Feb 29, 2012

Electronic Signature Process Coming

    It appears that Social Security will soon have an electronic signature process at least for the SSA-827 form, which authorizes the agency to obtain medical records on a claimant. I am not sure how this will work but if it does work, it is a big deal.

The State Of The Trust Funds

    Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, testified before the House Budget Committee yesterday. There was nothing new in his testimony to those who follow the state of the Social Security trust funds but most people don't follow the state of the trust funds so here is an excerpt from the conclusion of Goss' written remarks:
We are at the beginning of a substantial and permanent shift in the age distribution of our population. This shift was caused by the drop in birth rates from the long-time average level of about three children per woman through 1965, to just two children per woman since 1975. By 2040, there will be only two workers for every OASDI [Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance] beneficiary, down from three workers per beneficiary throughout the period 1975 through 2008. As a result, the cost of Social Security will shift from about 4.5 percent of GDP to a stable level of 6 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] by 2040. Currently scheduled tax revenue will remain at about 4.5 percent of GDP. Making Social Security solvency sustainable will therefore require a choice to:
  • Increase revenue by 33 percent after 2035,
  • Reduce benefits by 25 percent after 2035, or
  • Enact some combination of these changes
In the absence of legislation, the combined OASDI Trust Fund reserves are projected to become exhausted in 2036, with only 75 percent of presently scheduled benefits payable thereafter through 2085.
      Note that people living longer isn't the problem. It's women having fewer children. I suppose that Republican plans to make it more difficult to obtain contraceptives would do something about that.
     Goss listed the various proposals for dealing with the situation -- apart from making it more difficult to obtain contraception. My favorite is to lift the cap on the Social Security tax so that it covers all wages. It's simple. It takes care of the problem. It raises taxes only on those most able to bear the tax increase. Most people will be unaffected.

Llewellyn Washington Woolford Sr. Passes

     From the Baltimore Sun:
Llewellyn Washington Woolford Sr., a retired Social Security Administration attorney who was a past Howard County Human Relations Commission chairman, died of stroke complications Feb. 22 at his Columbia home. He was 81. ...
In 1956, he was sworn in as a lawyer in Annapolis. He then formed a law firm, Howard, Woolford and Leeds, on Pleasant Street.

In 1965, Mr. Woolford became an early African-American attorney in the Social Security Administration's Office of the General Counsel. He served for nearly 30 years, family members said.

Feb 28, 2012

You Get What You Pay For

     North Carolina Disability Determination Services (DDS), which makes determinations on Social Security disability claims at the initial and reconsideration levels, has posted online its fee schedule for the medical examinations that it orders. I am pretty sure that this is not standardized nationally but I'll bet that NC isn't far different from most states on this score.
     Complain all you want about consultative examinations but don't expect improvement with this kind of fee schedule.

Feb 27, 2012

Social Security Workforce Declining Rapidly

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.
  • December 2011 65,911
  • 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
  • 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
     That's 6% decline since Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives. Just imagine what they could do with control of the White House and Senate.

Feb 26, 2012

Insurance Companies Worry About Social Security's Operating Budget

     From LifeHealthPro, an insurance industry website:
Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administrator (SSA), is begging Congress to give the agency at least as much funding as it has requested for fiscal year 2013.
The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
SSA has asked Congress to provide $11.9 billion in budget authority for 2013, up from $11.6 billion for 2012.
For private disability insurers, the statue (sic) of SSA's Social Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is a high priority
     It's a high priority for them since long term disability benefits paid by insurers is reduced by Social Security disability benefits. Slowdowns in processing and paying Social Security disability claims cost these insurance companies money. Perhaps it happens and I don't see it but I've never seen any sign that the insurance companies lobby for increased appropriations for Social Security. 

Feb 25, 2012

Obesity And Social Security

     Christopher Pashler of the State University of New York at Buffalo has done a study of Social Security's treatment of disability claims filed by the obese since the agency rescinded its obesity Listing. His conclusion is that the elimination of the Listing has made the agency less able to render consistent decisions in obesity cases and that the obese are more vulnerable to bias. I will warn you that Pashler's study contains way too many literary references, especially if you count references to The Simpsons as literary.
     I think that a lot of other people, even including Pashler, who consider this issue in the abstract, have trouble comprehending the reality that Social Security is denying the disability claims of people who weigh over 600 pounds. Have you ever met someone who weighed this much? Can you really understand their difficulties? Do you feel revulsed by the idea of someone weighing this much? Do you think it appropriate to deny disability claims based upon that revulsion?
     I have always had the gut feeling that the obesity listing was eliminated to please the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). My guess is that OMB wanted Social Security to save some money on disability claims somehow and Social Security chose to hit on the obese. Can anyone tell me whether my gut feeling is correct?

Feb 24, 2012

Republicans Continue Their Quest For Electoral Disaster

     In a major policy address today at a nearly empty Ford Field, Mitt Romney promised that if he is elected President that he would "slowly raise the retirement age" and "slow the growth in benefits for higher-income retirees" meaning that he wants to means test benefits. He believes that saying this will help him get elected President. Most people believe he's the most electable Republican.

Budget Committee Schedules Hearing

     The House Budget Committee, chaired by Paul Ryan, the fellow who persuaded Congressional Republicans to embrace a plan to end Medicare, has a hearing scheduled for February 28 on Strengthening Health and Retirement Security. The Chief Actuaries of the Social Security Administration and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services are scheduled to testify. 

Feb 23, 2012

I'm Shocked! Shocked!

     From a press release issued by Sam Johnson, Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee:
Recently, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued the first of two reports looking at Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who are outliers because of the number of cases they have or have not handled or the number of awards they have handed out. ... The request was made in the wake of a Wall Street Journal article exposing the practices of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in a West Virginia hearing office who granted awards in 1,280 of the 1,284 disability cases he decided.  
“As Chair of the Social Security Subcommittee, I am extremely troubled by the enormous freedom this ALJ had in assigning himself cases – and then rubberstamping approval for nearly all of them with no accountability or oversight,” said Sam Johnson (R-TX). 

“This report is a real eye opener.  How can we trust the fairness of ALJ decisions when even some of their own co-workers say that the decisions could be influenced by the ALJ’s own political views and personal biases?  While ALJs must be free to do their jobs without agency interference or reprisal, they are supposed to follow the rules, not make their own.  The Subcommittee’s hearing series on securing the future of the disability insurance program will ask the tough questions and seek the right answers in order to ensure that the public is served fairly and that precious taxpayer dollars are not wasted,” added Chairman Johnson.  

     Political views and personal biases affecting judicial decisions! I'm shocked! Shocked!
     Let me let Representative Johnson in on a secret that lawyers don't generally share with laypeople. There is no judge whose decisions are completely unaffected by their political views and personal biases. This is especially the case when judges make decisions in cases where there is no clear cut "right" answer. This is more visible in Social Security disability cases because they are unusually difficult to judge.
     The same problem is also quite visible at the U.S. Supreme Court. I think that Representative Johnson is quite happy with political views and personal biases affecting judicial decisions when it's, let's say, Justice Scalia or Justice Thomas making the decisions.
     In any case, I don't know what report Representative Johnson was reading. The one I read didn't show anything that would shock anyone familiar with Social Security disability hearings. I was under the impression that there wasn't anything like a bombshell in the report.

New Regs On Recontacting Medical Sources And Dangerous Claimants

     Social Security has posted two separate notice in today's Federal Register. Here's an excerpt from the first:
We are modifying the requirement to recontact your medical source(s) first when we need to resolve an inconsistency or insufficiency in the evidence he or she provided. Depending on the nature of the inconsistency or insufficiency, there may be other, more appropriate sources from whom we could obtain the information we need. By giving adjudicators more flexibility in determining how best to obtain this information, we will be able to make a determination or decision on disability claims more quickly and efficiently in certain situations.
      And from the second:
We are revising our regulations at Sec. Sec. 404.937 and 416.1437 to further describe when the Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge will find a claimant or other individual poses a reasonable threat to the safety of our employees or other participants in the hearing. We are making these changes to respond to public comments we received.

ODAR Processing Time Report

     Below is a processing time report for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). This is from the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR).

Processing Time Report 1-27-12

Strategic Plan

     Social Security has posted its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2013-2016. Here are the agency's near term goals:
  • Goal 1: Faster hearing decisions
         By the end of FY 2013, we will reduce the average time for a hearing decision from 345 days at the end of FY 2011 to 270 days.
  • Goal 2: Reduce Supplemental Security Income (SSI) overpayments
         By the end of FY 2013*, we will increase our SSI overpayment accuracy rate from 93.3 percent at the end of FY 2010 to 95 percent.
  • Goal 3 Increase use of our online services
         By the end of FY 2013, we will increase our online filing rates from 36 percent at the end of FY 2011 to 48 percent.

Feb 22, 2012

This Doesn't Look Good

     From Joe Davidson's column in the Washington Post:
As the federal workforce endures a two-year freeze on basic pay rates and faces a possible increase in pension payments and as new employees will have to contribute more to their retirement program, Barbara Murchison has reason to smile.
A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit could finally end her employment discrimination case against the Social Security Administration (SSA), which began 11 years ago. ...
As we reported in January, Murchison was reassigned from her team leader position at Social Security’s main office in Woodlawn, Md., in 2001. The agency conceded that she had been discriminated against, for reasons of race, age and sex, among others, after a ruling by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administrative judge. SSA agreed to give Murchison her gig back but did not.
Social Security, however, erroneously said it had restored Murchison to her position, and the EEOC accepted that false assurance.
This left Murchison in limbo. She fought to get her job back even after the District Court ruled against her at least in part because the EEOC did not issue a formal finding that the SSA had not followed the EEOC’s order to restore Murchison. She took it to the Court of Appeals, whose opinion really makes the Social Security Administration look bad. 
The opinion said the lower court’s decision and the EEOC’s acceptance of Social Security assurances were based on “what can only be deemed a deceptive and false assertion of compliance made by the SSA.” ...
In January, an SSA statement said that “we deny all of the allegations made by Ms. Murchison about the agency, and we expect to prevail” in the case.
They got that wrong, on both counts.

Feb 21, 2012

What's Up With Social Security's Occupational Information System Project?

     I have uploaded to Scribd a part of Social Security's Fiscal Year 2013 appropriation justification, that is their explanation of why they need the money they have requested. This part discusses research, particularly the planned Occupational Information System (OIS). You will note that Social Security tries hard to play up the role of the Department of Labor. Don't be fooled. This is completely controlled by the Social Security Administration. It has been clear all along that Social Security wants to control every aspect of its OIS project. That is the primary criticism that people outside Social Security have made of the OIS project.

Feb 20, 2012

Work Reviews Challenged

     From Courthouse News Service:
     The Social Security Administration will have to face claims it failed to make work reviews accessible to the mentally and developmentally disabled, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Edward Chen refused to dismiss two related cases accusing the SSA of violating Title II and Title XVI of the Rehabilitation Act, finding allegations of emotional distress in the review process sufficient to constitute an injury for purposes of standing.
     Work reviews take place after a person has been deemed disabled and granted benefits and are conducted to ensure beneficiaries are not earning above a certain income level, in which case benefits can be terminated, suspended or reduced.
     Terrence Davis and "John Doe" claim the SSA does not train claims representatives how to conduct work reviews when the person under review has mental or development disabilities or how to communicate with such people and that the SSA failed to modify its forms to make them understandable to people with such disabilities....

     Davis originally filed his case in 2006 as a class action but Judge Marilyn Hall Patel rejected his motion for class certification while allowing him to re-file. Davis instead chose to file an amended individual complaint without class allegations. Doe filed his individual complaint a few months later also without class allegations.

Disability Claims Increase

    From the Rupert Murdock owned New York Post:
Standing too many months on the unemployment line is driving Americans crazy — literally — and it’s costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
With their unemployment-insurance checks running out, some of the country’s long-term jobless are scrambling to fill the gap by filing claims for mental illness and other disabilities with Social Security — a surge that hobbles taxpayers and making the employment rate look healthier than it should as these people drop out of the job statistics.
“It could be because their health really is getting worse from the stress of being out of work,” says Matthew Rutledge, a research economist at Boston College. “Or it could just be desperation — people trying to make ends meet when other safety nets just aren’t there." ...
During the recent economic boom, only 33 percent of applicants were claiming mental illness, but that figure has jumped to 43 percent, says Rutledge, citing preliminary results from his latest research.

Feb 19, 2012

America Isn't As Exceptional As We Like To Think

     The United Kingdom is embarking upon a major overhaul of its Social Security disability benefits. The government minister whose department administers these benefits has presented a report to Parliament giving a broad overview of what is envisioned. Here are a few quotes
  • [Disability benefits are currently] confusing and complex.
  • Individuals will have to qualify for the benefit for a period of six months and be expected to continue to qualify for a further six months before an award can be made.
  • Key to the [disability] benefit will be an objective assessment of individual need, which we are developing in collaboration with a group of independent specialists in health, social care and disability, including disabled people.
  • [W]e plan to periodically review all awards.
  • Since [the current system of disability benefits] was introduced in 1992, there have been significant improvements in medical treatments and in aids and adaptations that assist disabled people. Attitudes to disability have also changed. The introduction of legislation, for example the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010, to protect the interests of disabled people and prevent discrimination has helped many disabled people lead more independent live.
  • We are committed to further breaking down the barriers in society that prevent disabled people from exercising choice and control, and living active and independent lives. Just as society is changing and advancing, so too must our benefits system to reflect those changes.
  • In just eight years, the numbers receiving [disability benefits] has increased by 30 per cent. The complexity and subjectivity of the benefit has led to a wider application than originally intended. To ensure that the new benefit is sustainable and affordable in the long term, we must reform [disability benefits] to make sure we focus on those that need the greatest help to live independently.
  • Evidence suggests that [disability benefits] can also act as a barrier to work, when it should enable people to lead independent lives, including having or getting a job.
  • The definitions currently used are subjective and reflect views of disability from the 1990s, not the modern day.
  • A greater emphasis on objectivity and increased use of evidence will lead to more consistent outcomes and greater transparency for individuals, as the process will be easier to understand.
  • We know that many disabled people use aids and adaptations to increase
    their ability to participate in everyday life. ... We believe we should take greater account of the successful use of aids and adaptations ... This might mean, for example, considering an individual’s ability to get about in a wheelchair, rather than ignoring the wheelchair, as we do currently.

Feb 18, 2012

"Utmost Heinous Kind"

     Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents most Social Security employees, has posted online its January 2012 newsletter. No urgent news in the newsletter, just more proof of the poor relationship between the union and Social Security management. 
     This issue of the newsletter has an item titled "Alabama Employee Wins Reinstatement" that includes this quote from an arbitrator's decision:
I find the behavior of Mr. (Jeff) Murphree, Grievant's fourth line supervisor to be of the utmost heinous kind. [He] used his position as supervisor to stalk Grievant, to humiliate her, to threaten her, to frighten her, and to cause her health to be affected.... [This supervisor] was the malicious leader of these actors [in her removal case]. I find that [this supervisor] used his position [highest authority in the office] to lead his subordinates to lie, to antagonize Grievant and/or to misuse their own positions in order to retaliate against Grievant for having charged [this supervisor] with violation of protected EEO activity. When Grievant sought to work at a different office in a different town in order to free herself from his heinous activities, [this supervisor] managed a way to show up to continue the harassment and to cause false charges to be made against her by his subordinates.

Feb 17, 2012

OIG Report On Outlier ALJs

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released its report on "outlier" Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), that is ALJs who have either high or low rates of approving disability claims or high or low productivity. If you were expecting dramatic revelations, you will be disappointed. The chart below is an example. It displays the expected bell shaped curve of ALJ rates of approving disability claims. This is pretty much inevitable when you are talking about human behavior. Notice that the tail on the left side seems to be a lot longer than the tail on the right side. I'm prejudiced but I think the problem is much more with the ALJs with a low allowance rate.

Feb 16, 2012

I Wonder

 NASA has just retired its last mainframe computer. Is Social Security still using mainframes? Should it be?

Feb 15, 2012

Congressman Speaks To ALJ Class

     From a press release:
Addressing a new group of judges being sworn in today to determine the outcomes of Social Security Disability cases, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) used his life story to emphasize the importance of their task. His remarks were part of a keynote address delivered to nineteen new Administrative Law Judges and ten new Administrative Appeals Judges for the Social Security Administration (SSA) who will play a key role in reducing the disability backlog. During his speech before administering the oath of office, Langevin recalled the incident when a gun accidentally discharged and fired a bullet that severed his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic at age 16. ...
Langevin has supported efforts to reduce the backlog of cases, the number of which increased when the economic downturn hit. For Fiscal Year 2012, which began in October, the average processing time for a case is down 80 days from FY 2010 and 168 days from FY 2008. In addition, according to SSA, the Administration is issuing more hearing decisions, an increase of 45% between FYs 2007 and 2011, and expects that to increase to 55% through FY 2012. ...

Feb 14, 2012

I'm Having Trouble Getting Worked Up Over This

    Janet Novack at Forbes is outraged that Social Security has taken 14 months to act on comments made when the agency made it impossible to retroactively withdraw a retirement claim in order to get a higher monthly benefit. Some people who had made plans to withdraw their claims have been unable to do so and she thinks that is unfair.

Feb 13, 2012

I Wonder If He Found Any Fraud There

From WSHM in Springfield, MA:
Looking into potential fraud within the $10 billion Children's Supplemental Security Income program. Monday, Congressman [Richard] Neal [D-MA-2] alongside Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue toured Springfield's Social Security office and discussed the issue.

Unrelenting Austerity

     The President's proposed budget for the Social Security Administration for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, which begins on October 1, 2012, is out. It calls for a near complete freeze in Social Security's administrative budget, with total outlays of $11.723 billion compared to $11.678 billion for the current FY (2012) and $11.888 billion for FY 2011.
     By law, the White House has to submit to Congress the Commissioner of Social Security's own budget request for the agency. I have not yet been able to find that number. Can anyone point me to it?
     Update: Found it.  The Commissioner is asking for $12.622 billion which I would call modest but which the White House and Congress would call out of the question.
    Further update: Social Security's own summary of the President's budget shows $444 million more than what the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) summary shows. The difference is attributable to a "program integrity base adjustment" and a "user fee" adjustment. I cannot say why there is this difference between the two versions of the President's budget. At best, one of these versions is misleading. Understanding the federal budget is difficult enough without this sort of thing.

New Visual Listings Proposed

     Social Security has published proposed new visual impairment listings in the Federal Register for public comment. These are an important element in disability determination although they are not the only way a person for be found disabled. Social Security must consider comments made on the proposal before publishing final regulations. 
     I do not immediately notice any significant change in the proposed listings.

Don't Take Those Jobs For Granted, Baltimore

     From the Baltimore Sun:
Despite budget cuts and anti-government rhetoric in Congress, Maryland officials say the two huge federal agencies based in Woodlawn — which have long helped buoy the region's economy — may be better positioned than others to ride out the political turbulence expected over the next several years.
An aging baby boomer generation should insulate the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from looming cuts, economists say. And there will be even more work at the Medicare-Medicaid office, known as CMS, if the nation's new health care law takes effect.
The fate of the two agencies, which have been based in Baltimore County for decades, will have a significant impact on the entire regional economy. Social Security has more than 10,000 workers in the county, making it the fifth-largest employer in the region — bigger than Northrop Grumman or Walmart, for example — state figures show. ...
Though there is not a great deal of development immediately surrounding the campus today, economists say the two agencies have a major impact on the region's economy.
"Many Baltimoreans don't even realize that our region has been very fortunate throughout the downturn," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sage Policy Group. "It's something we take for granted."
     I don't live there but it is obvious to me that those in the Baltimore region take having Social Security's headquarters in their midst for granted and the Baltimore Sun is itself a huge reason. It's your largest employer, for goodness sake! If you ignored Johns Hopkins the way you ignore Social Security, people would think you were nuts. This is important. Being ignored by local media can only give Social Security headquarters employees the impression that what they do is unimportant. That cannot be good for employee morale.

Feb 12, 2012

Statistical Supplement Released

     Social Security has released its Annual Statistical Supplement for 2011, chock full of all the stats about Social Security that you could desire, other than stats on Social Security operations, which, as always, are almost completely absent. I have never understood that.

Feb 11, 2012

Major ERE Upgrade

     Social Security had made no secret of its intention to add a report feature to its Electronic Records Express (ERE) system that allows attorneys and other representing Social Security claimants to review their clients' records online. With no fanfare, Social Security added this feature today.  Previously, one could only look at one case record at a time. Now, an attorney can look at a list of all of his or her cases and see their case statuses listed. It's not ideal (the ability to click on a listed case and go to that case record would be nice) but it's a big step forward.
    I like the concept of underpromising and overdelivering. It's a nice change from what we saw when ERE was being planned and first implemented.

What Would You Expect?

     From a study by Adele Kirk of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College:
This study uses SSA [Social Security Administration] administrative data linked with National Health Interview Survey data (NHIS) to examine health status, labor force participation at time of NHIS interview, and linked mortality data to examine mortality during the period following NHIS interview. The self-reported health status data present two strong and consistent patterns: denied applicants report being in considerably worse health than non-applicants, and beneficiaries appear to be sicker yet.

Feb 10, 2012

Unemployment Benefits And Social Security

     Stephan Lindner and Austin Nichols at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College have done a study, dealing, in part, with the effects of receipt of unemployment benefits on Disability Insurance Benefits claims at Social Security. The result, which is no surprise to me, is that the receipt of unemployment benefits decreases Disability Insurance Benefits claims.
     What I have observed is that many people delay, delay, delay in filing claims for Disability Insurance Benefits. They make do with whatever other income they can find and only apply for Social Security disability benefits when they are near the end of their rope. I think the reason in most cases is an unwillingness to accept that they are disabled -- people tend to have unrealistic recovery hopes -- and because the prospect of dealing with the Social Security Administration is too daunting. As an attorney who represents Social Security claimants, I then have to tell people who are desperate for income and medical care that they are starting a process that may take two years with an outcome which cannot be reliably predicted.

Feb 9, 2012

Commissioner's Broadcast Message On Budget

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Wednesday, February 08, 2012 5:18 PM

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees‪

Subject: Budget

I just wanted to take a few moments to talk to you about the rest of this fiscal year in light of our budget. The good news is that Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill four months earlier than it did last year. We were surprised that Congress did not stick to the substantially higher level of continuing disability reviews called for in the debt ceiling legislation passed last August. This lower level of funding, combined with substantially more people filing hearings requests, requires us to shift resources. I have asked some employees who have been helping the State agencies to redirect their support to hearing offices. That transition has started smoothly, and I want to thank everyone who is helping our fellow Americans who have been waiting too long for a hearing decision. In addition, we hope to start the next administrative law judge class by June.

It can be hard for people outside the agency to appreciate just how much more work we have and how rapidly our work force is contracting. We had a net loss of over 4,000 Federal and State employees in FY 2011, and we expect a net loss of over 3,000 employees this fiscal year. As we continue to lose staff, it means that in 2013, we will likely have about the same number of employees we had when I arrived in 2007, even though the volume of our work continues to increase.

While we are doing some very limited hiring, we are relying on retired annuitants and overtime at least until next year’s budget situation clarifies. I appreciate the help our recent retirees are giving us, and I encourage newer employees to learn as much as possible from these experts. Given the budget uncertainty, we are delaying a decision about offering early out retirement. We will revisit this issue in the fall when we have a better sense about our FY 2013 resource level.

There is no silver bullet, but we can’t ignore fiscal reality and assume that we can go on doing business as usual. As Deputy Commissioner Colvin has said, we will do less with less. We continue to look for ways to streamline and simplify work and identify what work we can stop doing. We have put forward several workload simplifications, and we are hopeful that they will receive support. We will also continue to consolidate offices where it makes sense—facing a choice between buildings and people, I’ll take the people every time.

I know you are familiar with some of the recent simplifications, such as elimination of subsequent disability applications and giving disability examiners the flexibility to move from Step 4 to Step 5 in the disability determination process when it is appropriate to do so. A more recent initiative is mandating authorized claimant representatives to file appeals online using our improved iAppeals application. This change, which will take effect on March 16, will eliminate work in field offices and speed the progress of cases for claimants.

I know that fiscal shortfalls create stress in our offices, especially when there are fewer of you to handle more work. Our inability to timely handle work makes the public more frustrated, and you endure that frustration. I also know that outcomes like pay freezes may cause you to question your career choice. Nevertheless, I know that you are proud to be part of our family, proud to be part of this venerable program, and proud to serve your communities. Please know that I, and more importantly, the American public, appreciate that you continue to deliver the best possible service.

It is because of you that I can say this year is off to an impressive start. Thanks again for all you do each day.

Michael J. Astrue

Feb 8, 2012

Posner On Templates

     Judge Richard Posner sits on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is little known to the public but widely admired by attorneys for his original thinking and extraordinary writing skills. Judge Posner has taken a special interest in the Social Security appeals he hears. He finds the templates that Social Security is using for producing Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions to be seriously troublesome. His most recent opinion on this subject is Bjornson v. Astrue, issued on January 31, 2012. The Bjornson case was remanded.
     Posner is not just admired by attorneys in private practice. He is admired by other judges. These templates are potentially a real problem for Social Security.
     By the way, Bjornson has a Chiari malformation. What is a case like this doing in the Court of Appeals, for goodness sake? Chiari malformations are a serious matter. This case should have been paid much, much earlier. Yes, I know there are people who have a Chiari malformation who have no symptoms but that does not change the seriousness of a Chiari malformation. Also, by the way, Chiari malformations aren't that rare.About one person in a thousand has a Chiari malformation.

Feb 7, 2012

Would Means Testing Title II Even Save Money?

From R.J. Eskow writing at Huffington Post:
Last week Republican Mitch Daniels once again pushed the "means testing" argument against Social Security, saying that we can no longer "afford to send millionaires pension checks" or "pay medical bills for even the wealthiest among us.".
Daniels and his fellow Social Security attackers are able to draw on a very reasonable-sounding (but completely deceptive) argument, one that's been honed and promoted by billionaire-funded think tanks and other anti-government organizations. The "means testing" argument does sound fair -- until you think about it.  ...

First of all, what's a "millionaire"? If you say that a millionaire is someone with $1 million or more in investable assets, past studies have showed that only about one American in one hundred meets that definition. After the collapse of the housing market and the decimation of private pension plans, the percentage of retirees who meet that definition is probably much smaller. And it's shrinking every year....

If you define "millionaire" in a more reasonable way -- say, as someone who earns at least a million dollars each year in investment and other income after retirement -- the number of people who fit the definition becomes extremely small.  ...

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is already cash-starved, especially by Republicans who have gutted its budget. These cuts have already delayed the processing of applications and appeals, and have threatened to slow the distribution of checks. These cuts hurt the disabled, children and seniors.
How is the SSA expected to handle this new means-testing function? Right now its overhead is admirably low because it's a simple cash-in/cash-out program. Will it now be forced to process new paperwork on every applicant? Will it have to link its computer systems with those of the IRS, creating a new electronic database of information on every American? Will every retiring senior be grilled by government officials as part of a screening process?
The cost of means-testing could well be greater than the amount of money saved. After all, there are more than 38,000,000 people over the age of 65 in the United States today. And every one of them will need to be screened every year.
I thought Republicans wanted to cut bureaucracy, not increase it....
Here's what would make sense: Tax those high earners so that they're contributing their fair share to the economy.

Don't Know What This Means

     Back in November, Social Security requested the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, for a proposal to:
... remove from our regulations the requirement that our adjudicators "consider the opinion given by one or more medical or psychological consultants designated by the Commissioner" when they make findings about medical equivalence to impairments listed in our Listing of Impairments (listings). We believe that this requirement is outdated and that we no longer need it. Removing it will allow us to issue some favorable disability determinations and decisions more quickly.  
      Social Security has now withdrawn that proposal, before OMB could act. This could mean that Social Security just changed its mind or it could mean that OMB made it clear to Social Security that the proposal would not be approved. OMB almost never officially disapproves a proposal. They just get withdrawn.

Feb 6, 2012

Language And Speech Listings In The Works

    Social Security is soliciting comments from the public on possible new listings for language and speech disorders. There is no proposal posted an this time so we do not know what Social Security is thinking about.

Astrue Visits Florida Office

From the Bradenton Herald:
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue today joined U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan [R-FL] in visiting the local Social Security office to discuss how best to make the program more efficient at a time of diminishing budgets.
Astrue praised Buchanan, R-Sarasota, for taking the time to learn how Social Security works, as a member of House Ways and Means Committee, which is charged with writing tax legislation and bills affecting Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs.
“It’s an enormous advantage,” The Social Security chief said, when members of House committees take the time to learn the process....
“And Washington gets very stuck in its ways, so having members come out and say, ‘Look, we can change, we can be more efficient and serve the public better by doing these things’ if you understand what we’re trying to do, and why, it’s enormously helpful to us, and I wish that we could get even more members come out visiting their home offices,” Astrue said.

Electronic Informal Remand Special Project 2012

     Social Security has sent out instructions for something called the Electronic Informal Remand Special Project 2012. This is an effort to select particularly strong disability cases in which a request for hearing has been filed and divert them to a special review by someone other than an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to see if it is possible to pay them quickly. It sounds a lot like informal remand projects of the past. and present. It is not clear to me whether there is anything really new about this. This may be old wine in new bottles.
     The major problems with this sort of thing has been lack of personnel to do the reviews and, recently, a reluctance to approve anything other than the most gold-plated cases. We will see how this new process works.

Slowdown In Payment Of Back Benefits In January

     Social Security has posted updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. These numbers are important not just for those who represent Social Security claimants. We get paid at about the same time as our client gets paid. If you see a slowdown in payments to those who represent Social Security claimants you are seeing a slowdown in payments to claimants and the growth of a backlog.
     Social Security always has a problem in paying newly approved claimants in January because of the other workload pressure which go up dramatically at the beginning of each year. I had concerns about what would happen this year if no overtime was available. It turns out that some overtime was available but there was still a problem. Backlogs increased dramatically in October 2011 and January 2012. I hope someone at Social Security can tell me that overtime will be available in coming months to keep this backlog from growing but I don't expect that.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

     That's a 23% decline between December and January. Here are some January numbers for a couple of earlier years for comparison:

Jan-10     32,226     $111,440,046.23
Jan-09     28,423     $101,128,880.69

NADE Newsletter On Down Syndrome And ALJ Investigations

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims, has posted its Winter 2012 newsletter.
     The newsletter contains a copy of a letter that NADE sent to Social Security on the agency's recent proposal to change its listings on Down Syndrome. As I read the letter, it looks like Social Security is setting a trap, I hope unintentionally, for those with Down Syndrome. Unless they have genetic testing for Down Syndrome and unless that testing meets certain criteria which may be of dubious relevance, Social Security may simply ignore the Down Syndrome regardless of any other evidence. If my understanding of the letter is correct and if NADE has it right, this is something that must be addressed. I really do not want to have to start representing a lot of people with Down Syndrome. That would be ridiculous.
     Another article describes a presentation by Social Security's Inspector General (IG) at a NADE event. The IG talked, at least briefly, about ongoing investigations of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) in Puerto Rico and West Virginia.

Feb 5, 2012


Life Insurance Companies Luck Out

     MSN Money is reporting that the changes that Social Security has recently made in its Death Master File will be a bonanza for life insurers.

Feb 4, 2012

White House Conferences On Disability

From the UCP Washington Wire:
 White House to Hold Series of Disability Conferences
The White House will be holding a series of regional, multi-agency disability conferences between March and July. The final list of cities and dates include:
  • Columbus, OH  - March 14
  • Austin, TX - March 28
  • Los Angeles, CA - April 12
  • Denver, CO - April 25
  • Atlanta, GA  - May 11
  • Boston, MA - May 23
  • Minneapolis, MN - June 6
  • Orlando, FL - June 15
  • Kansas City, MO - July 11
Social Security will certainly be involved to some extent. I hope that people begin to realize that while wheelchair access to buildings is important, it is only a minor aspect of the entire spectrum. of disability issues. Adjudicating claims for disability benefits on a timely basis is crucial.

Feb 3, 2012

New 1695 Procedure

     I don't know that it will make a significant difference but Social Security is changing its procedures for processing the form 1695 which it receives from attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. The form 1695 includes the Social Security number of the person representing the claimant. What is supposed to happen in the future is that the form will end up in the claimant's file but the Social Security number will be blacked out. Previously, the form was supposed to be shredded after the information was entered in Social Security's database.
     Claimants are not supposed to see their attorney's Social Security number. Only those Social Security employees who need to see the attorney's Social Security number are supposed to see it.
     I know that it is strictly prohibited but what are the odds that no Social Security employee has gotten my Social Security number off a 1695 and looked up my earnings record just to satisfy their own curiosity? Can it really be prevented?

A $1 Trillion Difference?

From Investors Business Daily:
The outlook for Social Security's trust fund has deteriorated to an astonishing degree over the past year, new Congressional Budget Office [CBO] projections show.
The nonpartisan budget scorekeeper released the estimates Tuesday as part of broader economic and budget forecasts. CBO expects the trust fund to peak in 2018 and decline to $2.7 trillion in 2022 — a full $1 trillion less than Social Security's own actuaries predicted last year. ...
CBO was moderately more pessimistic than SSA a year ago, but has grown much more so, guided by incoming economic data.
      This kind of gap between the two projections makes no sense to me even when we're talking about a ten year period.

USA Today Says Something Is Wrong

     McPaper is running an editorial about Social Security's disability programs. As is generally the case with USA Today editorials, it's hard to say exactly what the point of the editorial is. I suppose that it says that there is something terribly wrong with the disability programs and something must be done to make it harder to get on Social Security disability benefits but it really does not identify what that something is.
     The editorial repeats the canard that attorneys delay Social Security disability claims. It's simple. I make money by closing files, not by keeping them open. Extra fees from keeping a file open longer are unlikely to make up for the extra costs of keeping the file open longer. Not only is delaying benefits to a client unethical; it makes no business sense. Are there attorneys who end up delaying their clients ultimate success? Sure, but it's not because they're trying to increases their fees. It's because they're incompetent. There are incompetents in any line of work.
     Chuck Martin, the President of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), contributed an opposing piece.
     By the way, who buys USA Today? Does anyone actually subscribe to it? I never read it except when I'm staying at a hotel that gives it to me for free. It's just so bland.

Feb 2, 2012

Death Master File Hearing

     The written statements of the witnesses at today's House Social Security Subcommittee hearing on Social Security's Death Master File have been posted. Don't tell anyone that they posted them a few minutes early. They're embargoed until 9:00 a.m.

Feb 1, 2012

Changes At Appeals Council

Some changes have been made at the Appeals Council. Effective January 9 Branches 11-19 were disbanded. Pending cases and staff were transferred. See below for the new Appeals Council lineup.
Circuit Jurisdiction*
Branch Chief
Branch Telephone Number
Branch Fax Number
9th & 10th
Ilselore Passalacqua
(703) 605-7150
(703) 605-7151
9th & 10th
Merina Floyd
(703) 605-7180
(703) 605-7131
9th & 10th
Judy Salveson
(703) 605-7210
(703) 605-7011
9th & 10th
David Isaac
(703) 605-7240
(703) 605-7211
9th & 10th
Tommie Smith
(703) 605-7270
(703) 605-7411
9th & 10th
Marie Cousins
(703) 605-7300
(703) 605-7301
2nd & 3rd
Deborah Johnson
(703) 605-7330
(703) 605-7331
2nd & 3rd
Maxine Smith
(703) 605-7450
(703) 605-7451
2nd & 3rd
Cecil Haithcock
(703) 605-7390
(703) 605-7391
2nd & 3rd
Chris Johnson
(703) 605-7420
(703) 605-7421
5th & 7th (WI only)
Dennis Ohlhaver
(410) 965-2703
(410) 597-0796
5th & 7th (WI only)
Sandy Belin
(410) 965-2704
(410) 594-2181
5th & 7th (WI only)
Dara Tunstall
(410) 966-4913
(410) 594-2182
5th & 7th (WI only)
Brad Wilder
(410) 966-4914
(410) 597-0198
5th & 7th (WI only)
(410) 966-4931
(410) 597-0199
4th & 7th (IL & IN only)
Donna Sasser
(410) 966-8759
(410) 965-8639
4th & 7th (IL & IN only)
(410) 966-8766
(410) 965-7909
4th & 7th (IL & IN only)
Larry Singh
(410) 966-8783
(410) 965-7921
4th & 7th (IL & IN only)
Patricia McManus
(410) 966-8810
(410) 966-3457
4th & 7th (IL & IN only)
Pamela Baird
(410) 966-8823
(410) 966-3451
Denise Canada
(410) 966-8826
(410) 965-4488
Christina Garner
(410) 966-4500
(410) 965-9171
LaQuitta Moultrie
(410) 966-4710
(410) 965-4488
Darl Daniels
(410) 966-4717
(410) 966-3465
1st, 8th & DC
LaVone Gray
(703) 306-5100
(703) 306-5111
1st, 8th & DC
Edward Sommer III
(703) 306-5110
(703) 306-5101
1st, 8th & DC
Jamie Platt
(703) 306-5120
(703) 306-5121
1st, 8th & DC
Brenda Kimberlin
(703) 306-5130
(703) 306-5131
Glen Squire
(703) 306-5140
(703) 306-5201
Carlene Jones
(703) 306-5200
(703) 306-5211
Robin Noyes
(703) 306-5210
(703) 306-5221
Jimmy Hale
(703) 306-5220
(703) 306-5231
Kathy Hartt
(703) 306-5230
(703) 306-5241
*Circuit jurisdiction includes numerical breakdowns derived from the last 2 digits of the account number.
The Retirement and Survivors Insurance and SSI (RSI) Branch handles all non-disability cases. Their telephone number is (703) 605-7711 and the Fax number is (703) 605-7141. Roxie Nicoll is the Branch Chief.
The CCPRBs handle the civil action workload.
Circuit Jurisdiction
Branch Chief
Branch Telephone Number
Branch Fax Number
7th & 9th Circuits
Robert Weigel
(703) 605-7441
1st, 3rd, 4th & 10th Circuits
James Jones
(703) 605-7861
DC, Foreign Claims, 6th & 11th Circuits
Patrick Herbst
(703) 605-7581
2nd, 5th & 8th Circuits
Marian Jones
(703) 605-7621