Jan 31, 2011

Scary Prospects

On this slow news day, let me give a summary of where we are with appropriations and the federal debt ceiling. I will start with the appropriations process which is dangerous for the Social Security Administration and then go on to the debt ceiling which is even more dangerous. Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 began on October 1, 2010. To this point, the only appropriation for Social Security and other agencies has been a Continuing Resolution (CR) that allows Social Security to continue spending at the FY 2010 rate. The CR is bad for Social Security since the agency's workload is increasing with the aging of the Baby Boom generation. The CR ends on March 4, 2011. If nothing else is passed by then, Social Security and other agencies shut down.

Agreement between Congress and the President on a real FY 2011 appropriation seems unlikely at this point. Republicans in the House of Representatives are insisting on rolling back appropriations to FY 2008 levels. This would be disastrous for most agencies. It would be catastrophic for Social Security. There would be mass layoffs of Social Security employees. The agency could not function. The Republican base and Fox News are insisting upon confrontation with Democrats over appropriations yet it seems clear that any government shutdown would be extremely unpopular with the public.

I can only speculate that we will continue to see CRs for the rest of FY 2011 but a government shutdown is not out of the question. Agreement between Republicans and Democrats is possible but hard for me to envision.

At the moment, this situation has caused Social Security to discontinue virtually all hiring. I think the agency has discontinued most if not all overtime. This will hurt more and more as time goes on.

Congress has set a ceiling on the gross amount of federal debt. Because the federal government is running a large deficit, it needs to keep borrowing money. We will reach the debt ceiling sometime around the end of March or early April. If the debt ceiling is not raised, much of the federal government must shut down. It is not at all clear how this would affect Social Security. We have never gone there before. Undoubtedly, there are contingency plans but it would be best if these plans just gather dust.

Raising the debt ceiling requires a majority vote in the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Many Republicans have pledged to vote against an increase in the debt ceiling unless they obtain something dramatic such as huge reductions in appropriations and Social Security benefits. Some have pledged to vote against an increase in the debt ceiling no matter what is offered. Again, the Republican base and Fox News are demanding confrontation but a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have terrible long term consequences since it would shut down much of the federal government and bring into question the nation's creditworthiness.

At best, I think we are going to the brink on the debt ceiling. The chances of going over the precipice are very real.

Jan 30, 2011

Social Security Affected By Weak Wage Growth And Rising Earnings Inequality

From a very thorough Briefing Paper released by the Economic Policy Institute:
The conventional wisdom is that the projected gap [in Social Security funding] is driven largely by rising life expectancy, and that the key to restoring solvency is raising the normal retirement age, the age when participants are eligible for full retirement benefits. ...

However, gains in life expectancy represent only a small part of the fiscal challenge facing Social Security. The increase in the normal retirement age from 65 to 67, currently underway, already offsets gains in life expectancy for workers born before 1960, and longevity gains for younger generations account for only a fifth of the projected Social Security shortfall. ...

The bigger problems are weak wage growth and rising earnings inequality, which account for more than half the projected shortfall that has emerged since the system was last restored to long-term balance in 1983. Earnings inequality has eroded Social Security’s taxable earnings because earnings above a cap are exempt from Social Security taxes. Likewise, slower wage growth increases the costs as a share of taxable earnings. Rising health care costs, which create a growing wedge between compensation and taxable wages, a falling birth rate, and higher disability take-up are also contributing to the projected shortfall.

Jan 29, 2011

Social Security And Its Vendors

Social Security has posted a 72 page inventory listing all the vendors with which it contracted in the last fiscal year. The vendors range from tiny to humongous.

Jan 28, 2011

FIT Not Working For Judge Posner

Social Security essentially requires that something it calls Findings Integrated Template (FIT) be used in drafting decisions for Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). FIT employs a lot of what lawyers call boilerplate to justify denials. Anyone familiar with FIT can tell that the FIT boilerplate is no longer working at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. It is particularly not working for Judge Posner on that Court. In case you are not familiar with him, Judge Posner is an extraordinary writer (although this opinion is not one of his best efforts). Other judges do not always agree with Judge Posner but they always pay attention to what he has to say.

Jan 27, 2011

Where The Social Security Subcommittee Is Heading

A statement posted by Sam Johnson, Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee:
We must secure Social Security’s future for its own sake, on a bipartisan basis with the full support of the President. I am committed to protecting benefits for today’s seniors, those nearing retirement, and those who count on Social Security the most, without raising taxes. It’s time to move past talk to action. The Subcommittee on Social Security will soon begin hearings to find lasting solutions to strengthen the program.
The math is simple. If you intend to "secure Social Security's future" but rule out any tax increase, you must make massive benefits cuts. Indeed, by saying that you intend to protect benefits for those who are already on Social Security or who are nearing retirement, you make it clear that you want to cut benefits for everyone else. Good luck on getting bipartisan support for that one.

I expect hearings to try to scare people about Social Security's future. I expect little or no attention by the Subcommittee to the functioning of the Social Security Administration itself.

Officially Sanctioned

From a press release:
After proudly serving the long-term disability insurance industry for 15 years, Attorneys Ann Marie Beaudoin and Victor Arruda, Managing Partners of The Social Security Law Group (SSLG) are pleased to announce that, effective January 1, 2011, SSLG became the captive affiliate of Social Security Advocates for the Disabled®, LLC (SSAD). ...

Social Security Advocates for the Disabled® is a service provider for disabled people with a primary focus of advocacy and overpayment collection services on behalf of clients in their pursuit of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. The company has a nationwide presence with offices in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and headquarters in Norwell (Boston), Massachusetts.

Through our trademarked Consolidated Overpayment Recovery Service (CORS®), we assist claimants in repaying LTD insurers, and help insurers recover SS overpayments in a mutually-agreed upon, stress-free manner. Our CORS® program is officially sanctioned by the SSA Office of Income and Security Programs.

Jan 26, 2011

Closing Early Today?

The Office of Personnel Management has authorized Washington area federal employees to leave work two hours early today because of an impending snowstorm. It is not clear whether this applies to Social Security employees in the Baltimore area.

Give Them A Piece Of Your Mind!

A press release from Social Security:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced a new way for members of the public to participate in open and transparent government. In response to President Obama’s executive order on improving regulations and regulatory review, Social Security is inviting people to provide direct feedback on its rules and regulations. Ideas and comments may be emailed to RegsReview@ssa.gov.

“Social Security values the public’s input and wants to provide a meaningful opportunity for people to participate in the regulatory process,” Commissioner Astrue said. “I invite the public to share their thoughts and I am excited to hear their ideas.”

Social Security’s program rules are available online and may be accessed at www.socialsecurity.gov/regulations. There, you will find complete information about Social Security’s laws, regulations, rulings, and employee operating instructions.

For information about what Social Security is doing to improve its regulations and how the agency will implement the President’s executive order, go to the Open Government website: www.socialsecurity.gov/open/regsreview/.

Let me make a suggestion. The Social Security Act says that the agency may "prescribe the maximum fees which may be charged for services performed [by an attorney or other person representing a Social Security claimant] in connection with any claim." Social Security wastes a lot of time now on petitions for approval of attorney fees in matters such as overpayments and disability benefits terminations where the fee agreement process cannot be used. The statutory language gives the agency the authority it needs to just set maximum fees for this sort of thing. Just have the attorney notify Social Security of the fee that he or she is charging. No approval required for individual cases. This would save a lot of time.

Jan 25, 2011

So, Why Is This A Tough Call?

From a poll by Public Policy Polling for Daily Kos:
Currently, workers pay social security payroll taxes on up to $106,800 of their salary. To ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, would you rather have people pay social security taxes on salaries above $106,800, or would you rather see benefits cut and the retirement age increased to age 69?

payroll cap/Cut benefits

All 77 10

Dem 84 4
GOP 69 17
Ind 77 11

Tea Party 67 20

18-29 80 0
30-45 69 17
46-65 82 8
65+ 75 13

$0-30K 79 5
$30-50K 75 11
$50-75K 79 7
$75-100K 78 13
$100K+ 72 18

Bad News For Social Security

The Associated Press reports that "A White House official says President Barack Obama will call for a five-year freeze in non-security, discretionary spending during his State of the Union address."

Don't Mug Social Security

From Bob Herbert writing in the New York Times:

When you see surveillance videos of some creep mugging an elderly person in an elevator or apartment lobby, the universal reaction is outrage. But when the fat cats and the ideologues want to hack away at the lifeline of Social Security, they are treated somehow as respectable, even enlightened members of the society.

We need a reality check. Attacking Social Security is both cruel and unnecessary. It needs to stop.

President To Speak In Code?

From Bloomberg:
President Barack Obama may signal in his State of the Union address tonight that he’s ready for compromises on Social Security ... He just won’t say it. ...

“He’s going to speak in code,” said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington that backs benefit cuts.

“The average person on the street won’t have a clue,” said Nancy Altman, an advocate for keeping Social Security as it is ...

Jan 24, 2011

"Shared Sacrifice"

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the President's State of the Union Address tonight will call for "shared sacrifice" on Social Security but will offer no specific plan.

Slow Rollout

I am told that the newsletter for Region III of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) says that there are 729 attorneys and others in that region who represent Social Security claimants who have requested electronic access to their clients' files but that only 41 have been signed up. Probably there are more within that region who would like this access but who do not even know who or how to ask.

What is going on? We were led to expect a much faster rollout. It seems like are rolling exquisitely slowly at the moment.

Jan 23, 2011

State Of The Union Prediction

From the New York Times:
Advisers say that Mr. Obama’s [State of the Union] address will be more thematic than heavy on specific policy initiatives. ...

Mr. Obama is unlikely, they said, to embrace the recommendations of a bipartisan majority on the debt-reduction commission he created, which proposed slashing projected annual deficits through 2020 with deep cuts in domestic and military spending, changes to Social Security and Medicare, and an overhaul of the individual and corporate tax codes to simplify them and to raise additional revenues.

He's Back At It

Eric Conn's "campaign" to be appointed to the Social Security Advisory Board started in 2009. He's back at it in 2011:
Lawyer Eric C. Conn's first step in trying to get President Barack Obama to appoint him to the Social Security Advisory Board wasn't to contact his congressman or senator.

No, Conn's first move was to hire 83-year-old Bluegrass music legend Ralph Stanley to perform in a music video with a rewrite of the classic bluegrass song “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

His second move was to team Stanley with “the Obama Girl,” Amber Lee Ettinger — whose 2008 video, “I've got a crush on Obama,” went viral and was seen by more than 15 million viewers — and Jesco White, the “Dancing Outlaw” who gained notoriety after a PBS documentary aired on his life.

“The main purpose of the video is to get appointed to the … board,” Conn, who handles Social Security disability cases, said in a recent interview. “… Of course, if there is some collateral benefit for the (law) practice, that's great too.”

Jan 22, 2011

The Drumbeat Gets Louder

From CBS News:
With many expecting President Obama to endorse a fiscally moderate path forward in his State of the Union address next week - and perhaps call for changes to Social Security in the process -- progressives are urging the president to protect entitlement programs. ...

In an interview with Bloomberg Television that airs Friday night, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said that Social Security "might all fit within a rubric of trying to deal with deficit issues and deal with them in an appropriate way that doesn't choke off the economic recovery."

Kaine said he has not read a draft of the speech, but he said the president will address the deficit "significantly" in his State of the Union speech -- and even more so when he delivers a budget to Congress in February. ...

In light of all this, 33 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Mr. Obama today, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports, urging him to promise to protect Social Security in his State of the Union address. ...

Potential 2012 Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty published an op-ed for the Washington Post today calling for dramatic entitlement reforms.

"Given no other choice, I believe a bipartisan consensus could be created around ideas such as means-testing the cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits

Jan 21, 2011

Gunfire At Chicago Field Office

From yesterday's Chicago Tribune:

Chicago police are investigating a shooting incident at a Social Security office on the Southwest Side late this morning.

The shooting, in which there were no injuries, was the result of a security guard discharging his weapon in the office 8658 S. Sacramento Ave., said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer John Mirabelli.

The incident took place at 11:16 a.m., Mirabelli said.

Officials from Federal Protective Services, the agency assigned to guard federal facilities, said the guard was responding to a concern about a "confrontational and threatening individual," in the building, said Chris Ortman, a Federal Protective Services spokesman.

As the guard was responding, his gun discharged. Neither the suspect or the guard was injured as a result of the shooting, said Ortman.

Little Support For Benefit Cuts

From the New York Times:
As President Obama and Congress brace to battle over how to reduce chronic annual budget deficits, Americans overwhelmingly say that in general they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. ...

Nearly two-thirds of Americans choose higher payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security over reduced benefits in either program. And asked to choose among cuts to Medicare, Social Security or the nation’s third-largest spending program — the military — a majority by a large margin said cut the Pentagon.

While Americans are near-unanimous in calling deficits a problem — a “very serious” problem, say 7 out of 10 — a majority believes it should not be necessary for them to pay higher taxes to bridge the shortfall between what the government spends and what it takes in.

Jan 20, 2011

Some Budget Ideas

The Republican Study Committee has released its budget proposals. Here are a couple of highlights:
  • Reduce federal discretionary spending to 2006 levels -- and hold it there for ten years
  • Cut the federal workforce by 15% by only hiring one worker for every two who leaves until the 15% reduction is achieved
Can you imagine the Social Security Administration with 9,000 fewer employees? If this were applied to Social Security, it would be impossible for the agency to fulfill its statutory obligations as they stand now, much less as they increase over the next few years as the baby boomer generation ages. Makes perfect sense if you hate Social Security and think that most of the country agrees with you.

Democratic Members Of House Social Security Subcommittee Announced

The Democrats have announced their members for the House Social Security Subcommittee. This is the full lineup for the Subcommittee:

Kevin Brady, TX, Chairman
Pat Tiberi, OH
Aaron Schock, IL
Erik Paulsen, MN
Rick Berg, ND
Adrian Smith, NE

Xavier Becerra, CA, Ranking Member
Lloyd Doggett, TX
Shelley Berkley, NV
Fortney "Pete" Stark, CA

Interview With The Commissioner

The Washington Post is running an interview with Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. Here are a couple of excerpts:
I'm a big believer in trying to speak in my own voice. Maybe it's a little colorful, but at the end of the day employees will know that I'm really trying to talk to them. I can be in Miami or Tucson and employees will come up to me and say one of the things that I appreciate about your broadcast is that I know that you actually wrote the material - it sounds like you. ...

I think one of things that you would get unanimity from my executives is I run what lawyers call "hot bench." I read the materials in advance, and I don't bother with things that I see being done right. Instead, I try to get to the heart of what the hard issues are and to make sure that they're on track.

Jan 19, 2011

What The Insiders Want

From Dean Baker writing at the Huffington Post:
The insiders in Washington really really want to cut Social Security, and they are prepared to say or do anything to do it. Among the latest lines is that they want to make Social Security more "progressive." This sort of rhetoric appeared in a report from the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) in a plan that proposes substantial cuts in benefits. ...

It would lead to substantial reductions in Social Security benefits for people who earned an average of $60,000 or $70,000 during their working lifetimes. ...

Jan 18, 2011

Childrens' Benefits Draw Scrutiny

From the Boston Globe:
Key members of Congress are demanding an investigation into whether a fast-growing, $10 billion federal disability program designed to serve poor disabled children is flawed in multiple ways, including the possibility that it creates incentives for families to put those children on psychiatric drugs.

A top member of the US House Ways and Means Committee, along with Representative Richard Neal and Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, issued a letter asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate the striking rise in the number of children receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits, or SSI, for behavioral and mental issues such as attention deficit disorders and depression, and whether low-income families are tempted to put their youngsters on psychiatric drugs “to improve their chances’’ of qualifying. It also asked investigators to examine whether the Social Security Administration, which runs the program, can effectively screen new recipients and adequately determine when children’s conditions have improved to the point that they are no longer eligible for benefits.

9% Increase In Social Security Civil Actions

The number of civil actions brought in the federal courts to obtain review of decisions made by the Social Security Administration went up from 12,820 in 2009 to 13,958 in 2010, an increase of 9%.

Jan 17, 2011

The Waiting Room Videos

I had a hearing recently that was scheduled at a Social Security field office. The field office had recently moved to a new building. Hearings at field offices had been rare in the past but that may be changing.

I sat in the waiting room for about ten minutes before it was time for my client's hearing. I had a chance to see and hear the video that was playing. The video was intended to educate those waiting. The concept of the video was to mix the education with a travelogue. What I saw started out in Charleston, SC. There was an interviewer and an interviewee. I think the interviewer was a Social Security public affairs employee and the interviewee was the Charleston District Office manager, who appeared to have ankylosing spondylitis (which has a rather distinctive appearance). Mostly, they were taking a carriage ride around the elegant city of Charleston describing some sights and spouting some Social Security information. The next segment was in Bowling Green, KY. I saw little of it before I was called to my client's hearing. What I saw of both segments was a bit clunky. That did not bother me. I see no reason why Social Security should go all out for slickness. Conceptually, doing it as a travelogue seemed like a great idea to me. The subject matter is inherently boring. You have to do something to spice it up.

The videos I saw were of two cities in Social Security's Atlanta Region. Is this video just being shown in the Atlanta Region? What is being shown in other regions?

Jan 16, 2011

Nobody Could Have Predicted It

From Paul Krugman's blog at the New York Times:
[I]n discussions of Social Security it’s often argued that in the program’s early years, nobody could have imagined the increases in life expectancy that have actually occurred, so nobody could have imagined that we’d have as many beneficiaries relative to the number of people of working age. ...

Well, it turns out that Table 9 in the 1945 report (pdf) [of the Board of Trustees of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund] shows high and low estimates of the population distribution looking forward as far as 2000, which we can compare with the actual population distribution in 2000.

What you can see right away is that the SSA [Social Security Administration] expected a much smaller population than we actually ended up with — the baby boom and immigration weren’t anticipated. But they also expected a somewhat older population than we actually got: their “low” estimate put the ratio of seniors to adults under 65 at 20.8%, almost the same as the actual 21.1%, while the “high” estimate put the ratio at 29.1%. That is, in 1945 the Trustees thought that America would probably be a grayer, older country by 2000 than it actually ended up being.

Jan 15, 2011

AFGE Wins Arbitration On Leave

From a press release issued by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE):
The American Federation of Government Employees recently won a Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) decision to overturn an agency guideline that severely limited when SSA Teleservice representatives would be allowed to be on leave on any given day. Teleservice representatives answer SSA’s nationwide toll-free number. ...

The guideline in question limited leave approvals to “up to 10%” on peak call days at the teleservice center and “up to 15%” on no-peak call days. ...

It (sic) his ruling, the arbitrator found that the agency violated the parties’ agreement by implementing a policy that restricted when certain employees could use annual leave.

Jan 14, 2011

A Question

We heard back in September that Social Security was planning to start going from hearing office to hearing office registering attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants for online access to their clients files. Has this been happening? What is the status of this plan?

Jan 13, 2011

eCAT Working

From a recent study by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
eCAT is a Web-based application designed to document the analysis made by a disability adjudicator and ensure all relevant Agency policies are considered during the disability adjudication process. eCAT produces a Disability Determination Explanation (DDE) that documents the detailed analysis and rationale for either allowing or denying a claim. ...

As of September 30, 2010, SSA had implemented eCAT in 37 sites. The Agency continues eCAT’s gradual rollout and expects completion in May 2011. ...

Our review found that SSA’s eCAT application is a useful tool in documenting the analysis of initial disability claims. ...

During our site visits, eCAT users commented that the application
  • was a valuable training tool for newly hired examiners;
  • produced comprehensive disability determinations and decision rationales;
  • provided consistent uniform documentation for the disability determination;
  • reinforced the disability determination process;
  • streamlined the disability evaluation; and
  • made it difficult to miss a step in the disability adjudication process. ...
We will continue following eCAT’s rollout to all levels of adjudication—field office, DDS, and ODAR.

Jan 12, 2011

A 10% Cut In Federal Employees -- What Harm Could That Cause?

From the Washington Post:

A Texas Republican congressman wants to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent in the next decade, impose a three-year pay freeze across federal agencies and Capitol Hill, and trim government printing and vehicle costs.

Rep. Kevin Brady's bill, the Cut Unsustainable and Top-heavy Spending (CUTS) Act, is the first detailed series of spending proposals introduced in the GOP-controlled House that targets government operations and the federal workforce. Democrats and federal employee unions have long expected the GOP to target domestic spending programs and the workforce in an effort to trim the federal deficit.

Brady chairs the Joint Economic Committee and is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee - perches likely to put him at the center of Congress's forthcoming debate on government spending and deficits.

OIDAP Charter Renewed

Not that it comes as any surprise but Social Security has renewed the charter for the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP).

Small But Telling

From the Boston Globe:
Town officials in three rural Massachusetts communities said the Social Security Administration notified them this week that it will no longer send representatives to meet locally with seniors and answer their questions, because of security concerns following last week’s deadly shooting rampage in Arizona.

In Palmer and Ware — small towns east of Springfield — and on Nantucket, 30 miles off Cape Cod, town clerks and senior center directors said the federal workers who contacted their towns specifically cited the weekend violence ...

Yesterday, however, Social Security officials denied any connection between the shootings and ending outreach efforts in some less populated areas, attributing the changes to budget cutbacks instead. ...

“There may have been a misinterpretation of the message,’’ said Stephen Richardson, a Boston-based regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration. “In terms of word for word, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what the words were, but . . . our actions are not related to the tragedy in Arizona.’’ ...

For Nantucket residents, the nearest Social Security office is on the Cape, an hourlong boat ride away.
There are a couple of unappealing things that appear to be on display here. First, a Social Security employee tries to use a tragedy as an excuse for doing something they would have done anyway. Second, when called on it, a Social Security spokesperson, while admitting that he does not know what was said, is still sure that the problem is not what was said but people "misinterpreting" what was said. These are seemingly small things but they speak poorly for those involved.

Lockheed Martin Contract For DCPS

From a press release:
Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT - News) has been selected by the Social Security Administration to prime the Disability Case Processing System (DCPS) contract, which is an information technology modernization program committed to improving the quality and speed of processing disability claims nationwide.

An indefinite delivery indefinite quantity contract, the DCPS agreement carries a 1-year base period with five 1-year options. It is valued at $200 million if all options are exercised during the 6-year contract period. ...

The new system will provide cost savings to the SSA by eliminating the need to maintain separate systems for 54 state and federal sites. It also will help the agency process disability claims faster and with higher consistency.

Jan 11, 2011

National Computing Center "Precarious?"

From Information Week Government:
A report by SSA IG [Social Security Administration Inspector General] Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., examining the top management challenges the agency will face in 2011, shows it grappling with a host of IT [Information Technology] infrastructure projects the agency's IG, Congress, and the SSA's advisory board worry it can't handle.

One of the biggest problems is the agency's transition to a new data center, according to the report. The IG has characterized the replacement of the SSA's National Computer Center (NCC) -- built in 1979 -- as the SSA's "primary IT investment" in the next few years.

The agency has received more than $500 million so far to replace the outdated center, which is now so severely strained by an expanded workload over its time of operation that it may not be able to function by 2012, according to the report.

However, the SSA does not foresee completing the new center until 2015, a project the IG deems as "imperative" considering the precarious position of the existing NCC.

Jan 10, 2011

VOIP Problems

From Federal Computer Week:
The Social Security Administration’s voice-over-IP [Internet Provider] installations in its initial 192 field offices had problems that included long installation times, incorrect invoices, overpayments and possibly poorer customer service, according to a new report from SSA Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr.

For example, the average time for achieving successful VOIP performance and functionality initially was 197 days in October 2008, which remained high for several months before dropping to 46 days in April 2009, the audit issued Dec. 28 said.

Also, VOIP might have affected customers’ satisfaction.

“Although SSA achieved VOIP functionality and performance, when we attempted to contact sampled field offices where VOIP had been installed, we encountered long wait times, disconnected or dropped calls, poor sound quality, and difficulty when navigating the telephone menu tree,” O’Carroll wrote. In addition, four of five field offices contacted said they had received negative comments from customers, he said.

Jan 9, 2011

Fee Payment Numbers

Social Security has released the final 2010 numbers for fees paid to attorneys and certain others for representing Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Jan 8, 2011

Posthumously Conceived Children Give Social Security Fits

From Capato v. Commissioner of Social Security (3rd Cir. Jan. 4, 2011):
In August 1999, shortly after the Capatos‘ wedding in New Jersey, Mr. Capato was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and was told that the chemotherapy he required might render him sterile. The Capatos, however, wanted children, and thus, before he began his course of chemotherapy, Mr. Capato deposited his semen in a sperm bank, where it was frozen and stored. ...

Mr. Capato‘s health deteriorated in 2001, and he died in Florida in March of 2002. ...

Shortly after Mr. Capato‘s death, Ms. Capato began in vitro fertilization using the frozen sperm of her husband. She conceived in January 2003 and gave birth to twins on September 23, 2003, eighteen months after Mr. Capato‘s death. ...

In October 2003, Ms. Capato applied for surviving child‘s insurance benefits on behalf of the twins based on her husband‘s earnings record. The Social Security Administration denied her claim ...

What is before us is a discrete set of circumstances and the narrow question posed by those circumstances: are the undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow ―children within the meaning of the [Social Security] Act? The answer is a resounding ―Yes.
I think it is past time for Congress to get over whatever squeamishness it may have, address this issue and end the litigation.

Jan 7, 2011

House Republicans Name Social Security Subcommittee Members

The Republican members of the Subcommittee on Social Security of the House Ways and Means Committee, the most important Congressional committee for our purposes, have been announced.
  • Rep. Sam Johnson (TX)
  • Rep. Kevin Brady (TX)
  • Rep. Pat Tiberi (OH)
  • Rep. Aaron Schock (IL)
  • Rep. Erik Paulsen (MN)
  • Rep. Rick Berg (ND)
  • Rep. Adrian Smith (NE)
Sam Johnson, picture here, is the chairman of the Subcommittee. Johnson proposed a Social Security "reform" package in 2005 that, basically, would have allowed Americans to opt out of Social Security. It is certainly a more detailed and workable plan than anything former President George W. Bush put forward but, still, it is very unlikely to move forward at any point in the future. I do not see that Johnson has been pushing this or any other plan in recent years. If his plan were adopted, I have no doubt that millions of foolish Americans would opt out of Social Security and would later become destitute rapidly once they became unable to work due to illness or age. I would call it a trap for regular viewers of Fox News.

Lieberman On Entitlement Reform

Since the beginning of last year, Trudy Lieberman has written dozens of pieces for the Columbia Journalism Review on "entitlement reform," particularly the effort to dramatically restructure Social Security. Her overarching theme is that this is an effort by the right wing to convince political elites that a dramatic restructuring of Social Security is inevitable and desirable even though virtually no one other than the extreme right and the political elites thinks this is a good idea and ever though a dramatic restructuring of Social Security is unnecessary. She has an important message.

Jan 6, 2011

E-Mail To Social Security Employees

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: Do Not Open Mail

We do not have complete information, but we want you to know that there have been two explosions in the mailrooms of two Maryland State government facilities. At this time, we cannot rule out the possibility of hazardous materials. While we have no reason to believe that our facilities have been targeted, in an abundance of caution, we are taking the following precautions. Effective immediately and until further notice, no one should open any mail, including packages. Managers have already issued specific instructions to mailrooms. All employees should be vigilant about any suspicious activity. If you see anything suspicious, immediately notify your supervisor and call 410-965-2222.

Michael J. Astrue


A Warning

From USA v. Rodriguez (11th Cir. Dec 27, 2010)
The main issue in this appeal is whether the prying by a former bureaucrat is criminal: that is, whether the defendant violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits “intentionally access[ing] a computer without authorization or exceed[ing] authorized access, and thereby obtain[ing] . . . information from any department or agency of the United States.” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(B). Roberto Rodriguez, a former employee of the Social Security Administration, appeals his conviction for violating the Act on the grounds that he did not exceed his authorized access to his former employer’s databases and that he did not use the information to further another crime or to gain financially. ... Rodriguez at trial admitted that he accessed information for nonbusiness reasons when he obtained personal identifying information, such as birth dates and home addresses, of 17 persons he knew or their relatives. Rodriguez also appeals his sentence of 12 months of imprisonment on the ground that it is unreasonable. Because the record establishes that Rodriguez exceeded his authorized access and the Act does not require proof that Rodriguez used the information to further another crime or to gain financially, we AFFIRM his conviction. We also conclude that Rodriguez’s sentence is reasonable.

Jan 5, 2011

New SSI Payment Rules

Social Security has adopted new final rules on dedicated accounts and installment payments for some past-due SSI benefits.

Jan 4, 2011

I Hope These Folks Are Just Being Paranoid

From The Hill:
Liberal groups say they are increasingly worried that President Obama will strike a deal with Republicans on Social Security reforms in exchange for a 'yes' vote on increasing the nation's debt ceiling. ...

Maria Freese of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said she thinks Social Security is "more at risk than it was in 2005,” when President George W. Bush proposed far-reaching changes to the program, including personal accounts. ...

“What I am really afraid of is another deal behind closed doors,” said Nancy Altman, the co-director of Social Security Works.

Can You Help?

I am going to bump this up since I still have not gotten anything I can use.

I am doing an article for the NC Advocates for Justice with the title "Social Security By The Numbers." There are a few numbers that I would like to include that I have not been able to find:
  • The amount spent administering a large employer pension plan as a percent of benefits paid
  • The amount spent administering a large long term disability (LTD) pension plan as a percent of benefits paid
  • ALJ allowance rate at the most liberal hearing office in the country
Any help you can give will be appreciated. Links would be helpful.

I expect I will eventually post this article on this blog.

Why Action Should Be Taken Soon

The Social Security Advisory Board has issued "Social Security: Why Action Should Be Taken Soon", a report on Social Security's long term financing problems. The report merely discusses options. It makes no specific recommendation.

Of course, action has been taken recently on Social Security's long term financing issues -- to make them dramatically worse.

Jan 3, 2011

Illegal Aliens Help Social Security

From the Cox newspaper chain:
While many Americans believe illegal immigrants don't pay taxes, billions of dollars deducted from paychecks issued to undocumented workers flow to the Social Security Administration (SSA) every year. Those workers almost certainly will never see that money again.
Social Security officials keep a record of wages that do not match up with real names and numbers in their system. The record is called the earnings suspense file.
In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, employers reported wages of $72.8 billion for 7.7 million workers who could not be matched to legal Social Security numbers.
Because those wages were reported by employers and not paid under the table, Social Security and Medicare deductions had to be made. A total of 12.4 percent of those wages went into the SSA system — 6.2 percent paid each by the worker and the employer. An additional 2.9 percent was paid into Medicare, half by the worker and half by the employer.
That means about $11.2 billion went into the Social Security Trust Fund in 2007, and $2.6 billion went into Medicare. While that money will be used to pay retirees and health-care beneficiaries, it most likely will never be claimed by the illegal immigrants who contributed it.

Republican Senator Threatens Government Debt Default Unless Social Security Cut

Senator Lindsay Graham was asked on Meet the Press if he was going to vote for an increase in the federal debt ceiling. That will be needed around April of this year. His response was that "to not raise the debt ceiling could be a default of the United States on bond and treasury obligations" but he also said that "I will not vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long term debt obligations starting with Social Security, a real bipartisan effort to make sure that Social Security stays solvent, adjusting the age, looking at means tests for benefits."

Social Security Approves CCD

From a press release:

EHR Doctors announced today that The Social Security Administration (SSA) approved their C32 Continuity of Care Document (CCD). EHR Doctors, Inc. has a contract to deliver Electronic Health Records in CCD format to the Social Security Administration over the Nationwide Health Information Network.

The capability to generate CCDs is a critical piece of technology that hospitals need to meet the Meaningful Use requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The technology enables an interoperable health record that can be shared between organizations for purposes ranging from transitions in care to adjudication of insurance claims. EHR Doctors CCD technology is certified for Meaningful Use under the ONC-ATB program.

EHR Doctors' contract with the Social Security Administration enables SSA to use EHR Doctor's Medibridge Health Information Exchange to electronically gather health records in support of disability claims, and get them rapidly into the hands of SSA adjudicators. This technology, “will improve our disability programs and provide better service to the public,” said Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue. "The use of health IT will dramatically improve the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of this process, reducing the cost of making a disability decision for both the medical community and the American taxpayer,” he added.

Jan 2, 2011

Seguro Social Gigante!

Sábado Gigante host, Don Francisco, is now promoting the Spanish language version of Social Security's benefits estimator. (By the way, Social Security, you ought to let others embed your videos.)

Jan 1, 2011

Happy New Year!