a job last held by Andrew Biggs on a recess appointment. It is seven months into this Administration, so it may be getting time for something to happen. However, the President still has not nominated anyone to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and that is obviously a crucial job.

Aug 17, 2009

Aug 16, 2009

No More Corners To Cut

From the Las Vegas Sun:

The Social Security Administration is being slammed by a surge in disability and retirement claims that is threatening to shortchange applicants and cripple a system that, even before the downturn, was starved for resources.

To cope with the growing tsunami, the agency is putting pressure on its ranks of administrative law judges, both here and nationally, to clear a massive backlog of disability appeals cases. But the union representing those judges says the hearing officers are overworked — and that some, under threat of disciplinary action, have been cutting procedural corners to hit the agency’s mandate of 500 to 700 cases a year.

Since October, the number of people waiting to have a claim processed has jumped more than 30 percent, from about 556,000 to 736,000 last month. Although most of those initial claims will be denied, many will end up before an administrative law judge on appeal. Nearly 750,000 people are waiting for a hearing before overwhelmed judges.

“No one ever says, ‘do a sloppy job,’ ” said Marilyn Zahm, executive vice president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “But to pretend you can keep pumping out decision after decision and spend the requisite amount of time on each case is foolish. That’s shortchanging people, and the system will lack integrity if you do not require everyone to do a good job.” ...

“Corners are being cut in order to accommodate a backlog and at the end of the day everyone is going to suffer,” she said. “People have a right to expect due process ... At a certain point, no more corners can be cut.” ...

“Hearings are being shortened, not all information in the file is being reviewed, not all medical reports are being obtained, and full and legally defensible decisions may not be rendered, either because due consideration hasn’t been given or the decision is poorly written,” she said. “When people have too much work to do in the amount of time allotted to do it, you get sloppy work.”

The First -- And Only -- Visit By A Sitting President To Social Security Headquarters

Lyndon Johnson, October 12, 1966

Almost all of the historical photos I post come from Social Security's History website. The agency has an official historian, Larry DeWitt.

Aug 15, 2009

NASI Survey On Social Security

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) and the Rockefeler Foundation sponsored a survey on Social Security. Here are a few excerpts:
Three-quarters of Americans say it is critical to preserve Social Security even if it means that working Americans have to pay higher taxes to do so ...

[A]n overwhelming number – 90 percent – want Congress to act within the next two years to preserve Social Security. ...

Three times as many Americans say that we spend not enough on Social Security (45%) as believe that we spend too much (15%). ...

Ninety percent of Americans say they are concerned about the program’s ability to pay benefits for the next generation. Just 44% of non-recipients say they’re confident that Social Security will be available to them when they retire ...

83% support lifting the Social Security tax cap so that all workers pay the same payroll tax rate, regardless of income.

70% support dedicating the estate tax solely to Social Security.

69% support adding a 5% tax on families earning over $250,000 and individuals earning more than $125,000. ...

78% support extending benefits for “children whose working parents have died or become disabled from the current cut off of 19 years to 22 years old if the child is in college or vocational school.”

76% support increasing benefits “by $50 a month for recipients over the age of 85 because they generally depend more heavily on Social Security.”

76% support improving “benefits for widowed spouses of low income working couples who generally have inadequate benefits from lifelong low-pay work.”

69% support “guaranteeing that Social Security benefits for steady workers exceed the poverty line, even if workers choose to receive early benefits at the age of 62.”

64% support “counting the time that working parents take off to care for children toward workers’ future Social Security benefits so they do not receive lower benefits because of this gap in paid work.” ...

[T]wo out of three Americans (65%) agree “we should increase Social Security benefits because millions of Americans have lost savings and pensions in the current economic crisis

Aug 14, 2009

Arrest In Georgia

From the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, Georgia:
Michael Eugene Hale, accused of threatening a Social Security employee on Aug. 5, had 10 weapons in his Midland home when federal authorities executed a search warrant, court records show. ...

Hale, who allegedly was upset about the denial of his disability claim, faces only an accusation of telling a Social Security employee that he would go into an office and kill everyone, an affidavit states. He faces no weapons charges.

Happy 74th Birthday, Social Security!

Aug 13, 2009

Make It Readable

From a recent issuance of Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) concerning standards for notices issued by Social Security:

Know your audience. Write to your average reader. Do not write to the experts, lawyers, or advocates unless they are your intended audience.

It is important to use short sentences as often as possible. The longer and more complex a sentence, the harder it is for readers to understand.

When writing notices:

  • Write at the sixth to eighth-grade reading level.

  • Use an average sentence length of no more than 15–20 words.

  • Use no more than seven lines per paragraph.

  • Use short, common words whenever possible.

The article tells Social Security employees to use Microsoft Word software to score notices on readibility.

There is another POMS issuance on the font and font size to use in notices, as well as the type of paper to print the notices on.

Rwanda Ahead Of U.S. In Online Access To Social Security Records

Pensioners with the Social Security Fund of Rwanda (SSFR) can now access their social security accounts by use of mobile phones and the Internet.

The developments introduced recently are aimed at facilitating SSFR's members in knowing their social security contributions. James Nsabimana, the Director of Contributors Education and Customer Relation Department said that this is an easy way of checking one's social security status.

27% Jump In Disability Claims This Year

This is the day for interesting statistics to jump out at me from mundane articles. Information Week has an article on Social Security's plans for accessing electronic medical records. The article contains no news until you get to the fifth paragraph where unnamed Social Security officials are reported to have said that the agency expects a 27% increase in the number of disability claims filed this fiscal year. We are nearing the end of the fiscal year so this projection will probably turn out to be fairly accurate. Previously, the agency had been projecting a 40% increase in disability claims for this fiscal year, so this may be an improvement. However, the article talks of 3.3 million claims this year, which is the same number that Social Security had been talking about earlier. I do not know why this is reported as a 27% increase at one time and a 40% increase at another time.

I Don't Think I Had Heard This Before

Near the end of a mundane article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette about a Social Security public affairs specialist is a number I find surprising. The public affairs specialist is quoted as saying that 34% of those filing for Social Security retirement benefits now do so online.

An Example Of The AP's Capture By The Right Wing

From the Associated Press:
As Congress agonizes over health care, an even more daunting and dangerous challenge is bearing down: how to shore up Social Security to keep it from burying the nation ever deeper in debt.

What to do about mushrooming government payments as millions of baby boomers retire? How about a giant federal Ponzi scheme? That might work for a while.

But wait. That's pretty much the current system. ...

Although calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme — think of the huge frauds that sent billionaires Bernard Madoff and R. Allen Stanford to prison — may be a bit of a stretch, there is one clear similarity.

As in a Ponzi scheme, the concept works fine at first. So long as there are more new "investors" pumping money into the system to pay off the earlier ones, everyone is happy. But at some point not enough new money is coming in and the scheme collapses.

Social Security In Middle Of Electronic Medical Records Shootout


Certification requirements for $24 million in Recovery Act contracts aimed at automating the Social Security Administration's medical disability program could slow technological innovation, according to Microsoft officials and health information technology specialists.

A solicitation for proposals that the agency issued on Friday -- intended to cut the time it has to wait for medical records to determine disability status -- is open only to providers whose technologies are certified or plan to be certified in 2010, Social Security officials said.

Currently, the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology "is the only recognized certification program; however, other programs are planned for the near future," SSA spokesman Mark Lassiter said.

Critics of the nonprofit CCHIT contend its leaders are closely aligned with legacy IT vendors who helped found the organization in 2004. They argue the group's certification program focuses on old-fashioned two-way document exchange rather than also embracing the so-called continuity of care record (CCR) standard. The CCR aggregates data from multiple sources, such as records of past doctor visits, prior lab results and hospital administrative documents.

Under the Recovery Act, a new health IT standards committee must deliver recommendations on standards and certification criteria to David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for health IT.

Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration's chief technology officer, who sits on the standards committee, said, "I would certainly acknowledge that today's marketplace for exchange is likely a balance between those who exchange between CCR and those who exchange" the format endorsed by CCHIT

Aug 12, 2009

Attorney Malpractice Alleged In Social Security Case

From the Madison-St. Clair Record:
A woman is blaming her former lawyer for the dismissal of her social security disability claim.

Marylynn Dixon filed a complaint Aug. 3 in Madison County Circuit Court against Evan J. Beatty.

Dixon claims she hired Beatty on July 28, 2003, to represent her in a social security disability claim.

But the claim was dismissed for want of prosecution, and now Dixon says she has lost her opportunity to redeem any social security disability benefits.

She blames Beatty for failing to take any action after the claim was filed, for failing to take action after the claim was dismissed and for failing to inform her of the claim's dismissal.

Dixon is seeking a judgment of more than $50,000, plus costs and other relief the court deems just.

Lance R. Mallon of Mallon Law Firm in Wood River will be representing her.

Summers On Social Security "Reform"

From Edmund Andrews' The Caucus blog at the New York Times:
Lawrence Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, told a conference of economists in Washington on Tuesday that President Obama would probably start addressing the needs of Social Security before the end of his term. ...

Mr. Summers seemed intent on signaling that Mr. Obama’s idea of “reform” would be to strengthen the program rather rather than to partly privatize it.
I have this feeling that before it is over the Obama health care plan will come to include some "fix" for Social Security. President Obama keeps promising that his health care plan will not cost the Treasury any money yet so far his administration has not offered a plan for offsetting the costs of the health care plan. Social Security "reform" offers a means of offsetting these costs. Administration officials keep talking Social Security "reform." I am probably adding 2 + 2 and getting not 4 or even 5, but 13. We shall see.

Settlement In Fugitive Felon Class Action

From the Washington Post:

The Social Security Administration has agreed to pay more than $500 million in back benefits to more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied after they were flagged by a federal computer program designed to catch serious criminals, officials said Tuesday.

According to a preliminary agreement, approved Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, Calif., the Social Security Administration will pay recipients who have been denied benefits since Jan. 1, 2007. In addition, more than 120,000 recipients who were denied benefits before 2007 are eligible to apply for reinstatement....

"It's changing a policy which was really devastating for some of the most vulnerable people in the country," said Gerald McIntyre, an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, one of the organizations representing the plaintiffs.

The searches captured dozens of criminals, including some wanted for homicide. But they also ensnared countless elderly and disabled people accused of relatively minor offenses such as shoplifting or writing bad checks. In some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender. Often it was difficult for these citizens to appeal their cases....

In the last few years, at least eight district court judges across the country have ruled in favor of victims in individual cases, saying that cutting off benefits based solely on the database search was illegal.

Aug 11, 2009

AALJ Loses Case Against OPM

The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), which represents most of Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and several attorneys in private practice filed suit against the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) over the announcement of a new register for ALJs. The lawsuit raised a number of issues, mostly having to do with allegations that attorneys already working for Social Security were given an advantage by the way in which OPM created the new register and the way in which OPM announced the new register.

The AALJ and the attorneys have lost on all counts. Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to OPM yesterday.

Update: As a commenter correctly points out, summary judgment was granted against AALJ on only one of four causes of action. The rest of the case goes forward.

Some Numbers For The Appeals Council

The Social Security Forum, a publication of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) contains the report reproduced below that NOSSCR obtained from Social Security on Appeals Council operations. Click on it to see it full size.

Aug 10, 2009

NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization that represents the people who make initial and reconsideration determinations upon Social Security disability claims at state Disability Determination Services (DDS), has issued its Summer 2009 newsletter.

The newsletter contains a good deal of information about NADE's interaction with the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). I noticed the NADE seems interested in eliminating the concept of transferable skills in determining disability.

The newsletter contains a list showing the problems caused for DDS's around the country by state budget problems. The list shows seven states with DDS hiring freezes and five states with furloughs of DDS personnel. The list is more than three months old so things may be worse in many states by now. I know that things are worse in North Carolina, where we now have a partial furlough of all state employees, including DDS employees.

Many Criminal Charges In Michigan

From WILX:
More than 200 Muskegon-area residents are accused of cashing duplicated Social Security disability checks and defrauding the federal government of more than $400,000.

The Muskegon Chronicle and WOOD-TV report state charges were announced Monday against 209 individuals.

The suspects were identified during a 10-month investigation code-named "Operation Rain Check." Investigators say many cashed duplicate Social Security checks after claiming the originals were stolen or lost. Some were collecting checks for other people as "representative payees."

Fifty-six suspects are charged with felonies and 153 with misdemeanors. Arrest warrants have been issued and the suspects will be arraigned in 60th [?] District Court in batches over the next several weeks.

Why Put Retarded People On The Hit List?

A document issued by the staff of the Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) seems to me to display a fixed intention to make it harder for persons with low cognitive abilities to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

First, let us define a term. "Cognitive" refers to intellectual qualities -- the ability to think, reason and remember. Someone with low cognitive abilities has a low IQ. Those who have cognitive difficulties range from merely having low average intelligence to being profoundly retarded. Some disability claims are filed based solely upon very low cognitive abilities, but many more are filed by those who have a combination of somewhat low cognitive abilities with other physical or mental impairments.

There is extensive and persuasive evidence that the cognitive demands of employment have increased in recent decades. I was under the impression that this was a well-established fact that no one disputes. As one who has been around for a few decades, I though it was self-evident.

And yet, we have a statement by the staff of ODIP that they know that if they collect data about the cognitive demands of employment that there is no question about it, that it will become harder for Social Security disability claimants with low cognitive abilities to qualify for benefits. The only issue they perceive is how to defend this. I think they correctly perceive that defending this will be difficult.

How does OIDAP staff know that if they devise a system that generates data about the cognitive demands of employment that this data will make it harder for retarded people to get disability benefits? They have not finished devising a data collection system, much less collected any data. Such information as we have already tells us to expect the exact opposite, that updated data will show fewer employment opportunities for people who have low cognitive abilities. It sounds like OIDAP staff has prejudged what an updated occupational information system will show and that they intend for it to hurt retarded people. Why? How did retarded people get on the hit list? How can one interpret this as anything other than prejudice against people with low cognitive abilities? How do we trust OIDAP to devise a fair system when their staff has a preconceived intention to use the new system to hurt a class of disability claimants?

Aug 9, 2009

SSAB Releases Report On SSI Payment Accuracy

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has just released a May 2009 report it prepared on payment accuracy in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. I have no idea why this report is just now showing up on the SSAB website.

The report shows a dramatic decline in SSI redeterminations between 2003 and 2007. The effect has been a dramatic increase in SSI overpayments.

The report also shows a dramatic increase in the backlog of SSI cases awaiting continuing disability reviews. When cases were reviewed, most of the time the only "review" was a mailing to the claimant asking some questions. Unless the claimant reported that he or she was improved or had gone back to work, there was little chance of the "review" leading to the termination of benefits.

This has been caused by budget problems at Social Security. While Republicans controlled Congress, Social Security was given such inadequate operating funds that the agency had to cut back on anything not immediately necessary. The result was poorer service to the public and poor stewardship of public funds. Things are getting better now, but only very slowly.

Putting Things In Perspective

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released updated long term projections for the Social Security trust funds. Here is an excerpt:
CBO estimates that if the Social Security payroll tax rate was increased immediately and permanently by 1.3 percentage points—from the current rate of 12.4 percent to 13.7 percent—the trust funds’ balance at the end of 2083 would equal projected outlays for the subsequent year.
When you put it that way, Social Security's financing problems sound like something easily solved.

Updated Fee Payment Information

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Aug 8, 2009

E-Pulling Finally Killed Off

The Social Security Administration has finally decided to kill off the e-pulling experiment. Before being heard by Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), the files of disability claimants are normally put into some semblance of order by staff at hearing offices. This "pulling" of exhibits can be a time consuming business. Lisa DeSoto, the former head of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), thought that a computer program could do this. A lot of people, including me, kept saying that e-pulling would never work. We were right. Too much judgment is involved in pulling exhibits to allow a computer program to perform this vital task. I wonder how much money was wasted.

Number Of ALJs To Increase

There is a report on the ALJ Discussion Forum from an anonymous but previously reliable source that Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has decided to increase the number of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) at his agency from 1,450 to 1,600 in fiscal year (FY) 2011 and FY 2012 and to open 15 additional hearing offices in FY 2011.

No Progress On Earnings Enforcement

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
...[I]n some cases, retired beneficiaries may continue to work while receiving Social Security benefits. In those instances, Title II of the Social Security Act (Act) requires that SSA use an Annual Earnings Test (AET) to measure the extent of beneficiaries' retirement and determine the amount, if any, to be deducted from their monthly benefits. The Act provides for a two tier earnings test: one for beneficiaries under full retirement age and another for beneficiaries in the year they attain full retirement age. ...

To ensure compliance with the AET provisions, SSA compares beneficiaries’ reported earnings that are recorded on SSA’s Master Beneficiary Record (MBR) with earnings that were reported by employers that are recorded on SSA’s Master Earnings File (MEF). This process, called the Earnings Enforcement Operation (EEO), is designed to detect over- or underpayments that may have occurred during the year.

Our 2007 audit of the AET disclosed SSA had not adjusted the benefit payments of all beneficiaries who were identified by the EEO. As a result, SSA overpaid about $313 million to 89,300 beneficiaries and underpaid about $35 million to 12,800 beneficiaries for Calendar Years (CY) 2002 through 2004. In addition, we found SSA had not processed approximately 2.1 million of the 2.5 million Earnings Enforcement selections for CYs 1996 through 2005. We made several recommendations to improve the EEO, including that SSA review and process, as appropriate, all Earnings Enforcement selections pending since 1996.


SSA had not made significant progress to resolve the 2.5 million Earnings Enforcement selections. Of the approximately 2.1 million Earnings Enforcement selections that were pending at the time of our prior audit, we found SSA had only processed about 337,500 (16.1 percent). In addition, our review disclosed there was a substantial number of improper payments in the backlog for the affected beneficiaries.

Based on a random sample of 275 beneficiaries, we estimate SSA

• overpaid about $956 million to 616,459 beneficiaries and

• underpaid about $245 million to 181,312 beneficiaries

New Digs In PA

From the Daily Item of Sunbury, PA:
The Social Security office is moving from 300 Market St. to a larger office near the Susquehanna Valley Mall in Hummels Wharf at nearly triple the current rent. ...

But, according to Gina Blyther Gilliam, regonal public affairs officer for the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. General Services Administration in Philadelphia, the Sunbury office rate was negotiated in 1997, and the space "no longer meets the requirements of the Social Security Administration."

The move is being made because of an increase in visitors, officials said.

The Sunbury office serves Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties. It saw 15,866 visits in 2008. So far this year, the office has received 13,759 visitors. ...

The new building contains 8,135 rentable square feet, priced at $38.63 per year. The current building has 6,874 rentable square feet, at a cost of $16.75 per square foot.

Aug 7, 2009

$24 Million For Electronic Medical Records

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced the availability of $24 million in contracts to provide the agency with electronic medical records to improve the efficiency of its disability programs. Through a Request for Proposals available on, Social Security is looking for health care providers, provider networks, and health information exchanges to participate in its Medical Evidence Gathering and Analysis through Health Information Technology (IT) program.

“With these competitive contracts, Social Security continues to be a leader in the use of health IT to improve service to the American public,” Commissioner Astrue said. “This technology will greatly improve the speed and consistency of our disability decisions.”

The contract opportunities announced today are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They will require awardees, with a patient’s authorization, to send Social Security electronic medical records through the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN). The NHIN, a safe and secure method for receiving instantaneous access to electronic medical records, is an initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services and is supported by multiple government agencies and private sector entities.

Social Security is seeing a significant increase in disability applications as a result of the current recession. The agency expects to receive more than 3.3 million applications in fiscal year (FY) 2010, a 27 percent increase over FY 2008. To process these applications, the agency sends more than 15 million requests for medical records to health care providers. The use of health IT will vastly improve the efficiency of this process, which currently is largely paper-bound.

For nearly a year, Social Security has been successfully testing health IT to obtain electronic medical records. Disability applications processed with electronic medical records from the test sites in Massachusetts and Virginia have significantly reduced processing times.

More information on Social Security’s use of health IT is available at

Senate Appropriations Committee Reports Out $11.4 Billion Appropriation

I missed this earlier. The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported out an $11.4 billion appropriation for the Social Security Administration for fiscal year 2010, the amount recommended by the President, the same amount already passed by the entire House of Representatives. The matter now heads to the Senate floor and then to a Conference Committee. Even if the House and Senate pass the same amount for Social Security, a Conference Committee will be needed for other differences in the large Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which includes Social Security. Action is needed before the end of the fiscal year, September 30.

Some History On "Accommodations"

This is from the U.S. Solicitor General's brief to the Supreme Court in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp:
The Social Security Act requires consideration of a claimant’s ability to do “his previous work.” 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2)(A). It does not require consideration of his ability to perform his prior job with a possible ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]-mandated accommodation that the employer, in fact, never provided. See 11 SSA Guidance at 15-401 [which reproduced the "Skoler" memorandum issued by Social Security on this subject in 1993] . Similarly, the Act requires consideration whether a claimant is able to do other work that “exists” in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2)(A). It does not require consideration whether he could do jobs as they might be modified by reasonable accommodations that the ADA might require but that employers have not actually made.
Once the Solicitor General tells the Supreme Court that the government interprets an Act of Congress in a certain way, the government's hands are tied. The government cannot later change its mind about what the statute means. How come OIDAP is issuing a document that talks about "accommodations" that would allow Social Security disability claimants to work? Do they think that they can reopen this long settled issue?

Aug 6, 2009

ADA Accommodations On The Agenda? Retarded People On The Hit List?

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) has posted a couple of key documents, What is a Content Model, June 2009 and Social Security Administration’s Legal, Program, and Technical/Data Occupational Information Requirements, June 2009, which give more information about the agency's plans for developing an alternative to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) for use in determining disability. Here are some excerpts from the "Requirements" document (emphasis added):
How can we address accommodations and job restructuring? In short, what (if any) information should SSA include in its database describing work regarding general accommodations that may be available within and among occupations or industries for specific occupations? For example, what are the “core” activities of occupations? Are workers offered options regarding how they perform the core tasks, such as a sit/stand option? ...

[W]e should consider identifying potential opportunities for accommodations and job restructuring for occupational core tasks, particularly when both of the following apply: a) the type of accommodation or job restructuring is possible in a significant number of occupations nationally (e.g., for occupations within a given industry); and b) the type of accommodation or job restructuring is possible for the occupation as it is generally performed throughout the nation. That is, we do not intend for the OIS [Occupational Information System] to include highly customized accommodations or job restructuring that are specific to a given employer, to a specific individual, a specific impairment, or to tasks that are not occupational core tasks. ...

[I]f SSA includes, for example, specifications in its new OIS regarding the levels of various cognitive abilities that are required for each occupation, who will bear the burden of defending the validity of such specifications when (not if) they produce adverse impact with respect to approving disability claims? Arguably, if SSA is the entity that develops the OIS database, and performs the data collection and analytical steps involved in producing the specifications of how much of each non-physical trait each occupation requires, SSA would be the entity who must defend their validity.
It seems that Social Security staff involved in producing these documents either do not know or do not care that their agency has a longstanding position that it is inappropriate to consider accommodations that employers might offer to handicapped workers, that work may be considered available to a claimant only if the claimant is able to perform the job as it is normally performed. Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations are supposed to be off the table. Any change in this policy would have dramatically adverse implications for Social Security disability claimants. An expansive application of such a policy would make it possible to deny any claimant who did not meet a Listing. The words "accommodation" and "job restructuring" are red flags. I find their use to be disturbing.

It also seems that Social Security staff expects and probably desires to use the proposed Occupational Information System to deny even more disability claims filed by those with low cognitive abilities. My opinion is that Social Security has already gone way too far in denying the claims of individuals of low cognitive abilities. Any further extension of this policy would be unwise and unfair. To be more blunt, Martin Gerry got fired. Why would anyone want to go even further with a bad idea he was promoting?

Aug 5, 2009

False Claims Act And Social Security

I have recently heard of a civil action being filed by Social Security under the False Claims Act in an overpayment situation to try to treble the amount of the overpayment plus obtain a civil penalty. The false claims act allows Qui Tam actions, but this was not Qui Tam. This was being done without a criminal charge. I had not previously heard of the False Claims Act being used in a Social Security setting.

Is it new or unusual for Social Security to use the False Claims Act?

Social Security Managers Staying At A Nice Hotel -- In 1947

At the fabulous Hotel del Coronado. Notice all the women!

From 1955

IARP Survey On Social Security's Proposed Occupational Information System

The International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals (IARP) has surveyed its members on how Social Security should collect data for the Occupational Information System that the agency's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) is working on.

It is good to see that IARP is keeping a tab on OIDAP's work. Somebody needs to. OIDAP's work sounds horribly technical, but the ultimate result of what OIDAP is doing could be far more or far fewer Social Security disability claims being approved -- and I would not bet on the outcome being far more claims approved.

I have this fear that most of those involved at OIDAP either do not care what happens to Social Security disability claimants or that most of those involved believe that Social Security disability benefits are almost unnecessary or undesirable because they naively think that almost any disabled person can be rehabilitated. However, I remind myself that it looks like Social Security had already made all the key decisions before OIDAP ever started meeting and that those decisions will delay any action that will affect any Social Security claimant until after Michael Astrue leaves office. Perhaps, delaying any tough decision until after Astrue leaves office is the real point of OIDAP.

Aug 4, 2009

OIG Says ODAR Will Meet Its Goals -- If ...

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):

At the end of May 2009, over 750,000 hearings were pending in ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review], and the average processing time was 494 days. As outlined in its Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 2013 Strategic Plan, the Social Security Administration (SSA) plans to reduce the number of pending hearings to a desired level of 466,000 and the average processing time to 270 days by FY 2013. According to SSA, a pending level of 466,000 hearings ensures a sufficient number of cases to maximize the efficiency of the hearings process.

The Acting Deputy Commissioner of SSA asked that we evaluate the impact of ODAR's current MI [Management Information] and ODAR's proposals on its ability to reduce the backlog to the desired pending level. To address his request, we examined the workload ODAR would need to complete to process projected hearing requests and reduce the backlog to the desired pending level by FY 2013; identified MI currently available for officials to manage ODAR's workload, any reported shortfalls in available MI, and any reported shortfalls in the use of the MI to manage effectively; and reviewed ODAR's proposals, along with their potential impact on (1) addressing any shortfalls in ODAR's existing MI and (2) the likelihood SSA will meet its goal of reducing the backlog to the desired pending level by FY 2013. ...

Regardless of whether the FY 2010 proposals are approved, it appears SSA will achieve the desired pending hearings level by FY 2013 based on the currently projected level of receipts. Specifically, if SSA follows its current administrative law judge (ALJ) hiring plan and the current average ALJ productivity level remains constant, ODAR's pending hearing level should fall below 466,000. However, the timing of ALJ hiring will impact ODAR's ability to achieve this desired pending level. Therefore, SSA should continue to work with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to ensure ALJs are hired within the planned time frames.

Note that the goals can be achieved if Social Security's current projections of future receipts are accurate. However, we know that those projections are wildly inaccurate. Social Security is seeing a flood of new disability claims. Even if the projections are accurate, the backlog condition that Social Security is seeking to achieve, nine months, is far worse than what Social Security used to find acceptable.