Sep 30, 2013

Abandon All Hope

     If you have some residual hope that a last minute deal will prevent a government shutdown at midnight, take a look at the National Review's tweettracker.

Acting Commissioner's Broadcast E-Mail To Agency Employees

 A Message To All SSA and DDS Employees
Subject:  Possible Shutdown - Update
With less than 24 hours remaining to avert a government shutdown, I join you in hoping that Congress will pass a resolution so we may continue delivering the full scope of our services to the American public.  While Congress does still have time to act, we must continue to take careful and prudent steps to prepare for a potential government shutdown, including informing the public about the specific services they can expect us to provide.
To provide you with up-to-date information, we established a special website for you at  This is an external site so you can easily access it from anywhere you have Internet access.  This website provides you with a toll-free telephone hotline (1-866-909-6876) that will relay critical information including when SSA employees should return to work.  While all of us will be paying close attention to the news media since they would most likely be the first to broadcast any general announcement advising Federal employees to return to work, SSA’s national hotline will be the only way to get updated information specific to our status.  Included on this special website are Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), a sample letter for creditors, as well as information about outside employment and unemployment compensation. 
To keep the public informed about our status, we continue to use our social media channels as well as post information on, including updated FAQs. Today we launched a webpage at that clearly explains the effects of a shutdown.
Again, I thank you for your continued patience and the hard work you do every day for the American people, even as we prepare to dial down some of the services we provide.
Let us all hope that our required work to prepare for a Federal shutdown is unnecessary.
Carolyn W. Colvin
Acting Commissioner

Social Security Plan For Government Shutdown

     I'm bumping this one up. It was originally posted Friday afternoon.

     Social Security has posted its plan for dealing with a government shutdown. Overall, the agency will furlough 18,006 of its 62,343 employees, most of them employees of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), with many of the rest being in Budget, Finance and Management, General Counsel, Operations and System/Chief Information Officer. The letter states that "Our approach in ODAR could evolve over time depending on the length of the shutdown." Social Security plans to "encourage" the state disability determination services to continue operating but cannot direct this since the employees work for state government.

Disability Trust Fund Doing Better Than Forecast

     The Office of Chief Actuary has released data on Disability Trust Fund operations through August 2013. As of the end of August, the Disability Trust Fund had a balance of $103.6 billion. This is down by $19.1 billion since December 2012. For the first eight months of 2012, the Disability Trust Fund went down by a $18.5 billion.
     The report sounds bad but you have to contrast the actual results to the Chief Actuary's Intermediate projection, the one that everyone pays attention to, that the Disability Trust Fund would go down by $33.5 billion in 2013, up from $31.2 billion in 2012, a 7% increase.  The increase in the shortfall is only 3% so far this year compared to the same time period last year. The Disability Trust Fund is doing better than the Intermediate projection.

Sep 29, 2013

How Does The GOP Win If There's A Government Shutdown?

     David Frum's analysis of the Republican government shutdown dilemma seems about right to me. If you think the GOP is on the right track, can you explain why Frum is wrong? How can the Republicans win this one?

Spending We Could Do Without

     From a press release:
The U.S. Department of Education and the Social Security Administration today announced the award of $466,603 to four Minority-Serving Institutions to conduct research in the areas of retirement security, financial literacy, and financial decision-making within minority and low-income communities. ...
"Social Security recognizes the importance of retirement planning and is committed to researching ways to strengthen financial literacy across the country," said Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. "Through these grants, we plan to improve our understanding of how to best educate individuals in minority and low-income communities and prepare them for a more secure financial future." ...
     It's not that I oppose retirement planning or financial literacy, it's just that I'm pretty sure this will do virtually nothing to promote either. People just aren't interested in these topics. They should be but they aren't.

Sep 28, 2013

Maybe They Didn't Have Any Other Income

     A recent study reveals four reasons why people start taking Social Security retirement benefits early, passing up the higher monthly benefits they could receive by waiting:
  • Fear of loss. People who have a stronger aversion to financial loss also tended to say they would claim earlier.  To them, the researchers said, a delay in receiving their benefit checks “looks like a potential loss.”
  • Life expectancy. It’s intuitive that an individual who doesn’t expect to live as long might want to start his benefits as soon as possible, and that’s what the analysis concluded.  The researchers found that 10 years added to one’s life expectancy will delay a Social Security filing by six months.
  • Fairness.  The individuals surveyed were asked whether they agreed with several statements about Social Security, such as “I feel that I have earned these retirement benefits.”  The more strongly an individual agreed with such statements, the more likely they were to say they would file for their benefits early.
  • Patience. This finding was self-explanatory: the more impatient an individual, the more likely he is to claim early.

Sep 27, 2013

Can't Trust Social Security's Website?

     Larry Kotlikoff, who appears on PBS's Newshour program, says that you can't trust the online advice you get from Social Security. Since the online advice he's referring to is nearly incomprehensible to the average person and what Kotlikoff thinks should be added to the online advice would make it even more incomprehensible, I don't know that this is going to matter much. What it does point out is that, contrary to what most people think, Social Security is complicated.

Sep 26, 2013

Budget Impasse Continues

     The Speaker of the House of Representatives says he doesn't expect a government shutdown next week but also says he will pursue a plan that would make a shutdown almost inevitable. At best, nothing will be settled until Monday. In the meantime, based upon past behavior, expect the Commissioner of Social Security to be sending out a broadcast e-mail to employees either today -- Thursday -- or Friday. 
     I hope that the vast majority of Social Security employees remain at work even if there's a shutdown, but, to be honest, a straightforward interpretation of the Anti-Deficiency Act would mean that almost all Social Security employees would be furloughed. I don't know that one should read anything into it, but the last time there was a serious shutdown threat, President Obama said that he wanted Social Security to continue processing claims. I haven't seen such a statement this time around.

CR Charged With Extortion

     From the Associated Press with a Memphis dateline:
Federal prosecutors say a Social Security Administration claims representative has been charged with illegally charging beneficiaries a fee to process payment claims.

The U.S. attorney's office said Wednesday that 42-year-old Montrell Levelle Arnold has been charged with two counts of bribery and two counts of extortion.

Social Security Paying For Ads On Buses

     From the Meriden, CT Record Journal:
Ads along the side of city buses this past summer were intended to get Baby Boomers reaching retirement age to sign up for their Social Security benefits online.
Internet sign-ups are cheaper for the Social Security Administration than mailed forms. The local ads are part of a nationwide campaign to move people to electronic sign-ups and statements. ...
The contract [for the advertising] obtained through a freedom-of-information request, shows the Social Security Administration agreed to a $2,980-per-month rate for four displays.

Sep 25, 2013

Health Care Exchange Widget Added To Blog

     I have added a Health Exchange widget on the right side of the page. This allows readers to get information from the Department of Health and Human Services on the Health Care Exchanges set to begin operation on October 1, 2013. There is massive confusion across the country about the Health Care Exchanges. Most of this is due to the fact that it's all new. Some of it is due to deliberate lies told by those who oppose the Health Care Exchanges. On the whole, apart from the deliberate lies, I'd compare this to the implementation of the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit. The Prescription Drug benefit, although less important, was at least as complex to implement as the Health Care Exchanges. Things settled down fairly quickly on the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit. I've seen new government programs implemented over the decades. There will be the inevitable glitches but I expect things will settle down fairly quickly with the Health Care Exchanges. Despite what you've heard, it's not all that complicated and the Obama Administration has been working hard to achieve a smooth implementation.
     By the way, if you get your health care insurance through your employer or a family member's employer, just ignore the Health Care Exchanges. You don't need to sign up. In fact, you can't sign up if you have employer based health care insurance. I expect that nearly 100% of the people who are scared about "Obamacare" won't notice anything different once "Obamacare" is fully implemented.

Man Found Guilty In Field Office Bombing

     Abdullatif Ali Aldosary has been found guilty of setting off an incendiary device outside a Social Security field office in Arizona. Aldosary is also facing an unrelated charge of first degree murder.

Eric Conn Pleads Guilty

     Eric Conn, the flamboyant Kentucky Social Security attorney who has been featured in Wall Street Journal articles suggesting wrongdoing, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to give money to another person to give to a political candidate. Apparently, this was an effort to avoid limits on campaign finance contributions.

Chained CPI As Price For Debt Ceiling Extension.?

     A Businessweek article says that Republicans want cuts in Social Security's Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA),the chained CPI proposal, as their price for extending the debt ceiling.
     I'd love to see Republican members of Congress go on record as favoring chained CPI but my opinion is that virtually none of them would vote for it. Republican members of Congress love to talk in the abstract about cutting the budget, particularly "entitlements", but are afraid of voting for any specific cuts in the budget, particularly cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the biggest entitlements. Voters are all for cuts in the budget and in "entitlements" in the abstract. They just don't favor specific cuts, especially cuts in Social Security and Medicare. That's how we end up with sequestration, which applies a simple percentage reduction to most government programs. The damage from this approach isn't as immediately obvious to the public.

Sep 24, 2013

Symptom Validity Tests -- Senator Coburn And OIG Want Them

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
In a January 30, 2013, letter to the Inspector General, Senator Tom Coburn, M.D., requested we review SSA's policy that stated it would no longer allow DDSs or ALJs to purchase SVTs [Symptom Validity Tests]. SVTs are used to determine whether an individual is exhibiting signs of malingering. ... The Agency began discouraging the purchase of SVTs in the early 1990s. In January 2012, SSA issued a reminder to DDSs that it should not purchase these tests. According to SSA senior officials, the Agency disallowed the purchase of SVTs because of weaknesses in the tests' psychometric properties and their limited value in determining, with certainty, a claimant's credibility. SSA stated that these tests could not prove whether a claimant was credible or malingering because there is no test that, when passed or failed, conclusively determines the presence of inaccurate self-reporting. However, according to medical literature and national neuropsychological organizations, there is consensus in the medical community that SVTs are useful in identifying malingering in disability evaluations, when used in conjunction with other evidence in the case file. We also determined VA, RRB, and private disability insurance providers fund SVTs for use in their disability determination processes. ... 
     In its response to the OIG report, Social Security noted that the list of medical sources given by OIG as supporting SVT was incomplete since it did not include differing medical opinion. Also, Social Security noted that the professional societies cited in the OIG report are on record recommending SVT, hinting at a possible conflict of interest. The members of these organizations would benefit if Social Security were to begin ordering SVTs. Social Security told OIG that "We believe that tests cannot prove malingering, as there are no tests that conclusively determine the presence of inaccurate patient self-reporting." However, Social Security also said that "Due to differing opinions on the use of SVTs, and whether they add value to our disability programs, we plan to seek impartial, external expertise to evaluate our policy on the purchase of SVTs, as resources permit. In addition, we plan to seek external expertise on psychological tests from the Institute of Medicine to include an examination of published research and studies on SVTs ..."

Sep 23, 2013

Us Refusing Social Security Agreement With India

     From the Hindustan Times:
The US has refused to enter into a social security agreement with India, something that New Delhi has been pursuing for over a decade, which would have benefited lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of Indian workers who have worked or working there on short-tem visas.
The US said they cannot agree for such a pact as the social security regimes in two countries are not compatible. India have been arguing that despite different systems of social security in place, European countries like Germany and France, as well as Canada have inked such pacts with India. ...
"Countries like France and Germany, with whom US has a similar pact, had entered into a social security agreement with us. These countries also have social systems different from that of US," said Indian sources. Incidentally, Japan and South Korea are the two countries US have social security pacts with in Asia.

Sep 22, 2013

Social Security Agreement With Slovak Republic

     The President has conveyed to Congress a new Social Security Agreement between the United States and the Slovak Republic.

Sep 21, 2013

Washington Post Article On Growing Number Of People Drawing Social Security Disability Benefits

     The Washington Post has a story today about how the number of people drawing Social Security disability benefits is soaring and it's because of the economy and because it's too easy to get disability benefits for mental illness and musculoskeletal impairments. Everybody knows that mental illness and musculoskeletal impairments aren't, you know, really real. The usual suspects, who have been carefully vetted by right wing "think tanks", are quoted. No one giving a differing viewpoint is quoted. The story sure looks like it was laid out for the reporter by some entity fronting for the Koch brothers.

Sep 20, 2013

What Happend In The Past At Social Security When There Were Previous Government Shutdowns Or Threats Of Shutdowns?

     From a February 17, 2011 e-mail sent out by head of the union that represents most Social Security Administration (SSA) employees to union members: 
I have heard that SSA is having a high level management conference call today regarding the Agency’s furlough preparations. ... In some past furloughs the Agency has closed all field offices. In other furloughs SSA has declared maintenance of benefit rolls as essential and kept skeleton staffs at work but such staff was instructed to take no new claims. In the 1995-96 furlough the Agency closed all field offices for the first 5 day furlough. They kept all field offices open during the 2nd 20 day furlough and declared field employees essential. Employees were called back from X-mas leave and forced to work without pay. When the furlough ended, Congress reimbursed all employees whether they worked or not.
       From an April 6, 2011 e-mail from then Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue to Social Security employees:
As soon as funding lapses, Federal agencies will not be permitted to incur further financial obligations performing activities funded by annual appropriations, except those related to the orderly suspension of operations or performance of excepted activities. This means that some employees will be furloughed and unable to work. Our contingency planning for the potential funding lapse includes determining which agency functions are excepted from a furlough. We plan to continue services associated with the White House's statement that Social Security checks will continue to go out. Our field and hearing offices, teleservice and program service centers, and State disability determination services will provide limited services if there is a shutdown. Should it become necessary to implement our contingency plans, you will receive details from your supervisor no later than Friday, April 8th regarding your furlough status.

Sep 19, 2013

Today's Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

     I watched the House Social Security Subcommittee hearing today on the alleged Social Security disability fraud ring in Puerto Rico. It wasn't a news packed event. Subcommittee members expressed outrage at the allegations, of course. Many Subcommittee members seemed interested in preventing this sort of thing from happening in the first place rather than dealing with it after it has happened. The answer to that, of course, is that Social Security would like to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening but crime prevention only gets you so far. Banks, for instance, make extensive efforts to prevent fraud but bank fraud still happens and must be dealt with after the fact. Members also wanted to know how much of the alleged overpayments would be recouped and seemed skeptical at the testimony that most would be recouped. I don't think they realize that the lack of a statute of limitations gives Social Security an almost limitless opportunity to recoup overpayments, a good thing when you're talking about overpayments due to fraud but a questionable thing when you're talking about overpayments that happened through no fault of the beneficiary.
     Of particular interest to me was something that I had earlier predicted. Bea Disman, Social Security's Regional Commissioner for the region covering Puerto Rico, testified that some of the claimants involved in this alleged fraud really are disabled. A person unfamiliar with these cases might think that all of the cases involved in this alleged fraud scheme would be complete fabrications but that's not the way something like this would work or could work. If all the cases were complete fabrications, the fraud would have been discovered more quickly. Even someone as dimwitted as the non-attorney representative involved in these allegations appears to be could have figured that out. This alleged scheme lasted as long as it did -- and it wasn't that long -- because there was other, genuine evidence supporting the award of disability benefits in many cases. Probably, what you had here, in many cases, was gilding the lily. Why would someone gild the lily, that is add fraudulent evidence on top of genuine evidence of disability? Perhaps because they relied upon the advice of a former Social Security employee who told them this was what they should do. Perhaps because they felt real urgency to be approved as quickly as possible. Perhaps because they were people who were more than willing to lie to get something they wanted. It's even possible that some of the claimants didn't even know that this was done on their behalf.
     As I think about this alleged scheme in Puerto Rico, all I can say is what I've said before. It was dumb, dumb, dumb. There was no way it could keep going indefinitely. I can't think of a way that a sophisticated scheme would have worked indefinitely but I can't imagine why a sophisticated person would even try to come up with a scheme. There's too much risk for too little gain. It's not easy but there is money to be made representing Social Security disability claimants honestly.

Getting In Is Easier If You Make An Appointment

     From WRAL:
Police arrested a Chapel Hill [NC] man early Thursday after they said he tried to break into a Social Security Administration office in Durham [NC] through the building's roof.
Brendan Phillip Cannell, 25, was being treated at a hospital Thursday for an arm injury he suffered when he jumped from the roof trying to flee police. Authorities said he would face several charges upon his release from the hospital.
Officers responded to the Social Security building, at 3004 Tower Blvd., at about 1 a.m. after an alarm went off. When they arrived, they heard loud banging sounds and saw a man moving around on the roof of the building.
The man refused to comply with officers' demands to come down, so they fired shots at him, believing him to be a potential imminent deadly threat, police said. He wasn't wounded by the gunfire.
Police apprehended the man shortly after he jumped from the roof.
A hole about a foot wide was cut into the building's roof, but metal sheeting underneath the roof appears to have prevented further access to the building. Police also found a second, smaller hole in the roof. ...

If It Doesn't Fit, You Must ...

     From KXTV:
Genevieve Catlyn Williamson Heidenreich, wants her entire married name to go on her Social Security card.
But Social Security is saying no. ...
"He said to me, 'it doesn't fit.' And I said, 'what do you mean?' And he said, 'it doesn't fit, the computer won't let me move on,'" Heidenreich explained about her visit to the Sacramento Social Security office. ...
A Social Security representative explained for the agency's purposes, a legal name consists of a first and last name only.
"The first and middle name fields allow 16 characters each and the last name allows 21 characters," the statement added. ...
As for technical limitations, Heidenreich said she can't imagine any reason the process couldn't be changed.

"We're, you know, printing livers on 3D printers and I can't have my name? It's kinda wild."
     And from KHON:
After nearly four years of trying, Ashley Barton became pregnant with her first child, who was born in 2012.
“Her name is Hi’ileikawainohiamaikalohena Barton,” Barton said.
That’s 27 letters, plus the okina, in her baby’s first name as shown on her birth certificate.
But when Barton received her daughter’s Social Security card, she noticed nearly half of her first name was dropped.
“And I asked them, ‘Why is that?’ and they said that there is a limit to how many characters they can put on the Social Security card,” Barton said.
     I've never seen this kind of story before and now there's two of them on the same day? Did something change at Social Security or is this just some bizarre coincidence?

Sep 18, 2013

Acting Commissioner's Broadcast E-Mail

A Message To All SSA And DDS Employees
Subject: Budget Update
As many of you are aware, annual funding for the Federal Government expires on September 30.  The Administration strongly believes that a lapse in funding should not occur.  There is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the Administration is willing to work with Congress to enact a short-term continuing resolution to fund critical government operations and allow Congress the time to complete the full-year 2014 appropriations.
However, prudent management requires that we be prepared for all contingencies, including the possibility that a lapse could occur at the end of the month.  A lapse would mean that a number of government activities would cease due to a lack of appropriated funding.  It would also mean that a number of employees would be temporarily furloughed.  To prepare for this possibility, we are working with our Office of the General Counsel to update our contingency plans for executing an orderly shutdown of activities that would be affected by a lapse in appropriations. 
I realize the uncertainty of the current circumstances puts you in a difficult situation, and should a lapse occur, it could impose hardships on many of you, as well as the people that we serve every day.  As we approach the end of the month, I am committed to providing you with updated and timely information on any further developments.  I know you have many questions about your particular situation.  The Office of Personnel Management has a website that should answer some of the questions that may be on your mind. 
Thank you for your hard work, dedication, and patience through this process.  You remain the best employees in Government, and I know I can count on you to continue your unwavering commitment to serve the public during this uncertain time.
Carolyn W. Colvin
Acting Commissioner

Republicans Embrace Ted Cruz's Fight -- Democrats Gleeful

     A government shutdown on October 1 looks more and more likely. From today's New York Times:
House Republican leaders — bowing to the demands of their conservative wing — will put to a vote on Friday a stopgap spending measure that would strip all funding from President Obama’s signature health care law, increasing the likelihood that the government will shut down in two weeks....
House Republicans emerged from a closed-door session on the leadership’s plans seemingly steeled for a protracted showdown, a potentially troubling sign with the government’s funding authority set to expire on Oct. 1. Representative John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana, said the House is taking up the banner first raised by the Senate’s hardest-line conservative Republicans, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
“Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have been asking for this fight. The conservative base have been asking for this fight, so we’re going to give them the fight,” he said.
For their part, Democrats appeared almost gleeful that the Republican leadership had chosen the most confrontational route with just days to go before a potential shutdown....

Fewer And Fewer Employees To Get The Work Done

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at the Social Security Administration.
  • June 2013 62,877
  • March 2013 63,777
  • December 2012 64,538
  • September 2012 65,113
  • September 2011 67,136
  • December 2010 70,270
  • December 2009 67,486
  • September 2009 67,632
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990
  • September 2007 62,407
  • September 2006 63,647
  • September 2005 66,147
  • September 2004 65,258
  • September 2003 64,903
  • September 2002 64,648
  • September 2001 65,377
  • September 2000 64,521
     Since the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in January 2011, the number of employees at Social Security has gone down by  7,393, an 11% reduction, in the face of a rapidly increasing workload. This may understate the staffing reduction since Social Security was employing a good deal of employee overtime prior to the 2010 election. There is now little employee overtime available at Social Security.

Sep 17, 2013

Government Shutdown: The Only Way To Resolve The Question Of Presidential Legitimacy?

    I have hesitated to post anything about the current budget impasse in Washington. I know that one of the traditional benefits of federal employment has been job security. That's a big reason many federal employees took their jobs. Any threat to job security worries federal employees even more than private sector employees. In the end these budget impasses are almost always resolved without a government shutdown so why worry people unnecessarily? Jonathan Chait writing in New York Magazine explains why this impasse is looking very dangerous:
The incipient showdown in Washington is ... very much a crisis of legitimacy. American government has developed customs for resolving the divided government problem [when the White House and Congress are in the hands of different parties]. In the best cases, the two parties try to compromise. In the worst cases, failure to compromise leads to stalemate. ...
Since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2011, a coterie of Republicans has challenged this informal approach. Their belief is that the absence of cooperation should lead not to stalemate but to the president bending to their will. That assumption implies a delegitimization of the presidency that Obama has come to understand, belatedly, that he can’t accept. ...
The tension between the two parties is higher now than ever before because they disagree not only on underlying policy but on the basic premises of shared governance. Obama recognizes that allowing debt-ceiling hostage crises to become enshrined would not only subject him to continuing extortion but set the system on course for an eventual default when, inevitably, ransom negotiations fail at the last minute. Establishment Republicans are trying to talk their base out of extreme measures without addressing their deeper belief that House Republicans are entitled to extract concessions from the president, via threat, without compromising at all. ...
      Even before Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "You Lie!" at President Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress in September 2009, Republicans were mounting an all out effort to delegitimize President Obama. This process accelerated after the 2010 election and has not abated even since Obama decisively defeated Mitt Romney to gain a second term of office. As ridiculous as it would sound to most people, I think it is taken as an article of faith in many Republican circles that regardless of the election results, Barack Obama has no right to be President of the United States. To compromise with Obama is to concede that he is the rightful President of the United States and this they cannot do.
     This dispute may get papered over again before the end of September but my guess is that we're past that. The country needs a resolution to this problem. There's going to have to be a winner and a loser in this showdown. We won't get that sort of clear cut result without a government shutdown. That may be the price we have to pay.

Social Security Cases In The Federal Courts

     The federal courts have published their annual statistical report for the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2012. A total of 17,645 Social Security civil actions were filed that year. The busiest district was the Central District of California with 1,134 Social Security civil actions. However, I'd guess that relative to population the Western District of Missouri with 743 civil actions was the busiest district. Only 19 Social Security civil actions were filed in the Middle District of Louisiana, based in Baton Rouge, 8 in North Dakota and 6 in Hawaii.

Sep 16, 2013

What Do You Think?

     Here is a question for readers:
Mr. Smith is found to have lung cancer. He has part of a lung removed and has radiation and chemotherapy. Soon after the cancer was discovered, Mr. Smith applies for Social Security disability benefits. The claim is approved. By seven months after he stopped work, Mr. Smith is over the surgery and the chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Mr. Smith is feeling better. He's not sure that he'll be able to work but he wants to give it a try. He returns to his old job. Unfortunately, Mr. Smith finds that he can't handle his old job. He's just too short of breath and he gets tired out too quickly. He stops after two months. Mr. Smith informs Social Security of his attempt to return to work and its unsuccessful outcome. They do nothing. His checks continue. What should have happened?
  1. Social Security did the right thing. Mr. Smith should not be punished for his brief, unsuccessful attempt to return to work.
  2. Social Security should have said that Mr. Smith was ineligible for Social Security disability benefits until his attempt to return to work ended and declared him overpaid for the months of benefits paid before that date.
  3. Social Security should have ended Mr. Smith's benefits permanently and declared him overpaid for any benefits he received.
      If you chose 1, that Mr. Smith should not be punished for his unsuccessful work attempt, you chose the correct answer under current law. If you chose 3, that Mr. Smith should be made permanently ineligible for disability benefits because he made an unsuccessful attempt to return to work, you made the same choice that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made in producing a report saying that Social Security made $1.3 billion in overpayments to Social Security disability claimants. If you chose either 1 or 2, you believe that the GAO report is misleading.
      By the way, this sort of unsuccessful attempt to return to work is common. I'll guess that at least 10% of claimants do it, perhaps as many as 25%.
     But, forget what answer is correct under current law and which answer the GAO chose. Which answer makes most sense to you as a public policy matter?

Depends Upon How You Want To Look At It

     From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
A congressional panel that earlier this year criticized judges for lavishly awarding Social Security disability benefits might have been talking about Tennessee.
It depends how you crunch the numbers.
Nearly two-thirds of administrative law judges in Tennessee grant benefits to more than half the sick and injured workers who come before them, federal figures show. ...
But there's another way to look at it, a local disability attorney said: Judges are the back-up for a high turn-down rate at the first stage of the application process.
Though the disability rate among Tennessee workers is about a third higher than the national average, the state has the second-lowest rate in the nation for initial approval of disability claims, figures from the Social Security Administration show.

Sep 15, 2013

Here's An Alternative If You Don't Like Having The Trust Funds Invested In Government Bonds

     From Slate:
A lot of coverage of the sale of Neiman Marcus by the private equity companies than own it to new private equity companies seems to me to be missing what's interesting here. David Gelles at Dealbook, for example, said the buyers are "a group led by Ares Management and a Canadian pension plan."
But it's not just a Canadian pension plan. It's the Canada Pension Plan.
Which is to say the luxury retailer has been bought by Canada's version of Social Security.

Sep 14, 2013

Pittsburg Office Closing

     The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the Pittsburg, Kansas Social Security field office is closing.

Sep 13, 2013

Hearing On Puerto Rico Fraud Allegations

     The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for 2:30 on September 19 concerning the recent allegations of a number of fraudulent Social Security disability claims in Puerto Rico. The hearing notice says that employees involved in adjudicating disability claims noticed that they were receiving nearly identical medical reports on different claimants. The allegation is that the physicians involved were receiving $150 to $500 per fraudulent report. If that's true, all I can say is dumb, dumb, dumb. How stupid did they think Social Security is? Why would any physician with good sense risk serious criminal charges for such a small amount of money? Dumb, dumb, dumb. I'll bet that most of the claimants involved could have been approved based upon honest medical evidence. I've seen that sort of claimant. There aren't that many of them out there but they exist. It was once said of boxing promoter Don King that "... he would rather put a dishonest quarter into his pocket than an honest dollar." That's the mentality that some people have.

GAO Report Looms -- Actually, Now It's Here And It's Got Problems

     NBC is saying that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will release a study on Sunday (GAO releasing a report on Sunday?) saying that $1.29 billion in Social Security disability benefits were paid to 36,000 people who had too much income from employment to qualify for benefits.
     To those who deal with Social Security disability every day there is nothing surprising about this. Some disability benefits recipients don't report that they have returned to work. Some people say they have reported their return to work but Social Security didn't do anything -- and this was a major problem until a few years ago and may, to some extent, remain a problem. What is supposed to happen is that Social Security uses reported earnings to catch these cases, stop payment of benefits and declare overpayments. The problem is that Social Security doesn't have enough manpower to deal with this on a timely basis. Thus, people who shouldn't be getting benefits remain in payment status for years. You want to deal with this problem, give Social Security more operating funds. With sequestration causing further cuts in Social Security's manpower, the problem just gets worse. It's simple. Those who cry the loudest about this sort of thing are the same people who are most responsible for Social Security's inability to deal with this sort of thing on a timely basis.
     Update: The report was actually released today. The report notes that:
During this review, SSA [Social Security Administration] officials told us that limited resources and competing workloads may have constrained the agency’s ability to act promptly when it received earnings alerts or self-reported earnings for beneficiaries from our nongeneralizable examples described above. We also reported in April 2013 that budget decisions and the way SSA prioritizes competing demands, such as processing initial claims, contribute to challenges SSA faces in maintaining the integrity of the disability program.
     Social Security also told GAO that it thought that GAO's method for computing the amount of overpayments was unreliable and could lead to "substantial overstatement.". As an example of the problems with GAO's method, GAO assumed that anyone who performed work during their waiting period would never be eligible for benefits. Social Security's response was that in many cases work during the waiting period was short lived and would lead, at most, to finding a later date for onset of disability which would mean, at most, a small overpayment. GAO's report suggests to me that GAO did not even understand the point that Social Security was making. I'm pretty sure that GAO has never heard of an Unsuccessful Work Attempt (UWA). Anyone involved to a significant extent with the Social Security disability programs will realize that if GAO believes that every UWA makes a person permanently ineligible for benefits, the GAO report has to be seriously misleading. GAO's mindset seems to have been "If you work after the date you say you become disabled, you can't be disabled. Period. End of discussion. For good reasons that I won't belabor here, that's not the law, nor should it be the law. Things are far more complicated that GAO seems to have undersood. The problem is that GAO's report makes for a nice headline. SSA's response doesn't.

Big Theft Of Social Security Checks

     Tampa police discovered about 175 stolen Social Security benefit checks, totaling $165,926, at the scene of an attempted murder. The attempted murder appears to have been drug related. Local police report that a total of about 300 checks had been stolen. How they were stolen, what the thief or thieves intended to do with the checks and what happened to the other 125 or so checks is unclear.
     It couldn't be easy to cash even one stolen Social Security check. Banks and check cashing services demand to see ID before handing over cash or even opening an account. I don't know how you would cash dozens of these checks without getting caught but the jails are full of people who tried to do really stupid things.

Sep 12, 2013

Astrue's Role In Fighting Obamacare -- Also, Astrue's Own Federal Records Got Hacked

     You may have vaguely noticed that one aspect of the all out press by Republicans to prevent the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, from coming into effect is to insist that the data infrastructure for the health care exchanges is inadequate to protect our privacy. Former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue appears to have had a role in this fight -- a role that began while he was Social Security Commissioner. He testified yesterday before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies of the House Committee on Homeland Security. I don't mean to suggest that Astrue has been simply behaving in a partisan way. His concerns seem to be based upon genuine problems in the data infrastructure, problems that may or may not be adequately addressed by the implementing agencies. These appear to me to be no more than the routine, predictable problems inherent in implementing a major new federal program but Congressional Republicans seem intent on puffing this into something much more.
     Interestingly, in his written statement to the Subcommittee, Astrue says, with no further explanation, that he "suffered through OPM’s [Office of Personnel Management's] inept response when my federal financial records were breached two years ago."

Sep 11, 2013

Clay Shaw 1939-2013

     Clay Shaw, a former Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee, has passed away following a long battle with lung cancer.

A Sad Anniversary

     Today is the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Soon after that sad day, Social Security put out a special issue of its staff magazine OASIS (OASI=Old Age and Survivors Insurance), now available online. It's all worth reading. Below is one page to give readers an idea (click on it to view full size) and note that the last story on the page continues on the next page not reproduced here:

Sep 10, 2013

When A Social Security Administrator Was A Candidate For President

"Two presidential possibilities arrive at Capital on same train. Washington, D.C., Dec. 8. Thomas E. Dewey, who recently announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, and Paul V. McNutt, Social Security Administrator, both came to town tonight on the same train. Dewey came to attend tomorrow night's Gridiron dinner, and McNutt returned to resume his official duties"
Library of Congress caption for this photo

Sep 9, 2013

No One In Congress Championing Cuts To Social Security Disability

     From the Washington Free Beacon:
Though nearly 11 million Americans are collecting disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA), and its trust fund is expected to be exhausted by 2016, there is little desire to reform the programs on Capitol Hill.
“I haven’t heard of any member on the Hill sort of championing disability insurance reform,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies for the Cato Institute, during a briefing Tuesday on the rising costs of Social Security disability, which will total over $200 billion this year.
“I agree with that statement,” said Jagadeesh Gokhale, a senior fellow at Cato. “I think the intensity of the discussion should be much greater, given how close the system’s trust fund is to expire.” ...
Getting members of Congress on board may be problematic
“Do you want to be the member that has the quote, unquote, ‘disabled’ activists outside of your office protesting?” [Tad] DeHaven said. “It’s like any other program, you’ve got to be willing to stick your neck out and you’ve got to be willing to find people to go along.”
“And having worked in the Senate, I don’t see it,” he said.

Sep 7, 2013

Updated Fee Payment Stats

     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

Sep 6, 2013

Two Listings Expiration Dates Extended

     Social Security has extended the expiration dates of the Genitourinary Impairments and Hematological Disorders Listings until 2015. There is no other change.

Sep 5, 2013

More On Hearing Loss

     A friend of mine, Gilbert Laden, a Social Security attorney who practices in the Mobile-Pensacola area, sent me these comments on my post about Social Security's advance notice that it is reviewing its hearing listings:
As a faithful reader of your blog and as one with a lifelong hearing loss, I read with interest your item about the advance notice on SSA's [Social Security Administration's] proposed changes to the hearing loss listings and, more particularly, your comments.

I like to offer my perspective on those comments. I have a severe-to-profound loss. I wear two hearing aids. If I didn't, I could not hear normal speech. You would probably be yelling at me, but more on that later. While they are not substitutes for normal hearing, they have been and are instrumental in my ability to function in the hearing world. I disagree with your assertion that they just increase the volume of unintelligible sound.

I did not get my first hearing aid until age 6, a body aid I had to wear in my front pocket (there were no behind-the-ear, or BTE, models), and struggled in the first grade to the point that my teacher told my mother she didn't think I was going to make it. Fortunately, I found my stride. I did have to undergo 6 years of speech therapy as my speech was very poor.

My mother told me that when I first got my aid, I heard a sound which I had not heard before and asked her what it was. She told me it was the sound of birds chirping. She said she never forgot the look on my face. I have had my shares of ups-and-downs with my hearing loss, but have managed to do okay. 

By using the telecoil switch on my hearing aid, I can hear on the telephone (with my right, or "good" ear, the one with "only" a severe loss). With that same t-switch, I can use an assistive listening system and hear during oral argument in federal court.

I lipread. I depend on nonverbal communication. I guess. I still have problems, due to, as I said earlier, hearing aids not being substitutes for normal hearing. Although I wish they were better, I am grateful for them.

Now about communicating with your clients: don't shout at your hearing impaired clients. That distorts the sound and your lip movements for lip-readers. Some amplification of your voice is important, but enunciation, sitting a bit closer, and good lighting on your face (not behind you from a window, for example) and, yes, proper fitting of hearing aids (if they can afford them) will usually carry the day. The vast majority of individuals with hearing loss have some residual hearing that aids will help.

Since you are about the same age as me, let me offer this tidbit: One in three will have a hearing loss by age 65. The percentages go up as we get older.

Thank you for "hearing" me out

Sep 4, 2013

Vietnamese Immigrants Bring Class Action In San Diego Over Attorney Suspension

     From the Courthouse News Service:
Hundreds of disabled Vietnamese refugees claim in a federal class action that the Social Security Commissioner wrongfully suspended the only fluent Vietnamese-speaking attorney in San Diego, to retaliate for a previous class action that claimed a Social Security judge was biased.
Lead plaintiff Truyen Gia Phan sued Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin in a federal class action, on behalf of a class of more than 1,000.
Truyen, his 25 named co-plaintiffs and the class all are "poor, disabled and non-English speaking Vietnamese former prisoner[s] of war and refugees in the United States" who have applied or will apply for Social Security benefits. All of them have been or will be represented by attorney Alexandra Nga Tran Manbeck.
Manbeck has been "providing indispensable representation to the Vietnamese plaintiffs who would otherwise be shut out of court by virtue of her fluency in the Vietnamese language and her ability to advise the plaintiffs in Vietnamese, since plaintiffs did not speak English and had no understanding of administrative and judicial proceedings," Truyen says in the complaint.
On March 12 this year, the Social Security Administration suspended Manbeck from the practice of Social Security law, the complaint states.
The class claims Manbeck was suspended to retaliate for her filing of a class action on behalf of Nazdar Alzayadi and Nora Donate in 2011, alleging bias from Administrative Law Judge Eve Godfrey. That case was dismissed, according to the new complaint. ...
The class claims the Social Security Administration suspended Manbeck for two classes of alleged violations: "filing of Request for Reconsideration and Request for Review in paper forms instead of being filed in electronic forms, and (2) the plaintiff's signing of boilerplate forms allowing the plaintiffs to ask the Commissioner to send payment checks to the plaintiffs' representative to pay outstanding costs."

Sep 3, 2013

No Peeking At The Internet While Adjudicating Disability Claims

     From HALLEX I-1-3-16 updated on August 30, 2013:
Generally, when adjudicating a claim, staff and adjudicators may not rely on information from the Internet that has not been corroborated by a Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit (CDIU). Further, entering an individual's personally identifiable information (PII) in an Internet search engine or social media network may compromise the confidentiality of PII. The responsibility to protect PII within an employee's control applies at all times, regardless of whether the employee is at an official duty station, another official work location, an alternate duty station, or off duty. This policy applies whether the individual is using a computer or personal device such as a smartphone. ...
The AC [Appeals Council] will also consider whether a referral to the Office of the Chief Administrative Law Judge (OCALJ) may be appropriate. ...
     However, another new transmittal, this one to HALLEX I-2-5-69, says that "While it is acceptable to verify inmate information on the Internet, it is not acceptable for an ALJ to instigate an independent investigation of a claimant's criminal history on the Internet." Does this mean that an adjudicator can verify that the claimant is a current inmate but not that he or she is a former inmate?

Sep 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day!

Sep 1, 2013

Christian Science Monitor On Disability Trust Fund

     The Christian Science Monitor is running a rather generic article quoting a couple of right wing sources who argue that the Disability Insurance Trust fund is running out of money and that something must be done soon.
     The Christian Science Monitor certainly has a distinguished history but does it still have any influence? Who reads it other than the obvious, Christian Scientist, a fairly small group?

COLA To Be 1.5%?

     The Congressional Budget Office is estimating that Social Security's Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for this year will be 1.5%.