Aug 13, 2012

What Is Going On In Pittsburgh?

    Just a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a bizarre op ed piece that baldly stated that all one had to do to get on Social Security disability benefits was to go to one psychiatric exam and feign mental illness, which is simply untrue. Now the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is running this article:
Few of the petitioners who appear before Administrative Law Judge Manny Smith hear the word “no.”
Smith grants benefits in close to 80 percent of the Social Security disability claims he hears, nearly twice as often as other administrative judges in Western Pennsylvania and much higher than the national average of 58 percent, federal data show. ...
“If we don’t do something, in four years it won’t be able to pay full benefits,” said Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee. Its Social Security Subcommittee has held five hearings on disability insurance over the past year. ...
“The whole procedure may have made sense 20 years ago, when most people were honest and didn’t know about” the disability program, said James Bukes of Mt. Lebanon, who retired in January after two decades as an administrative law judge. “But now it’s become such a big business.” ...
Legislation to change the system might emerge this fall. Lawmakers want to ensure Social Security keeps paying those who need help while safeguarding taxpayer dollars, Swinehart said. ...
The rise in disability applications to 2.88 million in 2011 stems from a half-dozen sources, including the economic downturn and a surge in legal representation for applicants, Pierce said. He said lawyers earn about $1.4 billion a year by representing disability appellants, about 85 percent of whom have private counsel. ...
The Social Security Administration has moved toward more standardized decision-making, said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Jim Borland. He said the number of judges who allow nearly all claims has fallen by more than half since 2007.
“We have created new tools to focus on quality,” Borland said. “Each quarter, we train our adjudicators on the most complex, error-prone provisions of law and regulation.” ...
[Richard J.] Pierce [a George Washington University law professor who has been harshly critical of ALJs] has suggested the government drop law judges from the process. He estimates their salaries and benefits cost more than $2 billion a year.
      A few points:
  • The article does not once mention the aging of the baby boomer generation as a reason for the problems of the disability trust fund even though no one with any knowledge of the situation would deny that this is far and away the most important reason.
  • The House Social Security Subcommittee may report out legislation in the next month to do something about Social Security ALJs.
  • A Social Security Assistant Deputy Commissioner is bragging that the agency has found a way to "train" ALJs so that they allow fewer disability claims.
  • Professor Richard Pierce thinks that Social Security's ALJs cost $2 billion a year. Since there are about 1,500 ALJs at Social Security, Pierce must think that pay and benefits for each ALJ are over $1.3 million a year. The real figure is less than one-tenth of that.
  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is owned by Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife is best known for promoting bizarre ring wing conspiracy theories about President Bill Clinton, including accusing Clinton of murder and drug smuggling. In a bizarre twist, Scaife later endorsed Hillary Clinton when she was running for President. The Tribune-Review and Post-Gazette newspapers are bitter rivals.


Anonymous said...

"[Richard J.] Pierce [a George Washington University law professor who has been harshly critical of ALJs] has suggested the government drop law judges from the process. He estimates their salaries and benefits cost more than $2 billion a year"

I have been stating these aljs and other $100,000+ employees was overpaid. These folks is likely to blame budget issues solely on claimants and their attornies,and beneficiaries BUT NOT THEMSELVES.

Anonymous said...

They claim 85% of disability appellants have private counsel? What is their attribution for this figure?
That has to be impossibly high!

Anonymous said...

Charles, you and Pierce are both off about ALJ salaries.

Doing a quick glance at ALJ pay tables indicates that ALJs start at an average of about $125-130k, in three years the pay rate jumps to between about $150-155k, topping out after 5-7 (depending on locality) at $165300, the current max.

So right off the bat, your retort that ALJs cost "less than a tenth" of $1.3 million is wrong, just on salary.

Let's assume most all ALJs invest 5% of their pay in Thrift, getting the 5% matching -- that yields another $7k plus per judge per year. Health benefits, what is that, 3/4 or 2/3 paid by Uncle Sam? For a group that is mostly old geezers with an old spouse? And let's also not forget their pensions...

So, $1.3 mil per judge per year is high, but your "10% of that" is likely further away from the real number than Pierce.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:30, so even if the real figure is $200,000.00 per Judge, that is farther off than $1,300,000.00? Are you nuts?? It's people like you that give statisticians bad names.. Duh..

Anonymous said...

well, if we got rid of judges, we could get rid of the attorneys as well (along with other support staff). Not to mention less office space, etc. That's probably where the $2 billion number came from.

I would argue the number is even higher. Because ALJ's grant so many unworthy cases that would never be allowed by DDS, simply reducing the number of beneficiaries would probably make the actual savings MUCH greater than $2 billion.

Anonymous said...

1. Fire all ALJs.
2. Fire all attorneys.
3. Fire 90% of the support staff.
4. Hire a few more IT guys.
5. Automate the system.


Anonymous said...

Me thinks it is easier to deny the benefits of others than it is for those who make negative comments to take benefits away from friends and family. Glass houses and all that.

Anonymous said...

11:13, I majored in mathematics ;)

You are really writing off the cost of pensions in your $200k conclusion, when pensions are probably the second largest cost second to overall salary over the course of one's career and retirement.


Anonymous said...

lol @ 2:03

so an ODAR full of paralegal writers and HOSAs is the answer to SSAs hearing woes?

you should apply, i think you'd meet 12.03.

Anonymous said...

Why not just get rid of ODAR and the AC entirely, utilize a disability hearing officer at the recon level, and have the appeal go straight to the federal courts. Let's see how many people that makes happy :)

Anonymous said...

All of you are "funny," none of the comments have anything to do with the article criticized by Chucky. Let's waste time talking about "greedy" reps and "overpaid" ALJs (and other professional participants in disability process) while claimants, legit or not, are collecting unearned (for many, if not most) welfare payments for years and/or decades. I wonder how many would ever apply to be declared disabled if all they would ever get be absolutely free acess to medical care but $0 cash.

Anonymous said...

The first part of cleaning up this news article would be to inflation adjust his use of 1957 dollars and then calculate the current population of nearly 300 million versus the 179 million population of 1957.

Anonymous said...

"A Social Security Assistant Deputy Commissioner is bragging that the agency has found a way to "train" ALJs so that they allow fewer disability claims."

I believe what you say here is true insofar as the training part. For decades, the files were assembled, i. e., organized and exhibited, and then given to the judge to review before it was scheduled. During this review, the judge would determine whether any additional medical exams should be ordered and whether the evidence was sufficient for an award on the record.

Beginning two to three years ago, the new judges were "trained" to NOT conduct a pre-scheduling review, but rather to review the cases just shortly before the hearing.

The general effect of this is to deprive some claimants of more thorough development of the medical record and in my opinion likely reduces the award rate.

In addition, the most sinister program in place is called "How Am I Doing." This is a desktop program that opens to display graphs which show the case production rate of the judge in comparison to his peers. The really bad part is a graph that displays the judge's grants versus denials.

There is no purpose for the grant/denial graph other than to herd judges to the mean. Not based on the facts of the case. I question the impartiality of judges with the introduction of this behavior modification tool. It can have no other purpose except to influence the outcome of cases based on something other than the facts of the case.