Jul 31, 2010

New Hearing Office In Wisconsin

A new hearing office is to open in Madison, WI with six Administrative Law Judges (ALJS). The newspaper article about this seems confused. It suggests that there will be two hearing offices in Madison.

Social Security Disability Awards

Jul 30, 2010

I Thought This Might Be Coming

From a press release:

Today, Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) introduced H.R. 5987, The Seniors Protection Act of 2010. The bill would assist 57 million American seniors, retired and disabled veterans, and disabled individuals with a one-time $250 payment that they deserve in the event that no inflation adjustment is announced this Fall.

“Seniors did not cause the near meltdown of the economy that occurred in the last days of the prior Administration, yet too many are still feeling the brunt of its fallout,” said Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND). “Today we help seniors across the country who face the likely possibility that on October 15th Social Security will announce for the first time ever—as a result of a long-standing statutory formula—that there will not be a cost-of-living-adjustment in Social Security benefits in back-to-back years.”...

Chairman Pomeroy pledged: “This bill is responsible to seniors and to taxpayers. The authors are committed to fiscal responsibility and will ensure that the Seniors Protection Act of 2010 shall not cause an increase in the federal deficit. When the bill comes to the House floor it will include the necessary offsets to comply with the PAYGO law.”

Medicare's 45th Anniversary

Today is Medicare's 45th anniversary. When Medicare first started, the Social Security Administration was in charge of the program. The picture is of Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball holding a press conference to announce Social Security's plans for implementing Medicare.

Coalition Forms To Protect Social Security

There was a press conference yesterday to announce the formation of Strengthen Social Security, a coalition of 60 groups united around the following principles:
  1. Social Security did not cause the federal deficit; its benefits should not be cut to reduce the deficit.
  2. Social Security should not be privatized in whole or in part.
  3. Social Security should not be means-tested.
  4. Congress should act in the coming few years to close Social Security’s funding gap by requiring those who are most able to afford it to pay somewhat more.
  5. Social Security’s retirement age, already scheduled to increase from 65 to 67, should not be raised further.
  6. Social Security’s benefits should not be reduced, including by changes to the COLA or the benefit formula.
  7. Social Security’s benefits should be increased for those who are most disadvantaged.

Good News, Bad News

According to a Gallup survey, there is good news and bad news when it comes to public attitudes about Social Security. First the bad news: "Seventy-seven percent of Americans say they believe the retirement, disability and survivors' benefits program 'is in a state of crisis' or 'has major problems.'" I think the public has been unduly alarmed. Things are not that bad, not even close. Now the good news:
Of six possible ways of addressing Social Security's long-term funding challenges, most Americans favor two, both of which would affect only wealthy Americans.

Sixty-seven percent think "higher-income workers" should pay Social Security taxes on all their wages, with 60 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of independents and 79 percent of Democrats agreeing with the idea, the poll found.

Sixty-three percent want to limit benefits for wealthy retirees, with 55 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of independents and 71 percent of Democrats agreeing.

A minority favor increasing taxes, reducing most people's benefits or increasing the age at which most people are eligible to receive full retirement benefits.
So, would someone explain to me why it is that most commentators seem to think it is inevitable that Social Security benefits are going to be cut in some way such as by increasing full retirement age.

Jul 29, 2010

Social Security Delays Fill Homeless Shelters

From WSOC-TV in Charlotte:
Kathy White said it's been more than a year since she had a place to live.

"They do a lot for us here," White said, referring to the Center of Hope women's shelter. “But I'd much rather have my own place and be on my own.”

White said a long wait for disability benefits is what is keeping her from a place of her own. She said she’s been waiting for two years.

"They end up homeless because they end up losing their job," Deronda Metz, the shelter's director, said. "They come to the shelter and then they begin that process."

Metz said that contributes to overcrowding issues at the shelter, forcing some women to sleep on cots and the floor.

At the men's shelter on North Tryon Street, officials said 20 percent of the men are waiting on benefits.

The Bottom Line On Social Security Disability Claims

From the Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2009
Final outcome of disabled-worker applications, 1999–2008

Jul 28, 2010

Retirement Of Larry Jones

From The Oklahoman (I urge you to read to the end):
There's something poetic about the swan song of Larry Jones, public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City. Jones began working for Social Security just before its 50th anniversary celebration. He's retiring on Aug. 31 — only weeks after the agency turns 75 years old. ...

[H]e recently sat down with The Oklahoman to share some of [his experiences] ...

Q: What were some of your funniest experiences?

A: We always ask women about their past marriages because they're frequently eligible for benefits on a former or deceased spouse's work history. One woman had been married 13 times, but didn't qualify on any ex's record, because none had been married to her 10 years or died while she was married to them.

On another claim application, an older gentleman's glass eye fell out, bounced across the desk and landed right beside me. Without missing a beat, he walked over to it, picked it up, wiped it off and popped it back in. ...

Q: What's the biggest misconception about Social Security?

A: That it will go away. You'd have to have bankruptcy on a national level for that to happen. As long as there are people paying taxes, there will be a retirement system.

Q: The local Social Security office formerly was housed in the Murrah Building. Were you there on the day of the bombing?

A: No, I was at home in Yukon. Fortuitously, that Wednesday was my biweekly flex day, having worked compressed work days the other 13. A coworker, who was also off, called to tell me to turn on the TV and I saw the sheared off front of our building. I thought all my friends were dead. Sixteen died; some 50 survived.

Though I wasn't physically there, I was a very real part of it. We, I and the survivors, were like zombies for a year. People told me I was saved for a reason. But wild things went through my head like, "If I'd been there, and known, I could have gotten people out."

My wife and kids came home early that afternoon, and they were all hugging me. It was a very surreal experience.

Fraud In Oklahoma

From the Tulsa World:
In the Tulsa-based Northern District of Oklahoma, there have been 16 indictments handed up since 2006 that have alleged Social Security fraud such as using money meant for dead beneficiaries, disability fraud, claim-related false statements and even aggravated identity theft involving Social Security number misuse.

It's far from just a local problem. The agency's Office of Investigations conducts thousands of criminal probes every year. ...

Jonathan L. Lasher is Assistant Inspector General for the External Relations in the Office of the Inspector General [OIG]. He said investigations into suspected fraud start in a variety of ways, including from tips from the public and from OIG auditors who often come across potential crimes in their reviews of Social Security operations. ...

The agency reported to Congress earlier this year that from Oct. 1, 2009, through March 31, more than $15.5 million was recovered and that almost $144 million was saved as a result of investigations that led to improperly received benefits being shut off. ...

Lasher said the number of fraud allegations the Social Security Administration receives is relatively consistent from year to year.

But Lasher said he believes investigators' "vigilance has made it consistently more difficult to obtain and retain benefits to which an individual is not entitled."

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Reports Out Social Security Funding Bill

The Labor-HHS Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee has reported out the appropriations bill that covers Social Security. The Subcommittee bill includes $12,378,863 in operating funds for Social Security. This is the amount recommended by the White House. This is also the amount reported out of the corresponding subcommittee in the House of Representatives.

These bills must now go to the full committees and then to the floor in the House and Senate. Since there will be differences between the two bills there must be a conference committee. There is no chance this will be completed before October 1, 2010, the beginning of the fiscal year. Republicans are likely to try to slow things down, especially if they win a lot of races in the November elections. This whole process could easily extend into next Spring. Indeed, if Republicans win control of one House of Congress it may be impossible to pass a Labor-HHS appropriations bill for the 2011 fiscal year, meaning that Social Security will be stuck with a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the agency at the 2010 rate. That would be terrible for Social Security, probably necessitating a hiring freeze for most of the agency for most of the year.

Jul 27, 2010

Top Secret -- Need To Know -- But What About Bucket 2?

From Social Security Emergency Message EM-10056:
We implemented the Simplified i3368 [which persons filing Social Security disability claims and appears online use] nationwide January 2010. In early May 2010, we discovered that certain doctor sources on the i3368, supplied by the claimant or third party, were missing when the field office imported the information into the Electronic Disability Collect System (EDCS). The Office of Systems investigated and found the coding caused the following issue: when internet users entered information about doctors or other healthcare professionals, but did not enter a doctor’s name (first or last) in the first data field, no information about that source, or any subsequent doctor sources, propagated into EDCS. This did not affect the information about hospitals and clinics. However, it is possible the propagation problem affected disability cases that are currently pending and cases in which a medical decision was made without considering all of the doctor source information the applicant provided. The coding is now correct. Affected cases processed between December 2009 - May 31, 2010 have been divided into two “Buckets.” Bucket 1 includes cases between December 12, 2009 – February 23, 2010. Bucket 2 includes cases between February 24, 2010 – May 31, 2010. eee

Bucket 1 claims and instructions are now available on the VIDI website. We are unsure which cases have information dropped from the i3368 in Bucket 1 cases. Therefore, SSA will need to contact claimants to ensure all doctor sources, and associated information, are in the Electronic Folder.

The authorization to access this data is via Top Secret/NT Security based on a need to know as required by an employee's job function.

Jul 26, 2010

Share Your Stories

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that Social Security is asking members of the public, as well as current and former employees, to help the agency celebrate its 75 years of public service by sharing their personal stories and reflections about how Social Security has touched their lives. To share your story, go to www.socialsecurity.gov and click on the box that says “Social Security Celebrates 75 Years of Public Service.” Selected stories will be edited for content and brevity and posted for everyone to read.

“On August 14, the most important and successful domestic program in our nation’s history turns 75,” Commissioner Astrue said. “For three quarters of a century, Social Security has provided a financial lifeline to millions of Americans. As we approach our anniversary, Social Security remains a solid foundation for retirees, the disabled, and survivors. I encourage everyone to visit our website, share their stories, and join me in wishing Social Security a happy 75th anniversary.”

Social Security is asking people to tell how the program made a difference in their lives and the lives of their family and friends. For example:

  • How did it feel to receive your first retirement check?
  • Tell us if you received survivors benefits when a loved one died.
  • How has the Social Security disability program helped you?
  • How did a Social Security Administration employee go above and beyond to provide you with great service?
  • Current and former Social Security Administration employees: Share your memorable stories of service.

Social Security also will soon launch a video contest “How Social Security Has Made a Difference in My Life.” Submitted videos will be posted on the agency’s YouTube channel and the winning video will be posted on www.socialsecurity.gov. Details of the contest will be posted on the website later this week.

Social Security invites the public to view a special photo gallery that takes them on a brief journey through the agency’s 75-year history. The photo gallery is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/75thanniversary. A more extensive collection of history-related materials that presents both the institutional history of the Social Security Administration and the history of the Social Security program is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/history.

Backlogs In Implementing Social Security Disability Allowances

An e-mail I received from a Social Security field office employee:
In the _____ Office, SSA [Social Security Administration] announced that phones to PC 7 [Program Center 7, an office in Baltimore where Social Security disability claims are implemented, half of the Office of Central Operations] (Disability) are being TURNED OFF. BAs [Benefit Authorizers, employees who implement disability allowances] are 90 days behind. CAs [Claims Authorizers, a different category of employees who implement disability allowances] are 115 days behind. No more phone calls except manager-to-manager for status or follow ups to give PC 7 a chance to catch up. The problem is that PC 7 must do its stuff for SSI [Supplemental Security Income] offsets, workers' compensation offsets and figuring attorney fees before retroactive Title 2 or Title 16 payments can be released. Since Field Office phones aren't being turned off, the angry public will just be calling Field Offices.
Shutting off field office access to PC 7 is a dramatic step. I will say that I am seeing fewer problems now in implementing disability allowances than I used to see. Perhaps, we are dealing more with PC 8, the other half of the Office of Central Operations. I am not sure how things are divided up at the Office of Central Operations.

No More Sunset For Attorney Advisor Program

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, has posted this summary of a proposed regulation change which Social Security has filed:
On July 13, 2009, we extended until August 10, 2011 the final rule that authorizes attorney advisors to conduct certain prehearing procedures and to issue fully favorable decisions. We now propose to eliminate the sunset date for the attorney advisor program. The attorney advisor program has proved to be successful, with claimant's decisions being processed more efficiently, which has helped to reduce the agency's backlog. The success of the program has resulted in approving benefits in a timelier manner.
Social Security must obtain OMB approval before posting this in the Federal Register.

Social Security Trustees Report Coming Out On August 5

The Spokane Spokesman-Review reports that the delayed annual report of Social Security's trustees is to be released on August 5.

Cookies For Social Security

An interview with Social Security's Chief Information Officer (CIO) Frank Baitman conducted by Alex Howard of O'Reilly Radar (which has nothing to do with Bill O'Reilly).

Jul 25, 2010

Backlogs In Wisconsin

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The wait times are getting shorter for out-of-work Wisconsin residents seeking federal disability benefits, but appeals offices in the state still have some of the longest waits in the nation.

The delays in Wisconsin are so serious that the federal Social Security Administration is opening a full-service appeals office in Madison next month to try to speed up the process for not just the capitol city but eventually Milwaukee and the rest of the state.

The often impoverished and disabled applicants seeking to appeal their denial of benefits in federal hearings in Milwaukee and Madison face average waits of a year and a half - an improvement over last year but still several months longer than the already lengthy national average of 435 days. Federal Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue called the delays "not at all acceptable."

"This shouldn't just help the current territory of Madison. It really will on a delayed basis help the entire state," Astrue said of the expanding office. "It's not going to change (the delays) overnight but I would think within six months the change should be pretty significant and within a year it should pretty be dramatic." ...

Wisconsin also continues to be one of roughly a dozen states that are furloughing state workers who make the initial decision on whether people qualify for benefits - even though it doesn't save the state any money because the workers are federally paid....

Astrue renewed his criticism of a decision by Gov. Jim Doyle's administration to furlough the bureau's federally paid workers amid the state budget crisis, even though it doesn't save the state anything. Astrue said the furloughs increases wait times for disabled applicants for benefits and on Friday he unveiled federal legislation that would ban the practice by states like Wisconsin.

Officials in the Doyle administration have defended their action, saying they are furloughing all state workers because it would be unfair to exempt any group of employees. Stephanie Smiley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services, said that despite the furloughs, Wisconsin has been bucking the national trend by whittling down its own backlog of people waiting for an initial decision on disability benefits.

One hint for any newspaper reporter who happens to be reading this: Ask Social Security officials how much help Social Security's Chicago Region, which includes Wisconsin, is receiving from the Dallas and Philadelphia Regions, which have the lowest backlogs.

“Focused On Social Security Because It Will Show They’re ’Serious'"

Netroots Nation, a conference of, shall we say, "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," is under way. The AFL-CIO Now Blog reports on one session:
One attendee of the Netroots Nation panel provocatively titled “Obama’s Social Security ‘Death Panel’” later told me he had gone into the panel dubious that there is any real threat to Social Security. “But I left mad,” he said, questioning how such an important part of America’s social fabric could be threatened. Yet as the panelists detailed, Social Security is most definitely under attack–and it’s an attack that could fundamentally alter how we understand the program. ...

Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future contrasted the “frightened, timid and cautious leadership” of today with the “confident society” that, following World War II, responded to a much larger deficit (as percentage of GDP) by embarking on a series of spending programs that reshaped the economy and built the middle class.

Today, Borosage said, there is an emerging elite consensus that is “focused on Social Security because it will show they’re ’serious,’ even though it will have no effect on the deficit.” They portray Social Security as being in crisis, then claim that proposed cuts are “saving” the program. ...

Jul 24, 2010

Senate Subcommittee Schedules Markup Of Social Security Appropriation

The Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee which has jurisdiction over Social Security's appropriation has scheduled a markup session for Tuesday, July 27. The corresponding House Committee has already marked up the bill. These are the first steps forward on a legislative journey that may take more than six months.

Jul 23, 2010

Astrue Sides With Union

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that the agency is submitting legislation to Congress that would prohibit states, without the Commissioner’s prior authorization, from reducing the number of state personnel who make disability determinations for Social Security or the hours they work below the amount the agency authorizes.

“It is long past time that states end these unconscionable furloughs and hiring freezes that needlessly harm citizens with disabilities,” Commissioner Astrue said. “States realize no fiscal savings whatsoever from these actions and this legislation would prevent needless delays in the disability determination process. I am grateful for the President’s support and urge Congress to move quickly to help us make this provision the law of the land.”

More than a dozen states have implemented furloughs and hiring freezes that affect the federally paid state workers who make disability determinations for Social Security. The state agencies that employ these workers in their disability determination service (DDS) components receive 100 percent of their funding from the Federal government. Accordingly, states do not save any money by imposing furloughs and hiring freezes on federally funded employees. Rather, they slow benefits to some of the most vulnerable citizens – for example, furloughs in California in fiscal year 2010 delayed payment of over $11 million in benefits to more than 40,000 citizens with disabilities. State-imposed furloughs and hiring freezes also reduce state income tax revenue and increase unemployment in the state.

“The members of Local 1000 have always believed that furloughing federally funded positions doesn’t make economic sense and that has been proven in California during these past 18 months that Governor Schwarzenegger has imposed furloughs on state employees,” Yvonne Walker, President of Service Employees International Union Local 1000 said. “I applaud Social Security for initiating legislation that would prevent further bad economic policy from going forward. This provision will not only help DDS workers, but the claimants who rely on the services our members provide.”

“We commend the Commissioner for his forceful and dedicated leadership in taking this bold action,” said Susan X. Smith, President of the National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE). “Our members are witness to the impact the current economic recession has had for disabled citizens and we are working hard to meet the dramatic increase in claims for benefits. These furloughs further compound the problems faced by disabled citizens by creating unnecessary delays in the processing of their claims. NADE urges quick action with regards to this legislative proposal.”

Hearing On Board of Trustees Nominations

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for July 29 on the following nominations to Social Security's Board of Trustees:

OIG Report On Hearing Backlog Reduction

Senator Claire McCaskill asked Social Security"s Office of Inspector General (OIG) whether Social Security's 2007 "Plan to Eliminate the Hearings Backlog and Prevent its Recurrence" would achieve its goal. OIG took almost a year in getting back to Senator McCaskill with the answer, "We believe SSA will be able to achieve its FY 2013 pending hearings backlog goal if the Agency has reliably projected hearing level receipts, ALJ availability levels, ALJ productivity levels, and senior attorney adjudicator decisions through 2013." The answer begs the question of whether Social Security has accurately predicted future receipts as well as future productivity. However, the signs so far are encouraging.

Jul 22, 2010

Proposed Procedural Regs

From today's Federal Register:
We propose to revise the procedures for how claimants who request hearings before administrative law judges (ALJs) may seek further review of their fully favorable revised determinations based on prehearing case reviews or fully favorable attorney advisor decisions. We also propose to notify claimants who receive partially favorable determinations based on prehearing case reviews that an ALJ will still hold a hearing unless all parties to the hearing tell us in writing that we should dismiss the hearing requests.

Jul 21, 2010

Wonder How This Story Got In The Times

From the New York Times:
Social Security is paying roughly $50 million a year too much to people who collect state pensions but fail to declare that income, according to the system’s inspector general.

The overpayments go to retirees who have held state jobs and also worked in the private sector — teachers who worked on their summer breaks, for instance, or police officers who retired young enough to form their own companies.

If the workers do not declare their state pension income, they appear to be low lifetime earners in the Social Security system. ...

“This is somebody else’s money they’re playing with,” said Andrew G. Biggs, a former deputy commissioner for Social Security, now an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. “The people who are in the Social Security system who don’t get good state pensions, this is taking money away from them.”
It is odd that I do not remember this report from Social Security's Office of Inspector General nor can I find it online. Was this leaked to Biggs before it was officially released? While not insignificant, in Social Security terms, this is small potatoes.

Some States Look To Social Security

From the New York Times:
Lawmakers in Maine have found an unusual tool for tackling their state’s pension woes: Social Security.

Just as workers in the private sector participate in Social Security in addition to any pension plan at their companies, most states put their workers in the federal program along with providing a state pension.

Maine and a handful of others, however, have long been holdouts, relying solely on their state pension plans. In addition, most states have excluded some workers ...

Now, Maine legislators have prepared a detailed plan for shifting state employees into Social Security and are considering whether to adopt it. They acknowledge it will not solve their problem in the short term but see long-term advantages.

Some variation on this idea could ultimately appeal to other states grappling with their own exploding pension costs and, in extreme cases, quietly looking for help from Washington. ...

Jul 20, 2010

The Attacks Work

From USA Today:
USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds that a majority of retirees say they expect their current benefits to be cut, a dramatic increase in the number holding that view. And a record six of 10 non-retirees predict Social Security won’t be able to pay them benefits when they stop working.

Skepticism is highest among youngest workers: Three-fourths of those 18 to 34 don’t expect to get a Social Security check when they retire. ...

The downbeat outlook reflects “all the attacks on Social Security that we have this total crisis in the program,” says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. What’s more, she says, “the fear and distrust as a result of the financial collapse and the Great Recession has spilled over into people’s expectations generally, that you can’t count on anything.”

Union Newsletter

Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees, has posted its newsletter for July. The newsletter includes an article complaining that Social Security did not do enough to commemorate the 15 year anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, a bombing that killed many Social Security employees.

Jul 19, 2010

Access To Electronic Files -- The Holdup Is Bandwidth

Social Security has just issued a new section to its POMS manual dealing with attorney and representative access to their clients' electronic folders at Social Security. The section tells us what is causing the delay in allowing all the attorneys and representatives access to the electronic folders, "Until we are sure of our bandwidth capability, only those invited representatives will succeed in accessing their clients’ eFolders." I suspected that was the problem but this is the first time, as far as I know, that Social Security has publicly acknowledged that the problem is at least partially bandwidth.

Jul 18, 2010

The Dream Dies Slowly

The George W. Bush administration inspired the fantasy among the right wing faithful that the country might someday see the light and realize that Social Security must be phased out. This fantasy is only dying slowly. The budget reduction commission may represent the last best hope for those who believe it imperative that we end the error that Franklin Roosevelt foisted upon the country almost 75 years ago. Some findings from a recent national survey conducted for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare ought to make the anti-Social Security zealots cry:
  • Americans do NOT believe Social Security is a major cause of the deficit – it is only cited by 2% of Americans as the primary cause of the deficit.
  • Three out of four Americans do not think policymakers should make significant changes to Social Security in order to reduce the national deficit.
  • Two out of three Americans (64%) think that Social Security provides security and stability to the U.S. economy while only 20% think it is a drain on the economy, and 11% think it does some of both.
  • 70% of younger Americans (under 35) believe they will need Social Security when they retire.
  • 78% of Americans oppose raising Social Security’s retirement age – with two-thirds of Americans expressing strong opposition to such a proposal.
  • Half of Americans support removing the current cap on Social Security wages that are taxed ($106,800). Upper income voters – that is, those who are most likely to pay higher taxes under such a proposal – are also the income group most likely to support removing the cap.

Jul 17, 2010

NCSSMA Newsletter

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), an organization of Social Security management personnel, has posted its June 2010 newsletter online. One small point that I had not heard before: Social Security has an Office of Innovation. Seriously.

Jul 16, 2010

Staffing Shortages Cost Money

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report in September 2005 calling upon the agency to do better follow-up of the offsets that reduce Social Security disability benefits due to workers compensation benefits. At the time, Social Security had a large backlog of cases to work through. OIG decided to take a look at what Social Security has done in response to that report. The report is discouraging. Social Security had done little or nothing, with the result being:
...the volume of cases with WC [Workers Compensation] claims pending for 2 or more years increased from 227,615 in January 2005 to 268,825 in November 2009, an 18-percent increase over the past 4 years. In addition, we estimated SSA had overpaid Title II beneficiaries between $44 and $58 million because of unreported WC payments since our [earlier report].
The reason that Social Security has not taken action on this problem:
An official from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations told us the Agency plans to pursue processing its pending WC workload to the extent possible. However, according to this official, SSA resources are limited, and the Agency must take a holistic approach in applying those resources, considering many other priority workloads.
Inadequate budgets and the staffing shortages that result from inadequate budgets cost money.

House Markup Of Social Security Appropriations Bill

The House Appropriations Committee is meeting today to markup the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 appropriations bill that covers Social Security. FY 2011 begins on October 1, 2010. It is most unlikely that a bill can be passed and signed by the President before the beginning of FY 2011. It may be well into calendar year 2011 before this happens.

The "Chairman's Mark" is the starting point for the markup process. Chairman David Obey's "mark" is $12,485 million, the same as the Administration's appropriation request for Social Security. That represents an 8% increase over Social Security's regular FY 2010 appropriation. However, this is misleading since Social Security got to spend a lot of money in FY 2009 and FY 2010 that was part of the economic stimulus package rather than Social Security's base budget. In terms of money that could be used for operational expenses, that money is about gone. Things are not going to be getting any better at Social Security even if the appropriation passes as proposed. Should Republicans gain control of either house of Congress after the November election, Social Security may be plunged back into a new budget abyss.

I wonder whether Michael Astrue would be happy or sad to see Republicans take control of the House of Representatives.

Effects Of Social Security Cuts

The President's federal budget deficit commission (being called the "catfood commission" in some circles) is studying ways to reduce the federal deficit. Social Security seems to be a prime candidate for cuts. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank, has produced a report on the impart of some cuts under consideration. Their analysis "suggests that the cuts most commonly being considered will have a substantial negative impact on low- and middle-income families." The cut that appears to be under the most consideration, raising the normal retirement age to 70 "...is essentially a cut in benefits since the vast majority of workers start collecting reduced benefits not long after they reach the early retirement age (ERA) of 62."

The report does not go into the question of why the vast majority of workers retire as early as possible but I will. A high number of these early retirement claims should really be disability claims. Medicine may be helping people live longer but the length of a person's lifespan has little to do with how long a person can go on working before the inevitable effects of the aging process make it too difficult to go on. Of course, there are many people who can go on working into their 80s but that is not most people. Not everyone works in offices. Not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy good health as they age. Those who are able to work past 67 should enjoy their good fortune and respect the fact that their good fortune could change in a heartbeat.

Jul 15, 2010

First Report On Today's Hearings

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog contains the first media report on today's hearings before the House Social Security Subcommittee and Senate Finance Committee. Apparently, nothing was said about the reported dispute between Commissioner Astrue and Social Security Chief Actuary Stephen Goss. Social Security's finances were discussed but not any grand plan for cutting benefits or raising taxes. Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy predicted only "modest adjustments" to Social Security.

Inspector General Gets Involved In Utah Immigrant List

Someone recently sent a list of 1,100 purported illegal immigrants present in the state of Utah to Utah state agencies and news outlets. The list included Social Security numbers. This was done ananymously. TPM Media reports that Social Security's Inspector General has a copy of the list and is looking into whether federal laws were violated.

Senate Finance Committee Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee is holding a hearing today on Social Security. Here is some of the opening statement of Senator Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Committee:
George Burns, who worked until he was 100, said of retirement: “Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65, I still had pimples.”

Today, we’ll talk about people who want to work beyond retirement age. And we’ll talk about how those folks’ decisions affect Social Security.

When it comes to Social Security, folks often say that there are only two ways to improve solvency: cutting benefits or raising taxes.

Neither is easy. And each has drawbacks.

Fortunately, there are other ways. And these ways don’t involve cutting benefits or raising taxes.

For example, there’s the tax gap. The tax gap is the difference between what taxpayers owe and what they actually pay. Currently, there’s a gap of about $58 billion each year between Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes that are owed and the taxes that are paid. We have to do more to collect the tax gap.
And today, we are going to look at another idea for improving Social Security and Medicare solvency, without raising taxes or cutting benefits.

We are going to look at facilitating work by people who want to resume work after they retire from their full-time jobs, or who want to phase down their work before retiring.
The written statements of the witnesses concern ways to encourage retired people to go back to work. Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, is one of the witnesses. There may have been questions about the reported conflict between him and the Commissioner of Social Security but there was nothing in his written statement about this.

First 75th Birthday Event

I have received notice of the first official commemoration of Social Security's 75th anniversary on August 14. This is not the major, official event but I am sure that one is coming. This one involves:
[A] special presentation and historical exhibit at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, 1st Street NE, Washington, D.C., in Senate Meeting Room SVC203/202, on Friday, July 23, 2010. Commissioner Michael J. Astrue will open the exhibit at 10 a.m. and introduce our keynote speaker Dr. Edward Berkowitz, professor at the George Washington University, Social Security historian and author. The exhibit will remain open until 3 p.m. Larry DeWitt, our Social Security Historian, will be on hand to answer questions.

House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

The House Social Security Subcommittee is holding a hearing at the moment. The witnesses' written statements have been posted. Here is a snippet from the written testimony of Kelly Ross, the Deputy Policy Director of the AFL-CIO:
The income replacement rate of today’s Social Security benefit is about one third lower than the OECD [Organization for Economic Coo-peration and Development, whose members are the major industrialized nations] average. The United States ranks 25th of 30 OECD countries in the share of the average worker’s earnings that is replaced upon retirement. For a medium earner retiring at age 65, Social Security benefits replace only 40 percent of their prior earnings, and this replacement rate will fall to 36 percent by 2030 because of the scheduled increase in the full retirement age.

Wyoming DDS Honored

From a press release:
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Disability Determination Services (DDS) division has received a Commissioner’s Citation for superior customer service to disability applicants and implementing innovative approaches to improving the disability claims processing for the Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2009. The Commissioner’s Citation is the highest award that the Social Security Administration can bestow on an individual, group of individuals, or on an organization.

Even during adversities, the Wyoming DDS managed to maintain the highest productivity per work year in the Denver region during FFY 2009.

New IRMAA Regs

From today's Federal Register:
We are modifying our regulations to clarify and revise what we consider major life-changing events for the Medicare Part B income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) and what evidence we require to support a claim of a major life-changing event. Recent changes in the economy and other unforeseen events have had a significant effect on many Medicare Part B beneficiaries. The changes we are making in this interim final rule will allow us to respond appropriately to circumstances brought about by the current economic climate and other unforeseen events, as described below.
Does this seem hopelessly confusing and boring? Yes, but it affects real people and somebody has to administer it. Computers cannot do much of this. A lot of this cannot be done from a remote call center. It takes warm bodies spread out in offices around the country.

Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

Courtesy of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives. Click on each page twice to view it full size.

Jul 14, 2010

It's Time To Earn That Award

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue received an award from the Alzheimer's Association for adding Alzheimer's to the list of cases eligible for "compassionate allowance" of disability claims. I consider the "compassionate allowances" list as meaningless since Social Security was already approving everybody on the compassionate allowance list and generally doing so rapidly. To me, the award seemed undeserved since nothing of consequence had happened.

Now, the Alzheimer's Association is announcing new diagnostic criteria for Alzheimer's disease. These new criteria are expected to double or triple the number of people being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Quickly adopting these new criteria for purposes of adjudicating Social Security disability claims would actually be of benefit to Alzheimer's patients and their families. Will the Commissioner step up and do something meaningful to justify that award he received?

Personnel Changes In Chief ALJ Office

The latest issue of the Social Security Forum, the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) has a brief article about some changes at the Office of Chief Administrative Law Judge (CALJ) at Social Security. There are now thee new Associate Chielf ALJ positions:
  • ALJ Paul Lillios will be the new Associate Commissioner [did they mean Associate Chief ALJ?] for Field Procedures and Employee Relations. He is currently the Regional Chief ALJ for the Chicago Region.
  • ALJ John Costello will be the Acting Associate Chief ALJ for Administrative Management and will be responsible for the evaluation of service delivery and processing of cases. He has been the Hearing Office Chief ALJ in Rochester, NY, and has been involved in the training of new ALJs.
  • The new Associate Chief ALJ for the National Hearing Center position is vacant for the time being.

Updated Hearing Office And ALJ Stats

Social Security has posted the following updated data:
By the way, I would love to get some data on Social Security field office and teleservice center operations. What percentage of telephone calls are being answered at the field offices? What is the average wait time at the field offices? How long are people on hold before a live teleservice center employee talks with them? What percentage of callers to the teleservice centers get accurate and complete answers to their inquiries? I think that Social Security is collecting all this data and a lot more but it is not being released.

Aspirational Goals For Those Who Represent Social Security Claimants

The North Carolina Advocates for Justice (NCAJ) is an organization of attorneys who represent plaintiffs, mostly in personal injury matters, but also in matters such as workers compensation and Social Security. The NCAJ's Disability Advocacy Section (DAS) is composed of about 300 attorneys who represent Social Security claimants. This section is probably the most active such state-wide group in the country. The DAS recently approved a list of aspirational goals for DAS members. These goals are, as they are labeled, aspirational. There was no intent to set a legally enforceable standard. The list is not exclusive. A good attorney may have standards that go beyond this list. While some items on the list may seem quite basic, experience has shown that none of these can be taken for granted.

  1. Have regular contact with client and return all client’s telephone calls.
  2. While the case is pending, develop the medical evidence, including obtaining treatment notes and medical source statements, and submit them to SSA [Social Security Administration] as soon as practicable, and seek on-the-record decision where appropriate.
  3. Meet in person with client, inform client of scope of representation and adequately prepare client well in advance of hearing.
  4. Be familiar with the legal and factual issues in client’s case; develop a theory of the case; be prepared to present the case; and where appropriate prepare and deliver a one-two page brief a few days prior to the hearing.
  5. Do not withdraw from representation after hearing is scheduled absent special circumstances.
  6. Take some of the hard cases, like Hyatt cases [an NC class action], cessation cases, overpayment cases, remote dates last insured cases, and Medicaid cases, including pro bono cases.
  7. Assist in getting client paid after a favorable decision and inform client of rights and options after adverse decision.
  8. Familiarize yourself with services in your community which may be available to your clients, such as vocational rehabilitation, Veterans’ Administration, free medical clinics, food banks, shelters, domestic violence programs, and mental health services.
  9. Know the doctors in your area and promote good relationships with them and their staffs. Pay them promptly for records and their time. Let them know of favorable outcomes and how their assistance is appreciated (with client's permission).
  10. Continue educational and professional development; stay apprised of new laws and regulations; improve knowledge over and above requirements of the State Bar.
  11. Be active in professional organizations, e.g., NCAJ DAS and NOSSCR [National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives]. Volunteer to provide education to colleagues, civic groups, local community groups, support groups, and the public at large. For example, speak at a CLE [Continuing Legal Education], chair a CLE, write an article, or speak at a public event about some aspect of Social Security law.
  12. Know who your elected representatives are and contact them about important legislation.
  13. Be familiar with and comply with the requirements of 20 CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] §404.1740 Rules on conduct and standards of responsibility for representatives.

Bonuses Change For Goss

Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, who is reportedly concerned that Commissioner Astrue wants to get rid of him, received $49,000 in bonuses in 2006 when Jo Anne Barnhart was Commissioner of Social Security. He got no bonus in 2007 after Michael Astrue became Commissioner of Social Security. There is no information available to the public on bonuses at Social Security since then.

Jul 13, 2010

House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Witness List Released

Here is the witness list for the July 15 hearing before the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee:
  • W. Lee Hammond, President of the Board, AARP
  • Ethel Zelenske, Co-Chair of the Social Security Task Force, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities
  • Kelly Ross, Deputy Policy Director, AFL-CIO
  • Sylvester J. Schieber, Ph.D., Independent Consultant, New Market, Maryland
  • Virginia Reno, Vice President for Income Security, National Academy of Social Insurance
  • Nancy Altman, Co-Director, Social Security Works

Amazing Naivete

From Fred Barnes, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

One [Social Security] reform that could win bipartisan support would, over time, raise the Social Security retirement age to 70. An extension of retirement age to 67 from 65 was pushed in 1983 by the Greenspan Commission, along with a boost in the income base for payroll taxes. President Reagan backed the changes and Congress enacted them.

A second reform, bolder and more controversial, would means-test Social Security, gradually slowing the growth of benefits for the more affluent but sparing those with lower incomes. The model for this is the Pozen plan, the brainchild of Robert Pozen, a former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments and influential Social Security reformer.

I am sure that I have my illusions about Republicans but nothing tops Republican naivete about Democrats. People who should know better are misled by the fact that President Obama appointed Erskine Bowles, nominally a Democrat, to the deficit reduction commission. Bowles is not representative of Democrats in his home state of North Carolina (which is one of the reasons he could not get elected to public office in North Carolina), much less Democrats nationally. Means testing of Social Security has zero chance of adoption and raising the retirement age to 70 has very, very little chance of adoption. I do not think you could get even a majority of Congressional Republicans to vote, publicly, for either one. If you can imagine Barack Obama campaigning for either one, you just might be a Republican.

Plans For Social Security 75th Anniversary?

I know there will be some major event to mark Social Security's 75th anniversary, coming up on August 14, 2010. The Social Security Administration has not announced anything yet. The National Park Service, which runs the Franklin Roosevelt house in Hyde Park, NY, has not announced anything yet. Hyde Park has been the site for similar events in the past. I would bet that the White House is arranging this. I wonder if they delay announcing these things for security reasons. Does anyone know what is in the works?

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare isn't waiting. They have an extensive commemoration planned.

People Are Noticing

Now it is Forbes asking why the Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees has not been issued yet this year. It was supposed to be out on April 1. Forbes puts its own spin on this -- that the delay is an effort to hide Social Security's terrible finances from the public. I doubt that is the reason but I do not know what is.

Jul 12, 2010

Current Picture Of A Building Where A New Hearing Office Is Supposed To Open In Early 2011

This is in Fayetteville, NC. It was not long ago that we were being told that a hearing office would open in Fayetteville in August, 2010. We are now being told that a temporary hearing office will open somewhere in Fayetteville -- no one seems to know where -- in September, 2010 but that a full hearing office will open in the building pictured below in early 2011.

Here is an article from the local newspaper. The owner is hoping to open the building by next summer. Below is another current photo of the building.

The Problem Solver Gets It Done

From the Chicago Tribune:
Fran Lubelchek and the Social Security Administration have a long and twisted history.

When the 70-year-old retired schoolteacher began receiving benefits five years ago, the government miscalculated her monthly payment. By the time it realized the error years later, Social Security had overpaid the Northbrook resident by roughly $14,000.

To pay the money back, Lubelchek and Social Security worked out a deal. Because she received a teacher's pension, her correct monthly Social Security payment was small, about $100. To repay the $14,000, Lubelchek agreed to receive no monthly benefit until she was almost 85.

She thought she had everything squared away, but her relationship with Social Security took another odd turn after her husband, Harvey, died in February.

In March, April and May, Social Security continued to deposit her late husband's $1,576 monthly benefit check into the couple's joint account. Then in May, the agency removed the three payments, all $4,728, from Lubelchek's bank account without saying a word. ...

After visiting her local Social Security office repeatedly and failing to get things straightened out, Lubelchek e-mailed What's Your Problem?

"I never realized that the SSA could withdraw significant money from a checking account without permission from the account holder," she said.

Lubelchek said that on her last visit to her Social Security office, she was told she was entitled to more than $1,000 a month in benefits based on her late husband's account, but it was unclear when those payments would begin.

"The woman said, 'I can't do anything here,'" but promised to make it a priority, Lubelchek said.

After that, she heard nothing.

"I want the correct benefits paid to me, and I think it is awful that it is taking this long," she said.

The Problem Solver called Social Security Administration spokeswoman Carmen Moreno, who had a team look into Lubelchek's case.

On Wednesday, Moreno called Lubelchek with some surprising news.

After researching Lubelchek's file, Social Security determined that she was, in fact, overpaid based on the amount she received from her teacher's pension, and that she still owed the government $12,591.70.

But Social Security employees also discovered that many years ago, wages Lubelchek had not earned were attributed to her account. Based on those erroneous wages, Lubelchek had more money deducted from her paychecks than should have been.

The extra deductions meant Lubelchek had paid an extra $37,218.70 into the system.

To make things right, the government took the $12,591.70 Lubelchek owed Social Security from the $37,218.70 it owed her.

The end result: Social Security deposited $24,627 into her checking account Wednesday morning.

Jul 11, 2010

Could This Letter Be The Genesis Of the Astrue-Goss Conflict?

Click twice on each image to see it full size. The Congressional reaction to Goss' letter helped to put the Commissioner in full retreat. He had to withdraw the proposed regulation.

Astrue vs. Goss Smackdown!

Robert Pear reports in the New York Times on a "rift" that has developed between Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and Social Security's Chief Actuary, Stephen Goss, pictured above, who has worked at Social Security for 37 years. The article gives this explanation for the dispute:

People close to Goss and Astrue said the disagreements involved personal chemistry, Social Security policy and the technical quality of Goss' work on disability programs — not political ideology.

Relations have been strained since late 2008, when the two men clashed over the scope of the actuary's independence. Basically, aides said, the commissioner views Goss as a conscientious employee and agrees he is free to use data as he sees fit.

But, they said, in an effort to keep the agency out of politics, Astrue has sometimes tried to limit what Goss can say publicly about Social Security, and Goss has sometimes bridled at the restraints. ...

Astrue has expressed reservations about Goss' performance in annual evaluations that could be used to justify action against him, lawmakers said.

The commissioner has complained, on occasion, of insubordinate conduct by Goss, who insists he is simply trying to preserve the independence and integrity of the office.

Like partners in a bad marriage, Goss and Astrue may be stuck with each other for a while.

Congress seems very interested in this dispute. The article indicates that there have been letters from Congressional leaders to the Obama Administration stating that Goss should not be reassigned or demoted. The hearings scheduled for this week before the Senate Finance Committee and the House Social Security Subcommittee will apparently deal, at least in part, with the Astrue-Goss dispute.

It is taking a lot of effort for me to avoid speculating on what issues there might be between Astrue and Goss concerning policy and actuarial projections for Social Security's disability programs. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who knows more about this. Note that you can send anonymous e-mail to me using the Feedback button to the right.

One unimportant question: Is Stephen Goss related to Porter Goss, the Florida Republican who was at one time the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and who later had a major flameout as CIA director?

Fee Payment Stats

Social Security has posted these updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and certain others for representation of Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Jul 10, 2010

Surprise -- Policymakers Who Work In Air-Conditioned Offices Don't Care About Blue Collar Workers

From the McCLatchy chain of newspapers:
Young Americans might not get full Social Security retirement benefits until they reach age 70 if some trial balloons that prominent lawmakers of both parties are floating become law.

No one who's slated to receive benefits in the next decade or two is likely to be affected, but there's a gentle, growing and unusually bipartisan push to raise the retirement age for full Social Security benefits for people born in the 1960s and after. ...

Raising the age eventually to 70 could prove to be politically acceptable because it wouldn't have an immediate social impact, but it would demonstrate that politicians are resolute enough to mend one of the government's most popular social programs and to tackle the national debt. ...

"For awhile, there's been a consensus among economists that raising the retirement age makes a lot of sense," said Richard Johnson , a senior fellow and the director of the Retirement Policy Program at the Urban Institute , a Washington research group. ...

"There are some incredible ramifications to raising the age," said Barbara Kennelly , the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare . "Not everyone can work until they're 70."

NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on disability claims for Social Security, has issued its Summer 2010 newsletter. A brief excerpt from one article:
NADE continues to advocate for a significant reduction in the 15 year vocationally relevant period and we were greeted with wide enthusiasm for this proposal by advocacy groups and Congress. With SSA finally voicing limited support, NADE is hopeful positive action may occur on this issue.
One odd note to the newsletter is a photo of NADE members participating in a "mud volleyball tournament." That's something you don't see everyday!

Jul 9, 2010

Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Scheduled

From a press release issued by the House Social Security Subcommittee:

Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Social Security, announced today that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the continued importance of Social Security for seniors, survivors, and persons with disabilities and their families as the program approaches its 75th anniversary.

The hearing will take place on Thursday, July 15, 2010 in room B-318, Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 9:30 a.m. ...

Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) stated "In addition to commemorating the 75th anniversary of Social Security, this hearing will provide an opportunity to learn how vital this program continues to be for the well-being of all Americans and why we should consider very carefully any changes being proposed for how they will affect the lives of current and future generations of beneficiaries.

Social Security Report Delayed -- Why?

The Angry Bear blog reports that there has been a significant delay in issuing the annual report of the Social Security trustees. Normally, the report is issued on March 31 of each year but this year's issue is still hanging fire. There was a rumor that the report would be issued in April and then a later rumor that it would be coming out in June but still no report and no word on when it is coming.

So, what's going on?

A Possibility Not Mentioned

Andrew Biggs, former Deputy Commissioner of Social Security, has written a piece for the American Enterprise Institute blog on lifting the cap on earnings covered by the Social Security F.I.C.A. tax. He's against it. His argument is that:
The real question is whether to impose higher taxes on high earners in order to pay higher benefits to high earners. I say no. They care a lot more about their taxes than their benefits and they’re fully capable of saving on their own. I’d be more than happy to have a Social Security program that was more redistributive—and more generous to low earners—than today’s system if we could also make it smaller and more affordable. Given the other bills coming due, that makes more sense to me.
It is arguable whether high wage earners care more about taxes than benefits. In any case, there is another possibility: Raise the F.I.C.A. cap but cap Social Security benefits. That makes Social Security more redistributive. It also eliminates foreseeable Social Security funding problems. It does not make Social Security smaller but that is Andrew Biggs' goal. I see no evidence that the public shares this goal. Raising taxes on the wealthy to solve Social Security's long term funding problems is wildly popular. Take a look at the polls:

Senate Finance Committee Schedules Social Security Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on "Choosing to Work During Retirement and the Impact on Social Security" for July 15 at 10:00. The scheduled witnesses:
  • Stephen Goss, Chief Actuary, Social Security Administration, Washington, DC
  • Marc Freedman, CEO and Founder, Civic Ventures, San Francisco, CA
  • Marcia Brown, Chief Operating Officer, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, MT
  • Nicole Maestas, Economist and Group Manager, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA
  • Bonnie Shelor, Senior Vice President for Human Resources, Bon Secours Richmond Health Systems, Richmond, VA

Court Finds DOMA Unconstitutional

A federal district court judge in Massachusetts has declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. DOMA prevents Social Security from considering state-sanctioned same sex marriages even though Social Security normally is bound by state law in determining family relationships. If this stands, and that is a big "if," there would be significant effects upon Social Security benefits for wives, husbands, widows and widowers.

Jul 8, 2010

Consensus Forming On Cutting Social Security?

Is there a Congressional consensus forming on cutting Social Security benefits? TPM fears there may be and that "it could happen swiftly, with very little notice."

More On New Regs On Scheduling ALJ Hearings

From today's Federal Register:
We are amending our rules to state that our agency is responsible for setting the time and place for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). This change creates a 3-year pilot program that will allow us to test this new authority. ...

The ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] who conduct the [Social Security] hearings are dedicated, hard working professionals; they will play a central role in helping us reduce the backlog. However, some ALJs do not schedule or hold a minimally acceptable number of hearings, and our current rules are arguably unclear as to certain scheduling issues. ...

We anticipate using this pilot authority primarily in a very small number of situations where an ALJ is scheduling so few hearings that he or she is compromising our efforts to make timely and accurate decisions for people applying for benefits. One impetus for proposing these rules was a New England judge who scheduled no hearings for many years. Because we expect that virtually all ALJs will work with us to schedule hearings in a timely manner, administrative action under this regulation should be an exceptionally rare occurrence. ...

We will consult with the appropriate Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) and the ALJ before we exercise the pilot authority provided in these rules to determine if there are any reasons why we should not set the time and place of the ALJ's hearings, such as the ALJ being on leave for an extended period or insufficient staff support to prepare cases for hearings. If the HOCALJ does not state a reason that we believe justifies the limited number of hearings scheduled by an ALJ, we will then consult with the ALJ before deciding whether to exercise our authority to set the time and place for the ALJ's hearings.

Social Security Employment Down Slightly

Below are the March 2010 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.
  • March 2010 66,863
  • 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

Jul 7, 2010

OMB Approval Requested For Dispensing With Expert Opinions In Fully Favorable Disability Determinations

Social Security has just requested the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House for new regulations which would "... permit disability examiners in our State agencies to make fully favorable determinations without requiring the input of a medical or psychological consultant in certain claims for disability benefits ..."

New Regs Coming On Setting Time And Place For Hearings -- For Three Years

Social Security has filed new final regulations to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow that will state that Social Security "is responsible for setting the time and place for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). This change creates a 3-year pilot program that will allow us to test this new authority."

Michael Astrue's term as Commissioner of Social Security will end before this three year time period expires.

Jul 6, 2010

Movivg Ahead On Occupational Information System

From a notice posted on FedBizOpps.gov:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a need to acquire expert services in the field of Industrial Organizational (I/O) psychology or an equivalent field to develop a prototype work-side instrument for the purpose of conducting analyses of work that exists in the national economy. ... The size standard is $7M. This procurement is a 100% small business set aside. SSA anticipates awarding one (1) firm fixed price contract for this effort. The period of performance shall be for 6 months from date of award. It is anticipated that the Request for Quotation (RFQ) will be issued on or about July 7, 2010.
This is the sort of thing that makes it obvious that Social Security plans to go ahead with its own occupational information system. The advisory committee and the request for public comments are little more than window dressing.

Jul 5, 2010

Administrative Law Matters

While I am a Social Security law specialist, in a more general sense I practice administrative law and I do so proudly since America has the most advanced system of administrative law in the world. Few nations can boast of anything approaching the Administrative Procedure Act. The Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act are important components of our system of administrative law and models for the world. Even the seldom noticed Paperwork Reduction Act is an important bulwark against bureaucratic overreaching. Does this sort of thing matter to anyone other than bureaucrats and drudges like me? Take a look at what happened in India after it adopted a freedom of information act.

Jul 3, 2010

Tip Of The Hat To The Oregonian

Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review gives The Oregonian a "tip of the hat" for its article on the plight of those who have been approved for Social Security disability benefits but who face a two and a half year wait for Medicare benefits. Well deserved.

Jul 2, 2010

Hiring Freeze

An e-mail message to Social Security employees:
From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Friday, July 02, 2010 11:57 AM
To: Undisclosed recipients
A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: FY 2011 Budget Update

I want to update you on the status of our fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget request. It is likely that Congress will not pass our FY 2011 budget by October 1, and we will begin FY 2011 operating under a continuing resolution (CR). The CR will severely limit our spending to a prorated share of our FY 2010 appropriation.

A CR is always disruptive, but will be particularly difficult in FY 2011. For the last two years, we have had an extra $500 million in Recovery Act funding available in addition to our regular annual appropriations. The combination of these two funding sources has allowed us to hire aggressively and work overtime to reduce our disability backlogs, handle increasing claims, and better serve the American public. Under a CR in FY 2011, we will have less funding than under recent CRs to support our higher staffing level because we are not permitted to include the Recovery Act funding as part of our previous year baseline.

Due to this anticipated drop in funding, we must begin preparing for a CR now. Effective immediately, all headquarters and regional office staff components will be in a full hiring freeze. Beginning on October 1 and continuing through the first quarter of FY 2011, our operational components, including the State Disability Determination Services, will only be allowed to replace staffing losses. We will not reduce overtime during the first quarter. However, to fund overtime and this minimal staffing replacement, we must defer any additional hiring and all other costs that are not critically essential to keeping our doors open.

The additional funding we’ve received in the past three years has allowed us to make great strides, and I am proud of our many accomplishments. For 18 straight months, we have reduced the hearings backlog by over 74,000 cases, despite increased applications. At the same time, we have eliminated nearly four months of waiting time for hundreds of thousands of Americans awaiting hearings. In addition, we have improved service across the agency. DDS accuracy and productivity remain high, despite the destructive and unnecessary furloughs and staffing restrictions imposed by some states. We have increased our CDRs and redeterminations, which have resulted in a significant increase in SSI payment accuracy. We have reduced our waiting times in field offices and on the 800 number. In fact, we are answering our 800 number calls faster than any time in nearly a decade. I know the American people appreciate your hard work and dedication.

While we must make steep cuts in our spending, I will do what I can to minimize the disruption to our positive momentum. This plan is a temporary measure that we cannot sustain beyond December; I am hopeful that the CR will end before we have to take more drastic measures. Our services are vital to the financial stability of millions of Americans, and you can be sure I will be doing everything possible to persuade Congress to approve the critical funding that the President has requested for us.

Michael J. Astrue