Feb 28, 2010

Great Federal Employees Initiative

Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware has started the "Great Federal Employees Initiative" to recognize, well, great federal employees. One who has received recognition is Anne Gallagher, a Regional Public Affairs Specialist for Social Security.

Feb 27, 2010

"It's A Wonderful Feeling"

The Rapid City, SD Journal is running a story on attorney James Leach who argued the Astrue v. Ratliff case before the Supreme Court this past week.

Pay Your Social Security Debt By Credit Card

Social Security is now making it possible to use credit cards to pay debts to the agency. At least, I was unaware that this had been possible.

Feb 26, 2010

I Don't Care About Your Back Pay! I Just Want You Back At Work!

From the Sacramento Bee:

An Alameda County judge on Thursday ordered back pay for tens of thousands of state workers who he had previously ruled were illegally furloughed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Judge Frank Roesch told the state to "immediately pay all employees of respondent departments and agencies their full salary without any reductions … and cease and desist the furlough of such employees."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said Thursday night that the governor would appeal....

If upheld on appeal, the judge's order would cost the state more than $1 billion that officials thought they would save when furloughs were instituted a year ago.

Roesch's decision affects employees in nearly 70 departments that receive all or most of their budget money from sources other than the state's general fund [which would include California Disability Determination Services employees since their wages are paid by the Social Security Administration], regardless of their union affiliation.
Query: If the backpay award holds up, will Social Security reimburse the state for the backpay to Disability Determination employees?

NY Times On Robert Myers Passing

The New York Times has a nice obituary on the late Robert Myers. He was one of the most important architects of Social Security in America. A quote from Myers: “To me, the translation of the word ‘privatization’ is ‘destroyed.’ ”

Change In Policy Or Just A Mistake?

I had earlier posted a copy of the language of an agreement that Social Security was requiring when an attorney or other representative uses his or her own videoconference facilities to participate in Social Security hearings. This agreement required that the claimant and attorney or other representative be in the same location for a hearing.

I have heard of a recent instance where a video hearing was held with the ALJ in one location, the claimant in another location and the attorney in his office participating using his firm's equipment. A split screen was used. Was this allowed by mistake or has there been some change in Social Security's position? Any change on this issue would have major implications.

ALJ McGrath Is Productivity King

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) disposition data recently posted by Social Security shows the total number of cases disposed of during the last quarter of calendar year 2009 by each ALJ. One ALJ in particular, Frederick McGrath of Atlanta, stands out. ALJ McGrath disposed of 867 cases in three months! His nearest competitor for the title of highest producing ALJ is W. Howard O'Bryan, Jr. of Oklahoma City who disposed of 348 cases in that three month period. ALJ O'Bryan's productivity is remarkable. ALJ McGrath's productivity is beyond astonishing.

Feb 25, 2010

Social Security Press Release On California Furlough Bill

A press release from Social Security

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today called for the California State Assembly to quickly pass Senate Bill 29. This bill, which already has passed the State Senate, would end the practice of furloughing Federally-funded state employees, a practice recently held to be illegal by a California superior court judge.

About 1,500 employees in this category are responsible for reviewing applications for Social Security disability benefits in California. California's taxpayers, state employees, and disability applicants all are harmed by these furloughs, and no one benefits. Each furlough day costs the state about $850,000 in administrative reimbursements and delays the payment of over $420,000 in much needed Social Security benefits to residents’ with disabilities.

“Furloughing disability examiners is incomprehensible under any circumstances, and it is callous in a recession of this magnitude,” Commissioner Astrue stated. “Congress authorized half a billion dollars under the Recovery Act to hire staff to reduce disability backlogs, and California is thwarting Congress by unilaterally reducing staffing in a punitive way that also hurts the State’s coffers.”

“It is time for Governor Schwarzenegger to renounce his failed furlough policy by withdrawing his veto threat of Senator Steinberg’s Bill 29 and by declining to appeal the decision in the furlough lawsuit. Fairness, compassion, and common sense all require that result.”

It makes sense that the Commissioner would do this but it is still weird that he would be asking a state legislature to pass a bill and a governor not to veto the bill. Why would the governor threaten to veto this, anyway?

Gotta Be Able To Do It 40 Hours A Week

From a recently issued section of Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS):
Policy for Residual Functional Capacity [RFC]
RFC represents the most a claimant can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions. Ordinarily, RFC is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities:

  • In an ordinary work setting,

  • On a regular and continuing basis, and

  • For 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.

However, if a claimant is unable to sustain a 40-hour workweek because of a severe medically determinable impairment (MDI), the adjudicator or medical consultant must discuss sustainability in the RFC.

I do not recall ever seeing that in print before as an official Social Security position.

Moving Forward On Setting Hearings For ALJs

Shortly after the last Presidential election, Social Security published proposed rules that would give the agency the authority to set the time and place for Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings. This would allow the agency to set hearings for an ALJ without the ALJ's consent. Social Security has now sent a final version of this rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, seeking approval before publishing the rule in the Federal Register to make it effective.

Feb 24, 2010

Pressure In Alabama

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
The Office of the Commissioner of Social Security provided the Inspector General a September 25, 2008 letter from an anonymous individual claiming to be a State of Alabama Medical Consultant (SAMC) at the DDS [Disability Determination Service] in Birmingham, Alabama. ...

Based on interviews with 53 current and former AL-DDS MCs and review of instructions the DDS provided to some of them, we concluded that, at a minimum, a perception existed that AL-DDS pressured some MCs to increase their disability allowance rates. Several MCs told us the pressure to approve claims influenced their medical decisions. We acknowledge that analyzing information on disability allowance and denial rates is beneficial in identifying anomalies, which may indicate a need for further MC training. However, we believe each case should be weighed on its own merit in accordance with SSA disability determination policies.

Feb 23, 2010

Processing Time Report

These are the processing time reports for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) hearing offices, expressed in days, published in the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR).

Fee Bill Passes In Congress

H.R. 4532, which makes permanent withholding of fees for certain non-attorney representatives of Social Security claimants and withholding of fees in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases, has been passed by both houses of Congress. It should be signed by the President in the near future.

Complaints About ALJs To Be Tracked

Under the Privacy Act, federal agencies must post a notice in the Federal Register before creating a new system of records concerning the public. This is from a notice posted by Social Security in the Federal Register today:
At present, we do not have a good mechanism to track complaints about ALJs f[Administrative Law Judges] from initiation to resolution. This weakness makes it difficult for us to identify and resolve service delivery issues, and also impairs customer service. This system of records will help us improve service to the public by creating a centrally managed, electronic method to collect, monitor, and retrieve information concerning complaints about ALJs.
Would these records, properly redacted, be available under the Freedom of Information Act?

Justices Seemed Sympathetic To Government In Ratliff

From the National Law Journal:

A majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic on Monday to the Obama administration's arguments that attorney fee awards under a key fee shifting statute belong to the clients, not the attorneys who earn them, and the awards can be offset to pay debts owed to the government.

In Astrue v. Ratliff, Assistant to the Solicitor General Anthony Yang and James Leach of Rapid City, S.D., sparred over what each claimed was the "plain meaning" of the Equal Access to Justice Act. The act awards attorney fees and expenses to "a prevailing party other than the United States" in any civil action against the government unless the court finds the government's position was "substantially justified" or an award would be unjust.

The government is urging the high court to overturn a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (pdf) which, counter to most courts that have ruled on the issue, held that the fee award belongs to the prevailing party's attorney and cannot be used to offset the client's government debts.

Here is the transcript of the oral argument if you wish to read it.

Social Security Killed My Wife

From WTHI in Terre Haute, IN:
A local man claims the Social Security Administration killed his wife. ...

[T]he Freeman's got on their computer to check their back account online only to find Nancy's disability check was reclaimed by Social Security.

Then, they noticed hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees from the bank. They called the both bank and Social Security office who told them they reclaimed the check because Nancy Freeman is deceased. ...

According to Social Security, Nancy's been deceased since December 2009 ...

This is not even unusual. I now have two Social Security disability clients who are awaiting hearings on their cases who have been wrongly declared dead by Social Security in recent months. Does Social Security keep any stats on how many of these cases there are?

Feb 22, 2010

Social Security And Privacy

Take a look at Cooper v. FAA. It turns out that Social Security has been turning over to the Federal Aviation Administration medical records it has received in connection with Social Security disability claims so that the FAA can cancel pilot licenses and criminally prosecute those who are allegedly guilty of fraud in connection with their pilot license.

What do you think? Is this a good idea?

Two Federal Register Items Today

Social Security posted two final rules in the Federal Register today. One states that "for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) purposes, we do not consider any combat-related military pay as income when we determine whether spouses and children of members of the uniformed services are eligible for SSI." The other will "allow a representative payee who will no longer be serving in that capacity to transfer accumulated benefit payments and interest directly to a beneficiary if we determine that it would be in the best interest of the beneficiary."

Annual Statistical Supplement Issued

Social Security has released its Annual Statistical Supplement for 2009. It is a vast compendium of statistical information about Social Security.

Feb 21, 2010


From the Boston Herald:

Thousands of disabled Bay Staters in dire need of federal aid are facing longer delays after a Patrick administration decision to furlough more than 80 percent of the workers handling their claims, officials and advocates say.

The move sets up a battle between the state and the federal government, with the nation’s top Social Security honcho calling Gov. Deval Patrick decision “incomprehensible” and saying he cannot rule out legal action.

“I can’t conceive of how anyone would think this would make any sense,” U.S. Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told the Herald. “Massachusetts isn’t saving money. I just think it’s incomprehensible.”

Astrue said the Patrick administration told him that 228 of 272 employees in the state’s two Disability Determination Services Offices, which process thousands of disability applications a year, are to be furloughed. So far, 14 DDS managers have been furloughed. Astrue questioned the logic in furloughing the workers when the office is federally funded.

Feb 20, 2010

New Hearing Office In Anchorage

KTUU reports on the opening of a new hearing office in Anchorage, Alaska. Social Security's Commissioner made the long journey for the opening. One of Alaska's Senators showed up for the party.

Feb 19, 2010

The President Has A Different Plan

The Associated Press reports that Barack Obama said today that the only thing required to bring Social Security into long term financial balance is to lift the cap on earnings covered by the FICA tax. This is in contrast with the off-hand statement of his aide, Paul Volcker, that the retirement age should be increased or benefits reduced.

Current Picture Of A Building Where A New Hearing Office Is Supposed To Open In August 2010

This is in Fayetteville, NC.

Advisor To President Calls For Raising Retirement Age And Reducing Benefits

From YahooNews:
Social Security can be reformed to secure Americans’ retirement savings, said Paul Volcker, a top adviser to President Barack Obama.

“Social Security is the bedrock of any retirement policy in this country,” said Volcker, chairman of the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, at a retirement forum in New York yesterday. “There’s plenty of room and plenty of need for retirement programs on top of that.” ...

Reforming Social Security is “doable,” he said, in part by “jacking up the retirement age” and changing the benefit calculation so that it won’t rise as fast for higher-income Americans as it does under existing law.

Get The Computer To Do The Work

From a notice posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps.gov:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is seeking providers of software solutions for natural language processing in a medical context. ... In support of SSA's disability process, we are pursuing several initiatives in health IT [Information Technology] directed toward interoperable exchange of claimant medical records to speed receipt and subsequent case decisions. A significant element of these efforts is the application of intelligent analysis to the medical evidence received to assess any potential matches with policy guidance and facilitate subsequent manual review.

Feb 18, 2010

Concerns From The Field

From the minutes of a conference call of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel:
  • FO [Field Office] phones are still a problem and we need additional staffing for that.
  • DDSs [Disability Determination Services] are releasing a lot of appeals to the FO which require back-end work.
  • RZ/LI [two different types of post-eligibility reviews of Supplemental Security Income non-medical factors] goals difficult to meet.
  • Walk-in visitors are very high. Waiting times are also up because resources are going to answering the phones.
  • The Field is the “start and finish” of all processes, yet other components seem to be getting the staffing.
  • iClaims [claims filed over the Internet] have significantly increased.
  • Overall quality is a concern.
  • Employees are stressed out, burned out, and in some cases don’t want to work any more OT.
  • Concerns that SDW [Special Decisional Workload, a project to clear up errors in payments of benefits that have resulted in huge underpayments of benefits to claimants; SDW cases are extraordinarily complicated and time consuming and can only be undertaken by the most experienced employees and they must have extensive training] workloads will be farmed back out to the FOs.
  • Cannot keep up with all the ePath [a web-based application that assists employees in completing certain SSA transactions, such as changes in mailing address, residence address, telephone number, and direct deposit] stand alone events coming from the TSCs [TeleService Centers].
  • Martinez [class action lawsuit on fugitive felons] settlement and ACB [American Council of the Blind -- a class action requiring Social Security to prepare Braille notices] special notices require FO resources.
  • Work CDR [Continuing Disability Review] goals and Internet goals difficult to meet.
  • Staffing increases at the TSCs should focus on areas that help the Field.

Feb 17, 2010

Robert Myers Passes

A broadcast e-mail from Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue:
A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: Robert J. Myers

It is with sadness that I report the passing of Robert J. Myers on February 14, 2010. He was 97 years old.

Bob was one of the great leaders of Social Security, beginning his work in 1934 as an actuary with the Committee on Economic Security. He later served as SSA’s Chief Actuary from 1947 – 1970. Following several years as an Actuarial Consultant in other federal agencies, Bob returned to Social Security as the Deputy Commissioner (1981 – 1982). He continued to champion Social Security in other ways, including as Executive Director of the National Commission on Social Security Reform (1982-1983), also known as the Greenspan Commission. I

n addition to his dedicated service, Bob authored more than 900 articles and 5 books on the Social Security program. According to our history page, he made it into the Guinness Book of Records for having testified before Congress 175 times during his tenures as Chief Actuary and Deputy Commissioner.

Please join me in remembering and honoring Robert J. Myers.

Michael J. Astrue

Plain Dealer On Furloughs

An editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Ohio, by furloughing federally paid state employees who screen Social Security disability claims, is penny-foolish and pound-foolish, too, the U.S. Social Security commissioner said during a recent visit to Cleveland. He has a point.

Because of Ohio's budget troubles, state employees represented by five unions agreed last year to take 10 unpaid days off per year for two years. They're "cost savings days," but everyone calls them furlough days.

Bureau of Disability Determination employees are among those taking furloughs, though they are paid by the federal government, not Ohio. Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue said that by furloughing them, Ohio will lose $6.9 million in federal money.

Furloughs will also add to their case-review backlogs. To their credit, state employees have in the last four months closed 5,000 more disability cases than in the year-earlier period. But in the meantime, more cases are being filed. From 2008 to last year, Ohio claims rose 59 percent, far steeper than the 40 percent U.S. rate. Ohio's backlog nears 46,000 cases.

A Strickland spokeswoman said Ohio can't exempt Disability Determination employees from furloughs because the state's contracts with employee unions require "parity" in givebacks. That is, givebacks must be uniform. Gov. Ted Strickland himself warned last summer that violating parity could jeopardize the $90.3 million in give-backs his negotiators won from unionized state employees.

But an Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (AFSCME Local 11) spokesman says that its contract gives a state agency the right, if it cites an "operational need," to prevent an employee from taking furlough days. (Then, at the end of each fiscal year, the agency must pay an employee for time worked on "prevented" furlough days.) And the union spokeswoman said such an agency decision wouldn't require reopening the union's contract with the state.

Strickland's spokeswoman countered that the contract clause in question "was intended for extraordinary, specific operational emergencies" -- say, if a furlough day for workers in the Taxation Department's mailroom fell on April 15. Contract wording, however, doesn't appear to be nearly that limiting.

She added that trying to spare an entire class of state employees (such as those reviewing disability applications) from furlough days "would likely lead to legal challenges that [it] violated parity."

The Strickland administration, possibly fearing union grumbling in an election year, is lawyering a molehill into a mountain.''

HIE Contract Awarded

From a press release:
On Feb. 1, 2010, the U.S. Social Security Administration awarded a contract to Community Health Information Collaborative (CHIC) and its technical partner MEDNET (www.MEDNETWorld.com). CHIC, with MEDNET, built a health information exchange (HIE) -- known as “HIE-Bridge™” -- in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin to allow for the exchange of clinical health data over the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN). Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., MEDNET is a leader in NHIN connectivity and HIE applications and services.

The contract will allow HIE-Bridge member providers to transition from a paper-based disability claim process to an automated claim process over the NHIN, resulting in significantly reduced costs, streamlined processes and improved patient care.

Feb 16, 2010

The Labyrinth

From the Kansas City Star:

The nation’s disability insurance system is in rehab.

But it’s far from well, and problems in Kansas City are particularly acute.

An aging baby boom population and high unemployment rates are combining to flood the Social Security Administration with applications for disability insurance benefits.

The result: a backlogged system that can take years to pay out benefits.

Blame the agency’s staff cuts in previous years.

Blame people who try to fake disabilities.

Blame a labyrinthine claims system that volleys legitimate applicants between federal and state offices

And, in Social Security offices such as Kansas City’s, blame a sluggish productivity rate for disability hearings.

In Kansas City, applicants for Social Security Disability Income at the end of 2009 were waiting an average of 604 days for a decision from an administrative law judge.

That processing time ranked 135th out of 143 Social Security Office of Disability Adjudication and Review offices around the country, according to an agency report.

Why did the reporter make every sentence a new paragraph? Am I just old fashioned or is this an example of poor writing and editing?

Feb 15, 2010

ALJ Attorney Fee Limit Raised

I have no citation but I am told that the limit on the amount of attorney fees that may be approved by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in a fee petition case has been increased from $7,000 to $10,000. Apparently, the ALJs have been notified of this change but nothing has been released publicly yet. Fee petitions are submitted in only a small fraction of the cases heard by ALJs.

ALJ Disposition Data Posted

Social Security has now posted data online showing Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) dispositions, showing how many allowances and denials per ALJ. One hint: the difference between the "total dispositions" and "total decisions" figure would be dismissals. A few ALJs will have a very high number of dismissals. These would probably be Hearing Office Chief ALJs (HOCALJs). HOCALJs typically issue the obvious dismissals of late requests for hearings and premature requests for hearings for their office.

Feb 14, 2010

Attorney Fee Payments

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

I have some concerns that the numbers that Social Security is giving out are misleading. Every attorney that I have talked with about the 1099s they recently received from Social Security reports that their 1099 was way low. The aggregate stats that Social Security is releasing may be similarly flawed.

Feb 13, 2010

Social Security Bulletin Released

The Social Security Administration has released an issue of the Social Security Bulletin, its scholarly journal and compendium of statistics.

Feb 12, 2010

Legal Aid Can Now Take EAJA Fees

The Legal Services Corporation has announced that the legal aid organizations it funds may now apply for and accept fees under fee shifting statutes, such as the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). This will make it easier for legal aid organizations to represent Social Security claimants in federal court.

Feb 11, 2010

Social Security Central Offices To Reopen

After being closed on account of snow for four straight workdays, Social Security's central offices in the Baltimore-Washington area are set to reopen on a two hour delay basis on Friday. Local school systems remain closed.

Thirty-Eight New Compassionate Allowance Conditions

The snowstorm is not preventing Social Security's Press Office from doing its job. Here is another press release from the agency this morning:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the agency is adding 38 more conditions to its list of Compassionate Allowances. This is the first expansion since the original list of 50 conditions - 25 rare diseases and 25 cancers - was announced in October 2008. The new conditions range from adult brain disorders to rare diseases that primarily affect children. The complete list of the new Compassionate Allowance conditions is attached.

“The addition of these new conditions expands the scope of Compassionate Allowances to a broader subgroup of conditions like early-onset Alzheimer’s disease,” Commissioner Astrue said. “The expansion we are announcing today means tens of thousands of Americans with devastating disabilities will now get approved for benefits in a matter of days rather than months and years.”

Compassionate Allowances are a way of quickly identifying diseases and other medical conditions that clearly qualify for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. It allows the agency to electronically target and make speedy decisions for the most obviously disabled individuals. In developing the expanded list of conditions, Social Security held public hearings and worked closely with the National Institutes of Health, the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Organization for Rare Disorders, and other groups.

"The diagnosis of Alzheimer's indicates significant cognitive impairment that interferes with daily living activities, including the ability to work," said Harry Johns, President and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association. "Now, individuals who are dealing with the enormous challenges of Alzheimer's won't also have to endure the financial and emotional toll of a long disability decision process."

“This truly innovative program will provide invaluable assistance and support to patients and families coping with severely disabling rare diseases,” said Peter L. Saltonstall, President and CEO of the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). “On behalf of those patients and families, I want to thank Commissioner Astrue and his enthusiastic team for creating and now expanding a program that will have a direct impact on the quality of life of thousands of individuals."

“The initiative not only assists those whose applications are quickly processed, but also assists those whose applications need more time and attention from SSA adjudicators,” said Marty Ford, Co-Chair, Social Security Task Force, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. “We are pleased to see today's expansion and look forward to working with Commissioner Astrue on further expansion of this decision-making tool and other ways to expedite determinations and decisions for disability claims.”

“We will continue to hold hearings and look for other diseases and conditions that can be added to our list of Compassionate Allowances," Commissioner Astrue said. “There can be no higher priority than getting disability benefits quickly to those Americans with these severe and life-threatening conditions.”

Social Security will begin electronically identifying these 38 new conditions March 1.

For more information about the agency’s Compassionate Allowances initiative, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances.


New Compassionate Allowance Conditions

  1. Alstrom Syndrome
  2. Amegakaryocytic Thrombocytopenia
  3. Ataxia Spinocerebellar
  4. Ataxia Telangiectasia
  5. Batten Disease
  6. Bilateral Retinoblastoma
  7. Cri du Chat Syndrome
  8. Degos Disease
  9. Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
  10. Edwards Syndrome
  11. Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva
  12. Fukuyama Congenital Muscular Dystrophy
  13. Glutaric Acidemia Type II
  14. Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), Familial Type
  15. Hurler Syndrome, Type IH
  16. Hunter Syndrome, Type II
  17. Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis
  18. Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa, Lethal Type
  19. Late Infantile Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses
  20. Leigh’s Disease
  21. Maple Syrup Urine Disease
  22. Merosin Deficient Congenital Muscular Dystrophy
  23. Mixed Dementia
  24. Mucosal Malignant Melanoma
  25. Neonatal Adrenoleukodystrophy
  26. Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses, Infantile Type
  27. Niemann-Pick Type C
  28. Patau Syndrome
  29. Primary Progressive Aphasia
  30. Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy
  31. Sanfilippo Syndrome
  32. Subacute Sclerosis Panencephalitis
  33. Tay Sachs Disease
  34. Thanatophoric Dysplasia, Type 1
  35. Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy
  36. Walker Warburg Syndrome
  37. Wolman Disease
  38. Zellweger Syndrome

The only definitive way of diagnosing Alzheimer's disease is with a brain biopsy and those are rarely done. I predict that putting early onset Alzheimer's on the list will mean nothing since Social Security will just claim that there is inadequate proof that the claimant is suffering from Alzheimer's until the claimant is institutionalized.

Backup And Redundancy

Social Security has built a new backup computer center near Durham, NC. Has it been used to help out since the snowfall must be keeping almost all employees at home preventing proper operation of Social Security's main data processing center in Baltimore?

Also, the Department of the Treasury prints and mails all those Social Security checks. Much of this work is done at a Treasury center in Philadelphia. The weather in Philly has received little national attention but it has to be bad there. I have not heard or read of delays in issuing Social Security and VA checks so I hope that Treasury has been able to shift printing and mailing of these checks to other centers. I have to imagine that Treasury has plenty of backup and redundancy because of the threat of terrorist attack.

Apart from the backup computer center in Durham, I wonder whether Social Security has adequate backup and redundancy for contingencies. This snowstorm is bad but terrorist attacks, fires and floods could be worse. Budgets have been terribly tight for decades at Social Security. I hope that the agency suffers nothing worse than this snowstorm.

Social Security And Open Government

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced that the agency has a new Open Government webpage available to the public at www.socialsecurity.gov/open. The new webpage serves as the portal for all agency activities that support the President’s Transparency and Open Government initiative.

“Our new Open Government webpage gives Americans an opportunity to give us their ideas on how we can become a more open and transparent agency,” Commissioner Astrue said. “They will be able to post their ideas on transparency, participation, collaboration, and innovation that should be included in our Open Government Plan. I encourage everyone to visit our webpage and submit their ideas, read and discuss what has been posted, and vote on the ideas that have been submitted."

To submit ideas, click on the link at the top right of the webpage that says, “Share your ideas on our open government plan.” After agreeing to the terms of participation, the link will take you to a webpage that asks for ideas on how Social Security can:

  • work better with others inside and outside the government;
  • solicit feedback from the public;
  • improve the availability and quality of information;
  • be more innovative and efficient;
  • create an Open Government Plan.

Social Security’s new Open Government webpage also provides easy access to important agency information such as the Agency Strategic Plan, Freedom of Information Act Report, as well as program laws and regulations. The webpage includes links to the datasets that were published last month on www.Data.gov. The agency will publish its Open Government Plan in April.

Feb 10, 2010

Cental Offices Remain Closed

In case you were wondering, Social Security's Central Offices in the Baltimore-Washington area remain closed due to the snowstorm.

It Always Takes Longer Than You Expect

On December 31, 2009 Social Security was expecting to open a new hearing office in Fayetteville, NC in August, 2010. Now comes word that the General Services Administration (GSA) has signed a long term lease for space for that hearing office. It sounds like things are right on schedule. Unfortunately, the lease was signed for space in what is currently a burned out shell of a building. The owner of the building has only preliminary drawings for what will be done with the space and is unable to give a timeline for construction until financial arrangements are completed.

I think it would be a safe bet that the new hearing office will not open until well after August, 2010.

By the way, Social Security is leasing 16,000 square feet of space but only plans to have 54 employees in the office. They must be giving the office plenty of room to grow into.

Feb 9, 2010

The Show Must Go On

Even though government offices in Washington have been closed for two days now due to snowfall and the area is experiencing another heavy snowfall today, the government employees at the Office of Federal Register still plan to put out an edition tomorrow!

Central Offices Remain Closed

Social Security's offices in the Baltimore-Washington area remain closed today due to the heavy snowfall. More snow is predicted. There is no telling how long this closure could last.

Strange Ruling In Pennsylvania

A court in Pennsylvania has ruled that a worker who files a claim for Social Security retirement benefits forfeits all rights to periodic workers compensation benefits because he has removed himself from the labor market.

Feb 8, 2010

More On 1099s

I am hearing from an attorney who has spent more time studying his 1099 than I have that the amount being reported is the gross amount of the attorney fee before deduction of the user fee. Was that intended?

Update: I have had a chance to review my own 1099 and list of cases and can confirm that the user fee was included as if paid to me. One person has suggested that this is just like W-2s and all attorneys have to do is to post the user fee as a deduction on our income tax forms. That is not as easy as the poster thinks. Social Security is not sending out a list of user fees paid and it would be almost impossible to keep track of them. My bookkeeper records the bank deposits she makes and those are my firm's gross income. Doing it any other way would be quite cumbersome and unnatural. If Social Security ever figures out a way to report accurate figures on payments of attorney fees, there is going to be trouble.

Cental Offices Closed?

Because of the record snowfalls, federal offices in Washington, DC are closed today. What about Social Security's Central Office in Woodlawn, MD, just outside the District? Is it closed today? Social Security has been pretty hard nosed about closing its Central Offices but this snowfall was something way out of the ordinary. I cannot imagine that the parking lots would be clear or that public transit would be functioning today.

Staffing Improves At Hearing Offices

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
In March 2009, SSA’s Commissioner testified that about 4.5 staff per ALJ (referred to as the staffing ratio) was necessary to maximize the number of legally sufficient hearings and decisions by ALJs [Administrative Law Judges]. In this context, “staff” represents both decision writers and other support staff. Moreover, in a Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 memorandum, ODAR’s [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review's] Deputy Commissioner recommended the Regions hire 1.5 decision writers per ALJ and 2.5 other support staff per ALJ (referred to as the staffing mix ratio), thereby giving additional definition to the Commissioner’s staffing ratio goal. [And adding confusion, since that would be a 4 to 1 ratio, rather than 4.5 to 1.]


In FY 2009, as a result of additional Agency funding, ODAR increased the number of its ALJs to approximately 1,200 (about a 19-percent increase since FY 2000) and the number of its hearing office managers and support staff to about 6,200 (almost a 25-percent increase over the same period). By July 2009, ODAR’s staffing ratio was about 5.1, exceeding the Agency’s national goal of 4.5 staff per ALJ. However, our review of ODAR’s staffing reports found that 42 hearing offices did not meet the national staffing ratio goal, and 7 of those hearing offices had staffing ratios below 4.0. In addition, ODAR’s staffing ratio had not been adjusted to reflect attorney adjudicators who perform two roles—staffing duties when drafting decisions and ALJ duties when issuing fully favorable on-the-record decisions.

In terms of the staffing mix at hearing offices, we found that the hearing offices that met or exceeded the 1.5 decision writers-per-ALJ staffing mix goal had, on average, an almost 9-percent higher productivity rate than those hearing offices with a ratio less than the goal. We did not find similar productivity differences for the other support staffing mix goal. ...

Fiscal Year National
Staffing Ratio
2006 4.23
2007 4.46
20081 4.08
2009 5.06

The Sky Is Falling

When you see headlines such as Social Security Races To 'Negative' (their single quotes, not mine) and Rush Of Retirements Push Social Security To Brink in USA Today you know someone is pushing private accounts. Sure enough, here is George Will's column touting a scheme proposed by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan:
Medicare and Social Security would be preserved for those currently receiving benefits or becoming eligible in the next 10 years (those 55 and older today). Both programs would be made permanently solvent. ...

Ryan's plan would allow workers younger than 55 the choice of investing more than one-third of their current Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts similar to the Thrift Savings Plan long available to, and immensely popular with, federal employees. This investment would be inheritable property, guaranteeing that individuals will never lose the ability to dispose of every dollar they put into these accounts.

Ryan would raise the retirement age. If, when Congress created Social Security in 1935, it had indexed the retirement age (then 65) to life expectancy, today the age would be in the mid-70s. The system was never intended to do what it is doing -- subsidizing retirements that extend from one-third to one-half of retirees' adult lives.

I certainly hope that Republicans in Congress get a chance to vote on this proposal. By the way, I am pretty sure that the numbers do not come close to working for Ryan's scheme. If you stop one-third of the FICA taxes going into the trust funds, you soon run out of money to pay current retirees. Also, by the way, investing one-third of your FICA is not going to support you for long in retirement. It is not that much money.

Feb 7, 2010

In Vitro And Social Security

From the Chicago Tribune:
A[n Iowa] legislative subcommittee approved a measure Thursday giving inheritance rights to children born up to two years after their father's death.

The measure would mean children conceived through in vitro fertilization would be entitled to benefits such as Social Security survivor payments even if they were gestated after a parent's death.

The subcommittee approved the plan after hearing from Patti Beeler, a West Branch woman who gave birth to a girl after her husband died of cancer. She had to go to court to receive Social Security benefits because of a 150-year-old law limiting inheritance to children conceived during marriage.

The Social Security Administration is appealing a ruling granting her those benefits.

Feb 5, 2010


Attorneys and others who receive fees paid directly by Social Security for representing Social Security claimants have been receiving 1099s this week that are supposed to show the monies they were paid by Social Security in 2009. The comment heard from almost everyone receiving one of these 1099s is that it shows significantly less gross income than it should, perhaps 20% to 35% less. This is no big deal since it will not cause any tax problems for anyone but, still, it is something that should be fixed. I have heard speculation that the 1099s are not including fees paid in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases, that they do not include fees paid on dependent benefits or that only fees authorized by Social Security's Office of Central Operations are included. I expect that someone at Social Security knows the explanation. Can anyone enlighten us?

Feb 4, 2010

Centenarian Project

The Paperwork Reduction Act requires federal agencies who want to collect information from the public to go through some formalities, one of which is publishing a notice in the Federal Register., about any new information collection forms. Here is an excerpt from a Paperwork Reduction Act notice that Social Security recently posted in the Federal Register:
Centenarian Project Development Worksheets: Face-to-Face Interview; Telephone Interview; Third Party Contact ... SSA [Social Security Administration] is conducting interviews with centenary beneficiaries age 103 and older to assess: (1) If the beneficiaries are still living; (2) to prevent fraud, through either identity misrepresentation or representative payee misuse of funds; and (3) to assess the well-being of the beneficiaries. SSA's San Francisco field offices are currently using this survey and we intend to expand its use to all other SSA field offices.

Feb 3, 2010

Bomb Scare In Texas

The Victoria, Texas Social Security office was evacuated on Wednesday after a suspicious package was found in the lobby.

1099s Start Arriving

Attorneys have started receiving 1099s from Social Security showing attorney fees paid by Social Security. I have already received reports of income reported in box 7 instead of box 14, which is where I believe it is supposed to be reported, and of a 1099 not recording all Social Security attorney fees paid to an attorney in 2009, which will not cause problems for the attorney, but which is a bad sign anyway.

What are you seeing?

Is Social Security An Out Of Control Entitlement?

It is an article of faith among many that entitlements are destroying the federal budget and that Social Security is a big part of the entitlement monster. That may be true of Medicare, but Social Security? Take a look at this chart from the New York Times. Does it look like Social Security is threatening to wreck the federal budget? By the way, the author does make one big mistake. Social Security is not off budget. It should be and probably will be in the not too distant future, but it isn't now.

Union Newsletter Out

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) ,the union that represents most Social Security employees, has issued its January 2010 newsletter.

The union and Social Security are in contract negotiations. The newsletter quotes the union president, Witold Skwierczynski, as saying that “After reviewing the Agency’s initial contract proposals, it is clear that SSA’s [Social Security Administration's] intent is to severely restrict the [Union’s] ability to represent SSA employees" which sounds like the prospects for a new contract are poor, but for Skwierczynski this is a bit tame.

The newsletter contains an interesting allegation of management impropriety at a field office:
The manager of the Independence, Missouri Social Security Office has apparently found a unique way to make himself look better: take applications from people with-out actually contacting them, and then process those phony claims.

When Jared Gaspard realized in June that his office would not meet its statistical “goals” for that month, he checked the agency’s computer system to determine who had filed for Social Security Disability but not SSI.

According to Witold Skwierczynski, the President of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, Gaspard then manufactured a series of SSI applications.

Feb 2, 2010

Interesting Turnaround

Small town newspaper runs article encouraging people to use the internet to do business with Social Security. Sounds like it is probably something written by Social Security. The Rutland, VT Herald is running this kind of article and it was written by Social Security. The interesting thing about the article is that it begins like this:
If you have recently called Social Security, you may have gotten a busy signal or been put on hold. When visiting an office you may have had to wait longer to see someone. ...

This wave [of baby boomer retirees] is generating a "tsunami" of retirement and disability applications – an expected 40 percent annual increase.

Social Security does not expect to be able to increase staff to meet the demand. More people contacting the same number of Social Security workers equals busy signals on the phone and longer waits in the office. If we cannot hire more people what else can we do to help the increasing number of people in need of our services?
Instead of pretending that it is giving good service, the agency is now touting its poor service as a reason why the public should do its Social Security business online. That is quite a change.

By the way, have Social Security's online services advanced to the point where it saves staff time for the public to file claims online?

Twenty-Seven Times!

According to the Detroit News, Jeffrey Walls kept telling Social Security that his Social Security check was lost or stolen. He kept asking for a replacement check and he kept getting them. He also kept cashing both checks. This happened 27 times before Walls was charged with making false claims.

An 8% Funding Increase Won't Buy Anything Like What You'd Think

Social Security's Overview of the President's proposed budget shows that even with an 8% increase in funding, Social Security expects its number of full time equivalents (FTEs) to increase by only 278 or four tenths of one percent in the next fiscal year (FY). Disability Determination Services (DDS) FTEs will increase by 984 or 6.1%. Social Security expects to hire only 70 additional Administrative Law Judges (ALJs).

The Overview also indicates that Social Security expects to implement online scheduling of appointments in fiscal year (FY) 2011.

Feb 1, 2010

Astrue On President's Proposed Budget

A press release from Social Security:

By requesting $12.5 billion for Social Security's administrative expenses, an eight percent increase over the previous year, President Obama has again shown that he clearly understands the workload challenges we face. The additional funding is critical to our efforts to continue driving down the hearings backlog, something we were able to do in fiscal year 2009 for the first time in over a decade. This funding also will allow us to process an increasing number of retirement and disability claims, and improve our aging infrastructure.

For seventy-five years, Americans have depended on Social Security. We know that millions of Americans continue to count on us to provide them with the service they need and deserve. It is critical that Congress enact President Obama's budget proposal in a timely manner.

For more information about the President's 2011 budget request for Social Security, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/budget.

Electronic Medical Records Contracts Awarded

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that 15 healthcare providers and networks have received $17.4 million in contract awards to provide electronic medical records to the agency. These electronic medical records, which will be sent through the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN), will significantly shorten the time it takes to make a disability decision and will improve the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of the disability program.

“Using health information technology will improve our disability programs and provide better service to the public,” Commissioner Astrue said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in disability applications. To process them, the agency sends more than 15 million requests annually for medical records to healthcare providers. This largely paper-bound workload is generally the most time-consuming part of the disability decision process. The use of health IT will dramatically improve the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of this process, reducing the cost of making a disability decision for both the medical community and the American taxpayer.”

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

For the last year, Social Security has been successfully testing health IT to obtain electronic medical records. Disability applications processed with electronic medical records from the test sites in Massachusetts and Virginia have significantly reduced processing times. Some decisions are now made in days, instead of weeks or months. Social Security expects to receive more than 3.3 million applications in fiscal year (FY) 2010, a 27 percent increase over FY 2008.

Contracts were awarded to the following organizations:

  1. Cal RHIO, San Francisco, CA - $1,625,000
  2. CareSpark, Kingsport, TN - $1,363,000
  3. Center for Healthy Communities, Wright State University, Healthlink, Dayton, OH - $999,000
  4. Central Virginia Health Network/MedVirginia, Richmond, VA - $1,139,000
  5. Community Health Information Collaborative (CHIC), Duluth, MN - $977,000
  6. Douglas County Individual Practice Association, Roseburg, OR - $502,000
  7. EHR Doctors Inc., Pompano Beach, FL - $1,000,000
  8. HealthBridge, Cincinnati, OH - $1,400,000
  9. Lovelace Clinic Foundation (LCF), Albuquerque, NM - $1,083,000
  10. Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, Marshfield, WI - $998,000
  11. Memorial Hospital Foundation & Memorial Hospital of Gulfport Foundation, Inc., Gulfport, MS - $1,100,000
  12. Oregon Community Health Information Network (OCHIN), Portland, OR - $284,000
  13. Regenstrief Institute, Inc, Indianapolis, IN - $350,000
  14. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), Reston, VA - $1,587,000
  15. Southeastern Michigan Health Association, Detroit, MI - $2,988,000

    President Recommends 8% Budget Increase For Social Security

    From the White House:
    • $12.5 billion for SSA [Social Security Administration], an increase of $930 million, or 8 percent, above the 2010 enacted level.
      • Includes resources to increase staffing in 2011 and allow SSA to provide services faster with a focus on key service delivery areas, such as processing initial retirement and disability claims, and disability appeals.
      • Funds targeted to lower the initial disability claims backlog below 1 million by processing more than 3 million claims and lower the appeals hearing backlog.

    Significantly Increase Program Integrity Efforts

    • $796 million for SSA program integrity, including a 9 percent increase in the level of medical Continuing Disability Reviews over the prior year. SSA’s program integrity efforts are part of a strong framework for making sure the government is spending tax dollars efficiently and that benefits are paid only to those beneficiaries who are eligible and are paid in correct amounts. ...
    Highlights of this department’s goals are:
    • By 2012, SSA will achieve an online filing rate of 50 percent for retirement applications.
    • SSA will work towards achieving the agency’s long-term outcomes of lowering the disability backlogs and accurately processing claims. In 2011, SSA’s will process 3.317 million out of a universe of 4.316 million initial disability claims and 799,000 out of a universe of 1.456 million hearing requests.
    • SSA will improve program integrity efforts by minimizing improper payments and strengthening the agency’s efforts to protect program dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse. In 2011, SSA’s will process 359,800 out of a total of approximately 2 million medical continuing disability reviews, an increase of 9.4 percent over 2010.

    Why Social Security's Budget Shouldn't Be Frozen

    The President's recommended budget for the next fiscal year is due out this morning. Here are a couple of charts from an Urban Institute Fact Sheet showing why a budget freeze for Social Security would be devastating. The first is for men and the second for women. Click on each to see full size.

    Informal Remand Instructions Released

    Social Security has released an emergency message with updated instructions on informal remands, also known as "re-recon." These are cases where a disability benefits claimant has been denied at the reconsideration stage, files a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, but has his or her case sent back for a new review at the reconsideration level while awaiting a hearing. A not insignificant percent of these cases are approved on re-recon.

    ALJ Removed

    The Merit Systems Protection Board has affirmed the removal from office of Danvers Long, who had been an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for Social Security, after he was arrested in Coral Springs, FL for domestic violence battery and culpable negligence.