May 31, 2015

May 30, 2015

Legal Action Under Way In Eric Conn's Cases

     Some of Eric Conn's clients are suing him. There's also talk of seeking a court order to prevent Social Security from summarily cutting off benefit payments to 900 of Conn's former clients.

May 29, 2015

Exactly How Is Social Security Trying To Cut 900 Former Clients Of Eric Conn Off Disability Benefits?

     I'm curious about exactly how the Social Security Administration is approaching the 900 or so cases in Kentucky and West Virginia in which it is trying to take away disability benefits from claimants who had been represented by Eric Conn. I wonder if some reader knows how, procedurally, the agency is doing this.
     Here are the possibilities that come to my mind and the problems associated with those possibilities:
  • Reopening under 20 C.F.R. §§404.988(b) and 404.989 due to new and material evidence that some medical reports submitted by Conn were phony. This would be limited to cases where the initial determination (not the ALJ decision) was issued in the last four years. The argument could be made that Social Security already knew that the medical reports were phony. I don't know for sure but I suspect that the local ALJs would testify that everybody already knew, at least in rough terms, what was going on. Of course, if the ALJ decision relied upon the allegedly phony report, this might not matter. I suppose this is the most likely route. The claimants could still prove they were disabled anyway and most probably would.
  • Reopening under 20 C.F.R. §404.988(c)(1) on the grounds that the favorable decisions were obtained by "fraud or similar fault." If Social Security has proof of "fraud or similar fault" how is Eric Conn still practicing before the agency?
  • Termination of benefits under 20 C.F.R. §404.1579(d)(3) based upon a determination that the original decision putting the claimant on benefits was "in error." The problems here are that benefits could not be terminated retroactively without meeting the criteria specified above for reopening, the claimants would be eligible for interim benefits while they appealed their terminations and the agency would bear the burden of proving the "error."
     I know that all this may sound like a bunch of legalese but Social Security has to follow its own rules. You'll notice from what I've posted earlier and from many of the comments on my post that most lawyers think that cutting these folks off benefits is no slam dunk. There are reasons that Social Security is just now getting trying to do this. And remember, Social Security won't have an attorney present at any ALJ hearings on these issues and the attorneys representing these claimants will keep asking again and again why Social Security is going after the claimants but not going after Eric Conn directly.

     Update: This newspaper article suggests that Social Security is taking the third route, termination, since the 10 day window to get interim benefits applies only to terminations.

May 28, 2015

Claimants Caught In The Crossfire

     From the Lexington Herald-Dispatch:
The Social Security Administration confirmed Wednesday its review of disability benefits for approximately 1,500 cases, all tied to Kentucky attorney Eric C. Conn and former Social Security administrative judge David B. Daugherty.
The action suspends Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits to more than 900 individuals and their auxiliaries, while payment to others receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or a combination of both will continue as the review proceeds.
     Let me explain why Social Security's action is problematic. Eric Conn isn't guilty because 60 Minutes and a Congressional committee say he's guilty. The Social Security Administration has to bring charges against him, either to indict him for a crime and then convict him or to bring an action to suspend him from practicing before the agency and succeed in getting him suspended. Conn hasn't been indicted. So far, he hasn't been suspended from practicing before the agency. Social Security doesn't have the evidence to go after Eric Conn. However, the agency does have the evidence to summarily cut 900 people off benefits?
     Even if we assume that Conn is guilty as sin, that doesn't mean that his clients are guilty of anything or that they weren't disabled. What is alleged is that Conn got phony reports from doctors. Probably, his clients were unaware that Conn was doing anything wrong. More important, even if they were aware that Conn was doing something wrong, they may still be disabled. The allegation is that Conn was routinely obtaining and submitting phony medical reports on his clients. Adding a phony medical report to a file doesn't negate all the other evidence in the file. In most cases Conn would have been gilding the lily.
     From the point of view of an experienced Social Security attorney, what Conn is alleged to have done was just stupid. He was going to win most of the cases anyway. Obviously phony evidence might have impressed an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) or two but it would have antagonized many other ALJs. His alleged scheme would have cost a lot of money, been of dubious utility and subjected him to a big criminal risk. Instead of trying to make a living representing Social Security claimants, Conn is alleged to have used illegal means to try to make a killing. Bad career move.
     I worry that the claimants whose benefits are being cut off are being caught in a crossfire. Social Security wants to destroy Conn. Cutting many of his former clients off benefits will probably destroy Conn's ability to get new clients. Social Security can also demand back the attorney fees that Conn has received in those cases, destroying Conn financially. Conn may have it coming but I doubt that his former clients deserve this treatment.

May 27, 2015

Hatch Introduces Bill To Force Social Security To "Modernize" Grid Rules

     From what appears to be a press release:
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced three bills on Wednesday, each aimed at improving the administration and integrity of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. Essentially, Hatch’s legislation modernizes the antiquated “grid rules,” which have been used for many years to determine the level of disability and eligibility for the program. The bills also simplify the benefit process and create a medical-evaluation standard on par with Medicare.

“For far too long, the SSDI program has failed to keep up with the rapid changes in medicine, technology and education,” Hatch said. “These bills are the first step in modernizing the SSDI program to make it more effective and efficient for both beneficiaries and taxpayers.”

The Guiding Responsible and Improved Disability Decisions (GRIDD) Act would require the Social Security Administration (SSA) to update the medical and vocational grids that are used by disability decision makers. (The “grid rules” take a number of quality-of-life issues into account to determine whether an individual is or is not disabled, but the rules were originally written in 1979 and have never been updated to today’s standards).

The Promoting Opportunity Through Informed Choice Act would create a support system for disability beneficiaries who want to return to work by mandating that the SSA develop public online tools to assist beneficiaries.

The Disability Evidence Integrity Act would discourage the SSA from making determinations on whether disabled individuals should receive Disability Insurance benefits based on any evidence provided by those who have been convicted of a felony or are otherwise disqualified from participating in a federal health care program.
     Notice what's going on here. Hatch and other Republicans are afraid to say they want to cut Social Security disability. No, they use the euphemism "modernize" but, trust me, this is about making it significantly harder to get on disability benefits. And it's not just the use of a euphemism; they want to keep their fingerprints off the unpleasantness that results from the "modernizing." They want to force the executive branch to do the "modernizing." They'll then blame the executive branch for the resulting public anger. Nice jujitsu move if they're allowed to get away with it. Also notice how it appears that they're timing the introduction of this bill to coincide with what's going on in Kentucky. I don't think that's coincidental.

There's Not Enough Evidence To Charge Eric Conn With Any Wrongdoing But There Is Enough Evidence To Throw More Than 800 Of His Clients Off Benefits?

     From the Lexington Herald-Leader:
The federal government has moved to suspend disability payments to some people in Eastern Kentucky whose cases were handled by Floyd County attorney Eric C. Conn, citing suspected fraud by Conn and doctors whom his clients often consulted.
Attorneys familiar with the issue said it was possible that several hundred people received suspension notices from the Social Security Administration. ...
Conn's attorney, J. Kent Wicker, said Tuesday that a multiyear investigation of Conn's practice had concluded "without any finding of fraud or other misconduct."
Wicker said the Social Security Administration has directed that some cases should be returned to an administrative law judge for review, which he called an "unfortunate and unnecessary move." ...
The Social Security Administration, or SSA, did not respond to requests from the Herald-Leader for information about the suspension letters Friday or Tuesday. However, the newspaper obtained a copy of one of the letters with the name and claim number of the recipient redacted.
The letter, dated May 18, said "we are suspending your disability benefits and the benefits of anyone entitled under your Social Security record."
The letter said the Office of Inspector General had notified SSA that there was reason to believe fraud was involved in certain cases that used evidence Conn submitted on behalf of clients from four doctors: Frederic Huffnagle, who died in 2010; David Herr; Bradley Adkins; and Srinivas Ammisetty. ...
The letter that went out last week said that under the law, SSA must make a new determination of whether someone is eligible for benefits when there is reason to believe there was fraud in the earlier application. In doing the review, the agency must disregard information from the four doctors, the letter said.
The letter said the agency would not be able to consider evidence produced by Huffnagle from January 2007 to May 2011; from Adkins from July 2007 to May 2011; from Ammisetty any time after July 2007; and from Herr from December 2009 to April 2011. ...
Many people formerly represented by Conn will have trouble finding another attorney to represent them in the process of redetermining their eligibility, said Ray S. Jones, a Pikeville attorney and state senator who was contacted by three people who got letters.
"Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf said his information is that more than 800 suspension letters went out last week.

Read more here:
There's going to be a lot of innocent people hurt by this," Jones said. ...

Read more here:

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Read more here:
Conn's attorney, J. Kent Wicker, said Tuesday that a multiyear investigation of Conn's practice had concluded "without any finding of fraud or other misconduct."
Wicker said the Social Security Administration has directed that some cases should be returned to an administrative law judge for review, which he called an "unfortunate and unnecessary move."

Read more here:
Conn's attorney, J. Kent Wicker, said Tuesday that a multiyear investigation of Conn's practice had concluded "without any finding of fraud or other misconduct."
Wicker said the Social Security Administration has directed that some cases should be returned to an administrative law judge for review, which he called an "unfortunate and unnecessary move."

Read more here:

80th Anniversary Coming Up For Social Security

     A press release from Social Security:
Anticipation fills the air as Social Security gets closer to the agency’s historic 80th anniversary and prepares to commemorate the August 14, 1935, signing of the Social Security Act.  Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin today announced the launch of the agency’s event-filled celebration, with many activities leading up to August 14.
“Social Security offers hope and protection for millions of people and some of the most vulnerable members of the American public,” Acting Commissioner Colvin said. “This was President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision in 1935, and the vision has never been clearer, nor has the work of our agency ever been more important than it is today.”
Observing this important milestone would not be complete without the participation of the agency’s employees and the public.  To engage the public, Social Security launched a commemorative 80th anniversary website, where they will learn more about the agency’s legacy and the importance of the Social Security program.  The website, can be used by the public to submit stories that show how Social Security has benefited them or their families. Social Security employees around the country are expressing their enthusiasm and support through the agency’s “Why I Serve” campaign, which highlights employees telling their own stories illustrating why they enjoy giving back through public service. 
The agency also has planned several additional events, such as celebrating “America’s Favorites: Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie & SSA” Night that will include a ball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s and at other games around the country.  Stay tuned to the 80th Anniversary website for information on exciting upcoming events as they are planned!
“As I reflect on our agency’s rich history, I am deeply honored to be a part of such a great organization with employees who truly embody the spirit of passionate public service,” Acting Commissioner Colvin said.  “There is nothing more rewarding than making a difference in the lives of others, and with our collective commitment, there is no limit to what we can achieve.  Happy 80th Anniversary, Social Security!”

May 26, 2015

The "Right Mental Attitude"

     Someone retweeted this to me: "Nothing can stop the man w/ the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man w/the wrong mental attitude,"
     This was tweeted by a man who was a college football player and who is now the sales manager of a large corporation. It sorta fits his background, wouldn't you say?
     There is every reason to encourage people to have "the right mental attitude." That can help take one far. However, taken literally, and many people take this sort of platitude literally, it means that if you've succeeded in life, it must be because you have "the right mental attitude" and if you've been unable to overcome adversity, it must mean that you have "the wrong mental attitude."
     I'm cruel to say this but if the person who wrote this comes down with cancer, his "right mental attitude" may not enable him to achieve any goal he may have. If medical treatment doesn't work, he's going to suffer and die. Whether medical treatment works has almost nothing to do with his "mental attitude." Whatever goals he may have had will not be achieved. If his son or daughter develops schizophrenia, having "right mental attitude" won't get them very far. They'll probably be unable to work on a regular basis, regardless of their mental attitude. Life circumstances can completely overwhelm any "mental attitude" no matter how "right" it may be.
     I deal with clients every day who feel that their disability isn't so much caused by their illnesses as by their personal shortcomings. They feel that being out of work means that they have failed even though objectively they haven't failed; they're simply dealing with serious illness. It's bad enough to be sick. It's worse to mistakenly think that your inability to work means is your fault when it isn't.
     As a society, we're eager to tout the successes of those who have overcome disability with the "right mental attitude" while ignoring the fact that the disability overcome seldom involves factors such as chronic severe pain or chronic progressive illness or chronic severe mental illness. We like nice stories about people in wheelchairs who are still working. We think that's how we'll be if illness strikes us. We'll have the "right mental attitude" and be able to overcome our disability. When we hear stories about people with bipolar disorder who end up homeless, we want to think that can't happen to us because, unlike the homeless people, we have the "right mental attitude." We don't want to consider the possibility that the difference between the person in the wheelchair who is still working and the homeless person with bipolar disorder is the nature and severity of the disability rather than "mental attitude." We think we can control our "mental attitude." We don't like to think about the fact that we can't control illness and injury.
     Writ large, this is the problem with this country's attitudes towards disability. We think that people can control disability with the "right mental attitude" but that's a delusion that leads us to be cruel to disabled people and even to ourselves when we become disabled.

May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

May 23, 2015

Number Drawing Disability Goes Up In April

     The number of people drawing Disability Insurance Benefits from Social Security went up by about 4,000 in April. This was the first increase after six straight months of decline.

May 22, 2015

May 21, 2015

Why Appellate Decisions Matter

     Judge Voorhees of the Western District of North Carolina issued the following order today in 37 Social Security cases pending before him: 
THIS MATTER is before the Court sua sponte in light of Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). The parties are hereby directed to consult one another and discuss, in good faith, whether the ruling in Mascio requires sentence four remand pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for rehearing or other administrative proceedings. The parties shall then advise the Court via Status Report to be filed with the Court on or before June 8, 2015 on this issue, namely, whether remand to the Commissioner of Social Security is appropriate. The Status Report must certify that counsel have, in fact, discussed Mascio and its implications in the specific case. If a consent to remand is not proposed and supplemental briefing is requested by either party, all supplemental filings should be submitted on or before June 15, 2015.

Charlotte's Story: A Video Posted By Social Security

The Faces and Facts of Disability: Charlotte's Story
When Charlotte suffered two strokes in 2007, she was no longer able to work and quickly found herself facing #homelessness. Thankfully, she had earned #SocialSecurity insurance coverage by contributing into the program throughout her working life. Without Social Security payments to replace a portion of her lost income, Charlotte is sure she would be homeless today.Visit to learn more about the faces and facts of Social Security #disability.
Posted by Social Security Administration on Thursday, May 7, 2015

May 20, 2015

New Cancer Listings

     The Social Security Administration has revised its Listings used in adjudicating disability caused by cancer. The new Listings are effective on July 20.

May 19, 2015

US-India Social Security Agreement Negotiations Resume

     After a gap of five years, the United States and India have resumed negotiations on a Social Security agreement. The United States has Social Security agreements with 25 nations. These typically seek to avoid double taxation of income for transnational employees and to provide for cooperation between Social Security agencies. You can actually file a claim for German social security benefits through a Social Security field office in the United States, for instance. 
     India's Social Security system covers only a small percentage of the country's population and isn't remotely comparable to those of the nations with whom the United States has a Social Security agreement. However, India's economy is booming and there are large numbers of Indian nationals working in the United States and a fair number of American nationals working in India.
     These negotiations may seem unimportant to Americans but they seem quite important to some Indians. Whenever I've posted anything about negotiations on a Social Security agreement with India, this blog has received a ton of hits from India.

May 18, 2015

Report On Field Office Closures

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) had released a study on field office closures. This was in response to a Senate Special Committee on Aging investigation. The OIG study showes that Social Security's documentation of the office closures included the "primary factors" required by agency policy but not all the information required by agency policy. Social Security plans to update its office closure process.
     This isn't going to satisfy members of Congress who have office closures in their district. Their problem isn't Social Security's process or its documentation. It's the fact that an office is being closed in their district.
     Anyway, below is a table showing a list of Social Security field offices "consolidated", meaning closed, in fiscal year 2014. Why were no offices closed in the Midwest or Mountain states?

May 15, 2015

Why Do They Even Bother?

     Social Security's Office of Chief Actuary is fighting back against an accusation that it has been too optimistic in its projections for the future of the Retirement and Survivors Trust Fund issuing two papers on the matter.
     The future is inherently unpredictable. Social Security's actuaries don't claim anything close to 100% accuracy. They give ranges. It's hardly their fault that everyone treats their midrange estimate as if it was gospel. How can anyone really expect that advances in human longevity will follow a predictable course? Who can reliably predict the future course of economic growth?
     The dispute is of no consequence anyway. No one would know about it except for right wing operatives spreading the word about an article in an obscure scholarly publication. Almost no one really cares. A difference of a year or two in the exhaustion date of the Trust Fund hardly matters since what really keeps Social Security going isn't a trust fund but the political will of the American people and that is unshaken.
     Republicans argue on the one hand that Social Security will fail because the Trust Fund isn't really real since it only contains U.S. government IOUs and on the other hand argue that Social Security will fail because the Trust Fund will eventually run out of money. These are contradictory arguments. If the Trust Fund isn't really real, what difference does its theoretical exhaustion date make? These arguments have been made for 80 years and have gotten Republicans nowhere. Why do they even bother?

May 14, 2015

Colvin Endorses Increase In Full Retirement Age -- Apparently Not

     Carolyn Colvin, Social Security's Acting Commissioner, has given an interview to Government Executive magazine. Unlike just a couple of months ago Colvin seems to not be expecting re-nomination for a term as Commissioner. She had been nominated in the last Congress but the Senate never voted on the nomination. She can continue as Acting Commissioner until a Commissioner is nominated and confirmed. Whatever chances she might have had of being nominated and confirmed take a big hit in the last paragraph of the Government Executive piece where Colvin appears to endorse an increase in Social Security's full retirement age.

     Update: To explain what happened after I posted this, you need to understand how all Commissioners of Social Security have dealt for decades with questions about the future financing of Social Security. They always say something like "There are a variety of ways of dealing with the long term financing of Social Security." When asked about a specific way of dealing with the long term financing issues, such as increasing the retirement age or lifting the F.I.C.A. cap, they say "That's one of many ways of dealing with the long term financing issues." Commissioners never express a preference for one technique over another. As much as possible, they want to keep themselves and their agency out of the political crossfire. I expect that they must make firm promises on this score to the White House and to various Senators before nomination and confirmation.
     In the original Government Executive article, Colvin was reported to have mentioned increasing the retirement age as a possible solution (and it would only be a partial solution) for Social Security's long term financing issues without mentioning other possible solutions. If Colvin actually said that, it would have been a massive departure from normal practice which would worry a lot of people.
     The last paragraph in the Government Executive article has been changed and now reads:

In the long term, said the acting commissioner with 20 months to go, “We hope Congress will [take a bipartisan approach], as was done in 1983 under the Greenspan Commission. Our agency’s role is to provide data and analysis to the White House and Congress on the impact of the various proposals.”
     The fact that this appeared in the last paragraph of the piece to begin with suggests that the reporter didn't understand the significance of what he was reporting and that he may not have been as careful in reporting exactly what he had been told as he should have been.

May 13, 2015

OIG Studies DDS Processing Times

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
We analyzed DI [Disability Insurance] and SSI [Supplemental Security Income] average claims processing times at 51 DDSs [Disability Determination Services] for FY [Fiscal Year] 2013 (we excluded the Puerto Rico DDS from our analysis since it only processed DI claims). In FY 2013, DDS average processing times ranged from 45 to 140 days for DI claims and 49 to 157 days for SSI claims. We mapped the processing times for all 51 DDSs to identify processing times outside the typical range. In doing so, for the DI and SSI programs, we found 44 (86 percent) of 51 DDSs had processing times between 60 and 120 days.
We identified seven DDSs that fell outside of 60- to 120-day ranges for DI and SSI processing times. Specifically, the Florida and Idaho DDSs had DI and SSI processing times shorter than 60 days while the California, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, and Hawaii DDSs had DI and SSI processing times longer than 120 days. Despite differences in processing times, the seven DDSs had allowance rates comparable to the national average and accuracy rates at or above SSA ’s goal.

May 12, 2015

No Surprise Here

     From a letter from Social Security's Chief Actuary to the Chairmen of the House Social Security and Human Resource Subcommittees:
I am writing in response to your request for an estimate of the financial effects on Social Security of H.R. 2135, “ Promoting Opportunity for Disability Benefit Applicants Act , ” introduced on April 30. This Bill would allow the Commissioner of Social Security to provide information on appropriate public or private entities that provide employment services, vocational rehabilitation services, or other support services to applicants for disability benefits under Title II or Title XVI who are denied benefits based on an adverse determination of disability.  ...
We conclude that enactment of this Bill would most likely have a very small net effect on Title II, Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), benefit cost and Title XVI, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), cost ...

May 11, 2015

News From NOSSCR

     I received a question from a reader who wanted to know why I hadn't posted news from last week's conference of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), held in Arlington, VA, just outside D.C. The answer is simple. There really wasn't much news. Here's the little I gleaned.
     Glenn Sklar, the head of Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), said that things were going to get better because the agency was hiring more Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). However, Sklar couldn't give a clear answer when asked if there would be any net improvement after the expected attrition of ALJs retiring, quitting and dying.
     Senator Sherrod Brown gave a nice speech, promising to fully support Social Security, including disability benefits but Brown's support was never in question. The problem is on the other side of the aisle.
     Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) gave a depressing talk about the challenges affecting the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund. Nothing she said would be news to any regular reader of this blog. I thought she was overly pessimistic, talking almost exclusively about the negative while failing to mention the positive -- that Democrats, to this point, are solidly against significant changes in Social Security disability benefits and Republicans haven't produced a bill. Nissenbaum seemed to think that Republicans might get away with saying they would cut "disability" but not Social Security. I wouldn't bet on that working if I were a Republican running in anything other than an extremely safe district. I can see the TV ad now accusing a Republican of cutting, let's say, $100 billion from Social Security. Would it really work for the Republican to go around complaining that the ad is misleading because the $100 billion would be "disability" instead of Social Security?
     Barbara Silverstone, NOSSCR's Executive Director, noted that the attendance at the conference was under 700. In recent years, conference attendance, particularly in D.C., has been around 1,000. The reason the attendance was off wasn't the date or the location or the hotel or anything else like that. It's the fact that it has become extremely challenging to practice Social Security law these days. A fair number of Social Security attorneys are dropping out of the practice. Fewer who are still practicing Social Security law can afford to attend a conference. The next conference is scheduled for the end of October in Denver. That may be the sort of intimate gathering that NOSSCR hasn't seen in decades.

May 10, 2015

Stop The Gaming

     From Alicia Munnell, writing for Market Watch:
In 2009, we published three briefs under the title “Strange but True” that described Social Security claiming strategies that allowed individuals to get more benefits. The idea was to show how they worked, who was most likely to benefit, and how much they could cost. Our hope was that publicity would compel Congress to close down these options.
We had mixed success. The immediate result is that these strategies continued to gain in popularity with financial planners, and individuals increasingly approached their Social Security offices asking for arrangements that some staff had never heard of. Today people are writing best-selling books about how to get the maximum out of Social Security. ...
Under Social Security, married individuals are entitled to a retired worker benefit based on their own earnings and/or to a spousal benefit equal to one half of their spouse’s benefit claimed at the Full Retirement Age (currently 66). If a married individual claims before the Full Retirement Age, the SSA assumes that the individual is claiming both types of benefits, compares the worker and spousal benefits, and awards the highest. This procedure is called “deeming.”
After the Full Retirement Age deeming does not apply, and individuals can choose which benefit to receive. As a result, married individuals can claim a spousal benefit at 66 and switch to their own retired worker benefit at a later date. This approach allows a worker to begin claiming one type of benefit while still building up delayed retirement credits, which will result in a higher worker benefit later. ...
The final strategy – “claim and suspend” – allows people who have already claimed Social Security to re-enter the labor force and continue to build their retirement benefits. However, it also offers couples a claiming advantage. For example, a husband who reaches the Full Retirement Age can claim and immediately suspend his benefits, allowing his wife to receive a spousal benefit based on his earnings record. The husband is then free to continue working and receive delayed retirement credits, which increases not only his monthly benefit but also his wife’s.
     Munnell argues that Congress should pass legislation requiring deeming even after full retirement age.

May 9, 2015

Wasted Effort

       Some Harvard researchers are arguing that Social Security's Office of Chief Actuary is being too optimistic in predicting the future of Social Security's Retirement and Survivor's Trust Fund. Right wing operatives are spreading the news. I'm not going to bother trying to understand the arguments on both sides because they're completely irrelevant. Let me clue you in to a secret. The future of Social Security has almost nothing to do with the actuarial future of the Retirement and Survivor's Trust Fund. What supports Social Security retirement benefits isn't really the Trust Fund but the political will of the American people who overwhelmingly support the continued existence of Social Security retirement benefits. If that political will were lacking, there would be no legal impediment to abolishing Social Security next week regardless of the balance in the Trust Fund. With that political will present, it wouldn't matter if the Retirement and Survivor's Trust Fund were running out of money next week. There would be hell to pay for any politician who refused to keep Social Security going. Republicans argue on the one hand that the Trust Fund is a meaningless abstraction but then try to invest the Trust Fund with an almost talismanic quality, thinking that any remote threat to the Trust Fund will bring down Social Security. Republicans can keep whining about the Trust Fund for the next 80 years the same way they have for the last 80 years and it won't threaten Social Security in the slightest. 

May 8, 2015

Most Popular Baby Names

     From Social Security, the most popular names for babies in 2014:
1. Noah
2. Liam
3. Mason
4. Jacob
5. William
6. Ethan
7. Michael
8. Alexander
9. James
10. Daniel 
1. Emma
2. Olivia
3. Sophia
4. Isabella
5. Ava
6. Mia
7. Emily
8. Abigail
9. Madison
10. Charlotte

New Anti-Fraud Effort

     From the Social Security Update:
Social Security’s Office of Anti-Fraud Programs (OAFP) is the latest member of Social Security’s team supporting our continued mission to fight and prevent fraud. Established in November 2014, OAFP’s mission is to efficiently and effectively detect, deter, and mitigate fraud, waste, and abuse of our program of Social Security’s team supporting our continued mission to fight and prevent fraud. Established in November 2014, OAFP’s mission is to efficiently and effectively detect, deter, and mitigate fraud, waste, and abuse of our programs.
     I hope they find whatever fraud there is but what's going on here is clear. Congressional Republicans are pressuring the Social Security Administration to use its scarce resources to find examples of fraud, not because the Republicans are genuinely interested in reducing fraud, but because they want to use any example of fraud, no matter how isolated, as grounds for cutting disability benefits. 
     It's not like no one was trying to combat fraud at Social Security. That's the primary responsibility of the Office of Inspector General. What's the point of some other office working the same beat? 

May 7, 2015

Planning To Pour Money Down A Rat Hole

     Social Security is publishing a request for comments on a plan for a research study on early intervention as a way of reducing disability caused by mental illness. The agency cites earlier research showing "promising" results from early intervention. Here's what the earlier research  actually says:
Eight  percent  of  the  study  participants  showed average  earnings  over  the  24-month study  period  that  exceeded  the  current  level  of  SGA [Substantial Gainful Activity, the level of earnings that would cause loss of benefits].  Beneficiaries  in  the  treatment group did not  experience  an increase  in work  that  SSA  considers  SGA  when  compared to participants  in the  control  group.  Neither  did participants  in the  treatment  group experience  a  reduction in  benefit  payments  when  compared to participants  in the control  group.
     If that's "promising", what would unpromising results look like? I really wish that something like this would work but it won't. The people who receive Social Security disability benefits due to mental illness are so badly impaired that very few of them will ever return to regular employment no matter what anyone does.

May 6, 2015

What's The Point?

     House Social Security Subcommittee Democrats are pushing a plan to combine the Disability Insurance Trust Fund with the Retirement and Survivors Trust Fund as a way of dealing with the looming shortfall in the Disability Trust Fund. Why? How is this better in any way than the Administration's plan to divert some FICA revenues to the Disability Trust Fund? It would have been nice if Democrats had tried this when they had control of the House but now? What's the point? It's going nowhere.

How Often Does This Happen?

     Guy gets a new Social Security number because some other guy had been using the same number and messed up his credit.

May 5, 2015

MEGAHIT Working Well -- But How Much Does It Matter?

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Despite challenges, SSA [Social Security Administration] continued expanding health IT [Information Technology] and partnered with 38 health care organizations, exchanged electronic records in 30 States and the District of Columbia, and identified ways of enhancing health IT case processing and data analytics. In addition, the DDSs [Disability Determination Services] reported they were generally satisfied with MEGAHIT (Medical Evidence Gathering and Analysis Through Health IT); however, some suggested enhancements to the system. Some DDSs also reported MEGAHIT issues that the Agency did not know about, despite SSA previously soliciting DDS user feedback. 
Finally, our review of 275 sample cases found (a) that MEGAHIT received electronic health records 19 days faster than traditional records and (b) SSA made disability decisions, on average, 21 days faster, in the 5 cases where only health IT records were requested. 
  1. Continue to solicit, on a regular basis, DDS user feedback in MEGAHIT enhancements. 
  2. Enhance procedures to maintain and update MEGAHIT partner data, such as addresses. 
  3. Enhance methods to improve the use of information received via Health IT. 
  4. Increase health IT partners — taking advantage of nation-wide Federal efforts led by Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. SSA agreed with the recommendations.
     Before anyone gets too excited about this, it's something that works best only when dealing with huge medical providers. In fact, that's the only way it works now since huge medical providers are the only ones using MEGAHIT. However, the vast majority of disability claimants receive at least part of their evaluation and treatment from smaller medical providers. Getting those records is mostly a matter of sending a written request through the mail and receiving a written response through the mail. That's not changing any time soon. MEGAHIT won't make those cases move any faster.

May 4, 2015

A Good Question

     Here's an e-mail I received from a colleague who practices Social Security law:
Under the new improved electronic filing system, we have gotten a couple of calls from SSA to the effect that we have not filed our 1695 with the request for hearing or recon; we have in the past been sending the 1695 to the local District Office and they would enter it and obscure my personal SSN. I am concerned that filing a 1695 electronically directly with the appeal will result in my personal SSN appearing for all time in the claimant's claim file. Is this a valid concern or is someone at SSA obscuring the attorney's SSN if the 1695 is filed electronically?
     I think he's asking a reasonable question. What is Social Security doing?

May 3, 2015


     From a Brookings Institution study on the Return on Investment (ROI) of Inspectors General at various agencies:

May 2, 2015

Annual Statistical Supplement

     The Social Security Administration has released its Annual Statistical Supplement for 2014. It's a compendium of almost all the statistical information about Social Security that you could ask for. By the way, as of 2013, there were 760 people drawing U.S. Social Security benefits who were living in war torn Yemen.

May 1, 2015

The Great Ideas Keep Coming

     A press release:
Today, Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) introduced H.R. 2135, the Promoting Opportunity for Disability Benefit Applicants Act. The bill would authorize the Commissioner of Social Security to provide information on employment support services to individuals who are not awarded disability benefits.
Currently, applicants wait 100 days on average for an initial decision regarding a claim for benefits. Research shows this time out of the workforce makes it that much harder for denied applicants to get back to work.
To help people return to work, the bill authorizes the Commissioner of Social Security to provide denied applicants information on employment support services—both public and private non-profit—so that they may reenter the workforce instead of cycling through the application process. The bill provides information to denied applicants about services that may help them return to work and would not affect any appeal for disability benefits.   

Upon introduction, Chairman Johnson said, “We must do a better job of helping those individuals who can and want to work to do so. This bill makes sure Social Security tells these individuals about services that can help them connect to jobs.”

Upon introduction, Chairman Boustany said, “This bill provides access to important employment and work supports for individuals in need so that they can gain the necessary skills and job placement services to reenter the workforce quickly. Helping Americans find and keep good jobs to support themselves and their families is and should be our top priority.”

This bill is supported by the National Council of Disability Determination Directors and Easter Seals.  

Other House Ways and Means Committee Members co-sponsoring this legislation include Rep. Black (R-TN), Rep. Reed (R-NY), and Rep. Young (R-IN).  
     It's amazing. Republicans believe that government is almost infinitely wasteful and ineffective (except for the Defense Department) yet here are Republicans who have great faith in the ability of state vocational rehabilitation (VR) departments to return disabled people to work. My experience with the North Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation is that they're so obsessed with returning a high percentage of their clients to work that the only disabled people they want to help are those who will succeed in returning to work even if they get no help at all. This isn't because the people at VR are bad or lazy or incompetent. It's because they lack the resources to help many people. They don't even have sheltered workshops anymore! I don't know how VR is supposed to accomplish anything without sheltered workshops.
     I've recently had a young client with combined cognitive difficulties and mental illness who went to VR. The only thing VR could do for him was to get him a job at a fast food restaurant and provide him with a job coach for two weeks. Predictably, he failed at the job shortly after the job coach was removed. His family took him back to VR but they had no further interest in helping him. You call this vocational rehabilitation? He should have been in a sheltered workshop first. If he showed promise there, he should have been placed in a real job with a job coach. The job coach should have worked with him for far longer than two weeks. VR shouldn't have stopped helping him just because he failed at his first job.
     If this proposed legislation advances you're going to have state vocational rehabilitation agencies lobbying against it because they don't want to be inundated by denied Social Security disability applicants. If it passes, the vast number of people who are told by Social Security to go to VR will be turned away by VR. How does that look?
     These House Republicans don't get it. The vast majority of those denied Social Security disability benefits aren't going to return to work no matter what anyone does. They're too sick.

An Overpayment Story

     Woman thinks she's been overpaid by Social Security. She contacts the agency and is told to send them a check. She does so but later receives a notice saying she really was entitled to the money. It only took eight months and several phone calls to get Social Security to refund the money to her according to a story on a Michigan television station. The story doesn't say it but there's a real possibility that she'll eventually receive another notice from Social Security saying that she really was overpaid! You think I'm kidding but I've seen it happen.