Jul 31, 2012

Whether Furloughs And RIFs Come To Social Security To Be Determined In Next Few Weeks

      Update: According to Politico, the basic deal described below has been struck but the devil is in the detail for Social Security and we probably won't know the details until early September.
     The Washington Post reports that Congressional leaders are nearing agreement on a Continuing Resolution to fund government operations in the first half of the 2013 fiscal year (FY), which begins on October 1, 2012. Under the agreement, agencies would suffer an across the board reduction in their budgets in the percentage specified by last year's budget agreement. According to the article:
Congressional leaders are likely to announce that they have reached an agreement in principle but leave passage of the deal until after Congress returns from its August recess. The timeline would allow some details and budget crunching to take place, but it also would provide a window for the deal to go awry if outside groups pressure Republicans to fight for deeper spending cuts.
     For Social Security, the key language here is "details and budget crunching." This means there would be some departures from the across the board spending cuts. Social Security is in bad need of a major departure from the across the board spending cuts. According to a Senate Finance Committee report if the across the board spending cuts are applied to Social Security:
Social Security would lose 5,000 employees and all of the agency's employees and all Disability Determination Services employees would suffer approximately six weeks of furloughs. The average processing time at the initial level on disability claims would raise from 111 days to 180 days and the number of pending disability claims would nearly double from 861,000 to almost 1.5 million by the end of the fiscal year.
     You simply cut those numbers in half for a six month continuing resolution. Two and a half days a month of furloughs for ALL Social Security employees. I don't think you can lose 2,500 jobs without a significant reduction in force (RIF). This all starts on October 1, 2012 without Congress taking special action to protect Social Security. Other agencies are facing the same issues and are seeking the same sort of special exemptions from the appropriations cuts.

Amazing Op Ed Piece In The Washington Post

     From an Op Ed piece in the Washington Post yesterday by Charles Lane with some comments by me in brackets:
The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed with bipartisan support in 1990 at the urging of then-President George H.W. Bush, enshrines the notion that every American can and should hold a job regardless of physical or mental limitations. 
Under the ADA, employers who refuse to hire or promote the disabled may be liable for money damages in federal court.  [Whoa. Time out. That is not what the Americans with Disabilities Act says. That's what a lot of "disability advocates" wish it said.What it actually says is that employers must give "reasonable accommodation" to people with disabilities. There is nothing in the ADA that says or suggests that "every" American can or should hold a job. That would be absurd. If the Washington Post advertises a data entry job does it have to hire a quadriplegic who applies? Of course not. It doesn't have to hire the quadriplegic for that or any other job unless it could do so with only reasonable accommodation and that sure wouldn't be the case for a data entry job. Hire the quadriplegic for an editorial writing job such as Mr. Lane holds? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on the courts being willing to enforce such a right. The words "reasonable accommodation" are awfully vague and the courts have been almost completely unwilling to enforce them. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't even mean what it appears to mean and what it appears to mean is vastly less than what Mr. Lane thinks it means.]
Social Security Disability Insurance, however, pays people who can show that they are too mentally or physically impaired to remain in the labor force. In short, for many workers, SSDI creates a quasi-right not to work. [Yes, just as it should since there are many people who are too sick to work. Ever call in sick, Mr. Lane? Why? You are of the opinion that no illness should ever prevent a person from working. Why would you be so lazy as to call in sick?]...
In 1960, however, Congress removed the minimum age requirement [of 50], and in 1965, it allowed people to qualify if they suffered from a condition rendering them unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity” for a year or more, including mental and musculoskeletal ailments.  [No, what Congress actually did in 1965 was to eliminate the requirement that disability be permanent. Now disability has to have lasted or be expected to last at least a year. Mental and musculoskeletal ailments that were permanent -- and most were and are -- were already covered before 1965.]
After that, the rolls swelled with people claiming crippling back aches and depression. Both the Carter and Reagan administrations tried to cull undeserving cases, but the resulting backlash was so strong that Congress actually liberalized the rules in 1984. [What makes you so sure they were undeserving? Try to cut huge numbers of people off disability benefits in 2013 and see what happens. It will be 1984 all over again. Go ahead, I dare you, Mitt Romney.  Follow Lane's advice if you're elected President.] In 2010, mental and musculoskeletal conditions accounted for 54 percent of all new SSDI cases, according to the CBO [Congressional Budget Office]. ...
I don’t mean to imply that all, or even most, SSDI beneficiaries are malingering. [So kind of you, Mr. Lane, to acknowledge that not everyone on Social Security disability benefits is a malingerer. Honestly, I think you need to meet a cross section of those receiving Social Security disability benefits before you start suggesting that many people receiving Social Security disability benefits are malingerers. Essentially no one who has contact with Social Security disability recipients on a regular basis would agree with you. You don't know what you're talking about.] Indeed, some of the recent increase in enrollment would have occurred anyway due to the aging of the population.

Failure To Follow Up On Failure To Cash Checks

     Here's another of the many ways that Social Security has trouble fulfilling its mission because of lack of staff. An Inspector General report shows that Social Security is having a hard time dealing with situations in which a claimant fails to cash his or her Social Security check. The failure could indicate many things that Social Security should address, such as the claimant being dead, the claimant being mentally incompetent or a representative payee being irresponsible but the agency doesn't know unless it does an adequate follow up and that takes staff time but staff time is in short supply at Social Security. Social Security tries to follow up on these cases but isn't doing all that it should. 
     I suppose that switching to electronic payment might seem to be the solution for the problem but, if anything, electronic payment merely hides problems that need resolution.
     Congress may not like it, Social Security management may not like it, but the Social Security Administration cannot avoid social work duties. People's lives tend to get a bit messy when they get older or become disabled. Dealing with that messiness is an inherent part of the agency's mission. It's social work and it takes staff. Staff costs money. If you don't spend the money to allow an adequate staff, vulnerable people suffer and taxpayper money is wasted.

Jul 30, 2012

Romney Praises Government Run Health Care

     I suppose this is off topic but I cannot resist posting this from BuzzFeed Politics:
“Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the GDP in Israel? eight percent," Romney told donors at a fundraiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, speaking of a health care system that is compulsory for Israelis and funded by the government. "You spend eight percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] on health care. You're a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18% of our GDP on health care. Ten percentage points more. ... Our gap with Israel is 10 points of GDP. We have to find ways — not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to find and manage our health care costs."

What Is A Somatic Contractor?

     Can anyone explain this contracting notice posted by Social Security?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is seeking to award three somatic RMC contractors to establish Regional Medical Contractors (RMC) Blanket Purchase Agreements (BPAs). Under a BPA, the contractor will assess and document impairment severity in SSA disability claims based on the listing of impairments in SSA'S Program Operations Manual System (POMS) Section DI 34000.000. Contractors may also be asked to provide additional services that are related to their area of specialization but not directly related to any particular disability claim.

Five Field Offices To Close

     From the Federal Times:
The Social Security Administration will close five field offices by the end of September, according to the union representing agency employees.
Those five, among almost 1,300 nationwide, are in Biloxi, Miss., Ketchikan, Alaska; Louisville, Ky.; Washington, D.C.; and Clinton, Iowa, the American Federation of Government Employees said in a news release.
The agency has already closed eight field offices since January.
In an email, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said the five offices are being consolidated with others and no worker will lose their jobs. The single employee in the Ketchikan office is retiring, Hinkle said. ...
“Given the tight budget situation, we’ve had to make tough choices, including consolidating a small number of our offices,” Hinkle said. ...
The latest step is already drawing protests from lawmakers who represent affected communities. Closing the Ketchikan field office would reportedly save only $100,000, members of the Alaska delegation said in a July 13 letter to Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue. They urged Astrue to consider “all feasible alternatives.”

Hearing On Removing SSNs From Medicare Cards -- What Do You Use Instead?

     From a press release:
House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Health Subcommittee Chairman Wally Herger (R-CA) today announced that the Subcommittees will hold a joint hearing on removing Social Security numbers from beneficiaries’ Medicare cards.  The hearing will take place on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, in 1100 Longworth House Office Building, beginning at 9:30 A.M. ...
In 2008, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General found that displaying SSNs on beneficiary Medicare cards unnecessarily places millions of Americans at risk for identity theft and recommended that the SSN be removed from Medicare cards.  Also in 2008, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 6600, the “Medicare Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2008,” introduced by Representatives Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Sam Johnson (R-TX), directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish cost-effective procedures to ensure that SSNs are not included on Medicare cards moving forward.  This legislation passed the House by voice vote on September 28, 2008.  Unfortunately, the Senate did not act on this legislation. ...
To date, CMS [Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services] has not developed a plan for removing the SSN from the Medicare card to protect beneficiaries from identity theft and protect taxpayers from fraudulent billing.

Jul 29, 2012

Dayton Improving

      From the Dayton Daily News:
... T]he Dayton hearing office of the Social Security Administration has been one of the nation’s worst when completing applicants’ appeals for the benefits. 

For the past two fiscal years, the Dayton office was the second slowest nationally, trailing only Buffalo, N.Y., to process appeals.... [C]laimants who appealed last year to administrative law judges in Dayton had to wait an average 491 days to receive a ruling for benefits. Last year, the average wait time was 345 days at the 157 Social Security offices nationwide. ...
So far this year, the Dayton hearing office has improved its appeals process, is no longer ranked among the 20 slowest in country, and the average wait is about 200 days shorter than it was just two years ago. But the office still ranks as the slowest in Ohio.

Jul 28, 2012

Did You Watch The Olympic Opening Ceremony?

     Did you notice that Great Britain is so proud of the civil servants who work in its national health system that they were a major feature of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics? This leads to a couple of obvious questions. 
  • Why aren't we in the U.S. proud of our civil servants, especially those who help people, like most Social Security employees?
  • Why are some people so afraid of "Obamacare"? It doesn't even involve anything that can reasonably be described as nationalized health care yet Britons who are not so unlike us are so proud of their truly nationalized health care system that they feature it in their Olympic opening ceremony! Why shouldn't they be proud? They receive better health care than Americans at a lower cost.

Over The Top Press Release

     See if you can make any sense of the press release issued by the South East Michigan Health Information Exchange touting its work on a contract with Social Security to create a system that "automatically pulls health records and creates a comprehensive set of medical information that populates a Continuity of Care Document (CCD)."  According to the press release, the contractor has succeeded in "accelerating the [Social Security disability] process from an average of 457 days by paper to 6 hours electronically." In case you don't know, this claim is preposterous in many ways. There is no way that every health care provider in the area is part of this exchange. There is no way that the exchange can guarantee that every person is accurately identified in all their medical records. There is no way that the exchange can make reasonable determinations as to what records to obtain. A single hospitalization that lasts a few days can generate a record running into hundreds of pages. How much of that does Social Security need or want? How can any software make that determination? Records created before a provider switched to electronic records -- which may have been last year -- are unlikely to be searchable electronically. Not all providers in any area of the country have made the switch to electronic records. There is no way under current circumstances that disparate electronic records software can work together seamlessly. Finally, 457 days would have to be the entire time from the date a claimant files a claim to the date he or she receives a decision from an Administrative Law Judge. Reducing that to six hours? Give me a break.

Jul 27, 2012

Cutting Social Security's Budget Would Cost A Lot Of Money

     From a letter from Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, to Xavier Becerra, the ranking Democrat on the House Social Security Subcommittee:
Our current estimates for long-term program savings in benefits and payments to recipients from program integrity efforts is about a $9 long-term program savings for each $1 spent on medical CDRs [Continuing Disability Reviews], and about a $6 long-term program savings for each $1 spent on SSI [Supplemental Security Income]  redeterminations. ... Given these relationships, we can provide the following approximate range estimates [for the following appropriations scenarios]:
  1. Assume 2013 funding for continuing disability reviews (both Title II and Title XVI) and Title XVI eligibility redeterminations was $272 million, rather than its current (2012) level of $757,484,000 [which would be the case under the appropriations bill for Social Security put forward by Republicans in the House of Representatives]. With this reduction in funding for 2013 of about $485 million, assuming that the funding levels assumed in all other years in our baseline estimates are unaffected, we would expect program benefit/payments to be between $3 billion and $4 billion more over the lifetime of those who would not be reassessed due to the reduced funding.
  2. Assume 2013 funding for continuing disability reviews (both Title II and Title XVI) and Title XVI eligibility redeterminations was $272 million, rather than $1.024 billion, as provided for in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25) [the sequestration provided for under last year's budget deal]. With this reduction in funding for 2013 of about $752 million, assuming that the funding levels assumed in all other years in our baseline estimates are unaffected, we would expect program benefit/payments to be between $5 billion and $6 billion more over the lifetime of those who would not be reassessed due to the reduced funding.
     Update: This letter is starting to draw media attention. See Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. These sites may not be familiar to you  but I guarantee you that they are read widely on Capitol Hill. Themes that first appear in Huff Post and TPM often spread quickly to other media that are more widely followed. And, by the way, Huff Post and TPM are well worth reading.

Only 18% Of Women Wait Until Age 66 Or Later To Retire

     The Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing yesterday on Enhancing Women's Retirement. The hearing featured a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). There is much in the report that is interesting but not directly relevant to the subject of this blog, such as the fact that the poverty rate among married women and men 65 and older is 3%, while the poverty rate in this age group among separated men is 20% and among separated women it's 22%. Also, Asians 65 and older have a higher poverty rate than whites, blacks or hispanics. Didn't see that one coming. Of relevance to Social Security are these facts:
  • The majority of women claim Social Security retirement benefits at 62 - the earliest age possible.
  • Only 18 percent of women wait until their normal retirement age of 66 or later. 
     How many of the people who think it would be a great idea to raise full retirement age to 70 are women?

Biloxi Office To Close

     The Associated Press reports that the Biloxi, Mississippi Social Security field office will permanently close its doors on September 30. This is supposed to save $3 million, although the report does not say how long it will take to save that amount. It has a population of 44,000.

Hearing On SSI Administration

     The Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on July 25 on the use of technology to improve Supplemental Security Income (SSI) administration. I noticed nothing of much import in the written statements. There were two witnesses who clearly should not have been testifying, in my opinion, but I won't go into that. I think anyone who takes even a cursory look at this will quickly understand why I say this. 
     I found this bit from the written testimony of Patrick O'Carroll, Social Security's Inspector General, interesting since it's not something that would have occurred to me -- even though I have told clients in the past to apply for these types of benefits:
A recipient may not be eligible for SSI if SSA advises him or her of potential eligibility for other benefits—such as Title II benefits, veterans’ benefits, workers’ compensation, or unemployment insurance—and he or she does not take all steps to obtain such payments within 30 days.
Another type of benefit that falls into this category is a foreign-based pension. We currently have an audit in process that is examining the issue of SSI recipients who are eligible for or receiving a pension from Russia. Foreign entities that pay income to individuals living in the United States do not usually make this information available to the IRS; therefore, SSA cannot detect these pensions as it can with domestic entities. In Russia, pensions may be payable to individuals with as few as five years of work in
the country, even though the individuals reside in the United States.
Through data analysis, we identified a population of more than 25,000 SSI recipients nationwide who might be eligible for Russian pensions.

Jul 26, 2012

Danger Ahead

     According to a Senate Appropriations Committee report(page 77), the Social Security Administration would suffer a major blow if the budget cuts provided for in last year's budget deal are applied uniformly across the board to all domestic agencies. Social Security would lose 5,000 employees and all of the agency's employees and all Disability Determination Services employees would suffer approximately six weeks of furloughs. The average processing time at the initial level on disability claims would raise from 111 days to 180 days and the number of pending disability claims would nearly double from 861,000 to almost 1.5 million by the end of the fiscal year.
     Let me state again that this report assumes that the sequestration would be applied uniformly across all agencies. Neither the appropriations bill reported out of committee in the Senate nor the appropriations bill reported out of subcommittee in the House would do that. They would cut Social Security but not as badly as the sequestration. We have not heard exactly what the results would be under the House or Senate bills but there would still be considerable pain for Social Security. That does not mean that this report means nothing. We are a long way from any appropriations bill passing Congress. I can certainly predict that it will not happen before the election and probably won't happen for six months or more into the fiscal year, which begins October 1, 2012. This report shows what will happen if we go into a Continuing Funding (CR) Resolution to keep government going, which is almost certain to happen, and the CR is at the sequestration rate, which may or may not happen, and Social Security is not protected -- which is a very real possibility. These dramatic reductions in Social Security's administrative budget could happen before the election and could extend well past the election regardless of who is elected President. It could even last the entire fiscal year.
     Don't assume that Social Security will be protected from this disaster. Other agencies have their own arguments for protection from sequestration. Exempt Social Security and some other agency gets hit even harder. If Congress can't pass an actual appropriations bill that deals rationally with sequestration, how will it get its act together well enough to craft a CR that makes a rational allocation of the pain of sequestration?

I Haven't Noticed Social Security Changing Its Notices To Make Them Easier To Understand -- Have You?

     From the Baltimore Sun:
Advocates for plain language have issued their first report card on how clearly federal agencies communicate with taxpayers and others — and the Social Security Administration has drawn a pair of C's.
That put the Woodlawn-based administration in the middle of the dozen agencies assessed by the Center for Plain Language. The Washington-based organization promotes clear, easy-to-understand communication in government, business, nonprofits and academia.
On the first anniversary of the Plain Writing Act, the center graded each agency this month on how well it has met the requirements of the law and how well it has followed the "spirit" of the legislation. The Social Security Administration earned C's in each category. ...
A spokesman for the Social Security Administration said the agency strongly encourages plain writing, "because it is important that our millions of public communications are clear and concise."
"Even prior to the Plain Writing Act, we began a massive overhaul of our online services, our notices, and even our internal instructions to adhere to the principles of plain language," spokesman Mark Hinkle said. "We know that we can do more to improve our communications."
But Hinkle also defended the agency, saying the report card focused more on the process of conforming to the law than the agency's actual communications.

Jul 25, 2012

AC Policy On Extensions Of Time

     The most recent newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) includes this recent memo concerning Appeals Council policy on extensions of time to submit additional materials. It's nothing earth shaking but it's the sort of thing that needs to be in the public record. I know that this cannot be viewed from Social Security computers but you should have other ways of finding this document. Posting it on Scribd puts it in a more accessible archive than just putting it on this blog. Besides, Social Security ought to unblock Scribd. There's nothing dangerous about Scribd.
AC Extensions Policy

The Downside Of Receiving Social Security Benefits Via Debit Card

      I posted over the weekend about a study showing that the vast majority of those who receive their Social Security benefits via government issued debit card are pleased with the arrangement. Susan Tompor writing in the Detroit Free Press writes about the downside of these debit cards -- fees and costs -- and of ways of avoiding them. If you deal with those who use these debit cards, note in particular the areas below that I have bolded and there's one part so important and so little known that I have put it in a larger font:
A study released last week showed that 95% of cardholders are satisfied with the Direct Express card. About 93% would recommend the card to someone else. More than 2 million active cardholders receive Social Security retirement benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits, as well as other benefits.
Thankfully, the government's debit card does not have the outrageous fees of other prepaid debit-card plastic that you might pick up off the shelf at the store.
But it doesn't mean consumers are completely off the hook.
One free ATM withdrawal is allowed each month on the Direct Express Debit MasterCard. Additional ATM withdrawals are 90 cents.
To get one free ATM withdrawal, consumers must go to one of about 60,000 ATMs in the network. That network includes ATMs at Comerica Bank, Charter One, PNC Bank, Privileged Status, Alliance One, the MasterCard ATM Alliance and MoneyPass.
Plenty of bank names, though, aren't in the network. And it could cost up to $3 or so a pop to get access to your Social Security money at some ATMs -- no free withdrawals -- if you go out of the network. ...
A consumer with the Direct Express card could go to any bank or credit union that displays the MasterCard acceptance mark and get cash from a teller -- not an ATM -- free of charge. ...
There is a $1.50 fee to transfer money from the card to a personal bank account. ...
There's a 75-cent monthly fee to get a paper statement. ...
One free replacement of the card is allowed each year. After that, there is a $4 fee to replace the card. If you wanted to expedite the replacement, there's a $13.30 fee, too.

Jul 24, 2012

New Ruling On Fibromyalgia

     Social Security will publish in the Federal Register tomorrow a Ruling 12-2p on the evaluation of fibromyalgia in disability claims. The ruling states that "FM [Fibromyalgia] is an MDI [Medically Determinable Impairment] when it is established by appropriate medical evidence. FM can be the basis for a finding of disability." The ruling specifies that either the 1990 American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Criteria for the Classification of Fibromyalgia or the 2010 ACR Preliminary Diagnostic Criteria may be used to determine if the claimant has FM as a MDI. 
     As to determining Residual Functional Capacity, the Ruling states that (footnotes omitted):
Widespread pain and other symptoms associated with FM, such as fatigue, may result in exertional limitations that prevent a person from doing the full range of unskilled work in one or more of the exertional categories ... People with FM may also have nonexertional physical or mental limitations because of their pain or other symptoms. Some may have environmental restrictions, which are also nonexertional.
      The problem with the Ruling is that it demands that a physician write down a long list of the factors used in the ACR criteria which led to the diagnosis of FM. Even rheumatologists don't do that generally any more than psychiatrists record each factor leading to a diagnosis of major depression. If you're a specialist, you may "know it when you see it" without bothering to record each step leading to the diagnosis.

Don't Blame Social Security

     From WOAI:
Knowing how tight money is at the federal level one local company is questioning Social Security spending right here in San Antonio. The agency has decided to move one of its offices .... The two locations are just seven miles apart.

"The figures we're talking about are astronomical,” Henry Bonilla, former US Representative, told us.

Henry Bonilla is a consultant for MAGI Realty. Since June of 1985 the Social Security Administration has been one of their tenants. But back in February SSA signed a new lease agreement with another company. ...

The new lease agreement says before moving in Social Security will pay to renovate the building off San Pedro. The cost for improvements is $1,749,169.

But rent is also going up. At the old place, found off Woodcock Drive, SSA was paying $500,249 a year for 30,079 square feet. The new location has 32,369 square feet and Social Security will pay $1,062,089 a year for the first ten years. ...

We reached out to the Social Security Administration to ask about the costs associated with their new move. A representative out of Dallas sent us this response: "This office is hiring more judges and more staff to serve the public. The prior location could not accommodate the need for additional space."
      There is one thing anyone considering this story needs to know immediately. For better or worse, Social Security wasn't responsible for this leasing decision. That's done for all federal agencies by the General Services Administration (GSA). Social Security has a say but it's GSA's call.
     The reason for this move may be as simple as the one indicated by the Social Security spokesperson -- the agency needed more space than it could get at its old location. Obviously, there could have been other problems with the old location. We just don't know about that. The article also mentions the difference in the rental rates at the two sites. Undoubtedly, this article is giving the rental rate on the old site at the rate Social Security was paying under its old lease. What rate was MAGI offering on a new lease? What sort of renovations were they willing to do to get a new lease and who was going to pay for those renovations? That's often the game when you're negotiating office leases.
     Leasing office space is a complicated matter. I've done it for spaces a fraction the size of the one being discussed here. Even with the help of a good realtor who specializes in representing commercial tenants, I've found it confusing. It's way different from leasing an apartment. We do know that GSA handles lots and lots of leases. The agency has an incredible amount of experience in handling office leasing matters. Historically, the problem at GSA hasn't been making bad decisions on leases. The problem has been how long it takes GSA to make decisions on leases.
     Hiring a former Congressman to lobby for you on a federal office space lease? I hope this is not a common thing.
     If you've got such a great office space, why would you worry so much about losing a tenant? Wouldn't you expect to find a new tenant soon enough?

Those Who Want To Cut Social Security Never Let Up

     Dean Baker writing at FDL warns that corporate executives are working behind the scenes to pressure Congress into accepting a budget deal that would include cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Jul 23, 2012

GAO Report Wonders Why Computers Can't Determine Disability; Also, SSA Says Final Mental Impairment Listings To Come Out This Year (I'm Dubious) And Problems With The OIS Project

     The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on Modernizing SSA [Social Security Administration] Disability Programs. GAO wants Social Security to take "modern views of disability." GAO thinks that "modern views of disability" would include (with my comments in brackets and italicized):
  • Incorporating criteria in the Listings of Impairments that would specify the extent to which certain impairments limit functional ability [You're naive, GAO. SSA already has residual functional capacity guidelines used at the initial and reconsideration levels. They can't put them in the Listings. They can't publish them. They don't want them in writing. They deny they exist. This is because they cannot justify them. But they do exist. They're disseminated and enforced through the quality assurance program.]
  • Finding ways of measuring functional ability [Right. Just as soon as someone manages to invent a machine that measures pain or depression.]
  • Developing "a computerized tool to assist adjudicators in evaluating how various impairments affect an individual’s function and ability to work."[GAO is saying that since computers can do such wonderful things they must surely be able to determine residual functional capacity better than individuals. You guys at GAO have never read a Social Security disability file, have you?]
  • Understand that "Modern concepts focus on an individual’s functional abilities in the workplace environment, including consideration of the presence or lack of assistance, for example, per the requirements for reasonable accommodation by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990." [Social Security has rejected the reasonable accommodation route. You're not getting around this without legislation. Even if legislation were passed, I don't think anyone can say how SSA could incorporate reasonable accommodation into disability determination. Even though the ADA was high-minded, it was terrible vague. It's been interpreted nearly out of existence by the Supreme Court. In the real world, the ADA has meant little. Also, if you put reasonable accommodation into the Social Security Act, you might have to amend the ADA to make it really mean something and we know that business interests would fight that tooth and nail.]
     The report contains the statement that "SSA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to revise its listings of mental disorders in 2010 and has told us that it plans to finalize this comprehensive revision by the end of 2012 ..." We shall see. It's late July  and Social Security still hasn't submitted this to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval. Once they do, it will take OMB three months or so to study it and it's far from clear that OMB sees eye to eye with Commissioner Astrue on this. Maybe they think they can get the mental impairment Listings approved and published after the election but I have a hard time seeing OMB approving any final rule on this with Michael Astrue's term as Commissioner about to expire unless the new Listing is exceedingly non-controversial. If the final rule was to be exceedingly non-controversial, I think it would have already happened. I think this one will still be on the desk when the next Commissioner arrives sometime next year.
     The report also indicates that Social Security is having problems coming up with a sufficient budget to pursue its Occupational Information System (OIS) project. The project is being delayed due to lack of personnel. The full extent of the problem is unclear since Social Security seems to have little idea how much the full program is going to cost. According to the report:
Without any estimate for the cost of producing the OIS, SSA risks designing a system that would not be a viable or affordable option to complete. Additionally, without maintenance cost estimates, SSA is at risk of designing a system that would be too costly to maintain on a regular basis resulting in outdated information.
     GAO says that Social Security could face "broader challenges" to its OIS project but that SSA "has not done a formal risk analysis of these challenges." According to GAO, these risks include:
  • SSA’s lack of expertise with designing an OIS
  • Cost of maintaining an OIS
  • SSA's history of difficulty managing large, multiyear projects
     OMB should mention but does not the even bigger issue of the legal defensibility of whatever the OIS project produces. Social Security seems to be a bit nervous about this issue. I think they should be extremely nervous about this issue. How does it look if SSA spends several years and a few hundred million dollars on the OIS project and it all goes up in smoke in federal court? Can anyone say there is no risk of that happening? Can anyone quantify that risk? Can anyone predict the fallout if that happens?

Jul 22, 2012

Why We Must Enhance Social Security Instead Of Cutting It

     From an opinion piece (subscription required) by Teresa Ghilarducci in the New York Times:
I work on retirement policy, so friends often want to talk about their own retirement plans and prospects. While I am happy to have these conversations, my friends usually walk away feeling worse — for good reason. 
Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. ...
To maintain living standards into old age we need roughly 20 times our annual income in financial wealth. If you earn $100,000 at retirement, you need about $2 million beyond what you will receive from Social Security. If you have an income-producing partner and a paid-off house, you need less. This number is startling in light of the stone-cold fact that most people aged 50 to 64 have nothing or next to nothing in retirement accounts and thus will rely solely on Social Security.  ...
If we manage to accept that our investments will likely not be enough, we usually enter another fantasy world — that of working longer. After all, people hear that 70 is the new 50, and a recent report from Boston College says that if people work until age 70, they will most likely have enough to retire on. Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that unemployment rates for those over 50 are increasing faster than for any other group and that displaced older workers face a higher risk of long-term unemployment than their younger counterparts. If those workers ever do get re-hired, it’s not without taking at least a 25 percent wage cut....
The chance to work into one’s 70s primarily belongs to the most well off. Medical technology has helped extend life, by helping older people survive longer with illnesses and by helping others stay active. The gains in longevity in the last two decades almost all went to people earning more than average. It makes perfect sense for human beings to think each of us is special and can work forever. To admit you can’t, or might not be able to, is hard, and denial and magical thinking are underrated human coping devices in response to helplessness and fear.  ...
Basing a system on people’s voluntarily saving for 40 years and evaluating the relevant information for sound investment choices is like asking the family pet to dance on two legs. 
Not yet convinced that failure is baked into the voluntary, self-directed, commercially run retirement plans system? Consider what would have to happen for it to work for you. First, figure out when you and your spouse will be laid off or be too sick to work. Second, figure out when you will die. Third, understand that you need to save 7 percent of every dollar you earn. (Didn’t start doing that when you were 25 and you are 55 now? Just save 30 percent of every dollar.) Fourth, earn at least 3 percent above inflation on your investments, every year. (Easy. Just find the best funds for the lowest price and have them optimally allocated.) Fifth, do not withdraw any funds when you lose your job, have a health problem, get divorced, buy a house or send a kid to college. Sixth, time your retirement account withdrawals so the last cent is spent the day you die. 

Jul 21, 2012

Payment Of Social Security Benefits By Debit Card Popular

     From the American Banker:
Nearly all senior citizens and others who receive monthly Social Security benefits on government-issued debit cards are satisfied with their cards and would recommend them to other seniors who are still receiving paper checks, a new survey has found.

The Treasury Department has been issuing the prepaid cards since 2008 primarily to give recipients easier access to their Social Security funds. The MasterCard-branded cards have been issued to more than 3 million Americans, two-thirds of whom did not have access to traditional banking services when they signed up, according to the Treasury.

In a survey conducted in June by KRC Research and commissioned by MasterCard, 95% of recipients who use the cards said they are happy with them and 93% said they would recommend them to others. Also, 97% said that the debit cards are safer than paper checks and 93% said that the card is more convenient than cash for making purchases, the Treasury said Tuesday.

Jul 20, 2012

Processing Time Report

     Below is a recent Social Security hearing office average processing time report published in the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). Click on each page to see full size.

Jul 19, 2012

Congressional Hearing On SSI Technology

     From a press release:
Congressman Geoff Davis (R-KY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means, announced today that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the use of technology to improve the administration of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program’s financial eligibility requirements.  The hearing will take place on Friday, July 20, 2012 in 1100 Longworth House Office Building, beginning at 9:30 A.M.
      Update: This hearing has been postponed to July 25 at 2:00 p.m.

Fighting To Keep Field Office From Closing

     Local officials are still trying hard to keep the Clinton, IA Social Security field office open.
     Just think of how many field offices get closed if the House Republican appropriation for the Social Security Administration becomes law. Now, that I think of it, maybe Social Security should be putting out a press release on this subject now.

Death Master File Remains A Headache For Social Security

     Social Security's Death Master File is drawing more media attention, now with an article about the use of the Death Master File for fraudulent purposes titled Social Security Selling Dead Peoples' Identities For $10 A Pop.      
     If you are just encountering this issue for the first time, please note that Social Security would strongly prefer that no one outside the agency have access to the Death Master File but the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires them to allow this access. Amending the FOIA to keep the Death Master File secret would not be easy. There are plenty of legitimate uses of the Death Master File, some of them of significant importance in preventing fraud. There are no easy answers and the Social Security Administration is caught in the middle.

Private Equity And Binder and Binder

     In June of last year, I posted that Binder and Binder, the largest entity representing Social Security claimants, had been acquired in 2010, at least in part, by HIG, a private equity firm based in Miami, in a leveraged buyout.
     At the time I knew essentially nothing about private equity firms. Since then, the publicity about Mitt Romney's involvement in Bain Capital, another private equity firm, has educated me a tiny bit on private equity companies. It appears that Bain was, in the main, acquiring troubled companies and trying to turn them around for resale at a tidy profit. Sometimes they were unable to turn the companies around and the companies were closed -- usually with Bain making a tidy profit despite the closure. 
     I suppose that there are different private equity models than those employed by Bain. Bain's operations were surely a good deal more complex than what has been described in the press. I have no idea how HIG operates or what triggered this acquisition or what has happened since HIG acquired at least part of Binder and Binder. Still, the involvement of a private equity firm in representing Social Security claimants still seems awfully weird and somewhat troubling to me.
     I am somewhat amused by the thought of HIG's MBAs digging deep into the guts of the business of representing Social Security claimants and being confronted again and again with roadblocks imposed by the Social Security Act and Social Security's regulations and policies. I have trouble imagining them actually reading client files and attending client hearings to truly educate themselves about this messy business. I wonder what those MBAs thought about those Wall Street Journal articles about Binder and Binder. Did they think they didn't matter since few Social Security claimants read the Wall Street Journal? Did they realize the problems those articles could cause Binder and Binder with Administrative Law Judges and Social Security in general -- problems that would inevitably affect the company's bottom line?As I say, the involvement of a private equity company in this business just seems awfully weird to me.

Jul 18, 2012

CBO Swings And Misses

     The Congressional Budget Office has put out a report on Policy Options for the Social Security Disability Insurance Program. The report deals mostly with the fact that the Disability Insurance Trust Fund is predicted to run out of money in about four years and how this fact might be dealt with.
     The CBO has a great reputation but I don't think this is one of their better efforts. Somehow, they fail to mention the option put forward by Social Security's Chief Actuary of temporarily raising the Disability Insurance program’s share of the FICA payroll tax rate from 1.8 to 2.2 percent for 2012 through 2024 and to 2.0 percent for 2025 through 2029. You would think that they would be aware of this proposal but it isn't mentioned. They list the people they consulted in producing the report and the Office of the Chief Actuary is not mentioned, which I find amazing. That should have been where they started.
     Here are some of the ideas that did make it into the report:
  • Permanently raise the FICA tax by 0.2% -- which couldn't possibly solve the Disability Trust Fund problem in the short term
  • Reduce all disability benefits by 15%
  • Reduce disability benefits dramatically for those age 53 and older, an idea which is discussed at length
  • Eliminate Social Security disability benefits entirely for those 62 and older, an idea which is linked with reducing disability benefits for those 53 and older.  CBO needs a reality check. Louie Gohmert may be the craziest member of Congress but I don't think even Gohmert would endorse this!
  • Increase the waiting period from 5 months to 12-- another sign of a need for a reality check
  • Introducing government representation -- indicating that CBO is unaware that this was tried in the past and did not reduce the number of people approved for Social Security disability benefits. By the way, as I have pointed out before, I can only link to an interim report on the government representative project. The experiment was such an embarrassing failure that Social Security quietly terminated it without ever writing up a final report! And yet, this idea keeps turning up in Very Serious Reports like this CBO study.
     By the way, the CBO estimated the effects of increasing the age ranges in the grid regulations by two years. That would only reduce disability benefit payments by 0.5% by 2022. This doesn't sound like something even worth considering since it would generate a ton of controversy and wouldn't save much money.
     The more you look at this, the more it looks like Steve Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, has a good handle on what is economically and politically feasible, regardless of who wins the 2012 and 2014 elections. CBO ought to be talking with him.

Jul 17, 2012

House Appropriations Bill Would Decrease Social Security's Administrative Budget

     A press release on the Chairman's mark of the House Appropriations Committee's Labor-HHS appropriations bill that would fund Social Security's administrative budget indicates that the agency's budget for fiscal year (FY) 2013, which begins on October 1, 2012, would be $10.7 billion, $287 million below FY 2012. This bill is to be marked up in subcommittee tomorrow.
     The Senate Appropriations Committee has already reported out its version of the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill and it provides $11.736 billion for Social Security's administrative budget, which was described as a $290 million increase over FY 2012. 
      Note that the difference in the amounts appropriated between the two bills is in excess of $1 billion yet if you add the $287 million decrease of the House Bill to the $290 million increase of the Senate bill you get a total difference between the two bills of $577 million. This is an excellent example of how bizarre and confusing the appropriations process is. I have no idea what accounts for the other $500 million of difference between the two bills.

Right On Ladies! I Love Your Signs!

     From the Napa Valley Register:
About two dozen women and their children gathered on the front steps of Napa’s Social Security office Monday morning for a “nurse-in” to raise awareness of their right to breast-feed in public.
Participants were upset that last Tuesday a security officer had told a breast-feeding mom to step outside to feed her baby, said Cherissa Lowgren, a mother who said she witnessed this event.
“I wasn’t even aware of what she was doing,” Lowgren said of the woman named Maria, who had started feeding one of her two children after the girl became fussy.
“The guard tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘You can’t do that here,’” Lowgren said. “She didn’t speak English, so she looked confused and at the same time, humiliated.” ...
A spokesman for the Social Security Administration, Deogracias Santos, said the security officer was likely unaware of the law protecting breast-feeding. Guards are not employed by the administration, but are contracted through the Department of Homeland Security.
Santos said the administration is using the “unfortunate event” as an opportunity to educate all employees about the law that allows public breast-feeding. He said no one at the administration was notified of the incident when it happened and the woman would have been allowed to nurse inside had it been mentioned.

You Know It's A Hoax But You Still Have To Take It Seriously

     The Redding, California Social Security field office was evacuated yesterday when an envelope was opened that contained a white powdery substance.
     Update: The building has been reopened. The powder wasn't dangerous.

Jul 16, 2012

House Appropriations Markup Scheduled

     The House Appropriations Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the appropriation for Social Security's administrative operations has scheduled a markup session for July 18 at 2:00. The starting point for the markup is called the "Chairman's Mark." I don't see a sign that the Chairman's mark has been released yet. Probably, that will be withheld as long as possible. By the way, last year's markup session was scheduled repeatedly and then delayed repeatedly for reasons that were never made public.
     Social Security is only a small part of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which is usually the most contentious of the appropriations bills. With the mandatory cuts required by last year's budget deal and the bloody-minded attitude of House Republicans, expect howls of pain and outrage once the Chairman's Mark is released. Just hope that Social Security is not too badly affected.

Jul 14, 2012

Attack Of The Dismal Science

     Nancy Folbre writes in her Economix blog at the New York Times about the Social Security problems caused by low fertility rates in the United States. These low fertility rates are associated with economic development and the introduction of birth control. This is a real problem which deserves attention but Folbre's blog post reminds me of why economics has been referred to as the "dismal science." She talks calmly about  unrealistic solutions such as ending Social Security or offering dramatic economic support for families with children while completely missing an obvious and fairly workable solution for the United States -- more immigration.

Jul 13, 2012

ACUS Wants To Study "Duty Of Candor And The Submission Of All Evidence"

     From a Request for Proposals (RFP) announced by the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) as best I can tell on July 12:
The Administrative Conference is seeking a consultant to undertake a research project that will consider the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) statutory authority and current regulations regarding the duty of candor and the submission of all evidence in Social Security disability claims. Proposals are due by 6:00 pm Eastern time on July 16, 2012. ...

SSA [Social Security Administration] has requested that the Conference study its statutory authority1 and regulations2 regarding the duty of candor and the submission of all evidence in Social Security disability claims. Specifically, the agency is concerned about reports that some claimants’ representatives routinely withhold from the government, medical records which they believe to be potentially damaging to claimants’ claims.3 Accordingly, the Conference wishes to conduct a focused study of SSA’s statutory authority and current regulations regarding the duty of candor and the submission of all evidence, such as a claimant’s medical records and/or other evidence necessary to accurately develop the record in a non-adversarial proceeding. ...

... [T]he consulting fee has been estimated at $15,000 plus travel and research assistance expenses of $5,000. ...

[Applicants should] Propose a schedule for the project based on the September 2012 deadline for submission of the Office of the Chairman report to SSA. Because this project is under an unusually short time deadline, a draft report, which should be substantially complete and ready for review by the Chairman and Conference staff would be needed by the end of August 2012 and the final report by the middle of September 2012.
     You put out an RFP due four whole days later! How many proposals are you expecting in response? No, I'm not interested in submitting a proposal. Obviously, someone has already been picked for this (probably Harold Krent) and the RFP is just window-dressing. Is this the sort of administrative process that ACUS would recommend to agencies? And what's with the short time for this study? We're about to have a general election and the Commissioner of Social Security is a short-termer. It's not like anything is going to happen on this subject in the near future.
     I written about my concern that ACUS and its leadership have demonstrated that they are pathetically out of touch with reality when it comes to Social Security. I will be surprised if this study is of any help to anyone.
     Maybe the Republicans were right to defund ACUS years ago and Democrats were wrong to resurrect it. Perhaps, ACUS wants to get this study done quickly because it's afraid it will soon be out of business again.

     Update: One commenter has stated that the RFP date had actually been announced on June 8 and that July 16 was an extension of the deadline. I would appreciate it if someone could point me to any PUBLIC announcement of this RFP prior to yesterday. I receive the ACUS online newsletter. I didn't see any sign of this RFP prior to yesterday. I can't seem to find anything on the ACUS website. This is the URL for the RFP itself: http://www.acus.gov/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/SSA-Reps-Conduct-Project-RFP-6-21-12.pdf 
      Notice that date of June 21, 2012 at the end of the URL? Why would that date be on there if it had been announced on June 8?
     And, by the way, ACUS didn't announce this on FedBizOpp.gov either.
     Who knew about this prior to yesterday and how did they find out about it? I think it's a reasonable question.

You Can't Rely On The Death Master File

     According to a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) there are 1.2 million deceased Social Security beneficiaries who are not recorded on Social Security's Death Master File. Despite this, it appears that Social Security is generally terminating benefits for most of the 1.2 million anyway. However, this leaves other entities relying on the Death Master File vulnerable, including e-verify checks of new hires.
     This story has been picked up by the Washington Post's Federal Eye column which includes some ridiculous quotes from Senator Tom Coburn.

Jul 12, 2012

Iowa Field Office Remains At Risk

    From the Clinton Iowa Herald:
The Social Security Administration office in Clinton is in danger of being closed again. ...
The office ... was on the chopping block four years ago when SSA officials said they would close the office by June 1, 2008, and consolidate operations with the Davenport office.
That merger was ultimately scrapped after elected officials and residents raised concerns about elderly or disabled residents’ travel restrictions and discomfort with 1-800 phone numbers and the Internet.
Few details of the current closure proposal are available. U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, sent a letter to Jewell Colbert, the regional communications director for the Kansas City Regional SSA office, asking for more information. Vulich said he had not received any further explanation of when or why the office is being slated for closure.   ...

Jul 11, 2012

While Sandra Bullock Is Filming A Movie In The Area, Dispute Outside Social Security Office Leads To Three People Stabbed, One Fatally

     From the Boston Globe (emphasis added):
A Boston police officer working a security ­detail on the set of a Sandra Bullock movie filming in Dudley Square Tuesday afternoon helped chase down a suspect after three people were stabbed, one fatally, outside a federal office near the location of the film shoot, police said.
Boston police said that the stabbing occurred at Dudley and Washington streets shortly before 2 p.m. and that one of the three male victims, ranging in age from about 17 to 21, later died at Boston Medical Center. The injuries to the other two men were not life-threatening, police said.
A detail officer on the set of “The Heat,” a buddy cop movie starring Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that was filming at Shawmut and Washington streets, helped chase and capture the suspect, who was taken into custody for questioning, police said. ...
Police said Tuesday night in a statement that witnesses indicated the dispute began outside the Social Security Administration office at 10 Malcom X Boulevard.

Threatening To Criminally Prosecute Those Who Help People File Claims Online Doesn't Help

     The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a report giving information about "non-profit third party efforts" to help Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claimants. One major reason for SSAB's interest in these efforts is that this could "free up resources for the agency."
     I think there are some practical things that Social Security could do to increase the help available to SSI claimants, one of them being to stop threatening criminal prosecutions of those who try to help people file claims online, but before we talk about what Social Security could do, let's talk about what's happening now.
     One example of what the SSAB would like to see more of is SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery). SOAR is a joint project of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). However, while SOAR has other intentions, it has a major goal of reducing local government costs for homeless shelters and indigent medical care by getting  homeless people on SSI, thereby getting them on cash SSI benefits and also getting them on Medicaid. SSAB wants to see more of projects like SOAR so that Social Security's administrative burden can be reduced. It seems like this is like a dog chasing its tail. Wouldn't be it simpler and more direct to just give the Social Security Administration adequate resources so it could help people with their SSI claims instead of trying to encourage other government agencies to spend their money to help people with SSI claims? Trying to find ways to shift costs from one government agency to another is understandable but in the big picture it's inefficient.
     One type of program which SSAB does not mention, perhaps because they are unaware of it or perhaps because it does not fit into their formula, is the effort that many hospitals make to get people on SSI. Why would hospitals do this? It's simple. Uninsured person enters the hospital through the emergency room, is admitted and quickly runs up a bill of tens of thousands of dollars. The same uninsured person may be back in the hospital again before long running up another big bill. The hospital wants to get the uninsured person on SSI because that makes them eligible for Medicaid which means the hospital gets paid tens of thousands of dollars now and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term. Thus, the hospital hires someone to help the person file and pursue an SSI claim. Again, there is an element of tail chasing here. In a rational society shouldn't the hospital be able to just call Social Security and depend upon them to do the work required to get the claimant on benefits? Since Social Security does not have the staff to do this, the hospital has to step in and spend its money. This amounts to a tax imposed upon the hospital because of inadequate staffing at Social Security.
     I am sure that there are some true volunteer effort to help people with SSI claims but I have not seen or heard of many. I think the reason is that, while it can be emotionally rewarding to help lift a person out of abject poverty, it's also gritty work. It's hard to stay in contact with poor people. They keep moving around. The vast majority of SSI claimants suffer from depression at the least. Many suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. More than a few SSI claimants are unpleasant to deal with. A significant percentage have substance abuse problems. Some of them smell bad and dealing with people who smell bad may be even tougher than it sounds. You're never going to see large numbers of volunteers signing up for this sort of work.
     I can suggest a couple of things that would help reduce Social Security's SSI workload a bit:
  • Quit threatening to criminally prosecute those who help people file claims online. Social Security's official position is that while you may help a person fill out claim forms online, the claimant must physically push the "send" button on the computer himself or herself. If you get the information over the telephone and get the claimant's permission to submit the claim and then hit the "send" button, you've just committed fraud in Social Security's view. Of course, Social Security, itself, does the same thing all the time but it's not fraud when their employees do it. This is nuts.
  • If Social Security cannot give claimants the help they need, everyone needs to recognize that the only group likely to give expert, sympathetic help on a large scale is attorneys. My firm and others do help people file claims but there is a shortage of attorneys willing to do this. This reason is money. Most attorneys feel like the money just isn't there. They don't think they can make a profit representing claimants at the initial and reconsideration levels, much less helping them file claims. Unless we are willing to look at ways of increasing the financial rewards for helping people file claims, I don't think we'll see much more of it. Is this self-serving? Sure, but I'm just the messenger. It's the marketplace that's saying that the pay for performing this service isn't high enough. More "education" isn't going to solve this problem. More exhortation isn't going to solve the problem. You can't order the problem out of existence. It's time to listen to what the marketplace is saying. I have no particular idea for how this can be done but I'm sure it would be possible to come up with some ideas if the will existed.If we're not going to fund the Social Security Administration adequately, we'd better come up with some ideas.

Jul 10, 2012

Doing Less With Less

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make disability determinations on Social Security disability claims at the initial and reconsideration levels, has posted its Summer 2012 newsletter. Here is an excerpt from the President's Message column:
Here is a new concept that is ushering in a new era for the DDS. The concept is this: we must do less with less. It comes from part of a sentence in Deputy Commissioner Colvin's testimony to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security on January 24, 2012. The context of the statement is this: Our available funding in (FY [Fiscal Year]) 2012 is almost $400 million less than what we operated with in FY 2010. At the same time, our fixed costs and our workloads continued to increase. We lost over 4,000 employees in FY 2011, and we expect to lose over 3,000 more employees this year that we cannot replace. We simply do not have enough staff to complete all of the work for which we are responsible, and we made strategic decisions about the areas in which we must do less with less.

Simply stated there are not enough trained professionals to handle the number of customers coming through the door, through the internet, or wanting service over the phone. Nobody knows that better than we do at the Disability Determination Service. Last March President-Elect Todd Deshong, Legislative Director Mark Bernskoetter, and I met with several different Congressional Representatives and their staffs that serve on various Social Security subcommittees. We also met with staff people from the Congressional Budget Office and Management and Budget. In each meeting, we passionately explained our attrition rate and the current federal prohibition to hire new employees. We explained how long it takes to hire, train, and mentor new examiners to have any level of significant productivity. We explained that no matter how carefully we interview perspective new examiners that a certain percentage will not make it through the training and probationary period because they will see how difficult and demanding this work is. We explained that our attrition rate, coupled with our historic levels of new claims could only result in one outcome. That outcome is a higher staged backlog. Tens of thousands of new applications with not enough trained professionals to process them. We explained that while we may be funded for more CDRs [Continuing Disability Reviews] in the next fiscal year, the fact remains there are fewer people to process those CDRs. We painted a very vivid picture of an impending storm. We told each of them that they should expect to have their own constituents visit their offices to complain that their disability application has not been assigned to anyone to work on. We explained that even though the numbers are staggering they are not merely numbers but real people with legitimate impairments and many of them will live in their own Districts

Jul 9, 2012

Headcount Continues To Decline

     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.
  •  March 2012 65,257
  • 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

Jul 8, 2012

A New Form Of Slavery

     From Huffington Post:
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) on Sunday called Social Security "a form of modern, 21st century slavery." ...
This isn't the first time he's compared U.S. social programs to slavery. Last week, he said that President Obama "does not want you to have the self-esteem of getting up and earning, and having that title of American ... he'd rather you be his slave."

Fee Payment Numbers

      The Social Security Administration has posted updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants. These fees come out of the back benefits of the claimants involved. Social Security is merely the conduit. These payments are a great analogue for how quickly or slowly the agency is getting benefits paid to claimants after a favorable decision on their claims.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Jul 7, 2012

Out Of Control Government?

     Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union local that represents most Social Security employees, has posted its June 2012 newsletter, which includes the graphic posted above.

Jul 6, 2012

Jul 5, 2012

Cashing A Dead Woman's Checks For 26 Years

     From Huffington Post  :
Willie Mae Shaughnesy died in 1984, according to Texas state records. But that didn't stop the government from sending her Social Security checks, and allegedly, it didn't stop her son from cashing them. 
Last week, a U.S. attorney in southeast Texas charged Kline Fisher Budd, an 80-year-old man believed to be Shaughnesy's son, with theft of government property  . ...

The whole thing began to unravel in 2010 when someone at the Social Security Administration decided to check up on Shaughnesy after noticing that she would have been more than 104 years old at that point. By then, according to the U.S. attorney's office, the SSA had paid more than $231,000   into Shaughnesy's account following her death.

Jul 4, 2012

Andy Griffith: 1926 -2012

     I am sorry to note the passing of another fellow North Carolinian, Andy Griffith, a man who was widely and rightly beloved, particularly for his performance as Sheriff Andy Taylor on the Andy Griffith show.
     North Carolinians were and are proud of Andy Griffith and his body of work. To give you an idea, the Carolina Hurricanes NHL Hockey team, based in Raleigh, was in the 2002 Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Yes, a North Carolina team in the Stanley Cup finals is incongruous and a  Detroit sportswriter referred to Raleigh as that time as Mayberry. Were we insulted? Hell, no. We were quite proud of the reference. T-shirts were printed. Of course, Raleigh is not a tiny town but we're quite happy to embrace Mayberry values and so is the rest of the state. Who wouldn't be? We're proud that the show was set in the fictional town of Mayberry, NC. Andy Griffith's home town of Mount Airy, NC (which, incidentally is near the geographic feature of Pilot Mountain -- does the name Mount Pilot ring a bell?) especially embraces its association with Mayberry. By the way, although the Hurricanes lost in the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, they won the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Happy 4th Of July!

Jul 3, 2012

Maybe We've Gotten Carried Away By The Whole Idea Of Rehabilitation

     The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has put out a report with the title Employment For People With Disabilities: Little Is Known about the Effectiveness of Fragmented and Overlapping Programs. Here is an excerpt:
GAO identified 45 programs that supported employment for people with disabilities in fiscal year 2010, reflecting a fragmented system of services. The programs were administered by nine federal agencies and overseen by even more congressional committees. All programs overlapped with at least one other program in that they provided one or more similar employment service to a similar population—people with disabilities. ...[A]mong six selected programs that only serve people with disabilities—including the Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation program and the Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work program—officials cited more consistent coordination. Most (32) of the 45 programs surveyed tracked at least one employment-related outcome measure for people with disabilities, but overall little is known about the effectiveness of these programs.
      I wonder if Congressional fascination with rehabilitation is in a sense a defense mechanism. We want to believe that even if we get sick that we can find a way to make life go on as before. We are too eager to believe that there is no health obstacle too big to overcome. We desperately want to believe that illness or injury won't take away from us things that we hold dear and for many people that includes work.