Feb 28, 2011

What Do You Think?

Fact Situation: Ms. Claimant has a Social Security disability claim pending in one state. She hires Attorney A to represent her. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Claimant moves to another state. She contacts Attorney A to tell him. He tells her that he knows Attorney B who practices in the state she is moving to. Attorney A tells Ms. Claimant to contact Attorney B once she gets to the state she is moving to. Attorney A tells Ms. Claimant that he will waive his fee so she will not have any problem hiring Attorney B. She contacts Attorney B once she gets to her new state. Attorney A withdraws and waives his fee. Attorney B files the appropriate paperwork to represent Ms. Claimant. Some months later after a hearing, Ms. Claimant's case is approved. She is paid. Attorney B receives her fee but is shocked to discover that it is half of what she expected. The reason is that Social Security has decided that since Attorney A waived his fee that it will release half of the fee to Ms. Claimant.

The above fact situation is in accordance with Social Security policy, although it is a policy that is haphazardly implemented.

Queries: Does this policy make sense? Is the rare implementation of this policy an indication that it does not make sense? Does this policy unduly restrict a claimant's ability to obtain a new attorney if he or she moves or otherwise needs or wishes to change attorneys? Why does Social Security have such difficulty in developing policies concerning attorney fees? Why are there almost no regulations concerning attorney fees?

Update: Many of the comments say there is something wrong with the fact pattern given. The assumption is that this cannot possibly be correct. Social Security's manual states that:
SSA will not authorize to any co-representative the share of a co-representative who waived a fee. When SSA has withheld title II and/or title XVI past-due benefits for payment of a representative's fee, SSA releases the waived share to the claimant(s).
This policy is being applied, haphazardly, to the fact situation given. Yes, the manual instructions can be read differently, but what is happening on the ground is chaotic and attorneys have no recourse. It is a mess.

Feb 27, 2011

And On The Seventh Day He Rested

Ted Nugent writing in the Washington Times:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Social Security 75 years ago. As with many other Fedzilla programs, Americans got suckered into believing Social Security was a healthy, wealthy and wise program.

Social Security is bloated, broke and busted. FDR’s New Deal turned out to be the Rip-off Deal. ...

The only way to truly reform Social Security is to sink it. ...

Eliminating Social Security isn’t our Sputnik moment. It’s our sink-the-Bismarck moment. ...

First, we need to pass whatever law is needed to keep the Jesse James-like hands of Congress off the dollars collected from Social Security. No more stealing.

Second, we need to take the cap off of the Social Security tax. Currently, only the first $107,000 earned is taxed. We need to take the lid off and tax all income. We need the money. Yes, that will be a tax increase for some Americans. This is pain and real sacrifice.

Third, there must be means-testing. If a retired person or couple has more than a certain amount in assets, they will not receive Social Security or will receive limited benefits. This will be a huge sacrifice, but tough times require tough people who are willing to sacrifice for the future good of the nation.

Fourth, we need to raise the retirement age now. It is a fact that people are living longer. Retirees today will collect more from Social Security than what they paid in, while the pool of workers paying into Social Security is shrinking . That is an upside-down, unsustainable model. Shovel on more personal pain and sacrifice.

Fifth, people in the work force will be required to continue to pay into Social Security in order to pay for the masses of baby boomers retiring, but the people younger than 45 will not receive Social Security. We will have sunk the Bismarck by the time they would have reached the age to receive Social Security.

Early Out Retirement Offer Goes Out

There are reports here and here that the Social Security Administration is offering early out retirement to all of its employees. Social Security has offered early out retirement to certain groups of employees in the past but it is hard to imagine that this universal early out offer is something other than an effort to avoid furloughs forced upon the agency by budget problems.

Feb 25, 2011

That's A Relief

There are signs that the threat of a government shutdown is receding a bit, for now. Remember, that there is no deal yet on appropriations (and some House Republicans may balk at the deal in the works since it looks like their leadership is doing most of the blinking), the deal that may be in the works would be temporary and that appropriations are only one way in which a government shutdown could come. Congress must also pass an increase in the federal borrowing ceiling within a little more than a month and there are plenty of Republicans who have pledged never to vote for that and many House Democrats who are uninterested in taking the heat for voting for this. Probably, even an impasse on the debt ceiling would not affect Social Security since it barely contributes to the deficit.

Update: The Washington Post indicates that the proposal freezes appropriations for almost all agencies at 2010 levels. This is much better than the massive cuts in funding for the Social Security Administration initially proposed by the House of Representatives. That proposal would have put the Social Security Administration into a tailspin. However, this new proposal freezes the agency's budget at a time when the demands placed upon it are soaring because of the aging of the baby boom generation. Inevitably, this means that public service will deteriorate.

Lockbox Revisted

From The Hill:
Senate Democrats want to put the Social Security trust fund in a lockbox and insulate it from a broader budget-cutting package designed to reduce the national deficit.

It’s a revival of the concept that former Vice President Al Gore (D) made famous when he sparred with George W. Bush over a proposal to invest a portion of Social Security funds in the private market. ...

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is at the center of bipartisan talks, said he wants to prolong the solvency of Social Security to 75 years. ...

But Conrad does not want Social Security to be part of a broader proposal to reduce the $1.6 trillion federal deficit.

“It might be useful to have Social Security treated on a separate track because it is not part of the deficit reduction package,” Conrad told The Hill before the Presidents Day recess. “I think it should be separated."

Why Did The House Of Representatives Vote To Cut Off EAJA Payments?

If you wonder why the House of Representatives decided to cut off funding for attorney fee awards under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) for the rest of the fiscal year, take a look at the deliberations.

EAJA Deliberations

Feb 24, 2011

Doing What You Won't Defend

Lambda Legal, "the oldest national organization pursuing high-impact litigation, public education and advocacy on behalf of equality and civil rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and people with HIV", says that it expects that the "executive branch will continue to enforce [the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages] until it is repealed by Congress or struck down by the courts ..."

If this is accurate, and I expect it is, this puts the Social Security Administration in an awkward position. It must apply DOMA but if this is appealed to the federal courts, the Department of Justice will not defend what Social Security has done. I understand the logic that gets you to this position but how do you explain to a widow or widower that they cannot get Social Security benefits because theirs was a same-sex marriage -- even though the widow or widower has read that the Attorney General is unwilling to defend such a result?

What Is Behind The Effort To Halt EAJA Payments?

If you have wondered what is behind the vote in the House of Representatives to suspend payments under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) which forces the Social Security Administration to reimburse attorney fees for most claimants who prevail in federal court, take a look at this and this and this. This has nothing to do with Social Security. It appears to be people who are unhappy with the federal court successes of some environmental groups. They wish to inhibit the litigation by making it harder for the attorneys working for their adversaries to get paid.

Inspector General Report On AFGE Allegations

From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
In April 2010, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, testified before the Subcommittee on Social Security, House Committee on Ways and Means, that SSA had banned its employees from explaining MOE [Month of Entitlement] choices with claimants. The AFGE president urged members of Congress to direct SSA to eliminate this “gag order.” In response to AFGE’s allegations, SSA reported to the Subcommittee, “We have not banned our employees from explaining month of election (MOE) choices. While we do not attempt to influence a claimant’s MOE choice, our technicians do provide information about different MOE options.” ...

[OIG speaking about the results of their investigation into the AFGE allegations] We do not believe SSA’s revised MOE policy bans employees from explaining pertinent information—including MOE options—to retirement claimants. Rather, the new policy states that claims technicians should only provide certain procedural calculations when a claimant specifically requests that they do so. Many claims technicians with whom we spoke agreed with limiting some of the information previously provided to retirement applicants, as it was confusing and overwhelming. However, over half of the claims technicians who responded disagreed with the removal of break-even points. In fact, some continued to provide this information to claimants without a specific request—contrary to the new policy. Although we did not determine whether break-even points were beneficial to claimants, we believe the Agency needs to explain more clearly its rationale to claims technicians if it believes these are no longer relevant for retirement applicants.

Feb 23, 2011

A Message From The Commissioner

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 11:00 AM
To: Undisclosed recipients

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees

Subject: The Budget

In periods of uncertainty, rumors and misstatements abound so I want to tell you what I know. During a Continuing Resolution (CR), we are funded at the prior year’s dollar amount. While that is often called “level-funded,” that term does not fit our situation because we have fixed costs like rent and guards that increase each year, and because the Recovery Act money we received last year to handle case work is not part of our CR funding. For nearly half a year, we have had less money than we had last year.

The current CR ends March 4. At that time, Congress can extend the CR again which will continue our funding at last year’s level, pass a budget, or let the CR expire, essentially causing a government-wide shutdown. The truth is that we do not know what Congress will do. We are working hard to deliver the best possible result from Congress and to carefully manage the money we do receive.

As we await Congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work. You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze.

I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly. Given all of the uncertainty, I encourage you to be careful about believing everything you hear. I will continue to share what we know as more information becomes available.

Michael J. Astrue


Same Sex Marriages To Be Recognized At Social Security?

The Attorney General has released a statement saying that the Department of Justice will no longer defend the constitutionality of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as applied to legally married same-sex couples and will so advise courts.

It would appear to me that Social Security must now recognize legally married same-sex couples. I do not think this would apply to civil unions.

Social Security should give advise to its employees on this subject pretty much immediately.

New Garnishment Rules

From today's Federal Register:
Treasury, SSA [Social Security Administration], VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], RRB [Railroad Retirement Board] and OPM [Office of Personnel Management] (Agencies) are issuing an interim final rule to implement statutory restrictions on the garnishment of Federal benefit payments. The rule establishes procedures that financial institutions must follow when they receive a garnishment order against an account holder who receives certain types of Federal benefit payments by direct deposit. The rule requires financial institutions that receive such a garnishment order to determine the sum of such Federal benefit payments deposited to the account during a two month period, and to ensure that the account holder has access to an amount equal to that sum or to the current balance of the account, whichever is lower.

No Place In A Debate

From Sam Stein writing at the Huffington Post:
Lost amid the budget battles in Congress and the anti-union legislation being considered in several states has been the White House's deliberate decision to take the topic of Social Security reform off the deficit debate menu.

The latest move in that direction came on Tuesday, when Jason Furman, deputy director of the President Barack Obama's National Economic Council, insisted that talk of Social Security reform "is not one you care about" if "you are worried about our long-run fiscal future." ...

Rather than merely ruling out drastic changes to the entitlement program, he is arguing that Social Security has no place in a debate over the deficit ...

Feb 22, 2011

Information Technology Progresses

From Information Week Government:
Of the 2.48 million retirement applications filed with the Social Security Administration in fiscal 2010, 37% were submitted online. That's progress for an agency that depends on old mainframe software to deliver services, but a long way from the goal--recommended by an advisory panel of government and business executives--of conducting 90% of such transactions online.

"We need to drive that up substantially," said Social Security CIO Frank Baitman, in a recent interview at the agency's headquarters in Woodlawn, Md. "As customer expectations are changing, they expect to do business with Social Security online." ...

Social Security stands to save millions of dollars by shifting more of its interactions online, according to a recent presentation by Karen Palm, the agency's associate CIO of innovation. For example, it can save $4.5 million annually for every 1% shift in the number of address and status changes that get completed online.

Feb 21, 2011

"Skeleton Crew" In Case Of Government Shutdown

From the Federal Times (emphasis added):

The Social Security Administration on Feb. 17 told the American Federation of Government Employees that it wants to start bargaining by March 22 over how it would enact a furlough.

Jay Clary, SSA's acting associate commissioner, told AFGE that the agency has not decided to furlough employees, but that it wants to figure out arrangements in case lawmakers order a governmentwide furlough or if budget negotiations fall apart and the government shuts down.

SSA Chief Human Capital Officer Reginald Wells said the agency has largely planned who would make up a "skeleton crew" that would have to keep working during a shutdown.

"Discussions [about how to implement a possible shutdown] are happening at a very high level on a regular basis these days," Wells said.

And here is more from Reginald Wells from another Federal Times article:
Most of those employees [who would keep working during a government shutdown] would have to maintain computer systems, facilities, and other elements of SSA's infrastructure, or provide security at buildings.

Who Said It?

Guess who said this: "... Social Security is not a contributor to our deficit of any material right now. Social Security is not a big driver of our debt problems. Medicare and Medicaid are the biggest drivers of our future debt problems."

Click here for the answer.

A Job Opening

Posted on Craigs List:

ADVOCATE (Long Island City, NY)

Date: 2011-02-18, 5:54PM EST
Reply to: interview@binderandbinder.com [Errors when replying to ads?]

National Social Security Disability Advocacy company seeking associate attorney for Long Island City, NY office. Duties include administrative hearings, file review and development, and writing. Candidate will travel extensively throughout the country. Must be licensed in any state. Email resume and 3-5 page writing sample to interview@binderandbinder.com.

Feb 20, 2011

Crossing The 70,000 Threshold

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted the year end figures for the number of employees at Social Security. Here they are with earlier numbers for comparison purposes.
  • December 2010 70,270
  • June 2010 69,600
  • March 2010 66,863
  • December 2009 67,486
  • September 2009 67,632
  • June 2009 66,614
  • March 2009 63,229
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990
  • September 2007 62,407
  • September 2006 63,647
  • September 2005 66,147
  • September 2004 65,258
  • September 2003 64,903
  • September 2002 64,648
  • September 2001 65,377
  • September 2000 64,521
  • September 1999 63,957
  • September 1998 65,629
By the way, before anyone claims that the increase in the number of employees at Social Security shows that there is some fat that can be cut, let me just remind everyone that Social Security's workload has been increasing rapidly because of the aging of the baby boomer generation.

Feb 19, 2011

What Happens At Social Security In The Event Of A Prolonged Government Shutdown?

Early this morning, the House of Representatives passed a bill to fund government operations for the remainder of the fiscal year. The bill contains massive spending cuts that would cripple the Social Security Administration and many other agencies. It also contains myriad provisions that Democrats find unacceptable, such as a prohibition on use of funds to implement health care reform. Quick agreement with the Senate and the President on a compromise seems unlikely. A government shutdown looms if there is no agreement by March 4.

The most recent time there was a government shutdown, in 1995, most Social Security employees were furloughed but then quickly called back to work on an emergency basis. Social Security employees should not take too much comfort from this history. It is uncertain how many Social Security employees would remain on their jobs if there is a shutdown this year.

There is another issue. March 10 is a payday for federal employees. Even if most Social Security employees stay on their jobs, will they receive a paycheck on March 10 if the impasse is continuing? I am not sure but I think the answer is "yes" for that paycheck since I believe it is for work performed before March 4 but I think that the answer would be "no" for the next payday of March 24 unless Social Security can use funds previously appropriated for construction of a new National Computer Center.

Is it conceivable that this budget impasse would result in a government shutdown that would extend three weeks? I am afraid so.

An extended impasse may also make it impossible for Social Security to pay contractors such as security guard companies. How long will they be able to continue supplying vital services to Social Security without being paid?

House Votes To Suspend EAJA

The House of Representatives has voted to suspend payments of attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) for six months. EAJA fees are available where the litigation involves government action that is not "substantially justified." In terms of numbers of cases if not dolar amount, Social Security pays more EAJA fees than all other government agencies combined. This is part of the appropriations bill passed early this morning. This is one of many issues presented by this bill which must be resolved.

NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make disability determinations for Social Security at the initial and reconsideration levels, has posted its Winter 2011 newsletter.

Social Security Bulletin Released

Social Security has released the February 2011 edition of the Social Security Bulletin, the agency's scholarly publication.

CBS Story On Disability Benefits

From CBS:
It's always good to see federal employees hard at work. That is, unless they're collecting a check for being totally disabled at the same time. That's fraud. In one case, the double-dipper is a Transportation Security Administration screener in California, CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

Federal disability -- about $170 billion per year -- is intended for those with medical conditions so severe they can't work at any job. Today, so many people claim to fit that definition, 17.9 million people are getting checks. ...

The head of Social Security, Michael Astrue, wouldn't agree to an interview. Instead of explaining how he's fighting fraud, he criticized the GAO. Last year, he told Congress that the screening tool that detects when someone's gone back to work generates too much information.

"That we can't possibly follow up on 'the leads' that would come from that in any- certainly not in my professional lifetime in the agency," Astrue said on Capitol Hill Aug. 4, 2010.

According to Social Security there are actually 13.3 million people on Social Security disability benefits not 17.9 million and the yearly benefit total is about $105 billion not $170 billion.

Feb 18, 2011

The Spit May Be About To Hit The Fan

From The Hill:

House Democrats worried that a bipartisan group of six senators is making progress toward putting the recommendations of President Obama’s debt commission into legislation delivered a message Thursday: Take Social Security out of the mix.

“Divorce this conversation about deficit reduction from Social Security and making it a better program!” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) told a roomful of Social Security advocates on Capitol Hill on Thursday

Becerra, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, served on the debt commission but voted against its recommendations. He said the senators’ attempts to include Social Security in their budget fix is the wrong way to go. ...

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the group, has said Social Security reform must be addressed in the package or it will be ignored.

Coburn, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) hope to produce a plan within weeks and are aiming to have a draft bill ready at least by the time the nation’s debt ceiling is reached this spring so it can be paired with that vote, sources have said.

AP Picks Up On Social Security Furlough Danger

The Associated Press is picking up on the story of possible furloughs at Social Security.

Union Concerns Over Possible Furloughs

An e-mail to union members from the head of the union local that represents most Social Security employees:

From: Witold Skwierczynski
Sent: Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:41 AM
Subject: Furloughs in SSA


I was orally informed by SSA labor relations yesterday that SSA intends to provide a notice in a day or 2 (i.e., today or tomorrow) to the Union regarding furloughs. I was also informed that the Agency had not yet decided on the methodology of the furlough (i.e., to close offices for a day a week, to close offices completely for a period of time, or to keep offices open with reduced staff due to employees being furloughed on a staggered basis). OLMER [Office of Labor-Management Relations?] could not answer any questions regarding the duration of any potential furlough. This is obviously speculative at the present time.

I have heard that SSA is having a high level management conference call today regarding the Agency’s furlough preparations. My suspicion is that they will be discussing the SSA furlough plan in the event of a government shutdown effective 3/5/11. I do not know if the Agency will declare any employees essential and force them to work without any guarantee of pay. In some past furloughs the Agency has closed all field offices. In other furloughs SSA has declared maintenance of benefit rolls as essential and kept skeleton staffs at work but such staff was instructed to take no new claims. In the 1995-96 furlough the Agency closed all field offices for the first 5 day furlough. They kept all field offices open during the 2nd 20 day furlough and declared field employees essential. Employees were called back from X-mas leave and forced to work without pay. When the furlough ended, Congress reimbursed all employees whether they worked or not.

The union and management will probably attempt to negotiate an agreement regarding furloughs in SSA during the week of February 28, 2010.

AFGE Council 220 is planning nationwide informational picketing at SSA facilities on March 2 to protest the House SSA budget for FY 11 which if enacted will likely result in furloughs of a month for SSA workers. We need our brothers and sisters in the other components to join us on March 2, 2011. I am receiving more and more reports of angry and concerned employees who want to express their dissent.

I’ll keep you informed of developments.

Witold Skwierczynski


AFGE National Council of SSA Field Operations Employees

AFGE Council 220

Social Security Warning Of Furloughs If Republican Budget Proposal Adopted

Mr. James E. Marshall, Spokesperson
SSA/AFGE General Committee
P.O. Box 1698
Falls Church, VA 22041
Dear Mr. Marshall:
Pursuant to Article 4 of the National Agreement, this letter serves as notice to bargain over the impact and implementation of a furlough procedure in the event of an Agency furlough. It is important to note that the Commissioner has not decided to effectuate a furlough. However, given the potential of reduced Congressional appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year, the Agency is issuing this notice at this time in the event that a furlough may become necessary.
Following receipt of a request to bargain, management is prepared to bargain over negotiable proposals concerning procedures and arrangements related to the aforementioned issue. Any bargaining will be in accordance with the Statute and Article 4 of the SSA/AFGE National Agreement. Accordingly, since this notice is being provided electronically, any bargaining must commence no later than the first Tuesday following the twenty-eighth (28) calendar day period after the receipt of this notice. In accordance with Article 4, Section 1(B), failure to request to bargain within the timeframes set out for national level bargaining may result in unilateral implementation.
Pursuant to Article 4, Section 3(C), please submit your reply to this notice by electronic correspondence to DCHR.OLMER.OAC@ssa.gov. Should you wish to discuss this matter please contact Eddie Taylor at (410) 965-7066.
Jay Clary
Acting Associate Commissioner
Office of Labor-Management
and Employee Relations

What Happens At Social Security If There Is A Government Shutdown?

The Congressional Research Service has prepared a timely report on what happens in the case of a government shutdown due to a budgetary impasse. Unfortunately, the main takeaway from the report is that Social Security is a special case so one cannot say with confidence exactly what will happen. The precedent from 1995 suggests that most of Social Security will stay open. The Office of Management and Budget requires agencies to have written shutdown plans. I have never seen a copy of Social Security's plan.

It's Weird

Yglesias on proposed cuts to Social Security's administrative budget:
Love it or hate it, Social Security is a pretty lean, mean, check-writing machine. Money comes in through payroll taxes and it comes out through checks. It’s practically automatic. But of course it’s not 100 percent automatic. It does need a few human beings to run it. But thinking that it’s somehow smart to try to trim the fat here is bizarre. Actually reducing the quantity of money in the checks would make old people mad but also save a ton of money. Gumming up the administration of the check-sending process packs a lot of oldster-aggravating punch but barely gets you anything. It’s weird.

Mainframe Back Up

From the Chicago Tribune:

The Social Security Administration's mainframe computers based in Maryland were back up this afternoon [Thursday] after being offline for several hours, a Chicago-based spokesman said.

The mainframe system situated on the East Coast that serves the entire country went down this morning, affecting the processing of claims for beginning retirement and disability benefits, among other services, said Doug Nguyen, a spokesman for the government agency in the Midwest. It was functioning again by early this afternoon, but systems analysts wanted to make certain the computers were working before announcing it, Nguyen said about 4 p.m.

Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

Here is the most recent Social Security hearing office processing time report. The data is from Social Security and appeared in the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). Click on each thumbnail to see full size.

Compare the average processing time as it has changed over time:
  • January 25, 2007 -- 508 days
  • February 29, 2008 -- 511 days
  • March 8, 2009 -- 499 days
  • July 5, 2010 -- 415 days
  • February 1, 2011 -- 371 days

Social Security Helps People Live Longer

From a press release:

New findings from researchers at New York Medical College suggest that when Social Security benefits are improved, people over the age of 65 benefit most, and may even live longer.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, Americans over the age of 65 experienced steep declines in the rate of mortality in the periods that followed the founding of and subsequent improvements to Social Security. ...

After controlling for factors such as changes in the economy, access to medical care, and Medicare, they found that although mortality rates for all adults fell during the 20th century, rates of decline for those 65 and older changed more than 50 percent in the decades following the introduction of Social Security in 1940. Rates of decline for the younger age groups remained virtually the same during this period. The trend was particularly pronounced following marked improvements in Social Security benefits between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s.

Feb 17, 2011

Awards In Danville

From WSLS:

Five people — three Social Security employees and two clients — were honored for heroism during a ceremony at the Danville [Virginia] Social Security office on Thursday.

Michael Astrue, the commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, traveled to Danville to present the awards personally.

Astrue is pictured above giving the award to Officer Jason Alsbaugh.

Gird Your Loins

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is saying that he will not allow a temporary continuing resolution to keep the government running at the current rate to go forward. This does not guarantee a government shutdown but it makes it much more likely.

Democrats Again Criticize Republican Budget

From a new press release issued by Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee:
Republicans are defending their proposed cuts to the Social Security Administration (SSA) budget by seeking to downplay the impact of reducing the SSA’s spending level to $10.7 billion this year.
The facts are clear: this represents a 9.3 percent decrease from Fiscal Year 2010 spending levels of $11.8 billion. It would leave the already cash-strapped agency with fewer resources with which to process claims for seniors and people with disabilities. In fact, SSA says that the GOP proposal is equivalent to up to four weeks of furloughs at the agency.
The Republican budget plan calls for $10.7 billion in overall spending for SSA in 2011, $1.7 billion less than the Social Security Administration needs to fulfill its obligations. They claim their budget represents a 1 percent cut from last year to SSA – but to get there they ignore more than $600 million in additional cuts to the reserve account and funding budgeted for a National Computer Center. The math is simple:
  • $10,675,500,000 in general operating expense funding for the Social Security Administration
  • $485,000,000 for continuing disability reviews and redeterminations
  • $161,000,000 in collected fees
  • $500,000,000 cut to Social Security Administration’s reserve account
  • $118,000,000 cut to what has been budgeted for the National Computer Center
  • $10.7 billion TOTAL

44% Of Social Security Beneficiaries Think It's Already Privatized

There was a town hall meeting at which a constituent told his Congressman to "keep you government hands off my Medicare." It turns out that many feel the same way about Social Security. 44% of Social Security recipients report that they have not used a government social program.

Disability Programs Still On GAO High Risk List

Each year the Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a list of what it considers "high risk" programs that need attention. "Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs" remains on this year's list. Here is GAO's explanation of why these are on the list:
Designated a high-risk area in 2003, federal disability programs remain in need of modernization. Almost 200 federal programs provide a wide range of services and supports, resulting in a patchwork of policies and programs without a unified strategy or set of national goals. Further, disability programs emphasize medical conditions in assessing work incapacity without adequate consideration of work opportunities afforded by advances in medicine, technology, and job demands. Beyond these broad concerns, the largest disability programs-managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Department of Defense (DOD)-are experiencing growing workloads, creating challenges to making timely and accurate decisions.

Feb 16, 2011

More Criticism For Republican Budget Proposal

From a press release issued by Senator Daniel Inouye, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee:
The Republican [budget] proposal would force the SSA [Social Security Administration] to cut more than 3,500 staff from SSA’s 1,300 field offices, state disability determination services, and disability hearing offices and may ultimately result in furloughs of two to four weeks for about 50,000 Federal and state employees. As a result, the millions of Americans filing for retirement and disability benefits this year will wait longer for the benefits they’ve earned, backlogs of those with pending disability claims and hearings could reach record levels, and waiting times at field offices and SSA’s 1-800 number would increase dramatically.

Binder & Binder Wins Trademark Suit

From the American Bar Association Journal:

The law firm Binder & Binder has been awarded $292,000 in a trademark infringement suit against a competitor that paid Google to have its ad appear when people searched for the Binder name.

U.S. District Judge George King of the Central District of California ruled that the Disability Group Inc. had violated the Binder law firm’s registered trademark, and had engaged in false advertising and unfair competition.

The ABA Journal got one thing wrong. The Binder & Binder entities that won this case are not law firms.


Something Doesn't Add Up

From House Ways and Means Committee Democrats:
The 2011 budget plan presented this week by the House Republican Majority strips $1.7 billion away from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for the remainder of the year, a cut so drastic that SSA would need to impose the equivalent of a month of furloughs. ...

House Republicans have proposed a $1.7 billion reduction in SSA funding for the remainder of 2011. That includes:

* Cutting SSA’s operating budget by over a billion dollars (8.5%) below what’s needed for 2011. That level is $506 million below what SSA actually spent in 2010 to process claims and operate Social Security offices.

* Cutting an additional $500 million by draining SSA’s reserve account. Most of the money in reserve is already allocated for this year’s expenses and the rest is budgeted for next year’s planned information technology improvements.

* Rescinding an additional $118 million from funds already set aside to build a new National Computer Center, which could delay equipping this mission-critical project.
House Ways and Means Committee Republicans countered with this:
Democrats today made outrageous claims that the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) offices “would shut down” due to a proposed administrative budget reduction, a claim which is false and based on hypothetical scenarios. Despite the Democrats’ irresponsible scare tactics, the facts show that the Republicans' proposed one percent cut will not harm seniors’ benefits. Furthermore, any decisions to furlough workers – another highly misleading claim made by the Democrats – would result only if that decision were made by the Administration.

Here is a look at the facts.

Wrong Numbers:
The Democrats’ claim of $1.7 billion in cuts is based on the President’s budget request from last year.

One Percent:
The proposed 2011 budget plan from House Republicans would reduce the SSA’s administrative budget by only one percent ($125 million) compared to the current level.
In point of fact, the Republican statement is flatly wrong unless they have already altered their proposed budget for this fiscal year. The Republicans own budget summary shows them proposing a $625 million reduction for Social Security from FY 2010 and a $997.6 million reduction from the President's requested FY 2011 budget. That is a lot more than 1%, however you look at it. Republicans do not dispute that they would take away all money needed to construct a new National Computer Center for Social Security at the same time as they criticize the agency for not constructing the National Computer Center faster.

Feb 15, 2011

AARP Backs Giving More Time To Withdraw Claims

From Janet Novack's column in Forbes:
AARP [American Association of Retired Persons], the 40-million member seniors’ lobby, has asked the Social Security Administration to give a break to current retirees who want to pay back the benefits they’ve received to earn higher future benefit checks. ...

In mid-January, AARP representatives met with Social Security officials and said they did not know if they would take a position on the rule change. But on Feb. 7, the last day for comment, the AARP finally weighed in on the side of the seniors. It asked the government to give those who are already receiving Social Security a full 12 months—until Dec. 8, 2011—to withdraw their Social Security applications and pay back their benefits without interest. The letter, signed by David Certner, the AARP’s legislative counsel, said the organization generally agrees with the intent of the new rule but believes “that equity and fairness” require that those who took early benefits more than a year before the abrupt rule change be given an opportunity to withdraw their initial Social Security applications and repay the money.

Two Retired ALJs Pass

I regret to report the passing of two of Social Security's retired Administrative Law Judges (ALJs): Pat McCormick, who had been the Chief ALJ in San Jose, and John Volz, who had been in Tulsa.

What Happens At Social Security In Case Of A Government Shutdown?

Let me give you my speculation on what will happen at Social Security in case of a government shutdown. Remember, I have no inside information.

The last time there was a government shutdown caused by a budget impasse the vast majority of Social Security's employees were initially furloughed but most of them were soon called back to work even as the impasse continued. Does this mean that most Social Security's employees would escape a furlough if there is a general government shutdown this time? The Anti-Deficiency Act says that it is illegal to "involve either [the federal government or the District of Columbia] government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made unless authorized by law." A straightforward reading of that law makes one wonder how Social Security employees were called back in 1995.

There may be some ways around the Anti-Deficiency Act but the first question is whether the President wants to get around it. Republicans have taken an aggressive stance against government in general, a stance that borders on anarchism, the belief that government is so terrible that we would be better off without a government. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the folly of anarchism is to remind everyone of all that the federal government does for us. Shut down air traffic control and you shut down civil aviation. Shut down the Federal Reserve and you may well shut down banks and stock exchanges. Shut down the Department of Agriculture and food production in the U.S. may shut down. Shut down the Department of the Treasury and Social Security checks stop going out. Shut down the Department of Veterans Affairs and VA hospitals start shutting down. Even Rand Paul might blanch at the prospect of all this happening.

Let us assume, however, that the President wants to ameliorate the effects of a government shutdown at Social Security. Here are some things he can do:
  • The President has some poorly defined emergency powers that apparently include budgetary powers that may supersede the Anti-Deficiency Act to some extent. 50 U.S.C. §1641(c). This was almost certainly the justification used when most Social Security employees were called back to work in 1995.
  • The economic stimulus bill enacted soon after President Obama was elected included a good deal of money for Social Security that has not yet been expended. The money that is left was intended for construction of a new national computer center for Social Security but was not so limited in the appropriation. Some of that money has been spent and Social Security has contractual obligations on some of the rest but I think that there is still a pot of money available in an emergency. The agency could spend the money with the assurance that the pot can be refilled once the money starts flowing again. This money may be enough to keep Social Security going for a time.
  • Social Security also squirreled away $280 million from last year's appropriation in a "no year" account. That money may be available to be spent in an emergency, assuming it has not been committed to long term information technology projects.
Stay tuned. I would not expect any announcement of what the plans are until the very last minute. Let us hope that there is no need to ever announce those plans.

Let me make one warning: If any Social Security employees are furloughed, do not expect that their salaries will be made up as happened in 1995. I doubt that employees who were furloughed can be paid for their time off without at least tacit Congressional approval. In 1995 Republicans did not want to alienate government employees. This time around, Republicans are not only willing to hurt public employees, they seem eager to do so. If Republicans have an enemies list in 2011, public employees are at the top of it.

Feb 14, 2011

Social Security Administration On Budget -- Including An Alarming Chart

Social Security has issued a press release praising President Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget for the agency. Also linked is a 28 page "Budget Overview." I have reproduced a rather startling chart from the report which shows that things have been going very badly over the last two years in one area. Here are some excerpts from the text, the first of which is from the Commissioner's preface:
A critical concern for FY 2011 is operating under a continuing resolution (CR). A full-year CR would erase the tremendous progress we have made in the last few years. We have improved our productivity by an average of 4 percent during my tenure, and we continue to look for ways to become more efficient. Nevertheless, our success is dependent on having enough skilled employees to handle our mounting workloads. A hiring freeze for the remainder of the year would result in a loss of about 2,500 Federal employees and 1,000 State employees in the DDS in FY 2011. This attrition will not occur uniformly, which will leave some offices seriously understaffed. Our backlogs would skyrocket, and people would wait considerably longer to receive decisions. As our backlogs grow, it will become more difficult, expensive, and take even longer to eliminate them. Waiting times in field offices and on our 800-number would increase dramatically. Improper payments would grow. We might even be forced to delay simple retirement claims. ...

Paying Medical Consultants Per Case: We are implementing initiatives focused on increasing the volume and quality of work processed by medical consultants. One of these initiatives focuses on converting the pay structure for medical consultants from pay-per-hour to pay-per-case. We believe this new pay structure could increase productivity, allow medical consultants to review a greater number of disability claims, and ultimately assist in reducing the number of cases awaiting medical consultant review. ...

Reducing Headquarters Staff: We are reducing staff in headquarters components through attrition. Although headquarters staff play an important support role, with our limited resources, it is more important for us to fund our front-line operations. ...

President's Budget

The President's recommended budget for Social Security for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, which begins on October 1, 2011, is out. It recommends $12.496 billion for Social Security, a 2% increase from the President's recommended budget for FY 2011 although that is a somewhat theoretical number since it will never be enacted, and a 9% increase over the FY 2010 budget. Social Security is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) which allows the agency to spend money at the FY 2010 rate. This would amount to a nice jump for Social Security if it could be enacted.

The budget proposal says that the President "proposes a new Disability Insurance Work Incentives Simplification Pilot (WISP) to provide beneficiaries a simpler set of work rules that no longer terminates benefits based solely on earnings." I have no idea whether this is simply a new name for the Benefits Offset National Demonstration (BOND) experiment that has just started. If it is the same thing, why are they giving it a different name and acronym? If it is different, why do we need two similar experiments going on at the same time.

The budget proposal also talks of the creation of a a "Disability Research Center." I am deeply skeptical of this sort of research in general and especially skeptical of the Social Security Administration overseeing it. That is not the agency's mission.

Republicans in Congress will undoubtedly declare this budget "dead on arrival." The Social Security Administration may be lucky to continue spending in FY 2012 at the FY 2010 rate.

Update: The President's budget would increase employment at Social Security from 67,060 under the current CR to 69,306, a 3% increase.

The Commissioner's recommended budget, which, by law, must be conveyed to Congress, is $13.093 billion, 5% higher than the President's recommended budget.

The Last Time A Government Shutdown Happened

Let me stress that this describes historic events. This does not tell us what will happen in the future. I will have try to have more on this tomorrow. This is from Social Security's official history (emphasis added):
On November 14, 1995, SSA was advised to begin a shutdown of operations [due to a budget stalemate] beginning at 10 a.m. The Agency’s contingency plan was implemented. Employees were instructed to pay close attention to the media to determine when the impasse was resolved and when to return to work. SSA furloughed 61,415 employees and retained 4,780. The majority of the employees retained were in direct service positions to ensure the continuance of benefits. ... Other functions considered essential and permitted under applicable statutes (including the Anti-Deficiency Act) during a lapse in appropriations related to areas of health and safety, oversight and coordination of all human resources and financial functions related to the furlough.

SSA’s contingency plan was altered shortly after the shutdown began when the Commissioner approved the recall of an additional 130 Office of Hearings and Appeals employees to handle time-sensitive mail in the hearing offices. Without the assistance of these employees, this claims-related mail would have been returned to the sender, further delaying claims processing. ...

It was evident to Agency executives after a couple of days that the shutdown was not acceptable, and that it was affecting some of its most vulnerable people, namely its elderly, disabled, and low-income recipients. It became very clear that it was important that SSA reopen its offices to conduct business, even during the shutdown. There was tremendous concern internally, as well as within the White House that SSA not providing service would cause harm to too many Americans.

President Clinton held a press conference that afternoon and announced to the public that this shutdown was unacceptable, that Americans needed to be able to conduct business, and that SSA was recalling approximately 49,715 more employees in direct service positions back to work. This involved recalling sufficient staff to effectively administer its programs, including processing new claims for Social Security benefits. This put field offices, the toll-free 800 number service and State DDS facilities back in business. Although SSA would take and process new applications for benefits and resume processing appeals, it would not process applications for SSNs, perform personal earnings and benefits estimates or conduct annual wage reporting activities. A total of 54,495 staff would be retained. ...

There was a great deal of discussion and some dissention internally over which employees should return to work, and that if SSA was going to recall 54,000 employees, why not recall all 66,000. The concern was that by recalling all but 12,000 employees, what message were you sending to them? ...

The second shutdown was the longest in history and presented new challenges to Agency management. When the threat of a second shutdown surfaced, SSA determined that the trust funds and benefit programs could not tolerate another interruption of claims-taking activities. Based on the experience during the November lapse in appropriations and the loss of four full days of production time, any further interruption in service would have a devastating long-term impact on SSA’s ability to process Social Security, SSI and Black Lung claims. The Agency was still attempting to recover from the effects of the November furlough. Therefore, employees in direct service positions would remain operational, while staff support employees would be furloughed. When the partial shutdown began December 16, 1995, about 55,000 Agency employees, most of whom processed claims and/or provided direct public service, were told to report for work. A total of approximately 11,000 staff employees remained furloughed.

Feb 13, 2011

Fee Payment Numbers

Here are updated numbers on payments of fees for representation of Social Security claimants:

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount



Feb 12, 2011

Fantasy Time For House Republicans

The House Republican leadership has released information about what it wants in the budget for fiscal year (FY) 2011. FY 2011 began on October 1, 2010. We are now four and a half months into FY 2011 and operating on a Continuing Resolution (CR), allowing the agency to continue spending at the same rate as in FY 2010. The Republicans want to reduce the budget for FY 2011 to $997.6 million below the President's proposed budget for the year and $625 million below the FY 2010 rate. If this became law all of that $625 million reduction would come out of the remainder of FY 2011. I cannot say exactly what the result would be but I think it is a safe bet that there would be a significant reduction in force at Social Security.

The only hope that Republicans have of getting anything like this, indeed of getting any reduction below the FY 2010 budget, is to shut down the government. Otherwise, Democrats have no reason to do anything other than to counter by offering a CR for the remainder of FY 2011. This all comes to a head in less than three weeks.

Tune in Monday for a history lesson on what happened at Social Security the last time there was a government shutdown.

Teach Your Children Well

From "Remapping Debate:"
No one has done more than the billionaire private-equity investor Peter G. Peterson to stir America’s anxiety over deficits, debt, and what Peterson (among others) considers out-of-control entitlement-program spending. Those same concerns now lie at the heart of a “fiscal responsibility” curriculum being developed for America’s high schools. The curriculum bears the stamp of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, but reflects the focus suggested by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which provided $2.4 million in funding for the project. ...

[T]he trial lessons repeatedly point toward two core ideas of Peterson’s long crusade: first, that America’s future is threatened by deficit spending, and, second, that Social Security and Medicare have helped put our economy on an “unsustainable course.” ...

Robert Prasch, an economics professor at Middlebury College, voiced similar complaints about the way the curriculum deals with Social Security. “No effort is made to explore whether, and to what extent, there may or may not be a fiscal crisis facing Social Security,” Prasch said. “It is presumed or taken as an unimpeachable fact.”
The cartoon is from the materials funded by Peterson.

Feb 11, 2011

Ways And Means Committee Hearing

The House Ways and Means Committee has posted the written statements of the witnesses at today's hearing on Social Security's new National Computer Center project. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) is mildly critical of the length of time this has taken.

Government Shutdown Looming?

From Bill Matthews writing at Fedblog:

With the March 4 expiration date looming for the continuing resolution that's funding the federal government, budget expert Stan Collender offers this advice: Prepare for a government shutdown.

It is more likely than not that Congress will fail to agree on a new budget for 2011 in time to prevent the federal government from running out of money and simply closing its doors, Collender said Feb. 10.

"My strong suspicion is that the Republicans need to shut down the government once to show the Tea Party folks that they are willing to do it," he said during a discussion of the 2012 budget that's scheduled to unveiled Feb. 14. "I think there's a better than 50-50 chance that we will have one or more shutdowns, and at least one will be longer than a couple of days." ...

Layoffs are likely to happen earlier if there is a shutdown this year, he said. "I can tell you because I've talked to members of the contracting community and to [business] associations, and they've already started to prepare for this possibility."

Indictment In Alabama

From some the Huntsville, AL Times:
A federal grand jury has charged an Albertville woman with sending two fake anthrax letters to the local Social Security Administration.

Charged was Michelle Holladay Ryder, 43, according to U.S. Attorney Joyce White in Birmingham. Ryder faces two counts of mailing a letter containing a powdery substance and a note to someone at the Albertville Social Security Administration. The powder did not test positive for any biological hazards.

The maximum sentence for each count of sending hoax anthrax letters is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Aaron Nominated To Chair SSAB

President Obama has nominated Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution to become chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB).

Update: By the way, Aaron is on the board of Abt, a major contractor with the Social Security Administration. I suppose he has to resign that position.

Feb 10, 2011

DCNs Decrease

Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently did a study of "double check negotiation" (DCN), cases in which a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient tells Social Security that their monthly benefits check did not arrive causing Social Security to issue a replacement check and the person cashes both checks. Social Security has been trying hard to reduce the number of these cases. According to OIG:
Recent actions taken by SSA [Social Security Administration] have been effective in preventing SSI DCNs. The total number of DCNs has declined steadily since 2002. System controls implemented in June 2007 have been effective in preventing instances where individuals commit multiple DCNs. In addition, based on our sample results, SSA has been effective in recovering overpayments from recipients who commit DCNs.

Feb 9, 2011

Get SSI Check Three Days Early?

This is a photo of a check cashing outfit in Greenville, NC. Note that the sign says "Get SSI Checks 3 Days Early." You may have to click on the photo to see it large enough to read the sign. Does anyone know how they are doing this? Is it legal?

Feb 8, 2011

Do They Deserve Sympathy?

From Tara Siegel Bernard's blog at the New York Times:
Some Social Security recipients are upset about a new Social Security Administration policy, claiming that it is “changing its rules in the middle of the game.” ...

Under the old policy, people eligible for benefits could take them early, then change their mind and then withdraw their application for benefits — as long as they repaid the full amount of the benefits received. That allowed them to restart the clock, and reapply for higher benefits later. ...

The agency’s new rule, which went into effect in December, now limits the time period during which beneficiaries can withdraw an application to within 12 months of the first month of entitlement. It also permits only one application withdrawal per lifetime. ...

Though the new policy is already in effect, there is a 60-day public comment period that ends today. The agency said it would consider those comments — there are more than 500 comments so far — and publish another final rule.

Several of the comments were from recipients who said they weren’t notified of the change. Many of them were angry, noting that they had made their decision to take benefits early knowing they could repay them later based on information received from their local benefits offices. Several people told the agency that this amounted to “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

Feb 7, 2011

Disguised Unemployment?

The Courier-Post, a New Jersey newspaper, is running an article about the increased number of people who have filed claims for Social Security disability benefits after being laid off their jobs. There are many people who managed to barely hang onto their jobs when the economy was booming. Although their work performance was substandard and they missed many days due to illness, their employers did not fire them -- until economic times got tough. There are concerns that Social Security disability benefits not disguise the rate of unemployment by putting such individuals on benefits but the reality on the ground is much more complicated as this article demonstrates.

One Year Sentence For Threatening ALJ

From the Associated Press:
A 30-year-old Shreveport woman has been sentenced to a year in prison for a mailed threat to a judge.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Shreveport says the sentence was handed down Thursday to Latonya Kemp by federal Judge Donald Walter.

Prosecutors said Kemp mailed a handwritten letter to an administrative law judge in the Social Security Administration. The judge had upheld the denial of Social Security disability benefits for Kemp, who threatened to injure his property and reputation, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley.