Nov 30, 2012

Explosion At Arizona Social Security Office

     From the Associated Press: 
Authorities say they’re investigating a small explosion that happened at the back entrance of a Social Security Administration office in a small town about 50 miles south of Phoenix.

Casa Grande Fire Marshal Barbara Rice says the explosion was reported just before 8:30 a.m. Friday and no one was injured.

White House Proposes Extending Payroll Tax Cut

     From TPM (emphasis added):
In a Capitol meeting with House Speaker John Boehner Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner submitted the Obama administration’s proposal for addressing medium term deficits, and avoiding across the board tax increases and spending cuts at the end of the year.
Republicans called the proposal outlandish and brushed it aside as unserious. But it’s almost entirely comprised of policies Obama campaigned on and included in his budget for the current fiscal year....
The administration asked Republicans to boost the economy, too, by either extending the payroll tax cut, or replace the holiday with a similar stimulus, such as the Making Work Pay tax credit in the Recovery Act. 

Commissioner Tours Storm Ravaged Areas

     From the Staten Islander:
The Social Security Administration is warning that Social Security beneficiaries have recently been the intended targets of an identity theft scheme.
During a tour of the storm ravaged parts of the state Wednesday that began in Staten Island, the commissioner of the federal agency reminded borough residents to be extra vigilant.
"I urge all Staten Islanders to take precautions when asked for personal information," said Commissioner Michael J. Astrue. "You should never provide your Social Security number, bank account numbers, or other personal information unless you are extremely confident about the identity of the person to whom you are providing the information.

Nov 29, 2012

The State Of The Fiscal Cliff Negotiations -- Social Security Benefits May Escape Cuts. Republicans Want To Escape Blame

     From Politico:
There is only one way to make the medicine of tax hikes go down easier for Republicans: specific cuts to entitlement spending. ...

A top Democratic official said talks have stalled on this question ...  Rob Nabors [the White House negotiator], has been saying: ‘This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s you guys’ ask on the entitlement side?’ And they keep looking back at us and saying: ‘We want you to come up with that and pitch us.’ That’s not going to happen.” ...

It is possible Social Security gets tossed into the mix, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to fight that, if he has to yield on other spending fronts. ...

[T]hat will most likely be the deal Republicans will be staring at: tax hikes now in exchange for Medicare changes way later.
     Note that Republicans are trying hard to avoid responsibility for Social Security or Medicare cuts. They want the President and Democrats to "own" those cuts even though it is the Republicans who are demanding them. Republicans want to continue to call, in the abstract, for cuts in "entitlements" while demanding that Democrats propose the actual cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The public doesn't oppose cuts to "entitlements" since the public has little idea what that term means. If anything, most of the public seems to think that "entitlements" are some form of "welfare" that doesn't go to people like them. The public does strongly oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare, however, since the public, in general, is either receiving Social Security and Medicare or expects to.

Social Security, Angered By Spending Discipline, Takes Frustrations Out On Taxpayers According To Ohio Newspaper

     From the Tribune Chronicle of Warren, Ohio:
If you need to visit a Social Security office, plan to get there early. Starting next week, the public can visit Social Security offices only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays. Beginning in January, the facilities will close at noon on Wednesdays.
Social Security officials complain Congress has not given them enough money to administer the program. In fact, the $10.7 billion Congress provided for administration is $287 million less than for the previous year.
So, like many businesses and households in the United States, the Social Security Administration is having to find ways to tighten its belt. Agency officials have chosen to take their anger out on the public, including the millions of older Americans who rely on Social Security.
Could the agency have not done what many businesses have - stagger employee hours to keep stores and offices open as much as possible for their customers?
Almost undoubtedly, the agency could have found ways to avoid reducing office hours. But, like so many government bureaus, the knee-jerk reaction to spending discipline seems to have been to take out frustrations on taxpayers. No wonder some of them are angry.

Former Lawmaker Indicted For Social Security Fraud

     From the Seattle Post Intelligencer:
A former Missouri lawmaker was indicted Tuesday on theft and Social Security fraud charges after receiving nearly $60,000 in federal disability payments while also getting paid for his work as a state House member.
The indictment alleges that former Democratic Rep. Ray Salva failed to notify the federal government of his employment as a legislator and thus received Social Security disability payments that he wasn't entitled to get. Salva served as a representative from the Kansas City suburb of Sugar Creek from January 2003 until January 2011, earning an annual salary of more than $30,000.

Plaquemine Field Office To Close

     The Social Security Administration is closing its field office in Plaquemine, LA on December 14 to save $4 million a year.

Nov 28, 2012

Waiting For A New Commissioner?

     All new federal regulations must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House.On August 15, Social Security sent three proposed final regulations to OMB. These were new Listings for "Respiratory System Disorders", "Genitourinary Disorders" and "Congenital Disorders That Affect Multiple Body Systems." OMB is supposed to act on proposed rules within 90 days. That time period can be extended by OMB for an extra 30 days or indefinitely by the agency that sent over the proposal. These proposals have now been pending over 90 days. That is unusual. OMB's website indicates that review has been "extended." It doesn't say whether OMB extended the review or whether Social Security extended it. I don't want to read too much into this. I don't recall any of these being controversial.

Nov 27, 2012

Doing Away With F.I.C.A. Isn't Liberal

      Froma Harrop isn't buying Russ Douthat's argument that we should do away with the F.I.C.A. tax and means test Social Security:
Conservatives never much liked Social Security. It's a wildly popular government program that's totally solvent until 2033. It will be easily fixable and by then may not need fixing at all. Doesn't quite fit with the government-can't-do-anything-right talking point. ...
They already tried Plan A during the George W. Bush years. Recall efforts to privatize the program -- that is, let workers put their Social Security payroll tax money into private investment plans. Recall how the boosters tried to sell stocks as a no-lose investment.
The beauty of Plan A was that Wall Street would get its cut, and eventually, the federal government would no longer be obligated to cut Social Security checks. But the public was so protective of traditional Social Security that Plan A crashed even before the stock market did.
Plan B starts with means-testing. It is a clever approach because it expropriates liberal rhetoric about the rich helping the poor. Means-testing would reduce the benefits of the well-to-do while keeping (or raising) them for others. This is an excellent way to destroy the loyalty to the program among our more powerful citizens. The deal could include making permanent the Social Security payroll tax holiday scheduled to expire on Jan. 1 -- in the interests of progressive taxation, of course.
Another counter-idea: The payroll tax holiday was always a bad concept from a true liberal perspective. (President Obama backed it as a stimulus measure.) It's bad because Social Security is an earned benefit. You can't easily take away something people know they've paid for.
So here's the work-around: It makes no sense, writes conservative Ross Douthat, "to finance our retirement system with a tax that ... imposes particular burdens on small business and the working class."
How liberal sounding. How sneaky. Start paying for Social Security out of general revenues and reduce benefits for the wealthy, and what do you have? You have welfare. You know what happens to welfare. ...
By the way, we already have a system for means-testing. It's called the progressive income tax. If conservatives think rich people should pay more, they can simply let marginal tax rates (and the capital gains tax rate) rise. Complicating Social Security with more means-testing and ending the tax dedicated to keeping it afloat would kill the program -- with a smile.
On to Plan C.

Nov 26, 2012

You Can Once Again Comment Without Registering

     I have changed the settings on this blog to once again allow comments without registering with Blogger. I am hoping that we are done, for now at least, with the problem of posts by ringers who pretended to be Social Security employees or who made multiple postings to give the appearance that some point of view enjoyed widespread support when it didn't. I hope that now that the election is over, this nuttiness is behind us.
     Of course, I never understood why people had a problem with registering with Blogger. It's not like it takes much time or requires divulging anything as personal as a real name, for instance. It inhibited commenting far more than I thought it would.

F.I.C.A. Is New Deal Machiavellianism?

     From Russ Douthat at the New York Times:
Payroll taxes are a relic of New Deal Machiavellianism: by taking a bite of every worker’s paycheck and promising postretirement returns, Franklin Roosevelt effectively disguised Social Security as a pay-as-you-go system, even though the program actually redistributes from rich to poor and young to old. That disguise has helped keep Social Security sacrosanct — hailed by Democrats because it protects the poor and backed by Republicans as a reward for steady work. 

But the costs of this disguise have grown too great to bear. Whatever its past political advantages, the payroll tax now imposes an unnecessary burden on a stagnating economy. In an era of mass unemployment, mediocre wage growth and weak mobility from the bottom of the income ladder, it makes no sense to finance our retirement system with a tax that falls directly on wages and hiring and imposes particular burdens on small business and the working class.
     First, Douthat is simply wrong to say that Social Security was disguised as a pay as you go system. He's got it backwards. Social Security is disguised but the disguise is that it appears to be a pre-funded retirement system when it is actually a pay as you go system. Douthat spent too much time coming up with the eye-catching phrase, "New Deal Machiavellianism", and too little time thinking about what he was saying.

     Second, Douthat goes on to say that he thinks that it would be a good idea to means-test Social Security. I doubt that idea will go over all that well even with those who generally want the federal government to do more income redistribution.

Nov 25, 2012

It's All Very Easy In The Abstract

     Brian Beutler writing at TPM raises an excellent point:
Republicans are coming to terms with the fact that they will have to cede real, higher tax revenues to President Obama if they want to avoid the full expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
But while Democrats have been explicit about what they want from the GOP — a higher top income tax rate on high earners — Republicans have been vague about what they want in return.
When asked, Republicans insist that Democrats will have to accept “structural reforms” to support programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security if Republicans are to relent on taxes. But neither Democratic nor Republican aides can publicly say what would pass the GOP’s “structural reform” test.
“What do you think they mean by structural changes?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked rhetorically at a Capitol press conference last week. ...
Privately, some Republicans hope to return to the kinds of proposals Obama and Boehner nearly settled upon last summer during their failed debt ceiling negotiations — including a higher Medicare eligibility age, and a less generous formula for calculating Social Security cost of living adjustments....
[W]hichever pound of flesh Republicans hope to extract will be politically vital — and it’s why they’re dancing around the issue, and pressing Obama to speak up first.
     Let's say that there is an agreement between the President and Republican Congressional leaders and that agreement includes changing to the chained CPI method of computing the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). "Chained CPI" sounds abstruse but it can be easily and accurately boiled down to "cutting Social Security" for the purposes of a campaign ad. There's no reason for rank and file Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote for this. Republicans who vote for this are sure to face campaign ads attacking them for cutting Social Security. Why would they vote for it? Republican voters get excited about budget deficits and cutting "entitlements" in the abstract but most of them don't like cuts to Social Security any more than Democratic voters do. This could be a tough vote for Republicans in the House of Representatives. No wonder they want Obama to speak up first. 
     I have my doubts that Republicans can muster the votes to pass chained CPI or any other cut in Social Security. I'll be surprised if it happens.

Nov 24, 2012

Don't Balance The Budget By Breaking The Disabled

     From an Op Ed by Alex Doolittle and Debra Shifrin in the Seattle Times:
Balancing the federal budget was a focal point of the campaign season leading up to the election. ...
Which cuts should be made is still being debated. Many believe entitlement programs should be on the shortlist, with some politicians targeting the Social Security Disability Insurance benefits program as one of the top contenders of waste and fraud.
Adversaries of the program cite increasing cases of nondisabled claimants receiving benefits as the primary reason for their extreme criticism of what has proved to be a vital lifeline for disabled workers in the United States.
But critics fail to mention key facts. Social Security Disability Insurance cases are on the rise because the baby-boomer generation is getting older and more susceptible to injury and illness, and more women in the workforce today means more women are eligible for the insurance than ever before....
Earlier this year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released a report showing that denying Social Security Disability Insurance benefits perpetuates homelessness. The study stated that up to 40 percent of the national homeless community could qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, but only 14 percent actually receive them. ...
If any cuts to the Social Security Disability Insurance program are approved, people will not have access to the benefits they contributed to while they worked.

Nov 23, 2012


Nov 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Nov 21, 2012

I Actually Agree With A Small Part Of This

     From Lawrence Hunter writing at Forbes:
 ...[T]he larger problem for Republicans is that they are preparing to play Charlie Brown to Barack Obama’s Lucy on Social Security, again.  The congressional Republican leadership is all charged up to cut Social Security in a Grand Bargain with President Obama ... They better beware though; Lucy is just about to jerk the football out from under them, again, and they are going to fall flat on their keisters, again, if they don’t wise up. ...
Mr. Obama has been tempting Republicans with a Grand Bargain on the deficit in which Republicans would concede tax increases on people earning more than $250,000 a year in exchange for the president’s delivering congressional Democrats on Social Security cuts through so-called “reforms” that would cut inflation adjustments (COLAs), means test (cut) the program on the benefits side and transform the flat-rate payroll-tax pension contribution into a progressive income tax by raising or eliminating the annual cap on the amount of earnings on which the payroll tax must be paid. ...
From Mr. Obama’s perspective it represents a great deal. With ObamaCare, the president already has demonstrated his callousness toward old people and a ruthless willingness to sacrifice senior citizens to achieve his political ends.  A substantial majority of old people didn’t vote for him, and now he won’t be running again, anyway.  The so-called Social Security “reforms” being dangled before Republicans are a redistributionist’s dream come true, which is just another demonstration—as if one is required—of why the Republican Party is the stupid party.  But now it’s worse; it makes the GOP the evil party as well. ...
Republicans have become so fixated on their mistaken notion that Social Security is largely responsible for the deficit, and they are so intent on cutting cost of living allowances for current retirees that they are willing to help the president transform Social Security into the world’s biggest welfare program, a major step toward the Democrats’ goal of putting everyone in America on welfare.
Republicans insist on treating Social Security like welfare, and now they want to turn it into welfare in fact. ... The Republican Party wants to stigmatize retirees by treating them like welfare queens ... Worse than the stupid party; worse even than the evil party; the Republican Party has become the brain-dead, zombie party.

Nov 20, 2012

Employees Protest Closure Of Memphis Office

     From WREG:
About a dozen government union workers holding signs pleading with the feral (sic) government to keep the east Memphis Social Security office open, lined Players Club Parkway Monday.
The parking lot is full, but the doors are expected to close December 28th.
“The agency stated they could save 300,000 dollars a year. With all the budget cuts, they needed to shut the office down,” said American Federation of Government Employees local president, Peter Harris. ...
Three offices will remain open in Memphis.

Nov 19, 2012

Student Loan Forgiveness For Those Found Disabled By Social Security

     From the Tuscon Sentinel:
The Education Department enacted a crucial reform on behalf of borrowers who become disabled, issuing new rules earlier this month that make it easier for these borrowers to get their federal student loans forgiven.
The rules, which the department has not publicly announced, for the first time recognize certain disability findings by the Social Security Administration as sufficient grounds to discharge student loans. This will allow many borrowers to avoid a lengthy double review to determine whether they are truly disabled. Under federal law, borrowers who develop severe and lasting disabilities are entitled to get their loans forgiven.

Nov 18, 2012

Indictments In Minnesota

     The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that "An employee of the Social Security Administration in St. Paul and three other Twin Cities residents were indicted by a federal grand jury this week in an alleged decade-long conspiracy to obtain real Social Security cards under phony identities."

And They'll Change Back Again In A Heartbeat If It Makes Business Sense

     From the Washington Post:
AARP, the lobbying powerhouse for older Americans, last year made a dramatic concession. Amid a national debate over whether to overhaul Social Security, the group said for the first time it was open to cuts in benefits.
The backlash from AARP members and liberal groups that oppose changes in the program was enormous — and this time around, as Washington debates how to tame the ballooning federal debt, AARP is flatly opposed to any benefit reductions for the nation's retirees.

Nov 17, 2012

Man Bites Dog; 4th Circuit Rules For Claimant!

     The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a decision in Bird v. Commissioner of Social Security remanding a case to Social Security. In and of itself, this decision isn't that important. What is important is that this is the first opinion of this sort from the Court since 1999! There have been published opinions on attorney fee issues from the Court since 1999 and on appeals filed by the government but no published opinions on appeals filed by claimants in 13 years despite the fact that there have been hundreds of appeals filed by claimants over that long time period. For 13 years, no matter how meritorious the case, all that the claimant ever received from the Court was a one or two paragraph per curiam opinion which said, in effect, "Go away and quit bothering us with your trivial little Social Security cases. We don't care!"
     I don't think the published opinion in Bird happened because the case is that incredibly compelling. I'm sure there have been many other Social Security appeals more compelling over the last 13 years. What has happened is that the composition of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has changed. A solid majority of the Court's judges are now Democratic appointees. That majority will probably grow over the next four years. This change will have an effect on the District Courts and ultimately on Social Security.
     Media attention to judicial appointments focuses almost entirely on the Supreme Court. However, the appointments to the Courts of Appeals and the District Courts are also vastly important. The number of civil actions in Social Security cases has not risen at the same rate as the number of Social Security disability claims filed. This may start changing and not just in the 4th Circuit area of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Nov 16, 2012

I Run As Hard As I Can And I Just Keep Getting Further Behind

     From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) here is the workload and performance summary for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 (which began on October 1, 2011 and ended on September 30, 2012). Click on it to see it full size. See below for some highlights and lowlights that I've pulled out.
     Here are some things to notice:
  • Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) available went up by  about 71 or about 6% over the prior FY.
  • Receipts of new requests for hearing went down slightly in FY 2012.
  • Case dispositions went up by about 27,000 in FY 2012 compared to FY 2011.
  • Attorney adjudicator (or senior attorney) dispositions plummeted by almost 16,000 in FY 2012 compared to FY 2011. What happened to the attorney adjudicator program? These dispositions are sorely needed to help out with the backlog.
  • Overtime hours went up dramatically at ODAR from 309,000 hours to 431,159. I think the overtime went down in the rest of Social Security. I expect overtime has been going down since the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1, 2012. If sequestration (part of the "fiscal cliff) starts on January 1, 2013, the overtime will be almost completely eliminated and the agency will lay off employees. This would be disastrous throughout the Social Security Administration.
  • Despite having more ALJs, more case dispositions and fewer new cases coming in, the number of pending cases per ALJ went up over the course of FY 2012 from 523 to 533. The decrease in attorney adjudicator decisions accounts for only a part of this. I think the reason this doesn't seem to add up is something omitted from this summary -- informal remands, also known as re-recons. These seem to have stopped some months ago. The efforts to reduce the backlogs by paying cases earlier have been cut back dramatically.

Nov 15, 2012

"Those Who Truly Need Help"

     From a Washington Post editorial:
Social Security’s retirement age is already headed to 67, which is one reason that program is no longer a major cause of government insolvency. Still, it can and should be rendered more sustainable. The disability component’s explosive recent growth, at a time when the nation’s general health is stable, suggests that reform would not harm those who truly need help.
     Who exactly is it on Social Security disability benefits who doesn't "truly need help"?  

Why Are ALJs Denying More Cases?

     The November 2012 issue of the Social Security Bulletin, the agency's really wonky scholarly publication, has an interesting article (really, it is interesting!)  Factors Affecting Initial Disability Allowance Rates for the Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income Programs: The Role of the Demographic and Diagnostic Composition of Applicants and Local Labor Market Condition by Kalman Rupp.  Rupp finds that the rate of approval of disability claims at the initial level goes down during recessions and that this decline cannot be explained simply by an increase in the number of disability claims. The evidence suggests that in recessions Social Security makes it harder for people to qualify for Social Security disability benefits at the initial level.
     Rupp did not look at decisions at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. I hope that either he or someone else takes a look at what happens during recessions at the ALJ level. The rate at which Social Security ALJs allow disability claims has plummeted over the last four years or so. Attorneys who represent Social Security disability claimants have been perplexed by this since the common perception has been that, if anything, the cases have gotten stronger as the baby boomers have aged and as it has become harder for claimants to win at the initial level. Attorneys have theorized that the change had something to do with the ALJ selection process, ALJ training or a set of data that Social Security now provides to ALJs showing each one how he or she compares to other ALJs in their office, their region and the nation on productivity and allowance rate. Press reports about an ALJ in West Virginia who was approving almost all of the cases he heard have also been blamed but those reports didn't start until well after the decline in ALJ allowance rate started. Those on the inside have denied that anything has been done that was intended to affect ALJ allowance rates or that should have had such an effect.  Could it be that the explanation for what has happened at the ALJ level lies in the fields of psychology or sociology, that ALJs have collectively and unconsciously reacted to the recession by being harder on disability claimants?

Nov 14, 2012

Budget Shortfall Creates Challenges

While timeliness and ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] productivity have improved, an increased number of applicants has led to an increase in the hearings backlog. By the end of September 2012, the backlog stood at about 817,000 cases, an increase of almost 30,000 cases since the start of the FY [Fiscal Year]. ...
With the loss of DDS [Disability Determination Services] employees and a high level of initial disability claims receipts anticipated in FY 2013, SSA [Social Security Administration] does not expect to achieve its initial claims pending level goal of 525,000 by FY 2014. In fact, in FY 2013, SSA expects that pending initial disability claims will rise to over 1.1 million. ...
SSA stated that the current level of funding would lead to a loss of employees. In FY 2012, it lost over 1,600 employees. Consequently, the Agency projected its national 800-number service will deteriorate significantly because it will not have a sufficient number of employees to answer calls. Busy signals rose from 3 percent in FY 2011 to 4.6 percent in FY 2012. The average speed to answer also increased from 180 seconds in FY 2011 to 294 seconds in FY 2012 [that's about five minutes]. Additionally, SSA estimates it will be unable to complete all its post-entitlement work [that is putting people on benefits after they have been approved -- computing their back benefits and authorizing payment]. The Agency believes its inability to handle this work timely could result in improper payments and delays in collecting overpayments.
     This is all going to get worse if SSA's appropriation stays where it is now under the continuing resolution, which is slightly below last year's amount. SSA needs a larger appropriation merely to prevent further deterioration. If Congress wants even marginal improvement, SSA needs a significantly larger appropriation. And the result if Social Security's operating budget is cut dramatically by sequestration is almost unthinkable.

Nov 13, 2012

Romer Says Disability Benefits Need Reform

     I missed this in a piece by Christina Romer in Sunday's New York Times Business section:
Another entitlement program needing attention is Social Security Disability Insurance. It provides essential support for people unable to work, and will be even more important if we raise the Medicare eligibility age. But the current system is expensive and inefficient. The rolls have surged in recent decades, and the system discourages part-time work and moves to less-demanding jobs. Economists have proposed innovations that could allow more workers to stay in the labor force — thus slowing spending growth and improving the security and well-being of disabled workers.
     Romer was at one time chairwoman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. The "innovations" touted by Romer are completely unworkable. Any "reform" of Social Security disability will almost certainly take the form of making it harder to qualify for benefits with some meaningless fig leaf of rehabilitation added on top to distract people about what is being done.

Did Michael Astrue Expect Obama To Lose?

     I can't be sure but I'm guessing that Michael Astrue expected a Republican to win this year's Presidential election. I ask myself whether Astrue would have gone ahead with his plan for Social Security to create its own occupational information system to replace the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) if he thought that the Commissioner replacing him would be appointed by President Obama. My answer to that question is "no."
     Figuring out how to replace the DOT has been the most consequential issue that Michael Astrue has had on his plate as Commissioner. Sure, his efforts to deal with backlogs and inadequate budgets have gotten more public attention but the DOT replacement issue will affect Social Security disability determination for decades into the future. Millions of disability claims will be approved or denied because of what is done on this issue.
     I can't be sure but I think the occupational information system project is going back to the drawing board once we have a new Commissioner. The "We'll go it alone and make the DOT replacement say exactly what we want it to say" approach isn't likely to be acceptable to a Democratic Commissioner.  In the end, I expect that the Department of Labor will be asked to take the leading role. I think this result could have been foreseen.
     My best guess is that the only way Astrue's plan could have gone forward was if Astrue's successor was a Republican appointee. Even then, its future would have been uncertain because of the costs and because of concerns about whether the courts would accept it. The "go it alone" approach was a bad decision that has wasted time and money.

Nov 12, 2012

Waive Five Month Waiting Period For Disabled Vets?

    From a press release:
The Disabled Veterans National Foundation(DVNF), a nonprofit organization that exists to help to men and women who come home with emotional and physical wounds after serving our country, is applauding and supporting a bipartisan bill that would provide faster disability payments to veterans injured in combat. 
The Recovering Service Members Disability Benefits Act (HR 6445) would exempt active-duty, Reserve and National Guard service members injured in a combat zone from the customary five-month waiting period for Social Security Disability Insurance payments. Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) proposed the bill as an amendment to Title II of the Social Security Act.
     A better idea would be to exempt everyone from the five month waiting period. If we're going to do something special for vets, why don't we make anyone found 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs (or a branch of the military for that matter) automatically qualify medically for Social Security disability benefits? That idea has been around for a few years. A lot of people found 100% disabled by VA are denied disability by Social Security. Almost all are eventually approved on appeal. Why not cut the unnecessary delays for these folks?

Nov 11, 2012

Nov 10, 2012

Pennsylvania ALJ Charged With Indecent Assualt

     From the Citizen's Voice of Wilkes-Barre, PA:
Scranton police arrested a judge for the Social Security Administration on charges that he groped two women and kissed one of them against her will, police said.
Sridhar Boini, 42, South Abington Township, faces two counts of indecent assault in the two alleged incidents.
The first occurred July 26 when Judge Boini returned to his office at 409 Lackawanna Ave. after lunch, police said.
He called a female security officer into his chambers, kissed her and grabbed her breasts without her consent, police said. The woman told investigators Boini smelled of alcohol at the time.
     Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Boini has a 32% reversal rate, not that there's any connection between that fact and the accusations against Judge Boini.

Nov 9, 2012

The Election Is Over -- We Can Now Talk Social Security

     With the election over, Social Security is starting to come up more frequently in public discussions. Ironic, isn't it, that Social Security is discussed more after the election than before. Here are some items I've noticed:

Termination Determinations Not Always Being Implemented

     From a study by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (footnotes omitted):
We identified populations of 25,564 DI [Disability Insurance] beneficiaries and 67,943 SSI [Supplemental Security Income] recipients who received medical cessation determinations during Calendar Years (CY) 2005 through 2010 but continued receiving monthly benefit payments more than 2 months after the medical cessation determination. We reviewed samples of 250 DI beneficiaries and 250 SSI recipients. We found some individuals who received improper payments because their disability benefits were not terminated 2 months after the cessation determination per SSA policy. Specifically, we found the following.
     • Of the 250 DI beneficiaries, 76 (30 percent) and their auxiliaries improperly received payments after their medical cessation determinations because benefits were not terminated timely. Accordingly, we project that 7,771 beneficiaries in our population received improper benefit payments of approximately $48.9 million.
     • Of the 250 SSI recipients, 41 (16 percent) improperly received payments after their medical cessation determinations because payments were not terminated timely. Accordingly, we project that 11,143 recipients in our population received improper payments of approximately $34.7 million.
Despite SSA’s [Social Security Administration's] actions to resolve the causes of untimely terminations, there were still instances where SSA continued improperly paying DI beneficiaries and SSI recipients because of additional systems limitations. In addition, according to SSA, in June 2009, resource limitations and other work priorities caused the Agency to stop routinely identifying cases where benefits were not terminated timely following a medical cessation determination. 

Nov 8, 2012

Field Offices To Start Closing At Noon On Wednesdays

     Social Security field offices are already closing a half hour early each day due to the agency's inadequate operating budget. The budget problems will just get worse over time even without the sequestration set to begin on January 1, 2013. Sequestration will dramatically cut the budget for Social Security and all other parts of the federal establishment. Now, the Social Security field office in Tuscaloosa is announcing that it will be closing at noon on Wednesdays beginning January 2, 2013. There has been no announcement yet that all Social Security offices will be closing at noon on Wednesdays but it would make sense. I doubt that this is a local thing in Tuscaloosa. I'm pretty sure that much more will be required if sequestration comes to pass.

     Update: And here's confirmation from the AARP that all field offices will be closing at noon on Wednesdays beginning January 2, 2013.

    Further update: And here's the Social Security press release on this. Normally, I receive e-mail notification of these but I either didn't get it yesterday or I missed it somehow. You too can get the press releases by e-mail.

Nov 7, 2012

I Hate To Be Gloomy, But ...

     A Republican sweep of the White House, House of Representatives and Senate might have had devastating effects on Social Security but the result we got -- basically the status quo -- leaves Social Security at great risk. Yes, the new Commissioner will be an Obama appointee. Yes, Democrats will have a somewhat increased majority in the Senate. However, the following problems remain:
  • I have noted over the decades of following Social Security that the House Social Security Subcommittee seems to have more influence over the Social Security Administration than the White House and Senate combined. Republicans will continue to control the House Social Security Subcommittee. They are not big fans of the concept of social insurance.
  • Republicans in the House of Representatives will continue to have a choke hold on Social Security's administrative budget. They have been extraordinarily irresponsible yet they too won re-election. Their irresponsibility is unlikely to change.
  • The entire federal establishment, including Social Security, is facing even more dramatic appropriations cuts as a result of sequestration, scheduled to begin on January 1, 2013. That word, "sequestration," may seem foreign to you but you're going to hear it more and more over the next two months or so. Sequestration would cut Social Security's operating budget much further, to the point that furloughs would be inevitable. The only question is how the furloughs would be implemented. While no one expects sequestration to continue though the rest of the fiscal year, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that we will see sequestration for at least part of January and possibly for quite a bit longer.
  • The Disability Trust Fund will temporarily run out of money in 2016. This is related to the baby boom population reaching its most disability-prone years. The inevitable solution is to allow borrowing from the Retirement and Survivors Trust Fund. This has been done before.  However, we have all seen Republican hostage-taking over the last two years. Will House Republicans try to take Disability Insurance Benefits hostage? I have seen no sign of a Republican agenda for the Social Security disability programs but they may be working on one. It would be great if inter-fund borrowing was included in the resolution of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations but are Democrats focused on this problem which will not come to a head for another three or four years? One frustrating thing for Republicans has to be the fact that there is report after report showing that large amounts of money are being wasted in the Social Security disability programs but almost all of this waste can be attributed to Republicans starving the agency's administrative budget! At the least, the Disability Trust Fund situation serves as a check on the new Commissioner. He or she will find it difficult to do anything that can be seen as benefiting the disabled since he or she will constantly be reminded that the Disability Trust Fund is going bankrupt.

Nomination And Confirmation Of Commissioner

     OK. The election is over. Barack Obama has been re-elected. So what's next for Social Security? Michael Astrue's term as Commissioner of Social Security will end in mid-January 2013. The most immediate questions are who will replace him and when will that person take office. There's no way yet to know who will be nominated to become the next Commissioner but here is what happened the last two times that Social Security Commissioners were nominated and confirmed:
  • Jo Anne Barnhart was nominated to become Commissioner of Social Security on July 17, 2001, about six months after George W. Bush took office. She was confirmed by the Senate on November 2, 2001. Obviously, the new President Bush had a lot on his plate and he did not consider nominating a new Social Security Commissioner to be a high priority.
  • Michael Astrue was nominated by President George W. Bush to become Social Security Commissioner on September 15, 2006, about four months before Jo Anne Barnhart's term as Commissioner ended. Astrue was confirmed on February 12, 2007. It helped that by 2006 George W. Bush was in the midst of his second term and not facing a re-election battle. Things could proceed in a more orderly fashion. There was less than a month between the end of Barnhart's term and Astrue assuming office.
     Also, the Deputy Commissioner's term is up at the same time as the Commissioner's. It would be nice if both could be nominated at the same time -- and soon --  but I'm not expecting it.

Nov 6, 2012

Nov 5, 2012

Office Closure Situation Improves

     From a Social Security Administration website:
The following Social Security Offices will be closed today, November 5, 2012:
New Jersey
New Brunswick
New York
Manhattan Social Security Card Center    
White Plains

The following Social Security Offices are closed until further notice:
New York
East Village
Far Rockaway

What Impact Does An Attorney Have At The Initial Level?

As we began this study, we had two very basic questions that we wanted to answer: 1) does representation increase the likelihood that an individual who is eligible will be awarded disability benefits, and 2) does representation increase the likelihood that the individual will receive a decision sooner. We were able to provide preliminary answers to these questions; for instance, we found evidence that processing times are longer for represented claims, particularly when represented by attorneys. Additionally, we found that represented cases have higher allowance rates, significantly so for SSI, but barely so for SSDI cases.
     I think there could be a connection between the two findings. Attorneys avoid weak cases. Weak cases are usually denied more quickly than strong cases.

Nov 4, 2012

Fee Payments Drop Dramatically

     Attorneys who represent Social Security claimants normally receive as their fee one-quarter of their clients' back benefits up to $6,000. The fee is withheld from the back benefits by the Social Security Administration. Social Security keeps part of the fee, however, as a "user fee" for the costs of the withholding. Here are the updated figures for payments of fees and others for representing Social Security claimants. This matters more than you think. Generally, the attorneys are paid at the same time as the clients. If you see a speedup or slowdown in payments of fees, you're seeing a speedup or slowdown in payments to claimants. You can see below that things didn't go so well in October, the first month of the new fiscal year.

Fee Payments

Month/Year Volume Amount

Nov 3, 2012

Pete Peterson's Expensive Obsession

    From Jeff Palmer writing at Huffington Post:
You may or may not have heard of Peter G. Peterson, but he has been trying very hard lately to make you believe your Social Security is in jeopardy. ... Peterson has spent "at least $458 million," from 2007 to 2011, to make sure that you feel that you are about to lose your "entitlements" and that we have to deal with this immediately....
So who is this mystery master of manipulation? Peterson has spent decades on Wall Street, amassing a net worth of nearly three billion dollars. He has spent some time in politics, serving under President Nixon as Secretary of Commerce. He also co-founded infamous private equity juggernaut Blackstone Group. Sounds like your typical fat cat, right?
Not exactly. While most of Peterson's cronies make no bones about their right-wing politics, Peterson really wants you to think of him as nonpartisan. Peterson is definitely a conservative, but through his billion-dollar-endowed Peter G. Peterson Foundation, he has made a gargantuan effort to present himself as a friend of both sides of the aisle. Peterson has given grants to conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. But he has also given grants to the likes of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Peterson's foundation has brought the likes of Bill Clinton to its fiscal summit. 
By attempting to present himself as nonpartisan, Peterson has been able to set our nation's agenda. Both Democratic and Republican politicians are being told by their sources of information that Social Security needs reform, so Social Security reform has, of course, become a big political issue. Peterson isn't exactly throwing handfuls of money at grantees and yelling, "Tell everyone we have to reform Social Security!" But he is making his priorities our priorities.  

Nov 2, 2012

Many Field Offices Closed Indefinitely

     From a Social Security Administration website:
The following offices will open at 10 am ET today, November 2, 2012:
New Jersey
New York
West Babylon
The following office is closing at 10 am ET  today, November 2, 2012:
New Jersey
Toms River
The following Social Security Offices are closed today, November 2, 2012:
New Jersey
Jersey City
New Brunswick
New York
Hunts Point
Hylan Boulevard
Laconia Avenue

East Stroudsburg
Fairless Hills

The following Social Security Offices are closed indefinitely:
New York
Astoria Long Island City
Avenue X Manhattan Card Center
Bedford Heights Melville
Boro Hall Midtown
Bronx Card Center Mineola
Bronx Hub New Utrecht
Brooklyn Card Center North Bronx
Bushwick Patchogue
Canarsie Queens Card Center
Cypress Hills Rego Park
Downtown Riverhead
Dunkirk South Bronx
East Bronx Staten Island
East Harlem Uptown
East Village Washington Heights
Flatbush West Babylon
Flushing West Farms
Freeport West Seneca
Grand Central White Plains
Jamaica Williamsburg

The following Social Security Office is closed until further notice:
      Is there damage to the offices that are closed indefinitely? If so, this is a serious situation. I hope it's just lack of power. I've been through a long power outage. It's tough but flooded offices are much worse. Good luck to all involved in straightening out this situation.

     Update: The lists above are confused. All the New York offices listed as reopening today are also on the "closed indefinitely" list! The Jamaica office is shown as closed indefinitely but is this just the field office or is the payment center included? An indefinite shutdown at the Jamaica payment center would truly be a disaster for Social Security.

Happy Birthday, SSI!

     This week marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The program was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

Nov 1, 2012

What's An "F" Quarter?

     Ordinarily, Social Security's earnings records display a "C" for a covered quarter, that is, a quarter with sufficient earnings for the claimant to be credited with coverage for that quarter, or an "N" for a quarter where the claimant lacks sufficient earnings to be credited with a quarter of coverage. I've just seen an earnings record with a bunch of quarters labeled "F." No dollar figures for earnings are displayed for these years. There are signs that this earnings record was confusing Social Security employees as well and that the quarters were treated as covered quarters.
     These are recent quarters. The claimant says he had an unremarkable job with a hospital in North Carolina. We don't have any state or local government employees in NC who aren't covered by F.I.C.A.
     Can anyone advise me on what these quarters represent?

Office Closure List Grows

     From a Social Security Administration website:
The following offices in West Virginia will have a delayed opening at 10:00am:
The following Social Security Offices are closed today, October 31, 2012 [I think these offices are closed today, that this date is the error.]:
Fort Gratiot
New Jersey
Jersey City
New Brunswick
Toms River
Union Township
New York
Avenue X
Bedford Heights
Boro Hall
Bronx Card Center
Bronx Hub
Brooklyn Card Center
Cypress Hills
East Bronx
East Harlem
East Village
Far Rockaway
Grand Central
Hunts Point
Hylan Boulevard
Laconia Avenue
Long Island City
Manhattan Card Center
New Rochelle
North Bronx
Queens Card Center
Rego Park
South Bronx
Staten Island
Washington Heights
West Babylon
West Farms
West Nyack
White Plains

Cleveland Northwest
East Stroudsburg
Fairless Hills
West Virginia

The following Social Security Office is closed until further notice:

Social Security Number Verification Problems

      From a recent report by Social Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) (footnote omitted):
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, SSA [Social Security Administration] implemented the CBSV program, which is a centralized, automated process that quickly assists companies with consent-based Social Security number (SSN) verification for non-program-related reasons. CBSV is available to private businesses as well as Federal, State, and local government agencies that need consent-based SSN verification. ...
SSA’s monitoring controls for the CBSV program need to be improved. The CBSV User Agreement requires that participating companies include the date of birth (DoB) on Form SSA-89.7 However, SSA did not require the DoB as part of the matching criteria for the CBSV program. As a result, SSA verified about 227,000 names and SSNs through CBSV without verifying DoB. Of the 227,000 transactions, 337 related to children who ranged in age from 2 months to 17 years. Because SSA verified the names and SSNs without a DoB, it did not alert participating companies to possible discrepancies between the DoBs provided by individuals and the DoBs recorded in SSA records. These false positive responses may have contributed to the misuse of children’s identities. We brought this issue to the Agency’s attention in a 2009 report, but SSA had not taken steps to require that participating companies submit the DoB as part of the verification request for the CBSV program.
SSA ... [said] that it was cost-prohibitive to change the CBSV system to incorporate the DoB in the verification process at this time. However, the Agency stated it would reevaluate this decision in the future, as resources allow. In the interim, the Agency plans to include more SSN verification disclosures related to minors’ records in the audit compliance review certified public accountants conduct for participating companies.
     The benefit as well as the problem with including the date of birth in the verification process is that it dramatically increases the number of people who are denied government benefit or employment due to Social Security's database. There is a benefit because people who are applying under a false Social Security number will be denied. The problem is that most of the discrepancies caught will be false positives, that is, people who are exactly who they say they are but for whom there is a mistake in the date of birth in Social Security's records or in the records of the requesting agency or employer. Each false positive is a person who is forced to correct a mistake that he or she did not create and who may suffer serious damage in the meantime. Correcting all the errors imposes a significant workload on Social Security at a time when the agency lacks a sufficient workforce to undertake its core functions.