Apr 30, 2010

A Blast From The Past -- And Some Of Us Haven't Forgotten

From the Arkansas News:
U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s re-election campaign has adopted a line of attack against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter that was first advanced by a group she previously said had no connection to her campaign.

Lincoln, locked in an increasingly bitter struggle with Halter for the Democratic nomination for her Senate seat, said previously she had no connection to the group Arkansans for Common Sense, which ran an ad accusing Halter of trying to privatize Social Security when he ran that agency under President Bill Clinton. ...

“When corporate millionaire Bill Halter was a commissioner of the Social Security Administration in 2000, he wanted to invest Social Security revenues in the stock market, claiming his plan would strengthen Social Security,” the mailer reads, adding that this would have endangered over 600,000 Arkansans who receive Social Security benefits.

In a statement today, Halter’s campaign said again, as it did in response to the Arkansans for Common Sense ad, that Halter’s comments in 2000 were in reference to a proposal by Clinton to invest a small portion of the Social Security Trust Fund in the stock market.

You may not remember Halter as Commissioner of Social Security. That is because he was Acting Commissioner of Social Security from January 20 to March 29, 2001. Before that he was Deputy Commissioner.

I can give a much better reason for criticizing Halter for his work as Acting Commissioner. He did nothing as the Hearing Process Improvement (HPI) debacle was causing Social Security's hearing process to collapse. HPI was only being implemented as the Clinton Administration was ending. It was immediately apparent that HPI would be a calamity. Halter was only Acting Commissioner after the inauguration of George W. Bush but how was the Bush Administration going to punish him for taking action on HPI -- fire him? The Bush Administration has much responsibility for the hearing backlog that Social Security has now but so does the Clinton Administration. Social Security was in free fall during the transition between Clinton and Bush. In an emergency, real leaders take action. That was an emergency and Halter sat on his hands.

It's Gotten Worse In Omaha

From the Omaha Journal-Star:

Five of Omaha attorney Tim Cuddigan's clients died this year waiting for Social Security disability decisions.

It's a long wait across the country, but Nebraskans wait longer than most.

Nebraskans who apply for disability insurance wait an average of two years for a final decision from the Social Security Administration. ...

In the past six months, while the national average improved, the average wait for a hearing in the Omaha office got longer. ...

A Social Security Administration spokesman said Omaha is slated to get a judge in the next round of hirings.

Help For Thousands

From New American Media:
Rosa Martinez didn’t know what to do when the Social Security Administration told her two years ago that the agency was stopping her disability assistance because she had an outstanding 1980 arrest warrant for illegal possession of prescription drugs in Miami. A resident of Redwood City, Calif., she has never visited Miami. ...

She pleaded with a series of bureaucrats that she could not be the same Rosa Martinez named in the old warrant, a Rosa eight inches taller. But those please fell on deaf ears.

“Maybe God put me in this situation so I could help others,” she said at a New America Media press briefing, where she and legal aid attorneys described how she became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, against the Social Security Administration. Michael Astrue is the Social Security commissioner.

The class action lawsuit led to federal court settlement that will return up to $500 million to about a quarter million people, who had their Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) supports wrongfully cut off by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Outreach is critical, though, because many people who lost their benefits over the last 10 years must reapply to Social Security. In some cases eligible people have only about six months to apply or they risk permanently losing those benefits. ...

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will soon be notifying people, mainly by mail, that they can reapply for assistance.

Apr 29, 2010

Help Needed

I have received the following e-mail from Peter Martin who is the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law at Cornell and the former dean of the law school:
As the author of a Social Security law resource (http://www.law.cornell.edu/socsec/) I was recently asked to do a presentation for a group of academics on "when to claim Social Security [retirement] benefits".

I later decided to try to rework the talk for a broader audience. If you or a colleague should have time to look at it, I would welcome feedback. You will find the current version at: http://www.access-to-law.com/socsec
Please find some time to give Professor Martin some help. With the aging of the baby boom generation, this question gets asked more and more.

Apr 28, 2010

Yesterday's Hearing

Federal News Radio has an article about yesterday's Congressional hearing as does the Imperial Valley News.

The Subcommittees involved have posted a number of charts used at the hearing. The one I found most interesting is to the left. Click on it to see it full size.

Videos from the hearing are also available online.
Social Security's plan to reinstate the reconsideration step in the ten states in which it had been eliminated is quite controversial. This came up in the remarks of many of the witnesses.

Another ALJ For Omaha

From the Omaha World-Herald:

The Omaha hearings office that reviews appeals from most Nebraskans and western Iowans expects to hire a judge soon to fill a slot that has been vacant since last year, said Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

The new judge should hear cases by the first week of July, Astrue told The World-Herald on Tuesday. His comments came after he testified before Congress about the continued backlog of disability claims nationwide.

"A Rare Computer Error"

WSPA in Greenville-Spartanburg, SC is running a story about a man who was approved for Supplemental Security Income but who did not receive his back benefits for more than a year. Social Security blamed the delay on "a rare computer error" but Social Security's Inspector General testified yesterday before a Congressional committee that there were a number of other people in the same boat. My experience is that delays of this sort are vastly more common than what the Inspector General found.

Apr 27, 2010

Witness List For Today's Hearing

The witness list is out for today's joint hearing of the Social Security and Income Security Subcommittees of the House Ways and Means Committee:
  • The Honorable Bob Filner, a Representative in Congress from the State of California
An excerpt:
In Michigan, an economically hard-hit State, we have concluded that too many cases are needlessly going to the hearings level from the DDSs. Therefore, we plan to reinstate reconsideration in Michigan next fiscal year. ...

[W]e are also looking at reinstating reconsideration in Colorado, at the request of the Governor. ...

By the end of FY 2010, we expect to have 2,800 more DDS employees on board than we did at the end of FY 2008 ...

We are in-sourcing verbatim hearing reporting to further improve ALJ productivity. [Note that he appears to be talking about replacing contractors with federal employees.] ...

To assist with decision writing and case preparation in our hearing offices, we will establish National Case Assistance Centers (NCAC) in McLean, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri. The McLean NCAC is scheduled to open in May 2010 and will perform decision writing only. The St. Louis NCAC will be co-located with the new St. Louis NHC, opening in July 2010, and will both write decisions and prepare cases.
An excerpt:

As devastating as the wait for a decision can be, it is perhaps more troubling that, even once a claim is approved, there can be a delay in SSA actually issuing the funds awarded to the claimant. In conducting the survey described above, we discovered that some individuals whose claims were allowed were never paid. As a result, we have commenced an audit entitled Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income Claims Approved But Not Paid. In this audit, we are examining the extent to which this occurs. Although not completed, our review of almost half a million 2006 disability allowances in the Title II and Title XVI programs revealed initially that 61 deserving claimants had never been paid, and that another 19 did not begin receiving payments as early as they should have.
An excerpt:
We are presently informed that in some hearing offices cases are assigned out of rotation and reassigned from one judge to another. We believe such a practice must be discontinued as it is inconsistent with the APA [Administrative Procedure Act] and legal precedent and is detrimental to the American people.

Like Getting Beaten In Football By 40 Points And Calling It Success

From the North Platte, Nebraska Telegraph:
Can't work because you're sick or injured? What if your claim for disability benefits is denied?

In Nebraska and western Iowa, you have two choices: Accept the decision or appeal for a hearing at the local Social Security office - and wait about 18 months.

Tracking with improvements nationwide, the average wait at the hearings office in Omaha has declined by nearly four months from its all-time high in 2008. But that wait remains three months longer than the national average - and nine longer than in the nation's fastest office, in Middlesboro, Ky. ...

John Garlinger, a spokesman for the agency's regional office that covers Nebraska and Iowa, said the situation in Omaha remains unacceptable.

"Is it where we want to be? No, of course not," he said. "But it's moving in the right direction." ...

The Omaha office now has about 3,000 pending cases, people waiting for a hearing.

"It's a huge toll on their families and them," said Omaha attorney Tim Cuddigan, who represents Magill and hundreds of others seeking disability benefits. ...

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., called the situation an "embarrassment" to Social Security officials. Terry has written letters decrying the delays in the past. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has pushed for more funding.

Terry said he'd like to turn up the heat on those in charge and scoffed at any suggestion of success with wait times hovering at or around 18 months.

"If that's success - that's like Nebraska touting success when Missouri beat them by 40 points - geez, we still scored 20?" Terry said. "Come on."

Apr 26, 2010


In response to a Congressional request, Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has done a recent audit to see how closely Social Security is sticking to its First In, First Out (FIFO) policy when it comes to holding hearings and issuing decisions to Social Security claimants. The audit shows no major problem.

Unfortunately, the audit was limited to 55 cases at three hearing offices.

Apr 25, 2010

Making It Tough To Live Overseas?

The Living In Guanajuato blog discusses issues of interest to Americans living in Mexico. Here is an excerpt from a recent post that gives some information that I find surprising about some issues that come up in my practice from time to time:
If you are retiring here know that the American government does not trust direct deposit into Mexican banks. If you get Social Security and want it deposited into a Mexican bank, this can be done. But, here is how it works.

What SSA does is transfer it to the bank of the American Embassy in Mexico City. From there it is sent to your Mexican bank account. ...

Well, I can hear you pontificate, I have my Social Security deposited to my bank account in the States.

Well...I respond...the US Feds will eventually figure out that you do not really live in the States and will snatch your account right out from underneath you.

For real, I am not joking. Unless you live in the States, and they will verify this, you have to have a Mexican Bank account and will have your American bank account seized. You have to live FULL TIME in the States to maintain your American Bank account. If you put your daughter's address, or whoever, down as your place of residence, and someone's American phone number, they will check this out. ...

Now, let's say you get your SSDI or SSI payment on the third of the month. According to the SSA Rules, when your payment date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, that is the third of the month falls on a weekend day, then you should be paid on the Friday before your payment date. Get that? If you get your check on the third and the third falls on a Sunday, then you'll be paid on the first which would be a Friday. ...

If your payment date falls on the third of the month and the third is on a Saturday or Sunday, you will not get paid on the first which would be a Friday. You will get paid sometime that following week and when exactly is anyone's guess.
I am concerned that the person writing this may not know what he or she is talking about. I was unaware of any problem with receiving direct deposits of U.S. Social Security benefits to U.S. bank accounts while living overseas. The issues may be different in other countries. I expect that the U.S. does make direct deposits to banks in Western Europe, for instance. Having the U.S. Embassy in Mexico re-forward direct deposits to Mexican bank accounts sounds bizarre. I guess my advice in the future will be to check with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate about the process for receiving U.S. Social Security benefits while living overseas.

Update: I have received e-mails telling me that Living in Guanajuato has everything wrong. Americans living abroad have to let Social Security know they are still alive each year. Otherwise there is no problem with Social Security direct deposits to either U.S. or foreign banks. I am sorry to have posted another person's nonsense.

Apr 24, 2010

We Have a Winner

From FedBlog:
So it wasn't exactly an episode of Iron Chef. But it was a lot more fun. The Office of Personnel Management on Wednesday hosted its first "Feds Get Fit Cook-off," as part of the agency's governmentwide initiative to promote healthy living among the federal workforce. Melissa Knoll of the Social Security Administration walked away with the top prize, wowing judges with her tomato curry coconut soup with shrimp.

Apr 23, 2010

India Still Pressing For Social Security Treaty With The U.S.

India is still pushing for a Social Security treaty with the United States. This may be a non-issue in this country but it is a big deal for India. I get a ton of hits every time I post anything about this.

A New Line Of Attack

I am not sure of the validity of the statistical model he cites but our old friend Andrew Biggs is promoting a new argument for abolishing Social Security. I think we can expect to hear this argument coming from the mouths of Republicans in the future. I hope they make it a big campaign issue this Fall.

Apr 22, 2010

Bomb Threat In Abilene

The Abilene Reporter-News reports a bomb threat on Wednesday at the Abilene, TX Social Security field office.

Two New ALJs To Fargo

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan has announced that two new Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are being assigned to Social Security's Fargo hearing office. Dorgan had earlier called for more staffing to reduce the backlog in North Dakota.

Poor Servive In Rhode Island

From the Providence, RI Journal:

At around 11 a.m. on Monday, Doreen Haworth arrived at the local Social Security office to help her brother regarding a claim for benefits.

She did not emerge for two hours. “It’s packed in there,” she said as she left the one-story building on Pleasant Street. “You’re lucky to get a seat.” It is the same whenever she visits the office: “Long waits,” said Haworth, of East Providence.

At many Social Security offices across the country, people are encountering an increase in wait times, busy signals and delays, according to a report last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the audit arm of Congress.

This undermines trust in Social Security and undermines trust in the government's ability to do anything right.

Seven Months For Fake Anthrax Scare

From the Cullman, Alabama Times:
A federal judge has sentenced a Haleyville man to seven months in prison after authorities say he mailed a letter containing white powder and photos of the 9/11 attacks to the Social Security Administration in Cullman.

U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre also sentenced 41-year-old Patrick Bryant Wilson to three years of supervised release, including seven months of home confinement.

Pomeroy Not Wasting Time

Early Pomeroy, the new Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee is not wasting time. He has scheduled a joint hearing for April 27 at 2:00 with the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, which has jurisdiction over Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is administered by the Social Security Administration. Here is an excerpt from the press release on the hearing:
... [A] new backlog in unprocessed initial disability applications has now emerged, and has already reached unprecedented levels. SSA estimates that by the end of FY 2010, more than one million Americans will be awaiting an initial decision on their application for disability benefits, up from about 567,000 at the end of FY 2008. SSA projects the initial claims backlog will remain at essentially this level through FY 2011.

In addition to causing longer waiting times, the increase in claims also affects SSA’s capacity to process reconsideration appeals – the first appeals step, which occurs prior to a request for a hearing before an ALJ – and to conduct continuing disability reviews, which are important to program integrity. The increase in initial claims also will result in more appeals to the hearing level, which may strain the capacity of SSA’s hearing offices in coming years.

Under the President’s budget for FY 2011, SSA states it will be able to stay on track to eliminate the hearings backlog by the end of FY 2013. However, this funding will not allow SSA to make significant progress in reducing the initial claims backlog. In addition, service delivery in other parts of the agency will continue to be challenged.

Apr 21, 2010

Why Do You Want To Open This Can Of Worms?

From a notice posted by Social Security on FedBizOpps:
The Social Security Administration is performing market research to identify potential sources for providing assistance with a study testing the usability and reliability of a prototype person-side instrument with items addressing an individual's ability to perform specific physical and mental work-related activities. This study is part of a larger project to develop a new occupational information system tailored specifically for the agency's disability programs and adjudicative needs. Specific tasks to be conducted include assisting in the development of the study design, developing three electronic data collection instruments (DCIs) and databases, developing one non-electronic DCI for focus groups, developing the protocol for each of the DCIs, facilitating and leading focus groups in 10 cities across the country, developing training, assisting with the pre-test(s) of the study design, monitoring the databases, analyzing study results, and preparing a report on the study findings.

Apr 20, 2010

Public Not So Happy With Social Security

I had posted earlier about a Pew Research Center survey on the American people's trust in their federal government. I should have looked at the report more closely. They surveyed on individual agencies as well. Social Security's favorable rating went down from 62% to 49% between 1997/1998 and 2010, a decline of 13%, one of the largest declines of any federal agency. Only two agencies, the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service, were rated lower than Social Security.

Poor service at Social Security has something to do with this. The relentless drumbeat of attacks on Social Security from the right also has a lot to do with this. Many, many Americans have been frightened into believing that it is inevitable that Social Security will fail. This has become an article of faith in many right wing circles even though it is nonsense. Social Security's funding problem can be easily solved with even the slightest bit of bipartisanship at any time in the next thirty years or so.

What Does This Mean?

Social Security has had a Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel holding meetings since the Fall of 2008. Take a look at this extract from the minutes of the Panel's meeting in November 2009(click on it to see it at its full size). What does this mean?

It sounds like one person would be in charge of all decisions of a Social Security disability claim regardless of the level, perhaps a person called a case manager, who might have the right to veto any decision that he or she disagreed with. Of course, I may be reading too much into this blurb and anything this Panel may recommend would have to go through an extensive process before coming into effect nationally. Still, it is hard to avoid the impression that this technical panel is considering making a recommendation that would have a substantive impact. That does not seem right to me.

Things Get Better In Texas

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

North Texans applying for disability benefits are facing shorter waits for appeal hearings, as Social Security officials continue to shave away at a massive backlog of cases.

In Fort Worth, applicants appealing claims got hearings and rulings two months faster than they did one year ago, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants [Representatives] , which tracks wait times.

Similar progress was reported at Dallas offices.

Even so, it still takes about 10 months for hearings to occur, an official noted.

"That is still too long," said Ethel Zelenske, with the claimants group's government affairs office. "But delays in general have trended down lately, and that is a good thing for everyone who is waiting for assistance."

Apr 19, 2010

Public Distrusts Government

The Pew Research Center reports that just 22% of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington almost all or most of the time. This dissatisfaction has many causes but poor public service at many government agencies, including the Social Security Administration has to be part of it.

No More Paper Checks

The Washington Post is reporting that as of March 1, 2011 those who go on Social Security benefits will no longer be given the option of a paper check. They will either have to specify a bank account for direct deposit or be assigned to the Direct Express Debit MasterCard program. As of March 1, 2013 this will be mandatory for all Social Security beneficiaries.

A Moment To Remember

Richard A. Allen
Claims Representative
Had 22 years of service with SSA. A Vietnam veteran, he was born in Bailey's Crossroads, Va., and won a scholarship to Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla. He is survived by a daughter and his mother.

Saundra G. Avery
Development Clerk
Worked nine years for SSA. She was a native of Danville, Ark., and was active in her church. A graduate of Central State University in Edmond, Okla., Sandy is survived by her parents and a brother.

Oleta C. Biddy
Service Representative
Worked 20 years for SSA. Oleta was born in Rosebud, Ark., and was active as a Sunday school teacher and taught children's choir at her church. She is survived by her husband, a son, two grandchildren and two sisters.

Carol L. Bowers
Operations Supervisor
Had 33 years of service at SSA, starting as a clerk-steno in December 1961. Carol was born in Chandler, Okla., and is survived by her husband and a son.

Sharon L. Chesnut
Claims Representative
Worked for SSA for 21 years and was an active member of her church. She was born in Oklahoma City and is survived by a daughter, her mother, a sister, a stepson and a stepdaughter.

Katherine L Cregan
Service Representative
Had 14 years of SSA service. Kathy was a native of West Memphis, Ark. A widow, Kathy is survived by three sons and five grandchildren.

Margaret E. Goodson
Claims Representative
Had almost 21 years of service with SSA. Margaret enjoyed motorcycling and camping trips with her husband. Other survivors include three sons, one daughter, three brothers and four grandchildren.

Ethel L. Griffin
Service Representative
Had 19 years of service with SSA, starting as a claims clerk. She was born in Illinois, where she attended Southwest Jr. College and the College of DuPage. Ethel is survived by her husband, two children and three grandchildren.

Ronald V. Harding
Service Representative
Had more than 30 years of government service. He served two years in the Army and also worked for the Air Force before joining SSA in 1967. A respected musician, Ron is survived by two sons, two daughters, his parents, two brothers and a sister.

Raymond L. Johnson
Senior Community Service Volunteer
National Indian Council on Aging worker, was stationed in the Oklahoma City DO for the past six months helping with Head Start programs for Seminole children. Born in Lawton, Okla., Raymond is survived by his wife, seven children, 21 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and a brother.

Derwin W. Miller
Claims Representative
Worked at SSA for five years. Derwin was an Arkansas native and a member of the Army Reserve. He was hired through the Outstanding Scholar Program. He is survived by a daughter, his parents, two brothers, a sister and two grandmothers.

Charlotte A. Thomas
Contact Representative
Had 12 years of service with SSA. She was employed previously with the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. Charlotte is survived by a son.

Michael G. Thompson
Field Representative
Worked for SSA for 19 years. He served in the Army for more than two years. A Vietnam veteran, he is survived by his wife, three sons, one daughter, his mother, two brothers and one sister.

Robert N. Walker, Jr.
Claims Representative
Had 15 years of service with SSA. He served in the Army for three years. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Bob attended the University of Florida. He is survived by his wife, one son, three stepsons, one stepdaughter and 12 grandchildren.
(See in-depth story.)

Julie M. Welch
Claims Representative
Was hired under the Outstanding Scholar Program in August 1994. Julie was a recent graduate of Marquette University and had studied abroad at the University of Madrid. She is survived by her parents, a brother and a stepbrother.

William S. Williams
Operations Supervisor
Had 20 years of service with SSA. An Oklahoma native, he had a degree in mathematics from Oklahoma State University. Steve is survived by his wife, three daughters, his father, two sisters, one brother and two grandmothers.

Timothy McVeigh, the author of the Oklahoma City bombing, was motivated by a hatred for the federal government. He was particularly concerned about gun rights. The Oklahoma City bombing took place on the anniversary of the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which McVeigh and many other gun rights advocates took as an assault upon the right to bear arms. McVeigh described the bombing as revenge for Waco.

A gun rights group has scheduled a rally today in Washington "to remind the U.S. Government that it is our right to keep and bear arms, and that right shall not be infringed." One element of the rally is an effort to create a "money bomb." The group's website has a FAQ page which does not say why the rally was planned for April 19, 2010 instead of a Saturday, for instance.

It appears that this gun rights group is remembering the Oklahoma City bombing in its own way.

Apr 18, 2010

Help On Garnishment

From the Associated Press:
The Obama administration on Wednesday proposed rules aimed at closing a legal loophole that debt collectors have used to seize Social Security and veterans' benefits from bank accounts. ...

Federal law has long protected Social Security and veterans benefits from most creditors, with a few exceptions for child support, alimony, unpaid federal taxes and debts to other federal agencies. But creditors have been seizing the payments anyway by getting court orders to freeze and garnish bank accounts that receive the federal benefits through direct deposit. ...

Under the proposed rules, banks that receive garnishment orders for their customers' accounts would be required to review the accounts to determine whether they received deposits of federal benefits in the past 60 days, and in what amount.

The goal is to give financial institutions clear rules concerning garnishment orders and a safe harbor against liability, a Treasury official said Wednesday.
I do not see this in the Federal Register for last Wednesday.

Update: There is a good reason that I did not see this in last Wednesday's Federal Register. I did not appear in the Federal Register until today.

Apr 17, 2010

A Little More Information Needed

Representative John Tanner, who was then the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, asked Social Security's Office of Inspector General last December for a report on Social Security's selection of a site for a new National Computer Center. Below is almost all of the OIG report that was released to the public:
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $500 million to replace the National Computer Center (NCC). The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has been tasked to provide oversight for the development and implementation of the NCC replacement. As part of our oversight function, we initiated a review to evaluate the appropriateness of the site or potential sites selected for the new data center and determine whether best practices were followed in the development of the overall project plan and milestones. OIG contracted with Strategic e-Business Solutions, Inc. (SeBS) and its subcontractor, Fortress International Group, to assist with this review. ...

SeBs evaluation found that in general, the Social Security Administration (SSA) developed a highly sophisticated set of selection criteria with which to evaluate general geographic areas of consideration and prospective individual properties. The Agency’s decision criteria avoided major areas that potentially are hazardous to the operation of a data center (including both natural and man-made risks). In addition, the criteria define major site and data center construction issues that would ultimately have a significant impact on the site property to be selected. However, questions remain concerning SSA's process employed in narrowing the site properties down to a short list. In addition, the initial mandatory selection criteria applied to the geographic regions under consideration may have excluded too many locales. In particular, when developing the mandatory selection criteria, it does not appear that consideration was given to the serious fiscal impact that exclusions would have in the electrical power cost arena over the life cycle of the data center. Finally, in evaluating the telecommunications criteria concepts, SeBS found only limited information. SeBs made 25 recommendations related to site selection industry best practices. SSA agreed with 22 of 25 recommendations.

This report may contain Federal procurement sensitive source selection information. The disclosure of such information is restricted by section 27 of the Procurement Integrity Act.

I think that OIG could have released a bit more of the report without revealing "sensitive source selection information."

Apr 16, 2010

Yesterday's Hearing

Videos of yesterday's House Social Security Subcommittee hearing are now available for your viewing pleasure in bite size pieces:
Here are a couple of excerpts from a Washington Post article on yesterday's hearing:

If you work in an agency where the number of employees has increased a little bit while the amount of work has jumped a lot, there are going to be some unhappy campers among the staff and the customers.

That's the situation at the Social Security Administration, according to several witnesses at a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing Thursday.

But one witness had a different opinion, demonstrating the old maxim that where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit. If you sit in the boss's office, as does SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, you can paint a considerably more optimistic view of the agency's operations than employees and independent evaluators. ...

That kind of work environment produces great stress, representative of the American Federation of Government Employees told the panel. Daniel Woosley is a social insurance specialist in the Louisville office and serves as a SWAT team reserve police officer in his county's sheriff's department.

"Working in the Louisville West [SSA] office is incredibly stressful," said Woosley, who also is executive vice president of AFGE Local 3984. "I've made statements in the past that I feel less stress while working with the SWAT team -- and having weapons pointed at me by perpetrators -- than I do going into the Social Security office every day."

Raise The Death Benefit?

From The Sun of San Bernardino, CA:
Americans who lose a spouse would get more money from Social Security under a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Baca, but critics worry the plan would put more pressure on an entitlement system already on the verge of going broke.

When a Social Security recipient dies, their surviving spouse receives a one-time payment of $255, but they miss out on their spouse's regular Social Security check for that month.

Baca, D-San Bernardino, wants to change that, giving surviving spouses a larger "death payment" and a check for the deceased's final days. ...

Baca's bill - called the Benefit Adjustment of Social Security Income Compensation, or BASIC - calls for increasing the size of the death payment from $255 to 47 percent of the deceased person's typical monthly Social Security income, with $255 as the minimum payment.

The bill also calls for paying Social Security benefits for each day - not just each whole month - a recipient lives. At present, Baca's office said, the spouse of a Social Security beneficiary who dies May 15 will not receive their spouse's check for May. Baca's plan would send a check for half the month, on top of the death payment.

I have no idea whether this has a chance but we ought to do something about the death benefit -- either abolish it or make it more meaningful. At the moment, it probably costs about as much to administer it as it does to actually pay the benefits. My opinion is that if we are going to have a death benefit that it ought to be several times the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), that is the monthly amount paid to the primary beneficiary on an account.

Apr 15, 2010

Service Delivery Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee hearing on service delivery at Social Security's field offices has begun. Here are some excerpts from the written testimony:
In our January 2009 report, we recommended that SSA [Social Security Administration] establish standards for field office customer waiting times and phone service to help identify and improve offices with poor service. SSA did not act on this recommendation stating that it would create problems by diverting staff already spread thin across field offices.
Field Offices are also having difficulties with some law firms that advertise nationwide to take claims and appeals for claimants. The work product is often deficient, or some send us only skeleton Internet applications. Often we spend months trying to get all the information we need to process the claim, which disadvantages the claimant. Many attorneys will not file their claims and appeals electronically. Field Offices have to manually load these paper applications into our system, which is labor intensive. We believe there should be greater accountability for law firms that represent claimants; otherwise they should collect their own fees instead of SSA doing so.
In many of our busiest offices, customers line up as early as 7:00 AM to make sure that they can be served when the office doors open. This can lead to security issues when people try to cut the line or become frustrated with waiting.
Commissioner Astrue has testified that iClaims are more accurate than claims taken by SSA employees. What he is not telling Congress is that ALL iClaims are reviewed and corrected by SSA employees before payment can be authorized. In addition, the most common error, incorrect month of election, is not considered an error under Commissioner Astrue’s financial literacy concept. Under this philosophy the client is responsible for determining the best time to begin their benefits and the SSA employee shouldn’t interfere in that decision even if the claimant's choice appears clearly disadvantageous. This philosophy as led to many claimants making uninformed decisions which will result in thousands of dollars in lost benefits. However, since claimants can’t make errors regarding the month they elect benefits, SSA’s Internet statistics look good.

SSA does not and will not perform audits on the Internet claims at the point they are submitted by the applicant. Instead, the claim is reviewed after an SSA employee makes the necessary corrections. This creates the illusion that the public completed the claims correctly. ...

The Commissioner announced last year that SSA’s iClaims process would allow claimants to file Internet claims without SSA employee review starting this year. SSA employees and AFGE were shocked and appalled that such changes would proceed, due to the vast number of claims that require correction before decisions about entitlement or payment amount are effectuated. The Commissioner has delayed implementation of a non‐reviewed iclaims filing process. This delay should be permanent. ...

While resources are limited and field/TSC [Teleservice Centers] staffing levels have not increased in relation to additional workloads, SSA management continues to engage in unethical behavior in processing work and measuring the amount of work completed. SSA management engages in a variety of questionable practices which are designed to enhance individual office statistical performance. Such practices include processing claims for individuals who are clearly ineligible for benefits, and padding statistics by taking unnecessary actions such as reissuing Medicare cards to every client in the office whether or not they request such cards. Systems tricks are employed by some managers to reflect inaccurate processing times in order to claim better statistical performance.
Skwierczynski undermines his credibility by coming across as an angry man. This does not mean that what he is saying is wrong. He knows what he is talking about.

Astrue Testimony To House Appropriations Committee

Commissioner Astrue's testimony before the House Appropriations Committee has now been posted online. The testimony is about what one would expect: well justified pride about what has been accomplished with higher appropriations in fiscal years (FYs) 2009 and 2010 and a plea for quick passage of the President's recommended appropriation for Social Security for FY 2011.

To the left is a chart from that testimony setting forth the projections being used to prepare the current and future budgets for Social Security. It assumes much higher new claims than was the case when last year's budget was prepared.

There is one ever so tiny appropriation in the bill for one person. The special age 72 benefit that began in 1968 has dwindled down to the point that an appropriation of only $4,000 is sought for FY 2011 which is for the last person on those benefits. I wonder how old that person is. Social Security's role in the Black Lung program is also rapidly coming to an end. No appropriation is sought for FY 2011 since there is adequate money left over from prior years.

There is one item mentioned in Commissioner Astrue's written statement that I hope Committee staff will be exploring and that is the work of the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). Exactly what Social Security is up to with this is unclear. This makes me and a number of other people nervous.

Hearing Office Processing Time Report

From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). The original is also a bit fuzzy. Click on each thumbnail to see it full size.

Apr 14, 2010

Witness List For Tomorrow's Hearing

Below is the witness list for tomorrow's hearing of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. I would like to read Commissioner Astrue's testimony before the House Appropriations Committee today but there is a bad link on that Committee's website.

Update: The bad link has now been corrected. Here is Commissioner Astrue's testimony.
  • Barbara Bovbjerg, Managing Director for Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues, Government Accountability Office
  • Joe Dirago, Manager, Social Security Administration Newburgh Field Office and President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Newburgh, New York
  • Billie Armenta, District Manager, Social Security Administration Phoenix Downtown District Office and Secretary, National Council of Social Security ManagementAssociations, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Witold Skwierczynski, President, National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Daniel Woosley, Generalist Claims Representative, Social Security Administration Louisville West Field Office and Executive Vice President of Kentucky Local 3984,
  • National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Louisville, Kentucky
  • The Honorable Patrick P. O’Carroll, Inspector General, Social Security Administration

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

Social Security Employment Stabilizes

Below are the December 2009 figures for the number of employees at Social Security, recently released by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), along with earlier figures for comparison purposes.
  • December 2009 67,486
  • September 2009 67,632
  • June 2009 66,614
  • March 2009 63,229
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990
  • September 2007 62,407
  • September 2006 63,647
  • September 2005 66,147
  • September 2004 65,258
  • September 2003 64,903
  • September 2002 64,648
  • September 2001 65,377
  • September 2000 64,521
  • September 1999 63,957
  • September 1998 65,629

Apr 13, 2010

A National Disgrace

From the Bradenton, FL Herald:

We cannot imagine the suffering not only from debilitating pain but from the extreme wait times for hearings on applications for Social Security Disability Insurance. The average wait in Florida stands at 470 days.

That is unconscionable. And unacceptable.

Sarasota resident Thomas Presha’s fate is worse. He’s been waiting more than two years for a hearing before a Social Security Administration administrative law judge. ...

How can a civilized society let that happen? ...

Presha’s Bradenton attorney, Terri F. Cromley, calls the current setup a “horrible process,” one that has left many of her clients homeless. ...

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has the right idea. She’s pushing legislation that would force the SSA to schedule a hearing within five business days of receiving a request, actually holding the hearing between 60 to 75 days later, and then issuing a decision within another 15 days of the hearing. That’s far more reasonable and certainly more humane. ...

This is a national disgrace. Congress should pass Castor’s measure, and President Obama should sign it into law.

Pomeroy Is Listening

From the Bismark Tribune:

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. [the chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee], met with local Social Security Administration officials to talk about the future of the program.

Pomeroy’s subcommittee on Social Security is hosting a meeting on the subject this week, and the congressman has held a few such roundtables in North Dakota as preparation, part of what he calls a listening tour. ...

Facing the Social Security Administration are major staffing problems, where the force is decreasing as the pool of claimants is getting larger. Pomeroy said he’s heard from a number of staffers that retirees are not being replaced fast enough to meet customer service demands and that phones at the office are constantly busy because there just aren’t enough people to answer them. ...

He blames the inability to fund more Social Security jobs on cuts from Congress during the Bush administration, but said that an announcement by the Social Security commissioner that the agency would add 900 new jobs can at least partially be attributed to pressure from his committee.

And there is a related story on local television.

Apr 12, 2010

How Underfunding Social Security's Administrative Budget Costs Money -- Lots Of Money

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (emphasis added):
The objective of this evaluation was to determine the financial impact to the Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs as a result of conducting fewer full medical continuing disability reviews (CDR). ...

SSA employs a profiling system that uses data from SSA’s records to determine the likelihood of medical improvement for disabled beneficiaries. SSA selects beneficiaries’ records profiled as having a high likelihood of medical improvement for a full medical review by disability determination services (DDS). Beneficiaries profiled as having a medium or low likelihood of medical improvement are sent a mailer questionnaire. If the completed mailer questionnaire indicates medical improvement, SSA will send the case to the DDS for a full medical review. ...

According to SSA, resource limitations and increases in its core workloads prevented it from conducting full medical CDRs when they became due. As a result, SSA estimates a backlog of over 1.5 million full medical CDRs will exist at the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2010.

SSA has made, and will continue to make, benefit payments to individuals who would no longer be eligible if the backlog of 1.5 million full medical CDRs had been conducted when they became due.

• From Calendar Year (CY) 2005 through CY 2010, we estimate SSA will have made benefit payments of between $1.3 and $2.6 billion that could have potentially been avoided if the full medical CDRs in the backlog had been conducted when they became due (see Appendix C).

• Although SSA plans to conduct an increased number of full medical CDRs in FY 2011, the 1.5-million full medical CDR backlog will most likely remain. Therefore, we estimate SSA will pay between $556 million and $1.1 billion during CY 2011 that could have potentially been avoided if the full medical CDRs in the backlog had been conducted when they became due (see Appendix C). ...

We estimate SSA could potentially identify lifetime Federal benefit savings of almost $15.8 billion if it had the resources to conduct all 1.5 million full medical CDRs in FY 2010.

Budget planners, take notice.

Why was it that OIG was not producing reports like this while George W. Bush was President? What we saw then was reports that implied that incompetent bureaucrats were allowing crooks to rip off Social Security.

Apr 11, 2010

Hearing Scheduled On Social Security Appropriation

The House Appropriations Committee's Labor-HHS Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, April 14 at 10:00 on Social Security's administrative appropriation for fiscal year 2011, which begins on October 1, 2010. This is not an appropriation for the benefits paid by Social Security -- those require no appropriation -- but for the budget, or limitation on administrative expenditures (LAE) if you want to be technical, which Social Security needs to administer those benefits. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue is scheduled to testify.

Fee Payment Stats

Social Security has released updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Apr 10, 2010

Statisticians Get Recognition

Amstatnews, the membership magazine of the American Statistical Association is running an article by William W. Davis, Social Security's Chief Mathematical Statistician, describing the work of the agency's Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (ORES). One key project for ORES at the moment is the plan to issue Social Security numbers randomly across the country instead of assigning the first three digits of the number geographically.

Apr 9, 2010

Field Offices, Your Time Has Come

The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled its first hearing since Congressman Earl Pomeroy became chairman. The hearing will be on April 15 at 10:00. Here are some excerpts from the press release:
So far this calendar year,weekly visits to SSA’s field offices have hit the one million mark five times, while in all of last year, visits hit the one-million mark only twice. The Government Accountability Office and others have concluded that resource shortages over the years have contributed to the development of unprecedented backlogs in disability hearings, and caused reduced staffing throughout the agency even as workloads have risen. By the end of 2007, agency staffing had dropped to almost the level in 1972 – before the start of the SSI program – even though SSA’s beneficiary population had nearly doubled since that time. This in turn has led to a decline in customer service and a buildup of unprocessed workloads in SSA local field offices.

In FY 2008 through FY 2010, Congress provided SSA with increased funding to begin to address the backlogs and other service delivery declines. These increased resources reflect Congressional concerns about the unacceptable backlog in disability claim processing, but have not been sufficient to address the growing amount of work that SSA has been forced to defer in order to process the increasing number of new claims on a timely basis.

Despite the hard work and dedication of SSA employees in field offices and teleservice centers, SSA’s level of service to the public has deteriorated. Field office managers report that they do not have sufficient staff to answer the phones, assist walk-in visitors, and produce the high-quality work the public deserves. In FY 2009, 58 percent of callers who tried to reach an SSA field office got a busy signal, up from 51 percent in FY 2008. As a result, more walk-in visits occur for matters that could be handled by phone. Field office managers and front-line staff also are increasingly concerned about declining quality in the work they produce. Nearly all resources are needed to process claims and assist SSA’s customers, and little is left to perform traditional quality-control and staff-training activities. ...

In announcing the hearing, Chairman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) stated “the Social Security Administration (SSA) was right to prioritize reducing the disability claims backlog, but I am concerned that other services that SSA provides to the American people are not getting sufficient attention and resources. I am interested in knowing what steps SSA is taking to address these other growing and backlogged workloads, and how the Subcommittee can be instrumental in making sure that SSA is once again able to provide the top-notch customer service the public deserves.”
This helps explain the April 6 announcement of additional personnel for Social Security field offices.

Nice Try

From Investors Business Daily:

Come 2018, even Social Security's staunchest defenders will have no choice but to admit that the program faces an urgent crisis.

That's when Social Security's Disability Insurance Trust Fund is due to run out, resulting in benefit cuts for disabled workers and their families.

And those cuts would be sharp — roughly 8% in 2018 and 16% in 2019 relative to scheduled levels. ...

[E]ven if the OASI [Old Age and Survivors Insurance] trust fund is still officially flush, it won't be able to automatically shift its Treasury-issued debt to the disability program.

Just one problem with this: Congress has previously allowed interfund borrowing and will undoubtedly do so again. The article mentions that this has happened in the past but assumes that it will not happen in the future. That is a ridiculous assumption. For all practical purposes, the two trust funds are one. There is a long term funding problem for Social Security in general. I wish we would get on to addressing it. The disability trust fund is not going to be the trigger for this to happen.

Apr 8, 2010

It Takes Longer In Ohio

From the Dayton Daily News:
Ohio residents seeking Social Security Disability Insurance wait longer for a hearing than residents of any other state, says a study released Tuesday, April 6.

More than 19 months on average pass before disability claims are heard by administrative law judges who determine eligibility for benefits, said Allsup, an Illinois company that processes Social Security disability claims.

For more on this, see a Government Executive article.

Apr 7, 2010

Open Government

In response to a Presidential initiative, Social Security has posted an Open Government page online. I see nothing new completely here but it is a useful compilation of resources made available by the agency.

Do note how agency expenditures as a percentage of the Social Security trust funds have declined dramatically over the decades.

What The Managers Think

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, surveys its membership each year, asking about their experiences in managing Social Security field offices. Here is their summary of this year's survey:
  • 87.4% of Survey respondents reported that they receive complaints weekly from the public about the accuracy or timeliness of the work being produced.
  • 82.5% of managers report that the number of quality case reviews performed in their office is insufficient to ensure an accurate and timely work product.
  • 71.9% of managers considered inadequate staffing to be the first or second greatest obstacle to ensuring a timely and accurate work product from their office. 61% said that competing operational priorities was the first or second greatest obstacle.
  • 64.6% of Field Office managers said that their offices were able to provide prompt telephone service less than half of the time.
  • Virtually all of the managers (98.1%) receive weekly complaints about telephone service provided by their office. 72.8% said they receive up to four such complaints each week.
  • 67.8% of the respondents said that the increased volume of visitors walking into their office is due in moderate or very large part to the inability of their office to provide prompt telephone service. 36.5% attribute the increased walk-in traffic in large part to the limited ability to answer the phones. The cause and effect is clear. 71.7% of managers said that they frequently or very frequently reassign staff from handling phone calls to helping in the reception area to reduce waiting times.
  • Field Office managers overwhelmingly (88.7%) said that more staff was the most necessary element to improve telephone service in their office. Only 5.2% said that better telephone equipment was the single greatest need.
  • As in recent Surveys, the need for additional staff is the most significant concern for Field Office managers. 95.5% of the managers said that they need to hire at least one more employee to provide adequate public service; 89.2% said that they need to hire at least two more employees; and 71.2% said that they need to hire at least three more employees.
  • Despite 1:1 staff replacements as a result of the FY 2010 SSA budget, 42% of the respondents indicated that they were not given authority to hire in FY 2010.

Apr 6, 2010

An E-Mail From The Commissioner

From: Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Tuesday, April 06, 2010 6:07 PM

To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: New Hires

I know that our unprecedented workloads continue to pressure every part of the agency. To help ease this pressure, we have been replacing staffing losses across the agency and hiring a substantial number of employees in the DDSs and ODAR. We have recently reassessed resources, and today I approved 900 new hires for front-line positions in Operations; virtually all of this allocation is for field offices. Moreover, I have decided to provide many of the additional hires to the most stressed offices. To the extent that space allows, we will be adding an average of 3 hires to the 200 field offices we found to be the most short-handed.

We can take this step forward because we have honored our commitment to Congress and the American public to make disability backlog reduction our top priority. We have 25 new hearing offices coming on line, and ODAR has reduced the number of pending cases for 15 straight months. Average processing times, particularly for the most backlogged offices, are dropping steadily.

In the face of furloughs and a deep recession, the DDSs have kept the number of pending cases well below our original projections so far this year.

Thank you for all you are doing in hard times to keep serving the American public.

Michael J. Astrue


Trust Funds Report Delayed

The Associated Press has put out a story saying that the annual report on the state of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds is being delayed until June 30, three months later than usual so that the effects of health care reform can be factored in. I doubt that health care reform will have any effect upon the Social Security trust funds in the near term. Increased longevity could have an effect upon the trust funds in the long term. In fact, I have read that health care reform should be judged primarily based upon its effects upon longevity. Health care reform certainly will have major effects upon the Medicare trust funds in the next five years.

One Shining Moment

Apr 5, 2010

Cert Denied In Encarnacion

The Supreme Court has denied the petition for a writ of certiorari (scroll way down), that is they decided not to hear, the case of Encarnacion v. Astrue which concerns Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits for disabled children. There had been earlier speculation that the Court might hear the case.

Apr 4, 2010

Happy Easter

Apr 3, 2010

It Began Long Before Franklin Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt in 1912:
It is abnormal for any industry to throw back upon the community the human wreckage due to its wear and tear, and the hazzards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment, and old age should be provided for through insurance. This should be made a charge in whole or in part upon the industries the employer, the employee, and perhaps the people at large, to contribute severally in some degree. Wherever such standards are not met by given establishments, by given industries, are unprovided for by a legislature, or are balked by unenlightened courts, the workers are in jeopardy, the progressive employer is penalized, and the community pays a heavy cost in lessened efficiency and in misery. What Germany has done in the way of old age pensions or insurance should be studied by us, and the system adapted to our uses, with whatever modifications are rendered necessary by our different ways of life and habits of thought.

Apr 2, 2010

Encarnacion v. Astrue

The SCOTUS Blog thinks there is a reasonable chance that the Supreme Court will grant a writ of certiorari, that is agree to hear, Encarnacion v. Astrue when the justices conference today. The question presented in Encarnacion is:
Whether, in issuing benefits to disabled children from poor families under the Supplemental Security Income program, the use of a “non-combination” policy for assessing disability in children — requiring “extreme” limitation within one of six “domains” of functioning rather than across domains — violates 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(G)’s instruction to consider “the combined effect of all of the individual’s impairments.”

I Wonder How This Happened

I have heard from a colleague who was put on hold recently by Social Security's Southeastern Program Service Center (PSC) in Birmingham, AL and by Social Security's Hearing Office in Atlanta. Both times she heard the same music looped to play over and over. The music is "I Surrender All." Here are the lyrics for "I Surrender All:"
All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live
I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my Blessed Savior
I surrender all.
YouTube has a recording of this hymn made at the White House. That is probably a different recording than the one my colleague heard.

Apr 1, 2010

Social Security Loses Another Fugitive Felon Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has just held in Clark v. Astrue that Social Security misinterpreted the statutory provision prohibiting payment of benefits to "fugitive felons." This opinion concerns claimants with alleged probation and parole violations. This is a class action case that will affect a large number of people.

Social Security had earlier settled the case of Martinez v. Astrue which involved a different fugitive felon issue.

The underlying problem is that Social Security adopted ridiculously overbroad interpretations of the fugitive felon provisions enacted by Congress. Congress had in mind murders and rapists. The reality was that the vast majority of those caught up by the fugitive felon provisions, as interpreted by Social Security, had committed, at most, relatively minor crimes. Many had no idea that anyone considered them a fugitive. Some had been convicted of nothing. The records that Social Security was using to declare claimants fugitives were rife with errors. I can give an example that is not directly on point but close enough to give an idea of the problems with these records. After one of my clients was approved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, we were informed that no benefits would be paid since my client was in prison in New Mexico. This made no sense since she was living in North Carolina. My client's response was one which makes New Mexicans cringe: "What are they talking about? I've never been to Mexico!" When I contacted the New Mexico prison authorities, they told me that they had never had a prisoner with my client's name or Social Security number.