Oct 31, 2011

Post Piece On Social Security Draws Criticism

     A doom and gloom piece in the Washington Post about Social Security is drawing a lot of attention. R.J. Eskow has the most complete criticism of the piece
     If you think of the Washington Post as a left wing newspaper you are way behind the times or you are so far right that you think Fox News really is "fair and balanced."

Happy Halloween

Oct 30, 2011

NADE Newsletter

The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on disability claims for the Social Security Administration, has released its Fall 2011 newsletter.
     The newsletter included the "Grading Daily Activities and Social Skills" table seen  above. This was handed out by Dr. Robert Brooks of California Disability Determination Services at a NADE event. I do not believe I have seen this before. Does this have even semi-official status?

Oct 29, 2011

Disability Claims Surging In Georgia

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Even suffering from neuropathy, arthritis, bone spurs and diabetes, Brenda Raines was determined to keep working as a secretary for a Douglasville hospital. Then she got laid off in 2009, and after six months of job searching she listened to family and friends and applied for Social Security Disability Insurance....
nitial claims in Georgia jumped from 86,973 in the 2008 fiscal year to 104,251 in 2009, and to 119,946 in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Social Security Administration. Nationwide, the number of initial disability claims rose from about 2.6 million in the 2008 fiscal year to 3.16 million in the 2011 fiscal year.  
This, by the way, is another story planted by Allsup, as becomes clear in portions of the story I am not quoting.

ODAR Office Opens In Augusta, Georgia

Social Security has opened a new hearing office in Augusta, Georgia. It has 10 Administrative Law Judges and 50 administrative support personnel.

Oct 28, 2011

Hearing On SSI Child Benefits

     There was a hearing yesterday before the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Human Resources dealing with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for children. From the written submissions, it appears that the main focus was on the question of why more children are being approved due to mental impairments. Above is an interesting chart from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testimony at the hearing. As you notice the increase in allowances for various diagnoses, also notice the dramatic decline in allowances for mental retardation.
     Dr. Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University testified in favor of somehow giving the whole disabled children problem to the states. I don't think I would want to be a low income parent of a disabled child living in Texas if that happened.
     David Wittenburg testified on behalf of Mathematica, a major Social Security contractor, in favor of a study of adding educational and work requirements to SSI child benefits. Wow, a contractor that makes its living off doing useless, pointless studies for government agencies testifying in favor of a useless, pointless study. I didn't see that one coming!
     A child psychiatrist testified that SSI child's benefits for mental illness are given out as a result of fraud and actually hurt children. Reading her testimony, one has to wonder if she believes that children cannot suffer from serious mental illness. You can certainly argue that SSI children's benefits have their problems but her testimony is way over the top. There is not even a hint at the complexity involved. It's simple to the psychiatrist. It's 100% fraud. SSI children's benefits never help a child. They only hurt.
     Jonathan Stein also testified as the token defender of SSI child benefits.

Oct 27, 2011

Early Release Of SSI Checks Causes Problems

Social Security has just issued an Emergency Message to its staff concerning the early release of 27,000 checks for Supplemental Security Income. They were supposed to arrive on November 1 but were released on October 20. Social Security is telling recipients to hold the checks until November 1. If a recipient tries to cash the check and a bank makes marks on the check, the checks must be returned to Social Security. A replacement check will be issued in five to seven business days.

Protests Planned At Social Security Offices

     From WXIX:
Social Security advocates are planning to protest Thursday at Social Security offices around the county.
Thousands of American Federation of Government Employees Social Security employees, along with the Alliance for Retired Americans, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Strengthen Social Security Campaign are protesting recent proposals from Congress that would cut the Social Security Administration's operational budget.
      I think that WXIX is in Cincinnati but you cannot tell from their website. Why is it that media websites withhold this basic information?

Oct 26, 2011

Answer To Quiz

Question: Mrs. D's husband died in 1999. The two had been married for 27 years. He was fully insured at the time he died. On September 6, 2011 Mrs. D files a claim for widow's benefits on the basis of age rather than disability. She is 62 at the time. She had stopped work on December 31, 2009. When does Mrs. D's entitlement to widow's benefits on account of age begin?

Possible Answers:
  • January 2010
  • September 2010
  • March 2011
  • October 2011
Correct answer: March 2011.
     Some of you have raised the question of whether Mrs. D should elect a later month of entitlement. That is a reasonable question. Mrs. D's widow's benefits are subject to an actuarial reduction. The earlier she goes on benefits, the less she gets a month. It may be wiser for Mrs. D to elect to start benefits now rather than retroactively. She will get no back benefits but she will get more per month for every month into the future. This option should be discussed with Mrs. D -- one of the many things that can't be done online. I should have phrased the question to read "What is the earliest possible month of entitlement?" But honestly, if you knew enough to quibble with the question, you knew what I was getting at!

Update: I knew this was going to happen eventually. You're right. I got it wrong. The month of entitlement would be September 2011. I was confused since it is done differently with aged widows than disabled widows. I thought I remembered an aged widow client of mine getting back benefits but I must be misremembering.

Oct 25, 2011

Making It Tougher For Those With Down Syndrome To Qualify For Disability Benefits

     Today's Federal Register has a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) that would change Social Security's listings for congenital disorders. The main change is to make it far more difficult for some individuals with Down syndrome to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The change would affect those with mosaic Down syndrome, which is the less common variety.
     This is a microcosm of what has been happening with the Listings for about 15 years or so, seemingly small changes always designed to make it more difficult to qualify for benefits. The world does not notice because each change seems small and technical. Who is familiar with the differences between mosaic and non-mosaic Down Syndrome?
     Where does the impetus for this come from? Is it Social Security's medical staff? Is it Social Security's upper management? Is it the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)? My bet is on OMB but I just do not know.
     Does it not seem a bit surprising that they are trying to make it more difficult for people with Down Syndrome to be found disabled?

More Than 300 Remote Service Sites Closed

From the Daily Chronicle of DeKalb, Illinois:
Federal budget cuts have led to the discontinuation of Social Security services at the DeKalb Senior Services Center, ending a 32-year program that helped up to 200 people per month.
The DeKalb location is just one of more than 300 remote service sites throughout the country that have ended services because of a $1 billion cut to the Social Security Administration this year. Services had been declining in DeKalb as weekly visits turned biweekly a few years ago and finally became monthly visits in the spring.


Oct 24, 2011

Does This Make Sense To You?

     Is there some tension, or perhaps self-contradiction, in this section of Social Security's manual?
Section 207 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C 407) states: “The right of any person to any future payment under this title shall not be transferable or assignable, at law or in equity, and none of the monies paid or payable or rights existing under this title shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.”...

Any arrangement in which the claimant shares control of the funds from his or her benefit with a person or entity that has an interest in charging or collecting money from the claimant is an assignment-like situation that violates SSA’s policy.  ...
Some representatives are authorized by third parties to ensure that debts beneficiaries owe to the third parties are repaid immediately after the beneficiary starts to receive benefits. There is no assignment-like situation if:
  • The representative has no financial interest in the beneficiary’s direct deposit account (i.e.., he is not named on the account and/or has no authority to direct the money in the account); and
  • The representative is not charging the beneficiary a fee; and
  • The beneficiary pre-authorizes (according to his financial institution’s policy) a withdrawal of funds from his account to repay a debt to a third party; but
  • The representative did not obtain the pre-authorization from the beneficiary through deceit, coercion, or intimidation; and
  • The representative gets confirmation from the beneficiary (oral or written) of the pre-authorization to withdraw the money from the account after the funds are deposited into the beneficiary’s account and before a transfer of funds is made to pay the third party debt. This confirmation is necessary because a beneficiary may have signed the pre-authorization before learning whether he will receive benefits and the amount of past-due benefits he will receive (i.e., authorizing the representative to take benefit funds before the beneficiary has had any chance to exercise control over the funds). The beneficiary also may have signed the pre-authorization without specifying the amount of money that the representative will withdraw from the account. This circumstance is different than other pre-authorizations (e.g., mortgage payments, loan repayments, investments, nursing home fees, etc.) because, in most cases involving pre-authorizations, the beneficiary has an ongoing relationship with the organization that is making pre-authorized withdrawals, the beneficiary knows the amount of money they are pre-authorizing, and those pre-authorizations occur continuously after the beneficiary is receiving regular benefits.
     Right. Assignments are forbidden unless there is an ongoing relationship with the entity to which you are making the assignment and the assignments continue after you start receiving benefits.
     In my opinion, this is indefensible. This was a Bush era policy that should have never happened and which should be undone as soon as possible. If Long Term Disability insurers want this section of the statute amended, they need to lobby Congress.

Oct 23, 2011

You Can't Cut Social Security Without Hurting Current Recipients

From a press release issued by Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee:
Any cuts to Social Security imposed by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction would be borne almost entirely by current Social Security beneficiaries and those who are very near retirement, a new analysis by Social Security Chief Actuary Stephen C. Goss makes clear. Three-quarters of all Social Security payments between 2012 and 2021 – the 10-year period in which the Select Committee is required to generate deficit reduction – will go to current recipients, while an additional 21 percent will go to Americans who are very close to retirement-age and will start receiving benefits between 2012 and 2019, according to the Actuary’s analysis.

The analysis highlights that there is virtually no way for the panel to use Social Security cuts to meet its target without harming current beneficiaries. Current retirees have struggled in recent years because there was no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2010 or 2011. The Social Security Administration yesterday announced a 3.6 percent COLA for 2012.

Oct 22, 2011

Some Management Bonus Information

     The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees has issued its October 2011 newsletter. AFGE routinely makes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to find out about bonuses going to high level Social Security employees. This issue of their newsletter includes the following results of AFGE's most recent FOIA requests (and read to the end for some information on who did not get a bonus).

Atlanta Region:
Paul Barnes, Regional Commissioner 
Senior Executive Service (SES) Performance Award 03/29/09 $23,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,750

Mary Ann Sloan, Regional Chief Counsel 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,000

Quittie C. Wilson, Assistant Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $7,600
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $8,000

Boston Region:
Manual Vaz, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,750

Susan Harding, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $15,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $15,000

Chicago Region:
James F. Martin, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $13,500
Commissioner’s Leadership* 09/16/10 $00.00*
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $17,500

Kim L. Bright, Regional Chief Counsel 
Individual Performance Award 06/21/09 $800
ECS Award 08/16/09 $400
Individual Performance Award 07/04/10 $731
Individual Performance Award 08/29/10 $500

Danny L. Byrns, TSC Manager 
Individual Performance Award 07/05/09 $1,400
ECS Award 08/30/09 $700
Individual Performance Award 06/06/10 $1,500
Individual Cash Award 08/29/10 $500

Donna L. Calvert, Regional Chief Counsel 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $10,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Mary D. Mahler, Assistant Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $8,200
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $8,500

Marcia R. Mosley, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $10,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Dallas Region:
Martha Lambie, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $8,500
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Ramona Schuenemeyer, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,750

Tina M. Waddell, Regional Chief Counsel 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $20,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Denver Region:
Nancy A. Berryhill, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $22,500
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,750
SES Rank Award 09/30/10 $34,995

Yvette Keesee, Deputy Regional Chief Counsel
Quality Service Award 05/12/09 $00.00*
Individual Performance Award 08/16/09 $3,500
Individual Performance Award 03/28/10 $1,200
Individual Cash Award 08/29/10 $500

Katherine E. Kintz, Deputy Asst. Regional Cmsnr.
Individual Performance Award 06/30/09 $1,800
Individual Performance Award 03/09/10 $1,100

Sean P. Brune, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Kansas City Region:
Michael Grochowski, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $16,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $17,500

William K. Powell, Asst/Deputy Regional Cmsnr. 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $11,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $12,500

New York:
Beatrice Disman, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $26,500
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $19,750

Paul M. Doersam, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $18,500

Anne Jacobosky, Assistant Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $8,400
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $9,000

Teresa C. Rojas, Acting Deputy Regional Cmsnr. 
ECS Award 08/02/09 $1,000

Philadelphia Region:
Laurie Watkins, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $21,500
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $18,000

Lewis H. Kaiser, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $9,000

Paula M. Newcomer, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $8,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $8,300

San Francisco Region:
Peter D. Spencer, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $26,500

Stephen J. Breen, Assistant Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 03/29/09 $9,000
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $9,000

Patricia A. Robidart, Deputy Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $8,550

Seattle Region:
Stanley Friendship, Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $10,000

Alan W. Heim, Assistant Regional Commissioner 
SES Performance Award 01/03/10 $8,500

James P. Burkert, Deputy Asst. Regional Cmsnr. 
Individual Performance Award 07/05/09 $1,700
ECS Award 07/06/09 $500
Individual Performance Award 05/09/10 $1,750

Robert Pagan, Acting Deputy Regional Cmsnr. 
QSI (Quality Step Increase) 07/05/09 $0.00*
Individual Performance Award 06/06/10 $1,600

* Honor Award

     And from the Newsletter:
It’s also worth noting that San Francisco Regional Commissioner Pete Spencer apparently did not receive any award money in Fiscal Year 2010. Spencer sponsored “Management Tango” in 2009, an event that cost more than $675,000 and generated a great deal of bad publicity for Social Security. ... Spencer recently announced his retirement from the agency.

Oct 21, 2011

Susan Daniels

Susan Daniels, who served as Social Security's Deputy Commissioner for Disability and Income Security Programs in the Clinton Administration, died earlier this week. She had helped with the Obama transition team for Social Security.

New Rules On Partially Favorable Attorney Advisor Decisions

From today's Federal Register:
We are revising the procedures for how claimants who receive fully favorable revised determinations based on prehearing case reviews or fully favorable attorney advisor decisions may seek further review. We are also revising our procedure to provide that we will notify claimants who receive partially favorable determinations based on prehearing case reviews that an administrative law judge (ALJ) will still hold a hearing unless all parties to the hearing tell us in writing that we should dismiss the hearing request. These changes will simplify our administrative review process and free up scarce administrative resources that we can better use to reduce the hearings-level case backlog.

Social Security Is Doomed, I Tell You, Doomed!

     From McClatchy:
The leading safety-net program for America's disabled workers is in a financial death spiral in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The sour economy, weak eligibility standards and a wave of aging baby boomers are driving an explosive increase in the number of injured workers who get disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance program.
At the current growth rate, the SSDI trust fund, which pays for benefits, won't have enough money to meet its obligations in 2018.
     And from The Atlantic:
One out of every five Social Security dollars is spent in the disability insurance program. The problem isn't so much that we've paying disabled people too much but that we're probably paying too many people who claim to be disabled. Since 1985, Social Security Disability applications have doubled as a share of the population. It is possible, but unlikely, that Ameica's disability population has doubled since the mid-1980s. The more reasonable explanation is that more disabled workers in tough times have figured out that they can get paid to not work.
     These articles goes on and on with endless quotes from the same right wing sources. I have seen other articles along the same lines. 
     Reporters are notorious copycats. They see an article in one newspaper or magazine that they find interesting. They find a way to redo that piece for their own newspaper. This may be all that is going on but my strong impression is that someone is deliberately planting these stories. There are too many statistics given. Reporters sometimes dig out statistics like these but not often. Usually when you see a statistical compilation, it was given to the reporter. Most likely this is coming from one of the Koch brothers financed "think tanks" in an effort to defame Social Security. It is a sign of just how much money that these "think tanks" have that they can go to these lengths to damage Social Security's image.

DOT Replacement Not Available In Full Until 2016

     One important question about Social Security's effort to develop a replacement for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is when the work will be completed. Here is something of an answer. This is from the transcript of the July 27, 2011 teleconference meeting of Social Security's Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (pages 29-30)
This is Andy Wakshul [Panel Member]. I have a question. As I look at the Plan I was impressed certainly with the breadth and the scope of it, and how detailed it was. But I notice that the timeline extends out pretty far, five years at the bottom of the chart, and that's only for data collection. Do you have an idea when this will be an instrument that adjudicators will be able to use in making disability determination? It's got to be after 2016.

MS. KARMAN [Director]: This is Sylvia. We anticipate that through a program evaluation and any information that we have collected through 2016 if, in fact, we are targeting, for example, occupations that are frequently presented to us in claimant's vocational work histories, there may be the possibility that the Agency would be in a position to begin using that  information for those areas of work.

Oct 20, 2011

Removing 10 Year Statute Of Limitations

From today's Federal Register:
We are amending our Tax Refund Offset (TRO) and Administrative Offset regulations. We are conforming our regulations to those of the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) for the following reasons: Treasury removed the 10-year limitation to collect delinquent debts owed the United States by reducing eligible Federal payments, and more States are participating in reciprocal agreements with Treasury to offset State payments, including tax refunds to reduce or extinguish a federally owed debt. These changes will allow us to collect additional Federal debt.
A ten year statute of limitations is not long enough?

Oct 19, 2011

3.6% COLA

A press release from Social Security:
Monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for more than 60 million Americans will increase 3.6 percent in 2012, the Social Security Administration announced today.
The 3.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits that nearly 55 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2012.  Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 30, 2011.
Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages.  Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $110,100 from $106,800.  Of the estimated 161 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2012, about 10 million will pay higher taxes as a result of the increase in the taxable maximum. 
Information about Medicare changes for 2012, when announced, will be available at www.Medicare.gov.  For some beneficiaries, their Social Security increase may be partially or completely offset by increases in Medicare premiums. 
The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated.  To read more, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/cola
A separate fact sheet shows the maximum wage covered by FICA going up from $106,800 to $110,100, the amount required for a quarter of coverage going up from $1,120 to $1,130, the under full retirement age earnings cap going up from $14,160 to $14,640, the SGA amount going up from $1,000 to $1010 per month and the SSI federal payment amount going up from $674 per month to $698 per month

The Horror In Philadelphia

From the Associated Press:
Authorities in at least two states missed opportunities to help four mentally disabled adults who were discovered locked in a squalid Philadelphia basement while police say a convicted murderer stole their Social Security checks.
Linda Weston, the woman charged with orchestrating the scheme, was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past. ...
Weston, 51, was charged Monday with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses after her landlord stumbled on the four adults, all weak and malnourished, in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room over the weekend. Her bail was set at $2.5 million.
Also charged were Gregory Thomas, 47, whom Weston described as her boyfriend, and Eddie "the Rev. Ed" Wright, 50. ...
Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle declined to provide details of the agency's investigation into Weston but said the agency recently strengthened oversight of payees.
"We are very concerned about this situation," Hinkle said via email.

What Does Disability Look Like To Senator Coburn?

     From the Washington Times:
The California man who lives part of his life as an “adult baby” and collects Social Security disability payments says the federal agency has cleared him of wrongdoing and will continue sending checks.

Stanley Thornton Jr. now wants an apology from Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who called for the benefit review because the investigation disrupted the final months of life for his roommate Sandra Dias, who playacted as his mother, spoon-feeding him and helping him into his baby clothes until her death in July.

John Hart, a spokesman for Mr. Coburn, said Tuesday that the senator, who is also a medical doctor, is still puzzled by how “a grown man who is able to design and build adult-sized baby furniture is eligible for disability benefits.”

“Yet, the problem is not with Mr. Thornton, per se, but with the politicians and bureaucrats who have coddled him,” Mr. Hart said. “Disability fraud effectively steals from those who are truly disabled, while weakening the economy for everyone.”

Mr. Thornton said that during the course of the investigation he underwent a three-hour interview with Social Security investigators and an FBI agent over his disability status and whether he received any compensation from his participation in the reality-television episode.
     What does disability look like to Senator Coburn? Absolute incapacitation to do anything? I know nothing about Mr. Thornton's disability claim other than the silliness that appears in the press. Senator Coburn knows no more about this man's capacity to work than I do. I cannot express a reasoned opinion about Thornton's disability claim and neither can Senator Coburn.
     And why was the FBI called in on this?

Getting The Word Out

     From the Reuters Money blog:
“Starving the beast” is a favorite conservative strategy for forcing cuts in federal spending. The idea is to deprive the government of revenue in order to force spending cuts ...
The SSA [Social Security Administration] is funded through the same Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax that pays benefits, so it doesn’t compete for general revenue to meet its costs. But Congressional appropriators — who oversee its budget — have been squeezing the agency anyway.
In fiscal 2011, Congress provided the SSA with about $1 billion less than requested by President Obama. Those cuts forced the agency to make cuts that beneficiaries have noticed. It suspended mailing of the annual statement of benefits, and it shelved plans to open eight new hearing offices to handle the backlog of disability claims, which has soared during the recession.
SSA had planned to restore the statement mailings in fiscal 2012 to people over age 60 not yet receiving benefits  – but that won’t happen “if Congress doesn’t provide adequate support,” says SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle....
Hinkle says the SSA also has responded to the tight budget by reducing employee overtime by 80 percent. That has cut into the amount of time available to help people who come into SSA local field offices for face-to-face services. The agency also lost about 1,600 workers last year who can’t be replaced due to a hiring freeze.
     In addition to learning about the 80% cut in overtime, I take away from this the fact that a Social Security spokesperson is out there alerting the media about Social Security's appropriations problem, something that Social Security has traditionally not done. In fact, my impression has been that over the decades that Social Security has always downplayed its funding problems -- to the agency's detriment. I would be interested to know who made the first contact in this case, Hinkle or the reporter.

Quiz Answer

Question: Retroactive Social Security or SSI benefits are not treated as a resource for purposes of computing SSI benefits for what length of time after receipt?

Possible answers:
  • Three months
  • Six months
  • Nine months
  • One year
  • Until spent
Correct answer: Nine months

Oct 18, 2011

3.5% COLA

CBS Money Watch is reporting that the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to be announced tomorrow will be 3.5%. However, many Social Security recipients will not see this. Their Medicare premiums should have increased but they saw no decrease in their net benefits because of the "hold harmless" provision of the law. Now that there is a COLA, their Medicare Part B premiums will go up, maybe even eliminating any COLA for them.


Oct 17, 2011

More Own Motion Review Coming?

     Social Security has recently formed the Division of Quality in the Office of Appellate Operations. The Division of Quality appears to have been created to select Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions  to be reviewed and overturned by the Appeals Council, a process called "Own Motion Review." Own Motion Review is nothing new. It has been around for decades. The Appeals Council has always insisted that some ALJ decisions that denied disability claims are reviewed but it has always been clear that  vastly more decisions allowing claims are reviewed than decisions denying claims.
     Forming the Division of Quality may be of considerable importance or nothing of consequence. It all depends upon the resources devoted to the Own Motion Reviews.
     I may be paranoid but I have to wonder whether this is related to the recent Wall Street Journal stories about an ALJ in West Virginia who was approving almost all of the disability claims he reviewed. I also have to wonder whether the recent Ruling that will make it almost impossible to file an appeal from an ALJ decision and file a new disability claim at the same time is connected to this. That Ruling will discourage requests for Appeals Council review which will free up more staff time at the Appeals Council which could be used to clear off the huge backlogs at the Appeals Council or which could be used to do far more Own Motion Reviews.

Oct 16, 2011

Health Care Coverage Goes Down; Psychiatric Disability Goes Up

     From a press release issued by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:
The prevalence of self-reported mental health disabilities increased in the U.S. among non-elderly adults during the last decade, according to a study by Ramin Mojtabai, MD, PhD, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. At the same time, the study found the prevalence of disability attributed to other chronic conditions decreased, while the prevalence of significant mental distress remained unchanged. The findings will appear in the November edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
For the study, Mojtabai reviewed data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey covering 312,364 adults ages 18 to 64 years. He found that the prevalence of self-reported mental health disability increased from 2.0 percent of the non-elderly adult population from 1997 to 1999 to 2.7 percent from 2007 to 2009. According to Mojtabai, the increase equates to nearly 2 million disabled adults. He also noted the increase in the prevalence of mental health disability was mainly among individuals with significant psychological distress who did not use mental health services in the past year. Findings showed that 3.2 percent of participants reported not receiving mental health care for financial reasons between 2007 and 2009, compared to 2.0 percent from 1997 to 1999.
     Beginning in 2014 when the Affordable Care Act fully kicks in, if the Supreme Court does not strike it down and if Republicans cannot find a way to kill it, almost all Americans will have health care coverage and this rate of psychiatric disability should decrease. If you are concerned about the number of people going on Social Security disability, you ought to be concerned about the state of health care in this country because they are directly related.

Oct 15, 2011

Worth Reading

A blogger writes about her experience with security at a Social Security field office.

Oct 14, 2011

Social Security Functional Assessment Study

The document below was recently received by a number of Social Security claimants in the Greenville, North Carolina area. The document indicates that 10,000 claimants are to be involved in this study. Is this associated with the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (OIDAP)? Functional Study

Plain Language Required

     Did you know that the Plain Language Act went into effect yesterday? The Act requires Social Security and other agencies to:
(A) designate 1 or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency implementation of this Act:
(B) communicate the requirements of this Act to the employees of the agency;
(C) train employees of the agency in plain writing;
(D) establish a process for overseeing the ongoing compliance of the agency with the requirements of this
(E) create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website as required under paragraph (2) that is accessible from the homepage of the agency’s website; and
(F) designate 1 or more agency points-of-contact to receive and respond to public input on—

(i) agency implementation of this Act; and
(ii) the agency reports required under section 5.
     Thanks to Fedblog for reporting on this. Social Security has the website. There is an official agency plan. Robin Kaplan is in charge of the effort at Social Security.
     I suggest starting with the form letter that Social Security uses to tell people that a hearing office has received a request for hearing. At least, I think the one I have seen here for decades is used nationally. It tells claimants that they will receive 20 days notice of a hearing. I think that half the people receiving that letter think that their hearing is coming up within 20 days after they receive the letter when their hearing may actually be a year or more later. I know that is a misreading but one part of plain writing is trying to reduce misunderstandings.

Scripps Papers Say Social Security Has Released Confidential Information On 400,000 People

From the Scripps newspaper chain:
The Social Security Administration has failed to inform tens of thousands of Americans it accidentally released their names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers in an electronic database widely used by U.S. business groups....
Reporters at newspapers and television stations owned by the E.W. Scripps Co. interviewed dozens of people nationwide who have had security breaches because of what Social Security officials call "inadvertent keying errors" by federal workers when entering what was supposed to be information only about dead people. None reported that the agency warned them about the breach of their confidential information.
Most of those erroneously listed as dead who were contacted for this story said they only found out about the agency's mistakes when they suffered adverse events like frozen bank accounts, canceled cellphones, refused job interviews, declined credit-card applications, denied apartment leases or refused mortgage and student-assistance loans. ...
Social Security officials admit that, each year, they accidentally release the personal information of about 14,000 living Americans by posting their files among the records of 90 million deceased Americans.
If their estimate is accurate, confidential data about more than 400,000 living Americans have been released since 1980 when the DMF became public under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Oct 13, 2011

Your Tax Dollars At Work

Social Security has released Baby Names Playroom, an app for iPhones.

Additions To Compassionate Allowance List

Social Security has issued a press release touting the addition of the following to its Compassionate Allowance list:
  • Malignant Multiple Sclerosis
  • Paraneoplastic Pemphigus
  • Multicentric Castleman Disease
  • Pulmonary Kaposi Sarcoma
  • Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma
  • Primary Effusion Lymphoma
  • Angelman Syndrome
  • Lewy Body Dementia
  • Lowe Syndrome
  • Corticobasal Degeneration
  • Multiple System Atrophy
  • Progressive Supranuclear Palsy
  • The ALS/Parkinsonism Dementia Complex

Hearing Office Processing Time Report

Hearing Office Processing Time Report September 13, 2011

Former Social Security Employee To Be Sentenced

From the Gadsden (AL) Times:
A January sentencing date has been set for a former Social Security Administration employee who pleaded guilty to sending a white, powdery substance to two of her supervisors in 2009, according to federal court documents.
Michelle Holladay Ryder, 43, signed a plea agreement on Oct. 4 admitting that she mailed two letters from the Boaz Post Office that contained non-dairy creamer and included handwritten notes with derogatory remarks to two of her supervisors. ...
At the time the letters were mailed, Ryder worked at the Albertville Social Security office.

Oct 12, 2011

Susan Brown To Move To New Job In Seattle

I understand that Susan Brown, who has been in charge of Social Security's project to give attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants online access to their clients' files,  will soon be moving to a different job. She will be the Regional Management Officer in the Seattle Region.

Quiz Answer

Question: Which of the following COUNTS as income for purposes of computing SSI benefits?

Possible Answers:
  • The first $20 of most income received in a month;
  • Income tax refunds
  • Home energy assistance
  • Assistance based on need funded by a State or local government
  • Cash received as gifts from friends and family
  • Small amounts of income received irregularly or infrequently
  • Food or shelter based on need provided by a nonprofit agency
Correct answer: Cash received as gifts from friends and family

Oct 11, 2011

The Advocator Group Takes On The Hard Cases

This is from a press release:
You’re disabled, you’re not getting benefits, and you wonder if you’re entitled. But you’re also afraid of interacting with a federal bureaucracy, a paper intensive process, and giving one wrong answer that could disqualify you from benefits. You’re why The Advocator Group released Disability Answers, a free mobile app that tells disabled Americans whether they’ll qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicare. 
Try working through it. The big question is whether you have one of the 100 conditions on the compassionate allowances list. By the way, isn't that name, Advocator Group, lovely?

Update: The Washington Post has picked up on this press release. By the way, for anyone who can't figure it out, "Takes On The Hard Cases" is written sarcastically. The Advocator Group is only seeking cases that will be approved immediately with or without their help, the kind of case I don't take on because I don't want to rip off anyone, especially someone who is desperately ill.


Oct 10, 2011

Michael Astrue And Rare Diseases

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue is scheduled to speak this week at first U.S. Conference on Rare Diseases and Orphan Products. Astrue became involved with this cause while working in  the biotechnology industry and has continued to be interested as Social Security Commisioner. Much of his "compassionate allowances" list is composed of rare diseases or conditions. "Orphan products" are those which may not vital to a small group of people suffering from a rare disease but which are not economically feasible to develop or manufacture without special incentives.

Oct 9, 2011

Updated Fee Payment Stats

Updated data on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Oct 7, 2011

Commissioner's Broadcast E-Mail

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast 

Sent: Friday, October 07, 2011 3:43 PM


A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees
Subject:  FY 2012 Budget
It’s hard to believe that this month is the start of my sixth fiscal year as Commissioner.
The news should be fairly familiar based on the patterns of recent years.  We are already on our second continuing resolution, which will expire November 18.  It is unlikely that our funding situation will be clear by that date; in the past five years we did not know what our budget would be until sometime between mid-December and mid-April.
This continuing resolution reduces our budget again in real dollars, and we have almost no margin for error even with a hold on hiring and IT initiatives and shifting other costs to the second half of the year.   If we continued with “business as usual” and, for instance, sent out the Earnings Statement as in past years, the postage alone require two full furlough days for every employee. 
The reason for hope is that both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are calling for increases in our budget.  They are also implicitly recognizing your success in reducing our hearings backlog and are making our top priority a significant increase in program integrity work.  If the full Congress approves funding at approximately the levels recommended in the Committees, then we would be able to do close to replacement hiring in the Disability Determination Services and limited hiring in Operations and Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). 
We continue to try to find ways to improve service by finding efficiencies in our processes.  We expect to launch an improved iAppeals in December and hope to reduce the field office work in this area before long.  We are launching two new Spanish on-line services in the coming weeks, along with new Public Service Announcements with Don Francisco, which I believe will be instrumental in getting us to our four-year goal of moving from 10% to 50% in on-line retirement filings.  Since we gain both operational flexibility and save about 15 minutes with each online application, it is critical to our field offices that we continue our impressive progress in this area. 
Our telephone service is better than it has ever been, and I am hoping that the investments in technology and people we have made in recent years will give us the momentum we need for continued improvement.  Wait times are down for the teleservice centers, and we are effectively eliminating busy signals altogether.  Even in the field offices, we have reduced the busy rate to about 10 percent in the last few months.
By creating a new tool, the Office of Quality Performance helped Operations and ODAR clear out the entire backlog of non-DIB appeal cases.  Progress continues on the hearings backlog.  We have dropped from a high average processing time of 532 days in 2008 to 346 days last month.  No hearing office was higher than 494 days.  We still have a long way to go to hit our goal of 270 days, but with one last round of new judges and support staff, I am hopeful we will reach that goal on time.

By the way, on Monday night our spokesicon Patty Duke will be guest starring as a woman fighting Alzheimer’s on the new Hawaii Five-O.
Please savor your time with friends and family over the long weekend.  
                                                            Michael J. Astrue

ALJ Meeting In San Antonio

     The San Antonio Express-News reports that the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), a union that represents Social Security ALJs is holding a conference in San Antonio this week. The AALJ president Randall Frye told the reporter about AALJ's concerns with security and backlogs. AALJ still wants a government representative at Social Security hearings.
     Coincidentally, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) is also holding a conference in San Antonio November 2-5.

Oct 6, 2011

Was This Supposed To Happen?

Social Security public affairs specialist Kristen Alberino recently spoke at a "pre-retirement" luncheon sponsored by Centinel Financial Group, apparently in Massachusetts. Centinel is a financial services company. I cannot say for absolute certain but it looks like the company was trying to sell its products at this luncheon.

I'll Eat Crow

     I have continued to study the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill that is supposed to cover Social Security for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, which began on October 1. I now realize that, as some readers had tried to explain to me, the House Bill is actually better for Social Security than the Senate bill. It gives Social Security a bit more money. I'll not bore you with the details of my confusion. I've said many time that appropriations bills confuse me. If you've ever tried to read one you know why but you may not understand why I was stubborn about it. I don't understand that either.
     A more important point is that both bills would hurt service to people filing claims with Social Security. The Senate bill gives the agency about $11 billion plus $896 million which must be spent only on continuing disability reviews and SSI redeterminations (which I will call program integrity). The House bill gives the agency about $11.25 billion plus $896 million for program integrity. The comparable figure for FY 2011, which just ended, was $11.4 billion which could be used however the agency chose. Certainly, some of the FY 2011 appropriation was spent on program integrity but far, far less than $896 million. For everything other than program integrity, Social Security had $11.4 billion to spend in FY 2011 but would have only $11 billion to $11.2 billion in FY 2012 if one of these two bills is adopted. Social Security could and would use creative accounting to stuff as much overhead as possible into the program integrity category but however you cut it, the operating funds for taking and adjudicating new claims will be tight, especially when you consider that new claims continue to increase at Social Security and that the agency is already committed to expensive technology purchases and to the building of an expensive new national computing center.
     The likelihood that there will be a huge increase in program integrity work while the processing of new claims suffers would bother me less if I thought that Social Security could spend that $896 million efficiently. The program integrity work certainly needs doing. I just think we're heading into a confused, wasteful crash program. Let's use a crude method of evaluating this. Social Security has estimated that for every $25 million less than the fiscal year 2011 budget they get that they will have to furlough all their employees for a day. By this measure, the $896 million for program integrity amounts to about 36 work days for Social Security's entire staff. Since there are only about 250 workdays in an entire year, we are talking about devoting something like 14% of Social Security's workdays to program integrity. That would be up from, I'll guess here, something less than 5%. That is a huge change.
     The first part of this program integrity work is SSI redeterminations, making sure that SSI recipients are still poor enough to qualify for benefits. SSI income and resources rules are highly technical. If you don't think the rules are that technical, look back at this week's Quiz. It presented a simple straightforward SSI resources question, one that comes up fairly frequently. Only 12% of those taking the quiz got it right. Social Security only has so many SSI specialists. There is only so much overtime they can work. Some employees who are currently doing something other than SSI are going to get pulled off their current duties, hurriedly trained and put to work doing SSI redeterminations. Otherwise, Social Security won't be able to spend the money and those employees are going to get furloughed. These newbies are going to make mistakes. The poor claimants who get shortchanged will not have anyone representing them because there are few attorneys in private practice who know enough about SSI to represent them and because there is little way for the attorneys who do to make any money representing these people. The employees converted to doing SSI redeterminations will be unavailable to do what they had been doing previously, which has mostly been handling new claims. Those are going to pile up.
     Things are a bit better with the other part, continuing disability reviews (CDRs). This work is mostly done at the state Disability Determination Services. Their disability examiners should already be trained to handle the CDRs; at least I hope they are. Unfortunately, there is one major bottleneck. Once someone is cut off, they can appeal. The first level appeal requires a hearing not by an ALJ but by a DDS hearing officer. There are precious few of these hearing officers, nowhere near enough to handle the flood of terminations that may be headed their way. This is going to be a serious bottleneck. There will be no quick solution. These cases could get dumped on ALJs but that makes the backlog of cases awaiting hearing before ALJs worse.

Oct 5, 2011

Victim And Alleged Assailant Identified In Yesterday's Woodlawn Assault

The victim of yesterday's assault near Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn, MD has been identified as Obie Blackmon, a Social Security employee. He is recovering at Sinai Hospital. Gary Stokes, 25, has been charged with several crimes, including attempted murder, for the assault.

Quiz Answer

Question: Ms F. is drawing SSI benefits. During a redetermination she reveals that her mother died earlier in the year. As a result Ms. F and her sister inherited the mother's home, which has a fair market value of $250,000. Ms F. is not living in the house but her sister is. The sister has nowhere else to live. The fair market rental on the house is $1500 per month. Ms F. is:

Possible Answers:
  • Ineligible for SSI because her interest in the house is worth more than $2,000
  • Ineligible for SSI because of imputed rental income from her sister
  • Eligible for SSI because her her joint interest in the house is not considered marketable
  • Eligible because her sister is living in the house
Answer: Eligible because the sister is living in the house.

Oct 4, 2011

Post Reports On SSA Budget Issues

From Joe Davidson writing in the Washington Post:
After a recent briefing by SSA officials on the potential impact of budget reduction scenarios, the union representing 30,000 Social Security employees in 1,200 field offices sent a letter to Democratic senators “to express our deep-seated concerns about the impact of potential reductions in spending on the program and its beneficiaries.” ...
According to the union letter, which was reviewed by the SSA at the Federal Diary’s request, even with current funding, the agency has had to freeze hiring in most of its sections; expects to lose about 2,500 federal employees, plus 1,000 state employees who are paid with federal funds; did not open eight new hearing offices; and has suspended mailing Social Security statements.
If the 2012 budget remains at 2011 levels, it would be an effective $800 million cut, in part because of increasing costs, according to the letter. The SSA workforce would drop by an additional 4,400 federal and state employees, for a total of 7,900 workers in two years. Almost 400,000 fewer disability claims would be processed, taking the backlog to 1.2 million and the processing time to longer than four months.
That also “would greatly delay other less visible workloads, as S.S.A faces a snowball effect of staffing losses two years in a row,” the union letter said.
I had posted about this letter on September 24.

More On Shooting Near SSA Headquarters

From the Baltimore Sun:
An employee taking a lunchtime stroll during a break from his job at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn was robbed and shot on a secluded wooded path on Monday, prompting officials to put the federal campus on lockdown.

The shooting occurred about 11:45 a.m. off Social Security property. Police said the victim walked or stumbled back toward the sprawling complex and collapsed on an access road near Woodlawn Drive and Parallel Road, near the entrance to the Social Security West building and a series of parking lots.

Detectives had not made any arrests as of Monday evening. The victim, whose name and age were not disclosed, was taken by ambulance to Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore. Police said his injuries were not considered life threatening. ... 

Shortly after 3 p.m, Baltimore County police were called back to the Social Security Administration complex for a report of a suspicious package. Police said the package contained a pair of eyeglasses, and police were gone by 4 p.m. 

Police said occupants of one building were briefly evacuated.


Question: Ms F. is drawing SSI benefits. During a redetermination she reveals that her mother died earlier in the year. As a result Ms. F and her sister inherited the mother's home, which has a fair market value of $250,000. Ms F. is not living in the house but her sister is. The sister has nowhere else to live. The fair market rental on the house is $1500 per month. Ms F. is:

Oct 3, 2011

Lockdown In Baltimore

From CBS Baltimore:
The Social Security Administration facility is on lockdown after a robbery and shooting near its headquarters in Baltimore County.
The robbery did not occur on the campus of the Social Security Administration, but SSA was notified because the suspect has not yet been apprehended.
Baltimore County Police were called to Woodlawn Drive and Parallel Road at 11:43 a.m. Monday. They are on the scene of a shooting in the woods near Walden Circle. 
Police say the victim, an adult male, has suffered non life-threatening injuries and will be transported to Sinai Hospital.
The suspect was last seen running down Woodlawn Drive.
Update: OK, it's over.

You Ought To Read This

     Heather Kovich, a physician, has written an article for Guernica, a magazine, based on her experiences performing consultative examinations for Social Security. It is well-written. Indeed, it is so well-written that it should be appearing in a more prominent publication. It would fit nicely within the covers of the New Yorker. Kovich writes about people she has come to know who are affected by disability and their interaction with Social Security. Disability issues are frequently discussed in the press and in Congress by people who have little experience with actual disabled people. For a refreshing change this article about disability is written by someone who has gone to the trouble of actually getting to know some disabled people. I thought about putting some excerpts here but I could not give even the flavor of the piece within quoting far more than the copyright laws allow, so you'll just have to go to the Guernica site and read it.

Oct 2, 2011

A Shameless Promotion

The new edition of my book, Social Security Disability Practice, has been released.

Oct 1, 2011

I'm Not Buying Your Arguments

     I am getting feedback from Social Security employees to the effect that the House Republican draft of an appropriations bill covering Social Security sounds OK to them. As I understand it, their argument goes like this:
  • Social Security gets more money. That is good for this fiscal year and it increases the baseline for future years, which would be even better.
  • Social Security would be able to do more Supplemental Security Income (SSI) redeterminations and Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs). Both need doing.
  • With the additional money, Social Security would be able to avoid furloughing employees. This may be the most important consideration for Social Security employees.
     That is all true and I agree with these points. I cannot blame anyone for wanting to avoid a furlough. However, there are other important considerations that lead me to believe the House draft bill would be bad news for the public. Here are my concerns:
  • The draft bill would give more money to Social Security but would require that a huge portion of all the money appropriated to Social Security be spent on SSI redeterminations and CDRs. This would reduce the money available to be spent on everything else that Social Security is supposed to do. This will cause increased backlogs and poorer service generally.
  • The money could not be spent wisely on SSI redeterminations and CDRs in the approximately nine month time period that would be left in the fiscal year by the time an appropriation is agreed to and Social Security can start to implement the appropriation. I am pretty sure that Social Security does not currently have enough personnel trained in SSI redeterminations to do all that would be required. Personnel would have to be retrained. That takes time. By the time the people get trained, the fiscal year would be about over. Disability Determination Services (DDS) personnel could do the CDRs but anyone who is cut off benefits gets the right to a reconsideration hearing. These hearings are not before Administrative Law Judges but before DDS hearing officers. There are few DDS hearing officers. Many more would be needed. It would take months to train all the needed personnel. By the time this is done, the fiscal year would be over and there would be a huge backlog of CDRs awaiting reconsideration hearings.
     If I am not understanding the proposal, please correct me, but it looks to me like the result would be a wasteful crash program that would accomplish little in the short run except to make backlogs at Social Security much worse. That would be poor public policy. Avoiding furloughs of Social Security employees is an important consideration but not be the only consideration.
     Social Security should be given the time to ramp up to do the increased SSI redeterminations and CDRs in an orderly fashion that doesn't trash everything else the agency is supposed to be doing.