Jun 30, 2010

OIDAP And The Department Of Labor

I received an e-mail today from the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) with an attached copy of the transcript of the Panel's March 25, 2010 meeting. I have no idea how many other people were sent this transcript. There was no explanation of why it was sent to me.

At this meeting, the Panel received the report of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that recommended that Social Security work with the Department of Labor on adapting O*NET for Social Security's occupational information purposes instead of Social Security creating its own occupational information system from scratch. I would speculate that this transcript was sent to me to demonstrate that OIDAP considered the NAS report and found good reason to reject it.

I have uploaded the transcript via Yousendit. The first 100 people who wish to do so can download the transcript.

I have not been able to study the transcript in depth but it is clear that the Panel's chair, Mary Barros-Bailey, was unreceptive to the NAS report. I expect she believes that she and others asked questions that demolished the NAS report. I would not agree. Judge for yourself. Take a look especially at pages 68-73 and 99-106.

I was not there but I do notice from the transcript that Barros-Bailey and others seemed quite eager to interrupt Nancy Shor's questions. Nancy Shor is the Executive Director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). She may have had a different perspective from Barros-Bailey. I did not notice any other panel member being interrupted in the same fashion as Ms. Shor. I do know that transcripts do not always reflect the tenor of what has happened at a hearing or meeting. Perhaps, Ms. Shor had as much opportunity to ask questions and have them answered as she wished but it does not quite seem that way in the transcript.

Below is one small excerpt from the transcript. This is only one small detail but it is interesting. Margaret Hilton of the National Academy of Sciences is speaking:
We do know that the data collection costs [for O*NET] right now are about $6 million a year, and that updates 100 occupations a year. So that gives you some idea. ...

... [W]henever O*NET adds more occupations, whenever it becomes less aggregated, more disaggregated, as it has done, that is always going to increase your data collection costs, because you have more occupations to go after ...
At least one OIDAP member made the point that this means that the Department of Labor is very inefficient. Possibly. It may also mean that creating and maintaining an occupational information system is incredibly expensive. There are different ways of looking at things.


On May 18 Social Security requested that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approve new regulations "to prohibit probation or parole violators from serving as representative payees under ... the Social Security Act" which seems innocuous enough. Social Security has now withdrawn the proposal. Why?

The Watchdog Gets It Done

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

For Diane Grooms, doing everyday things hurts all the time.

For 25 years, the St. Paul woman has suffered pain in her joints from rheumatoid arthritis; more recently, the pain has been complicated by fibromyalgia. Last summer, the combination got to be too much.

"I feel like somebody took a baseball bat and just beat me," she said.

Unable to continue working, Grooms applied to the Social Security Administration for disability insurance payments. Her application was denied. She asked to have her application reconsidered, and it was denied again. Then she asked for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge....

As a single person, she had no other source of income, such as a working spouse. Before long, she couldn't pay her rent.

She was running out of time and money. Ordinarily, she wouldn't get an appearance before the administrative law judge for another 18 months because of the huge number of Social Security disability cases....

Grooms was broke and behind on her rent, but she said a Social Security official told her she'd have to be homeless before her case would be sped up....

She asked U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's office to help expedite her case, but the Social Security Administration told the congresswoman's office in early March that Grooms didn't qualify....

As she faced a court eviction hearing in early April, Grooms cast her net wide, asking the Watchdog for help as well as notifying her members of Congress of her increasingly fragile situation. The Watchdog immediately contacted the Social Security Administration, asking the agency to take a fresh look at Grooms' case.

Within days, the Minneapolis Office of Disability and Adjudication Review flagged Grooms' appeal for expedition. Her hearing date was set for June 11.

Deadline Day For OIDAP Comments

Today is the deadline for submitting comments on the proposal by Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) for a new occupational information system. Comments may be submitted online or by fax to (410) 597-0825 or by mail to the Office of Program Development and Research, Occupational Information Development Project, Social Security Administration, 3-E-26 Operations Building, 6401 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21235-6401.

As tedious as this may seem, the OIDAP proposal is vitally important. This is the most important policy matter addressed by Social Security in more than 30 years.

The OIDAP proposal is drawing several lines of criticisms. Maybe the most important line of criticism concerns Social Security's strong desire to develop its very own occupational information system rather than working with the Department of Labor which has vastly more experience with this sort of thing than Social Security. Why is it so important to Social Security to do this on its own unless it does want to control the outcome of disability determinations? I cannot think of a reason. OIDAP has not given us no reason other than to suggest that the Department of Labor will not work with Social Security which is clearly false. Department of Labor seems mystified by Social Security's go it alone attitude.

I do not think that OIDAP staff or Social Security management gets it. We do not trust you. There is no reason why we should trust you. The way you are acting makes us very nervous.

Jun 29, 2010

Will Republicans Run On This Issue Or Run Away From It?

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Ensuring there’s enough money to pay for the war will require reforming the country’s entitlement system, [House Minority Leader John] Boehner said. He said he’d favor increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70 for people who have at least 20 years until retirement, tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index rather than wage inflation and limiting payments to those who need them.

"We need to look at the American people and explain to them that we’re broke," Boehner said. "If you have substantial non-Social Security income while you’re retired, why are we paying you at a time when we’re broke? We just need to be honest with people."

Social Security Disability Changes Coming In Britain

From Touch Stone, a blog written by members of the staff of Britain's Trades Union Congress:
One of the quietest announcements in the Budget Reports relates to Disability Living Allowance : “the government will introduce the use of objective medical assessments for all DLA claimants from 2013-14 to ensure payments are only made for as long as claimants need them.”

The Chancellor was rather more open in his speech, where he put this proposal in the context of concerns that “the costs have quadrupled in real terms to over £11 billion, making it one of the largest items of government spending.”The Chancellor made it clear that existing claimants will have to be re-tested to keep their benefit, and the context makes it plain that claimants can expect the new test to make sure that many of them will cease to qualify. In an attempt to justify this, Mr. Osborne spoke of the need to “continue to afford paying this important benefit to those with the greatest needs, while significantly improving incentives to work for others.” ...

The government has a short memory. In 1997, the new Labour government inherited a similar initiative, the Benefits Integrity Project, which aimed to re-assess thousands of disabled people’s benefit entitlement. As news spread that disabled people were being forced into abject poverty and some were considering suicide, the government discovered that cutting benefits can quickly become very unpopular. The Daily Mail and its Sunday sister were particularly critical, and disabled demonstrators chained their wheelchairs to the gates of Parliament.
Does any of this sound a bit familiar to Americans?

By the way, no one seems to know exactly what the British government is planning.

Jun 28, 2010

Is The Social Security Administration Unconstitutional?

Take a look at Tom Shoop's post on Fedblog concerning today's Supreme Court decision in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. Shoop writes that the Court held:
... that the way the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was set up under the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act violates the Constitution. Members of the board get two layers of protection: They can only be removed by the Securities and Exchange Commission for cause, and the SEC's members can only be removed by the president for cause. The court's majority ruled that at least in the case of the board, that's one layer of protection too many.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer raises an interesting issue: What about the dozens of independent federal agencies who are headed by officials who have some degree of statutory protection from arbitrary removal? If they are, in turn, administered on a day-to-day basis by executives who also get protection from removal under civil service laws, doesn't that violate the two-layers principle?
Justice Breyer's dissent includes a list of 48 agencies that may be affected by the majority opinion in Free Enterprise Fund. Social Security is not on Justice Breyer's list but this appears to be an oversight since Social Security qualifies for the list under the criteria given by Justice Breyer based upon the facts that Social Security has independence in submitting budgetary requests to Congress and Social Security is designated as "indepedent" by statute. Following Justice Breyer's logic, the existence of Senior Executive Service and Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) positions at Social Security makes the agency's setup unconstitutional. Indeed, the existence of any civil service position at Social Security could make the agency's setup unconstitutional.

Remember, this was a dissenting opinion. Justice Breyer was not explaining the majority opinion but giving reasons why he believes the majority opinion is unwise.

Update: Breyer does include Social Security in a list in one of the appendices to his dissent as a possibly affected agency. He specifically mentions Social Security as a possibly affected agency in the body of his dissent at pages 68 and 70 of the PDF.

Social Security would be, by far, the biggest agency possibly affected by this.

Note that there are plenty of people out there who want to litigate the constitutionality of Social Security even though precedent is solidly against them. This decision has nothing to do with the constitutionality of Social Security itself, just the way in which the Social Security Administration is set up to administer Social Security, but that will not stop the litigation. Standing may stop most of the litigation, however.

The majority opinion is a huge win for the "unitary executive" theory espoused by John Yoo and others. I thought that the excesses of the Bush Administration had seriously eroded whatever support there was for this theory but not in the eyes of five members of the Supreme Court.

Further update: I think the only reasonable reading of this opinion is that any statute that would prevent Commissioner Astrue from removing any ALJ or SES employee from his or her position is unconstitutional. This may apply to ANY Social Security employee. Commissioner Astrue may be constrained by union contracts but not by a statute. As the most important Republican holdover in a Democratic Administration and as someone who has publicly expressed frustration over his inability to discipline ALJs, Commissioner Astrue is in a delicate position. Aggressive action on his part could cause him to lose his job as his agency is absorbed back into the Department of Health and Human Services or becomes a cabinet level department.

Elena Kagan's nomination hearing and the gun decision today are getting most of the attention but the Free Enterprise decision may be today's most important judicial development.

Left Out Of Health Care Reform

Sue Sherman of Southwest Portland lived a peaceful, healthy life until she was dealt an ugly card last year: a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. ...

She joined nearly 2 million disabled Americans -- at least 15,000 in Oregon -- who fall into a twilight with the first monthly Social Security disability payment, for they then must wait two years to become eligible for Medicare. ...

This year, nearly 8 million Americans are receiving Social Security disability income. About a quarter, 1.8 million, are in the 24-month waiting period. ...

[T]he Congressional Budget Office, which estimates the cost of legislation to the taxpayer, calculated that eliminating the wait would cost an average of $10 billion a year over 10 years. ...

A private 2003 study found that nearly 25 percent of the disabled in the waiting period go the two years without any insurance.

Jun 27, 2010

It Happens

From KARE-TV in Minneapolis:
For more than 2 decades, Alyssa Green of Minneapolis has lived her own, independent life. But when she applied for a student loan for college a few years ago, she learned a troubling fact. Another Alyssa Green, with the same birth date, had the exact same social security number. This Alyssa Green lives in Albany, New York....

"Unfortunately mistakes do happen but it is also the social security administration that can correct that for her," Elizabeth Wertime of the Social Security Administration told Albany reporter Beth Wurtmann.

Jun 26, 2010

Stats By State

Social Security has released a set of statistics about its programs broken down by state.

Jun 25, 2010

New Hearing Office In Florida

The Bradenton Herald reports that Social Security is opening a new hearing office today in St. Petersburg, FL. There is already a hearing office in Tampa.

Jun 24, 2010

Colvin Nomination Remains Stalled

Carolyn Colvin was nominated to become Deputy Commissioner of Social Security on October 1, 2010. There has been no action in the Senate of the nomination. Undoubtedly, some Senator has placed a secret hold on the nomination. Why? Has she offended someone? Could it be payback for Democrats not confirming Andrew Biggs when he was nominated by George W. Bush? Could it be that Republicans think that one of their own, Michael Astrue, will have a stronger hand as head of Social Security without a Democrat as his deputy? Who knows? I do know that the confirmation delays in the Senate are out of hand. It is past time for the President to give Ms. Colvin a recess appointment.

I Still Don't Understand

From the Metrowest Daily News:
The potential loss of more than $600 million in federal aid once deemed a sure thing has had Massachusetts Democrats scrambling to rebuild the state budget behind closed doors, warning publicly of layoffs and steep program cuts if the funds fall through. ...

According to Patrick administration officials, the federal government owes Massachusetts $160 million in Social Security payments that Massachusetts had erroneously made for the last 35 years. The federal government has acknowledged the error, prompting state officials to include the $160 million in spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1. ...

At issue is the way the Social Security Administration handles disability claims.

[State] Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby told the News Service at the time that the federal agency often declines applications for disability payouts on an applicant's first attempt. However, if an applicant appeals the rejection, the state then covers health care costs for that person until the matter is resolved. If the applicant is ultimately approved, the SSA is supposed to reimburse the state for that interim coverage.

Bigby said 30 other states are expected to be in line for Social Security reimbursements.

I posted an item from the Boston Herald about this last November. I still do not understand what their theory is or why they were so confident that Social Security was going to write them a huge check. It seems to me that it would be Health and Human Services rather than Social Security writing the check since it appears to be Medicaid money they want reimbursed. I doubt that the matter is simple. If it was I am sure this would have been caught decades ago.


The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) has submitted comments on Social Security plans for a new occupational information system. NOSSCR has many urgent concerns but probably the most urgent is that Social Security wants to go it alone rather than working with the Department of Labor. In my opinion these are the key sentences from NOSSCR's comments:
For SSA [Social Security Administration], this decision raises significant concerns: It is an enormous project that falls outside SSA’s area of expertise; it will take years to complete; and it will be extremely expensive at a time of limited resources. In addition, the involvement of the DOL [Department of Labor] would address the perception that SSA wants to create its own OIS [Occupational Information System] so that it can control the outcome of disability determinations.
Why is it so important to Social Security to do this on its own unless it does want to control the outcome of disability determinations? The staff of the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) seems unable to answer this or any other question without resorting to obfuscating jargon. This makes me suspicious.

The deadline for submitting comments on the OIDAP proposal is June 30. Comments may be submitted online. I hope that others will be able to submit comments online without problems. I found it impossible to do so. The system demanded that I enter a "Category" for my comments but it was flatly impossible for me to do so. Comments may also be submitted by fax to (410) 597-0825 or by mail to the Office of Program Development and Research, Occupational Information Development Project, Social Security Administration, 3-E-26 Operations Building, 6401 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21235-6401. As tedious as this may seem, it is vitally important. This is the most important policy matter addressed by Social Security in more than 30 years.

Social Security Loses Big Time In Arbitration

From the AFL-CIO Now Blog:
Saying the Social Security Administration (SSA) flagrantly violated its contract with AFGE [American Federation of Government Employees, a member of the AFL-CIO] and “trampled upon the rights” of a 14-year worker, an independent arbitrator has ordered the agency to pay her back wages with interest along with $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Magnolia Littles, a member of AFGE Local 3291 in Little Rock, Ark., was suspended for 90 days after a benefits payment she had approved turned out to be fraudulent. Patti McGowan, an attorney with AFGE, said the arbitrator found there was no substantial evidence that Littles—who has a spotless record at SSA—was negligent in her duties. The arbitrator found that SSA violated her rights by, among other things, not informing Littles she had a right to have a union representative present at her disciplinary meeting.

The agency also discriminated against her because of her race, the arbitrator said. Of the four employees who processed the fraudulent benefit payment, two African Americans, including Littles, received suspensions. A Latina was fired outright, but the lone white employee in the group was not disciplined at all.

Wait For Backpay Ends For NC Man

From WSPA-TV in Spartanburg, SC:

Jun 23, 2010

Is This In The Future For The U.S.?

From the U.S. Social Security Administration's International Update:
Updated regulations, effective May 1, simplify and modernize the coordination process among the social security systems in the European Union (EU) member states, which in recent years had become increasingly complex and cumbersome. EU regulations on social security coordination do not replace national systems, but create linkages between systems to guarantee that individuals can have uninterrupted coverage when moving from one country to another within the region.

The updated rules apply to all citizens of EU member states covered under national social security programs, including workers and their families, tourists, and those who are not in the workforce such as job seekers and pensioners. Citizens will be issued a limited number of portable documents (including the European Health Insurance Card) by the social security institution where they are insured. These documents will be used to verify entitlement to coverage for each country. In addition, the new regulations require citizens to be temporarily assigned to a specific social security system if social security institutions in different EU countries cannot agree on which national legislation applies in a particular case. Thus, individuals will not be denied medical treatment or access to sickness insurance benefits while their status is being resolved.

A major information network, the Electronic Exchange of Social Security Information, will be implemented by May 2012 in all EU countries. The system will streamline application processing and benefits administration through the electronic sharing of information among EU countries. The EU will also launch a Web site with an updated citizens' guide and access to an online directory of social security institutions in Europe.

The world is getting smaller. I can imagine the U.S. eventually participating in this and other international social security electronic exchange programs. I do not think that many people would claim that the Social Security treaties that the U.S. has is place now are working very well for anyone other than those seeking to avoid paying Social Security taxes to two countries.

At Least It's Not A Pyramid Sales Scheme

From a press release:
Freedom Disability, a national Social Security Disability Advocacy group, has launched a unique Internet referral program to help people with disabilities and others earn extra income while working at home....

Once someone signs up for the program they become a referral partner of Freedom Disability and can access easy-to-follow video tutorials on how to launch a website and begin referring people to Freedom Disability. When one of those referrals chooses to work with Freedom Disability and our company submits an application for disability benefits on their behalf, then the owner of the website is paid $100 for the referral. ...

Entrepreneurs with an online business or professionals representing non-profit organizations, legal firms or the health-care industry are encouraged to sign up for the program. ...

Freedom Disability is a leading national Social Security Disability Advocacy group that provides education and representation services in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Freedom Disability's mission is to help people with disabilities apply for, and win, social security disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

Is This The Best You Can Do?

From a Q and A prepared by the Social Security Administration for distribution to newspapers:

Q. Why is there a five-month waiting period for Social Security disability benefits?

By law, Social Security disability benefits can be paid only after a worker has been disabled continuously throughout a period of five full calendar months. The first benefit paid is for the sixth month of disability and is paid in the seventh month.

This waiting period ensures that we pay benefits only to those with long-term disabilities and avoid duplicating other income protection plans (such as employer sick-pay plans) during the early months of disability.

Let me give what would be a more honest answer: "We really don't know. This is what Congress passed. We have to administer it even if it doesn't make sense to us."

Restore Solvency

From Dow Jones Newswires:
White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, who is reportedly stepping down from his post in July, called for action Tuesday "sooner rather than later" to help restore solvency for the U.S. Social Security program.

"Despite the fact it is not the most substantial contributor to our long-term fiscal gap, we also need to restore solvency to Social Security," he said at an event on the topic at the National Press Club.

"Not only will putting Social Security on sound footing help to some degree with our overall long-term budget picture, making adjustments sooner rather than later...will provide greater certainty to future Social Security beneficiaries and also allow us to make adjustments that are both gradual and fair."

Jun 22, 2010

Sticking Your Foot In It

Alan Simpson, the co-chair of the President's Deficit Reduction Commission, recently made some strong comments about Social Security to a representative of Social Security Works who made the recording public. How bad were Simpson's comments? So bad that The Fiscal Times, which was set up by uber-deficit hawk Peter Peterson, a long time advocate for Social Security cuts, called the comments "condescending and derisive" and "wildly wrong."

Good Stewardship?

From WMUR-TV of New Hampshire:
A grieving widow says the Social Security Administration added to her heartache after they took back her Social Security check without notice. ...

After [her husband's] death, Marchulitis noticed her late husband’s Social Security check for $1,008, which had been deposited on June 1, had been removed from their bank account. ...

She never got a notification, and suddenly the 69-year-old widow was bouncing checks and had no idea why.

She contacted the Social Security Administration and learned the bank did a reclamation of the money after learning her husband died.

She later found out the reclamation was an error, because her husband was alive for the entire month of May. The money was promptly returned to her account, and her bank forgave her overdraft fees.

Reached by News 9, the Social Security Administration said reclamation is common when a family member dies, and no written notice is required.

Orszag Leaving

Peter Orszag will be stepping down from his position as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) next month. OMB has enormous influence over the Social Security Administration because of OMB's role in the budget process and the process of adopting new regulations.

Zombie Lies

From Paul Krugman's blog:
It must have sounded like a good idea (although not to me): establish a bipartisan commission of Serious People to develop plans to bring the federal budget under control. ...

[T]he immediate problem is the statements of Alan Simpson, the commission’s co-chairman. And what got reporters’ attention was the combination of incredible insensitivity – the “lesser people”??? — and flat errors of fact.

But it’s actually much worse than that. On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie — that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.

Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first. ...

So what does it mean that the co-chair of the commission is resurrecting this zombie lie? It means that at even the most basic level of discussion, either (a) he isn’t willing to deal in good faith or (b) the zombies have eaten his brain. And in either case, there’s no point going on with this farce.

Jun 21, 2010

Probation For Threats In Alaska

From the Anchorage Daily News:
An Anchorage man pleaded guilty to threatening Social Security Administration employees over unpaid medical benefits and was sentenced Friday in federal court to five years' probation. ...

Prosecutors say Stockheim sent a Social Security Administration employee threatening e-mails in April, saying he would kill Anchorage police officers if the SSA didn't pay his medical bills. The same month he threatened to bring weapons to his next SSA hearing. When Anchorage police and federal officers approached Stockheim at his home, he became violent, prosecutors say.

Jun 20, 2010

An Interesting Interview

The President's debt commission has been meeting in secret. Alex Lawson of Social Security Works has been standing outside the closed doors and trying to record interviews with Commission members as they enter and leave. Here is a small excerpt from an interview that Lawson did with former Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the Commission, that gets at a fundamental difference in the way that people look at the Social Security trust funds.

SIMPSON: There is no surplus in there [the Social Security trust funds]. It’s a bunch of IOUs.

LAWSON: That’s what I wanted to actually get at.

SIMPSON: Listen. Listen. It’s 2.5 trillion bucks in IOUs which have been used to build the interstate highway system and all of the things people have enjoyed since it has been setup.

LAWSON: Two wars, tax cuts for the wealthy.

SIMPSON: Whatever, whatever. You pick your crap and I’ll pick the real stuff. ...
Since more than 90% of the costs of the interstate highways comes from gasoline taxes, I think that one would have to say that Lawson was much closer to the truth.

By the way, the rest of the interview shows that both Lawson and Simpson suffer from important misconceptions. Lawson thinks that the Social Security trust funds are still growing. Due to the recession they are contracting slightly at this time. They might grow a little for a short time if we make a rapid recovery from the recession but they are destined to start contracting in a few years under even the most optimistic forecasts. For his part, Simpson is unaware that Social Security actuaries predicted fairly accurately the increases in life expectancy that have occurred over the nearly 75 years that have passed since the creation of Social Security in the U.S. Increases in life expectancy are not the reason for Social Security's long term funding problems. The blame goes mostly to benefit increases without corresponding tax increases.

I have always wondered what we ought to invest the Social Security trust funds in if not U.S. government bonds. If the trust funds were invested in stocks and bonds they would own a good part of the U.S. economy. I do not think that either conservatives or liberals would be comfortable with that idea. Those who claim that the Social Security trust funds are meaningless abstractions do not want the trust fund monies invested in something other than U.S. government bonds. They want the trust funds and all of Social Security to cease to exist. They are just afraid to say so.

Jun 19, 2010

AFGE Notes More Positive Attitude

Some contract negotiation news from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees:
After a break of several weeks, negotiations between AFGE and the Social Security Administration resumed today and Union leaders believe there has been a positive change in the agency’s tone and attitude.

“We seem to be moving on a number of issues,” said Witold Skwierczynski, the Union’s Chief Negotiator.

Steve Kofahl, another member of the AFGE contract team, also said SSA officials are now showing a willingness to deal with the Union on matters which had previously stalled. One of those is a procedure for Union reps (including retired employees who still do Union work) to have access to SSA space and facilities.

This latest round of contract talks should continue until June 25th, with more bargaining set for mid-July.

What The LTD Carriers Think

From a press release:
The 2010 Long-Term Disability Claims Review, conducted by the Council for Disability Awareness (CDA) [an organization of companies involved in writing or administering long term disability or LTD policies mostly as part of employee benefits plans], reveals that CDA member companies paid more than $8 billion in ongoing disability insurance payments to individuals during 2009. ...

Despite the record number of people receiving disability payments, the 2010 CDA Claims Review reports that roughly 100 million workers have no private income protection insurance. In addition to the decline in the number of insured, fewer employers provided group long-term disability programs in 2009.

New claim applications submitted to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program continued to surge in 2009. More workers are applying for SSDI claim payments than at any time in history, with new applications totaling 2.8 million in 2009 — an increase of 21 percent, and by far the most ever. New SSDI claims are projected to continue to rise dramatically in 2010. Over 5 percent of the workforce, or 7.8 million workers, were receiving SSDI at the conclusion of 2009.

At the same time, the approval rate for initial SSDI claims continued to decline. The approval rate fell to 35 percent in 2009, representing a continued steady decline from 52 percent 10 years ago. The CDA Claims Review found that 31 percent of individuals receiving private group long-term disability insurance benefits did not qualify for SSDI assistance ...

For a copy of The 2010 Long-Term Disability Claims Review, please visit http://www.disabilitycanhappen.org. ...
Note that insurance companies, which are notoriously tight fisted when it comes to paying LTD, are vastly more likely to approve a disability claim than the Social Security Administration. Note also that these insurance companies are saying that it has become more difficult to get LTD recipients on Social Security disability benefits. These insurance companies are concerned with getting their LTD recipients on Social Security disability since they reduce the LTD benefits by Social Security disability benefits.

Jun 18, 2010

No More Paper Checks

From a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making posted in the Federal Register by the Department of the Treasury:
The proposed rule would generally require individuals to receive Federal nontax payments by EFT [Electronic Funds Transfer] , effective March 1, 2011, except that there would be a delayed effective date to March 1, 2013, for two categories of individuals, namely: Individuals receiving Federal payments by check on March 1, 2011, and individuals whose claims for Federal benefits are filed before March 1, 2011, and who request check payments when they file.

For Federal benefit recipients, this means that individuals whose claims for Federal benefits are filed on or after March 1, 2011, would receive their benefit payments by direct deposit. Individuals receiving their payments by direct deposit prior to March 1, 2011, would continue to do so. Individuals who do not choose direct deposit of their payments to an account at a financial institution would be enrolled in the Direct Express® Debit MasterCard® card program, a prepaid card program ...

How To Lose Your Job As An ALJ

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has issued an opinion in Steverson v. Social Security affirming a Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) decision removing London Steverson from his position as an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for Social Security. Here are the allegations against Steverson, as summarized in the opinion:
  • [T]he agency alleged that Judge Steverson used official agency letterhead to send three letters to mortgage or loan companies relating to a personal home loan.
  • Judge Steverson had used official agency letterhead to lodge a complaint against a California state court commissioner he had appeared before in a custody dispute.
  • Judge Steverson had used his work computer between 2001 and 2007 to view and store sexually oriented material.
  • Judge Steverson had displayed a lack of candor during his investigatory interview with Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge Cynthia Minter. ... Judge Steverson maintained that he had no idea how the sexually graphic material got on his computer and that he thought his use of official stationery was acceptable under the circumstances.
  • The fourth charge related to Judge Steverson’s use of his business address to send and receive personal correspondence. In June 2004, the office director for Judge Steverson’s branch office informed all employees that the office mailing address was not to be used for personal correspondences.
The ALJ assigned to hear the case at the MSRB found for Social Security on all but the lack of candor allegation and ordered that Steverson be suspended from his position for 35 day. Social Security appealed to the MSRB which agreed with Social Security and ordered Steverson removed from his position as an ALJ.

Jun 17, 2010

Internet Access To Social Security Files Moving Along

There was an important development at the conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) last month that I had not gotten around to posting about. Social Security invited over 200 attorneys to sign up during the conference to participate in a program to allows them internet access to the electronic files that Social Security has on their clients. Previously, Social Security had only a tiny pilot with nine participants.

Since the NOSSCR conference, I and others at my firm have been able to access our clients' files, so long as the client is awaiting a hearing on their Social Security disability claim. I would not call the process elegant but it is functional and convenient. The biggest annoyance is the requirement that after I enter my user id online as well as a password that I must wait for a code number to be sent as a text message to my cell phone. I must enter that code number to gain access to my clients' files. I understand the need to be vigilant about security but this seems like overkill to me. If a person has someone else's user id and password, they can easily change the cell phone number so that they can received the text message. I do not see how the texting of a second password provides any extra security. Another annoyance is the fact that I cannot immediately download a copy of my client's file. I must ask for the file and then wait for an e-mail message telling me that it is ready to download. The delay in file preparation is not so bad now but I fear that as more and more attorneys begin using this system that the delay will creep up.

Social Security must feel that the rollout is going reasonably well. I have heard that next month Social Security will begin signing up any attorney who practices before the Raleigh hearing office. I do not know whether Raleigh is just a further test or the start of national rollout.

Preaching To The Choir

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
David Walker,who warned Congress against spending more money than it collects from U.S. taxpayers while he headed the Government Accountability Office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush,is in Philadelphia this week on a national tour pushing new restrictions on Social Security and Medicare eligibility, and higher payroll taxes, at least for the rich.

He's asking support from influential Philadelphians who don't personally need federal checks. As president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, endowed by the billionaire Blackstone Group L.P. investment manager, Walker was guest of honor Wednesday night at tech investor Thomas Gravina's Haverford home, where local invitees included real estate mogul Ira Lubert of $12 billion-asset Independence Capital Partners, bond and casino investor Michael Forman, and McDonald's meat-supplier-turned-philanthropist Herbert Lotman. ...

What exactly does Walker want? For Social Security, he wants an added "automatic" savings plan without guaranteed payouts, like a 401(k) plan; delayed eligibility, eventually limited to age 70 and older or "indexed to life expectancy" for the continuing guaranteed benefit; and higher payroll taxes on the rich, who pay no Social Security after their first $108,000 in salary.
That's a lot more than would be needed to address any long term financing issues with Social Security.

Jun 16, 2010

Searching For Plausible Occasions

Ted Marmor has an interesting piece on the Huffington Post concerning the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Marmor believes that the Commission seems determined to recommend deep cuts in Social Security benefits. Here is a brief excerpt:
[T]he same attacks on Social Security have been going on -- in different guises -- for at least four decades. ... What is crucial to understand is how devious and misleading such lines of argument are. They are best understood as an ideological remedy searching for plausible occasions to celebrate what was presumed.
Marmor's piece must be hitting home. Andrew Biggs has chosen to respond on his own blog. Biggs seems to feel that it is inappropriate for anyone to respond to the right wing attacks upon Social Security. He calls Marmor's piece an attack upon the character and motivation of those who want to dismantle Social Security. Biggs takes offense at the suggestion that he and others who want to gut Social Security are ideologically motivated. Yeah, right, you're just a scholar and a patriot, Biggs. You've got no ideological ax to grind.

Union Newsletter

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees, has issued the May 2010 issue of its newsletter, UNITY. Here is a small sample from the newsletter:
The Social Security Administration has again shown there are two sets of rules: one for management officials and one for bargaining unit employees. Jared Gaspard was featured in the January, 2010 UNITY after he apparently processed about 38 phony SSI applications in order to meet agency “goals.” At the time, Gaspard was manager of the SSA office in Independence, Missouri. ...

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted an investigation, and the result was that Gaspard was moved to the Training and Development Team in the Kansas City Regional Office. ...

Despite the evidence that Gaspard falsely attested to contacting applicants and taking fake applications under their name, Kansas City Regional Commissioner Michael Grochowski recently awarded him with a Regional Commissioner’s citation award for exemplary service.

[Union President] Skwierczynski said, “Awarding Gaspard who took fake SSI applications and attested to their accuracy with a Regional commissioner’s citation is outrageous. This is especially hypo-critical since the Union is currently defending bargaining employees who have been fired for the same alleged infractions.” ...

Jun 15, 2010

OIG Report On Flexiplace

From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Negotiated agreements between the Social Security Administration (SSA) and its unions established Flexiplace for ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] bargaining unit employees. Flexiplace allows qualified hearing office staff to perform assigned work at a management approved alternate duty station (ADS), which is typically their personal residence. As such, employees who participate in Flexiplace take claimants’ case files to their ADS. These case files can be in paper form or stored on portable devices, such as compact discs (CD) and laptop computers, and generally include claimants’ PII [Personally Identifiable Information]—Social Security numbers (SSN), names, addresses, earnings information, and medical histories. According to an ODAR survey, approximately 2,037 (29 percent) of its 6,992 employees worked Flexiplace at least 1 day per week in Calendar Year 2008. ...

To accomplish our objective, we selected 20 hearing offices. At each office, we randomly selected and interviewed hearing office employees who participated in Flexiplace in Calendar Year 2008 as well as group supervisors. We also interviewed each office’s director and chief ALJ. In total, we interviewed 135 hearing office employees and 75 managerial staff. ...

According to most ODAR employees we interviewed, SSA’s Flexiplace program has had a positive impact on their morale or helped them work more effectively at home because of fewer interruptions. ...

ODAR’s practices over PII did not properly protect claimant data that Flexiplace employees removed. For example, ODAR management at 17 (85 percent) of the 20 hearing offices we visited allowed Flexiplace employees to remove electronic PII that was stored on unencrypted CDs. As long as employees placed claimants’ electronic data in a locked container, ODAR considered the employees to be taking proper steps to secure PII. However, we do not believe such controls are sufficient because PII remains vulnerable to unauthorized disclosure when it is “secured” in such ways.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requires that Federal agencies encrypt all data on mobile computers/devices, unless the data are not sensitive. To address OMB’s requirement, SSA implemented a policy that requires employees use Agency approved encrypted or password protected electronic devices when PII is removed in electronic form. ... While SSA is working on an encryption solution for ODAR, we believe ODAR needs to adequately safeguard claimants’ electronic data by requiring that employees save PII to an encrypted and password protected laptop—at least until the Agency implements a complete encryption solution.
Federal Computer Week has picked up on this OIG report.

Jun 14, 2010

Ratliff Decision No Surprise

The Supreme Court has issued an opinion in Astrue v. Ratliff. No surprise. The government won. The Court held that an attorney fee under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) belongs to the plaintiff and may be seized by the government for debts owed the government. Justices Sotomayor, Stevens and Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion inviting Congressional action on the issue, saying that the decision in the case would make it more difficult for Social Security claimants to obtain representation in federal court.

S Corp Tax At Issue

Congress is currently considering a bill that would extend tax cuts first enacted during the George W. Bush administration. One aspect of this bill that has attracted little public attention would affect Social Security. Currently "S" corporations do not pay the F.I.C.A. tax, the one that funds the Social Security trust funds. "S" corporations pay no federal income tax; their income passes through to their owners who pay individual income tax. The owners do not pay F.I.C.A. taxes on the income they receive from an "S" corporation. The "S" corporation technique is used primarily by professionals such as physicians, dentists, lawyers, architects, etc. The bill would change that for "S" corporations with three or fewer key service providers. There is a fight against the "S" corporation provisions of the bill, which is being labeled as a tax increase. If passed, the bill would increase tax revenues by about $11 billion over ten years.

Tax increase or loophole closing? What do you think?

Jun 13, 2010

Updated Fee Payment Numbers

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

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Notice the dramatic changes from month to month. Representing Social Security claimants is a roller coaster. The bills and employee salaries that an attorney who represents Social Security claimants must pay each month are not on the roller coaster with Social Security fee payments. They stay pretty much the same each month. Every year I find that I make most of my profit for the year in just two or three months out of the year. This may be one of the reasons that so few employees of the Social Security Administration leave the agency to begin representing Social Security claimants.

Jun 12, 2010

Obama Social Security Number Nonsense

As I reported earlier, the "birthers" who claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya making him ineligible to be President, are trying a new tack, claiming that the President's Social Security number must be a fake since it is a number that was being assigned at the time to people living in Connecticut even though Barack Obama was living in Hawaii at the time he took his first job. They managed to get questions asked about this asked at a White House press briefing.

The Associated Content blog gives a possible explanation of the Social Security number, that Barack Obama was living not in Hawaii but in Indonesia at the time the Social Security number was assigned and that Obama obtained it by mail, using the return address of his father, who was divorced from his mother and living in Connecticut at the time. I think a simpler and more likely explanation is that Obama obtained his Social Security number while visiting his father in Connecticut. It would have been easier to have obtained that Social Security number by walking into an office while back in the U.S. on a visit rather than obtaining it while oveseas. Others who read this blog might have more knowledge of the process of issuing Social Security numbers to American citizens who were residing overseas back in that era. I suppose it is done now when a birth is registered with a U.S. embassy oveseas but there would have been a different process back in the 1970s.

Jun 11, 2010

Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) -- click on each page twice to see it full size.

Two Federal Register Items

Today's Federal Register includes two items from the Social Security Administration. The sunset dates for the Listings for Cardiovascular System, Endocrine System, Growth Impairment, Hematological Disorders, Musculoskeletal System, Mental Disorders and Neurological, and Respiratory System have been extended to July 2, 2012. We do know that proposed new Listings for mental disorders may be coming in the near future, however. Social Security has also decided to change from using the word "Wholly" to using the word "Fully" when describing decisions that are completely favorable to claimants. I have no idea why they are going to the trouble to do this. The only explanation is that this "will make our regulations clearer and more consistent." Must be somebody's pet peeve.

Jun 10, 2010

Major Online Problem At Social Security?

I have received an unconfirmed report that there has been a major problem with a online form used by Social Security disability claimants to record their medical sources, the i3368. Social Security needs this medical source information to know where to write for medical records. Data entered on the i3368 between February 24 and May 31 of this year may not have propagated into Social Security's other data systems. Data may have been lost, perhaps permanently, a very scary prospect. Claimants may have been denied based upon a mistaken belief that they had not received recent medical treatment.

It was unclear from the report I received whether this was only some of the i3368s during this time period or all of them. It was also unclear to me whether this was only a problem for data entered online by claimants or their representatives or whether the problem extended to data entered by Social Security employees. If the report I have heard is true, I imagine that Social Security is still trying to figure out just how bad this is.

I would appreciate any information about this problem. If the report I have heard is true, Social Security needs to issue a press release today, even if the full dimensions of the problem are still not clear.

New Rule For On-Site CE Reviews

From a final rule posted in the Federal Register today by the Social Security Administration:
We are revising the threshold billing amount that triggers annual on-site reviews of medical providers who conduct consultative examinations (CEs) for our disability programs under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). The revision will raise the threshold amount to reflect the increase in billing amounts since we first established the threshold amount in 1991. We expect the revised threshold amount will reestablish the level of oversight activity we required under our original rules.

Jun 9, 2010

Deficit Commission Taking Aim At Social Security

From the Washington Post:
One of the oddest Web posts making the rounds in Washington is a series of blurry videos from Capitol Hill showing people coming and going from a closed-door meeting of President Obama's new deficit commission.

The mundane scenes have a sinister cast for activists who say the commission is at work on a secret plan to gut Social Security. Nancy Altman, whose group, Social Security Works, shot the footage, says the threat to the nation's primary social safety net is greater now than at any time in the program's 75-year history. ...

[S]everal groups, including MoveOn.org and the Campaign for America's Future, are threatening to make Social Security an issue in the midterm elections.

"It's likely to be a pretty full court press," said MoveOn campaign director Daniel Mintz, whose group plans to ask candidates to sign a pledge opposing Social Security cuts. "We're going to demand solutions to the deficit that make corporations and the rich pay their fair share of taxes, rather than cutting benefits and squeezing the middle class." ...

Five years ago, when then-President George W. Bush proposed carving out a portion of Social Security taxes to create private retirement accounts, a coalition of progressive groups and advocates for the elderly organized to smother the plan. Even in a Republican Congress, the idea went nowhere. In 2006, Democrats campaigned against the plan and regained control of Congress.

Now some of the same groups are watching Obama's commission closely. They note that many of its members have publicly advocated cutting Social Security, including co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming, who has chastised "greedy geezers" for fighting to protect their retirement checks while their grandchildren face a towering debt.

"Social Security is not the problem. It's simply becoming the target," said Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Social Security Really Matters

From Employee Benefit Research Institute. Source: EBRI estimates of the March 2009 Current Population Survey.

Jun 8, 2010

Establishing The Effective Date Of Claims For Benefits

Social Security has issued an update to its Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) addressing the issues involved with establishing the date of a claim for benefits. The date of a claim for benefits can affect the starting date for benefits. A claim for benefits that is filed too early can result in the denial of a claim. I would not say there is anything particularly new here but it is useful to see it all in one place and, especially, to see the effective date of claims filed over the internet discussed.

Jun 7, 2010

Updated ALJ Disposition Stats

Social Security has posted updated statistics on Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) dispositions, showing how many cases they disposed of during the time period October 1, 2009 to March 26, 2010 and how many of those dispositions were allowances.

Jun 6, 2010

One Of These Guys Will Be In The Senate Soon

From the Salt Lake City Tribune:

Utah's Republican Senate candidates have outlined a vision for reforming Social Security that includes raising retirement ages, private accounts and, in Mike Lee's case, taking the retirement safety net away from the federal government and letting states run it.

"Somewhere down the road we need to ask: Is the federal government the right government to be administering this?" Lee asked. "You don't find a retirement system in [the Constitution]. That, with the 10th Amendment, says it's a program best administered by the states."

Lee's proposal would mark a historic shift in the 75-year-old program, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in three cases in 1937 is a constitutional exercise of federal power. ...

For his part, Lee also proposed significant increases in the retirement age for younger workers, suggesting that for workers 20 years from retirement, the age at which they would qualify for benefits should be raised by one year every other year.

That means a worker who is 47 years old now -- 20 years from full retirement under the current system -- would not be able to retire until he or she is 77 years old, adding an extra 10 years to their expected period of employment.

Jun 5, 2010

A Mascot For Social Security?

Tom Shoop at Fedblog notes that quite a number of federal agencies have their very own mascot. Social Security does not have one. Should Social Security have one? What would a Social Security mascot look like?

Tho image is of the Social Security mascot for St. Christopher-Nevis, the only one I can find.

Jun 4, 2010

OIG Report On Allegations Of Medical Consultant Irregularities

From a report of Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) produced in response to a Congressional request:
On March 25, 2009, your staff asked that we review allegations by the American Association of Social Security Disability Consultants (AASSDC) that (1) medical consultant (MC) assessments were altered and/or destroyed in the disability determination services, (2) MCs were pressured to produce specific assessments, and (3) disability examiners were seeking certain MCs to obtain specific assessments. ...

Of the two MCs who indicated an assessment was altered, each described one-time occurrences. In one of these cases, the MC prepared a complex assessment not taken into consideration when making the final disability determination. This occurred in a DDS with SDM authority and a supervisor noted that they did not consider the MC’s assessment. In the other instance, the MC did not give details other than it occurred over 2 years ago. ...

Of the 189 MCs who participated in our review,

  • 182 indicated assessments were not deleted, and
  • 7 indicated assessments were deleted.

Of the seven MCs who indicated an assessment was deleted, six reported
it was a one time occurrence. For example, an MC indicated an assessment was deleted because a more experienced consultant provided another assessment. The MC was notified and made aware of why the DE removed his assessment from the disability folder.

Jun 3, 2010

Edwin Abel Passes

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Edwin G. Abel Jr., 75, of Wallingford, a former Social Security Administration executive, died of sepsis Friday, May 28, at Wallingford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. ...

Mr. Abel began his career with Social Security in 1960 as a claims representative trainee in Baltimore.

He became branch manager in Bennettsville, S.C., in 1968, when the South Carolina Jaycees named him its outstanding young man of the year, his son Ted said.

From 1969, he was in the agency's Philadelphia office, becoming an area director in the Office of Disability. In the 1980s, he was director of operations at the agency's Mid-Atlantic Program Service Center. He retired in 2007.

These obits are not easy to find. I would run them more often if I could.

Jun 2, 2010

You've Got To Read This

This whole article is fascinating. I'll just give you a teaser. From The Oregonian:
An attorney and a judge, bitter enemies, arrive at an elevator at the same time. They argue over who gets to ride down, then scuffle. Police arrest the attorney, who slaps a restraining order on the judge.

Sounds like a lame lawyer joke. But no. The flap occurred recently at Social Security's customarily sedate hearing office in downtown Portland, the climactic moment in a testy three-year war of words between a disability claims attorney and an administrative law judge.
Let me generalize a bit. This ridiculous situation vividly demonstrates the need for a full set of disciplinary rules for those who represent Social Security claimants. Most non-attorney representatives and attorneys working outside the states in which they are licensed act responsibly but not all of them.

House Majority Whip Supports Means Testing

Mike Stark caught up with Democratic Majority Whip James Clyburn and asked him where he stood with regard to the Deficit Commission and potential plans to cut Social Security benefits....

CLYBURN To be fair — and I may get beaten up by some people on this, and that’s all right, I get beaten up a lot. But I think to be fair, you cannot possibly not modify a program that at the time of its enactment, we had 17 people working for every one person that was a retiree. Today, you have about three people working for every one person that is a retiree. Now that is unsustainable. ...

STARK: Is means testing the fairest way?

CLYBURN: I think that’s one way we ought to be…we ought to be discussing means testing. I think that those of us who operate at the income level that I operate at ought to be means tested.

Jun 1, 2010

New Hearing Loss Listings

Social Security will publish new hearing loss Listings in the Federal Register tomorrow, to be effective sixty days later. Meeting a Listing is one way that an individual may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

I have had to explain to my staff many times why it was that I was yelling at one of my clients. It was not because I was mad. It was because my client was stone deaf -- but still did not meet a Listing for hearing loss. Make no mistake about it, the hearing loss Listings are harsh. I wish the people who draft these Listings had to have meetings with people who have hearing loss that is even in the neighborhood of the Listings.

Regulation Of Interstate Practice Of Social Security Law

I saw this first on the CONNECT board. From a law firm blog:

Brief Summary
An attorney had practiced in Iowa under a state multijurisdictional practice (MJP) rule allowing lawyers licensed in another jurisdiction to handle certain federal law matters. In a case of first impression for the Iowa Supreme Court, the Court used its equitable power to enjoin the attorney from practicing in Iowa under any rule for two years as a result of trust account and other ethics violations.

There are many law firms that operate across state borders in Social Security cases. There are issues concerning the advertising of some of these firms. The advertising may meet the requirements of the law firm's home state but not the requirements of another state in which the law firm is operating.

Here is another summary of the case.