Feb 28, 2014

Annual Statistical Supplement Issued

     Social Security has issued its Annual Statistical Supplement for 2013. This is crammed with all the statistical information about Social Security benefits you could ask for. Unfortunately, it contains only limited information about the operations of the Social Security Administration itself. Want to know how many people are drawing U.S. Social Security disability benefits and living in the nation of Lebanon? It's 27. Want to know what percentage of appeals are approved by Social Security's Administrative Law Judges? You won't find it in the Annual Statistical Supplement. Which piece of information is of more interest?

Feb 27, 2014

Awesome Social Security Disability Survey

Social Security has put out on Twitter an online survey on its Social Security disability program. Take it yourself. And then comment here.

Feb 26, 2014

Lots Of Allegations Of Fraud But Almost No Prosecutions

     This is an excerpt from Acting Commissioner Colvin's written testimony given to the House Social Security Subcommittee today:
In fiscal year ( FY ) 2013, we made over 22,500 disability fraud referrals to the OIG [Office of Inspector General]; the OIG opened about 5,300 cases based on these referrals. To date, the OIG has referred over 100 of these cases to United States Attorneys’ Offices for criminal prosecution.
     If I understand this correctly, about 77% of the time when OIG is sent a disability fraud referral, OIG immediately decides that the fraud allegation has no merit and refuses to even open a file. Even when OIG opens a file, there's only a 1.8% chance that OIG will refer the case for criminal prosecution. In the end, 99.6% of the time that a disability fraud referral is made, OIG decides not to recommend prosection. Left unmentioned is the fact that even when OIG recommends prosecution sometimes the United States Attorneys refuse to prosecute the cases.
     This can be interpreted in different ways but it's a fact that while there's a lot of disability fraud being alleged, only a tiny, tiny percentage of those allegations result in prosecution.

Social Security Subcommittee Hearing Today

     The Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing today at 10:00 EST on "Preventing Disability Scams." Social Security's Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, will testify. The Subcommittee will also hear from J. Matthew Royal who is Vice President and Chief Auditor for the Unum Group (a large insurance company which writes most private long term disability insurance in the United States), William B. Zielinski who is Social Security's Deputy Commissioner of Systems and Chief Information Officer and Alan R. Shark who is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Alleged Arizona Bomber Will Be In Prison For a Long Time

     On November 30, 2012 a small homemade bomb was set off outside the Casa Grande, AZ Social Security field office. Fortunately, no one was injured. Abdullatif Ali Aldosary has been accused in the bombing. Apparently, that charge is still pending but Aldosary has now been convicted on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition and sentenced to ten years in prison. The firearms and ammunition were found when Aldosary was arrested on the bombing charge. Aldosary is also facing a separate charge of murdering a man on November 27.

New HIV Listing Proposed

     The Social Security Administration has published a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) in the Federal Register to alter the listings for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection disability claims. Anyone who wishes has until April 28 to file a comment on the NPRM.

Feb 25, 2014

Proposed Changes To Neurological Listings

     The Social Security Administration has published a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) in the Federal Register to change its neurological listing of impairments. As has been the case for some years now, the NPRM dramatically lengthens the preamble to the listings and tightens the requirements of the listings in numerous ways.
     As a comparison, the current listing for non-convulsive seizures requires that they occur "more frequently than once weekly." The proposed rule would require that the seizures occur "at least once a week." You look at that and think there's not much difference. You might think that if anything the proposed rule is less difficult to meet since it only requires that seizures occur weekly rather than more than weekly. However, ask anyone who suffers from epilepsy how often their seizures occur and they always say "They don't occur on any schedule." Let's say claimant A has 25 seizures in a three month time period but happens to have one week during this time during which he or she has no seizures. Claimant A meets the current listing but not the proposed listing. The current listing permits averaging. The proposed rule doesn't. That's a significant tightening.
     For another comparison, the proposed listing for multiple sclerosis qualifies the degree of disorganization of motor function needed to meet the listing by adding the word "extreme." There would have to be "extreme limitation" of motor function in order to meet the proposed listing. This is a major change even though, in effect, nothing of consequence other than one word has been changed.
     The public is allowed to comment on the NPRM. Social Security must consider the comments. The process takes a year or more at best. The history of these things is that Social Security blows off all comments based upon anything other than grammatical errors unless the comments come from some major organization focused on a particular disease and the comments are forceful and backed up with lobbying. Since most such organizations are focused on research and happy talk about employment opportunities and not on disability benefits, they either don't comment on the NPRM or offer weak comments and don't lobby. If that happens, the NPRM is adopted essentially intact and more people who suffer from seizures or MS get denied and become impoverished.

Additional Arrests In NYC

     The New York Times reports that 28 more have been indicted in New York on charges of Social Security disability fraud. They are alleged to have feigned mental illness in order to obtain benefits. As before, these are state charges instead of federal charges.

Feb 24, 2014

Staff Instructions On Priority To 100% Disabled Vets

     Social Security has released staff instructions on its plan to give priority in processing to the disability claims of veterans who have been awarded 100% permanent and total compensation by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Am I reading this right that since it refers to "compensation" that it does not apply to veterans receiving non-service connected veterans "pensions" from VA? Those vets have also been found totally and permanently disabled by VA yet I think they are excluded under these instructions. The instructions could be clearer on this point.

Feb 23, 2014

Feb 22, 2014

More People Get On Social Security Disability Benefits For Fibromyalgia Than You Might Think

     From the abstract of Social Security Work Disability And Its Predictors In Patients With Fibromyalgia by Frederick Wolfe MD, Brian T. Walitt MD MPH, Robert S. Katz MD, and Winfried Häuser MD, published in Arthritis Care & Research, a publication of the American College of Rheumatology:
During the study, 34.8% (95% CI 32.9, 36.8) of fibromyalgia patients received SSD [Social Security Disability]. The annual incidence of SSD among patients not receiving SSD at study enrollment was 3.4% (3.0, 3.9%), and 25% were estimated to be work disabled at 9.0 years of follow-up. By comparison, the prevalence of SSD in rheumatoid arthritis patients with concomitant fibromyalgia was 55.6% (54.3, 57.0) and was 42.4% in osteoarthritis. By study conclusion, 31.4% of SSD awardees were no longer receiving SSD. In univariate models, incident SSD in patients with fibromyalgia was predicted by socio-demographic measures and by symptom burden; but the strongest predictor was functional status (Health Assessment Questionnaire disability [HAQ]).

Feb 21, 2014

Efforts To Prevent Or Detect Fraud

     Social Security's Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, has sent a letter to the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee detailing her agency's efforts to prevent or detect fraud in disability claims. It sounds as if a fair amount of Social Security's scarce resources will be devoted to this effort. I expect that Republicans will be disappointed with the results since I expect that little organized fraud will be found.

Chained CPI Will Not Be In President's Budget

     The President's proposed budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, set to be released in early March, will not include a change to Chained CPI for Social Security's cost of living adjustment. Chained CPI is strongly opposed by Social Security supporters. Take a look at Fox News' take on this announcement.

Feb 20, 2014

"Electronic Matrimony"

     A message I received from the Social Security Administration:
Dear Colleague:
I have great news!  Social Security has made it even easier for people to apply online for disability benefits.  We have joined the Social Security disability benefits application, and the adult disability report in “electronic matrimony.”  It used to be that you had to complete both of these forms separately when applying for disability benefits.  Our new streamlined process puts both forms together all in one place.  Please refer to www.socialsecurity.gov/applyfordisability for more information.
Be advised that this application is for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits only.  To find out about applying for Supplemental Security Income benefits, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/pgm/ssi.htm.
Thank you for your support as we continually strive to improve our service to the American people.

Expediting For 100% Service Connected Vets -- A Bad Idea

     Yesterday, Social Security announced a plan to expedite Social Security disability claims for veterans who have been found 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Let me explain why that was a bad decision. 
  • This is NOT about expediting disability claims for wounded warriors. Social Security was already doing that. This announcement expedites disability claims for veterans whose disabilities are NOT the result of combat. You ask how that can be. Easy. A veteran gets VA service connected benefits for virtually ANY disability incurred while in military service. Heart attacks, cancer, off base automobile accidents, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney failure, etc. The only things excluded are disabilities which are the result of the veteran's own willful misconduct or abuse of alcohol or drugs 
  • To expedite disability claims for one group of people is to delay them for everyone else, which is no minor matter when we consider the severity of the backlogs at Social Security. Vets receiving 100% service connected VA benefits for non-combat related disabilities are undeserving of this special attention because they already have substantial incomes of more than $2,800 per month. They can be hurting somewhat financially but most Social Security disability claimants are hurting much worse because they do not have any disability benefit from their former employer. If anyone gets expediting, it should be those who are in serious financial distress, not vets already receiving 100% service connected benefits. 
  • This new policy makes it NO more likely that vets drawing 100% service connected benefits will be approved for disability benefits by Social Security. It's only expediting. I strongly suspect that this was a cynical attempt to head off legislative proposals that would automatically grant Social Security disability benefits to those who had been approved for 100% service connected VA benefits.
     Vets deserve our respect. We owe them a lot. They certainly deserve compensation for their service connected disabilities. Those who are disabled by combat related injuries deserve special treatment at Social Security. However, vets with non-combat disabilities don't deserve to have their disability claims expedited at Social Security.

Proposed Regs On Submission Of All Medical Records

     Social Security has published  proposed regulations in the Federal Register requiring disability claimants and their attorneys or other representatives to notify the agency or submit all medical records concerning a Social Security disability claim.
     This proposal includes a statement that "When you submit evidence from another source, you must submit that evidence in its entirety." I don't know how to interpret this other than to mean that if I request a hospital record, I must request and submit the whole thing, which can easily run over 1,000 pages on a single hospitalization. Even an overnight hospitalization will result in hundreds of pages of records. The proposal says explicitly that Social Security intends to simplify matters by removing all discretion from the claimant and attorney. I could, in the alternative, simplify notify Social Security that the claimant was in the hospital but these days it's unlikely that an ALJ would, on his or her own, request the hospital record. In terms of outpatient records, if the claimant has been going to the same physician for 20 years, if I'm going to obtain and submit the record, I don't see how I can limit it to a particular time period. I would have to request the entire record. Social Security says that I have no discretion. Also, I don't see how I can not request lab reports, x-ray reports and other documents contained in the physician's records. I would have no discretion.
     By the way, if I, as an attorney representing a Social Security disability claimant, has no discretion to not request the entirety of any medical record, why should Social Security?
     I think that Social Security means well but this is unworkable. On its face, it wouldn't increase the quantity of medical records that claimants and their attorneys submit; it would reduce it by making it impractical for an attorney to obtain and submit many records.

Feb 19, 2014

House Social Security Subcommittee Schedules Hearing

     The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for 10:00 on February 26 on:
[T]he Acting Commissioner’s plan and legislative recommendations for preventing conspiracy fraud.  The Subcommittee will also hear the recommendations of public and private sector experts to stop disability fraud schemes before benefits are awarded and to deter criminals from attempting to cheat the system.
     Disability fraud schemes are actually almost non-existent at Social Security and not that hard to identify when they do occur but that won't stop Republicans from scheduling these hearings. You say, nonsense, I've been reading about all these fraud conspiracies at Social Security. Really? How closely did you read those stories? There have been three recent "schemes" alleged. One was in Puerto Rico. It's being prosecuted. As described by Social Security, that scheme was unsophisticated and easily identified. If the charges are true, those involved were fools, which is not surprising since most criminals are fools. A second, similar scheme is alleged in New York City but the local U.S. Attorney declined to prosecute, a fact which should cause any reasonable person to wonder just how strong the evidence is. In the third case, there have been lurid allegations of bribery and other wrongdoing in the Kentucky-West Virginia border area but no one has been charged. These is reason for concern about those allegations since the people making the allegations are suing to try to recover money. They have a financial motivation. The Department of Justice has refused to get involved in that civil lawsuit, suggesting that the charges will be difficult to prove even by a preponderance of the evidence standard, not to mention the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that applies to criminal cases.
     By the way, it should now be obvious why the Acting Commissioner wanted to rush out the proposed "submit all the evidence" regulations.

Memo To ALJs: Schedule 50 A Month And You Can Have Telework

     From a memorandum sent to all Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) today by the Chief ALJ:
... Considering the necessity for quality, timely, and policy compliant hearings and decisions, and historical data, scheduling an average of at least fifty (50) cases for hearing per month will generally signify a reasonably attainable number for the purposes of this contractual provision [the contract is between Social Security and the ALJ union]. I want to emphasize that this provision concerns the number of hearings scheduled, not cases heard or dispositions issued. Accordingly, if you schedule at least an average of fifty (50) cases for hearing per month during a twelve-month rolling cycle, then management generally will determine you have scheduled a reasonably attainable number of cases for hearing for the purposes of this contractual provision. Conversely, if you schedule fewer than an average of fifty (50) cases for hearing per month during a twelve-month rolling cycle, then management likely will determine you have not scheduled a reasonably attainable number of cases for hearing, unless there are extenuating circumstances. ... 
When, after consideration of all factors, management determines that you have not scheduled a reasonably attainable number of cases for hearing, they will inform you of the determination and of the possibility that your ability to telework may be restricted. If management concludes there is no acceptable reason for not scheduling a reasonably attainable number of hearings, then they may restrict telework by not approving telework or canceling previously approved telework days. Again, management will consider any extenuating circumstances in making this determination....

Speed Up For 100% Disabled Vets

     From the Baltimore Sun:
The Social Security Administration plans to streamline its review of disability claims for veterans starting next month, shaving weeks off the process by which it determines benefits, officials are set to announce Wednesday. ...
Under the new policy, applicants who have been deemed 100 percent disabled by the VA are to be put on a "fast track" at virtually every step of the process. ...
The change won't make it any more likely veterans will receive benefits, officials say — just that they'll get a decision more quickly. ...
     Update: And, here's the announcement but it's brief and a bit vague. If there are staff instructions, they haven't been released to the public yet.

Feb 18, 2014

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

     Last June, the American Psychiatric Association issued the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This included the new diagnostic category of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. This was primarily aimed at children and adolescents. It is a type of mood disorder. It fits poorly into Social Security's childhood listing for mood disorders.
     I'm guessing that Social Security must have given some guidance to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) on how to handle diagnoses of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder but I haven't seen any. Does anyone have a copy they can shoot my way? You can send feedback to Social Security News, anonymously if you wish. You have to enter valid domain name but the rest can be bogus if you wish. However, you can't send attachments.

Feb 17, 2014

"Paper Options" And Social Security

     From the Washington Post:
As the Obama administration pushes to do more business over the Internet, finally seeking to close the technology gap with the private sector, the digital makeover is running into a dogged opponent called Consumers for Paper Options.
The group is working the halls of Congress in closed-door meetings, underwriting research favorable to its position and mounting a news media campaign in an effort to preserve Washington as the capital of paper — and slow the move away from printed checks, forms and other paper communication.
The lobbying group has had some recent victories, including language tucked into last month’s budget deal that requires the government to plan for resuming paper delivery of annual Social Security earnings statements to some of the nation’s 150 million future retirees. And it’s been claiming these wins in the name of the elderly and low-income Americans the Internet has left behind.
Except Consumers for Paper Options is a creation of the paper industry.

Feb 15, 2014

A Poll

Feb 14, 2014

Central Offices Opening Four Hours Late Today -- No, Not Opening At All

     Social Security's central offices in the Baltimore area are opening four hour late today due to snow.
    Update: Other federal offices in the Baltimore-Washington area are opening two hours late instead of four.
     Further update: On second thought, Social Security has decided to just close its central offices for the day instead of opening late.

Feb 13, 2014

Why Many Field Offices In The South Are Closed Today

This is a photo taken (not by me) in the Raleigh area yesterday afternoon.

Central Offices Closed But Who Knows About Field And Hearing Office Closings

     Social Security's central offices in the Baltimore-Washington area are closed today because of weather conditions. Many field and hearing offices along the East coast are also closed. Social Security has a website where these closings are supposed to be listed but this system has almost completely broken down. As an example, no office closings are shown in North Carolina, where I am, but I'm pretty sure that all field offices and hearing offices in the state are closed. It's obvious to me that there must be dozens of office closings in other states  that are also unlisted. Somebody needs to get this system working properly.

Feb 12, 2014

A Cluster In Birmingham?

     Alex Flowers, who had been a Claims Representative at Social Security's Birmingham field office, has been indicted on several federal charges alleging that he used his access to Social Security's databases to cause the issuance of several payments to accounts which he controlled. A different Birmingham Social Security employee had been indicted on similar charges late last year.

Feb 11, 2014

Unemployment Has Little Effect On Number Of Disability Claims

     From a press release issued by the Columbia Business School:
With millions of Americans' unemployment benefits expiring, and as the Social Security Administration comes under increasing pressure to reform its financially-troubled entitlement program, policymakers are asking whether a significant amount of Americans are bilking disability benefits from federal coffers. A new study from Columbia Business School sheds light on the answer. ...
"Contrary to the beliefs of many, even in policy circles, our research proves that the unemployed do not directly file for disability following the exhaustion of benefits," says Columbia Business School Professor Andreas Mueller, who helmed the study. "The evidence is just not there. As a matter of fact, fewer than 2% of workers whose unemployment benefits had expired actually applied for disability insurance."  ...
The research reveals that expiring unemployment insurance does not cause a spike in SSDI. In fact, all of the analyses show a 2% or smaller correlation between the number of workers whose unemployment benefits had been exhausted and the number of those who applied for disability insurance. Even in states that had a lengthy unemployment extension period, Mueller and his co-authors did not observe a significant drop in disability insurance applications. ...
"Although we cannot rule out small effects , the takeaway here is we can conclude that there is no convincing evidence that workers whose unemployment benefits have expired apply for disability insurance on a large scale," says Mueller. ...
     Many people envision disability as an either or thing that happens suddenly. Either you're disabled or you're not disabled and when it happens, you know right away. Most of the time, though, it's not that way. It's not a sudden stroke or automobile accident that disables a person but a slow deterioration, caused by something like diabetes or arthritis.  The worker keeps trudging in to work until he or she slowly comes to the conclusion that they just can't do it anymore. In this common situation, events and circumstances not directly related to the worker's health can affect the timing of the worker's exit from the labor market. The attitude of the employer can make a huge difference. Some employers try to accommodate their ailing employees. Some try to force them out.  If you think the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made any real difference, you're naive. The ADA is beloved inside the Washington Beltway but a dead letter everywhere else.Of course, layoffs can make a difference at the margins. Some employees who are heading toward disability get laid off. The layoff may hasten disability claims or delay them by giving people an income from unemployment benefits. It's all at the margins and nothing to get excited about unless you're trying to make political points.

Feb 10, 2014

Submit All The Evidence Proposed Regs Clear OMB.

     The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has now cleared Social Security's proposal:
... to require claimants to inform us about or submit all evidence known to them that relates to their disability claim, subject generally to two exceptions for privileged communications and work product. This requirement would include the duty to submit all relevant evidence obtained from any source in its entirety, unless subject to an exception. We also propose to require a representative to help the claimant obtain the information or evidence that the claimant must submit under our regulations. 
     Some unspecified "change" was made while this was at OMB.
     Expect to see this in the Federal Register in the near future. It went through OMB on a fast track.
    Social Security must first publish this proposal in the Federal Register, allow comments, consider those comments and then publish final regulations, a process likely to take at least a year.

Feb 8, 2014

The Hearing Backlogs Haven't Gone Away

     A Buffalo television station reports on Social Security's long hearing backlogs. I still can't believe that the United States has come to accept hearing backlogs of over a year.

Feb 7, 2014

Social Security Administration Lost 3.9% Of Its Workforce Between September 2012 and September 2013

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at the Social Security Administration.
  • September 2013 62,543
  • 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
     That's a 3.9% decline in employment over the last year and an 11% drop since the 2010 election that put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

Feb 6, 2014

Baucus To China; Wyden Likely To Become Senate Finance Chair

     Max Baucus, who has been the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been confirmed as United States Ambassador to China. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is expected to succeed Baucus as Senate Finance Committee Chairman. The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over Social Security. Wyden is far more liberal than Baucus.

"Inefficient, Mean And Certainly Not 'For The People'"

     Liz Wainger didn't think much of her visit to a Social Security field office. She writes about it for Huffington Post.

Feb 4, 2014

How Is The National Computer Center Project Coming Along?

     Social Security is building a new national computer center. It's been quite some time since I've heard anything about this big project. How is it going? Are budget problems slowing it down? What is the expected completion date?

Feb 3, 2014

Why Are Central Offices Opening Late Today?

     Social Security's offices in the Baltimore area, where the agency's headquarters are located, are opening two hours late today. Uh, why? I didn't think it had been snowing in the area.

Feb 2, 2014

Does The President Still Support Chained CPI?

     A White House aid is refusing to say whether the President still supports chained CPI.

Feb 1, 2014

Supreme Court Requires Social Security To Recognize All Same Sex Marriages

     The Mexican Supreme Court has ruled that the country's Social Security system must recognize all same sex marriages.