Dec 30, 2011

Direct Deposit Fraud

     A television station in Tampa is reporting that there have been two dozen instances locally in recent months of Social Security direct deposits being diverted to bank accounts not controlled by the person who is supposed to be receiving the money. 
     This is highly worrisome since it may be impossible to prevent under current practices and could spread quickly. I don't think this is the last we will hear of this problem.

Dec 29, 2011

Not To Be Replaced

     From The Messenger of Fort Dodge, Iowa:
Ray Powell came with the wind, so to speak.
Powell began his career at Fort Dodge's Social Security Administration office in June 1979 - shortly after tornadoes struck Manson and Algona.
Powell's departure [from his job as office manager] is set to be somewhat less dramatic.
After 32 years in Fort Dodge, Powell will retire on Friday.
    Yes, someone else will replace him as office manager at least on a acting basis but his job won't really be filled since Social Security isn't hiring..  Service to Iowans will decline.

Dec 28, 2011

15,043 Died Waiting For Disability Determination

     From today's Wall Street Journal:
The backlog of applications for disability benefits is so big the Social Security Administration has a special code—DXDI—for appeals dismissed because the applicant died waiting. Since 2005, the agency has made 15,043 DXDI designations.

A Race To The Bottom Garners Only A 6% Market Share For Binder And Binder

     That Wall Street Journal article on Binder and Binder indicates that they took in $88 million in fees for representing Social Security claimants last year which is a lot but that the total for everyone representing Social Security claimants was $1.4 billion. By my math, that means that Binder and Binder had only a 6% market share nationally despite spending $20 million on television ads and an untold amount on search engine advertising.
     Binder and Binder's influence goes beyond what its market share might suggest. Perhaps this would have happened anyway but several other firms are trying to operate nationally in ways somewhat similar to Binder and Binder and many other firms operating regionally are also cutting service to clients while ramping up advertising. It looks like a race to the bottom -- who can cut service the most so they can spend the most on advertising.

Dec 27, 2011

User Fee Stays At 6.3%

     The user fee imposed on those who receive direct payment of fees for representing Social Security claimants will remain at 6.3% in 2012.

Dec 26, 2011

Paying For Referrals

     From a press release:
Freedom Disability, a national Social Security Disability Advocacy group, has launched Freedom Cash Rewards, a unique online referral program designed to connect those who need Disability benefits to a premier advocacy service. Through this program, both the referrer and the person being referred would have the opportunity to earn cash rewards starting at $50. ...
[I]n addition to receiving high quality advocacy service for their Social Security Disability case, the disability claimant will also receive $50 once they have completed the initial interview with a Freedom Disability Advocate ...
     As the attorneys reading this know, paying for referrals is a good way to lose one's license to practice law. Of course, Freedom Disability is not a law firm.

Dec 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Dec 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

Means Testing Social Security?

Is means testing Social Security a good idea? Kevin Drum at Mother Jones gives some cogent supply side reasons why it would be a very bad idea.

Merry Christmas

Dec 23, 2011

Commissioner On Budget

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Friday, December 23, 2011 2:37 PM

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees‪

Subject:  Budget Approved

Thank you for your patience during the latest budget negotiations and for handling the uncertainty professionally.  I am pleased to report that President Obama today signed the Omnibus appropriations bill.  The good news is that we know how much money we have for this fiscal year much earlier than we did last year.
Accounting for the across-the-board reduction that each agency had to take, we received a small increase of about $25 million over last year’s budget.  This budget increase does not pay for much of our more than $300 million increase in fixed costs, so it will be another very tight year.  We are in the process of making some difficult decisions so that we can accomplish our most important missions.  We will release revised budget allocations in January and expect only to make minor modifications through the remainder of the fiscal year.
Thank you again for working hard during this period, and I wish you all a wonderful holiday season with family and friends! 

                                                            Michael J. Astrue

Binder and Binder Advertising Expenses -- Off The Charts!

     The Wall Street Journal article yesterday contained some interesting information on Binder and Binder's operations. Their total revenues in 2010 were about $88 million, which is a stunning number, but almost as stunning to me was Binder and Binder's television advertising expenses, more than $20 million. As big as that number is, you must remember that television is only a part of their advertising expenditures. They also engage extensively in search engine marketing, which is also expensive. Their search engine marketing expenses are probably in the same ballpark as their television advertising expenses. This means that they are probably paying out something over 40% of their gross revenues on advertising. Spending that kind of money on advertising explains their service delivery problems. They have little money to spend on customer service after paying for all the ads. 
     How does Binder and Binder's advertising costs as a percent of their revenue compare to the average Social Security practice? I can only make a rough guess here but I think it safe to say that Binder and Binder is incredibly far off the chart.
     Don't you have to wonder about any enterprise that spends such a huge percent of its revenues on advertising? Who else does this? Luxury retailers, maybe?
     By the way, I'll also take a guess that Binder and Binder's profit margin is small.  How can they have much profit, spending that much on ads? I wonder how well they''re doing in the current downturn in fee payments.

New Regulations

     From the new regulations published today in the Federal Register:
Sec. 404.903 Administrative actions that are not initial determinations. ...
(g) Refusing to recognize, disqualifying, or suspending a person from acting as your representative in a proceeding before us  ...

Sec. 404.1740 Rules of conduct and standards of responsibility for representatives.
All attorneys or other persons acting on behalf of a party seeking a statutory right or benefit must, in their dealings with us, faithfully execute their duties as agents and fiduciaries of a party. A representative must provide competent assistance to the claimant and recognize our authority to lawfully administer the process. The following provisions set forth certain affirmative duties and prohibited actions that will govern the relationship between the representative and us, including matters involving our administrative procedures and fee collections.
(2) All representatives must be forthright in their dealings with us and with the claimant and must comport themselves with due regard for the nonadversarial nature of the proceedings by complying with our rules and standards, which are intended to ensure orderly and fair presentation of evidence and argument.
     I have only conducted a cursory review of these regulations. I note a harsh, peremptory tone to the responses to the public comments. About the only reassuring thing it says is that "We are not asking anyone to disclose information protected by the attorney-client privilege or the attorney work-product doctrine." I have not seen in these regulations any explicit requirement that a representative must submit all medical evidence that comes their way. 
     They do not define the word "fiduciary." The normal meaning of this word would prevent the practice of helping insurance companies collect money owed to them by Social Security claimants. I will be surprised if Social Security is willing to enforce this.

Senator Calls For Social Security To Scrutinize Binder And Binder Clients

     From UPI (they still exist?!):
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called on the Social Security Administration to examine cases of disability claimants represented by a high profile legal firm.
Coburn Thursday called on SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue to look into the health status of people represented by Binder & Binder, a firm based in Hauppauge, N.Y., that advertises nationally. ...

Coburn, the top Republican on a subcommittee on Social Security, said Binder & Binder's practices were "potentially fraudulent" and raised questions on how many disability beneficiaries "are potentially improperly receiving benefits."

A Top Ten List

     Below are some numbers from yesterday's Wall Street Journal article. These are the top ten individual recipients of fees for representing Social Security claimants in 2010, the amount received and their headquarters location. These are individuals, not entities. Some fees  are attributed to individual employees of larger entities and sometimes to just one individual at the head of such an entity making these numbers meaningful only in a relative sense. In all, or almost all, cases the total fees received by the entity are much higher, in the case of Binder and Binder almost four times as much.

1. Charles Binder$22,817,430.62Hauppauge, N.Y.
2. Thomas Nash$6,292,296.41Chicago
3. Eric Conn$3,815,512.96Stanville, Ky.
4. Michael Sullivan$3,614,429.13Lousiville, Ky.
5. Frank Latour$3,464,262.24Colton, Calif.
6. Ronald Miller$3,241,150.42Santa Monica, Calif.
7. Juan Hernandez Rivera$2,816,311.80Bayamon, Puerto Rico
8. Robert Friedman$2,531,046.93Seattle
9. Matthew Greenbaum$2,004,375.65New Orleans
10. Thomas Bothwell$1,668,758.92Yakima, Wash.

Merry Christmas

Dec 22, 2011

New Regs On Representatives Tomorrow

The new regulations on representatives will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow. It seems clear that these are intended as a response to the Wall Street Journal story. Social Security used an old proposal on recognizing entities as the basis for this although I think there is little connection between the two.

Binder And Binder Piece In Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal is running its long anticipated story on Binder and Binder. I have not yet been able to read anything other than the blurb available so far online.
Here is a link to the full article.

What Is Social Security Up To?

      I don't know what this means. Perhaps, it means little. However, Social Security sent over to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a proposed final regulation on November 14, 2011. The proposed regulation would alter the agency's "rules of conduct and standards of responsibility for representatives." The rules cleared OMB on December 20. We have no idea what  is in this since there was no Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) as there usually is. The NPRM process allows public comment before final rules are adopted. It's been a few years since I've studied the rulemaking portions of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) but my recollection is that the NPRM process can only be dispensed with if the rules are pretty minor or are needed on an emergency basis. So, what could this be? It's hard to imagine anything  to do with this topic that would either be minor or  needed on an emergency basis. What is also unusual is that these rules cleared OMB in near record time, slightly over a month. All of Social Security's other regulatory proposals pending at OMB have been there longer.
     I suspect that Social Security intends to publish these very quickly, probably before the new year. Otherwise, why the rush to get them out of OMB?

Merry Christmas

Dec 21, 2011

Hiring More ALJs? Decline In Disability Claims?

     There is a report at the ALJ Discussion Forum that Social Security intends to hire 107 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in September 2012. The same person also reports that there has been a decline in the number of disability claims filed in the last three months, particularly in October. 
     I do not doubt that Social Security wants to hire more ALJs next year. I would be very surprised if they have the money to do so. This sounds like a plan that is likely to be out of the question because of Social Security's budget crunch.
     By the way, if you're ready to ascribe the reduction in the number of disability claims filed to the reduction in unemployment, take a look at the numbers for the unemployment rate this year:
  • January 9.0 
  • February 8.9 
  • March 8.8 
  • April 9.0 
  • May 9.1 
  • June 9.2 
  • July 9.1 
  • August 9.1
  • September 9.1
  • October 9.0
  • November 8.6 
     The reduction in unemployment, unfortunately, is modest and almost all of the reduction happened in November, not October. If you still believe that the rate of unemployment determines changes in the number of disability claims filed, why didn't we hear about a big increase in the number of disability claims filed between March and June of this year?

Merry Christmas

Quiz Answer

Question: Who is the current Inspector General of the Social Security Administration?

Possible Answers:
  • David Black
  • Carolyn Colvin
  • Stephen Goss
  • Patrick O'Carroll
Correct Answer: Patrick O'Carroll

Dec 20, 2011

Merry Christmas


Dec 19, 2011

Republicans Balk At Extending FICA Reduction

That apparent agreement to extend the partial FICA tax holiday for two months is on hold now. Republicans in the House of Representatives have some demands they want to make. Democrats may be unwilling to accede to any of their demands. Stay tuned.

Disability And Unemployment Again

     From the Wall Street Journal:
Many poor Americans seek Social Security disability payments as a financial life preserver when their unemployment benefits begin expiring, preliminary research by two economists shows.
The findings, released by the Obama administration Thursday, are based on interviews with unemployed workers ...
Their research found that close to 10% of Americans between the ages of 50 and 65 who didn’t have access to at least $5,000 applied for Social Security disability benefits by the time their unemployment benefits were set to expire. The percent of this group seeking the benefits rose precipitously in the weeks leading up to the exhaustion of benefits, as it was below 1% with 50 weeks left in unemployment benefits.
Jobless Americans in this age range who had access to at least $5,000 were much less likely to seek SSDI benefits at any point while collecting unemployment benefits.
     Of course, many people who are disabled wait to apply for Social Security disability until they exhaust all other possible benefits. This is because the process of obtaining Social Security disability benefits is widely and accurately regarded as unpleasant and difficult. Most people do everything they can to avoid it. That is a huge problem for anyone like myself who helps Social Security disability claimants. They often wait until the wolf is at the door before applying and then hear me or someone like me tell them that they face a process that will take two years and that the result is uncertain. If you're relying upon a claim for Social Security disability as your "life preserver" you're in big trouble. When companies lay off people, they often select their least productive workers to lay off. The least productive workers are often those with serious health problems, especially mental illness. Theoretically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may forbid this but the ADA is a dead letter, interpreted out of any meaningful existence by the Supreme Court. Even people who started out on unemployment benefits relatively healthy may get sick and then wait for their unemployment benefits to end before applying for Social Security disability benefits. Being laid off is not good for your health. It's stressful and your access to health care is diminished.
     The plain fact is that anyone can look at a chart displaying the disability incidence rate and the unemployment rate and see that common wisdom notwithstanding there is virtually no link between the two.

Dec 18, 2011

What Do You Think?

     I think the following post on this blog is from a ringer:
I work for the agency and happen to be in a position to personally observe field office operations in multiple offices. Yes, there are some very hard working employees, but there are many more slackers. The constant use of cell phones for personal calls (even taking calls while in an interview) and texting, and the excessive surfing of the internet is incredible. I have pretty much lost sympathy for the agency. I don't think a furlough of many of the employees would be noticeable, that is how little they produce. The early closings of offices is a joke as now many employees see it as an opportunity to leave early, not to work. The hours of 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning are woefully wasted unless there is training. Most days it is just used for excessive chatting and visiting. And this is just in the field. I know several employees who were detailed to CO where they saw employees there routinely take 2 hour lunches on SSA time. As for most field office managers, well, they are vastly overpaid as they do not spend most of their time managing, but "networking" on the phone and politicking.
     I know that Social Security employees have a variety of experiences and viewpoints but this one does not ring true to me. There are not that many Social Security employees who would have the opportunity to visit multiple field offices. For the most part, employees would be on their best behavior when such people were around since they would be management. How well would visiting personnel get to know what was going on in the field offices? How many people get detailed to work in Social Security's central offices? I wouldn't think there would be many even at the regional office level. I know that Social Security employees are no more perfect than any other large group of people but this seems way over the top. What do you think of this post?

Dec 17, 2011

FICA Reductions Extended For Two Months

     The reductions in the FICA tax  that have been in effect since the beginning of this year have been extended for another two months. The FICA tax goes into Social Security's trust funds. The Treasury is making up the difference for the Social Security trust funds.


From the New York Daily News:
Frank Lucas, who once ran a billion-dollar business smuggling heroin before going straight, could go to jail for bilking the U.S. government out of $17,300.
Now 81 and ailing, Lucas was charged with theft by deception after he allegedly told the U.S. Treasury he lost a Social Security check with funds earmarked for his 15-year-old son and asked for a duplicate, prosecutors said.

Dec 16, 2011

Withholding ALJ Assignment Information

     Let me give a brief comment on Social Security's plan to withhold the identity of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to whom an appeal is assigned until the day of the hearing. As a general matter it does not matter much to me. I do not prepare cases any different depending upon which ALJ the case is assigned to. Any differences in the way I present a case are minor. I can easily adjust on the day of the hearing since I know all of the local ALJs. Many others who practice Social Security law feel different.
     The idea that this will prevent "judge shopping" is, for the most part, ridiculous. The only way that an attorney can "judge shop" at Social Security is to decline to do a video hearing with a particular ALJ if it is known that the ALJ will not schedule an in person hearing. That is only a small percentage of cases. 
     What I am hearing from my colleagues is that many will refuse to do any video hearings with out of area ALJs under this policy since they would have no way of knowing anything about the ALJ in advance of the hearing. I may do this myself since the danger with having to deal with an out of town ALJ with serious peculiarities with no advance warning is all too real.
     My guess is that attorneys refusing to do hearings with the national hearing offices will become an even greater problem for Social Security under the new policy. Instead of trying to do one thing after another to keep the national hearing offices going, perhaps Social Security should revisit the entire idea of the national hearing offices. Was it really a good idea to create them?

Dec 15, 2011

Bad News On Appropriations

     Reportedly, Congressional leaders are close to agreement on an appropriations bill that will cover most federal agencies, including Social Security. The House Appropriations Committee has released a summary of the bill which says that "The bill funds SSA at $10.6 billion to administer SSA [Social Security Administration] activities, which is $74 million above FY [Fiscal Year] 2011 and $865 million below the President’s request." This is less than what had been in prior versions of the bill. The summary does not address the question of how much money will be earmarked to program integrity activities.

Update: I have now found a copy of the bill (the information important to Social Security begins at page 146 of the PDF).The actual base amount for Social Security is $10,555,494,000. On top of this, the agency gets $274 million for continuing disability reviews, which is down from $756 million as originally planned. The bill includes this larguage, which I do not understand:
That reimbursement to the trust funds under this heading for expenditures for official time for employees of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 7131, and for facilities or support services for labor organizations pursuant to policies, regulations, or procedures referred to in section 7135(b) of such title shall be made by the Secretary of the Treasury, with interest, from amounts in the general fund not otherwise appropriated, as soon as possible after such expenditures are made.

Wall Street Journal Article

     Damian Paletta has an article in the "Politics" section of the Wall Street Journal today. The article deals with two issues that have been discussed in this blog in the past:
  • The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) will do a study of Social Security's disability programs. This study will "focus" on Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Harold Krent, dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law is to be the lead researcher. According to the article "A top Social Security Administration official had a conference call with roughly 300 managers Wednesday to express concern about the issue of outlier judges [mostly those who approve too many claims] and said he was hopeful the new study could provide ways to address the problem, a person familiar with the call said."
  • Social Security will stop notifying claimants and their attorneys of the identity of the ALJ to hear a case. This is to be a secret until the day of the hearing.

Commissioner On Shutdown Threat

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 05:32 PM

A Message To All SSA Employees

Subject: Important Message

While Congress continues to consider an omnibus appropriations bill along with extensions to the payroll tax cut and Unemployment Insurance benefits, there is no guarantee that it will finish its work before our current appropriation expires on Friday at midnight.  The President has urged all Members of Congress to complete the work they were elected to do and has made clear that there is no excuse for Congress to leave on vacation before its work is complete.  The President has also made clear that he does not want a government shutdown.   Given the realities of the calendar, however, prudent management requires that we plan for an orderly shutdown should Congress fail to complete its work or fail to pass another short-term continuing resolution that would give it more time to take up these important matters.

Both the President and I know that the uncertainty of the current situation puts federal employees in a difficult position, and we are very much aware that a shutdown would impose hardships on many employees as well as the groups and individuals our agency serves.  As we approach the expiration of the current appropriation, we will provide you with updated information as soon as it becomes available.  For now, I want to provide you with information on how the potential funding lapse–should it occur–would affect our employees.

If funding lapses, we would not be permitted to incur further financial obligations for activities funded by annual appropriations, except those related to the orderly suspension of operations or performance of excepted activities.  Such a funding lapse would mean that some employees would be furloughed and prohibited from working.  Our contingency planning for the potential funding lapse includes determining which agency functions and employees are excepted from a furlough.  Should it become necessary to implement our contingency plans, you will receive informal notice from your manager no later than Friday, December 16 and formal notice no later than Monday, December 19 regarding the designation of your position and furlough status.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website,, addresses some of the questions that I know must be on your mind.  As needed, OPM will provide additional pertinent information for federal employees as the week progresses.  We will also do our very best to provide clear information about the status of events as the week progresses.

Thanks to your hard work and dedication, we provide critical services to the American public.  Your contributions touch lives in so many significant ways, and I want you to know how deeply I appreciate your dedication and your expertise.

We will be in touch again soon.

    Michael J. Astrue

Dec 14, 2011

I've Got A Secret

     I am hearing that beginning next Monday, Social Security will no longer notify a claimant or their attorney of the identity of the Administrative Law Judge who will hear the case until the day of the hearing.

What Is Going On At The Payment Centers?

     Social Security has released numbers indicating that payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants are down about 15% since the beginning of the fiscal year, October 1, 2011. This indicates about a 15% drop in payments of back benefits to claimants as well. From what I am seeing, this payment slowdown is not getting better. It may be getting worse. The loss of overtime because of lack of operating funds accounts for some of this but I have a hard time blaming lack of overtime for the whole problem. I have heard reports that the settlement of a class action lawsuit concerning notices to blind claimants is part of the problem, as payment center personnel are now required to spend time calling blind recipients and reading notices to them. I have also heard that payment center personnel may now be involved in some way in identifying claimants to be targeted for continuing disability reviews. I do not know if the reports I have heard are accurate or whether they are anything like the whole story. Can anyone tell me what is going on? What is planned to deal with the usual problem of employees taking time off around Christmas because of "use it or lose it" with their annual leave? What is planned to deal with all the telephone calls that typically cause problems for the payment centers in January? If the current problems were to persist for an entire year, we would be in what I would consider an unimaginable situation where it is taking more than three months to get a claimant on benefits after they are approved. That isn't going to happen, is it?

Quiz Answer

Question: By how much are SSI benefits reduced if a recipient is living in the household of another and receiving free room and board throughout a month?

Possible Answers:
  • One-Third
  • One-Half
  • $250
  • The actual value of the room and board
Correct Answer: One-Third

Dec 13, 2011


Dec 12, 2011

What Happens If The Disability Trust Fund Runs Out Of Money?

     Most people think there is only one Social Security trust fund but there are two. The one most people don't know about is the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. It has much more immediate problems than the Retirement and Survivor's Insurance Trust Fund. The Disability Insurance Trust Fund is predicted to run out of money in 2018. Restoring the Disability Trust Fund to health isn't that big a deal.A small reallocation of the FICA tax would do it with little effect upon the Retirement and Survivor's Insurance Trust Fund. You may have noticed, however, that Republicans have been taking hostages lately, refusing to agree to routine measures that prevent catastrophes, in order to achieve leverage. This tactic may have run its course as the public is tiring of crises and Democrats seem willing to practice brinksmanship themselves. Still, there is a very real threat that Republicans will attempt to use the problems of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund to force dramatic changes in Social Security's disability programs.
     It's impossible now to predict whether there will be a crisis in a few years or what the Republican demands or Democratic response might be. It may be worth looking though at the question of exactly what looms if there is no agreement. My first thought was that there won't be a crisis because there is already authority for borrowing between the Trust Funds. Unfortunately, my memory failed me. There was such authority at one time but it expired in 1987. Let's hope this authority can be quietly renewed before 2018. My second thought is to wonder just how benefits might be paid if the Disability Insurance Trust Fund runs out of money because the exhaustion of the Disability Trust Fund does not mean that there will be no money to pay benefits. Actually, there will be enough money to pay about 84% of the benefits since there will still be revenue coming into the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, allowing some benefits to be paid out of the revenue stream. Would Social Security just reduce each month's check by 16%? Probably, but a Congressional Research Service study on the subject tells us that the Disability Trust Fund running out of money would be terra incognita. There is no clear statutory answer. Perhaps, the answer would be to delay each month's checks until sufficient funds are available to cover them, making each check later and later.

Dec 11, 2011

Disability And Unemployment

     I said that I would have more on the testimony at the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing on December 2. Let me finally start getting around to it. The testimony of Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary,  included a statement that "Periodic economic recessions, as illustrated by the civilian unemployment rate in bright orange in the figure below, have been associated with temporary increases in disability incidence." I have copied his chart below. Click on it to see it full size.
     What strong an association do you see? It seems to me that the correlation is so weak as to be indistinguishable from ordinary fluctuations associated with small policy changes. Does anyone have the statistical background to do an analysis on this? Is this chi square? I don't know my statistics but surely some reader does.
     This is not a minor point. If the Social Security disability programs are little more than a form of unemployment benefit, perhaps they should be dramatically altered. That is the point of much of the  recent criticism of the Social Security disability programs. Is there substance to this claim? I don't see it. Do you? If you do, can you prove it statistically? If it can't be proven statistically, those trumpeting this view ought to shut up.

Dec 10, 2011

Challenges For Social Security Administration

Here are a couple of excerpts from Fiscal Year 2011 Inspector General Statement on the Social Security Administration’s Major Management and Performance Challenges, a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
As the end of FY [fiscal year] 2011, SSA’s [Social Security Administration's] hearings backlog was approximately 787,000 cases—about 82,000 cases higher than the backlog at the end of FY 2010 and 62,000 higher than its goal for FY 2011. However, SSA continued to improve the timeliness of hearing decisions. The cumulative average processing time for hearings dropped to 360 days as of the end of FY 2011, compared to 426 days as of the end of FY 2010. ...

In FY 2011, DDS [Disability Determination Services] staffing decreased from 18,269 employees to 17,271 employees – a loss of 998 employees. With the hiring freeze, DDSs are not allowed to replace the lost staff. At the end of 2011, five States were still furloughing DDS employees. ...

Dec 9, 2011

Windfall Elimination Provision Problems

     From a recent audit report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Our objective was to identify Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) beneficiaries whose payments may have been affected by State or local government pensions. We limited our review to those beneficiaries who may have been receiving State or local government pensions and for whom the Social Security Administration (SSA) had not determined whether the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) or Government Pension Offset (GPO) applied. ...
Based on the results of our review, we estimate SSA overpaid about $623.8 million in OASDI benefits to approximately 24,900 beneficiaries because Agency staff did not apply WEP and GPO provisions to the OASDI benefits. If SSA does not take action to identify and correct these payment errors, we estimate it will pay about $869.9 million in future overpayments over the beneficiaries’ lifetimes ...
     This was based upon a small sample. I suppose these auditors know what they are doing but they are basing a projection of almost a billion dollars on 13 or so cases. To a layman, that seems questionable.

Dec 8, 2011

Arizona Governor Investigated For Social Security Fraud

     There is a report that Arizona governor Jan Brewer has been under investigation for Social Security fraud. Let me hasten to say that the report suggests nothing more to me than an overpayment. The situation is that Governor Brewer's son, Ron, is severely mentally ill. Ron's father died. Ron started receiving disabled adult child benefits on his father's account. Governor Brewer was made his representative payee. In 1989 Ron was found not guilty of kidnapping and sexual assault by reason of insanity. He was sent to a state psychiatric hospital. In 1995 the Social Security Act was changed to make individuals confined to a psychiatric hospital after being found not guilty by reason of insanity ineligible for benefits. This made Ron ineligible for Social Security benefits but Governor Brewer never informed Social Security. Ron was overpaid by $75,000.
     Anyone want to put Governor Brewer in jail for being unaware of an obscure change in the Social Security Act? I don't think so but an Arizona paper says that Social Security's Inspector General has investigated and has presented the case to the Department of Justice which seems uninterested in prosecuting. The newspaper seem obsessive about pursuing this matter.
     A few points here:
  • Republicans in Congress are eager to investigate Social Security overpayments. They imply that overpayments are due to rampant fraud at Social Security. They want aggressive action to root out this fraud and to punish the wrongdoers. As this case shows, plenty of Social Security's overpayments are due to the complexity of the programs the agency is administering. These overpayments happen to Republicans as well as Democrats.
  • Investigating routine overpayments as if they were fraud is a waste of money and would harass a lot of honorable people, many of them Republicans.
  • When they write about mental illness, many Republicans like to put the term "mental illness" in quotation marks. I doubt that Governor Brewer does this. I would wish a chronically mentally ill child on people who do this but that would be too cruel a punishment.

Union Objects To Plan To Stop Policing Questionable Retirements

    From a press release issued by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union which represents most Social Security employees:
The American Federation of Government Employees cried foul today on the Social Security Administration’s plans to rescind Social Security Rulings 66-18c and 91-1c, which allow the agency to question retirement allegations made by corporate officers and the self-employed.
“Development of questionable retirement allegations have always been an important part of what SSA [Social Security Administration] employees do to ensure that only qualified individuals receive Social Security benefits,” said Steve Kofahl, regional vice president of AFGE Council 220. “By rescinding this policy, SSA will be ignoring potential fraudulent activity by wealthy corporate offices and self-employed individuals who shift their income in order to receive SSA benefits.”

Dec 7, 2011

Quiz Answer

Question: Who was Social Security Commissioner on August 14, 1985, when Social Security celebrated its 50th birthday?

Possible Answers:
  • John Svahn
  • Martha McSteen
  • Dorcas Hardy
  • Louis Enoff
Correct answer: Martha McSteen was Acting Commissioner

Dec 6, 2011

Incident At Denver Office

     A local TV station in Denver is reporting on a report that a Social Security claimant at a local Social Security office was punched. Who did it and why are not reported.

Payment Slowdown

     Social Security has released updated stats on payments of fees to attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. See below. They shows a stunning decline in payments made since the beginning of the fiscal year, October 1.
     I am well aware that the Social Security Administration does not exist to provide me and other attorneys with a means of making a living. However, when you are looking at these fee payments you are looking at a near perfect analogue of payments to disability claimants. The attorneys get paid at the same time as the claimants. If payments are delayed to the attorneys, it is only because payments are delayed to the claimants. Can I make it any clearer? This is not just an attorney problem. It is a sign of a major problem brewing.
     Not only are October and November the lowest months for this calendar year; they are the two lowest months since December 2009! October and November are down 15% from the average for the preceding. fiscal year. Continue this over the entire fiscal year and it will be taking 1.8 months longer to get a claimant paid after a favorable decision or almost three months total.
     There is some reason to believe that things are not as bad as they seem. The October payments were affected by Social Security's bizarre decision to tell many of its employees that it would essentially ignore any work they did in the last month of September.  There were fewer favorable decisions issued in late September to be implemented in October. That was a bureaucratic foul up that will not be repeated.
     Unfortunately, there are other reasons to be pessimistic about coming months. There is virtually no overtime at Social Security now and there is virtually no hiring. With no hiring, Social Security's workforce is slowly shrinking, which means that the payment delays will slowly accelerate as the workforce slowly declines. But, it gets worse still. Social Security has an annual workload crunch in January of each year. This is caused by the number of people who retire at the end of each calendar year, as well as the mailing of forms asking retirees under full retirement age to predict their earnings for the coming year and the mailing of SSA-1099s. These two mailings come at the very end of December or in January. They generate a spike in calls to Social Security's 800 number in January of each year. Social Security has traditionally responded to the increased telephone calls in January by "spiking" the employees whose normal job is putting claimants on benefits, that is calling them off their regular duties to answer the phone (something they do poorly but that's another story). In the past, Social Security has tried to make up for the "spiking" with overtime. With no overtime, there's going to be two problems in January. The phones won't get answered and claimants who have been approved won't get put on benefits. Unless Social Security has a little money for overtime, not only will the payment numbers for January be brutal; the telephone situation is going to be awful as well.
     This is all a predictable consequence of Republican budget cutting. An indefinite continuation of this results in the Social Security Administration falling apart. Giving Social Security a slightly higher budget but directing that a huge proportion of the total budget get spent on program integrity, which seems to be the plan favored in Congress at the moment, does not help. It may make things worse.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount


Dec 5, 2011

Social Security Workforce Slowly Dwindling As Workload Increases

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at Social Security. Here they are, with earlier numbers for comparison purposes.
  • September 2011 67,136
  •  June 2011 67,773
  • March 2011 68,700
  • 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

Dec 4, 2011

Watch The Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Online

     The video of Friday's Social Security Subcommittee hearing on the future of Social Security's disability programs is now available online through C-SPAN.

Dec 3, 2011

Don't Overreact; We're Already At The Peak Of Disability Claims

I will have more on this in coming days but this is an excerpt from the written testimony of Steve Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, before the House Social Security Subcommittee yesterday:
Sustainable solvency can be restored for the Disability Insurance program with a 16-percent reduction in benefits, a 20-percent increase in revenue, or some combination of these changes. Even in the absence of such change, a simple tax-rate reallocation between OASI [Old Age and Survivors Insurance] and DI [Disability Insurance], as was done in 1994, could equalize the financial prospects of the trust funds. We estimate that temporarily raising the Disability Insurance program’s share of the 12.4-percent OASDI payroll tax rate from 1.8 to 2.2 percent for 2012 through 2024 and to 2.0 percent for 2025 through 2029 would make scheduled benefits payable for both OASI and DI beneficiaries until 2036. ...

[T]he baby boomers already moved from young ages (25-44) in 1990, where few were disabled, to older ages (45-64) in 2010, where many more are disabled. Thus, the 20-year demographic shift in the age-distribution of the population has already occurred for DI. ...

As a result, the number of workers per DI beneficiary is expected to be relatively stable in the future. This means that restoring sustainable solvency for the DI program will not require continually greater benefit cuts or revenue increases. A one-time change to offset the drop in birth rate is all that is needed to sustain the DI program for the foreseeable future.

Dec 2, 2011

Remand Assignment Policy Documents

As I come across them, I have been trying to upload to Scribd documents concerning Social Security policy over the years. Below are some documents showing Social Security policy on which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is assigned a case remanded by the Appeals Council or the federal courts. Should it be the same ALJ who heard the case the first time or a different one? This policy has changed over the years.
History of Remand Assignment Policy

Dec 1, 2011

Windfall Offsets Remain A Quagmire

From a recent audit report of Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Our objective was to determine whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) had adequate controls to ensure Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) benefits that had been withheld pending a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) windfall offset determination were paid accurately and timely. ...
Based on our random sample, we estimate that:
  • 35,398 beneficiaries had SSI windfall offset actions that were not processed. As a result, SSA withheld about $306 million in OASDI benefits, of which we estimate approximately $232 million is payable to these beneficiaries.
  • 17,067 beneficiaries had SSI windfall offset actions that were incorrectly processed. As a result, SSA improperly withheld or overpaid about $51.5 million in OASDI benefits for these beneficiaries.
  • 60,051 beneficiaries had SSI windfall offset actions that were correctly processed but not in a timely manner. As a result, these beneficiaries did not promptly receive about $725.9 million in OASDI benefits