Apr 30, 2013

WSJ Refutes WSJ Claims

     From Media Matters:
A Wall Street Journal article debunked the myth that federal disability benefits are to blame for the shrinking labor force, "exaggerated" claims that have previously been pushed by the paper itself.
An April 29 Journal article headlined "Real Culprit Behind Smaller Workforce: Age" explained that the recent decrease in the labor force -- the number of employed and unemployed Americans who are currently seeking work -- "has more to do with retiring baby boomers than frustrated job seekers abandoning their searches." The article noted that claims that Americans are voluntarily leaving the workforce to receive Disability Insurance instead of working, for example, "may be exaggerated," and explained that retirees and students made up a far more significant portion of those leaving the labor force. ...
However, the Journal has previously pushed the myth that Disability Insurance accounted for much of the dropping labor force participation rate. An April 10 article headlined "Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery" claimed that workers receiving disability benefits were costing the economy billions by not instead participating in the labor force, and quoted economist Michael Feroli's claim that "worker flight to the Social Security Disability Insurance program accounts for as much as a quarter of the puzzling drop in participation rates, a labor exodus with far-reaching economic consequences." These claims are in direct contradiction to the Journal's most recent reporting.

Apr 29, 2013

ALJ Union Continues To Make Friends And Influence People

     From the opening statement of Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX), the chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee at a hearing last week:
... I was outraged to learn that the union which represents Administrative Law Judges has just filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for an injunction against Social Security’s guidelines for judges to handle 500 to 700 cases a year.   

The union claims that these goals are “illegal quotas” and that management’s efforts to meet Congress’s and the public’s expectations for timely decisions interfere with judge’s decision-making independence. 

This is the same union that argues that these highly paid federal employees, who have no performance standards and cannot be fired without going through a time-consuming and expensive process, should be allowed to work at home at least one day a week.  

Let me be clear.  No one is telling any judge what decision to make, so their independence is protected.  And despite what the union argues, in FY 2012, 79 percent of judges were hearing at least 500 cases a year.  

Most taxpayers would be surprised to learn that last year the union representing judges spent $1 million in taxpayers’ dollars not on holding hearings, but on union activities.  That’s enough to fund a full year’s salary for nine judges.  

In fact, total taxpayer dollars spent by all four unions at Social Security reached $14.3 million last year, enough to fund a full year’s salary for about 206 employees. 

Apr 27, 2013

Missouri Tries To Subpoena OIG Employee

     From the Springfield, MO News-Leader:
The Social Security investigator at the center of the controversy involving the concealed carry information of thousands of Missourians was subpoenaed Friday by the Missouri Senate.
The Senate issued the subpoena to Special Agent Keith Schilb with the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration, according to a news release from Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. Schaefer has led efforts to investigate the issue.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol has twice provided a list of concealed carry permit holders compiled by the Department of Revenue to Schilb, as part of an investigation of Social Security disability benefit fraud.
     Of course, Schilb won't appear. Federal employees are immune from state subpoenas concerning their official employment activities.

Apr 26, 2013

Getting On Disability For A "Self-Made Diagnosis"

     From syndicated columnist Froma Harrop:
We who work through colds, bad backs and low moods — however liberal we might be — have permission to resent those who could hold a job but don’t, preferring to collect disability checks...
More than 5 percent of eligible American adults are now receiving disability payments from Social Security. Twenty years ago, it was 3 percent. One reason is easier requirements giving more weight to self-made diagnoses of back pain or mental anguish.
Social Security’s disability insurance benefit has morphed into a $124 billion welfare program. ...
This discussion is ... about the reasonably able-bodied playing the scam and the doctors helping them. It’s about a government that doesn’t tighten the rules.

This Is Only A Drill

     From the Baltimore Sun:
An emergency drill at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration is likely to cause traffic delays Friday near Security Boulevard and Woodlawn Drive.
Most employees from the Security West building will be evacuated from the facilities during the drill. The public is encouraged to take a different route to avoid delays. The drill will take place in the afternoon, but Social Security declined to announce a specific time.
The exercise is required in accordance with federal, state and local requirements to prepare employees for any future threats they may encounter.

Apr 25, 2013

Study On Effects Of Great Recession On Disability Claims

     From the abstract of a study done by Norma Coe and Matthew Rutledge for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College:
Much as in previous recessions, the number of applications to public disability insurance programs increased sharply during the Great Recession.  We find that the composition of applicants also changes across business cycles.  For example, applicants during economic downturns, and especially during the Great Recession, are younger, better educated, higher income, and more likely to have recent work experience.  However, we find only mixed evidence supporting the theory that the increase in applications in downturns is caused by healthier applicants who apply to disability programs only because they are unemployed. ...
We find that changing demographics and unemployment rates explain less than half of the increase in the application rate and only one quarter of the increase in the awards to applicants (the allowance rate) between the 2004-2006 expansion and the Great Recession.  Further, these same factors predict a fall in the award rate (among eligible individuals), in contrast to the increase observed in the data.  Together with the fact that there have been no programmatic changes in the disability programs in the 2000s, these results suggest there have been fundamental changes over the last decade in the way that people apply to disability and in the way these applications are evaluated that cannot be explained by observable differences.
     I have read through this report and do not see any explanation of the logic used by the authors in coming to the conclusion that there must have been some "fundamental change" in the last decade in the way that disability claims are evaluated. It is just stated baldly. The report indicates that the authors were, in general,  considering demographic factors such as age but it's quite clear that their focus was on macroeconomic factors. In general, I'm just leery of a report by economists who has no real understanding of how disability is determined at Social Security.
    In reports like this there is always the underlying assumption that working people with health problems sit around thinking about whether they should continue work or apply for Social Security disability benefits. I'm sure that some do but I'm also sure that's generally not the case. Only a few people stop work due to illness and then immediately file Social Security disability claims. The vast majority wait months, even years, to file disability claims. They hope they'll get better. They don't want to apply for Social Security disability benefits because they view it as difficult and unpleasant and an admission of a personal failing. Speedups and slowdowns in disability claims are primarily due to demographic factors but secondarily due to factors that increase or decrease the financial pressures faced by potential claimants who have already left employment. Often, potential claimants, that is people who have already left work due to illness, are motivated to file claims by the loss of some other family income, such as their spouse being laid off and their family being desperate for income. Almost always people stop work and only later start thinking about Social Security disability.

Apr 24, 2013

Cato Isn't Expecting Privatization

     Giving us an idea how the right wing views their chances of privatizing Social Security, Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute writes that that Australia's privatized Social Security system would be a great model for the U.S. All it will take for such a thing to happen in the U.S. is "some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse." In a footnote, Mitchell says he doesn't think the U.S. is heading for such a collapse. I guess that means he thinks privatization of Social Security isn't going to happen.
    By the way, Australia never had anything like the U.S. Social Security system. What they had was a means tested program like the U.S. Supplemental Security Income program. That program never went away. They just added a mandatory retirement savings plan on top of it. Basically, Australia uses means tested programs a lot more than the U.S. If you try to compare Australia and the U.S.on income security, I think you're going to find far more indicia of government dependence in Australia.

Apr 23, 2013

Inspector Javert Is Alive And Well And Working At Social Security

     From the State Journal-Register of Springfield, IL:
About 50 years ago, Harry and Gladys Samonds owned Ferrell’s Corner, a tavern, and the Illini Court Motel at Clear Lake and Dirksen.  Harry was pretty well-known in Springfield when he died in 1969. He left behind Gladys and his son, Mike, at their home on Ridge Avenue.
Mike was only 15 when his father died. As a minor, he qualified for survivor benefits through Social Security. Monthly checks were sent to Gladys since Mike was a minor. ...
Today, Mike and his wife, Brenda, live in Glenarm. After filling out their federal tax return for last year, they were due a refund. A few weeks ago the refund check arrived. But it was $189.10 light.
Mike and Brenda thought that was odd and were wondering what the explanation could be. They soon found out. A letter to them from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Management Service out of Alabama said money was being deducted from the Samonds’ refund and would be taken by Social Security to satisfy Mike’s debt to said agency. ...
The notice from Treasury says, and I quote, “The Agency has previously sent notice to you at the last address known to the Agency.” (That would be Gladys’s 40-year-old address) “That notice explained the amount and type of debt you owe, the rights available to you, and that the Agency intended to collect the debt by intercepting any Federal payments made to you, including tax refunds.”
A letter, dated April 10, arrived from the folks at Social Security. It says, “We recently received $189.10 of a Federal payment you were due and used it toward the overpayment of Social Security benefits paid to you.”
Social Security says, then, that over 40 years ago it overpaid $189.10 in Mike’s survivor benefits and it took that amount from the Samonds’ tax refund to make it good. ...
The letter to Mike and Brenda from Social Security included a Chicago phone number for Mike to call if he had any questions. Of course he did. But I don’t even need to tell you what happened when Mike called the number.
“I was on hold for 45 minutes,” he says. “I put the phone down but could hear the music playing. When it stopped, I picked it up.”
He might as well have called Mars for all the assistance he got.
     What happened here was not some weird accident. It's official policy. There is no statute of limitations on collection of overpayments by administrative offset. Not even 50 years.
     Is this reasonable?

Apr 22, 2013

Retirement Of Nancy Shor

     The following is a message just sent out by the President of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) to NOSSCR members: 
Nancy Shor, our long-time Executive Director, has advised the Board of her decision to step down as Executive Director. I am pleased that she will continue with NOSSCR during this transition and that she will be staying on in another capacity. I know I can speak for all of us when I say that words cannot express our gratitude for the wonderful job Nancy has done as our one and only Executive Director.
As NOSSCR president, I have set up a search committee to find our new Executive Director. If you or anyone you know is interested in this position, please forward a resume to me at ________. Resumes need to be submitted by May 5, 2013.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, send me an email or call me at _______. 

Debra S. Shifrin Attorney at Law.
     I'm leaving out Debra's e-mail address and telephone number since those were intended for NOSSCR members. I'm sure that any resumes or messages sent to NOSSCR's offices will reach Debra.
     I'm sorry that this day has arrived. Nancy Shor has been NOSSCR's Executive Director since it was formed in 1979. I've been amazed by Nancy's ability to deal with the multitude of issues that have confronted NOSSCR. There has never been any internal NOSSCR issue that ever posed a significant threat to the organization. That's all due to Nancy's skill. When you're talking about a 34 year time period, that's just astonishing.  Nancy has been a trusted friend to generations of NOSSCR presidents, board members and NOSSCR members in general and all of those categories include me. I'm glad to see that Nancy will still be around in a consultant relationship. Her abilities and experience will be greatly missed but what we'll mostly miss is -- Nancy.
     Nancy's importance in the Social Security world extended well beyond NOSSCR. She represented NOSSCR in its dealings with Social Security, Capitol Hill and other organizations. There have been 19 Social Security Commissioners since Nancy first became Executive Director of NOSSCR. There's no way of counting the number of members of Congress, Congressional staffers, Social Security officials and executives of other organizations she's dealt with. Everyone knew Nancy. Everyone listened to Nancy.
     I hope that despite retiring, Nancy will have a long continued relationship with NOSSCR.

ALJ Assignments Now Shown On Hearing Office Status Report

     Social Security's Hearing Office Status Report in the ERE system now shows the name of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to whom a pending request for hearing has been assigned. This is done not merely for cases that have been scheduled for hearing. Most of mine with a request for hearing date after the middle of July 2012 have an assigned ALJ even those most of these clients will not have a hearing scheduled for several months. Some cases where the request for hearing was only filed in the last three months have an assigned ALJ. Perhaps these are cases that were considered for dismissal or on the record reversal. This may vary from office to office.

Apr 21, 2013

Examining That NPR Series

     From a press release:
Online now and airing this Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (April 21) on the Philadelphia CNN-News affiliate WFMZ-TV, The American Law Journal presents "Social Security Disability- Unfit for Work?" examining a March 22, 2013 National Public Radio broadcast of "This American Life" that according to panelists on the program has drawn both staunch praise and heavy criticism.
Joining host Christopher Naughton are Pennsylvania claimants' attorney, Jess Leventhal of Leventhal, Sutton & Gornstein, former SSA representative and New Jersey claimants' attorney, Alan Polonsky of Polonsky & Polonsky, Rebecca Vallas, staff attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Jagadeesh Gokhale, Senior Fellow with the CATO Institute, from CNN studios in Washington, D.C.
     This is a "debate" between three well-informed people and one uninformed ideologue who sticks to talking points.

Is It Wrong For A State To Do This?

     From the New Hampshire Union-Leader:
Four years ago, in the depths of the Great Recession, staffers in the state Division of Family Assistance started to notice that people were applying for disability income through the state, but not following through with their federal applications.

"In 2009, we began asking the question: Are we maximizing federal revenue in our state programs?" said Terry Smith, division director. "So I met with Social Security, and we did a case load analysis."

The analysis showed the state could save millions by making sure all federal options were exhausted before state assistance kicked in through Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (APTD), which was intended to supplement, not replace, Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).

In March 2010, three staff members in the division were reassigned to a newly created Facilitated Social Security Unit, with impressive results. ...

"We push clients into doing the Social Security applications and appeals," said Smith. "We don't actually do any of the work for them, but we require them to provide verifications to us that they have done their job."

Apr 20, 2013

Ever Wonder How It Was That Social Security Started Compiling Lists Of The Most Popular Baby Names?

     From The Atlantic:
In 1997, Michael Shackleford was an employee of the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration's headquarters in Baltimore; his wife was pregnant and he was determined to avoid giving the child a common name like his own. With his access to Social Security card data, he wrote a simple program to sort the information by year of birth, gender, and first name. Suddenly he could see every Janet born in 1960. He could see that the number one names in 1990 were Michael and Jessica. He realized this could be important. "I knew that my eyeballs were seeing this list of the most popular baby names nationwide for the first time," he recalled recently. "It was too good to keep to myself."

Apr 19, 2013

Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Announced

     From a press release issued by the Social Security Subcommittee scheduling a hearing for 9:30 on Friday, April 26:
As the nation ages, the SSA will continue to face unprecedented service delivery demands even as it moves to automate many of its core functions. With Congress and the President agreeing on nearly static annual SSA budgets for the last three years, along with tight budgetary caps for future federal agency spending, the SSA has reached a crossroad in terms of how it will continue to deliver services to the public in a constrained fiscal environment.
In response, the SSA is already operating under a self-imposed hiring freeze for the last 2.5 years and has reduced the hours its offices are open to the public.  At the same time, the agency has significantly increased online services, where today 45 percent of retirement applications and 33 percent of disability applications are being filed on line. ...
The SSA will be led by a new Commissioner once the President chooses his nominee and the Senate completes its confirmation process. ...
The hearing will focus on the challenges facing the next Commissioner, including those related to service delivery capacity, human capital management, strategic planning, information technology, physical infrastructure and the agency’s ability to effectively administer Social Security programs.

ALJ Union Sues Agency On Workload Issues

     From the Associated Press:
Judges struggling to handle a surge of disability cases sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny in order to clear cases faster so they can meet quotas imposed by the Social Security Administration, according to a lawsuit filed by the union representing the agency's administrative law judges.

The Social Security Administration says judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases a workday.

The lawsuit says the requirement violates judges' independence, denies due process rights to applicants and further strains the finances of a disability program that is projected to run out of money in 2016. ...

The lawsuit was filed by the union Thursday in federal court in Chicago. ...
In an interview, [former Commissioner Michael] Astrue disputed the union's claims.
"What's really happening here is that the judges' union doesn't want accountability of its members and it's been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time," Astrue said. "And no one's buying it because it's not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either."
"There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work," Astrue said.
     Am I sympathetic to this lawsuit? Yes and no.
     It's important to note that the workload pressures on Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are ridiculous. Expecting 500 to 700 decisions a year is way too much. My experience is that these workload norms have caused significant degradation in the quality of the hearing process at Social Security. More and more productivity has been expected of ALJs at a time when the cases themselves have become more and more time-consuming. Claimants with insurance are seeing more and more specialists and having more and more tests and medical procedures. All of these records have to be reviewed by the ALJ. Electronic medical record-keeping produces more medical records. Many of the electronic record systems essentially repeat a patient's entire medical history each time he or she visits a doctor. Anyone reviewing these records has to wade through this repetitious mess looking for what's new on each doctor visit. Social Security case files keep getting longer each year. That fact hasn't filtered through to Social Security management but it's a huge problem at ground level.
     As much as I sympathize with ALJs on their workload pressures , I've seen no evidence that ALJs have been subjected to anything more than workload norms. They can ignore these norms without fear of formal punishment unless they get to the point of extraordinarily low productivity. The norms have certainly had a dramatic effect but I've seen no evidence that there is any real enforcement mechanism behind the norms. I don't see how you're going to make the argument that there is a quota and I'm not sure that a quota will be illegal anyway. Unwise yes but illegal?
     Filing suit at this time makes no sense to me. Yes, Michael Astrue is gone. He was quite unsympathetic to ALJs, as you can tell from the quote given above -- although I thought he became less unsympathetic the longer he was Commissioner. You might think that Social Security management would now be more sympathetic to ALJs and more willing to settle this lawsuit but has the ALJ union heard of sequestration? It's a huge problem for the agency. I don't think it's realistic at this time to expect the agency to settle this on terms favorable to the ALJs.
     By the way, it's worth noting that ALJs are not all union members. Those who are union members don't always agree with what the union does. I'm sure that there is a vigorous debate going on among Social Security's ALJs right now. Whether you agree or disagree with this lawsuit, don't give blame or credit for it to all ALJs. They are a diverse group.

NPR Gets Some Responses

     National Public Radio isn't admitting they made mistakes in their series of radio pieces on the Social Security disability programs but they are showing on their website some of the responses that they have received. It's quite an impressive list. They seem to be proud of having generated a response.

Apr 18, 2013

You Ought To Read That Radical Disability Benefits Reform Act Of 1984

     In right wing explanations for the increase in the number of people drawing Social Security disability benefits you read again and again that the Disability Benefits Reform Act (DBRA) of 1984 is the problem. Supposedly, DBRA was a dramatic loosening of standards that allowed untold numbers of healthy people to get on benefits due to alleged musculoskeletal and mental disorders.
     The problem with this theory is that it's possible to actually read what DBRA says. But first, you might want to read then President Ronald Reagan's signing statement on DBRA. You won't find a single reference to musculoskeletal disorders or mental disorders. That's because DBRA primarily concerned the establishment of a medical improvement standard for termination of disability benefits. All Reagan said about the other provisions of DBRA was that "Several other changes are written into this new law that will clarify and expedite the administration of the disability program." Those tricky Democrats put one over on the Gipper.
     Here's the actual language from DBRA that might have some applicability to musculoskeletal disorders:
An individual’s statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this section; there must be medical signs and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and which, when considered with all evidence required to be furnished under this paragraph (including statements of the individual or his physician as to the intensity and persistence of such pain or other symptoms which may reasonably be accepted as consistent with the medical signs and findings), would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a disability. Objective medical evidence of pain or other symptoms established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory techniques (for example, deteriorating nerve or muscle tissue) must be considered in reaching a conclusion as to whether the individual is under a disability.
     If you haven't already fallen asleep from reading this language, you probably noticed that, again, the term "musculoskeletal" doesn't appear anywhere. Back pain doesn't come up either. You'll also notice that the language hardly looks like it would throw open the floodgates for the approval of any disability claim. If anything it looks a bit tough. To be complete, I'll note that DBRA also created a Commission to study the evaluation of pain but I'll save you the trouble of looking that one up. At considerable expense, the Commission produced a report that almost no one read, a report that had exactly zero effect upon policy or practice at Social Security.
     Here's the language from DBRA concerning mental illness:
The Secretary of Health and Human Services ... shall revise the criteria embodied under the category "Mental Disorders" in the "Listing of Impairments" ... The revised criteria and listings, alone and in combination with assessments of the residual functional capacity of the individuals involved, shall be designed to realistically evaluate the ability of a mentally impaired individual to engage in substantial gainful activity in a competitive workplace environment.
     Why was DBRA ordering Social Security (which was then part of the Department of Health and Human Services) to write new mental impairment listings? Because of the decision in Mental Health Ass'n of Minnesota v. Schweiker, 554 F.Supp.157 (D. Minn. 1982), which was a searing indictment of Social Security's standards for assessing disability claims based upon mental illness. This lawsuit came about because of a revolt by some physicians involved in implementing those mental illness standards. I was around at that time. I can tell you that if an agency is capable of having remorse, Social Security had remorse after that lawsuit. Does ordering Social Security to rewrite its regulations so that they "realistically evaluate the ability of a mentally impaired individual to engage in substantial gainful activity in a competitive workplace environment" sound like it would inject something radical into Social Security's evaluations of disability claims based upon mental illness? Please read the decision in Mental Health Ass'n of Minnesota before you advocate going back to the standards applied by Social Security in evaluating mental illness before DBRA. If you really want to go back to those days, I can tell you that the standard actually required for approval based upon mental illness was something like "requires long-term institutionalization."
    By the way, if you read a little further in DBRA you'll notice that it included a provision to make it easier for state vocational rehabilitation agencies to get rewards for their success in putting Social Security disability recipients back to work. Even back then the idea of reducing rehabilitation to lower the costs of the Social Security disability programs was being tried but even then that was hardly new. Notice that I said that DBRA was designed to make it easier to get these rewards. The rewards had been established much earlier. Efforts to get disability benefits recipients back to work go back about as far as Social Security disability itself. Of course, DBRA's changes did not lead to an improvement in the rehabilitation rate. None of these legislative efforts have worked nor will any future efforts along this line work. But I needn't bother saying this. Congress doesn't want to hear that the vast majority of Social Security disability recipients are just too sick to be helped by rehabilitation.

Apr 17, 2013

I Had It Backwards

     I had posted earlier that Social Security's databases would allow one to identify many of those in this country most impaired by mental illness. I thought that this information might be used to prevent those mentally impaired individuals from obtaining guns. My post was somewhat confirmed by the fact that Social Security has a representative on an eight member White House working group on reducing gun violence. Looks like I was sort of right. I just had it backwards. Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) had the bright idea of obtaining concealed-carry records and using them to cut people off Social Security disability benefits. I understand why the presence of serious mental illness would be evidence that might disqualify someone from owning a gun. I just don't see how the obverse would be true. Why would owning a gun be proof that a person is not disabled? A seriously mentally ill person who owned a gun would be displaying poor judgment but poor judgment caused by mental illness is a major reason that people are put on Social Security disability benefits to begin with!

Second Mistrial In Social Security Guard Stabbing Case

     From the Chatham, VA Star-Tribune:

A Gretna man accused of stabbing a Social Security office guard remains in custody after a second jury trial ended in a mistrial Thursday.
Byron Clements, 50, was charged with one count of aggravated malicious wounding for allegedly stabbing Jason Alsbaugh several times at the Social Security Administration office in Danville in February 2011. ... 
Twelve jurors remained deadlocked after nearly six hours of deliberation following a two-day trial in Pittsylvania County Circuit Court. ...
Defense attorney Glenn Berger said psychiatric specialists say Clements, who has a history of schizophrenia, should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Apr 16, 2013

Why Did Social Security Want Missouri Conceal-Carry Records?

     From KBLA in Missouri:
The Missouri Department of Revenue is looking for a new Director.
Brian Long resigned Monday after weeks of controversy surrounding the scanning of documents for driver’s license and conceal-carry weapons applicants. The pressure increased last week when it was discovered that the agency compiled the entire list of the state’s 163-thousand CCW holders for the Missouri Highway Patrol.
The Patrol then provided it to the Social Security Administration for an investigation it was conducting. ..
Long had only been on the job for about three months. He earlier defended the DOR’s policy, saying the scanning of documents was necessary to combat fraud, and that no one’s information was being given to the federal government.
     Update: KY3 (what does this TV station have against giving its actual call letters?) reports that Social Security's Inspector General, Patrick O'Carroll, has apologized to a Missouri Congressman for "errors [his office] made in reporting aspects of what happened regarding the handling of Missourians' private information." I still don't have any idea why Social Security wanted the Missouri conceal-carry records. I don't think you have to be an NRA member to find this request a head-scatcher.

I Agree With Andrew Biggs

     Andrew Biggs, former Deputy Commissioner of Social Security and long time warrior in the (losing) battle to privatize Social Security, has a surprising blog post. He opposes chained CPI, describing it as "bad policy that both liberals and conservatives may come to regret." His post is brief and directs readers to a longer piece he wrote for the National Review but the link he gives is bad. Probably, it's just a technical glitch but an argument against chained CPI probably isn't the sort of thing that the editors at National Review would enjoy publishing.
     Biggs views may be evolving. About a year ago, he wrote an article suggesting that privatizing Social Security might be unconstitutional.

The Overwhelming Majority Of Disability Claims Get Denied At The Initial And Reconsideration Levels

     From the newsletter (not available online) of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) -- click twice on image to view full size:

Apr 15, 2013

A Satellite Office Closes

     From West Hawaii Today:
For the last time in the foreseeable future, the Social Security Administration offered satellite office hours in Kona Tuesday morning.
Social Security employees began calling West Hawaii residents in to the West Hawaii Civic Center’s community room at about 9:30 a.m. By just after 10 a.m., more than 120 people were signed up to use the services. ...
Last year, then-Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-2nd, told West Hawaii Today she would look into the administration’s reasoning for keeping such limited hours in West Hawaii. Not long after that, the administration ended the visits to West Hawaii entirely. They resumed the monthly visits in February, with the intention of coming here only through this month.
     It's a two hour drive from Kona to Hilo, the nearest Social Security field office.
     This same sort of thing is happening all over the country.  This is what inadequate budget resources do to service at Social Security. Read the whole article to see what those waiting in line thought about the idea of doing all their business with Social Security online.

Apr 14, 2013

Big Employee Fraud Case In Alabama

     The Associated Press reports that Manuel Chaney III, who had worked at Social Security's Bessemer, AL field office, has been sentenced to 70 months in prison for an identity theft scheme. Chaney had used information obtained from his employment to identify people who had recently died. It's not clear from the article exactly what he did thereafter. He may have filed survivor claims on those accounts or he may have kept the decedents in payment status while diverting the payments to accounts he controlled. In any case, the fraud amounted to $325,000.

Apr 13, 2013

Can Pain Be Measured?

     From the New England Journal of Medicine:
Persistent pain is measured by means of self-report, the sole reliance on which hampers diagnosis and treatment. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) holds promise for identifying objective measures of pain, but brain measures that are sensitive and specific to physical pain have not yet been identified. ...
In study 1, the neurologic signature showed sensitivity and specificity of 94% or more (95% confidence interval [CI], 89 to 98) in discriminating painful heat from nonpainful warmth, pain anticipation, and pain recall. In study 2, the signature discriminated between painful heat and nonpainful warmth with 93% sensitivity and specificity (95% CI, 84 to 100). In study 3, it discriminated between physical pain and social pain with 85% sensitivity (95% CI, 76 to 94) and 73% specificity (95% CI, 61 to 84) and with 95% sensitivity and specificity in a forced-choice test of which of two conditions was more painful. In study 4, the strength of the signature response was substantially reduced when remifentanil was administered.
     Before anyone gets excited at the thought that Social Security can finally measure pain, a few caveats are in order:
  • There were only 114 participants in the study. 
  • The test subjects were described as healthy with a median age of just under 25 years. The study's authors caution that the results might be different in non-healthy individuals.
  • The pain that was "measured" was administered by the researchers -- "thermal stimuli" to the left forearm of varying degrees of severity.
  • The study's authors indicate that if the validity of the study could be shown to extent to "clinical populations", the test might be used to confirm pain in patients who cannot communicate. Also, the study could be used as a basis for other studies. The study's authors are not even suggesting that the fMRI could have forensic uses.
  • The study's authors caution that the study's results would have to be validated across persons, scanning protocols and research sites.
  • The study's authors caution that the results might be different depending upon the site in the body where the pain is generated, the clinical cause of the pain and the type of the pain. For instance, would visceral pain register differently than the cutaneous pain that the researchers generated in their study? How would neuropathic pain compare with the pain from arthritis?
  • fMRIs are expensive. They are an uncommon test with limited uses at the moment. Probably, there would be no clinical reason to use the fMRI to evaluate pain in a person who can communicate, meaning that if used for disability determination purposes, Social Security would probably have to foot that expensive bill.

Apr 12, 2013

Yeah, I Kinda Thought So

     From Taegan Goddard's Political Wire:
[National Republican Campaign Committee] Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) touched a nerve when he savaged the entitlement changes in President Obama's budget as a "shocking attack on seniors," Roll Call reports.

But "it's the lack of fallout" that may be more revealing.

The debate Walden's remarks "has set off inside the GOP shows many Republicans harbor deep-seated fears about publicly supporting the entitlement cuts they supposedly back and have demanded Obama and other Democrats embrace since taking control of the House in 2011."

NOSSCR Issues Press Release To Combat Attacks On Social Security Disability Programs

     The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives has put out a press release on the "dramatic, sensationalized media reports about the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, based on anecdotes, half-truths and misrepresentation of facts."

Chained CPI Proposal Creates Republican Disgreement

     From the Chicago Tribune:
President Obama's proposal to trim Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments has sparked not only Democratic outrage, but Republican confusion.
In the days since Obama put the idea in his 2014 budget, Republicans' reactions have included support, opposition and refusal to commit. The proposal was once a mainstay of the GOP's deficit-reduction overtures to the White House.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that the idea, the so-called chained Consumer Price Index, “is the least we must do to begin to solve the problems in Social Security.”
But the chairman of the House Republican Congressional Committee, who is trying to preserve the party's majority in the House in the next election, called it a “shocking attack on seniors.”
“You're trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors and I just think it's not the right way to go,” Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon told CNN.  
That potentially off-message comment provoked swift rebuke from the powerful Club for Growth, the conservative advocacy group that supports the measure as a starting point for reining in spending on government entitlement programs. ...
Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee and the top party guru on budget issues, said the president was to be “commended” for taking on Democrats with the hot-button proposal in the budget. But Ryan panned it as a “modest” attempt at deficit reduction and declined to immediately lend his support.

One Republican Seems To Like Chained CPI

     From a House Ways and Means Committee press release (emphasis in original):
U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, today announced the first in a series of hearings on the President’s and other bipartisan entitlement reform proposals.  This hearing will focus on using the Chained Consumer Price Index to determine the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment.   This proposal was included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, the report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and the report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force.  The hearing will take place on Thursday, April 18, 2013, in B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 9:30 a.m. ...

The President likes to say that if we agree on a policy, then we should act and not let our differences hold us up, and I agree.  This hearing will include a full discussion of a policy with bipartisan support – more accurately measuring inflation in order to strengthen the Social Security program.
     However, the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee said recently that chained CPI is an attempt "to balance this budget on the backs of seniors and I just think it's not the right way to go."

CNN Money On Increase In Disability Claims

    There's a piece in CNN Money on the increase in the number of disability claims. It's not as unbalanced an article as most but the author still lists the recession first as a causes for the increase. The idea that economics explains anything and everything has gotten so strong in the minds of so many people that it's hard to get them to look at the compelling evidence that demographics is the overwhelming explanation for what is happening here.

Apr 11, 2013

Thoughts On Reviewing A 1374 Page File

     It hit me yesterday afternoon that critics of Social Security's disability determination process have little idea what is involved in the process. There seems to be an eagerness to jump to the conclusion that almost anyone who says they are disabled is found disabled. In the view of these critics, it's nothing but thinly disguised unemployment benefits. These critics are told this by experts at think tanks who produce impressive looking reports. This narrative fits in with the general worldview of a lot of people who work in white collar jobs, people who seldom interact in any meaningful way with those who hold down blue collar jobs, the kind of people who file most Social Security disability claims.
     This hit me yesterday afternoon as I was reviewing the file that Social Security has on one of my clients. It runs to 1374 long, tedious pages, detailing this person's health problems over a time period of about seven years. It includes incredibly personal details of this client's life and a mind-numbing amount of detail about this client's medical history. Multiple health problems, multiple doctors, multiple hospitalizations, multiple emergency room reports and more medical tests than most people can imagine. There are duplicate copies of some records because Social Security doesn't have enough personnel to weed these out. Many of the records are hard to read because they were faxed or simply because Social Security stores the records in a low resolution digital format to save money on storage space and bandwidth. If you haven't tried to do it, you just can't imagine how complicated it is to try to follow such a complicated narrative over such a long period of time reading these sort of records. Some of the health problems sound serious at first but turn out to be minor. Others start out sounding minor but end up being major. A health problem may seem to have been resolved only to crop up later. Health problems interact with each other in complex ways, both medically and in how they relate to Social Security's rules. No, most files don't run to 1374 pages but a more typical length is still 500-600 pages and usually involves more than one impairment and possibly a red herring or two. How many of the experts at think tanks or the critics who listen to those supposed experts have ever tried to wade through files like this? I'll take an educated guess that the answer is exactly zero. How much can you know about the process if you haven't done this?
     I may disagree with others who spend time reading these files but I respect them because I know they have a firm grounding in reality. The think tank "experts" and the critics who listen to them simply don't know what they're talking about. It's not easy to get on Social Security disability benefits. The process has plenty of flaws but every reasonable effort has been made to make it rigorous and maybe some of these efforts have been unreasonable. Social Security works hard at this. They're been trying to refine their processes for decades. You can't mull these problems over while drinking a cup of coffee and come up with some wonderful idea that no one has even though of.  There aren't easy solutions.

Apr 10, 2013

A First Look At The President's Budget For SSA

     The President's recommended budget for fiscal year (FY) 2014, which begins on October 1, 2013, provides for a 7% increase in administrative funding for the agency over FY 2012 and "Establishes a dependable source of funding for Continuing Disability Reviews and Supplemental Security Income Redeterminations." I don't yet know what is meant by a "dependable source." Chained CPI is in the budget, of course.
     Update: I'd like to give you detailed budget information but I can't just yet. Social Security has tried to post this information on its budget website but the links aren't working. Perhaps it's a work in progress.
   Further Update: I can now see the detailed numbers on Social Security's website but only by switching from Foxfire to Internet Explorer. Some weirdness that I don't understand. At the bottom is an extracted page showing the most important numbers. You can click twice on the page to view it full size. Here are some other items I found, quoted in the order I came upon them:
  • The language provides for the use of up to $1,000,000 derived from fees charged to non-attorneys who apply for certification to represent claimants.
  • Beginning in FY 2014, the budget proposes to remove discretionary funding above the base amount of $273 million from the Limitation on Administrative Expenses (LAE) Account and instead, provide a mandatory appropriation for program integrity activities in a newly established Program Integrity Administrative Expenses (PIAE) account. These mandatory funds will be in addition to amounts provided to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the LAE account and will be available for two years. In 2015 and beyond, the proposal would replace both base and cap funding for program integrity and the cap on discretionary appropriations would be lowered by a commensurate amount.
  • Full funding of the FY 2014 President’s Budget will allow us to resume mailing Social Security Statements to all eligible workers 25 years old or older.
  • Key Performance Targets: Initial Disability Claims Completed (thousands) FY 2012 3,207, FY 2013 2,970, FY 2014 2,851; Reconsiderations Completed (thousands) FY 2012 809, FY 2013 803, FY 2014 725; SSA Hearings Completed (thousands) FY 2012 820, FY 2013 836, FY 2014 807; Average Speed of Answer (ASA) [on Social Security's 800 number] (seconds) FY 2012 294, FY 2013 455, FY 2014 482
  • The Budget proposes to amend the Social Security Act to limit access to the "Death Master File" to prevent this information from being used to file fraudulent claims for benefits or tax refunds. This proposal provides that death information that we maintain may be used by agencies, subject to such safeguards as the Commissioner of Social Security determines are necessary or appropriate for the purpose of public health or safety, law enforcement, tax administration, health oversight, debt collection, payment certification, disbursement of payments, and for the prevention, identification or recoupment of improper payments.
  • The FY 2014 President’s Budget proposes a technical correction relating to when Social Security benefits stop due to divorce. A parent and stepchild may receive benefits on the record of a worker, but, if the marriage terminates in less than 10 years, they are no longer eligible for benefits. Currently when a stepchild’s parent is divorced and no longer eligible for benefits from a former spouse, benefits for the parent terminate in the month before the month in which the divorce becomes final. However, benefits for the stepchild terminate one month later, in the month the divorce becomes final. This proposal would provide equal treatment for the stepchild and his or her parent; both benefits would end in the month before the month in which the divorce becomes final.
  • The FY 2014 President’s Budget takes other critical steps to finds savings in government programs by making smart reforms that root out duplicative or wasteful spending, such as reducing an individual's Disability Insurance (DI) benefit in any month in which that person also receives a state or Federal unemployment benefit. This proposal would eliminate dual benefit payments covering the same period a beneficiary is out of the workforce, while still providing a base level of income support. Enacting this offset would save $1 billion over 10 years.

A Spring Haiku

     Former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue submitted the following haiku via twitter to an NPR show that was celebrating National Poetry Month:
Early April. 
Winter drums cold tunes. 
The old word pile sheds its slush. 
What burns is unseen.

Apr 9, 2013

I Know! Public Service Jobs. That's The Answer!

     From Joe Klein writing in his blog at Time:
Back during the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney tried to make the argument that President Obam was soft on welfare reform. He missed the target. Welfare abuse has shifted to Social Security Disability. ...
Now, to be sure, there are workers who fit the program’s inevitable intent: older workers who suffer serious injuries and need support until they reach the age of eligibility for social security. There are others whose medical or mental disabilities make them clearly unable to work. But the government has gotten sloppy about admissions. ...
The 55-year-old construction who hurt his back has my sympathy—I’d be in favor of lowering the eligibility age for both Medicare and Social Security a few years in such cases. But there are plenty of non-back-breaking jobs that construction worker can hold in the interim.
Indeed, in all but the most severe cases, there are public service jobs that can be done as a way of paying back—and a way of culling the scam artists. All too often, the scammers find support on the left from people who believe that free enterprise is inherently unfair and the “victims,” even the unworthy poor,  deserve any help they can get. That sort of thinking is insidious and morally deficient.

"Ersatz Unemployment Insurance Or Welfare"

     Charles Lane writing in the Washington Post:
[Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act] spending has tripled since 1970, relative to the economy’s size, and it now approaches a full percentage point of gross domestic product. ...
An aging labor force explains some of the program’s growth; older workers are more likely to become disabled. But a growing body of economic and journalistic evidence suggests that SSDI reduces work incentives, because of its permissive eligibility criteria and relatively high benefits, as compared to low-wage workers’ potential earnings.
Once a backup plan for dying or incapacitated workers near retirement age, SSDI now serves as ersatz unemployment insurance or welfare — particularly attractive, and particularly hard to give up, in a sluggish economy. ...
The longer we wait to reform SSDI, the more it will drain the Treasury and erode the workforce.
     Here are some ideas that might be pursued:
  • Make it crystal clear in the law that the mere inability to obtain a job is irrelevant. You have to be unable to perform a job whether it's there or not.
  • Make the standards tough so that two-thirds of claims get turned down. Maybe a few more should get on benefits on appeal but make them wait a couple of years.
  • Make benefits low. They shouldn't be anywhere near what a person was earning before becoming disabled. 
  • Give huge incentives for the disabled to return to work. Let a person on benefits keep their full benefits for a full year after they return to work. Let them get back on benefits very easily for many years thereafter if they have to stop work. 
  • Give people drawing benefits access to rehabilitation. We can call this Ticket to Work.
     Wait, I just described current law.

Apr 8, 2013

Kira's Story

Now We Know What's Wrong With Social Secuity Disability. It's A Case Of Hysteresis!

     From the Wall Street Journal:
The unexpectedly large number of American workers who piled into the Social Security Administration's disability program during the recession and its aftermath threatens to cost the economy tens of billions a year in lost wages and diminished tax revenues.
Signs of the problem surfaced Friday, in a dismal jobs report that showed U.S. labor force participation rates falling last month to the lowest levels since 1979, the wrong direction for an economy that instead needs new legions of working men and women to drive growth and sustain a baby boomer generation headed to retirement.
Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for J.P. Morgan, estimates that since the recession, the worker flight to the Social Security Disability Insurance program accounts for as much as a quarter of the puzzling drop in participation rates, a labor exodus with far-reaching economic consequences. ...
Former truck driver James Ottesen, who began receiving monthly payments in 2009, said, "I'm not real happy" about being on disability. "It kind of reminds me of welfare." He said he would "like to get re-educated to do something" because "my body is broke but my mind is not."
But even if the 53-year-old Ohio man learned of a job he could do with herniated discs, he said, the government disability program feels like "a blanket covering you, and to walk out from it…at my age, it's a little intimidating." ...
It is no longer a theoretical problem, said David Autor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has studied the disability program. The economy has a case of hysteresis, he said, created by the permanent transfer of workers to disability rolls.
Many newcomers to the disability roster are low-wage earners with limited skills, Mr. Autor said, and they are "pretty unlikely to want to forfeit economic security for a precarious job market."

Apr 7, 2013

Upated Fee Payment Numbers

     Social Security has issued updated numbers on payments of fees to attorneys and some others for representing Social Security claimants. These fees are withheld and paid by Social Security but come out of the back benefits of the claimants involved. The attorneys and others who have their fees withheld pay a user fee for this privilege. Since these fees are usually paid at the same time that the claimant is paid, these numbers show how quickly or slowly Social Security is able to get claimants paid after a favorable determination on their claims.

Month/Year Volume Amount

Apr 6, 2013

Open Letter From Eight Former Social Security Commissioners

April 4, 2013 

     As former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration (SSA), we write to express our significant concerns regarding a series recently aired on This American Life, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio stations across the U.S. ("Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America"). Our nation’s Social Security system serves as a vital lifeline for millions of individuals with severe disabilities. We feel compelled to share our unique insight into the Social Security system because we know firsthand the dangers of mischaracterizing the disability programs via sensational,anecdote-based media accounts, leaving vulnerable beneficiaries to pick up the pieces.           
     Approximately 1 in 5 of our fellow Americans live with disabilities, but only those with the most significant disabilities qualify for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Title II Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (DI) benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits provide critical support to millions of Americans with the most severe disabilities, as well as their dependents and survivors. Disabled beneficiaries often report multiple impairments, and many have such poor health that they are terminally ill: about 1 in 5 male DI beneficiaries and 1 in 7 female DI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits. Despite their impairments, many beneficiaries at tempt work using the work incentives under the Social Security Act, and some do work part-time. For example, research by Mathematica and SSA finds that about 17 percent of beneficiaries worked in 2007. However,their earnings are generally very low (two-thirds of those who worked in 2007 earned less than $5,000 for the whole year), and only a small share are able to earn enough to be self-sufficient and leave the DI and SSI programs each year. Without Social Security or SSI, the alternatives for many beneficiaries are simply unthinkable. 
     The statutory standard for approval is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996. To implement this strict standard, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, policies, and procedures require extensive documentation and medical evidence at all levels of the application process. Less than one-third of initial DI and SSI applications are approved, and only about 40 percent of adult DI and SSI applicants receive benefits even after all levels of appeal. As with adults, most children who apply are denied SSI, and only the most severely impaired qualify for benefits. 
     Managing the eligibility process for the disability system is a challenging task, and errors will always occur in any system of this size.But the SSA makes every effort to pay benefits to the right person in the right amount at the right time. When an individual applies for one of SSA’s disability programs, the agency has extensive systems in place to ensure accurate decisions, and the agency is home to many dedicated public servants who take their ongoing responsibility of the proper stewardship of the programs very seriously. Program integrity is critically important and adequate funds must be available to make continued progress in quality assurance and monitoring. In the face of annual appropriations that were far below what the President requested in Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012, the agency has still continued to implement many new system improvements that protect taxpayers and live up to Americans’ commitment to protect the most vulnerable in our society. 
     It is true that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years.The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors:baby boomers entering their high -disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now "insured" for DI based on their own prior contributions. The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by larger economic factors, namely the increase in the number of poor and low-income children. More than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today and some 44 percent live in low-income households. Since SSI is a means-tested program, more poor and low-income children mean more children with disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low-income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at less than four percent. 
     Yet, the series aired on NPR sensationalizes this growth, as well as the DI trust fund’s projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has "reallocated" payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds–about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target. We are deeply concerned that the series “Unfit for Work” failed to tell the whole story and perpetuated dangerous myths about the Social Security disability programs and the people helped by this vital system. We fear that listeners may come away with an incorrect impression of the program — as opposed to an understanding of the program actually based on facts. 
     As former Commissioners of the agency, we could not sit on the sidelines and witness this one perspective on the disability programs threaten to pull the rug out from under millions of people with severe disabilities. Drastic changes to these programs would lead to drastic consequences for some of America's most vulnerable people. With the lives of so many vulnerable people at stake, it is vital that future reporting on the DI and SSI programs look at all parts of this important issue and take a balanced, careful look at how to preserve and strengthen these vital parts of our nation’s Social Security system. 

Kenneth S. Apfel 
Michael J. Astrue 
Jo Anne B. Barnhart 
Shirley S. Chater 
Herbert R. Doggette 
Louis D. Enoff 
Larry G. Massanari 
Lawrence H. Thompson

Apr 5, 2013

Astrue On MSNBC

     Michael Astrue was on the Chris Hayes show on MSNBC tonight arguing with some highly-opionated but poorly informed critic of Social Security disability. I'll try to find a link to the video.

Chained CPI And Disability Change Expected In Obama Budget

     From today's NY Times:
President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to compromise with Republicans and revive prospects for a long-term deficit-reduction deal, administration officials say. ...
Mr. Obama’s budget will propose a new inflation formula that would have the effect of reducing cost-of-living payments for Social Security benefits, though with financial protections for low-income and very old beneficiaries, administration officials said. The idea, known as chained C.P.I., has infuriated some Democrats and advocacy groups to Mr. Obama’s left, and they have already mobilized in opposition.  ...
Mr. Obama will propose ... repeal of a loophole that allows people to collect both disability and unemployment benefits.

DOMA Being Declared Unconstitutional May Only Be The Beginning

      From Liz Goodwin writing at Yahoo News:
If, as many legal experts predict, the Defense of Marriage Act is struck down by the Supreme Court, advocates behind the decadeslong movement for gay rights will have won a major victory. But the decision could also create a dense legal maze for gay and lesbian married couples, one that would surely lead to more lawsuits that could make their way back to the Supreme Court. ...
If DOMA is struck down, then same-sex couples residing in states that allow gay marriage will suddenly be included in the more than 1,100 federal laws that give benefits to married couples. ...
But what about a gay couple that gets married in New York and then moves back to North Carolina, or any other of the 38 states that have explicitly banned gay marriage?
At first glance, it appears they would have no access to these rights, and that their marriage would not be recognized either by their state or the federal government ...
  [A law professor] predicts same-sex couples would sue the government, arguing that this policy violates their constitutional right to travel. ...
That would leave broad discretion to the Obama administration to define the issue administratively ... The White House could direct federal agencies like the IRS [or Social Security] to accept marriages based on where a couple got married, not where they live. ...

Apr 4, 2013

Who Would Have Thought?

     From an Op Ed in the Baltimore Sun:
The government in Britain recently did something interesting.
It asked everyone receiving an "incapacity benefit" -- a disability program slowly being phased out under new reforms -- to submit to a medical test to confirm they were too disabled to work. A third of recipients (878,000 people) didn't even bother and dropped out of the program rather than be examined. Of those tested, more than half (55 percent) were found fit for work, and a quarter were found fit for some work. ...
In 1960, 134 Americans were working for every officially recognized disabled worker. Five decades later that ratio fell to roughly 16 to 1.
Some defenders of the status quo say these numbers can be explained by the entry of women into the U.S. workforce, the aging of baby boomers and the short-term spike in need that came with the recession.
No doubt those are significant factors. But not nearly so significant as to explain why the number of people on disability has been doubling every 15 years (while the average age of recipients has gone down) or why such a huge proportion of claim injuries can't be corroborated by a doctor. ...
There are those who are quick to argue that this is all bogus, there's nothing amiss with the disability system that greater funding and a better economy won't fix. Maybe they're right. One way to find out would be to ask every recipient to get a thorough examination, just as they did in Britain. Maybe the results here in the United States would be interesting too.
      Wow! Doing medical re-examinations of Social Security disability recipients! Who would ever have thought this would be a good idea? Actually, the Social Security Administration would like to do these on a regular basis and keeps asking for the money it needs to do the exams -- as well as enough money to answer its phones and prevent lines outside its offices and so forth. Yes, the medical exams save money but Congress still must appropriate enough money to do the exams themselves and Congress hasn't been willing to do that. So, there we are. Don't point fingers at the Left on this issue. Point fingers at the Right.

Not Going To Happen Soon But Are You Sure It Won't Happen In The Next Ten Years?

     From the Washington Post's Wonkblog:
...[A] big new report (pdf) from the New America Foundation suggests that the conventional wisdom is exactly backward. Congress should be looking at ways to expand Social Security, not shrink it — particularly at a time when traditional corporate pensions are disappearing, and 401(k)s have proved fairly risky.
The major proposal in the report is to add a brand new benefit to Social Security, called Part B, which would provide a flat $11,699 per year to all retired workers. This would come on top of regular Social Security, which would also be protected from any further cuts. ...
So how much would this cost in taxes? Quite a bit. At the moment, Social Security is expected to experience a funding shortfall by 2033. Congress will need to raise taxes by between 1 and 1.5 percent of GDP just to maintain current benefits. On top of that, the expanded benefits proposed by New America would cost an estimated 3.7 percent of GDP. The net cost: About 5 percent of GDP. ...
Defined-benefit employer plans are vanishing. Workers aren’t saving enough or dipping into their retirement funds too often. And private-savings plans like 401(k)s or IRAs are proving quite volatile — the financial crisis wiped out an estimated $2.8 trillion from retirement plans.
As a result, fewer Americans are well-positioned for retirement:

Apr 3, 2013

The Irony

     From the Atlantic Wire:
Conservative columnists are newly outraged by Social Security data showing a rise in disability applications. But this isn't Obama's fault. In fact, it's kind of theirs....
Notice when the big application spike happened — 2009 or 2010. Now, subtract 65 from that number. 2010 minus 65 years equals 1945. The year the Second World War ended. And the year that the baby boom began in earnest.  
Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health notes in his recent book "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic" that 29% of the 8.6 million Americans who received Social Security disability benefits at the end of 2011 cited injuries involving the "musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue."
That's called arthritis. The greatest irony here is that those older arthritics fall into another group besides "most likely to file for disability". That group is "the Republican party". ...

In fact, this is the [Republican] party's main challenge right now: It's weighted heavily toward older, whiter voters. And while those older voters may enjoy taking umbrage with the freeloaders exploiting the "productive" people, the critique hits much closer to home than they seem to realize. Lots of stones being thrown in increasingly creaky glass houses.

"The Real-World Workplace Is Still Tougher Than It Looks From The Faculty Lounge"

     From Michael Hiltzik writing in the Los Angeles Times:
...Social Security disability, has a bull's-eye on its back — and not for the first time. ...
[T]here's almost no doubt that the disability program's trust fund will run out in 2016, three years from now. At that point, absent congressional action, disability payments will have to be cut by about 20%. 

"The insolvency of DI could not come at a worse time politically," says Kathy Ruffing, a budget expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This impending disaster could affect 8.8 million disabled Americans and their 2 million spouses and dependents. But a paralyzed Congress seems disinclined to even debate the necessary near-term fixes, which could include reallocating more of the Social Security payroll tax to the disability fund or raising the tax to shore up the program. Instead, Washington wrings its hands over the supposedly explosive growth of the program from 3 million beneficiaries in 1980. Expect to hear more about how disability is supposedly "out of control."
Perhaps because it covers a relatively small number of Social Security recipients, the disability program has always been a prime victim of mythmakers. Its beneficiaries are portrayed as slackers gaming the system ... "This American Life" described the program as "a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves," as though the typical recipient has chosen to suffer the debilitating medical conditions or mental syndromes that reduce him or her to subsistence on an average monthly check of $1,130. ...
NPR was merely the latest in a long line of news sources to get disability wrong. Last year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that rural families were pulling their children out of school so their illiteracy would keep them qualified for disability. He didn't actually identify anyone doing this, and in any case illiteracy and poor educational attainment aren't considered disabling conditions in and of themselves. The year before that, the Boston Globe reported that parents were placing their kids on hyperactivity drugs so they'd qualify for disability; government investigators found the opposite — kids on those medications were "more likely to be denied" benefits. In the 1990s, the media frenzy was over parents supposedly "coaching" their children to act crazy, which added the term "crazy checks" to the political lexicon. Again, no substantiation. ...
As for the increased caseload, "the story is a fairly simple one of economics and demographics," Ruffing says. To begin with, the U.S. population is growing older: The ratio of those ages 50 to 64 increased by a third from 1980 to 2010, according to the Census Bureau, rising from less than 15% of the population to 20%. As Ruffing told a House subcommittee last month, people are twice as likely to become disabled at age 50 as at age 40, and twice again more likely at 60 as at 50.
Economic and workplace conditions have a big effect. It's easy to assert, as do some academic researchers, that disability rolls should be shrinking because work is no longer as toilsome as it used to be. When the Social Security disability program was created in 1956, assert David Autor of MIT and Mark Duggan of the University of Maryland, "a substantial fraction of jobs involved strenuous physical activity [and] assistive technologies were limited and crude."
Yet the real-world workplace is still tougher than it looks from the faculty lounge. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 45% of workers 58 and older held jobs that were physically demanding or involved difficult working conditions.