Nov 30, 2009

One Down

From EM-09078 issued by Social Security last Friday:
Republic Bank and Trust (RBT) has notified SSA that it is discontinuing its Currency Connection Direct Deposit program. The program solicited SSA beneficiaries to have their payments deposited into an RBT master account, then distributed to various sub-accounts (check cashing services or other businesses). SSA has approximately 50,000 Title II and Title XVI beneficiaries that need to make alternative payment arrangements based on this change.
Now, if we could get rid of Allsup's ability to "Withdraw overpayment funds directly from claimant’s bank account using our patented electronic process."

Nov 29, 2009

New Office In NC

From the Raleigh News and Observer:
The Social Security Administration will employ about 200 people at a new site in Research Triangle Park [North Carolina] that will act as the agency's headquarters in the Durham area.

Highwoods Properties announced last week that the SSA had leased 68,000 square feet of office space in its Pamlico office building. ...

A spokesperson for the SSA said the agency has been hiring people for the headquarters since 2008 and will continue to fill positions locally and through relocations. The RTP office will provide IT and administrative services for the SSA.
This is in my backyard. This sounds awfully large for an area supervisor office, but maybe I don't know just how big those are. Can anyone enlighten me as to what this is for?

Nov 28, 2009

Department Of Justice?

From American Medical News:
After what it called a successful year testing the National Health Information Network with select hospital systems and regional health information exchanges, the Social Security Administration said its next step will be to exchange data with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the Dept. of Justice. ...

The exchange would be an extension to earlier testing the SSA did with MedVirginia, a regional health information organization serving Virginia, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Jim Borland, special adviser for health information technology for the SSA, said in June that since the exchange with MedVirginia started in February, the organization reduced the average time it takes to process disability applications from 83 to 32 days. In some cases, applications were received and processed the same day.

Nov 27, 2009

NADE Newsletter Out

The Fall 2009 issue of the newsletter of the National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE) is out. NADE is an organization of personnel who work at the state agencies which make disability determinations at the initial and reconsideration levels for Social Security. This issue of their newsletter includes articles on presentations made at recent NADE events by Commissioner Michael Astrue, former Commissioner Dorcas Hardy, and Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Communications Phil Gambino.

I was surprised to see almost nothing in this newsletter about furloughs affecting NADE members. I would have expected that to be a major issue for NADE.

Should Social Security Copy This?

From Federal Times:

It seems like everybody’s got a new idea for attracting new talent to the federal government these days. But Jim McDermott, chief human capital officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, thinks he’s found a foolproof way to convince young engineers to come to his agency: Find them dates.

“There are incentives, and then there are incentives,” McDermott told a crowd of human resources officials at the HCMF Conference in Arlington, Va., earlier today. ”When we’re hiring, we say, ‘Is there a significant other in the picture?’ If there’s no significant other, I tell them, ‘We can help.’ ” ...

Engineers may not necessarily become better dancers by taking a job at NRC, but McDermott said they can meet other single engineers (who probably won’t roll their eyes at Star Trek or lectures on reactor cooling systems). McDermott said NRC’s dating scheme — which he jokingly called “NRC Harmony,” after the eHarmony online dating service — has so far resulted in about eight or nine weddings.

Nov 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nov 25, 2009

No Early Dismissal For Social Security

An e-mail to Social Security employees:

November 25, 2009



Late yesterday, the Office of Personnel Management issued a memorandum authorizing agency heads, as a mark of gratitude for the service provided by their employees, to provide an early dismissal on November 25 to the extent that doing so does not interfere with agency operations.

While we are, of course, truly grateful for the service you provide each day, it is critical that we continue to make that service available to the American public. Due to the nature of our operations, we cannot implement an early closing in a fair and equitable manner without disrupting critical and necessary agency operations. For these reasons, the Social Security Administration will not offer an early dismissal today.

Again, thank you for your continued commitment to our mission and the welfare of all of those who depend on us.

Reginald F. Wells

Deputy Commissioner

for Human Resources


Poll On Individual Experience With The Federal Government

Gallup has a poll out on "the individual experience with federal agencies." The Social Security Administration was chosen as the federal agency that has the biggest impact on American lives personally and by a wide margin. Social Security was in the second quartile of agencies in terms of how satisfied people were with their interactions with the agency, ranking behind agencies such as Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, the State Department and VA Hospitals.

Results Of Last Week's Unscientific Poll

Should Social Security automatically find a person disabled if that person has been found 100% disabled by VA (assuming that person meets non-disability requirements for Social Security disability benefits)?

Yes (73) 42%
No (99) 58%

Total Votes: 172

Nov 24, 2009

A Technical Question

Would it be possible for a hearing office at Social Security to enter a decision in Social Security's computer system as having been made when no decision has actually been issued? Could that computer entry cause payment of benefits? Is it conceivable that a hearing office could delay issuing a written decision -- either an allowance or a denial -- for months after entry of a notation in Social Security's computer system that a decision had been made? Who would be responsible if such a thing happened? Who would know about it?

Addendum: How can I receive a fee check (not direct deposit) on November 23 on an Administrative Law Judge decision that bears the date on its face of November 17 unless that decision was implemented without an electronic signature?

Reaction To Delaware Story

The News Journal of Delaware has a story up on the reaction of local politicians to the newpapers' series of stories on the Social Security disability program. Needless to say, they are not pleased.

Dangerous Spam Campaign

From the University of Alabama at Birmingham:
A new spam campaign using false e-mails made to look like messages from the Social Security Administration is capable of stealing Social Security numbers and downloading malware onto victims’ home computers, says Gary Warner, director of computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

The campaign was discovered Nov. 23 by Warner and his team in the UAB Spam Data Mine. ...

The spam messages tell users that there are errors with their Social Security statement then asks them to link to false pages made to look like the Social Security Administration Web site. Warner says the false pages ask users to enter their Social Security numbers before prompting them to download their fake statement.

“The reality is that the download is actually a virus capable of stealing personal information, including bank passwords, from home computers,” Warner says. “So once you have completed the login and download, the cyber criminals not only have your Social Security number, they also have infected your computer with serious malware that enables them to steal information and raid your bank and other accounts.”

A Good Comment

Below is a comment made about the allegation that disability claims dismissed for failure to cooperate had gone up to 30% at one California Disability Determination Service (DDS) office. In one sense, the writer is a little confused. No one is alleging that the number of dismissals went up because of any change at Social Security field offices. The allegation is that changes were made at a DDS office, but that is a quibble. In a larger sense this comment helps explain how what is alleged could happen. Many Social Security claimants need a lot of help. Many of them are frustrating to deal with. It is not easy to say where one should draw the line and say "I've done as much as I should reasonably be expected to do. Either start cooperating or your case is going to get dismissed." When employees are overworked, whether at DDS or a Social Security field office, the line is likely to be drawn at a different place than would be the case if the workloads were more reasonable. As a nation, I think we ought to be encouraging Social Security and DDS employees to go the extra mile and give a lot of help to claimants with cognitive or psychiatric difficulties, but we cannot expect them to do so if they are badly overworked.
Social Security claims reps and service reps are not social workers. Not trained as social workers, not in their job description. And many of the SSI clientele need someone to hold their hands and help them through the process, but some people are just not willing to help themselves. Just this week, I had two cases where the parent had made two appointments to file claims for either two children or themselves and a child. Our appointment calendar is so solidly booked that these appointments were pushed about a month after request. So, our office set aside 3 hours to do what was necessary to file two claims. Both parents cancelled the appointments the same day because they weren't ready after about a month lead time. How much hand holding is SSA supposed to do? The parent is the best source of knowledge, but was unwilling to put forth any effort to file the claim. The parent did not make it a priority and that is just not the fault of SSA. It is very difficult to help people who don't want to do anything to help themselves. I shouldn't care more about the outcome of a claim more than the claimant does. I would really prefer to spend my limited work hours processing claims for people who do manage to complete forms in a reasonable amount of time and who do make a reasonable effort to provide answers to the questions asked.

However, I do believe strongly in due process and applying the regulations without shortcuts and providing assistance as it is needed. To hell with processing time in some claims. But I cannot complete the ADL's on anyone without their assistance. I don't know their lives. They do.

If Astrue truly cared about correcting bad "failure to cooperate" denials, he needs to implement more accountability across the board for technical errors and provide more staff to do the work. Without staff, the backlog will grow. I still think he is using this issue as a bully pulpit to get Schwarzeneggar to back down on his ridiculous furlough of DDS employees. So, I hope he takes a close look at all shortcuts taken by SSA employees. And find a way to properly staff the agency. Automation is not the only answer.

Nov 23, 2009

Mental Health Professionals And SSI Benefits For Kids

From a press release:
HealthForumOnline (HFO) announces a new online continuing education (CE/CEU) course, Children's Mental Health Social Security Disability (SSD) Report Writing: A Guide to Enhanced Effectiveness ... This online CE course presents relevant components of commonly alleged Disability impairments for children (Organic Disorders, Mood Disorders, Mental Retardation, Anxiety Disorders, Autistic/PDD, and ADHD) and provides an understanding of how child mental health SSD determinations are made, the instrumental legal decision which established children's right to SSD payments, the associated language and acronyms, the regulations governing mental health disability and how to write effective reports that meet these regulatory standards. ...

HealthForumOnline (HFO), a nationally-approved (APA, ASWB, NBCC, PSNA, CA-BBS) provider of online continuing education (CE) for psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other allied healthcare professionals ...
The online course is the product of Patricia Farrell, Ph.D.

The Human Cost Of Backlogs

The News Journal of Delaware is continuing its series of articles on the hearing backlogs at Social Security. Today's articles are:
I wish I could say I was shocked by what I read in this newspaper, but I have many, many clients of my own whose stories are at least as bad as those presented in these articles.

Here is my post on the earlier articles.

Addendum: There is also an editorial.

Something's Missing

Social Security has sent over to the Office of Federal Register a list of new regulations that it has proposed in the past which it is now officially abandoning. This list will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow:
  • Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind, and Disabled; Suspensions, Terminations, and Advance Notice of Unfavorable Determination (51 FR 17057, May 8, 1986) (SSA-31P).
  • Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income; Nonpayment Policy for Consultative Examination Appointments That Are Not Kept (53 FR 39487, October 7, 1988) (SSA-181P).
  • Reduction for Receipt of Government Pension (54 FR 51036, December 12, 1989) (SSA-188P).
  • Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (55 FR 33922, August 20, 1990) (SSA-180P).
  • Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind, and Disabled; Determinations of Disability--Determining State Agency Substantial Failure to Comply with Federal Rules (56 FR 11025, March 14, 1991) (SSA-206P).
  • Administrative Review Process; Prehearing and Posthearing Conferences (65 FR 38796, June 22, 2000) (SSA-778P).
  • New Disability Claims Process (66 FR 5494, January 19, 2001) (SSA-816P).
I do not see on here the proposal to increase the age categories in the grid regulations by two years. Why is that proposal not listed? In theory that regulations could be adopted without any additional public input and with only 30 days notice. It would require approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, which means it is not likely to happen while Barack Obama is President. Does the Commissioner actually think there is some possibility of going ahead with that at some later time?

Update: What would I do without readers to help me? The proposed age regulations were withdrawn earlier.

Nov 22, 2009

Dismissing Up To 30% Of Claims On Failure To Cooperate

From reading some of the comments I have received about the allegations that the California and Hawaii Disability Determination Services (DDS) have been looking for ways to get rid of disability claims they are supposed to review, I wonder if some of my readers understand the gravity of what is alleged. The allegation is that up to 30% of disability claims have been dismissed because of the claimants' alleged failure to cooperate.

This is only an allegation. The allegation is only that "one office" in California had the 30% dismissal figure. Still, in my mind, this is a very serious allegation.

Disparities Among ALJs

The full story from The News Journal of Delaware has been posted. Much of it concerns the Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) in the Dover hearing office, Judith Showalter, who denies 56% of the cases she hears. The newspaper also looked at the numbers for other Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), noting that "Baltimore judge Louis J. Pucci denied fewer than 1 percent of his cases during those four years [the newspaper examined], while Houston judge Richard J. Abrams denied 93 percent of his cases."

Addendum: The News Journal published nine separate stories. In addition to the one linked above these were:

Nov 21, 2009

A Delaware Teaser

From The News Journal of Delaware:
If a serious ailment keeps you from working, your claim for Social Security disability benefits should be handled the same way everywhere, whether it’s decided by an administrative law judge in Dover, Denver or Des Moines. But those who live in Delaware will face tougher judges.

Through a Freedom of Information request, The News Journal examined four years of Social Security disability claim data and found some startling inequities.Read the full story in the Sunday News Journal and at You can browse our database of denial rates now.
The database compares hearing offices, not individual Administrative Law Judges. The Dover, Delaware hearing office has one of the lowest allowance rates in the country.

Update: A reader correctly points out that if one clicks on the location of a hearing office in the database, a list of ALJs assigned to that office comes up, showing the rate at which each denies claims.

Some Thoughts On That Press Release

Some thoughts on Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue's press release about the allegations that state Disability Determination Service (DDS) agencies in California and Hawaii were sending Social Security disability claimants a long tedious form to complete and then denying them if they did not return the form promptly, leading to many illiterate, mentally ill claimants being denied on technical grounds:
  • For those reading this blog who may not have dealt directly with Social Security disability claimants, let me make it clear that I think that everyone who has dealt directly with this population would agree that what is alleged is wrong, wrong, wrong. Social Security disability claimants are terribly vulnerable, especially when they are unrepresented, which would be the case here. Deliberately setting traps for confused, poorly educated, mentally ill people would be despicable.
  • I have trouble believing that one state DDS would do this without notifying Social Security's regional office in advance. Social Security cannot control personnel matters at a DDS, which means that Social Security cannot prevent a hiring freeze or furlough at a DDS, but Social Security controls just about everything else at a DDS. Just as an example, could be the e-mail address of a DDS employee. I would be astonished if two DDS's in one region did this without the advance approval of the regional office. The heads of these state DDS's may be quickly pointing the finger of blame back at Social Security.
  • Astrue's press release came out just after 5:00 Eastern time on a Friday afternoon. Social Security does not operate on a 24 hour news cycle like the White House. I think that someone really wanted to get this out before the weekend. My guess is that the reason is that Social Security is getting questions about this from the news media. There may be major news stories on this subject about this coming out this weekend.
  • Everyone at Social Security has been under enormous pressure to do something about the backlogs. I have seen many signs that the pressure is out of hand. If what is alleged here happened, in my mind it is a sign that the pressure on Social Security and DDS employees is too much. It is time for Social Security to dial this pressure back before there are multiple scandals.

The Commissioner Wants An Investigation

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today asked the agency’s Inspector General to investigate allegations that the states of California and Hawaii have recently implemented practices that deny applicants the right to receive full consideration of their Social Security disability claims.

In a memo to Patrick P. O’Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration, Commissioner Astrue writes, “As you know, Gov. Schwarzenegger has insisted on furloughing California Disability Determination Service (DDS) employees, despite the fact that we fully fund both their salaries and overhead. According to Congressman Robert Filner, the State is attempting to find ways to improperly circumvent the effects of the furlough at the expense of some of the State residents who are in the greatest need.”

At a hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security yesterday, Congressman Filner (D-CA) testified that the California DDS is denying the claims of disability applicants who fail to return a 25-page report within 20 days – a practice which has been adopted since the institution of furloughs. He reported that one office had closed 30 percent of its cases due to the applicants’ failure to return the completed form within 20 days. In addition, he testified the California DDS may be manipulating its service numbers by assigning claims to fictional examiners or supervisors. According to the Congressman, this scheme would allow the DDS to hide the fact these cases are not actually being reviewed.

“I am concerned about the State of Hawaii DDS, which is furloughing its DDS employees for as many days as California, and which has made statements about new business efficiencies that closely track statements made by California officials,” Commissioner Astrue writes to the Inspector General. “Accordingly, I ask that you also review that agency to ensure they are also fully adhering to all SSA rules and policies.”

The text of Commissioner’s Astrue’s memo is below:

At yesterday’s hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, I testified about some disturbing practices the State of California has instituted that aggravate, rather than help, in response to its budgetary situation. As you know, Gov. Schwarzenegger has insisted on furloughing California Disability Determination Service (DDS) employees, despite the fact that we fully fund both their salaries and overhead. According to Congressman Robert Filner, the State is attempting to find ways to improperly circumvent the effects of the furlough at the expense of some of the State residents who are in the greatest need.

Congressman Filner indicated that since the furloughs began, the California DDS has begun denying the claims of those disability applicants who fail to return a 25-page report within 20 days. This practice, if true, places applicants in an untenable position because the substantial amount of information required must often be gathered from third parties. If an applicant fails to return complete information within the time set by the State, the DDS deems the applicant to have failed to cooperate and closes the file, thereby depriving that applicant of fair and full consideration.

I am also greatly concerned by Congressman Filner’s report that the California DDS may be manipulating its service numbers by “staging” claims, assigning them to fictional examiners or supervisors, rather than to actual examiners. According to Congressman Filner, this practice would allow the DDS to claim that the cases have been assigned, rather than indicate that they are still in queue, thus minimizing the effects of the furlough.

If true, these practices are, of course, very disturbing. Therefore, I am asking you to undertake a full review of the practices of the California DDS to determine the scope and breadth of any inappropriate practices.

I am also concerned about the State of Hawaii, which is furloughing its DDS employees for as many days as California, and which has made statements about new business efficiencies that closely track statements made by California officials. Accordingly, I ask that you also review that agency to ensure they are fully adhering to all SSA rules and policies.

Thank you for your assistance.

Nov 20, 2009

Not So Many Vets At Social Security

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has issued a report on the employment of veterans by the U.S. government. Vets comprise 25.5% of the federal civilian workforce but only 9.6% of Social Security's workforce.

Nov 19, 2009

House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee held a hearing today on the backlogs in adjudicating disability claims. Here are a few excerpts from the written remarks:
Bob Filner, Congressman from California:
While some states have exempted Disability Determination Service (DDS) employees from the furloughs at the urging of the Social Security Administration, the State of California has not exempted DDS employees. This is despite the fact that DDS employee salaries are fully funded by the Federal Government. ...

The unnecessary furloughs for California DDS employees are pushing back the decisions on individuals’ benefits by months and harming thousands of disabled residents who are needlessly waiting for their claims to be processed. ...

Current federal law allows the Social Security Administrator to federalize DDS employees if a state “substantially fails” to live up to its responsibilities to process claims. I will soon introduce The Don’t Delay Services Act, which is intended to prevent state furloughs of DDS employees.

My bill would deem furloughs of DDS employees a “substantial failure”, triggering the provision of existing federal law that allows SSA to federalize DDS. As drafted, the Don’t Delay Services Act would not change any provisions of federal law concerning the rights and protections of these workers.

Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security:

During this difficult economic crisis, Americans are turning to us for help more than ever before. In FY 2010, we expect to receive 1.2 million more claims than we received in FY 2008. I weighed the risks of an uncertain budget against the need to sustain our progress and decided to authorize our components to continue hiring and working maximum overtime during the continuing resolution (CR). Therefore, we are using the multi-year Recovery Act funding to help sustain our momentum this fiscal year during the CR. ...

By the middle of next year, seven new [hearing] offices will open in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana, our five most congested states. With plans for 25 new hearing offices, 7 new satellite offices, and scores of office modifications and expansions, we are adding the space we need to address the cases that continue flooding in. ...

We are testing a new, more sophisticated screening tool to identify cases for senior attorneys to review. We used predictive modeling to help us determine the proper balance between the number of attorneys screening cases and the number who are writing decisions for ALJs. Based on our analysis, we are identifying 100 senior attorneys to work in a virtual screening cadre to review the disability hearing backlog for potential allowances. ...

As we increase our capacity to hear and decide cases, we must consider the resulting workload for the Appeals Council (Council). The Council’s receipts are outpacing dispositions, with an almost 16 percent increase in receipts in FY 2009 over FY 2008. We expect that receipts will continue to increase by another 12 percent in FY 2010. ...

We expect nearly 700,000 more initial disability claims in FY 2010 than we received in FY 2008. We simply do not have the capacity to process all of the incoming applications with the same timeliness of the past year. ...

Recently, however, we have paid the price for the growth in workloads and tight budgets. Resource limitations have reduced the number of CDRs and SSI redeterminations we can handle. ...

With the President’s FY 2010 budget, we plan to hire a total of about 7,500 employees, which will allow us to maintain our staffing levels in our front-line operational components and add 1,400 employees in the DDSs and 1,300 employees in our hearing offices.

Barbara Kennelly, Acting Chair of the Social Security Advisory Board:

It is only a matter of time that the surge in initial claims is felt in ODAR. If the traditional waterfall of appeals occurs, about 45 percent of those denied at the initial level will request reconsideration, and then approximately three-quarters of the individuals who are denied at the reconsideration level will appeal to the ALJ. It takes about 250 days, on average, for an initial claim that has been appealed to reach ODAR and then several more months before the case is on an ALJ’s desk. This means that the increased caseloads in the DDSs will begin to materialize in ODAR in the second half of 2010 or in early 2011.

Beth Bates, attorney from Jackson, TN, on behalf of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities:

I am honored to testify today but am saddened that the reason is because my clients have waited so long and endured many hardships before receiving the disability benefits to which they are entitled.

Patrick O'Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration:

The Commissioner has made significant efforts to limit the impact of furloughs, and was able to make some progress. He contacted all of the State Governors and many State legislators. Vice President Biden wrote to the National Governors’ Association, and there was even litigation in California that sought to preclude furloughs.

As a result of these and other efforts, two States exempted their DDSs from State employee furloughs, and three States partially exempted DDS employees, saving another 11,000 cases and $24.4 million from being delayed. Several more States fully or partially exempted DDSs from hiring restrictions. Additionally, SSA hired 192 new staff for Federal units that process initial claims, and transferred cases facing delays from States to those Federal units to ensure timelier processing.

Ann Roberts, Vice President National Council of Disability Determination Directors:

Transferring work from state to state or to other components is both politically sensitive and frequently a technologically challenging venture that needs to be considered cautiously.

Larry Auerbach, Administrative Law Judge, on behalf of the Federal Bar Association:

Our testimony today advances five recommendations:

1. State Disability Determination Services should be provided significantly enhanced resources.

2. SSA should continue to hire Administrative Law Judges and support staff, and add needed hearing offices.

3. SSA should continue to develop and implement improved technological and other initiatives.

4. New efforts are needed to accomplish the Commissioner’s goal of making the right decision at the earliest possible stage.

Press Release On Compassionate Allowance Hearing

A Social Security press release:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today hosted the agency’s fifth public hearing on Compassionate Allowances. Commissioner Astrue was joined by Philip Wang, M.D., Dr. P.H., National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, and Social Security executives. They heard testimony from some of the nation's leading experts on schizophrenia about possible methods of identifying and implementing Compassionate Allowances for young adults with schizophrenia.

"Schizophrenia is a devastating disease that affects more than two million Americans, primarily individuals in their teens and twenties," said Commissioner Astrue. "The onset of schizophrenia has life-changing consequences, which can include unemployment and homelessness." This hearing will help us to potentially identify the most severe cases and consider bringing them under our Compassionate Allowances umbrella."

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

"Our Compassionate Allowances and Quick Disability Determination processes are making a real difference by ensuring that Americans with devastating disabilities quickly receive the benefits they need," Commissioner Astrue said. "This fiscal year, we expect to fast-track about 150,000 cases and we plan to add more diseases and impairments to these expedited processes in the coming months."

Nov 18, 2009


Witness List For Tomorrow's Hearing

Below is the tentative witness list for tomorrow's hearing at the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee:

The Honorable Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration

The Honorable Barbara B. Kennelly, Acting Chair, Social Security Advisory Board
Beth Bates, Claimants’ Representative, on behalf of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, Jackson, Tennessee
The Honorable Patrick O’Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration
Ann P. Robert, Vice President, National Council of Disability Determination Directors, Springfield, Illinois
The Honorable Larry A. Auerbach, Administrative Law Judge, on behalf of the Federal Bar Association, Atlanta, Georgia

Profile Of Social Security Employee

The Las Cruces [NM] Sun-News has a profile of Ray Vigil, a 37 year veteran Social Security employee. There are many other long term Social Security employees who deserve recognition for their service to the public.

Nov 17, 2009

Caseload Analysis Report

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) newsletter. Click on it to see it full size.

DDS Performance

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) newsletter. Click on it to see it full size.

GOP Concerns On Computer Center

From NextGov:
Key Republican aides met with the Social Security Administration's internal investigator on Thursday to discuss lingering concerns that the agency's aging data center will not be able to manage an increasing workload as millions more baby boomers retire.

Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Finance Committee, and Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee's ranking member, sent a letter in February requesting that the SSA inspector general assess the agency's overall future information technology plans. In June, the inspector general found that the agency must accelerate construction of a new data center and develop contingency plans in the event its backup datacenter cannot support the agency's increasing workload if the new data center is not completed by 2015, the year SSA estimates the center will be operational. ...

On Thursday, Grassley's staff met with the inspector general about the latest report, discussed the new data center and asked the agency to keep the senator apprised of the situation, a spokeswoman said. Baucus had no response to the report.
Am I being too cynical when I wonder if Republicans are mostly concerned that money be spent not on personnel, who would mostly be union members and Democrats, but on buildings and equipment constructed or supplied by contractors who would mostly be Republicans? I have no doubt that the national computing center needs to be replaced but why is this such an incredibly urgent priority for Republicans since we now have a backup computing center in Durham, NC? And by the way, the Inspector General who recommended accelerating construction of the national computing center is a Republican appointee.

Republicans had majorities in Congress for twelve years. During this time they crippled the Social Security Administration with grossly inadequate appropriations. Neither Republicans in Congress nor the Republican appointed inspector general at Social Security said a word about the need for a new national computing center until Barack Obama became President. Current Republican concerns about Social Security's ability to operate in the future ring hollow to me.

Nov 16, 2009

Michael Astrue, Esquire

From Esquire magazine (number 16), quoting Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security:
Our system can now scan each of the millions of disability applications we receive for key words to find cases that should be granted without question because of a medical situation. This saves money. Also, a word about insolvency: What that means is that in 2037, the current estimate for "insolvency," we could pay only about 75 percent of benefits. So it's not like there's a cliff. And my bet is that in fact it'll be pretty close to 100 percent.

News From NCSSMA

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has a new President, Joe Dirago of Newburgh, NY. The Executive Committee of NCSSMA met on September 16 with Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Linda McMahon, the Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Roger McDonnell and Associate Commissioner for OPSOS, Mark Blatchford. Here are some excerpts from NCSSMA's notes on that meeting:
  • The 2010 budget is expected to be close to the Commissioner’s budget request but will not be enough to allow the agency to fill every position or complete all workloads. Resources will be directed at the high-profile workloads and where Commissioner Astrue sees the greatest need. For example, the Commissioner is looking at the decrease in public satisfaction with the 800 number. In addition, he is still concerned with the growing disability workload. ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] has added significant resources and has decreased the hearings backlogs. We will finish the year with a total of just under 800,000 initial claims pending.
  • Expectations are that the 2010 budget will be passed in November or December. In the meantime, Operations will continue to work as much overtime as possible. ...
  • The agency brought on 3,700 new hires in FY09. [Fiscal Year 2009, which ended September 30, 2009] PSCs [Program Service Centers] saw a 5 for 6 replacement ratio, while the ratio for the field was 1.7 to 1. Budget forecasts for 2011 won’t be known until December. ...
  • Mark Blatchford stated that he has made the Regions aware that there is Congressional interest in Work CDRs [Continuing Disability Reviews] and this is another workload that we need to work. There is no goal or mandate, but the Agency will be expected to report on our progress in this area at the end of year. ...
  • Roger stated that the number of disability initial claims pending in DDSs has increased to around 780,000 this year. Receipts are up 14% to almost 3 million and are expected to reach 3.3 million in FY10. To address the growing volume, the increased hiring for the DDSs [Disability Determination Services] in 2009 will continue into FY10 and federal capacity for processing disability claims (in ODO [Office of Disability Operations] and ROs [Regional Offices] ) will also be enhanced. The agency is also considering policy changes and developing automation tools to streamline the medical decision process. When asked if consideration had been given to moving all DDSs from the three legacy systems currently in use to one system, Linda replied that we are moving in that direction. She also confirmed that the agency will be reinstituting the Reconsideration step in the ten Prototype states, but because of the expensive, it will be done gradually, probably beginning in Michigan. ...
  • Commissioner Astrue is very concerned with the busy rate and time in queue experienced by callers and is committed to improving our 800# service. In addition to opening a new TSC i[Telecommunication Service Centers] n Jackson, Tennessee, he will likely provide 350 – 400 new hires to TSCs in FY10. Additional staffing in the TSCs has reduced the projected SPIKE hours [SPIKE hours refer to times when the PSCs cannot handle the calls they are receiving and other Social Security employees who do not normally deal with this workload have to be pressed into service] in PSCs to 291,000 in 2010, down from 325,000 in FY09.

List Of Non-Attorneys Qualifying For Withholding Of Fees For Representing Social Security Claimants

Via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Noel Anschultz has obtained a list of the 557 non-attorneys who have qualified for withholding of fees for representing Social Security claimants. This has been posted online by the CONNECT board.

Nov 15, 2009

NCSSMA Newsletter -- TSCs Grow And Change

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has issued its October 2009 newsletter, Frontline. Here are some excerpts from an article about Social Security Telecommunication Service Centers (TSCs):
In FY [Fiscal Year] 2010 the Agency will begin roll out of a new 800 number phone system called Citizen Access Routing Enterprise or CARE 2020. CARE 2020 will be an internet protocol based program designed for Web Call Back, Click to Talk, Web Chat and Web Collaboration. This will enable us to communicate with people using our internet services. ...

We will probably continue to see changes in the number and size of our TSCs in FY 2010. ... The Pittsburgh TSC has been restructured as a center with eight TSRs [Teleservice Representatives]. By the end of the year they will co-locate with a field office. Many TSCs around the country have greatly expanded. Some offices have grown by four times their size of a year or two ago! There is movement among the regions to create larger TSCs with about 200 TSRs while reducing the actual number of sites.

Nov 14, 2009

Big Contract Possible

From a "Sources Sought" notice posted by Social Security:

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting Market Research to determine if there are any sources that can provide alternative means by which printed notices can be provided to the public. SSA currently generates the vast majority of its printed notices in IBM's Advanced Function Presentation (AFP) in mixed mode and AFPDS in 12 point font, and a small portion in Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF formats.

SSA is seeking sources capable of converting its notices to Braille and/or Microsoft Word on a Data CD and mailing those notices to recipients within 5 business days (excluding government holidays) of receipt of the notice (files) from SSA. SSA anticipates the notices (files) will be provided daily, Monday through Friday, year round.

Nov 13, 2009

Press Release On Benefit Estimator

A Social Security press release:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the online Retirement Estimator, available at, now can provide immediate and personalized benefit estimates to people who have enrolled in Medicare but have not yet filed for Social Security benefits. Previously, these “Medicare only” beneficiaries would need to contact a local office in order to obtain an estimate of their benefits. Currently, about a half-million people file for Medicare each year and delay filing for Social Security benefits.

Social Security’s Retirement Estimator has been a huge success - with the agency providing over four million personalized retirement estimates to Americans since its launch last year,” Commissioner Astrue said. “With more people delaying retirement beyond the Medicare eligibility age, it is critical that they also have access to this easy-to-use online tool.”

The Retirement Estimator is interactive and allows users to compare different retirement options. For example, a person can change retirement dates or expected future earnings to better determine the impact on their future benefits and decide the best time to retire. The Retirement Estimator presently is the highest-rated government online service in customer satisfaction and, according to the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, it exceeds the ratings of private sector online innovators like Netflix and Amazon.

"Extended Service Teams" And OIG Starts Telling It Like It Is

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released a report with the title, Social Security Administration’s Major Management and Performance Challenges. There is not much in it that was news to me except a report that there are now "Extended Service Teams" in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Virginia that exist to help other state Disability Determination Services (DDS) make disability determinations at the intiial and reconsideration levels. I had heard of the team in Arkansas, but not the other states.

I also found this sentence from the report interesting: "SSA has less than 75 percent of the employees it had 25 years ago, despite core workloads increasing by 50 percent and new workloads being added." I do not remember OIG saying anything like this before the election of Barack Obama. When you put it like that, it is obvious why there are serious backlogs all over the place at Social Security. I wonder how aware Michael Astrue was of this reality when he was nominated to be Commissioner of Social Security.

Nov 12, 2009

Social Security Subcommittee Schedules Hearing

From a press release:
Congressman John S. Tanner (D-TN), Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security of the Committee on Ways and Means, today announced a hearing on Clearing the Disability Claims Backlogs: The Social Security Administration’s Progress and New Challenges Arising From the Recession. The hearing will take place on Thursday, November 19, 2009 in Room B-318, Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 1:30 p.m.

Social Security Subcommittee Calls For GAO Investigation Of Overpayments

From a press release issued by John Tanner, the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee:
U. S. Rep. John Tanner, Chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate reports that the Social Security Administration (SSA) often makes payments to disability insurance beneficiaries long after these payments should have stopped. Congressman Sam Johnson, ranking Republican for the Subcommittee, joined Congressman Tanner in his request. ...

When Social Security disability beneficiaries return to work and earn beyond a certain threshold, SSA is supposed to stop their benefits. But reports from a range of sources – including advocates for disability beneficiaries and the SSA Inspector General – say that SSA often does not stop benefit payments in time. According to recent testimony before the Subcommittee on Social Security, even beneficiaries who properly inform SSA that they are working can receive large overpayments; in one case cited, a beneficiary who had reported his earnings promptly was still overpaid by almost $64,000. ...

In addition, advocates state that beneficiaries are often unaware that they are being paid in error until they receive a large bill from SSA for benefits they are then expected to repay.
Here is a link to the letter to GAO.

I have represented quite a number of clients who notified Social Security that they had gone back to work but who kept receiving checks from Social Security. I would be representing many more of these folks if the lack of back benefits did not force me to to demand my fee upfront to go into escrow. I wish more attorneys were willing to handle overpayment cases. Most are unwilling to fool with having to petition for approval of a fee. (By the way, Social Security could simplify this for everyone by setting a flat maximum fee for all overpayment cases. There is clear statutory authority for doing so.)

Nov 11, 2009

Veterans Day

ALJ Register Already Closed

The opportunity to apply to become an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has already closed. The announcement said that they would only take applications until midnight of the day upon which they received the 900th application. The announcement that the register was open came Monday at about 4:00 p.m. EST. They closed the register at 11:59 p.m. EST on Tuesday.

Good luck to all who applied. To those who thought they would do their applications on Veteran's Day, all I can say is that I am sorry but you were warned here that the register might not stay open that long.

Senator Wants Social Security To Accept VA Disability Ratings

From the Akron Beacon Journal:

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown hopes to improve access to benefits for more than 110,000 veterans in the region and 935,000 statewide.

Brown has introduced the Benefit Rating Acceleration for Veterans Entitlements (BRAVE) Act that would create a fast-track system for veterans with disabilities to quality for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration. ...

Brown's BRAVE Act would eliminate the lengthy eligibility process disabled veterans must undergo to receive full benefits from the VA and Social Security offices.

The BRAVE Act, Brown said, would require Social Security to accept eligibility requirements for any veteran who meets VA guidelines.

Veterans who receive compensation from the VA also would be fast-tracked in disability benefits processing.

Social Security Urged To Move To Open Platform Computing

From Federal Computer Week:
The Social Security Administration should replace its outdated mainframe computer with proprietary architecture and move to a more open platform, according to recommendations released in a white paper by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA). ...

CCIA commissioned the paper because the SSA’s Future Systems Technology Advisory Board is considering how to modernize the agency’s IT infrastructure. ...

The white paper alleges that the SSA’s systems are vulnerable because they are too reliant on outdated technology and a single supplier. A better structure for long-term accessibility would be systems available from multiple and competing sources, the paper said.

Another recommendation in the paper is for the SSA to use its buying power to insist that its current supplier for hardware, IBM Corp., work closer with hardware and software makers in the systems development life cycle.

An IBM spokesman said the CCIA’s membership includes many of IBM’s competitors, including Microsoft. “So it is hardly surprising when the CCIA makes an anti-IBM argument,” said Steve Eisenstadt, a spokesman for IBM.

There is a similar story on NextGov.

Nov 10, 2009

Regulatory Notices On Three Listings

Social Security posted Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register today on the listings for Genitourinary Disorders, Multiple Body Systems, and Skin Disorders. There is nothing of substance in these notices; just requests for comments and suggestions from members of the public.

Social Security Owes $160 Million To Massachusetts?

From the Boston Herald:

Massachusetts is owed $160 million from the federal government for a little-known Social Security policy that’s been erroneously overlooked for 35 years, according to Gov. Deval Patrick’s top health and human services adviser.

At issue is the way the Social Security Administration handles disability claims. Health and Human Services Secretary Bigby said the federal agency often declines applications for disability payouts on an applicant’s first attempt. However, if an applicant appeals the rejection, the state then covers health care costs for that person until the matter is resolved. If the applicant is ultimately approved, the SSA is supposed to reimburse the state for that interim coverage.

“We’re one of the first states that brought it to their attention,” Bigby said in a phone interview. “We are pushing for a mechanism to get that money back to the state.”

Noting the SSA has acknowledged the error, Bigby said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, attempted to get a provision into the Senate’s national health reform bill that would reimburse Massachusetts and 30 other states.

“That measure was not accepted,” she said. “We just need the SSA to develop a methodology to pay us.”

Nov 9, 2009

ALJ Register Open

The register for the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) position is open. It will only stay open until midnight on the day upon which the 900th application is filed. Probably, the register will either close tomorrow night or Thursday night. Wednesday is a federal holiday. Apply as quickly as possible if you are interested in an ALJ position.

Two New Duties For Social Security In Health Care Bill

I have taken a look through the health care reform bill passed by the House of Representatives for the words "social security" to see what new responsibilities it assigns to the Social Security Administration. I only found two new responsibilities for the Social Security Administration. Social Security is to verify that Social Security numbers and names match -- in effect verifying citizenship -- for purposes of eligibility for the various forms of assistance available under the bill. This is a responsibility that Social Security does not want and should not have, but it appears that the agency is stuck with it and not just for health care. At least, Social Security is appropriated $30 million for this under the bill for doing this. Also, under the bill, Social Security is required to do outreach to identify individuals eligible for the low income prescription drug subsidy.

Nov 8, 2009

Union Calls For Astrue Ouster

From a press release issued by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees:
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the nation's largest federal employee union, today called on the Obama Administration to remove Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. The union says recent events involving H1N1 employee policy and a third party class action lawsuit indicate that Astrue has lost touch with employee rights and the impact his policies have on effective public service. The Social Security Administration’s chief negotiator for mid-term bargaining on abating H1N1 told AFGE members that H1N1 is not a serious communicable disease, contradicting the Centers for Disease Control and SSA’s own chief medical officer. In a direct challenge to SSA protocols, SSA managers – and its negotiator – have threatened disciplinary action if SSA employees refuse to take an interview with a member of the public that exhibits swine flu symptoms but wants a face-to-face interview. ...

AFGE also recently applauded the order of a federal judge in the Northern District of California to allow blind individuals an accommodation in the form of communications from the Social Security Administration, something which the SSA leadership has repeatedly fought against and claimed that it would be too burdensome to accommodate.
For more on this dispute, see the Washington Post article. By the way, although the President could make life difficult for Astrue, the President cannot fire him.

Updated Fee Payment Stats

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

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Nov 7, 2009

Social Security Advertises Chief Of Staff Position

The Social Security Administration is advertising an opening in the position of Chief of Staff. Here is the description of the job from the notice:
The Chief of Staff to the Commissioner of Social Security acts as personal advisor to the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Social Security covering the full range of the agency's mission. S/He is a key leader in setting and articulating the Commissioner's vision and strategic direction for the agency. Internally, the Chief of Staff oversees the tactical execution of the Commissioner's strategic vision among the agency's executive leadership. S/He represents the Commissioner in discussions with the White House, Members of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Personnel Management, other Federal agencies, executives of State and local governments, and others who are interested in the policies and programs of the Social Security Administration.

Nov 6, 2009

Off Topic -- The Strangest Sports Video You've Ever Seen

I Thought This Was The U.S. Treasury's Job

Does anyone know what this presolicitation notice from Social Security means?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) located in Baltimore, MD has a requirement for an establishment where money is stored for saving or commercial purposes or is invested, supplied for loans or exchanged and is a FDIC member institution to provide banking services to implement and maintain a Third Party Payment System (TPPS) that will allow SSA to issue selected payments using payment instruments. Payment instruments mean drafts, checks or other similar negotiable instruments that will be printed and provided by the Government Printing Office. The contractor shall service up to 6,000 SSA cashiers in approximately 1,500 SSA offices worldwide. SSA expects to issue in fiscal year 2010 approximately 300,000 payments equaling an estimated $110,000,000. The SSA TPPS shall require 1 master account and 15 subsidiary accounts.

Nov 5, 2009

Thirty Options For Financing Social Security

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) has released Fixing Social Security: Adequate Benefits, Adequate Financing, a report that outlines thirty options for putting the program's finances on a sound footing for the next 75 years.

Nov 4, 2009

9th Circuit Says Supreme Court Meant What It Said In Gisbrecht

From the opinion of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Crawford v. Astrue, released today:
We review three consolidated appeals that present one overarching issue: Did the district court follow the mandate of Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789 (2002), in determining the amount of attorneys’ fees awarded to lawyers who successfully represented Social Security disability insurance (“SSDI”) claimants in federal court under contingent-fee contracts? We hold in each case that it did not. We vacate the district courts’ orders and grant the attorneys the contingencybased fees they requested. ...

By beginning with the lodestar calculation, the district courts plainly failed to respect the “primacy of lawful attorney-client fee agreements.” Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 793. ...

These cases vividly demonstrate the deleterious effect of a district court’s failure to recognize the distinction between fee-shifting cases and cases involving payment by the claimant from his benefit award. ...

The district court orders quote extensively from Gisbrecht. They even cursorily discuss the character of the representation—noting that it was skillful and not dilatory—before concluding that the requested fee would represent a windfall to the attorneys. But this parroting of language from Gisbrecht does not mean that the district courts actually applied its teachings.
There have been a lot of District Courts around the country that have done what the Court of Appeals condemned in this case.

Some Clues?

Some time ago Social Security published a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) on entities as representatives of claimants. The NPRM was confused, particularly when it came to definitions, because Social Security had not thought through the issues. The agency has promised final regulations by February 2010. A recent issuance in Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) may suggest where the agency is heading since it provides definitions for terms such as "advocacy services", "entity", "representative" and "representational services", but I have to say that I cannot tell much from it. Maybe you can.

Nov 3, 2009

Isn't PR Great

From what amounts to an ad for Allsup, Inc. that got published in the Salt Lake Tribune:
As the worst recession since the Great Depression appears to be ending, the Social Security Administration grapples with an unprecedented flood of disability applications due to aging baby-boomers and heavy job losses.

Pending claims are expected to jump 70 percent this year, said Dan Allsup, spokesman for Illinois-based Allsup Inc., which represents people applying for disability payments.

"We've seen a tremendous spike in our disability applications," [Social Security spokesperson Mark] Lassiter said, noting that a year ago, 2.6 million claims were forecast and 3 million were filed.
"This year we're expecting 3.3 million," he said. ...

"It's a much more complicated and lengthy process than filing taxes," Allsup said. "And that's a primary reason that SSA denies two-thirds of applications due to poor preparation of the forms."

Even so, Allsup Inc. also rejects two-thirds of those who seek its assistance -- but for different reasons, he said.

"We work on a contingency basis," Allsup said, 25 percent, up to $5,300, of the back payments awarded to applicants. "So for obvious reasons, we won't accept a fraudulent claim or one that we know won't be awarded."

About 98 percent of their accepted clients do ultimately gain government approval, Allsup added.

Nov 2, 2009

A Warning On The ALJ Register

As I reported last week, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) register will reopen in the near future. This means the federal government will soon start taking applications to become ALJs. The register is likely to stay open only a day or two. Those who want to apply will have to act quickly. There will be no advance notice on exactly when the register will open. It might open today or maybe it will not open for another week or two. If you fail to get your application filed in time, you will have to wait until the register reopens and who knows when that will be.

My warning is that I am very tied up with hearings this week, many of them out of town. If you want to apply for an ALJ job, please do not rely upon this blog to give you prompt notice that the ALJ register has opened. Check for yourself on USA Jobs and do so frequently. You will not have long to act once it does reopen.

Nov 1, 2009

Union Newsletter

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the labor union that represents most Social Security employees, has released its October newsletter. Here is an excerpt from one article in the newsletter:
While members of the bargaining unit were processing claims and dealing with a sometimes irate public, an estimated 700 management officials from Social Security were recently treated to a three-day extravaganza at the Arizona Biltmore. ...

One office in the San Francisco Bay Area posted a sign while its management officials were attending the “Tango” in Phoenix. That sign told the public Immediate Payments would not be available for several days (because no one was there to authorize them).

“Informing impoverished members of the public that SSA can’t issue them emergency payments because management is partying at a lavish Arizona hotel is outrageous,” [union leader Witold] Skwierczynski said. “