Aug 31, 2010

Off Topic: Republicans Have Gone Mad

Click on the thumbnail once or twice to see it full size. It is a question from a Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

Most Republicans believe their President wants to impose Sharia law in the United States? Only 7% of Republicans know this is definitely not true? Where are the Republican grown-ups? How can a party which depends upon the votes of such woefully misinformed people govern?

Meet The President's Budget Commission Members

Read TPM Media's rundown on the members of the President's Budget Commission. Talk about a stacked deck!

Disabled Employees Sue Social Security

From the Baltimore Sun:

A group of disabled workers is moving forward with a class-action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration alleging the federal agency discriminates against employees with disabilities by denying or limiting promotions.

An office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Aug. 25 affirmed a 2008 decision by an EEOC administrative judge that certified the case as a class action, attorneys for the plaintiffs said Monday. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and other damages as well as changes in policies and procedures that will improve career opportunities for disabled employees, according attorneys for the plaintiffs.

The federal agency could not be reached late Monday for comment.

The Koch Brothers And Social Security

I have seen an explosion of anti-Social Security articles in newspapers, magazines and blogs in recent months. No doubt, much of this is a genuine reflection of the widespread and undying opposition to Social Security among the 20% or so of Americans who are on the extreme right. However, the unprecedented volume and ferocity of the articles I am seeing has made me wonder what is going on.

I encourage you to read Jane Mayer's article in the New Yorker on the Koch brothers.They are secretive oil multi-billionaires who have spent tens of millions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their openly anarchist views -- and I do mean anarchist. They want government, apart from police, to disappear. The late William F. Buckley described their political philosophy as anarcho-totalitarianism. The Koch brothers founded and support most of the right wing think tanks. They have created many seemingly grassroot groups that are actually "astroturf."

There is no question that many of the virulent attacks on Social Security are coming from organizations founded, supported and largely controlled by the Koch brothers.

Government Shutdown Coming?

At least one observer believes that should Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives after the election they may force a government shutdown in order to defund health care reform. The right has become so frighteningly strident that this seems plausible to me. Of course, a lot of people remember this did not work so well the last time Republicans tried it so common sense may prevail.

Aug 30, 2010

Republican Senatorial Candidate Says Social Security Unconstitutional

Joe Miller, who is very likely, perhaps nearly certain, to be the Republican senatorial candidate in Alaska:

That Two Year Waiting Period

From Kaiser Health News:

After Russ Hillard developed Huntington's disease, a devastating neurological disorder, he lost his $35,000-a-year job as a welder and, with it, his health insurance.

His wife, who was working part time, had insurance, but it didn't come close to covering the medical bills for the incurable disease, which causes uncontrolled movements, emotional problems and the loss of cognitive abilities. Eventually, Hillard qualified for Medicare, which covers disabled people under 65 after a two-year waiting period. But the coverage didn't kick in until after the family went deeply into debt and had to take out a $20,000 loan on their home in Methuen, N.H. ...

Under federal rules, most people with disabilities who are younger than 65 aren't eligible for Medicare until more than two years after they qualify for Social Security disability income. A coalition of more than 65 organizations led by the Medicare Rights Center has been pushing Congress to do away with the waiting period. But the effort has stalled because of the high cost to the federal government – an estimated $113 billion over 10 years ...

Some groups, including the Huntington's Disease Society of America, are going their own way, asking Congress for specific waivers from the Medicare waiting period for their diseases.

The Best Economy-Minded Bloggers Out There

According to the Christian Science Monitor, they have "assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there." This is from one of them:
No discussion of the upcoming collapse of the bond market would be complete without a mention of Social Security.

At least, after they’ve lost their money in stocks, real estate and bonds, Americans will at least have Social Security to live on, right? Wrong!

You know all that money you pay in Social Security taxes? Where do you think it goes? Into current expenses and US bonds!

That’s right, the feds just use the money to finance whatever fool scheme they’ve got going at the moment…and give the Social Security Administration a bond in return. In theory, the SSA has assets. In practice, all they’ve got is the hope that the feds can squeeze enough money out of taxpayers to meet their obligations.

And from there, the blogger goes on to use terms such as "Ponzi scheme", "chain letter" and "default." He also claims that assuring that there is enough money to pay future Social Security benefits would require "doubling every tax we pay, starting now."

You might be interested in the fellow who wrote this, Bill Bonner. He works for Agora Financial. Here are a few "Special Offers" from Agora's homepage, which may give you an idea of where this fellow is coming from:

  • "Last year $200 could have turned into $10.1 million following 5 simple steps revealed in this secretive retirement blueprint."
  • "Steve Sarnoff makes one pick each week. Since November 2006, not one pick has lost value! It’s no wonder our readers could have turned $5,000 into $1 million in just over 5 years!"
  • "One investment should rocket even faster than gold over the next 12-24 months... yielding at least 3-to-1 gains on every dollar invested... GUARANTEED."

Aug 29, 2010

ALJs Concerned About Threats

From a press release:
The Hon. Randall Frye, Pres. of the Assn. of Administrative Law Judges and a federal judge with the Social Security Administration based in Charlotte, N.C. and the Hon. Dana Leigh Marks, Pres. of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges and a federal immigration judge in the Department of Justice based in San Francisco, will release new data on threats and attacks directed at federal administrative law judges and will discuss concerns by judges about the level of safety in federal courtrooms where Social Security and Immigration cases are heard at a National Press Club Newsmakers press conference, Monday, August 30, at 10 a.m., in the Zenger Room of the National Press Club, 13th Floor, National Press Building, 529 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. ...

Between March and August of last year, 28 threats were recorded on Social Security offices that handle disability hearings and in the same period 10 individual judges who hear disability claims were threatened. Threats to the wives and children of judges also has been reported. In January, a gunman, possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits, killed a U.S. courthouse security guard and injured a deputy marshal in Las Vegas.

Judges have reported chairs being thrown at them, their robes being grabbed while on the bench and one respondent in an Immigration hearing reportedly attempted suicide in front of the judge.

Complicating matters and increasing security risks is the fact that most Social Security and Immigration judges do not have a bailiff or a security guard in their courtrooms and many of these facilities are only protected by private security guards. A large number of these courtrooms are now located in leased office space rather than government buildings.

ALJ Fallon Passes

Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas H. Fallon of Boston has passed away at the age of 68. He had been an ALJ for 16 years. Prior to becoming an ALJ he had served as mayor of Malden, MA.

Aug 28, 2010

The Center Cannot Hold

These are some recent quotes about Social Security "reform" from scholars at the Brookings Institute, a supposedly centrist think tank:
  • Isabel Sawhill: "Democrats must accept the need to slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare benefits."
  • Alice Rivlin: "[D]o we want to allow rapid growth in programs supporting seniors (including Social Security) to drive out spending for education or scientific research or improving infrastructure that might contribute more to future economic growth?"
  • Henry Aaron: "Other proposals that would cut Social Security spending or otherwise help reduce deficits deserve consideration."
What we see here are people who are trying to stay in the middle. On their left are Democrats who essentially want to keep Social Security as is. On their right are Republicans who are searching for a way to end Social Security, either through privatizing it or by cutting its benefits enough so that public support for Social Security spirals downward. The problem is that there is no middle ground for the would-be centrists to stand upon. These centrists end up with the less dramatic Republican option of cutting benefits but this is still an option based upon the premise that Social Security must cease to exist, a premise that these centrists do not accept.

Aug 27, 2010

Must Be Something In The Air Or Water

Joe Klein of Time picks up on Matt Bai's theme that only wild left-wing Democrats could oppose a "few minor fixes" to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age to 70 and reducing benefits. After all, "a move toward federal fiscal responsibility might encourage the U.S. business community to start investing the $1.8 trillion in cash it is hoarding and thereby create some jobs."

The Washington punditocracy is nuts. The idea that deciding to reduce Social Security benefits decades from now could provide an economic stimulus today is preposterous on its face. The changes that Klein favors are not "minor" in any sense. What is wrong with these people?

New Regs On Step-Children

From today's Federal Register:
We are revising our regulations to reflect changes made in the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996 (CAAA) to the entitlement and termination requirements for Social Security child's benefits to stepchildren. Under the CAAA, we consider a stepchild as dependent on a stepparent to receive child's benefits based on the stepparent's earnings only if the stepchild receives at least one-half support from the stepparent. Also, we terminate a stepchild's benefits that are based on the stepparent's earnings if the stepchild's parent or adoptive parent and the stepparent divorce, unless the stepparent adopted the stepchild and the stepchild can qualify for benefits as the stepparent's adopted child.

Why Raising The Retirement Age Isn't Such A Good Idea

From Hard Work? Patterns in Physically Demanding Labor Among Older Workers by Hye Jin Rho:
Employment in physically demanding jobs or in jobs with difficult working conditions is a major cause of early labor-market exit among older workers. Raising the retirement age is particularly concerning for near-retirement age workers with such jobs. Despite the fact that the retirement age increase is supposed to encourage workers to work longer, many workers would be physically unable to extend work lives in their jobs, and they would most likely be left with no choice but to receive reduced benefits.

An analysis of the Current Population Survey (CPS) and Occupational Information Network (O*NET) shows that in 2009 6.5 million workers age 58 and older (about 35 percent) had physically demanding jobs, while 5.0 million workers age 58 and older (about 27 percent) had jobs with difficult working conditions. More than 8.5 million workers age 58 and older (about 45 percent) were employed in difficult jobs (physically demanding jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions).

Physically demanding jobs include general physical activities, handling and moving objects, spending significant time standing, or having any highly physically demanding work. Highly physically demanding jobs involve such elements as dynamic or trunk strength, or kneeling or crouching. Difficult working conditions include cramped workspace, labor outdoors, or exposure to abnormal temperatures, contaminants, hazardous equipment, or distracting or uncomfortable noise.
It is easy to think that raising the retirement age to 69 or 70 would be no problem -- if you work in an office and seldom have any significant interaction with people who truly labor for a living. Unfortunately, the people making decisions about this work in offices and seldom have significant interaction with people who truly labor for a living.

Aug 26, 2010

New Edition Of Social Security Disability Practice

The 2010 edition of my book, Social Security Disability Practice, has been released. It is available for sale from the publisher, West, which is now part of Thomson Reuters. I just received my author copies this afternoon so you know the book is hot off the presses.

OIDAP Agenda

Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP) is holding a meeting in Boston next week. Below is the "Public Agenda" for the meeting.

A couple of reports are mentioned in the agenda. I hope these reports will be released to the public in the near future but I fear they will not. Rapid dissemination of information that OIDAP receives or develops is essential for the panel's credibility but that is not the way OIDAP has operated. They seem to have a conspiratorial bent. I would be suspicious of OIDAP under any circumstances. The way they have operated has made me very suspicious.

WEDNESDAY—September 1, 2010

8:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. Call to Order

Overview of Today’s Agenda

v Terrace, Lower Level

Mary Barros-Bailey, Ph.D., Chair

Opening Statement

Richard Balkus, Associate Commissioner

Office of Program Development and Research

Social Security Administration

8:45 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Occupational Information Development Project Report

Sylvia E. Karman, Director, OID Project & OIDAP Member

9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Evaluation of 2008 Occupations Held by SSDI and SSI Disability Claimants

Renee Ferguson, Statistician

Office of Program Research

Office of Program Development and Research

9:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Briefing on the Occupational/Medical-Vocational Study

Deborah Harkin, Social Insurance Specialist

Social Security Administration

10:15 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. BREAK

10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Status on the Development of the OIS—Content Model

Shirleen Roth, Social Insurance Specialist

Social Security Administration

11:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. LUNCH ON YOU OWN

WEDNESDAY—September 1, 2010 (continued)

1:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. OIDAP Comment Process

Mary Barros-Bailey, Ph.D., Chair

v Terrace, Lower Level

1:15 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Public Comment

2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Update on User Needs Report on Comments on the OIDAP Recommendations

Shanan Gwaltney Gibson, Ph.D., Member, User Needs & Relations Subcommittee

3:00 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. BREAK

3:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Subcommittee ReportResearch Subcommittee

Mark Wilson, Ph.D., Subcommittee Chair

3:45 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Panel Discussion and Deliberation

Mary Barros-Bailey, Ph.D., Chair

5:00 p.m. ADJOURN

THURSDAY —September 2, 2010

8:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. Call to Order

Overview of Today’s Agenda

v Terrace, Lower Level

Mary Barros-Bailey, Ph.D., Chair

8:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Subcommittee Report—User Needs

Robert Fraser, Ph.D., Member, User Needs & Relations Subcommittee

9:15 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. Status: Job Analysts Ad Hoc Group

Deborah Lechner, Ad Hoc Chair

9:45 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. BREAK

10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Public Comment

10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Administrative Meeting

Mary Barros-Bailey, Ph.D., Chair

11:00 a.m. ADJOURN

More Signs Of The Deep Penetration Of Republican Myths About Social Security

From Firedoglake:
Matt Bai and the editors of the New York Times have printed an article ostensibly about Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer and his willingness to cut wasteful spending to reduce the deficit — as though eliminating unhelpful or harmful programs were an unheard of position for Democrats ...

With no apparent oversight from the Times’ editors, Bai turns the “news analysis” article into a Republican talking point attacking Social Security and the US Government’s credit worthiness ...

Here is how Matt Bai, who apparently gets his understanding of how Social Security works from Alan Simpson, describes how the Trust Fund works:

The liberal groups that are already speaking out against the debt panel’s unfinished work have chosen to start with Social Security because it is likely to be at the center of any budget compromise. “If there’s a place where it looks like Republicans and Democrats can reach agreement, we’re afraid it’s Social Security,” says Frank Clemente, the director of Strengthen Social Security. (In other words, the two parties might actually work together on something. They must be stopped!)

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills — often referred to as i.o.u.’s — in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.’s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases — none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.

Contracting Intrigue

From Network World:
The Social Security Administration says it will announce in September a new award for data networking services, jumpstarting a critical IT [Information Technology] project that has been delayed for more than a year following a successful -- but secretive -- legal protest of the original awards.

In June 2009, SSA awarded two data networking services contracts through the U.S. government telecommunications program known as Networx Universal. SSA chose Verizon Business as its primary data services provider and AT&T as its secondary carrier. A month later, failed bidder Qwest Government Services protested these awards to the General Accounting Office, which sustained the protest in October 2009.

For more than a year, SSA has been quiet about its WAN [Wide Area Network] plans. Now SSA says it is proceeding with its efforts to migrate its data services to the Networx program. ...

How SSA will move forward with its data networking services has prompted curiosity across the federal IT market. The General Accounting Office never released a public version of its decision to uphold the Qwest protest, so industry observers aren't sure what problems existed with the original awards. ...

Ray Bjorklund, a senior vice president with consulting firm FedSources, of McLean, Va., says he was "scratching my head why I couldn't find the full text of the GAO bid protest decision…For whatever reason, there was never a public version of the decision and…it remains under protective order." Bjorklund referred to the SSA WAN deal as an "intrigue."

SSA, meanwhile, says it needs to transition both its wide area network and toll-free voice services to the Networx contract from the predecessor program, FTS 2001, which expires in June 2011. "We are 87% complete with the transition from FTS 2001 to Networx," according to the SSA spokeswoman.

Aug 25, 2010

"Like A Milk Cow With 310 Million Tits"

From Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post:

Alan Simpson believes that Social Security is "like a milk cow with 310 million tits," according to an email he sent to the executive director of National Older Women's League Tuesday morning. Simpson co-chairs the deficit commission, which is considering various proposals to cut Social Security benefits.

Simpson's email, which OWL chief Ashley Carson released publicly, (PDF) was sent in response to an April blog post Carson wrote for the Huffington Post. Carson criticized Simpson for repeatedly describing his Social Security opponents as "Pink Panthers," arguing that the description had sexist connotations.

His email is peppered with exclamation points and condescension.
There could not be a better person to lead this effort to cut Social Security than Alan Simpson.

Update: The American Association of Retired Persons is not amused by Simpson's rant.

Further Update: Simpson has now apologized.

Even Further Update: Paul Krugman on Simpson's comments:
At this point, though, Obama is on the spot: he has to fire Simpson, or turn the whole thing into a combination of farce and tragedy — the farce being the nature of the co-chair, the tragedy being that Democrats are so afraid of Republicans that nothing, absolutely nothing, will get them sanctioned.
Obama did not fire him.

I have to say that I see far more farce here than tragedy. I do not want to see Simpson replaced. He should stay the public face of this effort to cut Social Security benefits.

The Updates Just Keep Coming: This is not the first time that Simpson has gone out of his way to e-mail someone who criticized his efforts to cut Social Security benefits. I am getting miffed that I have not yet received a crude, condescending e-mail from Simpson!

Aug 24, 2010

OIG Says Withheld Benefits Never Paid

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
We identified 13,739 previously entitled child beneficiaries over age 18 who had past due benefits that were withheld pending the selection of a representative payee. When these child beneficiaries attained age 18 and therefore were presumed capable of managing their own benefits, SSA [Social Security Administration] should have paid the withheld benefits directly unless it had information that the beneficiaries had impairments that prevented them from managing their benefits. ...

SSA needed to improve controls to ensure child beneficiaries who attained age 18 were paid benefits that had been previously withheld pending the selection of a representative payee. Based on a random sample of 50 beneficiaries, we found SSA did not pay an estimated 13,464 beneficiaries approximately $31.2 million in withheld benefits (see Appendix C). We also found that, when SSA suspended their benefits, 40 of the 50 beneficiaries were age 15 to 17 and therefore might have been eligible for direct payment.

Huge Contract Coming

From Nextgov:

The Social Security Administration expects to award by October a contract potentially worth more than $2 billion for information technology support during the next eight years, agency officials confirmed late Friday.

The huge purchase is an extension of an IT services contract currently held by Lockheed Martin Corp. that has reached its cap of $525 million. The scope of work for this follow-on will extend beyond the previous contract that was primarily for software development and maintenance to include health information technology as well as new management responsibilities. The award may be split between multiple companies. ...

The contractor must create business models for exchanging electronic medical records, expand Internet services for Medicare and supplemental security income applicants, and enable the agency to request and receive medical data automatically through health information exchanges. ...

Several federal market specialists presume the government will award the contract to more than one vendor to boost competition, which should drive down prices, for individual task orders.

Aug 23, 2010

Sign The Pledge

Campaign For America's Future is asking members of Congress to sign a pledge to oppose any cuts to Social Security, including raising full retirement age. So far their scorecard shows 29 members of Congress, all of them Democrats, making the pledge.

Why The Differences Between DDS And ALJs?

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in disability determination at Social Security read the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report "Disability Impairments on Cases Most Frequently Denied by Disability Determination Services and Subsequently Allowed by Administrative Law Judges." The tables in the report are striking. It is likely to be cited as support for all sorts of arguments for many years to come.

The only disappointment I have with this report are the following conclusions which, to my mind, are rather timid:
1. Collect information related to claimant representation at the DDS l[Disability Determination Service] level to determine whether representation results in more allowances at the DDS level. Based on the results of that assessment, determine whether additional efforts are needed to ensure claimants are made aware of the availability of claimant representation at the DDS level.
2. Consider conducting a targeted review of disability determinations made in the six States we identified as having higher than average DDS denial rates and hearing level allowance rates for the four impairments we analyzed.
3. Consider analyzing variances between the hearing offices and ALJs [Administrative Law Judge] with high and low allowance rates for the four impairments we analyzed to determine whether factors are present that support the variances.
I can tell Social Security that focusing on attorney representation at DDS is not going to get them anywhere. I have been representing claimants at DDS for years. The main benefit of my representation is that my clients are not allowed to become discouraged and fail to file appeals. I have no illusion that I can do anything to influence the outcome at the initial or reconsideration level except in unusual cases. My prediction is that Social Security will collect statistics on the effects of representation at the initial and reconsideration levels and they will show that represented claimants have only marginally better success at DDS. That difference can mostly be explained by the fact that attorneys refuse cases they regard as unwinnable at any level. Social Security's response to the OIG report suggests they think much the same thing.

My recommendation after reading the report is that Social Security needs to concentrate upon the issue of Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) determination at DDS and, especially, to concentrate upon the RFC guidelines applied at the initial and reconsideration levels. Social Security's official position is that there are no RFC guidelines. This is bull. Sure, they may no longer put the RFC guidelines in writing but everyone knows they exist and are enforced by the quality assurance process. If you have to keep the rules you are following this secret, there has to be something wrong with the rules you are following.

All We Are Saying Is Let Social Security Be Voluntary

From CQ Politics (emphasis added):
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) on Sunday said lawmakers who have not signed onto Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget lacked "courage" and could be targeted by the conservative tea party movement as a result.

"All Paul Ryan is saying is let Social Security be voluntary, let Medicare be voluntary," Armey said. "The fact that he only has 13 co-sponsors is a big reason why our folks are agitated against the Republicans as well as the Democrats -- the difference between being a co-sponsor of Ryan or not is a thing called courage."

Social Security Is Only Agency Lacking Labor-Management Forum

From a "Contract Update"posted by the labor union that represents most Social Security employees:
It’s been more than eight months since President Obama signed Executive Order (EO) 13522 [ordering federal agencies to create labor-management forums], and high-ranking officials within Social Security continue to ignore that directive.

The EO’s purpose was a simple one: to involve employees through their Unions in the decision-making process, improve labor-management relations, improve the Federal Government’s productivity, and measure the progress of providing better service.

“It’s obvious to me that Commissioner Michael Astrue and members of his staff have no interest at all in implementing this order,” said Witold Skwierczynski, AFGE’s Chief Negotiator for the ongoing contract talks. “They are deliberately and defiantly ignoring a Presidential directive.

“Fifty of 51 agency forum plans have been approved. Social Security is still the only Federal agency without a certified plan.”

Aug 22, 2010

Social Security And Hatred For The Federal Government

The New York Times op ed page has a set of six short pieces by "experts" on ways to "fix" Social Security. Here is an excerpt from Roger Lowenstein's piece:
Finally, there is the “problem” that Social Security was invented by the federal government, which some people hate. The cure for this would be to legislate Social Security out of existence. According to its foes on the ideological right, it would be worth eliminating social insurance to people who are disabled or elderly, or whose private pensions have folded, or whose 401(k)s have melted away, because Social Security, the post office and other federal institutions are the root of all evil. It’s unlikely that people on Social Security agree.
We need to understand that hatred for the federal government is behind almost everything said and written on the subject of Social Security by the "experts" at right wing think tanks. They are not making proposals to enhance Social Security's long term financial health. They are making proposals that they believe will reduce the role of Social Security in our society and undermine its public support. It is pointless to try to compromise with people who are this ideological. They are never going to support tax increases. Even if they seem to agree to tax increases, they will never truly support them. Republicans in Congress will never vote for tax increases to support Social Security. It is far better to do nothing now than to embark on Social Security "reform" in this political environment.

Social Security Works

Aug 21, 2010

"If The Other Is Willing To Do It"

From the Wall Street Journal:
A White House-created commission is considering proposals to raise the retirement age and take other steps to shore up the finances of Social Security, prompting key players to prepare for a major battle over the program's future. ...

In addition to raising the retirement age, which is now set to reach age 67 in 2027, specific cuts under consideration include lowering benefits for wealthier retires and trimming annual cost-of-living increases, perhaps only for wealthier retirees, people familiar with the talks said. ...

On the tax side, the leading idea is to increase the share of earned income that is subject to Social Security taxes, officials said. Under current law, income beyond $106,000 is exempt. Another idea is to increase the tax rate itself, said a Democrat on the commission. ...

"Are Republicans willing to sign onto a tax increase, and are Democrats ready to sign onto a benefit cut? I think the answer is probably yes in both cases if the other is willing to do it," said Alice Rivlin, a Democrat and former White House budget director.
Update: The Wall Street Journal article suggested that the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) might be willing to consider accepting Social Security benefits cuts. AARP has issued a press release rejecting any benefit cuts as part of a deficit reduction package. However, the press release leaves open the possibility that AARP might not oppose benefit cuts to "address Social Security's long-term financing."

Aug 20, 2010

Differences Between DDS And ALJs

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has just issued a report on the differences between disability determinations made at the initial and reconsideration levels by the Disability Determination Services (DDS) and by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) at the hearing levels. This study is going to attract a lot of attention. It is worth reading in its entirety but let me pull out three tables to give you an idea of what is in the report. Click twice on each thumbnail to view full size.

New Hearing Office In Massachusetts

From the North Andover, Massachusetts Eagle-Tribune:
LAWRENCE — Michael J. Astrue, commissioner of Social Security, and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas yesterday announced that the Social Security Administration plans to open a new hearing office ...

Plans call for the Lawrence hearing office to be staffed by seven full-time administrative law judges plus 40 additional support staff.

Aug 19, 2010

Would Increasing Full Retirement Age To 69 Be A Tweak?

From The Hill:

President Obama said Social Security is not in crisis and only modest changes are needed to keep it solvent.

The president acknowledged at a small town hall gathering in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday that the pension fund "has to be tweaked because the population is getting older" but said Republicans' plans to drastically overhaul the program are wrong. ...

"I have been adamant that Social Security should not be privatized, and it will not be privatized as long as I am president," he added.

A Story Behind A Class Action

From the San Mateo Daily Journal:

Jose Alvaro Munevar, 55, was laid up in the hospital recovering from knee surgery when notified that his Supplemental Security Disability Insurance payments were suspended.

His payments were cut off because he bounced a $300 check in Las Vegas back in 2007, a felony in Nevada. ...

Munevar had overdrawn his account by only $15, a mistake that would ultimately cost the man several months of income and a little pride. ...

Munevar tried to clear up the warrant with Clark County, Nev. prosecutors but was unable to do it on his own. ...

[His case along with other cases] quickly turned into a class-action lawsuit as it became clear Social Security was wrongfully withholding payments from more than just a few people.

In fact, it wrongfully withheld payments from more than 200,000 people and owes about $700 million in back payments. ...

[Munevar's attorney] was able to get the Clark County arrest warrant “quashed” and Social Security paid Munevar $14,000 in back payments and restored his benefits.

Alliance For Full Participation

From a notice to "sole source" with Alliance For Full Participation:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) intends to negotiate on a sole source basis with Alliance For Full Participation, 202 Lexington Dr., Silver Spring, MD 20901 ...

Alliance For Full Participation (AFP) is a non-profit organization partnered with 15 non-profit disability organizations. As the umbrella entity for all these non-profits, AFP is uniquely qualified to partner with state level policy makers in all states on policy initiatives affecting transitioning to employment for youth with disabilities. ...

This is the type of outreach needed to provide SSA with reports on:

- State and national level strategic action plans that include stronger accountability by the members of each state team to ensure improved results for youth with disabilities;

-Strategies on more collaborative interagency (Federal/State/local/non-profit or commercial) relationships for improved post-school results;

-Effective evidence-based best practices that lead to successful adult outcomes for youth; and

-Suggested federal and national action for improving secondary education and transition results.
Certainly, more should be done to ease the transition to employment for young people with disabilities. I doubt that Social Security is the best agency to encourage this.

By the way, I can give Social Security advice on what is most needed to encourage these transitions (apart from an improvement in the general economy): more sheltered workshops and job coaches. My advice did not cost a penny and I doubt that anyone familiar with this subject would argue with it.

Aug 18, 2010

Some Quotes From The Proposed Mental Impairment Listings

Here are a few quotes from the proposal for new mental impairment listings to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow with some added bolding and with my comments in brackets.
  • The proposed paragraph B3 criterion is the same as the current paragraph B3 criterion, “maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace,” except that we propose to change “or” to “and.” This would not be a substantive change in the paragraph B3 criterion, but only a clarification of the overall requirement. [Going from a requirement of meeting one criteria to a requirement of meeting three criteria is not a substantive change?]
  • One of the provisions from §416.926a(e) that we are including in this definition explains that “marked” is the equivalent of functioning we would expect to find on standardized testing with scores that are at least two, but less than three, standard deviations below the mean. ... A person whose functioning is two standard deviations below the mean is in approximately the second percentile of the population; that is, about 98 percent of the population functions at a higher level. [Social Security is trying to put a 2% cap on the percentage of the population that can be found disabled by mental illness? About 1.1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia. About 1-3% of the population suffers from mental retardation. If we are limiting the listings to the bottom 2% of the population in terms of mental functioning, we are talking about a group that is either in long term care or is not far from needing it.]
  • Currently, we have an interagency agreement with the Clinical Research Center to explore the possibility of using International Classification of Functioning domains in predicting disability. [Sounds like Social Security is looking for some simple testing instrument to determine disability.]
  • ID/MR [Intellectual Disability/Mental Retardation] is often demonstrated by evidence from the period before age 22. However, when we do not have evidence from that period, we will still find that you have ID/MR if we have evidence about your current functioning and the history of your impairment that is consistent with the diagnosis, and there is no evidence to indicate an onset after age 22.
  • In 12.05C, the term “severe” has the same meaning as in §§404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). Your additional impairment(s) must cause more than a slight or minimal physical or mental functional limitation(s); it must significantly limit your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, as we explain in those sections of our regulations and §§404.1521 and 416.921. The limitation(s) must be separate from the limitations caused by your ID/MR; for example, limitation in your ability to respond appropriately to supervision and coworkers that result from another mental disorder or in your physical ability to walk, stand, or sit. If your additional impairment(s) is not "severe" as defined in our regulations, your ID/MR will not meet 12.05C even if your additional impairment(s) prevents you from doing your past work because of the unique features of that work. [Wait a minute! Are we trying to redefine what is meant by the term "severe impairment" so that something can prevent past work but not be severe -- using the mental impairment listings to redefine an important concept that appears elsewhere in the regulations? Please tell me that Social Security does not really want to reopen the non-severe impairment can of worms.]

New Mental Impairment Listings Available For Review

Social Security has posted new proposed mental impairment listings. These will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. The public will have an opportunity to comment. It will certainly be at least next year before these become official.

I have not yet had an opportunity to review these.

Update: After only the most superficial review, I would say that the primary changes are to the mental retardation listings, now to be called "Intellectual Disability/Mental Retardation." This was my expectation. The I.Q. testing scores required to meet the listings are unchanged. Multiple new criteria have been added. The appearance is that it would be difficult to find anyone to meet the listing unless they have been quite helpless and dependent their entire life. To my mind, this makes Listing 12.05C meaningless.

Social Security Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). Click on each image to view full size.

Compare the average processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • May 25, 2007 -- 523 days
  • July 28, 2007 -- 528 days
  • August 31, 2007 -- 523 days
  • November 30, 2007 -- 500 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • May 30, 2008 -- 523 days
  • June 27, 2008 -- 529 days
  • July 31, 2008 -- 530 days
  • September 3, 2008 -- 532 days
  • November 5, 2008 -- 476 days
  • December 3, 2008 -- 480 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days
  • April 24, 2009 -- 505 days
  • June 3, 2009 -- 505 days
  • September 29, 2009 -- 472 days
  • July 5, 2010 -- 415 days

Signup For E-File Access

Social Security has posted some limited information about how those who represent Social Security claimants may sign up for internet access to their clients' electronic folders. I hope this process can be speeded up. At the rate things are going, it could take years to get everyone signed up.

The Last Word On Social Security's 75th Birthday

Aug 17, 2010

Social Security Wants To Close Down A Scheme

Some financial advisers have lately recommended the strategy of filing a claim for Social Security retirement benefits, drawing benefits for several years and then withdrawing the claim while filing a new claim, thereby increasing the monthly benefit. You can do this but there is a big catch. You have to pay back all the benefits you received. I would be interested to know how many people have actually done this. I would bet it is a small number.

Social Security has decided that it does not want anyone using this scheme. They just sent over a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget seeking approval for the following:
We propose to modify our regulations to establish a 12-month time limit for the withdrawal of an old age benefits application. We also propose to permit only one withdrawal per lifetime. These proposed changes would limit the voluntary suspension of benefits only to those benefits disbursed in future months.

Why It Is Important To Visit Centenarians

The U.S. Social Security Administration has long had a practice of visiting beneficiaries when they reach extreme old age. Japan's recent experience shows why this is a good idea. From Reuters:
Revelations last week that police had found the mummified remains of a man thought to have been Tokyo's oldest resident at 111 but actually dead for 30 years shocked a country facing the challenge of a rapidly aging population. ...

More reports of missing centenarians this week showed that their whereabouts were unknown or their family members were unaware of what had happened to them.
U.S. Social Security used to visit people when they turned 100. That has now been pushed up to 103.

Aug 16, 2010

Fayetteville Hearing Office

I have posted before about the new hearing office planned for Fayetteville, NC. This is a matter of considerable interest for me since my firm has many clients in and around Fayetteville. The struggles to open that office may have parallels elsewhere since Social Security is in the process of opening many new hearing offices.

The Fayetteville office was originally scheduled to open earlier this year. Social Security agreed to take space for the office in a building currently under construction. That building will not be ready for occupancy until well into 2011.

The Fayetteville Observer is now reporting that Social Security will open the hearing office in temporary space a few blocks away from the building where it is to eventually locate. It is unclear how much temporary space that the hearing office will occupy or how many employees it will have.

There are rumors going around that no hearings will be held in the temporary space. No one locally seems to know what is going on. I keep hearing hints that there is some budgetary reason to open the office before the end of this federal fiscal year, September 30. I understand why it is important to open the Fayetteville hearing office as soon as possible but I do not understand the significance of opening it before the end of the fiscal year, especially if the office would not be functional for an extended period of time after it is opened.

Three-Card Monte

From Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times:
Social Security turned 75 last week. It should have been a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate a program that has brought dignity and decency to the lives of older Americans.

But the program is under attack, with some Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans joining the assault. Rumor has it that President Obama’s deficit commission may call for deep benefit cuts, in particular a sharp rise in the retirement age. ...

[W]here do claims of crisis come from? To a large extent they rely on bad-faith accounting. In particular, they rely on an exercise in three-card monte in which the surpluses Social Security has been running for a quarter-century don’t count — because hey, the program doesn’t have any independent existence; it’s just part of the general federal budget — while future Social Security deficits are unacceptable — because hey, the program has to stand on its own....

And having invented a crisis, what do Social Security’s attackers want to do? They don’t propose cutting benefits to current retirees; invariably the plan is, instead, to cut benefits many years in the future. So think about it this way: In order to avoid the possibility of future benefit cuts, we must cut future benefits. O.K.

What’s really going on here? Conservatives hate Social Security for ideological reasons: its success undermines their claim that government is always the problem, never the solution. But they receive crucial support from Washington insiders, for whom a declared willingness to cut Social Security has long served as a badge of fiscal seriousness, never mind the arithmetic. ...