Jun 30, 2013

Education Is So Important

    I think this chart from a recent Urban Institute report is interesting. (DI = Disability Insurance):

Jun 28, 2013

SSA Unprepared For SCOTUS Decision On DOMA

     Social Security has sent out its first staff instruction on what to do with same sex marriages in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The instruction is to "Take and hold all claims by individuals who are filing for benefits that are dependent upon the existence of a same-sex marriage." This is not just for those who have moved from the state in which they were married. This is for all cases. The instruction to 800 number operators is to "Please advise callers that we are working with the Department of Justice to review the decision and how it impacts our programs -- including benefits administered by this agency – to ensure that we implement the decision swiftly and smoothly."
     The Supreme Court decision that DOMA is unconstitutional didn't come as a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. I think that Social Security could have been better prepared. How long will it take them -- and the Department of Justice -- to write staff instructions?

Jun 27, 2013

AP Report On Today's Hearing

     From an AP piece:
Driven to reduce a huge backlog of disability claims, Social Security is pushing judges to award benefits to people who may not deserve them, several current and former judges told Congress Thursday. 
Larry Butler, an administrative law judge from Fort Myers, Fla., called the system "paying down the backlog." 
A former Social Security judge, J.E. Sullivan, said, "The only thing that matters in the adjudication process is signing that final decision." Sullivan is now an administrative law judge for the Department of Transportation.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating why many judges have high approval rates for claims already rejected twice by field offices or state agencies. Two current and two former judges spoke at a subcommittee hearing. ...
None of the judges who testified spoke of being specifically ordered to award claims. Three said they had been pressured to decide cases without fully reviewing medical files.
The judges described a system in which there is very little incentive to deny claims, but lots of pressure to approve them. It requires more documentation to deny a claim than to approve one, said Sullivan, the former Social Security judge. Also, rejected claims can be appealed while approved claims are not.

Some ALJ Testimony

     Some excerpts from the written statements of witnesses at today's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:
  • Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Larry Butler (31% reversal rate): "The Social Security disability programs are bankrupt. ... Is SSA managing the disability system for the primary benefit of genuinely disabled individuals and taxpayers or has the disability system became a “cash cow” for other “stakeholders” (attorney and non-attorney representatives, medical providers paid through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, pharmaceutical companies, and others)?...  Did SSA management intentionally adopt or implicitly approve a policy now referred to as “paying-down-the-backlog” in order to reduce the backlog? 
  • ALJ Thomas Snook (30% reversal rate): I am a Judge in name – but no one works for me. Moreover, I am judge who, according to our Chief Judge, has no authority over the personnel in my courtroom. In fact, I cannot even set the time and place of a hearing. Former Commissioner Astrue took this authority away from me. ... An outstanding attorney who practices before me recently phrased it differently: “The disability system has turned into a cottage industry for certain claimants’representatives.” He was referring to large firms who use TV advertising and other methods to sign up clients. Claimants’ representatives collectively make $1.7 billion in fees annually. That is a large cottage industry. The largest claimants’ firm Binder and Binder was according to the Wall Street Journal was bought by a hedge fund. [Actually, a private equity firm. There is a difference. Hedge funds don't acquire businesses, just securities.] ... Social Security is an Agency that doesn’t listen to its judges. In fact, the line judges are union members because the Agency refused to talk to us. 
  • ALJ Drew Swank (16% reversal rate):  Social Security disability programs, however, were never designed to be a safety net for the jobless or a substitute for unemployment insurance compensation. Furthermore, there is an inherent inconsistency with the notion that a person can switch back and forth between working when the economy is good and coll ecting disability benefits when the economy is bad. ... Working or not, disabled or not, people are increasingly seeing Social Security disability benefits as a relatively easy means of earning a lifetime of government payments, and a gateway to a host of other government entitlement programs. ...  “Pay so they go away” has been an unsuccessful strategy in reducing the hearing backlog, and it will never work. For every individual improperly awarded disability benefits, there will be an incentive for others who likewise do not qualify to apply for them as well — adding to the backlog.

Jun 26, 2013

Round Up The Lowest Allowing ALJs And Call Them Models?

     Here's the witness list for tomorrow's hearing before the House Oversight Committee, with the reversal rates for each of the Administrative Law Judges in parentheses after their name:

  • The Honorable Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Oklahoma), Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate
  • Glenn E. Sklar, Deputy Commissioner, Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration
  • The Honorable Larry J. Butler, Administrative Law Judge, Miami Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration (31%)
  • The Honorable Thomas W. Snook, Administrative Law Judge, Miami Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration (30%)
  • The Honorable J.E. Sullivan, Administrative Law Judge, Pittsburgh Office of Administrative Law Judges, U.S. Department of Labor (14%)
  • The Honorable Drew A. Swank, Administrative Law Judge, Pittsburgh Office of Administrative Law Judges, U.S. Department of Labor (16%)
  • Thomas D. Sutton, Board of Directors, National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives
     Are these ALJs the committee's majority considers to be models? I don't know any of these ALJs but I wonder whether, after meeting them, the Republican committee members will still consider all of them to be admirable.

DOMA Found Unconstitutional

     The Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented the Social Security Administration and other agencies from recognizing same sex marriages, has been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
     Unfortunately, this leaves open the question of whether Social Security can recognize same sex marriages when the married person has moved to a state that refuses to recognize same sex marriages since the Social Security Act relies upon the law of the state in which the person is domiciled. Apparently, the ruling is so broad that it is likely that the Court will rule that state laws that refuse to recognize same sex marriages solemnized in other states are also unconstitutional. However, it will probably be at least a year before the Supreme Court rules on that issue. In the meantime, my bet is that Social Security will, at the least, recognize the same sex marriages of those who have moved to a state that refuses to recognize same sex marriages as deemed marriages. Update: On second thought, I can't bet on deemed marriage being the solution because the statute says that the only sort of legal impediment that qualifies one for a deemed marriage is "an impediment (I) resulting from the lack of dissolution of a previous marriage or otherwise arising out of such previous marriage or its dissolution, or (II) resulting from a defect in the procedure followed in connection with such purported marriage." Neither of these applies to a situation where a person duly married in one state moves to another state which refuses to give full faith and credit to the marriage.
     Update: It's not particularly relevant to Social Security but you ought to read some of what Justice Scalia said in dissent. Let's just say, he really disagreed with the majority opinion which he categorized as "black-robed supremacy."  He had a few other things to say as well. As we say in the South, bless his heart.

Make Your Choice Early -- And Don't Move

     From a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) set to appear in the Federal Register tomorrow:
To better utilize our limited resources and make our hearing process more efficient for all claimants, we propose to modify our rules so that we would notify a claimant earlier in the process, before an ALJ is assigned or a hearing is scheduled, that he or she has the right to object to appearing at the hearing by video teleconferencing. If the claimant does not want to appear at the hearing in this manner, the claimant must object in writing within 30 days after the date he or she receives this notice. If we receive a timely objection, we will schedule the claimant for an in person hearing, with one limited exception. 
The limited exception to this rule would apply when the claimant moves to a different residence while his or her request for a hearing is pending. ...
     Note that this is a proposal. Anyone can file comments on it. It will be many months, probably well over a year before it can become part of Social Security's regulations. It may be modified or withdrawn before that ever happens.

Jun 25, 2013

Paying Money To Dead People

     The Wall Street Journal is running a story on a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General concerning payment of benefits to 1,546 people listed in the Death Master File as dead. 
     It's funny. I had seen the same report and thought it showed that on the whole Social Security was doing a good job. I thought about posting about the report but decided that it wasn't of any real consequence. Obviously, I don't think it's a good idea to pay money to people listed as dead and I support reasonable efforts to prevent this but the error rate discussed here seems so low that I think things are going pretty well.
     Social Security's reaction was to point to its 99.9% payment accuracy rate. Isn't that good enough? 
     Was this report really newsworthy? 

     Update: Matthew Yglesias makes the same point. Social Security's payment accuracy rate is astonishingly good.

An Original Type Of Fraud

     From Inside NOVA, which, I think, stands for Northern Virginia:
A former Woodbridge woman was sentenced Friday to one day in prison, plus three years of supervised release, for committing Social Security fraud by helping her husband claim he was dead. ...
According to documents on file at U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Rios’ husband, Luis Melecio Rios Guizado, was wanted on charges of taking indecent liberties with a minor in Prince William County in 2007 when he fled to Peru, his native country.
Rios visited Guizado there and her gave her a false Peruvian death certificate, claiming he had died, “in order to have the charges filed against him in Prince William County dropped,” according to a news release from the Social Security Administration. ...
According to court documents, Rios presented the fake death certificate in Prince William General District Court in May 2007, in order to quash her husband’s outstanding warrant. She then presented the fraudulent document to the Social Security Administration in June 2007, so she could collect survivors’ benefits for herself and her five children, court documents state.
Authorities say that Rios and her children collected $127,000 in Social Security benefits between June 2007 and May 2011.

Jun 24, 2013

I'm Not Expecting Calm Deliberation

     The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has scheduled a hearing for June 27 at 9:30 a.m. on Oversight of Rising Social Security Disability Claims and the Role of Administrative Law Judges. This is supposed to be the first of a series of hearings on this subject. In advance of the hearing, there is an Associated Press piece saying that Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are approving claims at "strikingly high rates." There is also mention of "management problems" which have led to "misspending." The article quotes Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Energy, Policy, Health Care, and Entitlements as saying "This is not one or two judges out there just going rogue and saying they are going to approve a lot of cases. This is a very, very high rate" of approving claims.
     I suppose this particular House Committee does some good but under both Democrats and Republicans, it has had a reputation for conducting partisan witch hunts when the White House has been in the hands of the opposite party.
     By the way, didn't Social Security's ALJs as a group receive an official award from the American Bar Association back in the early 1990s for demonstrating courage in resisting outside pressure?

Error In Blast E-Mail From SSA

     I received this e-mail from Social Security today, probably because I have set up a MySSA account:

Affordable Health Care
Need health insurance or know someone who does?  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more Americans now qualify to get coverage that fits their needs and budgets.  Visit the Health Insurance Marketplace at www.HealthCare.gov or call 1-800-318-2596 to get more information.  If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you may call 1-855-889-4325.
     What you see if you try to go to the HealthCare.gov link is not HealthCare.gov but a Social Security website asking that you enter the "Word of the Day." I think somebody made a mistake. I wonder how many people got this e-mail with a bad link.

     Update: They're resent the e-mail with the correct link.

Hearing Office Average Processing Time Report

     From the newsletter of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (click on each page to view full size):

Jun 23, 2013

Why Is The Chamber Of Commerce Attacking Social Security?

     Jamelle Bouie writing for the Washington Post asks why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has rededicated itself to a campaign to slash Social Security. Bouie notes that the Chamber's executive director for government affairs recently gave a speech about Social Security that was filled with overstatements and inaccuracies, a speech that seemed lifted from Republican campaign rhetoric. 
     The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has never been a liberal organization but the question is why it wants to attack Social Security. Why not just stick to the knitting -- issues that directly affect business interests?

Jun 22, 2013

I Don't Know What To Make Of This

     Below is a table from the Social Security Administration's monthly International Update. The Update deals, in part, with changes made in early retirement programs. I don't think that differences in social insurance programs can explain these dramatic differences between countries or that changes in social insurance programs explain the differences over time in individual countries. I don't know what to make of a lot of this. For example, why the dramatic differences between Spain and Portugal for those aged 65-69? In any case, the Update notes that many European countries are raising the minimum age for early retirement under their social insurance programs and that they are generally encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce, or, perhaps, more accurately, punishing those who don't.

Table 1. Older workers in the labor force in selected European Union countries, as a percentage of their age group, 2001 and 2011
Country Aged 55–64 Aged 65–69
2001 2011 2001 2011
Belgium 25.2 38.7 2.4 3.5
Czech Republic 37.1 47.6 7.6 9.3
Denmark 56.5 59.5 12.2 13.5
Finland 45.9 57.0 5.3 11.8
France 30.7 41.4 2.1 5.3
Germany 37.9 59.9 5.4 10.1
Greece 38.0 39.4 10.3 8.6
Ireland 46.9 50.8 14.8 16.8
Netherlands 37.3 56.1 5.6 11.4
Poland 29.0 36.9 10.8 9.4
Portugal 50.2 47.9 27.8 21.9
Spain 39.2 44.5 3.9 4.5
SOURCE: "Older Workers Scorecard, 2001, 2005, and 2011," OECD, 2011.

Jun 21, 2013

Problems With MySocialSecurity

     From the testimony of Theresa Gruber, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration to the Senate Special Committee on Aging:
In May 2013, we added key measures to combat fraud through our on line MySocialSecurity portal. For example, we have added unique and stringent fraud protection tools to our online registration and authentication technology. Because of these changes, we have seen a significant drop in the volume of successful MySocialSecurity registrations - indicating we may be preventing some fraudulent accounts from being established. We also established an executive-level workgroup tasked to identify additional fraud deterrent measures to explore and implement, including items recommended by OIG. We will be implementing several of these real-time fraud prevention measures by the end of the year. In August 2013, we will eliminate the ability change payment information via the internet for users who have a block in place.
     Some things to note here. At the moment, putting a block on one's online MySocialSecurity "portal" doesn't prevent some stranger from using one's online MySocialSecurity "portal" to divert your Social Security benefits to a bank account they control. Are you kidding me? What does a "block" mean if it doesn't block this? Why is Social Security even pretending that a "block" is of some use when they know it is worthless and they don't have a plan to change this situation for at least another couple of months? Second, now that Social Security has implemented new fraud prevention measures, they've seen a significant drop in online registrations. This indicates one of two things: either fraudulent registrations were a significant part of all registrations or a significant number of those who want to establish an account for genuine reasons are being thwarted by the new security measures. Either way, this isn't good news.

Threatening To Rape Little Girls Isn't Cool

     From WOOD-TV:
A Battle Creek man may spend up to five years in prison after threatening to "rape little girls" in a message to the Social Security Administration. 
In December 2012, Timothy Burgess sent a message via the Internet to the Social Security Administration office in Maryland, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. 
In the message, he said he wanted more money. He threatened to rape and implied he may murder "little girls" if his demands were not met.

What Happens If DOMA Is Found Unconstitutional?

    The Supreme Court is likely to hand down its opinion on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) next week. DOMA forbids the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages even though some states recognize them. Many observers expect that DOMA will be found unconstitutional. This would not take care of the same sex marriage issue for Social Security, however.  The Social Security Act says that the determination of whether a person is married is based upon the law of the state in which he or she is domiciled, or was domiciled as of the date of the person's death. 
     What if two men or two women marry in New York or some other state that recognizes same sex marriage and one party to the marriage later starts to draw Social Security benefits based upon that marriage but the couple then moves to North Carolina, one of the many states that refuse to recognize same sex marriages within their borders, even if the marriage took place in another state? Does that mean that the spouse who was eligible for Social Security benefits while living in New York is suddenly ineligible because he or she has moved to North Carolina? That would be a weird result and hard for Social Security to implement. There is certainly an argument that North Carolina has a constitutional duty to give "full faith and credit" to the marriage that took place in New York but that issue isn't before the Supreme Court at the moment and won't be for at least another year. So what can Social Security do now? Let's look at the Social Security Act itself. In addition to providing that in determining marital status Social Security must look to state law in the state in which the claimant is living, 42 U.S.C. §416(h)(1)(B) provides that:
In any case where under [state law a person is not married] but it is established to the satisfaction of the Commissioner of Social Security that such applicant in good faith went through a marriage ceremony with such individual resulting in a purported marriage between them which, but for a legal impediment not known to the applicant at the time of such ceremony, would have been a valid marriage, then ... such purported marriage shall be deemed to be a valid marriage.
     Doesn't that apply here? The parties to this same sex marriage went through their marriage ceremony in New York in good faith. It was no "purported" marriage to them or to the state of New York. The only legal impediment is one that arose after the marriage when the parties moved to North Carolina. Shouldn't the marriage be deemed to be a valid marriage even after the couple move to North Carolina? That's no slim reed. It's a strong argument based upon the plain language of the statute, one that I'd be happy to litigate. This interpretation avoids the ridiculous outcome of a person being eligible for Social Security benefits in one state but ineligible if he or she moves to another state. This doesn't force same sex marriage on states that don't want it. They're free to ignore them. This just allows for a uniform application of the Social Security Act across the country.
    The problem with the "deemed marriage" provision is that it doesn't help the Obama Administration deal with the issue in other settings, such as veteran's benefits (update: the concept of deemed marriage does exist to some extent in veterans benefits law, 38 C.F.R. §3.52) and federal employee benefits. It's possible that the Obama Administration will decide that if DOMA is unconstitutional that state laws that refuse to recognize same sex marriages contracted in other states are unconstitutional and refuse to apply them. The President felt that he was obliged to apply DOMA (but not defend it in court) even though he believed it unconstitutional but DOMA was federal law. The President swore an oath to uphold federal law. He never swore an oath to abide by state laws that he regards as unconstitutional.
     We'll see what the Supreme Court does and what the White House does thereafter but my bet is that if DOMA is found unconstitutional, one way or another Social Security will start recognizing same sex marriages that were valid at the time the parties entered into them regardless of where the parties move thereafter.

ACUS Recommendations

     The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) has issued its recommendations for "Improving Consistency in Social Security Disability Adjudications." In reading this document, it's quite obvious that ACUS thinks that too many claims are being approved by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and Something Must Be Done. It's also obvious that even after studying Social Security, ACUS barely has a handle on what happens at the agency but, still, Something Must Be Done. Anyway, here is a summary of the recommendations with my comments in brackets and bolded after each recommendation:
  • Require attorneys and others representing claimants to submit pre-hearing briefs [Why?]
  • "Expand" the use of video hearings [How? Why?]
  • The Appeals Council should issue "Appeals Council Interpretations" with "greater frequency." [What's an Appeals Council Interpretation? I've never seen any document by that name. What makes ACUS think that Social Security management trusts the Appeals Council to issue policy guidance to ALJs.]
  • Publish selected ALJ or Appeals Council decisions to serve as model decisions. [ACUS doesn't realize that ALJ decisions are mostly boilerplate disseminated by Social Security management.]
  • Allow even more ALJs to serve even longer details with the Appeals Council. [Why?]
  • Expand "own motion" Appeals Council review based upon "announced, neutral and objective criteria." [You don't understand, ACUS, that keeping the criteria (which are already used) a secret is of primary importance to Social Security. They can't tell the world what their criteria are because there's a good chance the world won't like the criteria, not to mention the fact that attorneys and ALJs will find ways to slide around criteria if we know what they are. You also don't understand, ACUS, that the Appeals Council doesn't have anything like the manpower needed to do more "own motion" review. They can't keep up with their workload as it is.]
  • "SSA should revise its regulations ...to eliminate the controlling weight aspect of the treating source rule in favor of a more flexible approach based on specific regulatory factors." [Why? Really, why? Other than the fact that you'd like to see fewer claims approved, what is the basis for this recommendation? This is not happening with a Democrat in the White House. Probably not happening even with a Republican in the White House. Social Security would have a hard time explaining or justifying such a change. The fact that appellate courts all over the country have forced the treating physician rule on Social Security should tell you that the treating physician rule makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. If the agency is going to change this it's going to have to come up with reasons that go beyond saying it's based on the agency's "adjudicative experience." The agency has gotten away with that "explanation" in the past but I don't think it'll work on something so prominent and so easily understood by laypeople.]

Jun 20, 2013

Center For American Progress Report On Social Security Disability

     The Center for American Progress has issued a report in Q&A format on Social Security's disability programs. Here are a few somewhat random excerpts:
 Controlling just for income, participation in Supplemental Security by working-age adults who are potentially eligible because of low income has actually declined over the past decade and a half. In 2011 there were 17.6 nonelderly adults receiving Supplemental Security for every 100 nonelderly adults with incomes below 100 percent of the poverty line, compared to 18.5 nonelderly adults in 1996. In other words, the number of nonelderly adults receiving Supplemental Security grew at a slower rate than the number of nonelderly adults with very low incomes. ...

How does the United States compare with other countries?

According to a recent analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, the United States has the least generous disability-benefit system of all OECD member countries except Korea.

Jun 19, 2013

Problems With Debit Cards

     From the Center for Public Integrity:
A government initiative aimed at saving money by eliminating paper checks is hurting some recipients of federal benefits while earning the bank that operates the program millions in fees charged to consumers.
The U.S. Treasury Department has been urging people who collect Social Security and other benefits to switch to direct deposit rather than rely on mailed checks, to save millions of dollars a year in administrative costs.
But beneficiaries without bank accounts — and even some who do have accounts — are being pressured into using prepaid debit cards offered by Comerica Bank, an effort that is shifting costs to elderly people, veterans and other vulnerable consumers. ...
Between October 2011 and the end of August 2012, the Social Security inspector general received more than 18,000 reports of unauthorized changes or suspected attempts to make unauthorized changes to payments. Treasury says it put new procedures in place in January 2012 to reduce fraud. Yet early this year, the Social Security inspector general’s office said it was still receiving more than 50 such reports a day.

MySSA Help Desk

     From EM-13020 posted yesterday by Social Security:
... [O]n June 18, 2013, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will establish a dedicated MySocialSecurity (MySSA) Help Desk to assist the public with MySSA related issues. SSA will implement prompts to the existing National 800 Number that will route callers with MySSA related questions to the dedicated Help Desk for resolution. On June 25, 2013, we will introduce an option for the public to request and receive call-backs from the Help Desk via a MySSA Contact Us page.
     Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau is warning about fraud associated with MySSA.

Jun 18, 2013

It's Time To Stop Allowing Any New Online Accounts

     From the Braintree  Patriot Ledger:
When the form letter from Social Security arrived, Lillian Broide almost didn’t give it a close reading. She has been receiving lots of official forms and letters lately, after going through several hospital stays and rehab programs.
“I did open it and found out there is a fraud going on that is tagging seniors,” Broide said when she called recently.
The letter on May 22 was confirming that she had recently opened an online Social Security account. It said she did not have to do anything unless this was not correct and told her to contact Social Security immediately if she had not in fact opened an online account.
“I had never gone online with my Social Security,” she said. She called right away and was shocked to discover that someone had opened an online account using her Social Security number. A few days later, she also found out someone had changed the bank account where her monthly Social Security check was to be deposited.
     What is it going to take to wake up Social Security management? This sort of fraud is exploding. It's irresponsible to allow this to continue. Stop allowing new online accounts until there's a fix! What are you waiting for?

Some Straight Talk On The Trust Funds

Andy Landis writing for Market Watch at the Wall Street Journal, of all places, has an excellent Q&A piece addressing the recently released report of Social Security's trustees. It's refreshingly honest and straightforward. Here's an excerpt:
How much does Social Security waste in bureaucracy?
SSA's operating overhead is 0.8% of total expenditures, about the same as a discount mutual fund, and that includes Medicare. It's been a fraction of 1% for decades.
What about the 2% payroll tax "holiday"? Didn't that further erode Social Security finances?
No. During the "holiday" in 2011 and 2012, government made up the missing income with direct grants from general revenues. It was the first time SSA was not self-funded and depended on government money. Grants have stopped now that the "holiday" has ended.

Is this Social Security's worst financial report ever?

Far from it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Social Security ran deficits. Trust fund insolvency loomed in July 1983. With mere months of solvency left, Congress acted to bolster finances on April 20, 1983. SSA still operates under the 1983 funding arrangement, generating surpluses every year since.

Jun 17, 2013

WSJ On Unemployment And Disability

     From the Wall Street Journal's Economy Stream Blog:
The sharp rise in federal disability rolls in recent years has sparked worry that able-bodied workers are using the system to hide from the weak job market. But new research suggests those fears may be overblown. ...
University of California, Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein set out to test [that] theory. He reasoned that if the increase [in disability claims] is being driven by unemployed workers gaming the system, there ought to be a correlation between expiring jobless benefits rising disability claims. After all, there’s no need to file for disability insurance — often a long, involved process — if you can still draw an unemployment check.
When Mr. Rothstein looked at the data, however, he found no such correlation. When the unemployment rate started rising in 2008 and 2009, the government extended unemployment benefits, leading to a drop in the number of people exhausting their payments. Yet the number of people filing for disability kept on rising. In more recent years, the government has cut back unemployment benefits, leading to an increase in expirations, but the number of disability applications has remained flat or even slowed. ...
Federal disability rules allow workers to get benefits only if they have an “impairment” that prevents them from working. But Mr. Rothstein notes that the ability to work isn’t necessarily independent of the labor market.
A construction worker who hurts his back, for example, might be able to get a desk job during good economic times; when unemployment is high, however, making such a career switch could be much harder. Moreover, companies are much more likely to make accommodations for existing workers who become disabled than to hire a disabled worker — so a person with a disability who loses a job might well struggle to find a new one.
Mr. Rothstein says his findings suggest that “really what’s going on is that there are people who are disabled who may in good markets be able to get jobs but in difficult market can’t.”

Jun 16, 2013

You Can't Separate Body From Mind

     From Ritchie King at Quartz (whatever that is):
A recent German study shows that a middle-aged worker who develops arthritis is much more likely to take a disability pension and retire early if she is feeling depressed than if she is struggling physically to perform her job but isn’t suffering mentally. Overall, musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis are the most common cause (pdf) of early retirement in Europe.
     There are those who theorize about disability without having any real experience with the medical records of those who file disability claims. One of the most important things that these people miss is the complex interplay between physical illness and mental illness. Significant physical illness almost inevitably leads to depression of varying degrees. The depression tends to make the perception of pain and other symptoms worse -- and there is no meaningful difference between pain and its perception. Pain cannot exist without a person perceiving it. It shouldn't be hard to understand how this could produce a negative spiral. On the other hand, serious mental illness is associated with physical illness and early mortality. Again, it shouldn't be hard to understand that it can be impossible to separate out the strands of physical and mental illness in one individual. Dealing with this complexity is, for me anyway, one of the most interesting things about Social Security disability claims.

Fees Rebound After Slow April

     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

Jun 15, 2013

New Policy On Gender Reassignments

     From the National Center for Transgender Equality:
In June 2013 [actually just yesterday], the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced a new policy to for updating Social Security records to reflect a person’s gender identity. Under the new policy, a transgender person can change their gender on their Social Security records by submitting either government-issued documentation reflecting a change, or a certification from a physician confirming that they have had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition. This policy replaces SSA’s old policy, which required documentation of sex reassignment surgery.
     Note that this new policy does not increase or decrease anyone's Social Security benefits.

The Octopus At Work

     Iowa Watchdog, Kansas Watchdog, Colorado Watchdog and New Mexico Watchdog have each released state-specific pieces decrying the growing number of people receiving disability benefits in each of these states. I don't know how many state-specific "Watchdog" organizations there are. They are all supported by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.  Exactly who is behind the Franklin Center is unclear but it's clearly a right wing political organization. There's an excellent chance that it's a Koch Brothers front organization.
     Standard Oil used to be pictured as an octopus. That would also be an excellent metaphor for the Koch brothers political operations, which include multifarious efforts against Social Security.

Jun 14, 2013

Hearing On Protecting Seniors From Online Fraud

     The Senate Special Committee on Aging has scheduled a hearing for June 19 on "Social Security Payments Go Paperless: Protecting Seniors from Fraud and Confusion."
     This hearing stands to be far more useful than the House Social Security Subcommittee's upcoming annual hearing on disability work incentives. It's clear. Work incentives just don't work. However, something has to be done and something will be done to protect Social Security benefits from online fraud.

Get Over It Guys!

     The National Review really wants to prove that fraud is rampant at Social Security. They offer as proof the bizarre case of Charles Fisher. After Fisher died of natural causes his mentally ill daughter decided to put him on ice, not a freezer but ice, so she could keep getting his Social Security checks. At some point she decided to cut off her deceased father's hands since it would make it harder to identify him once she disposed of his remains in a more permanent way. The ice didn't work too well. Fisher's body was decaying. The police eventually came around the house since friends and neighbors wondered what happened to Fisher.The fraud was revealed.
     This sad case demonstrates that people, particularly mentally ill people, can do some very weird things. I don't think it proves anything of consequence about Social Security. Of course, there's some degree of fraud at Social Security. Tens of millions of people receive benefits. How could there be no fraud involved? There's no proof of rampant fraud at Social Security.
     The right wing needs to get over its obsession with Social Security. They've used the same arguments against Social Security for more than 75 years and they've gotten nowhere.  The American people love Social Security. There's nothing the right wing can do to make it go away.

Big Decision Coming?

     From the Washington Post:
With the Supreme Court only days away from major rulings on same-sex marriage, President Obama faces the prospect of having to make his own difficult decisions about the definition of wedlock. ... 
Obama’s choices on federal benefits arise from the other case, in which the justices are expected to determine the constitutionality of a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited the federal government from making benefits available to same-sex couples. ... 
If the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, full benefits would be available to same-sex couples who marry and live in the dozen states that legally recognize their relationships. But legally married gay couples that live in states that don’t recognize their marriages would be ineligible for a range of federal benefits.
Advocates say Obama could eliminate the discrepancy with an executive order or new regulations setting a couple’s “place of celebration” as the deciding factor in whether the U.S. government recognizes a marriage for the purposes of providing benefits. ... 
Only one section of the law is under challenge, and it might yet be upheld. Another section states that no state “shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding” of any other state “respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage.” ... 
“There will be tremendous pressure on the White House and on the president personally to move very quickly to implement the judgement and to implement it broadly,” said Richard Socarides, a longtime gay rights activist who was an adviser in the Bill Clinton White House. ...
“Thirty days is what he’s got,” Socarides added. “These are real people suffering real injury. If anybody tries to argue that they need six months or a year, there are going to be riots in the streets.”