Sep 30, 2010

The Binder And Binder Lawsuit

Binder and Binder, which probably represents more Social Security claimants than any other entity, has sued Social Security seeking an order that would require Social Security to allow its employees to appear at hearings before Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) solely by video. It is unclear to me whether Binder and Binder seeks this only where a video hearing has already been scheduled or whether the firm seeks to appear by video even in cases where no video hearing has been scheduled because the claimant and ALJ will be in the same room. I will post my views later on the legal merits of this lawsuit but I will talk now about what I think is behind this suit.

I have no inside information about Binder and Binder's motivations. However, I have been practicing Social Security law for 31 years so I have some idea of the economics of their type of practice. I think this helps me understand what is going on.

Binder and Binder is representing Social Security claimants nationally. There are very few other entities trying to do this. Certainly, Binder and Binder is audacious. Just about everyone else is trying to get clients only in local areas.

I think there are major disadvantages to trying to operate nationally but Binder and Binder has one thing going for them with a national practice. If you are going to have much of a Social Security practice, you just about have to advertise. Television advertising is the most efficient way to do this, assuming you want a lot of cases. Television advertising is more efficient when it is done nationally rather than locally.

Normally, attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants meet with their clients at least once or twice well in advance of any hearing. Binder and Binder is big but nowhere near big enough to have offices all over the country. Sending employees out to meet with clients in advance of hearings would be impossibly expensive for Binder and Binder so they dispensed with that a long time ago. This has the effect of reducing client satisfaction but you are not looking for repeat Social Security business anyway. This has to cut down on referrals from satisfied clients, however. Binder and Binder does not have to worry too much about clients firing them. Binder and Binder is notoriously aggressive when clients try to fire them. They always refuse to waive their fee meaning that anyone replacing them must file a fee petition, which is a pain in the neck. Binder and Binder always files a fee petition in these cases. It is amazing just how many hours of work that Binder and Binder shows on these fee petitions. This makes it hard for anyone replacing them to get a decent fee. Most people who represent claimants dislike messing with former Binder and Binder clients.

I am of the strong opinion that eliminating face to face contact before the hearing reduces the effectiveness of representation. There are some things that cannot be done well over the telephone. As an example, gauging the severity of mental illness and persuading a mentally ill individual to get under psychiatric care are much less difficult to do in person. However, I must admit that there are plenty of attorneys who are not trying to operate nationally who meet with their Social Security clients for the first time on the day of the hearing. I think this is wrong on many levels. Even if viewed only in financial terms, this is the wrong decision because it cuts down on referrals from satisfied clients and because it reduces the chances of success.

Whatever disadvantages come from not meeting with clients prior to the day of the hearing pale in comparison to the expense which Binder and Binder must bear when their employees travel, often a considerable distance, to attend ALJ hearings. Many, perhaps most, of Binder and Binder's hearings require them to send someone by air. In most cases, this will take at least a day. Even if Binder and Binder is able to send an employee by car to a hearing, the employee may be traveling hundreds of miles round trip. On the whole, I am pretty sure that this alone completely overwhelms any advantage they have from advertising nationally.

There are reports that Binder and Binder runs a very lean operation. Another way of putting it is that they pay low wages, give few benefits and afford their employees poor working conditions. You can read about it here, here here, here and here. I hesitate to link to such anonymous reports but from conversations I have had with former Binder and Binder employees, I think these anonymous reports are true. This has to make it difficult to give good quality service and has to reduce the firm's chances of success in winning cases.

If Binder and Binder could dispense with the need to have their personnel travel to hearings, they would be better positioned to overcome the disadvantages that flow from operating nationally. They would be better situated to compete in an environment in which the average fee per case is reduced because backlogs have been reduced.

I'm Glad Republicans Oppose Class Warfare

Word has been leaking out that Republican members of the President's deficit reduction commission want to cut Social Security benefits, probably by increasing full retirement age. Word is now leaking out that at the same time Republicans are pressing for the Commission to recommend corporate and capital gains tax cuts. Their plan is to cut Social Security benefit payments so we can reduce taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

By the way, the National Organization for Women found an interesting way of protesting former Senator Alan Simpson's remarks about how "We've reached a point now where it's like a milk cow with 310 million tits!"

Social Security Versus Afganistan War

From Robert Naiman writing in the Huffington Post:
In an editorial today, the Washington Post takes President Obama to task for being concerned about the cost of the war in Afghanistan and the fact that it conflicts with domestic priorities. ...

[Quoting the Post] "Mr. Obama repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources to domestic priorities -- though spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product." ...

Considering the Washington Post's view of proposals to reduce the projected long term deficit in the combined budget by cutting Social Security benefits by raising the normal retirement age to 70, it's seems apparent that the Washington Post's view is the latter: spend freely on the war, pinch pennies from America's working families.

I asked economist Dean Baker how much raising the normal retirement age would be likely to save. He said it would be about 0.7% of GDP. Thus, according to the across-the-board "less than 1% of GDP" standard, this would be too small to bother with.

But that is not the view of the Washington Post. In a front-page news analysis on September 24, the Washington Post took Congressional Republicans to task for not "offering solutions" to "tackling the ever-growing cost of entitlement programs" in their "Pledge to America."

Sep 29, 2010

Binder And Binder Boycotts Glenn Beck

In doing some research, I happened to come upon this item that appears to show that Binder and Binder is or was trying to boycott Glenn Beck's show on the Fox network.

Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Delayed

The House Social Security Subcommittee had a hearing scheduled for tomorrow on "Protecting and Preserving Social Security for Generations" but that hearing "has been delayed until further notice."

It Takes People To Provide Public Service

From Joe Davidson's Federal Diary column in the Washington Post:
During a period when federal employees have been targeted again and again, it's not surprising that House Republicans' "Pledge to America" would promise to freeze the federal workforce. ...

Promoting the plan on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind), chairman of the House Republican Conference, was clear: "We can reduce government employment back down to 2008 levels."

Federal workers are always an easy target, but it's worth examining whether a freeze would come at the expense of public service....

[R]eturning to employment levels in effect at the end of George W. Bush's presidency could mean service backlogs in many government programs. Take the Social Security Administration for example. It provides payments to retirees, people with disabilities and others. The number of the agency's pending cases and the time it takes to process them has been a serious problem.

Recently, there has been progress as a result of agency hiring. ...

Technology is great, but it takes people to provide public service.

Why Do Republicans Now Oppose This?

From the New York Times editorial page:
Thousands of elderly and disabled refugees who receive cash assistance from the Social Security Administration are in danger of losing that lifeline. Their eligibility for benefits expires on Friday. Congress has granted temporary extensions before. It needs to do so again.

The welfare overhaul adopted in 1996 set limits on the time that refugees can receive Supplemental Security Income. Noncitizens normally do not qualify for payments, but refugees, who fled torture and war and could not work because of old age and infirmity, were among those granted an exception on the condition that they become citizens within seven years. That deadline came too quickly for some who were unable to pass the citizenship test in time. Many were homebound and had trouble negotiating paperwork or affording the fees. Others were stuck in limbo because of administrative backlogs.

Protecting the safety net for these immigrants — who include victims of sex trafficking, Jews who were persecuted in Russia, Hmong tribesmen who fought for the United States in Vietnam, Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein — has been a bipartisan effort. President George W. Bush urged Congress in 2008 to extend eligibility for two years.

Sep 28, 2010

And Some People Think It's Real Easy To Get On Social Security Disability

From Bill McClellan's column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Marcella Myer, who is 52, was a clumsy child. Not that she remembers it that way. She shook her head when I asked if she ever felt there was something wrong with her. But her mother remembers. "She used to fall in the middle of the floor," said Delorse Knehans. ...

She has lived with her mother her entire life. She never married. After graduating from Lutheran South High School, she worked at a gas station and then in nursing homes. Then she got a job in the warehouse at Famous-Barr, which, of course, became Macy's. She lost that job in 2008. She told me she just couldn't keep up anymore.

By that time, Lisa [her niece] had noticed [Marcella's] condition deteriorating. Her gait was becoming increasingly unsteady. Her speech was slurred. She has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. ...

Lisa suggested she apply for Social Security disability. "You just can't work any more," she said.

Marcella applied for disability. She was turned down. She had a hearing on that denial in March of this year.

Attorney Jeffrey Swaney was at the Social Security office representing another client when Marcella's case was called.

"I was sitting in the waiting room when they called her. I knew it was an appeal, and I remember thinking, 'How could this woman have been denied?' You could see she was profoundly disabled," he said.

Later that afternoon, Swaney got a phone call from Lisa. She had seen his ad in the Yellow Pages about Social Security disability claims.

"She said her aunt had just had an appeal and had been denied and she started describing it, and I said, 'I was sitting right behind you.'"

So Swaney took the case. He said the problem was a lack of medical documentation.

Incidentally, by this time, Marcella had suffered a series of strokes. She had difficulty speaking. She had to use a cane to walk.

A hearing was scheduled for August.

By then, Marcella was in the nursing home. A doctor from the nursing home wrote that she would never be able to return to the second-story condominium. Lisa and Marcella felt confident that Marcella would finally be approved for disability.

The administrative law judge declared there was not enough information upon which to base a decision. He gave Swaney 30 days to gather more information.

Swaney told me he sent in the additional information this past week. He said he felt optimistic.

I visited Marcella on Friday. Because her speech is slurred, Lisa was there to help interpret for me. Marcella said she has gone through her entire savings since she last worked two years ago. After she exhausted her savings, she began living on a credit card. She is about maxed out, she said. ...

When I got back to the newspaper, I called Swaney. I said I was surprised the judge needed more medical records. Marcella clearly seemed disabled to me, I said.

"If she's faking it," he said, 'she should be an Academy Award-winning actress."

New Hearing Office And Keeping A Committment

The Newton Citizen reports that Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue was in Covington, GA yesterday to open a new hearing office there. That is Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge Oliver Garmon with Astrue. According to the paper's caption for the photo, "Garmon had his head shaved earlier that morning to keep the commitment he made to go bald should his region reduce the wait time for appeals hearings to one year."

Commissioner Astrue and I have no choice on the baldness thing.

Sep 27, 2010

Fayetteville Hearing Office

Since I have started posting about the new Social Security hearing office opening in Fayetteville, NC, I suppose I will just keep posting updates until the office is fully open. The office was supposed to open in February 2010. The picture is of the building where the office is to be located and it is recent. However, the office has now opened at a temporary location not far away. It remains unclear whether any hearings will be held at the temporary location.

Update: I hear that the new office is not yet ready to handle electronic files, that for now all their cases will be paper files. I guess this is the sort of start-up problem that Mr. Sklar warned about last week. Local attorneys are struggling with an even more basic start-up problem at the moment. We do not know the telephone number of the new office. Even with the problems, we are happy to have the office open. It has been needed for at least 20 years.

Congressional Hearing Scheduled

The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for September 30 on "protecting and preserving Social Security for generations." No word yet on the witness list.

Sep 26, 2010

Sep 25, 2010

Binder and Binder Lawsuit

I have posted on the separate Social Security Perspectives blog the complaint filed by Binder and Binder seeking to force the Social Security Administration to allow Binder and Binder employees to appear at hearings before Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) solely by video. The ALJ would be in one location, the claimant in another and the Binder and Binder employee in a third location. So far, Social Security has refused to allow this as a general matter.

Sep 24, 2010

From The NOSSCR Conference -- IV

Glenn Sklar, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR,) spoke yesterday at the semi-annual conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) in Chicago. Here are some points from his presentation:
  • ODAR has now cleared almost all cases that have been pending more than 825 days.
  • ODAR's virtual screening units will continue through at least the end of fiscal year (FY) 2011 (September 30, 2011).
  • Several new hearing offices will open in the near future but no mention was made of the new office that I care the most about, the one in Fayetteville, NC.
  • Sklar warned that the new hearing offices will have a lot of new employees who will make a lot of mistakes. He prefers that these mistakes be sorted out at the local hearing offices or the regional offices rather than at his level.
  • ODAR has opened two new hearing assistance offices, a large one in St. Louis and a smaller one in McLean, VA, to help with "pulling" exhibits and writing decisions.
  • Going into the NOSSCR Conference there were 491 people who represent Social Security claimants who were active users of Social Security's efolders, which give online access to claimant files. 248 more users were signed up during the NOSSCR Conference up to the point at which Sklar spoke. Presumably, more have signed up since.
  • By mid-November Social Security hopes to start signing up attorneys and other representatives for efolder access at hearing offices. Social Security's goal is to sign up 500 a month for a year. [Two points on this: I did not get the impression that Sklar was completely confident that his agency will accomplish this. Second, would you make up your mind what this is called? It has been called EDIB, electronic filel, efiles and efolders and maybe other names. It is time to decide on a name and stick to it!]
  • Sklar was asked about attorney's office staff accessing efolder records. There has been concern that it may be Social Security's view that only attorneys could access the records. Sklar said that he was aware that many attorneys were using workarounds to allow their staffs to access the efolders and that Social Security's Office of General Counsel was working on the problem. [I think there are enough real problems at Social Security that the agency does not need to waste its time on something as silly and theoretical as this. The tone of Sklar's voice suggested that he might agree with me.]
  • CDs being given to those who represent Social Security claimants who lack efolder access will soon be encrypted. Sklar said these would be easy to use. [I am glad that I have efolder access.]
  • Sklar seemed surprised at a question from the audience about decisions and other correspondence from hearing offices arriving at attorneys' offices a week or ten days after the date they were supposedly mailed. This has happened since Social Security centralized printing and mailing. [Sklar's surprise surprised me. I am just about certain this is a national problem.]
  • Sklar was asked about allowing attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants to appear on a three way video linkup. This would allow someone to represnet a Social Security disabisity claimant without ever meeting them. Sklar said that this issue was being litigated in the Eastern District of New York and that he could not comment. [This confirms a rumor that Binder and Binder has sued over this issue. I will write more on this subject next week. I will say for now that I am extremely unsympathetic to Binder and Binder's position.]

From The NOSSCR Conference -- III

Nancy Shor, the long time executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) spoke at the organization's conference in Chicago yesterday. Here are a few points from what she had to say:
  • She understands that the proposed regulations that would recognize law firms and other entities as representing Social Security claimants are now dead. She does not understand why.
  • Ms. Shor has resigned from the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panels (OIDAP). She felt that she had to after NOSSCR adopted a position statement opposing Social Security going ahead with its own occupational information system, something that OIDAP wants to do.
  • She expects a new report from OIDAP by the end of the year.

Sep 23, 2010

From The NOSSCR Conference -- II

It would be impractical for me to summarize everything said at the Wednesday general session of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives conference in Chicago. I will stick to that which regular readers of this blog might find newsworthy.

Catherine Olson, the staff director of the House Social Security Subcommittee spoke. Congressional staffers are not supposed to make news and Ms. Olson did as she was supposed to do in giving those present an update on Social Security and Congress. She expressed concern about Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP). She thought, or perhaps hoped, that Social Security was reaching out to the Department of Labor (DOL). I hope she is correct. My guess is that any outreach to DOL will disappear if Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. As I have stated before, OIDAP's work is, by far, the most important policy issue that the Social Security Administration has dealt with in more than 30 years.

Judge David Hamilton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit also spoke. Federal judges are also supposed to avoid making newsworthy speeches. Judge Hamilton managed to give an interesting, engaging speech without making news. He did give an answer to a question that lawyers who do Social Security work in the federal courts -- but no one else -- will find interesting. He was asked whether it is a good idea in drafting a brief to keep the statement of the facts and the legal arguments completely separate or whether an attorney should have a somewhat brief statement of the facts and then supplement those facts in the argument section of the brief. Judge Hamilton prefers the latter course, of mixing in detailed facts with the legal argument. This must sound extremely unimportant to most people reading this blog but I assure readers that it is a crucial question for anyone drafting a Social Security appellate brief. It is an excellent example of the sort of decisions that attorneys have to make every day. This one is a particularly tough call for an attorney. As boring as it sounds, it can be the difference between winning and losing a client's case. One problem with what Judge Hamilton rlecommended is that he expressed his preference but that is not necessarily the preference of every other appellate judge. Another problem, as Judge Hamilton mentioned, is that what he suggests does not precisely comply with the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. Attorneys have to worry how far they can bend these rules before they offend an appellate judge. Aren't you glad that you're not a practicing attorney?

From The NOSSCR Conference -- I

Today was the first full day of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representative' (NOSSCR) semi-annual conference. More than 1,200 people were present at the Marriott Magic Mile in Chicago.

The day started with the annual Eileen Sweeney Public Service award, which this year went to David Traver and to me. David is well deserving of his award. He has maintained the SSAS Connect Board for many, many years. It is a vital resource in the Social Security world.

I am deeply grateful for my award. I have been involved with NOSSCR since 1979, the year it began and the year that I entered private law practice. I have gotten far more out of my involvement in NOSSCR than I ever put in. It is especially satisfying to receive an award named after Eileen Sweeney. She was a great woman who had an incredible impact on the world. I wish she could have lived longer.


Social Security has just withdrawn a proposed amendment to its regulations that would have made permanent the authority of some of its senior attorneys to issue fully favorable decisions on appeals of disability claims.

Problems At The Appeals Council

An e-mail I received from a legal assistant at my firm:

No surprise, but just received this from Barbara Hunt, Chief, Congressional and Public Affairs Branch [at the Appeals Council]:

“The Council has received an unprecedented number of requests for review and as a result, is experiencing lengthy delays in the processing of its cases. Although the average processing time for the Council is about 13 months, it is not unusual to find delays of about 30 months”

I have found that they are only answering the phones in the morning. The afternoon calls go to a “general mailbox” which, from my experience, is equivalent to a black hole. I have yet to get a call back from messages left there.

Sep 22, 2010

Senate Hearing On LTD

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for September 28 to investigate the question Do Private Long-Term Disability Policies Provide the Protection They Promise? David Rust, Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy is scheduled to testify. Mary DeBofsky, a Chicago attorney who represents long term disability claimants will also testify.

Lots Of Pain For No Gain

An Op Ed piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times, written by Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, and Yvonne Walker, president of The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents employees of the California Disability Determination Services Department:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have a cameo role in a current film, but the real "Expendables" appear to be disabled Californians, the state employees who make disability decisions for the Social Security Administration and the federal dollars he is throwing away. Long before he was governor, bodybuilder Schwarzenegger lived by the motto "No pain, no gain." However, as California's chief executive, his policy of furloughing even those state employees whose salaries are federally funded has given rise to a new axiom: "Lots of pain for no gain."

Social Security pays 100% of the salaries and overhead for workers in California's Disability Determination Services Division (DDSD) — bringing in more than $211 million a year to the state. These employees make medical determinations for Social Security payments. As a direct result of their work, each month Social Security pays $1.3 billion in disability benefits to more than 1.3 million California residents.

Furloughing DDSD employees does not save California a single penny. It has done nothing to reduce the $19-billion general fund deficit. Instead, the state loses the federal funds allocated for the DDSD. Most tragically, it imposes a financial burden on California's disabled citizens by delaying millions of dollars in federal disability benefits and medical coverage to those in need.

To meet the needs of California residents, the Social Security Administration is redirecting thousands of backlogged California cases to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The cost of processing such cases will total millions of dollars — federal dollars that would have gone to California, had the governor chosen to exempt the DDSD workers from furloughs.

Sep 21, 2010

"Not Something The State Foresaw"

From the Charleston, WV Daily Mail:
Several thousand low-income West Virginia children who are also blind or disabled could see a one-month reduction in their federal disability benefits, the result of a decision by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Faced with a deadline for using millions of dollars in one-time federal stimulus funds, the department decided to send tens of thousands of children $250 extra for school clothes and supplies.

The Social Security Administration at this point views those checks as income.

In West Virginia, about 9,300 low-income blind or disabled children received Social Security Income benefits.

Because the receipt of those benefits is based on income level, any extra money the children receive - including the money from the state for school clothes - causes a reduction in the amount the children receive from the federal Supplemental Security Insurance program.

"It's reducing (SSI) dollar-for-dollar based on the amount of money they get (from the state)," Robert Jeffries, a spokesman for the Charleston field office of the Social Security Administration, said Monday. ...

Doug Robinson, deputy commissioner of the state DHHR's Bureau of Children and Families, said the SSI reduction was not something the state foresaw when it decided to send out the $250 checks. He called the federal standards "unfortunate."

Is There An App For This?

A subcommittee of Social Security's Future Systems Technology Panel has recently released a report calling, in effect, for an end to Social Security field office services. The report says that Social Security claimants can do their business with Social Security over the internet, perhaps using their cell phones. The benighted claimant who needs in person help can go to some office staffed with people who also help with federal tax matters, immigration matters, etc. or perhaps they can go to their local library for help.

I thought I would pull up a list of changes made just last month to Social Security's primary staff manual, POMS, to give an idea of the sort of issues that this subcommittee thinks your local librarian can help you with. Remember that the whole manual is vastly larger than this list of recent changes.

GN 03910 TN 100/30/2010Representation of Claimants
DI 13005 TN 708/26/2010Medical Issues
GN 02410 TN 2908/25/2010Assignment, Levy, Garnishment
RM 00201 TN 2408/25/2010The Social Security Number (SSN)
OS 15025 TN 308/23/2010Office of Program Development and Research (OPDR) Responsibility
DI 70010 TN 308/20/2010Field Office (FO) Procedures
DI 25235 TN 208/19/2010Case Processing Instructions for Title XVI Child Claims
RS 02101 TN 708/18/2010Employer - Employee Relationship - Policies and Procedures
GN 02820 TN 1108/16/2010American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
SL 60001 TN 308/16/2010Employment
GN 02608 TN 2408/12/2010Government Pension Offset
GN 02613 TN 1108/11/2010Title II Fugitive Felons and Parole and Probation Violators
OS 15010 TN 1008/10/2010Office of Income Security Programs (OISP) Responsibility
DI 20503 TN 808/10/2010Essential Claims Folder Material
RM 10210 TN 808/06/2010SSN Evidence Requirements
DI 34222 BASIC08/02/2010Obsolete Special Senses Part B Listings 01/06/86 to 07/08
DI 34122 BASIC08/02/2010Obsolete Versions of Part A, the Listing of Impairments
DI 34005 TN 1208/02/2010Listings of Impairments - Current Part B Listing
DI 34001 TN 1308/02/2010Current - Part A Listing
DI 81020 TN 607/29/2010DDS Procedures - Electronic Process
DI 70005 TN 507/29/2010Modular Disability Folder
GN 00504 TN 1607/27/2010Suspension for Payee Development and Other Payee Actions
SI 00820 TN 5307/27/2010Earned Income
DI 81010 TN 907/26/2010FO Procedures - Electronic Process

Sep 20, 2010

The Baby Boomer Claims Rush Is A Come As You Are Party

A panel appointed to review Social Security's future technology needs is wringing its hands about how the Social Security Administration is going to handle the crushing workload that will arrive when baby boomers begin retiring en masse.

In my opinion that is a naive concern. Retirement claims require little effort at Social Security. The agency's employees mostly spend their time working on claims filed by people who are not yet eligible for retirement benefits -- disability and survivor claims. Unlike retirement claims these take staff time. Disability and survivor claims go up as the population ages but the baby boomer peak for these claims has to be several years before the peak for retirement claims.

Has anyone at Social Security figured out when its baby boomer peak workload will actually arrive? I am guessing it will come in the next five years but there have to be people at Social Security whose job it is to project the agency's future staffing needs. When do they think the peak will arrive?

This matters because the upcoming wave of baby boomer retirements is being used as justification for long term technology project recommendations. Social Security needs long term technology planning but it is too late for any long term initiative to help with the baby boomer peak workload. That peak is is nearly here.

Sep 19, 2010

Union Awarded Attorney Fees

From Unity, the newsletter of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local which represents most Social Security employees:
The Social Security Administration has been ordered to reimburse AFGE more than $100,000 in legal fees. That’s how much the Union spent when it represented 16 employees who were suspended for allegedly misusing the agency's computer system.

In her decision, Arbitrator Mary Bass ruled that management in the Northeastern Program Service Center (NEPSC) knew or should have known that the excessive penalties imposed on the employees could not be sustained. She also said the Union was entitled to that money in the "interest of justice."

Mr. Astrue Stood On The Affirmative Side

From the Huffington Post:
On Sept. 3, 2010, the Yale Political Union debated "Resolved: The Yale Class of 2014 should and will receive social security benefits" with National Commissioner of Social Security, Michael Astrue. This post contains speeches made by members of the Yale Political Union following Mr. Astrue's opening speech. Mr. Astrue stood on the Affirmative side of the resolution.

Sep 18, 2010

Does This Mean Anything?

This is from the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI). I would not jump to the conclusion that there is a connection between these two lines. In fact, I think there probably is no connection but it is an interesting chart.

Cutting Benefits For The Wealthy Won't Help

From Dean Baker writing at Firedoglake (emphasis added):
According to stories based on leaks from the [Deficit Reduction] commission, it is considering a plan to raise Social Security benefits for the lowest income beneficiaries. This is a great idea, since many of the elderly live at, or only slightly above, the poverty line. A modest increase in benefits would make a big difference in their standard of living.

However, the geniuses on the commission want to pay for this benefit increase by cutting the benefits of the “affluent” elderly. The problem with this plan is that there are very few genuinely affluent elderly and their benefits are not much higher than the benefits of normal people.

While we can raise lots of money by taxing the richest 1 percent of the population, since they earn such a disproportionate share of the country’s income, we cannot save much money by cutting their benefits. When billionaire investment banker Peter Peterson tells audiences that he doesn’t need his Social Security benefit, he is only putting $40,000 a year at stake. We can zero out the benefit for Peterson and his wealthy friends and not have to change a single number in the Social Security publications since the difference would be within rounding error.

In order to get any substantial sum of money to increase benefits for low-income elderly and to eliminate the long-term projected shortfall, it will be necessary to cut benefits for people who earned $35,000 -$40,000 a year during their working lifetime. This means cutting benefits for people who worked as schoolteachers, construction workers, factory workers and other very middle class or working class jobs.

Disability Claims Surge In Florida

From the St. Petersburg Times:
Florida's backlog of Social Security disability cases is poised to get even longer as unemployed workers flock to the program. ...

In 2007, 149,044 initial disability claims were filed in Florida, according to the Social Security Administration. By 2009, that number jumped nearly 33 percent to 197,960 claims. ...

Local experts say the reason for the uptick is simple: an aging population combined with a tanking economy.

"You have a double whammy," said Michael Steinberg, a Tampa attorney ...

Sep 17, 2010

No Social Security COLA This Year

It is not official yet but Bureau of Labor Statistics make it clear that there will be no Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to Social Security benefits this year. There was no COLA last year, either. This comes as no surprise to those of us who keep up with such things but will undoubtedly come as a rude shock to most of those drawing Social Security benefits.

There is an effort in Congress to give everyone on Social Security a special $250 check to make up for the lack of a COLA but there is no sign of progress on that bill.

It Will Work Because It Has To Work. We Have No Choice.

As I have stated before, the key assumption of the "Re-Imagining" report, which recommends that the Social Security Administration pretty much eliminate its field operations and try to handle all of its business by computer, is that Social Security has no choice but to do this because there will be no other way for the agency to handle its upcoming workload. I have been hearing this same sort of language for a long, long time. In the past, this sort of talk has always preceded a disaster.

In 1994 Social Security officials began work on a project to "re-engineer" the process for giving disability claimants hearings. High-priced consultants produced reports recommending a dramatic re-organization. The reaction in the field was that the plan was crazy. I can recall going to a conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and hearing a high level Social Security official describe the re-engineering plan. She took questions. I asked her what Social Security was going to do if the re-engineering plan failed. She replied most emphatically that re-engineering would work "because it has to work." She said that Social Security "had no choice."

You can see the obvious problem in this person's thinking. Ideas do not work because we need for them to work. They succeed or fail based upon their merits rather than upon our perceived need for them to work. Once you say that you have no choice, you close off alternatives and are liable to do something foolish. Thinking this way, a man who cannot make enough money to support his family might decide that his only choice is to buy lottery tickets.

Re-engineering was tried out on a limited basis. It failed and was abandoned before it could do much damage. Tens of millions of dollars were squandered on consultants.

Unfortunately, the notion that Social Security could not possibly get its work done without some productivity breakthrough did not go away. The next effort at a "Great Leap Forward", to use the term that Chairman Mao employed in China to describe something vastly larger but motivated by the same belief that there was no choice but to try a "Hail Mary" pass (to mix my metaphors to a cosmic extent), was called Hearing Process Improvement (HPI). This was another effort at a re-organization of Social Security's structure to give hearings to disability claimants. Again, we were told that there was no choice, that this had to be done to meet future needs. This time, Social Security did not let the dismal results of HPI's trials slow them down. They plowed ahead with nationwide implementation but they made sure to do it at the end of 2000 as the Clinton Administration was leaving office. With only an acting Commissioner of Social Security for many months into the Bush Administration, there was no one to pull the plug on HPI as hearing backlogs soared to horrendous, unimaginable levels. HPI has to rank as the most dramatic mistake in Social Security history.

Social Security never recovered from the HPI debacle during the Bush Administration, mostly because the agency lacked operating funds but also because the new Social Security Commissioner, Jo Anne Barnhart, was able to distract everyone with her own plan to end the agency's backlogs. This plan involved electronic files and something else which she really did not want to describe, other than to tell us that it would be wonderful. Again, Barnhart told us that there was no alternative to her plan, whatever it was. The electronic files were implemented at enormous expense. They have still not led to any dramatic improvement in productivity. The rest of Barnhart's plan, which she called Disability Service Improvement (DSI), just got delayed further and further. She kept the details a huge secret until near the end of the Bush Administration. Once the details were released, it was clear why she had kept her plan a secret. It was nothing more than another ill-conceived reorganization plan. Like HPI, DSI's implementation was delayed until Barnhart was nearly out the door. Fortunately, it was not rushed into nationwide implementation. DSI was another failure. The current Commissioner, Michael Astrue, learned that not long after taking office and began to stop it. I am not sure that DSI has been fully wound down even now, some three years later.

The moral to this long story is that we should be extremely wary of anyone with a plan for Social Security who tells us that there is no alternative to his or her plan.

Sep 16, 2010

Legislation Passed To Name Building After Robert Ball

A press release from Social Security:

Legislation to name the Operations Building at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland as the “Robert M. Ball Federal Building” cleared a significant hurdle with passage in the House of H.R. 5773 by unanimous consent. It is fitting to name this building after Bob Ball who served as Commissioner of Social Security under three Presidents and who continued to write and speak about Social Security until his death in 2008.

I want to thank the sponsor of this legislation, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the co-sponsors including the Maryland congressional delegation, Acting House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin, and Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy. This legislation now heads to the Senate where I hope it quickly passes.

Some Ways To Address Skepticism About The Re-Imagining Report

Social Security has a panel looking at its future technology needs. A subcommittee of that panel has issued a report telling Social Security that it can, over time, make its computers do almost all its work. The report is supposed to be a "re-imagining" of Social Security's future. Actually, I see no "re-imagining" here. It is a vision that already existed in the minds of many high level Social Security officials. They have been talking about this for years. You appoint a group of high tech people, some of whom may be salivating at the thought of obtaining huge contracts with the Social Security Administration, and give them only limited information about the agency's workloads, what do you expect? Of course, they are going to recommend a heavy dose of technology to cure all that ails Social Security.

I am deeply skeptical of the vision of Social Security's future that this panel has produced. The quite unscientific poll I ran on this blog indicates that a lot of other people share my skepticism. The report itself says that the panel has heard that many Social Security employees are deeply skeptical. This skepticism is based upon a much deeper knowledge of Social Security's workloads than this panel has. It is also based upon our memories of past information technology failures and shortcomings at Social Security. If Social Security is going to move towards this panel's vision, the agency is going to have to address the bases for our skepticism. Let me suggest some ways that Social Security can work on this:
  • Social Security has a real problem with something called the windfall offset. The windfall offset reduces back Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) by the amount by which Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits should have been reduced if the DIB had been paid when it was due. Got that? Not likely, unless you work at Social Security or work pretty closely with the agency. Trust me, the windfall offset is a big deal. It eats up a lot of work years at Social Security. It accounts for a lot of mistakes and delays. In the end, though, it is a computation, something that a computer system ought to be able to do. Social Security has tried twice to implement a computer system to automate windfall offset computations. Both efforts were total failures. My recollection is that the last effort to automate the windfall offset cost about $80 million. I am pretty sure that the panel was not told about this history. If Social Security management wants a high tech future for Social Security there is no better place to start than here. If this problem continues to defeat a high tech solution, Social Security management should keep its high tech ambitions modest.
  • Social Security recently tried to implement a computer program to "pull" exhibits for Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearings. "Pulling" exhibits means selecting the stuff that is significant and organizing it. Lots of people, including me, said in advance that this would fail. It turned out that we were right. Social Security ought to do a post mortem on this and make it public. How much money was spent on this? Why did high level Social Security officials think it would work? Why did it fail? Could it have worked if it had been done in a different way? What does this experience tell us about the possibilities for future information technology systems?
  • Over the last decade, Social Security has been implementing electronic files for Social Security disability claims. There are still bugs but the system mostly works. There were promises that switching to electronic files would lead to dramatic productivity gains. To the best of my knowledge, Social Security has never issued a report on the effects of the electronic files on productivity. I think that if there had been big productivity gains that Social Security would have been shouting it from the rooftops. They ought to tell the world what the results have been from this recent implementation of a system that mostly works. If they are not comfortable doing that, how much confidence should we have in the prospects of dramatic productivity gains from future information technology systems?

Sep 15, 2010

Unexamined Assumptions

This is, I think, the key sentence from the Re-Imagining Social Security report that first came to light recently:
Given the projected workload increases due to the number of individuals retiring over the next two decades and other demographic trends, electronic self-service appears to be the only solution that will enable SSA to process future transaction volumes.
Really? Why?

First, if the members of this subcommittee think that handling retirement claims is a huge challenge for the Social Security Administration, either they were poorly briefed by Social Security or they were not paying attention. Encouraging those who are retiring to file their claims electronically is a good idea but even if every last retirement claim is filed electronically, Social Security's situation is not much better than it is today. Retirement claims are by far the most common type of claim filed with Social Security but they are so easy to process that they account for a surprisingly modest part of Social Security's workload.

The real problems are the survivor claims, the disability claims and appeals and SSI. Disability and survivor claims are mentioned in the report but I get the distinct feeling that the Panel members had no idea of the challenges they present. They simply assumed these problems to be minor and easily addressed. Social Security's history over the last 40 years tells us the problems with disability claims are intractable and that the problems presented by survivor claims are so complex that Social Security has scarcely tried to tackle them. I looked through the report and the term "SSI" is not even mentioned. How do you do a report on Social Security's future and not mention SSI? My experience is that SSI is irreducibly complex. Again, what kind of briefings did the Panel members get? Were they paying attention to the briefings they did receive? Panel members seem to have made the naive mistake of thinking that Social Security's employees are mainly involved in handling retirement claims. This report is directed not at the real Social Security Administration but at a fantasy agency that exists only in their imagination.

Why is it assumed that Social Security cannot get future appropriations sufficient to allow some reasonable degree of personal service to claimants? It is only by making the assumption that this is impossible that you get something like this report. History suggests that Democrats are quite concerned that there be a reasonable degree of personal service to Social Security claimants. While Republicans are more apt to give this only lip service, they have not been unconcerned with the political consequences of poor public service at Social Security. Even President George W. Bush, the most right wing President that we are likely to ever have, was not unconcerned with service at Social Security. He was consistent in giving Social Security a better break on appropriations than just about any domestic agency. Politicians of all stripes are eager to cut government costs by substituting technology for civil servants but I see no basis for a fundamental assumption that appropriations for customer service at Social Security are going to dry up. If the computers cannot be made to do the work, there will be people available to do the work. The real question is the extent to which information technology can be made to substitute for Social Security employees. This Panel had little idea what it is that Social Security's employees actually do so they had little idea of the complexity of the issues presented when trying to substitute information technology for warm bodies in this context.

Getting an outside opinion is a useful exercise but only if the outsiders know what the facts are. These outsiders know so little that they could do no more than muddy the waters.

Sep 14, 2010

Chief ALJ On Receipt Of Unemployment Insurance Benefits

Click on the page once or twice to see it full size.

Prison Hearings

From a memo issued by Social Security's Chief Judge:
Hearing offices often have difficulty scheduling an in-person or video-teleconference (VTC) hearing when an individual is held in a place of confinement (jail or prison). To reduce delay in adjudicating these cases ... a hearing may be held by telephone for confined individuals. ...

A hearing by telephone cannot be scheduled if the confined individual objects in any manner.

Alan Simpson and AARP

From the Columbia Journalism Review:

[While serving in the Senate, Alan Simpson, the co-chair of the President's Deficit Reduction Commission] disagreed with the AARP’s [American Association of Retired Persons] positions on Medicare and Social Security, [and] believed the group was obstructing budget cuts that Republicans needed to make in order to offset a planned round tax cuts. Simpson held hearings on the AARP’s finances. “I’m a chairman. I can have hearings,” he boasted to reporters in the Capitol corridor, dancing a little jig and pumping his arms in the air. A few days before he announced the hearings, Simpson said “People ought to know where their money comes from and what it’s used for.” As I reported at the time, Simpson never produced a smoking gun, but he created plenty of smoke, focusing on irrelevancies like the size of AARP’s new building and its executives’ salaries.

But the AARP recognized what the hearings were really about. At a meeting with AARP’s board and staff, Simpson told them “I want you to know that the intensity of my investigation will be directly related to the intensity of your fight on Medicare.” In an interview then, AARP’s chief lobbyist John Rother told me: “Many people on the right wing realized that AARP was the force to contend with. They realized they wouldn’t get anywhere unless they dealt with us as an institution.”

The nasty streak Simpson has demonstrated lately is nothing new.

Let me hasten to add that AARP should not be above criticism. My opinion is that it is little more than an insurance company posing as a nonprofit grassroots membership group. A genuine grassroots membership group of retired persons would be a far more formidable force than the AARP.

Social Security Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). Click on each page once or twice 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
  • July 30, 2010 -- 410

Why Do You Need To Study This For Nine Years?

From a press release:
Data Systems International (DSI) announced today that it has been awarded a contract with Abt Associates to implement its industry-leading software, ClientTrack™, as part of the Social Security Administration's Benefits Offset National Demonstration (BOND). ...

Over the next 9 years, the BOND project will track and evaluate nearly 1 million U.S. citizens receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to assess whether a change in the SSDI benefits structure will improve their employment and income. Currently, recipients lose all of their SSDI income if they exceed certain income limits (i.e., the substantial gainful activity threshold; SGA). As a result, SSDI recipients may not actively pursue work opportunities due to concerns of losing their SSDI income. The solution being evaluated through BOND is to gradually reduce the SSDI benefit by $1 for every $2 above the SGA, thus providing a financial incentive for individuals to return to work and earn income beyond the current SSDI limits.

Sep 13, 2010

It's The Aging Of The Baby Boom Generation

From the Washington Post:

The number of former workers seeking Social Security disability benefits has spiked with the nation's economic problems, heightening concern that the jobless are expanding the program beyond its intended purpose of aiding the disabled.

Applications to the program soared by 21 percent, to 2.8 million, between 2008 and 2009, as the economy was seriously faltering.

The growth is the sharpest in the 54-year history of the program. It threatens the program's fiscal stability and adds to an administrative backlog that is slowing the flow of benefits to those who need them most....

Economists say the program has grown because eligibility rules were loosened in the 1980s.


See below for excerpts from the Re-Imagining Social Security report.

Dessert Is Ibuprofen

From today's New York Times:
At the Cooper Tire plant in Findlay, Ohio, Jack Hartley, who is 58, works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack.

Mr. Hartley performs these steps nearly 30 times an hour, or 300 times in a shift. “The pain started about the time I was 50,” he said. “Dessert with lunch is ibuprofen. Your knees start going bad, your lower back, your elbows, your shoulders.”

He said he does not think he can last until age 66, when he will be eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits. At 62 or 65, he said, “that’s it.”

After years of debate about how to keep Social Security solvent, the White House has created an 18-member panel to consider changes, including raising the retirement age. Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio and the House minority leader, has called for raising the age as high as 70 in the next 20 years, and many Democrats have endorsed similar steps, against opposition from some liberal groups. The panel will report by Dec. 1, after the midterm elections. ...

A new analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that one in three workers over age 58 does a physically demanding job like Mr. Hartley’s — including hammering nails, bending under sinks, lifting baggage — that can be radically different at age 69 than at age 62. Still others work under difficult conditions, like exposure to heat or cold, exposure to contaminants or weather, cramped workplaces or standing for long stretches.

In all, the researchers found that 45 percent of older workers, or 8.5 million, held such difficult jobs. For janitors, nurses’ aides, plumbers, cashiers, waiters, cooks, carpenters, maintenance workers and others, raising the retirement age may mean squeezing more out of a declining body.

I have clients who perform that tire building job -- except they are making truck tires. Can you imagine how heavy that work is? I am told that it is rare for an employees to make it to 65 at that plant.

Sep 12, 2010

What Do You Think?

Recommendations from the report of the Re-Imagining Social Security Subcommittee of Social Security's Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel:
Move to an electronic customer self-service model with the goal of moving transactions to the Internet each year until 90% of the business with SSA takes place online.
  • Provide other channels for:
~Complex transactions that are not suited to online execution
~Those who cannot or will not use technology
  • Develop a series of incentives to encourage and direct the public to utilize the electronic self-service model. ...
  • Implement a program to automate the initial disability claim decision that would only require human review for denied claims. ...
  • Lead a government-wide study group to discuss options with other agencies to pilot a single government service center in each region for individuals who need face-to-face service across from different agencies. (For example, IRS, SSA, INS, State Social Services, etc.)
~Consider contracting-out providing the services by third parties vs. each agency.
~Look at the model in some state DMVs. ...

~Consider outsourcing some activities to third parties, e.g. libraries.

[Scenarios demonstrating the Subcommittee's vision for the future]
Disability determination
  • SSA examiner uses [information provided by claimant] along with database of prior determinations
  • Decision support tools provide recommendation
~Statistical analysis and AI [Artificial Intelligence] programs gather information on similar cases and their outcomes and report to examiner
~90% of cases are determined automatically
  • Positive decisions are not reviewed
  • SSA staff reviews rejected claims
In case of an appeal
  • The first hearing is with an AU[?], the claimant and an attorney using Google Wave
  • Face-to-face hearings occur depending on the case backlog and the outcome of the Wave conference
  • A scheduling system assigns cases in backlogged areas to areas that are more lightly loaded for video hearings
  • Decision support for the administrative law judge
~Statistical and Al programs search the database of appeals to report on similar cases and their outcomes

Updated Fee Payment Numbers

Social Security's numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and certain others for representing Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Sep 11, 2010

Missing 230,000 Centenarians

I had posted earlier about concerns in Japan that their Social Security system was paying retirement benefits to some supposed centenarians who had actually died years earlier. Now comes a report that there may be 230,000 such people! The Japanese Social Security records were so bad that they had 77,000 people over 120 years old listed as still alive and 884 who were supposedly over 150 years old!

Sep 10, 2010

Data Center Delays

From NextGov:
A stimulus project to replace an aging Social Security Administration data center is more than six months behind schedule due to a disagreement over where to locate the upgraded computer facility. ...

The government planned to purchase land for the facility in March, according to the initial project plans. But SSA and GSA officials postponed the site selection, amid questions from House Ways and Means Committee members and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, about the cost efficiency of using stimulus money for new property rather than taking advantage of available space on SSA's campus in Woodlawn, Md. ...

SSA pushed back site selection to September so GSA could thoroughly study the Woodlawn vicinity as a possible location, according to a revised Recovery Act plan Social Security issued in June. GSA now anticipates buying the property in December, according to the document. Substantial construction should be complete by October 2013.

The updated plan states that, after a formal review, SSA and staff from the House Ways and Means Committee, which had requested the cost-benefit analysis, agreed GSA should continue searching for a site off-campus.

But on Wednesday, an aide for Grassley, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, said the senator still is concerned about the government spending money to buy land, when property on Social Security's campus could be reconfigured to function as a new data center instead.

Correction: Astrue Has Been To Obama White House

I blundered in saying that Commissioner Astrue had not been to the White House during the Obama Administration. He has been there several times. Thanks to Social Security's Press Office for setting me straight. I would plead that the White House visitor database is far from user friendly but I should have double-checked something that seemed so surprising to me. I expected that the Commissioner of Social Security would be invited to certain receptions and to have at least occasional meetings with the Office of Management and Budget and perhaps to go to other meetings concerned with the implementation of new policies and legislation. It turns out that my expectations were correct while my ability to understand the White House visitor log database was faulty.

I wish I could have corrected this earlier in the day but this is a blog. I am a practicing attorney. My client's hearings must come first.

No White House Visits For Astrue In This Administration

The Obama White House has released the White House visitor records for this administration. The name of Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, does not appear on the list. About 450,000 other names do.

Sep 9, 2010

Social Security Employees Rate Their Agency Highly As Place To Work

A press release from Social Security:

Social Security employees rate their agency as one of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government according to The Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. Among the large federal agencies in the top ten Best Places to Work, Social Security also had the greatest improvement in overall employee satisfaction.

“I am always impressed by the outstanding work of our employees and by their commitment to public service,” said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. “Our workloads have grown tremendously due to the recession and we are under more pressure than ever to keep up with the increased demand for our services. Despite these pressures, every day our employees bring the energy and teamwork necessary to provide the public with the highest standard of considerate service.”

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings draw on responses from more than 263,000 federal employees to produce detailed rankings of employee satisfaction across 290 federal agencies and subcomponents. Data from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is used to rank agencies according to a Best Places to Work index score, which measures overall employee satisfaction. In addition to the employee satisfaction rating, agencies are scored in workplace categories such as effective leadership, employee skills/mission match, pay and work/life balance. Social Security employees gave the agency higher ratings in all of these categories when compared to the prior survey.

“Our employees make a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans,” Commissioner Astrue said. “I encourage anyone looking for a career in public service to look closely at Social Security. You can make a difference in people's lives and your own.”


Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on how Social Security spends its appropriated funds. There are a couple of interrelated issues covered. One issue is the appropriated money that remains unspent each year. Towards the end of each fiscal year the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, has been allowing Social Security to transfer funds that will not get spent before the end of the fiscal year to a "no-year" account that Social Security can spend in later years. This is nothing new. It has been going on for decades. At least lately, these transfers have not been nickle and dime affairs. Social Security just transferred $280 million to a "no-year" account. That is something like 2.5% of its total budget for the year. At least lately, the transferred money has been going into an account that can only be spent on information technology. The second issue is the return on investment of the money spent on information technology. Social Security is not able to document much return on investment on some of its technology expenditures.

I had concerns about technology expenditures during the term of the previous Commissioner. Even though the agency was collapsing around Commissioner Barnhart, she kept diverting more and more of the agency's scarce resources to long term information technology projects. My fear was that she wanted to make sure that as much money as possible went to contractors (who are more likely to be Republicans) than to employees (who are more likely to be Democrats and union members as well.)

OIG is asking pertinent questions about what is going on today. The service that Social Security is giving the public is not as bad as it was but it is still far from satisfactory. More money is being spend on hiring employees but still there are not enough of them to get all the work done. Huge sums are being spent or committed to information technology projects. There are still huge backlogs in continuing disability investigations and Supplement Security Income (SSI) redeterminations. Why is so much money remaining unspent at the end of each fiscal year? Why is so much money being diverted to information technology? What is the return on investment on Social Security's information technology? Is a proper balance being struck between having enough personnel to get the work done and having good technology to help get the work done?

I wonder how Social Security's operating budget would be spent if Michael Astrue had resigned as Commissioner at the end of 2008 and been replaced by a Democrat. Would Social Security's operating budget be spent differently? To ask this is not to suggest that Commissioner Astrue's decisions on spending have been politically motivated or that he does not care about the service that his agency delivers to the public. However, personal beliefs inevitably impact the decisions made by agency heads. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that it has been an article of faith among Republicans in recent decades that federal employees are bad and private contractors are good. It is reasonable to ask questions about how such a philosophy might be impacting spending decisions at Social Security.

Sep 8, 2010


The Republican leader in the House of Representatives, who may become the Speaker of the House next year, is proposing that federal spending levels be returned to what they were in fiscal year 2008. Returning Social Security's budget to its 2008 level, would be a massive cut. There would be layoffs. The agency would go into free fall with dramatic reductions in public service. It would be a nightmare.

Bed Bugs In Jamaica

From Federal News Radio:

Bed bugs have infested the Social Security Administration's regional offices in Queens, N.Y. According to a post on, the agency is looking for a company to provide it with extermination services, including the use of a Bed Bug Heat Treatment Oven.

An SSA executive tells Government Computer News the bed bugs are affecting several offices in the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building and that the problem will be addressed as quickly as possible.

The ovens would be used to clean items such as clothing, books, papers, chairs and file cabinets in the office.

This isn't the first time the bugs have been found in that particular space. In December 2009, seven large file cabinets on five different floors in the building were infested.