Sep 30, 2009

Continuing Resolution Passed

In case you were worried -- and there was no reason to worry -- Congress has passed and the President will sign a continuing funding resolution to keep the federal government operating in the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Congress still needs to pass an appropriation for Social Security.

Cert Granted For EAJA Case

The Supreme Court has granted a writ of certiorari in the case of Astrue v. Ratliff. This means that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The issue is "Whether an 'award of fees and other expenses' under the Equal Access to Justice Act, is payable to the 'prevailing party' rather than to the prevailing party’s attorney, and therefore is subject to an offset for a pre-existing debt owed by the prevailing party to the United States."

Further News From Samoa

A broadcast e-mail from the Commissioner of Social Security:
To All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: American Samoa Update 2

I just received the good news that all five of our employees in American Samoa are safe.

Unfortunately, their office is a total loss. Our colleagues will have many challenges in the coming weeks, but I know they will rise to the occasion and you can be sure we will be there to support them.

Michael J. Astrue

Hearing Backlog Improves

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that for the first time since 1999, the agency has ended the year with fewer disability hearings pending than in the prior year. Social Security ended fiscal year (FY) 2009 with 722,822 hearings pending compared to 760,813 hearings pending at the start of the year, a reduction of more than 37,000 cases. Over the same period, the average processing time for these cases improved from 514 days in FY 2008 to 491 in FY 2009.

“Our backlog reduction plan is working, and progress is accelerating,” Commissioner Astrue said. “Even in the face of a significant increase in our workloads as a result of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we have reduced the hearings backlog for nine consecutive months. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of hardworking Social Security employees and the additional funding we received from President Obama and the Congress, we have exceeded our backlog reduction goal for this year.”

Chart showing actual vs budgeted number of hearings for fiscal year 2009

To achieve its backlog reduction goals, the agency has embarked on the largest expansion in decades of its capacity to hear disability appeals. This year, the agency hired 147 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and 850 support staff and plans to hire 226 additional ALJs plus support staff in FY 2010. To provide flexibility to assist the most backlogged hearing offices, the agency opened three new National Hearing Centers (NHCs) in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; and Chicago, Illinois. The agency also has aggressive plans to open 14 new hearing offices and 4 satellite offices by the end of next year with the first of those new offices opening in Anchorage, Alaska in the next few months.

In addition to reducing the number of cases awaiting a hearing decision, the agency again targeted the oldest and most difficult cases for processing. Beginning in FY 2007 with 65,000 cases that were 1,000 days old or older, the agency has continually attacked its “aged” cases. This year, the agency targeted 166,838 cases that were 850 days or older and virtually eliminated this entire universe of cases. The goal in FY 2010 has been reset again to eliminate cases over 825 days old.

Social Security’s ALJs also continue to increase their productivity. The agency averaged 570 dispositions (2.28 per day) per available ALJ in FY 2009, an upward trend that has continued for the last three years.

I salute all those at Social Security who worked hard to achieve this. I wish I did not have to add that this improvement has largely come about because cases are piling up at the initial and reconsideration levels. Without those increased backlogs at earlier levels, I imagine that there would be no improvement.

And by the way, the scale on that chart makes it really misleading.

Financial Literacy Research Consortium

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced the establishment of a new Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC), made up of research centers at Boston College, the RAND Corporation, and the University of Wisconsin. The FLRC, supported through five-year cooperative agreements, will develop innovative materials and programs to help Americans plan for a secure retirement.

“We have a responsibility to help the public understand the role of Social Security benefits and the need for them to save as they plan for their future,” said Commissioner Astrue. “Consequently, we have launched a research initiative to better inform the public about retirement saving options.”

The FLRC will tailor materials for Americans at different stages of their working lives - new workers, mid-career professionals, near-retirees, and those who have already left the workforce - to address the different challenges these individuals face. The FLRC also will help traditionally underserved populations better understand the path toward a secure retirement.

“The consortium constitutes an impressive collection of expertise and resources with a deep understanding of issues related to financial literacy,” Commissioner Astrue said. “We look forward to building a strong partnership with the FLRC as well as with other federal agencies with similar missions. In these challenging economic times, this partnership will help Americans to solidify their financial future.”

Samoan Disaster

A broadcast e-mail from the Commissioner of Social Security:

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: American Samoa

Yesterday’s tsunami in the South Pacific severely damaged our field office in Pago Pago, American Samoa. As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to communicate with anyone on the island, and we have very little information.

So far, we have been able to confirm that one of our four employees on the island is safe. We are optimistic about the condition of the other three, and we are doing everything we can to reach them as well.

Please keep our American Samoan employees, and all the people they serve, in your thoughts and prayers. I will update you as soon as I can.

Michael J. Astrue


And a second broadcast e-mail:

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: American Samoa Update

As promised, I have an update on the situation in American Samoa. We very recently added a fifth employee to the office, and we have confirmed that a second employee is safe, so we are still waiting for good news from the other three employees.

Michael J. Astrue


Sep 29, 2009

Call For Action Gets The Job Done

From WXYZ in Detroit:
A woman who spent months in a big battle for social security benefits decided she needed to "Call for Action," and Bill Spencer got right on the case. ...

Under Social Security rules she should have been entitled to collect disability benefits of $704.00 a month for herself and another $400.00 a month for her dead husband.

It took years for Betty to be approved for benefits related to her social security claim, but the back benefits related to her husband’s account were never paid out.

That’s when Betty “Called for Action”… we jumped all over this case and for 4 weeks straight we fought to get her that money.

Finally, four weeks later Betty received a check for $11,170.00.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

For those who represent Social Security claimants, how happy are you with your work?
Extremely happy (14) 33%
Very happy (14) 33%
Somewhat happy (8) 19%
A little unhappy (1) 2%
Very unhappy (3) 7%
Extremely unhappy (2) 5%

Total Votes: 42

Sep 28, 2009


New Cancer Listings Coming

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, has to approve all new regulations before they are published in the Federal Register. OMB has just approved new Listings for "Malignant Neoplastic Diseases," otherwise known as cancer. Expect these new Listings to appear in the Federal Register shortly.

Sep 27, 2009

Double Amputee Waiting

From the Belleville, Illinois News-Democrat:
Jennifer Moore was 15 months old when surgeons at the Shriner's Hospital in St. Louis amputated her disfigured left leg below the knee. Three years later they did the same thing to her right leg.

As if being a double-amputee wasn't enough of a challenge, Moore, 21, has battled a host of other birth defects, including an upside-down kidney and a blocked urethra, the tube to her bladder, making her susceptible to kidney infections.

What's making her struggle even tougher, though, is the fact she can't find a job.

Which means she can't get health care insurance. Which means she doesn't have a primary care physician.

So when Moore gets sick -- which is often -- her only recourse is to spend hours waiting in hospital emergency rooms for a doctor to see her. ...

Moore's been waiting more than a year for a chance to appeal the Social Security Administration's decision before an administrative law judge -- a situation made worse by a flood of new disability applications from newly jobless middle-aged workers, said Tom Yates, a spokesman for Health & Disability Advocates in Chicago.

The agency that reviews Social Security disability claims in Illinois has seen a 100 percent increase in initial claims, Yates said.

It's Time To Get Social Security Out Of The Federal Budget

From the Associated Press:
Big job losses and a spike in early retirement claims from laid-off seniors will force Social Security to pay out more in benefits than it collects in taxes the next two years, the first time that's happened since the 1980s.

The deficits — $10 billion in 2010 and $9 billion in 2011 — won't affect payments to retirees because Social Security has accumulated surpluses from previous years totaling $2.5 trillion. But they will add to the overall federal deficit.

Social Security has been part of the federal budget for decades because it was always running a surplus. Those surpluses made the unified federal budget look better. If Social Security is going negative, it is time to take it off budget. Off budget would be great for the agency since there would be little reason to hold the agency's administrative budget down to the starvation levels we have seen in recent years -- and yes, despite the increased budgets since Democrats gained a majority in Congress in 2006, Social Security's budget remains in terrible shape. Social Security probably needs something like 20,000 additional employees to get its work done properly.

Why Waste Your Time Producing This?

From a recent report from Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
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. ...

The Acting Deputy Commissioner of SSA asked that we evaluate the impact of ODAR's current MI and ODAR's proposals on its ability to reduce the backlog to the desired pending level. ...

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.
The key phrase here is "based on the currently projected level of receipts." However, the official projections of receipts are wildly optimistic. New claims for benefits are exploding at a pace that Social Security never anticipated. This report is worthless, as I expect its authors and recipients know. What was the point of writing it?

Sep 26, 2009

House Approves Continuing Resolution

The federal fiscal year (FY) ends on September 30. To this point no money has been appropriated for Social Security after that date. However, on Friday the House of Representatives approved a continuing resolution that allows Social Security and other agencies to continue spending money for the next month at the same rate as in FY 2009. Presumably, the Senate will follow suit. It remains unclear when Social Security will have a true budget for FY 2010.

Fugitive Felon Fiasco

From the Wall Street Journal:

A federal judge approved a civil-court settlement requiring the Social Security Administration to repay $500 million to 80,000 recipients whose benefits it suspended after deeming them fugitives.

The supposed fugitives include a disabled widow with a previously suspended driver's license, a quadriplegic man in a nursing home and a Nevada grandmother mistaken for a rapist.

They were among at least 200,000 elderly and disabled people who lost their benefits in recent years under what the agency called the "Fugitive Felon" program. Launched in 1996 and extended to Social Security disability and old-age benefits in 2005, the program aimed to save taxpayers money by barring the payment of Social Security benefits to people "fleeing to avoid prosecution."

But some federal courts in recent years have concluded that most people the agency identified as fleeing felons were neither fleeing nor felons. The problem: Social Security employees relied on an operations manual stating that anyone with a warrant outstanding is a fugitive felon, whether the person is actually fleeing or attempting to avoid being captured. ...

Some "fugitives" were victims of mistaken identity. To identify felons, the agency cross-checked its database with databases of old warrants obtained from various law-enforcement agencies. If a match was found -- of a person's first and last name, and either Social Security number or date of birth -- the person was deemed to be a fugitive and his benefits suspended. The program didn't compare middle initials or gender.

Willie Mae Giacanni, 79, a retiree near Reno, Nev., was informed by the Social Security Administration in 2006 that her $350 a month benefit would be suspended because of a warrant outstanding in New York, a state she has never visited.

She said she "called different precincts," trying to find out what she was wanted for. A detective told her the warrant was for Willie Frank Thomas, who was wanted for kidnapping and rape in 1972. Although Mrs. Giacanni's first husband's surname was Thomas, and the suspect shared her birth date, he had a different Social Security number, middle name, gender and race, according to the New York City Police Department's fugitive-enforcement division.

Sep 25, 2009

Benefit Checks May Now Go To Viet Nam and Cambodia

Social Security has posted new rules in the Federal Register that will allow benefit checks to go to Viet Nam and Cambodia.

Bill Passes House On Medicare Premiums

This happened fast! From Congressional Quarterly:

The House on Thursday passed a bill that would prevent Medicare premiums from rising sharply for about 11 million senior citizens.

The vote was 406-18.

The legislation would block a big increase in Medicare Part B premiums for the affected seniors, who account for about 27 percent of those enrolled in the health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

They are in jeopardy of a steep increase in their monthly premiums because of complexities in federal law and the likelihood that Social Security recipients won't get a bump in their benefits next year to cover the cost of the premium increase. ...

The Senate is expected to act on the premium bill soon.

The bill would cost $2.8 billion and would be offset by reducing the Medicare Improvement Fund, which the Health and Human Services Department uses to make improvements to Medicare Part A and Part B.

Colvin Nominated For Deputy Commissioner

The White House has announced that Carolyn Colvin has been nominated for the vacant position of Deputy Commissioner of Social Security. Here is background information on Colvin supplied by the White House:
Carolyn W. Colvin is Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. Prior to this position, she was the CEO of AMERIGROUP Community Care, a company dedicated to caring for the financially vulnerable, seniors and people with disabilities through publicly-funded programs. Colvin served as the Director of Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services for over three years and as Cabinet Director of the Department of Human Services for the District of Columbia for over two years. She also brings over six and a half years experience working for the Social Security Administration, serving as the Deputy Commissioner for Operations and the Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Policy. In those roles, she provided executive leadership and directed the work of nearly 50,000 employees and the policy and programs of Social Security. She currently is a member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Arundel Community Development Services, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

LA May Help Disability Claimants

From the Los Angeles Times:
With the cost of helping Los Angeles County's welfare recipients expected to hit $1 billion by the end of this fiscal year, county officials are pushing a plan to shift the burden of some of the most hard-core unemployed to the federal government. If they succeed, local taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars, and thousands of disabled welfare recipients would see their aid more than triple.

But the hurdles could prove high. County officials propose spending $7.2 million to help applicants through a notoriously difficult process to qualify for federal disability assistance. ...

A county-commissioned study released this summer found that a third of general relief recipients surveyed had a disability that would qualify them for federal aid. ...

To help those people apply for federal aid, county officials propose spending $7.2 million on caseworkers, housing subsidies and medical evaluations and research.

Sep 24, 2009

Tests To Continue

From today's Federal Register:
Our current rules authorize us to test, individually or in any combination, certain modifications of the disability determination procedures. 20 CFR 404.906 and 416.1406. We have conducted several tests under the authority of these rules. In the "single decisionmaker,'' test, a disability examiner may make the initial disability determination in most cases without obtaining the signature of a medical or psychological consultant. We also have conducted a separate test, which we call the "prototype,'' in 10 States. 64 FR 47218. Currently, the prototype combines the single decisionmaker approach described above with the elimination of the reconsideration level of our administrative review process.

We have extended the time period for selecting claims for these tests several times. Most recently, on August 10, 2006, we extended the time period until September 30, 2009. 71 FR 45890. We have decided to extend case selection for the current disability prototype process (single decisionmaker and elimination of the reconsideration step) and for the separate test of the single decisionmaker until September 28, 2012.

Editorial In Detroit News On Backlogs

The Detroit News has an editorial about the long delays in adjudicating Social Security disability claims. This is a followup to a news item they ran recently.

Appropriations Situation

From the Capitol Insider put out by the Disability Policy Collaboration:

With the start of Fiscal Year 2010 less than two weeks away, both Houses of Congress are expected to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the federal government operating on October 1. None of the twelve FY 2010 appropriations will be enacted by then. Four of the bills are ready to be finalized by House and Senate conferees. The House has yet to appoint their conferees. The first CR is likely to expire on November 1. At least one more CR will be necessary before all of the bills, either singly or combined into an omnibus appropriations bill, will be enacted.

No COLA This Year, But Maybe This

From Congressional Quarterly:

House Democrats could move legislation as early as this week to prevent Medicare premiums from rising sharply for certain senior citizens.

Democratic leaders have not decided whether to move the bill, with an estimated cost of $2.1 billion, as a stand-alone measure or as part of a stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded through the end of October. The House may vote on that measure Thursday.

The problem lawmakers want to address arises from the likelihood that Social Security recipients will not get a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in their benefits next year for the first time in 35 years.

At the same time, premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers physician services and outpatient care, are expected to rise. Because Part B premiums are typically deducted from monthly Social Security checks, the lack of a COLA next year will mean an effective reduction in benefits for a minority of seniors.

A "hold harmless" provision in federal law would shield about 75 percent of Medicare beneficiaries from having to pay the Part B premium increase if there is no increase in their Social Security benefits.

But the remaining 25 percent -- a group that includes seniors newly qualifying for Medicare -- would not only have to shoulder a Part B premium increase, but they also would have to pay a portion of the increased premiums the government isn't able to collect from seniors held harmless. Those who would be stuck with the bill are low-income seniors who receive benefits from both Medicare and Medicaid; seniors with incomes above $85,000 if they are single and $170,000 for couples; and people who are new to the program.

Sep 23, 2009

New Rules On Attorney Fees

From today's Federal Register:
We are revising our rules to allow representatives, in certain instances, to charge and receive a fee from third-party entities without requiring our authorization. We are also eliminating the requirement that we authorize fees for legal guardians or court-appointed representatives who represent claimants before us if a court has already authorized the fees. We are revising our rules to reflect changes in representatives' business practices and in the ways claimants obtain representation, and to improve the efficiency of our representative fee process.
Social Security also rescinded Ruling 85-3 concerning the subject matter of the new regulations.

NCSSMA Issues Newsletter - SSA Legislative Proposals

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) has issued its August 2009 issue of its newsletter, Frontline. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Angela Arnett, Social Security's Acting Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, which more or less makes her head of lobbying for Social Security:
Could you share some of the legislative changes that SSA has proposed recently and tell us where we are in the process? How likely is it that these changes will be passed and how long do you think it will take?

We recently sent a package of proposals to OMB [Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House] for approval. I would reiterate that SSA does not officially have any legislative proposals until OMB approves them. Following are the most significant proposals in that package.
  • Simplify computation of the workers' compensation DI offset
  • Eliminate the SSI dedicated account
  • Clarify the policy relating to nonpayment of fugitive felon/parole violators
  • Allow State DDS reconsideration of disability cessations made by the Commissioner
  • Eliminate annual payee accountings for parents and spouses
  • Provide protective filing for wounded warriors
  • Prohibit retroactive payments to individuals in prison

Sep 22, 2009

Ft. Wayne Jounal Gazette Editorial

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette is running an editorial about the long delays in adjudicating Social Security disability cases. They think their government should be doing better.


Increased User Fee Opposed


The Social Security Administration (SSA) plans to raise its fees for verifying mortgage borrowers’ identities, a move that is facing Congressional opposition.

The fee for mortgage and financial institutions to authenticate borrower Social Security numbers is set to increase from $0.56 to $5.00 per verification on October 1. But Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) is said to be leading a Congressional challenge to the increase, according to a statement from Rapid Reporting, a Fort Worth, Texas-based national provider of third-party income, identity and employment verification services.

Sep 21, 2009

Waiting In Michigan

From the Detroit News:
A nationwide surge in Social Security disability claims has hit Michigan disproportionately hard. ...

It takes an average of 676 days to get a claim processed at Metro Detroit's Oak Park office -- the third longest wait time among the country's 142 hearings offices. Only the Madison, Wis., and Indianapolis offices are slower at 688 and 719 days, respectively.

Processing takes 659 days in Detroit, which ranks fifth slowest in the country. The average wait time nationwide is 487 days.

To try to shorten the waiting time, the government is opening offices and hiring judges.

"The average claimant now waits two years, somewhat longer to get a hearing," said Evan Zagoria, a disability attorney with Bingham Farms-based Provizer & Phillips PC. "Our clients lose their homes, they're evicted from apartments, they lose their cars. ...

More than 32,700 Michigan residents had claims pending as of Aug. 21, an increase of 46.7 percent over the same period last year, and higher than the nationwide increase of 33.7 percent, according to the Social Security Administration.

Moving Backward

The Associated Press is running an article on the surge in new Social Security disability claims. Social Security Commissioner Mitchael Astrue is quoted as saying "We're going to be moving backwards this year, the question is how much ... The trend line isn't good." Astrue is also quoted as complaining that "some judges are not holding their weight."

How Plausible Does This Sound To You?

Some people with serious circulatory problems are told by their physicians to spend most of their time with their legs elevated about heart level. An attorney I know reports that recently he heard a vocational expert testify at his client's hearing that a person with such a limitation could perform the work of a cashier.

Does that sound plausible to you? Does it make you wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with the vocational expert process at Social Security when such testimony is given with a straight face and then received by an Administrative Law Judge without apparent skepticism?

Sep 20, 2009

Waiting In Wisconsin -- And A Failure Of Leadership

From the Wisconsin State Journal:
A Wisconsin State Journal investigation found the thousands of claimants in the state have some of the longest waits in the nation. The investigation uncovered claimants who have lost a home and savings, saw a marriage deteriorate and even attempted suicide as they waited on a system that approved their claims only after years of suffering....

Even Social Security commissioner Michael Astrue calls the waits "inexcusable," saying efforts to address them are being complicated by the national economic downturn and the disabling medical problems of baby boomers that are making more people turn to the program.
And there is a companion piece giving stories of those forced to wait. And yet another companion piece about this:
State officials are holding fast to their plans to furlough workers who decide disability benefits claims, even though has some of the longest waits in the nation for decisions on such claims....

"This is a failure of leadership," Social Security commissioner Michael Astrue said of the furloughs byWisconsin and several other states.
And the La Crosse Tribune adds even more.

ALJ Has Blog

Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ed Pitts of St. Louis is posting on his St. Louis Sojourn blog about his work as an ALJ.

Sep 19, 2009

Skirting Disclosure Requirements

President Obama ordered that all agencies report each and every communication between any government agency and a lobbyist regarding expenditures under the economic stimulus bill. Despite this very explicit order, Social Security has reported no communications with any lobbyist regarding its very large expenditures under the economic stimulus bill. In fact, Pro Publica reports that almost no reports have been filed by any federal agency. How to explain this? Pro Publica reports that lobbyists are skirting the rules by assigning the lobbying to junior staffers and attorneys who are not registered lobbyists.

In my opinion, this ought to be stopped. President Obama should amend his order to require that reports be filed regardless of whether the contact is made by a registered lobbyist.

Sep 18, 2009

WIPA And PABSS Reauthorized

A press release from Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue:

“I want to thank Congress and President Obama for the recent passage of the WIPA and PABSS Reauthorization Act of 2009. The bill extends funding authorization for the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) and the Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS) programs through fiscal year 2010.

There are currently 103 WIPA programs across the U.S. working with Social Security disability beneficiaries on job placement, benefits planning, and career development. With this vital support, beneficiaries are better equipped to make informed choices about work. The PABSS program provides much-needed advocacy services that help beneficiaries navigate through an often-confusing web of Employment Networks, Social Security rules, legal issues, and employment issues. I anticipate a continuing need and increased demand for both WIPA and PABSS services, and the extension of funding allows the opportunity to further evaluate these important programs.”

The bill did not contain any other matter such as the extension of withholding of attorney fees in SSI cases

Did The Introduction Of Social Security Lower The Suicide Rate?

From the National Bureau of Economic Research:
A large increase in the incomes of the elderly stemming from pre-Social Security social programs and the phase-in of the Social Security system has coincided with suicide rates for that group dropping 56 percent since 1930.

Sep 17, 2009

A Continuing Irritant

Click on the attached page to see it full size. It is a fax that I received from an experienced, helpful employee at a Field Office. I have cropped out anything showing the name or Social Security number of the claimant or the name of the Social Security employee or the office at which this employee works.

The problem is that I submitted a fee agreement on my client's case, but Social Security fouled up and did not enter this fact in their computer system. It was almost certainly not the employee who wrote this note who made the mistake. The employee is telling me that she will do what she can to correct the problem but that the personnel at the payment center probably will refuse to correct the mistake. Even though I did what I was supposed to do, I will be forced to do the extra work of filing a fee petition because of a mistake that Social Security made. There is also a good chance that my fee will be lowered, possibly dramatically because of a mistake made at Social Security. At best, there will be months of delay, again because of a mistake made not by me, but by someone at Social Security.

It is clear from the note that this is a problem that this Social Security employee has seen many times before. It is certainly a problem that I have seen many times before.

This is a continuing irritant. I wish that Social Security would give better service than this. One would think that someone paying a user fee would get better service than this, but, then, one would think that a citizen would get better service than this from their government even without a user fee.

Sep 16, 2009

Waiting In Utah

Fox News 13 in Utah is running a piece on Social Sacecurity disability backlogs in Utah.

Charlie Binder Goes Multimedia

Charlie Binder of the Binder and Binder firm that is probably the largest entity representing Social Security claimants has a blog -- although it does not touch or hardly touches on Social Security issues -- and a program on Air America. Take a look at the Yesterday is Gone website to learn more about him.

Sep 15, 2009

Regs Approved By OMB

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has approved the following proposed regulations for Social Security:
  1. We are revising our rules to remove Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea (now Cambodia) from the list of countries to which social security benefits may not be sent under restrictions imposed by the Department of the Treasury (Treasury). Removing these restrictions allows social security benefits to accrue for aliens entitled to benefits for months in which they reside in either Vietnam or Cambodia, provided they are not subject to other nonpayment provisions. The revisions are necessary to reflect published Treasury regulations that have removed the restrictions on sending Federal payments to individuals living in these countries.
  2. We plan to revise our rules regarding payment of representative fees to allow representatives, in certain cases, to charge and receive a fee for their services from certain third parties without requiring our approval. We also plan to eliminate the requirement that we approve fees for legal guardians or court-appointed representatives providing representational services in claims before us if a court has already authorized their fees. Lastly, we plan to define "legal guardians or court-appointed representatives."
You should expect to see these items in the Federal Register in the near future.

Elliptical Answers

Commissioner Astrue testified before the House Social Security Subcommittee back in March. He later provided some written responses to the Subcommittee which have now been posted online. There is much that I find of interest. Here are a couple of important questions and answers. Would you say that the Commissioner was completely forthcoming?
You stated in your testimony that by the end of the current year, the ALJ-to-staff ratio in SSA’s hearing offices will be 4.5 to 1. However, some have suggested that the ratio should be higher – as high as 5.25 to 1 – especially given the importance of working down the backlog quickly. Do you agree that hearing office productivity could be increased if the ALJ-to-staff ratio were higher than 4.5 to 1?

Because of the economic downturn, we are seeing an increase in the number of initial disability applications filed, which will ultimately lead to more requests for hearings. In addition to improving our business process and productivity, we will need more administrative law judges (ALJs) and staff to support them to process the projected increase in receipts.

However, it is not simply the number of staff in a hearing office that determines the most efficient hearing office composition, it is also the mix of employees in the particular office. We believe that, as long as we can provide the right combination of job functions, a ratio of 4.5 support staff – such as case pullers and decision writers – for each ALJ will allow us to continue reducing the backlog. Our goal for this year and into the next is to ensure that all offices have the most efficient mix of staff needed to support the ALJs. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding will help us hire these critical additional support staff.

With the right mix of critical support staff and the addition of 148 new ALJs whom we are hiring this month, we anticipate seeing an accelerating decrease in the disability hearings backlog. The number of pending hearings has dropped five months in a row and is down for the year, and we should be able to continue to make progress even in the face of the current economic downturn.

Your timely support of the President's FY 2010 budget will enable us to hire ALJs and hearing office support staff earlier in the fiscal year, which will allow these new employees to complete training and become productive in processing workloads earlier in the fiscal year. ...

How many full-time equivalents (FTEs), in addition to current staffing levels, would be required in the Field Offices to address all their responsibilities? To reach these staffing levels how many more FTEs would the Field Offices require above the level of hiring that you are planning for FY 2009? How many hires above replacement level would the Field Offices receive if SSA is funded at the full FY 2010 President’s Budget request of $11.6 billion? Will you be able to place additional employees in every Field Office nationwide?

In FY 2009, we will hire over 6,000 new employees between March and the end of this fiscal year, replacing all staffing losses and adding critical new positions. We will assign the majority of these new employees to our front-line operations, where they will directly assist the American public. Although these new employees will help us improve the overall level of service, we will have a backlog of approximately 900 work years in post-entitlement work in FY 2009, i.e., actions we take after a claimant is awarded such as changes of address, stewardship reviews, etc.

If we are funded at the full FY 2010 President’s Budget, we will hire approximately 5,800 employees in FY 2010, replacing all staffing losses and filling 1,300 new positions, with the majority of the hires working in front-line positions. We will add 600 new workers in the DDSs and add about 700 new employees in the hearings offices. We will place these employees in the offices with the greatest need. Most field offices have received or will be adding additional staff, but not all will, due to changes in workloads, real estate constraints, and other issues.
There is more from the Commissioner in his answers to the Minority members and staff of the Subcommittee.

Sep 14, 2009

Proposed Endocrine Listings Changes Sent To OMB

Social Security and all other federal agencies must submit all proposed new regulations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, for approval before publication in the Federal Register. Social Security sent proposed changes to its endocrine system listings to OMB for approval on September 11. It would be nice if the listing for diabetes were made less harsh, but the trend at Social Security in recent years has been to make the listings longer and longer and harsher and harsher. The day may come when the listings run to hundreds of pages.

I still cannot believe that an amputation at the ankle due to diabetes is not enough to meet the listings. That is one of the changes made a few years ago. That is ridiculously harsh in my opinion. My guess is that there are few people even at Social Security who would argue all that much with my opinion on this point.

Astrue Finds "Callous Kumbaya Attitude" Beyond Comprehension

From Government Executive:
According to [Social Security Commissioner Michael] Astrue and other experts on disability claims, the faltering economy is causing an increase in applications of between 15 percent and 25 percent. SSA originally anticipated receiving 2.6 million to 2.65 million applications for disability benefits in fiscal 2009, but upped its prediction to 3 million and another 3 million for 2010. Recently, the agency adjusted its estimates again, increasing the projection for 2010 to 3.3 million applications. ...

Astrue says the agency has been making inroads, reducing processing times by 4 percent each of the past two years. The recession, however, has reversed the progress on the backlog of cases. At the beginning of 2009, SSA had 550,000 cases pending at the state level. The state-run SSA-funded Disability Determination Services do much of the initial processing and eligibility determination for applicants. The number of claims pending at the state level, which does not account for applications at other stages of adjudication, is now up to 725,000. ...

"We've been stymied at the state level," Astrue says. "There's this callous 'Kumbaya' attitude that if there's going to be pain, everyone has to suffer. For me, it's beyond comprehension that you would make a civil service suffer unnecessarily and make claimants in desperate need of assistance wait much longer than they otherwise would." ...

Astrue says having that budget in place by the start of the fiscal year would be a tremendous benefit to the agency.

"There's a possibility - I don't even know the last time this happened - that we could have an appropriation by the start of the fiscal year," he says. "For planning purposes, being able to plan for the full fiscal year is enormous; we should be able to deliver much more use to the public."

I might not have used the word "kumbaya" in discussing the matter but I too find the state government furloughs of Disability Determination employees beyond comprehension.

By the way, I'm still not buying that the increase in claims filed has that much to do with the recession. My understanding is that the huge increase in claims filed did not start until after the inauguration of Barack Obama. I think this has far more to do with public perceptions about the adjudicative climate at Social Security.

SSAB On Health Care Costs

The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a report with the title The Unsustainable Cost of Health Care. The basic premise of the report, that health care costs are increasing at an unsustainable rate, is beyond debate. What is odd is that the report fails to discuss in any meaningful way the possibility of the so-called "public option," a government run insurance program that competes with private insurers, as a solution or part of a solution for this problem. The possibility of a single payer system is not even hinted at. There may well be no public option in the final plan passed by Congress and signed by the President, but this is certainly on the table. Instead of evaluating the public option as a possible fix for the problem the report states that one reason for increasing health care costs is that too many people have health care insurance! The report says flatly that reducing the ranks of the uninsured would lead to a greater problem with health care costs. The report seems to offer a compilation of plans backed by Republicans as the only possible solutions for the problems identified.

I do not understand why Democrats on the SSAB would sign on to this document.

It is my opinion that the SSAB as presently constituted is a waste of money. This report is certainly a waste of money. Why do Democrats in Congress keep funding SSAB?

Update: One poster noted that the SSAB was set up by statute. That is true but statutory bodies can be defunded. Without an appropriation, SSAB dies. It has happened to other agencies in the past. One that I recall well was the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS). ACUS still exists as a statutory body, but it offended Republicans and was defunded in 1995. For that matter, maybe ACUS should be revived.

Another Year With A Continuing Resolution?

When Congress is unable to complete work on an appropriations bill by the beginning of a fiscal year (FY) -- October 1 -- it passes what is called a continuing resolution that allows the agencies involved to continue spending at the same rate until an appropriations bill is passed.

Take a look at the status of the appropriations bills for FY 2010 which begins in 16 days. Social Security is covered by the Labor-HHS bill. It does not seem likely that all of these bills will be passed by the end of the month. Continuing resolutions hamstring agencies. They make planning difficult.

How Far Will This Go?

From The Hill:
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation this week that would provide seniors and others who receive Social Security payments a one-time $150 payment to make up for the loss of the COLA [Cost Of Living Adjustment]. The bill has 14 Democratic cosponsors.

First Meeting Of Social Security Board Happened On This Date In 1935

Picture from left to right are Arthur J. Altmeyer, John G. Winant (Chairman), and Vincent M. Miles.

Sep 13, 2009

"Emergency Clause" For Disability Determination

The budget crises that are causing many states to partially furlough their employees, including disability determination employees who make initial and reconsideration determinations and whose salaries are paid by Social Security, has led to the issuance of a new item in Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) concerning the "emergency clause." The "emergency clause" is what Social Security is calling an agreement with a state to transfer some of that state's disability determination workload to Social Security for adjudication at the Office of Central Operations (OCO), Program Service Center - Disability Processing Branch (PSC-DPB), or Disability Quality Branch (DQB).

Unfortunately, Social Security has only very limited ability to help any state, so this may mean little. It may also make it more difficult for OCO, the PSCs and the DQBs to process their regular workloads. I am sure that Social Security realizes that this is borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, but they must feel that they have no choice.

Sep 12, 2009

Does This Mean Anything?

From a press release:
A poll taken by [a law firm] asked the question, "Do you feel the Social Security Administration will handle your Social Security disability claim fairly?"

The response was astounding. Eighty three (83) percent of the responses to the yes/no question were No; they do not trust the Social Security Administration to handle their claim fairly. At the time of this release 389 people had responded. When such a huge majority of people do not trust the government to handle their disability claim, it simply cannot be ignored.

Another GAO Report

From Social Security Disability: Additional Performance Measures and Better Cost Estimates Could Help Improve SSA's Efforts to Eliminate Its Hearing Backlog, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO):
SSA’s Plan should help the agency reduce its hearings-level backlog, but the likelihood that SSA will eliminate the backlog within its projected time-frame depends on the extent to which SSA’s assumptions for improved administrative law judge (ALJ) hiring, availability, and productivity are achieved in practice. Both SSA and GAO believe that the agency has about a 78 percent chance of eliminating the backlog, that is, reducing the number of hearings-level pending claims below 466,000 claims, by the end of fiscal year 2013—SSA’s target date—if those assumptions are fully realized. However, SSA’s assumptions project higher levels of performance achieved than recent experience—from fiscal year 2008 to April 2009. ALJ productivity improvements are especially important to SSA’s reaching its goal. The likelihood that SSA will eliminate the backlog by its target date changes under different scenarios for achieving its ALJ hiring, availability, and productivity goals. If SSA achieves its average ALJ productivity, but not its ALJ hiring and availability goals, GAO estimated that SSA’s chances are reduced from about 78 percent to about 53 percent. Conversely, if SSA achieves its goals for ALJ hiring and availability, but not for average productivity, its chances are about 34 percent. If SSA is unable to achieve any of its ALJ workforce and performance goals, the likelihood of the agency eliminating the hearings-level backlog by its target date drops to about 14 percent.
GAO is foolish enough to think that the chances of reducing the backlogs can be reduced to percentages and that Social Security's projections of productivity gains have a relationship to reality. It has seemed clear to me for many years that Social Security figures out how much budget it can expect to get and how many people it can hire and then works backwards to figure out how much productivity it needs to project to meet some abstract backlog goal.

Fee Payment Stats

Social Security has posted these updated statistics on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Sep 11, 2009

ODAR Processing Time Report

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) has obtained the report reproduced here on backlogs at Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR -- I still hate this name and abbreviation). Click on each thumbnail to see it full size.

Here are some historical numbers to help put this in perspective.
  • 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
  • July 31, 2009 -- 494 days

Backlogs Soar At Initial Level

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) here are stats on Disability Determination Service backlogs. Click on the thumbnail to see it full size.

The picture is ugly, even eye popping. The national backlog of cases at the initial level is up 37.7% over a year ago. Every state but two has increased backlogs.

As Social Security makes a very slow start on reducing the backlog of cases awaiting a hearing, another bigger backlog opens up at the initial level. Very discouraging.

Slow Progress At ODAR

I received this from a reader:
Deputy Commissioner's Broadcast

Date: September 8, 2009

Disability backlog goes down eight months in a row -- internal goal of exceeding budgeted pending by 20,000 cases already met
Even during the traditionally slow month of August you have again managed to reduce the disability backlog -- now eight remarkable months in a row. This past month, you exceeded the disposition target by 3,633 cases by processing 56,332 dispositions. Our pending is currently at 734,199 cases below the FY 2009 opening pending -- which means we have already exceeded our end of year goal by over 20,000 cases.

Reducing the most aged cases continues to be an ODAR success story -- just over 3,000 of the 850 day old cases remain to process by the end of the fiscal year
For those Americans who have waited the longest for a decision from us, you have processed nearly all of the cases that are 850 days old or more, leaving just 3,201 aged cases to process by the end of September (see chart on next page [which I did not receive]).

Productivity is even better than last year
Other than a slight dip in April, we are seeing more productivity in clearing cases this year than last. Most notable is that in August 2008 the disposition per day rate was 2.15, compared to 2.54 at the end of last month (August 2009) - an 18% increase in productivity.

Improved integration of disability process with Operations
On August 21, Operations sent out an Administrative Message (AM) stating, in essence, that the DDS standard for reconsiderations is the same as review by ALJs - a de novo review. This message also included reminders about developing and documenting vocational factors. By emphasizing de novo review as the standard for reconsideration, we hope more allowances will be made at this earlier level. This is to ensure that claimants receive the right decision as early as possible in our disability process. The full AM can be viewed at

More ALJs and support staff are coming on board - OPM Director swears in new ALJs
On August 27, our second new class of 72 ALJs was sworn-in at the Congressional Auditorium of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director, John Berry, delivered the keynote address.

In addition to hiring 148 ALJs and 850 support staff by the end of June, we are well on our way to hiring at least 348 additional staff in the field and at ODAR headquarters by the end of the fiscal year.

Regional Reorganization
In order to provide better service to the American people by making better and faster decisions, the reorganization of ODAR headquarters will take effect in October. We are also reviewing the ODAR Regional Office structure. We expect to implement the regional office reorganization during FY 2010.

You are all doing a great job - and please know that you make an important difference in people's lives every day. We are on a good path for reducing the disability backlog by 2013. Due to the recession and because we continue to be in the disability prone years of the baby boomers, we know that FY 2010 and FY 2011 are going to be difficult years. However, please know that all of our hiring and space expansion activities this year have been in preparation for this coming bulge.

I hope you all had a wonderful Labor Day Weekend.

David V. Foster
Deputy Commissioner

Sep 10, 2009

Isn't The Solution Obvious?

From the Wall Street Journal:

The pay of employees who receive more than the Social Security wage base -- now $106,800 -- increased by 78%, or nearly $1 trillion, over the past decade, exceeding the 61% increase for other workers, according to the analysis. In the five years ending in 2007, earnings for American workers rose 24%, half the 48% gain for the top-paid. The result: The top-paid represent 33% of the total, up from 28% in 2002.

The growing portion of pay that exceeds the maximum amount subject to payroll taxes has contributed to the weakening of the Social Security trust fund. In May, the government said the Social Security fund would be exhausted in 2037, four years earlier than was predicted in 2008.

The data suggest that the payroll tax ceiling hasn't kept up with the growth in executive pay. ...

Social Security Administration actuaries estimate removing the earnings ceiling could eliminate the trust fund's deficit altogether for the next 75 years, or nearly eliminate it if credit toward benefits was provided for the additional taxable earnings.


From Information Week:
The Social Security Administration [SSA] has hired Frank Baitman [pictured to the left -- a photo taken at the Obama inauguration and posted on Baitman's blog], a former business strategist with IBM (NYSE: IBM), as its new CIO [Chief Information Officer], filling a role that had been vacant since January.

Baitman, who joined the agency at the end of August, has years of business and IT experience, but none as a CIO. At the Social Security Administration, he's running an organization with a $1.3 billion IT budget

"Frank has extensive global and domestic experience in both large enterprises and small companies balancing strategic problem-solving with tactical execution," Social Security Administration commissioner Michael Astrue said in an announcement to staff. "His experience has also lent itself to developing customized insights focused on technological and industry trends, healthcare informatics, emerging markets, and social services."...

Baitman is expected to emphasize transparency and innovation in his new role, according to one source at the agency. On his Caffeinated Ideas blog, Baitman has advocated simplifying government procurement and written about the importance of public service.

What Are These People Talking About?

Social Security will face a cash shortfall for the first time in decades next year, according to a little noticed report released late last month by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

As a result, seniors could face benefit cuts in as little as three years. Congress could instead raise taxes or authorize new borrowing to close the shortfall, but has never before addressed a Social Security deficit through long-term borrowing.

Since the Social Security trust funds as shown by the graph above have over $2.5 trillion in them, I think that retirees are going to be safe three years from now. Maybe the people issuing this press release were the same people yelling about how the President was going to indoctrinate school children with Socialism.

Sep 9, 2009

Binder and Binder Real Estate Moves

From (emphasis added):
In a rare show of prosperity in its beleaguered industry, architecture firm Perkins+Will is expanding its footprint at 215 Park Ave. South by more than a third by subleasing 16,500 square feet. ...

The firm is subleasing the entire sixth floor for four years from law firm Binder & Binder. A July [2009] move is planned; sources say the asking rent was in the high $30s a square foot. ...

Binder, meanwhile, will leave Manhattan by moving into 19,000 square feet at 33-00 Northern Blvd. in Long Island City, Queens [pictured above], in June. The asking rent for the deal, which runs for nearly 13 years, was about $25 a square foot, sources say. Mr.Strati says the law firm moved to take advantage of REAP, a city program that awards tax incentives to companies that relocate to upper Manhattan or the boroughs beyond.

Sep 8, 2009

Raise Corn And Raise Hell Iowans!

An editorial from the Des Moines Register:
According to a recent Des Moines Sunday Register investigation by reporter Clark Kauffman, Iowans wait an average of 541 days - about a month longer than the national average - to bring their cases before a Social Security judge for a hearing.

A massive backlog of unresolved disability claims at the Social Security Administration has contributed to Iowans being subjected to stress and difficulties. One disabled Iowan has been living in a storage garage while he waits for help. ...

A recent Government Accountability Office report determined 1.5 million disability claims nationwide "were awaiting a determination" in 2006. One of the main reasons: reduced staffing.

More staff working on disability claims are needed - including staff at "the hearing level" where the GAO says the greatest backlog of claims exists.

The Social Security office in West Des Moines handles most claims for Iowa. Individual judges are trying to move cases through the system by hearing 70 or 80 cases a month, as opposed to their usual 50 to 60 cases. The risk is applicants not getting fair and complete hearings.
And from another editorial in the same issue of the Des Moines Register:
Current law requires most people to wait two years - after they're eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance - to enroll in Medicare, the federal health insurance program.

Congress should eliminate the 24-month waiting period for disabled people needing Medicare coverage. Lawmakers are in the midst of crafting health-care reform legislation, and helping disabled Americans get insurance coverage makes sense.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, studies show as many as one-third of people deemed disabled by Social Security are uninsured, and these individuals have limited access to health services.

Eliminating the waiting period will cost money - an estimated $113 billion from 2010 to 2019, according to the CBO. Disabled people are obviously sick and will use more health services. But if they have access to health care, they may be able to return to work - and get off Social Security.

E-Verify Required For Federal Contractors

Federal contractors and subcontractors are required beginning today to use Social Security's E-Verify system to confirm a match between their employees names and Social Security numbers.

Sep 7, 2009

Cardpunch Operators At Social Security

Happy Labor Day!

Sep 6, 2009

A Soundtrack For Social Security

From Social Security's History website:

Jim Czechowicz's Public Policy Parodies and Tributes

Jim Czechowicz is a Public Affairs Specialist (PAS) with SSA's Chicago area Regional Office. Jim lives in Minneapolis and is one of two PASs assigned to the state of Minnesota.

In his off time Jim is an accomplished composer and musician. Over the years Jim has composed two albums of parodies and tribute songs on topics related to the work of the Social Security Administration and its employees. Jim typically performs his songs for other SSA employees or as part of his public education efforts. His Social Security-related songs are for entertainment purposes only and Jim makes no commercial use of this material.

With Jim's permission, we are including three of his Social Security-related songs. (All material © Jim Czechowicz.)

Song 1: "Hope is the Anchor of Life" (mpg-4 format)

(This song is about the value of Social Security in American life. It takes its title from the motto of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, of which SSA was a part from 1953 to 1980.)

Song 2:"E-Dib Blues" (mpg-4 format)

(In an effort to speed the processing of disability cases, in January 2005 SSA launched an initiative to move to an all-electronic disability claims process, under the rubric of Electronic Disability (E-Dib). This is Jim's tribute to that innovation.)

Song 3:"Show Someone You Love" (mpg-4 format)

(In the Part D Medicare Prescription Drug program SSA has responsibility to assist claimants who might be eligible for a partial subsidy on their Part D premiums. This is known as the "extra help" procedure (see current policy/procedure here). This is a jingle Jim wrote in 2005 to promote this SSA service.

Sep 5, 2009

It's Different Over There

I look in from time to time at the Rightsnet board. This is a web board used by those who advocate for Social Security disability benefits in the United Kingdom. I see some similarities to the work I do, but every so often I see a thread that reminds me of the vast differences between the Social Security disability programs in the two countries. The thread on "use of bottle" is a good example of these differences.