Jul 31, 2015

Question About Eric Conn's Former Cases

     Is Social Security planning to continue these claimants on interim benefits after the Appeals Council remands the cases for new hearings? If not, these are fee generating cases. The fees will be meager but there will be fees if the claimants aren't going to be drawing interim benefits. I'm not exactly sure how that changes the equation for attorneys who might want to get involved but it may. Also, if these claimants will be getting interim benefits, from the point of view of the claimant, there's no great rush about getting the cases heard. I fear that the claimants and their attorneys will not have an adequate amount of time to develop the cases if they're all to be heard before the end of the year.
     Overall, this is a difficult situation. I have strong doubts that it will be possible to get enough volunteer attorneys to take the cases. There's just too many cases. They're going to be messy cases covering many years. It's not just the question of whether the claimant was disabled as of the time they were originally put on benefits. There's also the issue of whether they became disabled at a later date. That's also at issue. The cases will require a lot of medical development. It's unlikely that the claimants can pay for all those medical records. Geographically, it's a remote area. If all these cases are going to be heard before the end of the year, the time frames are difficult for everyone, including Social Security.

NOSSCR Seeking Volunteer Attorneys

     A message from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR) to its members:
Approximately 1500 SSDI beneficiaries in Kentucky and West Virginia have received notices from SSA advising them that they risk benefit suspension. These individuals, who were represented by Eric Conn, had submitted medical evidence from the doctors he worked most closely with, and had their claim adjudicated by ALJ David Daugherty. The SSA notice states that SSA is disregarding the medical evidence from the doctors in question and instructs the beneficiaries to submit additional medical evidence to document their disability. Failure to do so will result in the suspension of benefits. Although the Appeals Council has the authority to continue a claimant in pay status if additional evidence is submitted, we anticipate that the majority of these individuals will have their cases remanded for a hearing. 
Many local attorneys have been working tirelessly to protect these individuals' rights and benefits, through preliminary injunctions, wrongful death actions, motions to freeze Conn's assets, and pro bono representation at the Social Security ALJ hearings. These individuals need representation to assist them in obtaining this evidence, and to represent them before the Appeals Council or at an ALJ hearing, if needed. We expect that there will be no funds available to pay attorneys. To date, approximately 75 attorneys have volunteered to help represent the claimants at hearings or to provide training or other resources to volunteer lawyers. 
NOSSCR has paired with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalReD) and other local legal services organizations to provide pro bono representation to these individuals. 
 I am personally calling on NOSSCR members to volunteer their time in one or more of the following ways:
A. Represent one or more clients on a pro bono basis, including evidence gathering and representation at a hearing if needed.
1. Please indicate if
a. you could travel to the Prestonburg or Huntington area to interview clients and/or represent at the hearing.
b. you cannot travel, but are close enough that the client can travel to you.
c. you can represent an individual in a three way video hearing.
 B. Provide training for attorneys with little or no experience in handling Social Security claims. A live training session will be held in Lexington, KY in August. There may also be the possibility of webinar training, with recording done either at a central location or through a provider such as "go to meetings.com." 
C. Be a resource for one or more less experienced local attorney who is representing an individual on a pro bono basis and has received some training. 
Here is what we have learned: 
  • Beneficiaries were originally told they had 10 days to submit evidence to the Appeals Council. Everyone who has asked for a 30-day extension of time has received it. If evidence has been submitted that shows the original decision was correct when made, the Appeals Council will close the redetermination case. If the Appeals Council cannot issue a favorable decision, the case is remanded to an ALJ. 
  • Up to 1500 hearings will be scheduled between September and December. 
  • We have been told that the hearings will be scheduled to be video hearings with ALJs from the St. Louis National Hearing Center. The individual has 30 days from receipt of the ODAR acknowledgement to opt out of a video. If an individual requests an in-person hearing, one of these ALJs will come to Prestonburg, KY for an in person hearing. 
  • 3- way video hearings will be available so the attorney and client need not be in the same area. Although this is certainly not an ideal situation, it may be the only way to obtain sufficient representation for this large number of affected individuals. We anticipate that someone from a local legal aid office will be with the claimants during the hearing, though not representing them when the representative is appearing elsewhere by video. 
  • The ALJ will be determining whether the individual was eligible for benefits when they were originally awarded. If the ALJ's decision is unfavorable, benefits will cease. All appeal rights are available. 
  • These redetermination are, according to the government, required by 42 U.S.C. sec 405(u)(1)(A) and (B). These redeterminations occur "if there is reason to believe that fraud or similar fault was involved in the application of the individual for such benefits." The purpose of the redetermination is to evaluate whether the individual was entitled to disability benefits at the time of the original decision, and adjudicators are instructed to disregard any evidence considered by the original adjudicator where "there is reason to believe that fraud or similar fault was involved in the providing of such evidence." 
  • Although the evidence is being disregarded as fraudulent, to the best of our knowledge neither the attorney nor the doctors have been sanctioned for fraudulent behavior in these cases. In a decision issued Monday July 27, the 2011 qui tam complaint was dismissed in part because for many of the claims asserted by the whistleblowers failed to "allege a specific claim submitted by Conn that was false or fraudulent in a manner that was material to the government's decision to pay the claim … they never tie a specific case to a specific false or fraudulent claim." (U.S. ex rel Griffith and Carver v. Conn, ED KY)) 
Your help is desperately needed. The local attorneys anticipate that they can serve fewer than 15% of the affected individuals. Please let me know as soon as possible if you can help in any or all of the 3 ways listed above. You can send an email to nosscr@nosscr.org and I will give your name and contact information to AppalReD legal services who will then be in touch with you directly. 
In addition to helping these individuals, we anticipate that your pro bono representation will be recognized by others and will help to show that the representatives in this field are truly involved in ensuring the integrity of the Social Security disability process and in ensuring full due process for Social Security claimants and beneficiaries. 
 Barbara R. Silverstone Executive Director
     Here's a little information on the St. Louis National Hearing Center. It's reversal rate (excluding dismissals) is about 46%, making it somewhat below average. The office includes two ALJs with extraordinarily low reversal rates and one with an extraordinarily high reversal rate. It has disposed of 5,746 cases in the first nine months of the fiscal year, although 16% of these were dismissals. Probably, there won't be many dismissals in these cases. They had a 4,103 case backlog as of the end of June. Also, it's a good bet that those ALJs REALLY don't want to travel.

Read This If You Think That The ADA Means That More Disabled People Can Work

     From TPM Cafe:
Twenty-five years ago this past Sunday, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. Today, people with disabilities are less likely to be employed than they were before the law was enacted. Workers with disabilities earn, on average, about $14,000 less than similar workers without disabilities. About one in every three disabled Americans lives in poverty.

Jul 30, 2015

Texas ALJ Draws Fire For Belittling Vet's Claim Of PTSD

     Let me give a hint to ALJs based upon a lot of experience.Whether an individual develops PTSD after being exposed to stress has more to do with the individual's psychological makeup than to the nature of the stress. Some people don't develop PTSD even though they are subjected to incredible stress. Others develop PTSD after exposure to what most people would regard as only moderate or even mild stress. People who suffer from bipolar disorder are six times more likely to develop PTSD, which suggests to me that there is a genetic propensity to develop PTSD.
     In any case, the individual who is the subject of this newspaper article was certainly subjected to considerable stress.

OIG Report On Tax Delinquent Social Security Employees

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has produced a report about the agency's employees who are delinquent in paying their federal taxes. See below for a chart. I'd call it sort of a gotcha report, good for little more than helping those who want to criticize civil servants. 
     Social Security employees are in about the same range as other federal employees when it comes to tax delinquency. 
     By the way, the report shows that 1.8% of Social Security's Administrative Law Judges and 1.2% of its Senior Executive Service employees are tax delinquent. 
     I didn't see any comparable numbers for non-federal government workers. I'd bet it's considerably higher.

Dispute Over Office Relocation In Albuquerque

Congresswoman talking with people in line to enter SSA office
     From the NM Political Report (emphasis added):
Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham is asking the head of the Social Security Administration to suspend a move of an office to a downtown Albuquerque call center. ...
The second-term member of Congress described people waiting outside with “no shade, no chairs, no benches, no anything.” She expressed concern that a move to the downtown call center would exacerbate these and other problems. ...
“The primary reason for our move is to provide an improved experience for our customers in the Albuquerque area,” Regional Communications Director of the SSA Dallas office Sarah Schultz-Lackey said in a statement provided to New Mexico Political Report Tuesday evening. “The new office will allow us to offer  streamlined customer service with more interviewing windows at the front of the office.”
“We will have a larger lobby in this new space with increased seating,” the statement continued.
Lujan Grisham says that there is not suitable parking for those seeking help from the Social Security Administration and the parking that is available is not free.
“Given that SSA refuses to validate visitor parking, your planned move will impose new expenses on many people who live at or near the poverty line,” she wrote.
Another parking issue Lujan Grisham identified is the lack of parking for disabled individuals. She wrote that there is no such parking in a two-block radius and “there is no disable drop-off zone next to the building.” ...

No Good Choice

    A TV station in Atlanta is reporting on the dilemma faced by many who are denied by one of Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) -- appeal and fact horrendous delays with only a limited chance of success -- or start over again with a new claim and still face horrendous delays but stand a better chance of success. Oh, and if you choose the new claim route, you're almost certainly giving up on all the benefits up to the date of the ALJ denial even though in some cases the ALJ denial is just ridiculous.
     It's like they deliberately stacking the deck against you. There's no good choice.

Jul 29, 2015

Facebook Can't Challenge Subpoenas For Info On Those Accused Of Social Security Fraud

     From Reuters:
Facebook Inc cannot challenge search warrants New York prosecutors used to get information from its site on hundreds of users suspected of Social Security fraud, a state appeals court said on Tuesday, in a decision likely making it harder for New Yorkers to keep their digital lives private.
The warrants, which applied to 381 users' photos, private messages and other account information, could only be challenged by individual defendants after prosecutors gathered evidence, the Manhattan-based court unanimously ruled. ... 
The Manhattan District Attorney's office served the warrants on Facebook in 2013, seeking information on dozens of people later indicted for Social Security fraud, including police officers and firefighters who allegedly feigned illness in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks....
The court on Tuesday said the only way to challenge warrants was for defendants in criminal cases to move to suppress the evidence they produced.
Facebook spokesman said the company disagreed with the decision and was considering an appeal. 

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said prosecutors had secured nearly $25 million from people who were targets in the probe. 
"In many cases, evidence on their Facebook accounts directly contradicted the lies the defendants told to the Social Security Administration," she said. ...

Disability Trust Fund Numbers Released -- Why Don't We Just Make The Problem Go Away?

     The Social Security Administration has released the numbers on the operation of its Disability Insurance Trust Fund through the end of the second quarter of calendar year 2015. The Trust Fund stood at $50.8 billion as of the end of June. Here are some numbers showing how things have been going.
  • The Disability Trust Fund lost $3.5 billion in the second quarter of this year compared to a loss of $4.1 billion in the second quarter of 2014. 
  • The Trust Fund has lost $9.4 billion so far this year compared to a loss of $10.4 billion in the first half of last year.
  • In the past four quarters the Trust Fund lost $29.2 billion, compared to a loss of $30.9 billion in the four quarters before that.
     The trend is clear. The Disability Insurance Trust Fund is losing money and will be exhausted in the not too distant future. However, it's not been losing ground as fast as it was. If the Trust Fund loses ground at the same rate as it has over the last year, it will barely limp into January 2017 before running out of money. If Trust Fund operations continue to improve as they have been improving lately, it will last a bit longer, until around the end of the first quarter of calendar year 2017. The only way you get the Trust Fund running out of money before the end of 2016, as Social Security's actuaries have done, is to project that the Trust Fund will start doing worse than it's been doing, which is certainly possible, but which seems unlikely at the moment.
     To remind readers, the Social Security Administration could dramatically change the prospects of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, possibly preventing it from ever running out of money, by changing its position on benefit payments to those who are dually eligible for Disability Insurance Benefits and a Social Security Retirement or Survivors benefit. Now the dually eligible are always paid the Disability Insurance Benefit first and any extra benefit is paid out of the Retirement and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund. The statute doesn't require this. Reversing this doesn't require Congressional approval and doesn't affect any benefit payments either now or in the future. Why go through endless bickering and threats to disability claimants and recipients when it's easy to make the problem go away?

Motion Filed To Stop Hearings For Former Clients Of Eric Conn

     From WYMT:
He calls it a "planned assault" on nearly 1,500 people.
Attorney Ned Pillersdorf said a motion to stop social security benefit hearings was submitted to a federal judge.
The S.S.A. is reviewing benefits rewarded to disability attorney Eric C. Conn's clients. ...
Hearings are expected to being in September and will likely take months to finish.
     This is all I know, folks.

     Update: Pillersdorf has posted the pleadings on his firm's Facebook page.

Jul 28, 2015

Lawsuit Against Eric Conn Not Going So Well

     Eric Conn has been accused of defrauding Social Security by many, including a Congressional committee and 60 Minutes. However, Conn's problems really began with a qui tam action. Qui tam is a very odd type of lawsuit. A party, called a relator (not realtor) brings a lawsuit in the name of the government against a person whom they believe is defrauding the government. The government has to review the case to see if they believe it has enough merit that the government should take over the case. If the government declines, the case can still go forward but the relators must bear the burden of proceeding with the case. If the qui tam lawsuit is eventually successful in forcing the defendant to pay damages to the government, the relator gets part of the damages. In Eric Conn's case, the government declined to take over the case. That's a sign that the case being brought by the relator may lack merit, or at least enough merit that damages are likely. In Conn's case, the relators are going forward with the qui tam case, although it seems like the case is proceeding at a glacial pace. The most recent thing that's happened is that the Court has ruled on Conn's motion to dismiss the case. The Court has dismissed most, but not all, of the case. This link will only work for a couple of weeks. I hope it works for Social Security employees. Let me know.
     Many believe that Conn is clearly guilty of fraud. He may be guilty as sin. I don't know. I've written before that to me he seems more like a doofus than a criminal. Fraud is awfully difficult to prove. So far, no criminal charges have been brought against Conn. Social Security has not been able to even suspend Conn from practicing before the agency. This qui tam case may not be going so well for the relators. However, Conn's Social Security practice has almost certainly been ruined, probably permanently. The litigation expenses may well bankrupt him. If you're looking for him to be punished, that may be all you get.

Hard To Make A Living Representing Social Security Claimants

     Crain's Detroit, a business newspaper, is running an article on the business of representing Social Security claimants. I can say from personal experience that it's a difficult business to be in. The article notes this. The firms that the newspaper talked with had all decreased the number of attorneys doing Social Security work. Apparently, hearing backlogs in the Detroit area are far, far lower than they are where I'm practicing.

He Got Hooked

     From the Associated Press:
A Massachusetts man seen manning big fishing rods and harpooning huge fish on the reality show Wicked Tuna collected government benefits while claiming to be disabled and unable to work, federal prosecutors said.
Paul Hebert, 50, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, accepted more than $44,000 in Social Security and Medicaid benefits between 2010 and 2013, according to a four-count indictment filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Burlington.

Jul 27, 2015

One Sign Of The Field Office Backlogs

     An e-mail I received today from a legal assistant at my firm: "_____ [Field Office] is again telling people it will take them 90 days to even call the clients for the SSI resource interview after they have been approved."
     Actually, it probably won't take that field office that long to do an interview needed before benefits can be computed and paid but it tells you something about workloads at Social Security's field offices that one would say this to a desperately poor person who has just been found disabled.
     And a Social Security spokesperson recently used the phrase "world class service"?

What Entitlement Crisis?

    That "entitlement crisis"? Paul Krugman says it never existed. This chart seems to bear him out.

Do They Have A Plan To Come Up With A Plan?

     The National Journal has an article summarizing the current state of Republican efforts to come up with a plan for the upcoming shortfall in Social Security's Disability Insurance Trust Fund. The takeaway is that the GOP has no plan nor are they likely to have any plan until well into next year.

Jul 26, 2015

The Mess In Kentucky

     From the Lexington Herald-Leader:
Dexter Conn needs a lawyer. So do 1,500 of his neighbors.
The 57-year-old from Dana is one of the 1,500 people, mostly in eastern Kentucky, whose federal disability benefits are in jeopardy after the federal government ordered a review of cases handled by attorney Eric Conn. Now those cases are likely headed to hearings before administrative law judges that could start as soon as September.
All of those people need attorneys, and most of them can't afford one. ...
One problem is the attorneys likely will not be paid. In many Social Security cases, applicants are often awarded benefits dating back to the time they became disabled. In some cases that could be up to a year or more of benefits, money often used to pay attorney's fees. But these cases don't have that possibility because they are reviews of existing awards. ...
So far, 80 attorneys have volunteered to help. But [Robert] Johns [Executive Director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky] said the "vast majority" have no experience handling Social Security benefit cases, which require extensive knowledge of federal law and regulations while juggling mountains of medical records. Training them will take time. ...
    And before someone raises the questions, let me answer it. No, it's not reasonable to expect the local Social Security attorneys to represent all these people pro bono. It's a rural area. There can't be that many local Social Security attorneys. Every Social Security attorney in the country is struggling to survive in a difficult environment. I'm sure that's the case in Kentucky as well. These attorneys can't drop everything they're doing for the next two years to clean up a mess they didn't create. And, no, it's not reasonable to expect attorneys from other parts of the country to step in and represent these claimants. That's impractical. I'm supposed to not only represent these folks pro bono but spend money to travel to Kentucky? Be realistic.

Jul 24, 2015

Sklar Responsible For Not Delivering World Class Service?

     The Washington Post has a report on the departures of Glenn Sklar and James Borland from Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). The article refers to ODAR as a "slow-moving, unwieldy bureaucracy." LaVenia LaVelle, who is identified as a spokesperson for Social Security, is quoted as saying “This is not about an individual but about ensuring under Acting Commissioner Colvin’s leadership the Agency is ready to continue its world class customer service to the American public.”
     Note that the article seems to put the blame for ODAR's backlogs on ODAR's leadership rather than on inadequate appropriations and that Social Security's spokesperson seems to endorse this view. If this is the case (and I don't believe it is) why has Carolyn Colvin allowed the backlogs to grow to this disgraceful level. She must not care. She's just another incompetent Obama appointee. There's probably something illegal here. When is President Obama going to fire this bumbling, heartless bureaucrat? We need a Congressional hearing to grill Colvin on this unbelievable situation. It's just like the VA!

Randall Frye Admits ALJs Feel Pressure To Deny Claims

     Take a look at this local TV report on Social Security's hearing office in Charlotte where it's become much harder for a disability claimant to win on appeal. 
     This is from an interview with Administrative Law Judge Randall Frye, who is, or recently was, the head of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), an employee union:
[The reporter] asked Frye if there's any pressure to deny more cases, to save money.
“I don't want to suggest that it forms the basis of a decision but it is something that's out there,” he answered. “There's pressure from Congress, the administration, the peer pressure.”

Jul 23, 2015

Democratic Senators Protect Social Security Disability

     From Daily Kos:
Two provisions to cut Social Security benefits in the proposed highway bill caused Democrats in both the Senate and House to revolt. Democrats have succeeded in getting both of those provisions removed, but now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a serious challenge in getting the bill past his own party, in both chambers of Congress. 
Senate Democrats defeated McConnell's first effort to bring the bill to the floor for debate, arguing they didn't have time to read the 1030-page bill in the few hours he had given them, and because of these spending provisions that hit Social Security. Immediately following that defeat, the Social Security cut to people who were concurrently receiving disability benefits and unemployment insurance was removed. The second cut, which would have ended benefits to anyone with an outstanding felony warrant, was was axed before a second procedural vote Wednesday night. Democrats pointed out that the last time this was attempted, and stymied by the courts, the government had to pay back $500 million to some 80,000 people who were wrongly cut off.
McConnell got the votes of 14 Democrats after removing these provisions, and the bill is moving forward this week in the Senate. ...
     Reality check, GOP: If you can't pass these changes to the Social Security disability program, what makes you think you can pass dramatic cuts in the program?

News Coming On DOT Replacement?

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE) is an organization of personnel involved in making initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims. They've posted their Summer 2015 newsletter. There's not much in the newsletter to interest those who aren't NADE members other than the listing of speakers at NADE's national conference in Portland next month. Note that Philip Doyle, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Compensation Levels and Trends, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will be speaking. Why is that of significance? BLS has been working with Social Security for some time on a replacement for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT is used by Social Security in making disability determinations even though everyone, including Social Security, knows the DOT is ridiculously out of date. Any DOT update has serious implications for Social Security disability determination. Many people will be approved or denied benefits based upon the DOT update. Social Security's work with BLS has been kept under wraps. I don't know what Mr. Doyle could be speaking on other than the DOT update. I know that a full replacement for the DOT isn't ready yet but Doyle speaking at this conference is probably a sign that Social Security and BLS are about ready to reveal something.
     Any readers out there who will be attending this conference and who could give us a report on what Doyle has to say?
     By the way, a conference in Portland in August sounds nice.

Jul 22, 2015

Some Personnel Actions

     Click on each page to view full size.

Social Security's Finances Looking Slightly Better Than Last Year

     The entire 2015 report of Social Security's Trustees hasn't been posted yet. Here's a link for it when it's published. Here's the summary given out so far:
Taken in combination, Social Security’s retirement and disability trust fund reserves are projected to be exhausted in 2034, one year later than was projected in last year’s Trustees Report.  After trust fund exhaustion, annual revenues from the dedicated payroll tax and taxation of Social Security benefits will be sufficient to fund about three-quarters of scheduled benefits through 2089.   The 75-year actuarial deficit for the combined trust funds is estimated at 2.68 percent of taxable payroll, down from 2.88 percent of taxable payroll estimated in last year’s Report.  This improvement is due to new data and improved projection methods. 
Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) program faces the most immediate financing shortfall of any of the separate trust funds.  The DI Trust Fund reserves are projected to be depleted in late 2016, unchanged from last year’s estimate, after which time dedicated revenues are projected to cover 81 percent of scheduled benefit payments.  Legislation will be needed to address this financial imbalance.
     By the way, no one came up with a legal reason why the plan for saving the Disability Insurance Trust Fund that I posted yesterday wouldn't work. That plan requires no Congressional action.

     Update: The entire report is out now. It shows the Disability Insurance Trust Fund being $800 million short of making it through 2016. This is based upon a projection that the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will lose more ground in 2015 than it lost in 2014 and, in fact, that the Disability Trust Fund will lose more ground in 2015 than the projection made last year even though 2014 was better than the projection for 2014. The Actuary projects that the increase in benefits paid in 2015 will exceed the rate of inflation. However, so far in 2015 the Disability Insurance Trust Fund has run $900 million better than it ran in the first five months of 2014 and the number of people actually drawing Social Security disability benefits is going down, not up. I keep telling people that the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will last into early 2017. You have to assume a significant worsening of conditions to make the Disability Trust Fund exhaust in 2016 at a time when all indications are that conditions are modestly improving.

Trustees Report Due Out At 1:30 EDT

     In case you were wondering, the word is that the annual report of the Social Security Trustees is due out at 1:30 EDT today.

Republicans Want To Insure That People Who Are Actively Hallucinating Aren't Denied Access To Firearms

     Almost all of the Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee (and none of the Democratic members) have signed a letter sent to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security opposing any plan to provide the names of Social Security recipients who have a representative payee to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for purposes of limiting the ability of those who have been found incapable of handling funds to obtain firearms.
     You know, this sounds important to these Republicans. You know what's important to Democrats? Protecting the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund. ... Just saying.

GOP Still Wants To Cut Social Security's Operating Budget

     For anyone who thinks that Social Security is going to be in better shape once it gets its appropriation for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which begins on October 1, 2015, here's a reality check. These are the numbers in the House Labor-HHS Appropriations bill, which covers the Social Security Administration, presented in a table put together by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That plan to dramatically increase the number of Administrative Law Judges at Social Security? It's not happening unless the agency cannibalizes something else which means it's pretty unlikely to happen.
House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Overview (in billions of dollars)
2010 enacted 2015 enacted 2016 Percent change, adjusted for inflation
current dollars 2016 dollars current dollars 2016 dollars House bill 2010
to 2016
to 2016
Dept. of Labor 13.5 15.1 11.9 12.2 11.7 -22.5% -3.6%
Dept. of Health and Human Services 73.2 82.0 71.2 72.6 70.9 -13.4% -2.2%
Dept. of Education 64.0 71.7 66.9 68.2 64.4 -10.2% -5.6%
Social Security Admin. 11.1 12.4 10.8 11.0 10.8 -12.7% -1.8%
Other Independent Agencies 2.5 2.8 2.3 2.3 1.8 -35.4% -21.0%
Scorekeeping adjustmentsa -1.3 -1.5 -6.3 -6.4 -6.6 348.5% 3.3%
Bill total 163.1 182.5 156.8 159.8 153.1 -16.1% -4.3%
Program integrity (outside Budget Control Act caps) 0.5 0.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 173.4% -1.9%

Jul 21, 2015

Senate Agrees To Social Security Disability Cuts

     From Huffington Post:
With a little over one week left before funding for the nation's transportation infrastructure dries up, the Senate has reached a deal on a multiyear bill, parting ways with the House. ...
[Senator Barbara] Boxer, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wouldn’t offer details earlier Tuesday afternoon on all of the offsets that would pay for the bill, but confirmed that some of the money would come from cuts to Social Security benefits for people with outstanding warrants for their arrest, and another measure would prevent Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from simultaneously collecting unemployment insurance. ...
     I'm telling you now. The unemployment provision is going to be a mess, the outstanding warrants provision will be widely perceived as unfair and the GOP will have shown that Democrats are willing to roll over on Social Security disability.

Sklar And Borland Leaving

     I have received multiple reports that Glen Sklar, the Deputy Commissioner for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), and James Borland, the Assistant Deputy Commissioner for ODAR, are leaving their positions.

A Solution For The Disability Trust Fund?

     I've been looking into the question of what happens if Congress is deadlocked, as it may be, on a fix for the possible exhaustion of the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund. I'm encountering some interesting issues. If we actually go over the precipice and the Disability Insurance Trust Fund runs out of money, it's going to be a mess. The shortfall in the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will vary from month to month since FICA collections vary from month to month. One or two months a year there may be little or no shortfall and some other months there may be a 30% or greater shortfall. There is also the substitution problem. I'll go into this in much more detail later but recipients of Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) who are 62 or older are also entitled to Retirement Insurance Benefits (RIB). They don't get paid both, just the higher amount. Normally, the DIB is higher than the RIB but if the DIB is reduced because the Disability Insurance Trust Fund is short of money, the RIB will often be larger. That would be a messy computational problem since the number of people affected by this would vary from month to month and because shifting them to RIB would itself have an effect upon the amount available to pay everyone eligible for DIB. I'm sure that computers could solve this problem but it wouldn't be easy since the computers have never been programmed for the task and the agency isn't brimming with computer programmers who have nothing else to do.
     What I wonder is whether Social Security could start routinely charging benefits in a dual eligibility situation first against the Retirement Insurance Trust Fund and only paying the difference out of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. That would significantly reduce the amount paid out of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
     The interesting thing is that the Social Security Act really doesn't speak to the question of how benefits are to be charged between the Disability and Retirement Insurance Trust funds when a claimant is dually eligible. To this point, normally 100% has been charged to the Disability Insurance Trust Fund but I don't think the statute requires that result. This is the closest that the Social Security Act comes to dealing with the issue:
42 U.S.C.A. §402 ...
(k)(3)(A) If an individual is entitled to an old-age or disability insurance benefit for any month and to any other monthly insurance benefit for such month, such other insurance benefit for such month ... shall be reduced, but not below zero, by an amount equal to such old-age or disability insurance benefit (after reduction under such subsection (q) of this section)....
(k)(4): Any individual who, under this section [which has to do with benefits paid from the Retirement Insurance Trust Fund] and section 423 [DIB], is entitled for any month to both an old-age insurance benefit and a disability insurance benefit under this title shall be entitled to only the larger of such benefits for such month, except that, if such individual so elects, he shall instead be entitled to only the smaller of such benefits for such month.
     This section uses the word "entitled" in contradictory ways. It first talks of a person being "entitled" to both RIB and DIB but then says that such a dually "entitled" person is only "entitled" to one benefit. How can you be dually "entitled" if you're only "entitled" to one benefit? The only reasonable way to interpret this is that that the word "entitled" was used in two different ways, which is poor legislative drafting but we have to deal with the statute as it is. At first, the word "entitled' is used to mean "eligible for" but at the end it is used to mean "paid for." The intent is that a person does not receive both the RIB and the DIB, only the higher of the two benefits even though he or she is technically entitled to both.
     Because the most the claimant can receive is the higher of the two benefits, does that mean that the benefits must be paid 100% out of the trust fund of the higher benefit? I don't think the statute speaks to this question. The statute speaks to how much the claimant is paid, not how is charged against each trust funds.
     When Social Security first started to implement this provision, mainframe computers were in their infancy. All of Social Security's computers at that time put together probably had less computing power than my cell phone does today. In the late 1950s, splitting the benefit payment between two different trust funds might have required manual computation on a case by case basis. The simpler thing to do was to charge the benefits solely against the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
    One might think that if an individual is paid reduced RIB before their full retirement age that they must receive reduced RIB for the rest of their life but that's not the way Social Security's has interpreted the Act. To the best of my knowledge, there's only one situation now in which the dually eligible are paid the RIB first. That's done where a person eligible for DIB is over 62 and has a workers compensation offset. The workers compensation offset would reduce the DIB but not the RIB. The claimant can take the early retirement benefit. We call this the RIB-DIB election. The retirement benefit is 25% less per month than the full DIB but in most cases it's still more than the DIB would be after the workers compensation offset. After a claimant who has made the RIB-DIB election reaches full retirement age, they're no longer subject to the 25% reduction in their retirement benefits because they went on early RIB. The dual eligibility eliminates the 25% actuarial reduction. This has been Social Security's practice for decades.
     If you're not really familiar with Social Security law, you might object that there's no way a person can be dually eligible for DIB and RIB without filing a claim for each benefit. However, this objection is easily dealt with. The claim form for DIB says at the top: "I apply for a period of disability and/or all insurance benefits for which I am eligible under Title II and Part A of the Social Security Act, as presently amended." Thus, a claim for DIB is also a claim for RIB. But what if the claimant was ineligible for a retirement benefit at the time he or she filed the claim for disability benefits because he or she was less than 62 at the time? The Social Security Act says:
42 U.S.C. §402(j)(2): An application for any monthly benefits under this section filed before the first month in which the applicant satisfies the requirements for such benefits shall be deemed a valid application (and shall be deemed to have been filed in such first month) only if the applicant satisfies the requirements for such benefits before the Commissioner of Social Security makes a final decision on the application ...
     If a claim for DIB is also a claim for RIB and there has been no "final decision" on that RIB application, there's no problem with saying that the RIB claim remains alive and can be acted upon at a later date. The award certificate issued at the time a DIB claim is approved does say "This benefit is the only benefit you can receive from us at this time" but that's hardly a final determination denying a retirement claim. What I'm suggesting here is Social Security's practice. When a person who is drawing DIB reaches full retirement age, Social Security doesn't waste time contacting him or her to take a claim for RIB. The claimant is automatically transferred to RIB since they filed a claim for RIB at the same time they filed a claim for DIB. (By the way, there's an interesting technical question about whether a person remains entitled to DIB after achieving full retirement age but let's leave that issue for another day.)
     The bottom line here is that this is simply a question of how one construes statutory language that's a lot less than crystal clear. When the statute uses the key word "entitled" in two different ways in the same sentence it's hard to say there's any plain meaning to that sentence. I don't think that what I'm talking about does any violence to the Social Security Act. It's just an interpretation. I won't belabor it but I've looked at the legislative history and I didn't see anything that explains how Congress intended that benefits would be charged to differing trust funds in dual eligibility situations.
     What I'm suggesting can be done without changing any of Social Security's regulations since they don't speak to the issue. All that would be required would be some minor changes in Social Security's POMS manual, some changes in Social Security's bookkeeping programs which probably wouldn't be that difficult since something close to this is already being done when there's a RIB-DIB election, and a press release.
     If Social Security did this, could Congress or someone else sue and get it overturned? They could try but they would have a real standing problem, that is, the Courts would ask, in effect, "Who are you to sue over this? How have you been affected?" Merely saying "I don't like what you're doing" or "I think what you're doing is illegal"  or "I'm a member of Congress" or "I'm on Social Security retirement benefits and maybe someday this will make the Retirement Trust Fund run out of money" probably won't enough to give one standing. Even if a Plaintiff gets past the standing issue, they have to get past an even bigger problem, the deference required under the Chevron doctrine for an agency's reasonable interpretation of a statute. Is the interpretation I'm suggesting unreasonable or is it just one of at least two possible interpretations of an ambiguous statute? This wouldn't be easy to challenge.
     Congress could try to pass a bill blocking this interpretation but such a bill could be filibustered in the Senate or vetoed by the President.
     There's a real problem that I haven't discussed so far. It may not be enough to solve the Disability Insurance Trust Fund's problem. The predicted shortfall in the Disability Trust Fund under the Intermediate projection is about 20% while only 24% of DIB payments are made to those between 62 and 66 (doublecheck my math since the only figures given are the number at each age and the average benefit amount for each age). However, paying the RIB first still leaves the Disability Trust Fund responsible for at least 25% of the total benefit paid for claimants who go on disability benefits at or before age 62. If they go on disability benefits after they turn 62, the reduction is less. However, what I've talked about so far isn't the only dual eligibility situation. There are other claimants who are eligible for DIB plus one or more other benefits paid out of the Retirement and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, such as widows and widowers benefits, husbands and wives benefits, mothers and fathers benefits and disabled adult child benefits. I doubt that those other dual eligibility situations would completely take up the slack but I just don't know. I don't think anyone will know unless Social Security's actuaries run the numbers. Also, the Intermediate projection for the Disability Trust Fund is just that, a projection. Last year and so far this year, the numbers are a bit better than the projection. Even a modest improvement over the projection might be enough. Of course, any worsening of the numbers would take things in the opposite direction. There's also the issue of whether any change would be applied only prospectively. If the change I'm suggesting were applied retrospectively, even for a few years, the change in the Disability Insurance Trust Fund balance would be dramatic.
     I can't say what the political effects would be if Social Security did this. Certainly, Congressional Republicans would protest but I don't know if even Fox News could get traction on this issue. It's so damned technical. I wonder how many readers have gotten this far in reading this blog post and can really follow what I'm saying. I wonder if Congressional Republicans would even be unhappy if this issue was taken off the table. It's not like it's an issue that their base really cares about. The ideas they have put forward so far on the Disability Insurance Trust Fund seem vague and confused.
     I hope the Administration has the audacity to do this. The Disability Insurance Trust Fund may not be at the top of the agenda for the President or Congress at this moment but a year from now it probably will be. If you think about what a mess it will be if the Disability Insurance Trust Fund runs out of money, what I'm suggesting may start to sound reasonable.

Jul 20, 2015

OIG Report On Fees Paid For Representing Claimants

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on payments to attorneys and others who represent Social Security claimants. The report doesn't suggest that anything should be changed. I'm not sure why the report was produced. I'd guess that it was to satisfy someone on Capitol Hill. Anyway, here are three graphics from the report:

Hearing Backlog Balloons

     You ought to click on the image below, which is a recent Caseload Analysis Report from Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), and then print it out. It's worth studying and you can't really study it other than by printing it out; at least, I couldn't. This report was reproduced in the newsletter (not available online) of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR).  
     Here are some highlights of the report:
  • In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, which began on October 1, 2014, through the date of this report, which is the end of May 2015, ODAR received an average of 3,046 requests for hearing per day but disposed of an average of only 2,647 a day, which means that they could only process 87% of their workload. 
  • Because ODAR couldn't handle its workload, the average processing time shot up from 422 days to 491 days in just seven months. 
  • The number of cases pending over 365 days increased from 242,999 at the beginning of the FY to 343,801 as of the end of May. 
  • At the rate things are going, in less than two years the average processing time will be over two years.
  • The number of ALJs being hired is little more than the number retiring, quitting and dying. How many times have I heard Glenn Sklar, the head of ODAR, talk about the number of ALJs the agency is hiring and say "Help is on the way"? 
  • The amount of overtime available to ODAR has gone down. It averaged 32,339 hours per month in FY 2014 but only averaged 27,950 hours per month in FY 2015 through the end of May. Why is the agency relying upon so much overtime anyway? Why not just hire more employees? One answer is that in the short run new employees give little additional productivity. They have to be trained and to become proficient at what they do. Another answer is that the agency is fearful about its future appropriations. It doesn't want to hire new employees, train them and then have to furlough them.
  • Don't miss the footnote to the report. During the time period covered by this report, attorney advisors issued a whooping 438 decisions. There were only 58 cases pending before attorney advisors as of the report date. Talk about a token effort! If Social Security were serious about holding down this burgeoning backlog, it could really crank up the attorney advisor program but they're worried about what Republicans in Congress would think and they're worried about the Disability Insurance Trust Fund so they do nothing.
     We could use less happy talk from Social Security about how "help is on the way" and more frank talk about just how bad things are now and how much worse they're going to get if ODAR doesn't get a bigger operating budget. There's no point pretending that things are getting better when it's obvious that things are getting dramatically worse.
     Even without a bigger operating budget, ODAR could make things a little better if it could get over its fear of being accused of "paying down the backlog." Does anybody who really knows how things work at Social Security think there would be anything wrong with letting attorney advisors approve 10% or even 20% of the incoming requests for hearing? Select claimants 55 and older as well as claimants with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or multiple sclerosis or a rheumatic disorder or something such and let the attorney advisors look at them. They'll approve 60% of them but those cases would be approved by ALJs eventually anyway. These are real people who are being put through hell for no reason.

Jul 19, 2015

CCD Opposes Bill Linking Social Security Disability To Transportation Bill

     The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) is an umbrella coalition of about 100 groups involved in helping people with disabilities. You don't hear much about CCD but it's a big deal in Washington. This is from a letter that CCD sent on July 16 to each U.S. Senator:
... [W]e write to express the Task Force’s strong opposition to enacting legislation that cuts Social Security, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to offset the costs of unrelated programs in the surface transportation reauthorization bill. ...
We understand that at least two Social Security policy changes are currently being considered as offsets for legislation to extend highway transportation funding. 
One measure would eliminate or reduce concurrent SSDI benefits for individuals who attempt to work – as encouraged by law – but lose their job through no fault of their own and qualify for Unemployment Insurance (UI). ...
The SSDI and UI programs were established for different purposes and largely serve different populations. Receiving UI and SSDI concurrently is legal and appropriate. This has been the long - standing position of the Social Security Administration and of the courts. ...
A second measure would bar payment of Social Security or SSI benefits to individuals with outstanding warrants for their arrest. The Social Security Act already prohibits payments to individuals fleeing from law enforcement to avoid prosecution or imprisonment, and the people who would be affected by the CUFF Act are, in fact, neither fugitives nor felons. Almost none of the individuals who would be affected by this pro vision are actual fugitives from justice and most of the warrants in question are many years old and involve minor infractions. Moreover, the Social Security Administration (SSA) attempted to administer a similar provision for a number of years, with catastrophic effect for many vulnerable people with disabilities and seniors , employing procedures that did not withstand judicial scrutiny. If Congress adopts this provision, it would return SSA to a policy that was overly broad and led to much unintended harm to seniors and people with disabilities who have not been convicted of any crime but who rely on Social Security and SSI. ...

Jul 18, 2015

Social Security Drafting Rules Touching On Gun Control

     From the Los Angeles Times:
Seeking tighter controls over firearm purchases, the Obama administration is pushing to ban Social Security beneficiaries from owning guns if they lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs, a move that could affect millions whose monthly disability payments are handled by others. ...
A potentially large group within Social Security are people who, in the language of federal gun laws, are unable to manage their own affairs due to "marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease." 
There is no simple way to identify that group, but a strategy used by the Department of Veterans Affairs since the creation of the background check system is reporting anyone who has been declared incompetent to manage pension or disability payments and assigned a fiduciary.
If Social Security, which has never participated in the background check system, uses the same standard as the VA, millions of its beneficiaries would be affected. About 4.2 million adults receive monthly benefits that are managed by "representative payees." ...
Though such a ban would keep at least some people who pose a danger to themselves or others from owning guns, the strategy undoubtedly would also include numerous people who may just have a bad memory or difficulty balancing a checkbook, the critics argue.
"Someone can be incapable of managing their funds but not be dangerous, violent or unsafe," said Dr. Marc Rosen, a Yale psychiatrist who has studied how veterans with mental health problems manage their money. "They are very different determinations." ...
About 2.7 million people are now receiving disability payments from Social Security for mental health problems, a potentially higher risk category for gun ownership. An addition 1.5 million have their finances handled by others for a variety of reasons.
The agency has been drafting its policy outside of public view. Even the National Rifle Assn. was unaware of it. ...
Ari Ne'eman, a member of the National Council on Disability, said the independent federal agency would oppose any policy that used assignment of a representative payee as a basis to take any fundamental right from people with disabilities.
"The rep payee is an extraordinarily broad brush," he said.
     By the way back in January 2013, I predicted this was coming.

Jul 17, 2015

Trustees Report Coming Next Week

     The National Academy of Social Insurance has scheduled an event for July 23 featuring Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, speaking on the 2015 Social Security Trustees Report. That means that the report will be issued next week, probably Wednesday or Thursday.

Congressman Believes Social Security Is Immoral

     From the Washington Examiner:
While the problem comes down to dollars and cents, the unsustainable nature of federal entitlement programs is also a moral issue, according to House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga.
"Our goal is to end the immoral practice of forcing more Americans into dependency on broken governmental programs," Price said. "Critics try to claim the moral high ground. They say that they're the ones looking after our seniors and those less well off. Let me ask you, where's the morality in committing seniors and low-income families to a health care system that can't deliver health care...? Is it moral to promise retirement security that the government knows it cannot provide?" ...

Jul 16, 2015

History Of Social Security Field Offices

     As part of its observation of the Social Security's upcoming 80th birthday, the Social Security Administration has posted a video on the history of its field offices.

Jul 15, 2015

VA Policy On Charging For Medical Records?

     I request lots of records on my Social Security disability clients. It's a major part of what I do. I'm curious. What's the policy or practice of the Department of Veterans Affairs on charging for copies of medical records on their patients? The VA hospital in Durham, NC charges for records but is very slow in responding to requests for those records. The VA hospital in Fayetteville, NC doesn't charge and is fairly prompt in responding to requests for records. What's going on elsewhere?

Jul 14, 2015

OIG Wants Social Security To Keep Trying To Collect Those 50 Year Old Debts

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has done a study on the agency's practice of collecting ancient debts -- many over thirty years old and some as old as fifty years -- via offsets of tax refunds. OIG doesn't see any problem with this and basically urges the agency to keep doing it, regardless of the age of the debt. 
     The report says that "for all debts, SSA’s beneficiary records contained detailed information to establish how and when the overpayment occurred." Any field office employees want to comment on this statement?
     The lack of a statute of limitations on collection of overpayments by administrative offset is a disgrace in my opinion. This needs to be addressed by Congress.
     Update: The Washington Post is reporting on this issue.

Isn't 19 Years Of Testing Enough?

     The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has released an Issue Brief on the Single Decision Maker Pilot. In the Single Decision Maker (SDM) Pilot a single disability examiner can process a disability claim at the initial or reconsideration levels without having a medical consultant sign off on the determination. The agency has been testing SDM since 1996. So, why has it taken 19 years to test SDM? Is Social Security finally ready to either cancel SDM altogether or make it national? Oddly, neither SSAB nor Social Security seems to have an answer for either question. Probably the reason that Social Security doesn't want to go national with SDM is that it leads to a slight increase in the allowance rate and that's a huge negative as far as Social Security and SSAB are concerned. The reason that the SDM Pilot isn't cancelled is that SDM decreases processing time which is a positive. So it looks as if we'll just continue with the SDM Pilot indefinitely.

Jul 13, 2015

The Great Recession Caused Big Problems For Social Security Disability But Not What You Think

     Kathy Ruffing, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has an interesting observation. The Great Recession hurt Social Security's Disability Insurance Trust Fund badly but not in the way people think. The problem wasn't that the Great Recession caused an increase in benefit payments. Any effects on that side were minor. The problem has been that the Great Recession caused a dramatic decrease in the Disability Insurance Trust Fund's income. If the Great Recession hadn't occurred, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund's income and spending would be in rough balance.

Jul 12, 2015

What Data Do You Want To See?

     Social Security has a webpage where anyone can submit their ideas for data sets that the agency should make available online. Submit your own ideas. Here are the ideas I submitted:
  • Productivity, backlog and allowance rates for each state DDS
  • Percent of claimants with attorney or other representation
  • EAJA fees paid
  • Appeals Council productivity and backlog
  • Percent of claimants who are rejecting video hearings
  • Number of attorney-advisor decisions issued
  • Number of on the record reversals issued by ALJs
  • Processing time data for each payment centers
  • Average speed of answer and agent busy rate for 800 number service
  • Average speed of answer and agent busy rate for field office telephone lines

Jul 10, 2015

"Republicans Will Do ... Something"

     Arthur Delaney gives a good summary of yesterday's hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. His title tells the story: The Social Security Disability Program's In Trouble And Republicans Will Do... Something.
     By the way, note that Delaney has been influenced by the Republican drumbeat insisting that somehow Social Security "liberalized" disability back in the 1980s. That's bull. That supposed "liberalization" was signed into law by the sainted Ronald Reagan. I don't think you could get one vote in Congress today for overturning even one aspect of that supposed "liberalization."

Jul 9, 2015

There's No Magic Bullet

     From the written testimony of Paul N. Van de Water, Senior Fellow at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, given to the House Ways and Means Committee today:
It’s worth testing some promising changes to DI [Disability Insurance] through carefully designed demonstration projects, but those demonstrations won’t yield quick answers. Congress should also consider other ways of rewarding work for people with impairments, such as expanding refundable tax credits for low-wage workers. But Congress should not expect a magic bullet that will simultaneously trim costs, make beneficiaries better off, and avert the need to replenish the DI trust fund in 2016 and beyond. Beneficiaries will face a 20 percent benefit cut if Congress does not act soon to replenish the trust fund.
     None of the other witness written statements say anything that contradicted Van de Water's statement.
     By the way, let me repeat what I said earlier, the House Ways and Means Committtee's website is a mess. It's almost impossible to find anything. I've been looking at websites of various Congressional committees for years and I've never seen anything like this. You think I'm exaggerating? I didn't give a link to the witness statements at today's hearing. Here's a link to the Homepage for the Committee. The witness statements are there somewhere but try finding them.

Benefits Authorizer Charged With Fraud

     From the Chicago Sun-Times:
Five people, including a Social Security Administration employee, are facing federal charges for a kickback scheme involving $1.9 million in fraudulent benefits.
Jayson Cruz, 39, worked as a benefits authorizer at the administration’s Great Lakes Program Service Center in Chicago at the time of the alleged fraud between 2009 and 2013, prosecutors said.
He and four other people were charged in a June 30 indictment that was unsealed Wednesday after their arrests, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
According to the indictment, Cruz was responsible for authorizing monthly old-age, survivors and disability insurance benefits to beneficiaries and their families.
Cruz — along with co-defendants Monica Knox-Sumrell, Vonzell White, Michael Elarde and Jerry Brown Jr. — recruited recipients to receive additional payments on top of what they were owed, authorities claim.
Prosecutors also claim Knox-Sumrell also falsely told recipients that she worked for the Social Security Administration.
Cruz authorized the extra, fraudulent payments, taking care to keep the amounts below a $6,000 threshold that would have required a supervisor’s approval, the indictment said.
His four co-defendants later collected the majority of the money back from the people they recruited, the indictment claims.
Cruz also fraudulently authorized payments to White, Elarde, Brown and others by falsely portraying them as representatives of deceased beneficiaries who were owned money from the administration, according to the indictment.
The Social Security Administration ultimately paid out $1.9 million in fraudulent benefits to more than 150 people because of the scheme, authorities said.

Committee Chairmen Ask For Ideas

     From a press release:
House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX), and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) today called on the disability community and other interested stakeholders to bring ideas to the table on how best to address the impending depletion of reserves in the Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund. The fund’s depletion has been projected to occur sometime late in 2016, requiring action to prevent across-the-board cuts to beneficiaries of the DI program.
“The Disability Insurance program needs fixing,” Ryan, Johnson, and Hatch said. And while we’re working on solutions, we also want to hear from those outside Congress. Almost all American workers pay for the disability insurance program through their payroll taxes, and they deserve a program that protects those with disabilities, promotes opportunity, and ensures that hard-earned taxpayer dollars are used efficiently and don’t go to fraudsters. We especially want to hear from disability insurance beneficiaries on how we can improve the disability program together.”
The lawmakers are urging the public to take a more active role in developing how to improve the current program and ensure that benefits are there for future generations. Specifically, the lawmakers are soliciting input on:
  1. Ways to make the DI program work better for current and future beneficiaries;
  2. Ways to improve the financial outlook for the DI Trust Fund; and
  3. Ways to promote opportunities for those trying to return to work.
Individuals, researchers, businesses, organizations, and advocacy groups interested in submitting comments should send an email to the following address: ImproveDI@mail.house.gov.

Is Disability "Attractively Lucrative"?

     From an op ed piece by Rosie Fletcher in the New Statesman, a British newspaper, written about proposed changes in social security disability benefits in her country:
Another day, another rummage down the back of the benefits sofa to find a spare £12bn. This week: changing Employment Support Allowance to incentivise ill people to get back to work. 
One problem: I already have the best incentive to stop being ill and get back to work. It’s called “being ill”. I would love to go back to work because if I were able to work, I would no longer be sick. Long-term illness nibbles away at your identity from the edges, taking out chunks of the things that make you you: the friends you meet, the shops you wander into, the job you do. 
I would love to work, if only because it would give me something to use in small talk, a context in which to place myself, the grit around which an imperfect pearl of who I am can begin to re-form.
I would like to have a job. I would like to feel productive. I would like to do more with my day than clutch at cups of tea and switch on the radio because I can’t keep my eyes open for the television. But currently I can’t and I rely on ESA to keep me in teabags. 
 This proposal makes two fundamental mistakes: that illness and disability are a) passive and b) attractively lucrative. ... 
 Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in. This isn’t some kind of elaborate con I’ve been running, shutting myself away from the world to trick you out of the princely sum of £48 a week. Cutting my benefits won't get me back into work. It will make my life smaller, more stressful. It will make me sicker. ... 
 This isn’t just a question of economics, of ideological war on the welfare state. This is the insidious, callous notion that sick and disabled people are ultimately not trying hard enough. This says what people with chronic illnesses and disabilities hear all too much from their friends, from their families, from even their doctors: we do not believe that you are ill. ...

Jul 8, 2015

Social Security's "Very Aggressive" Goal: Answer The Phone In Less Than Twelve Minutes

     The most recent issue of the newsletter of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA), a voluntary organization of Social Security management personnel, has an article on the agency's Teleservice Centers (TSCs). Some points from the piece:
  • On June 10, 2014 Social Security's 800 number handled its One-Billionth call;
  • As of June 2015, the TSCs had handled 49 million calls since the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1, 2014;
  • The TSCs have a "very aggressive" goal of 700 seconds average speed of answer and 8% agent busy rate.

Jul 7, 2015

Number Drawing Disability Benefits Continues To Decline

     After being quite slow in getting out the May disability data, Social Security has rushed out the June numbers. For the eight time in the last nine months, the number of people drawing Disability Insurance Benefits from the Social Security Administration has declined. This is not some minor anomaly. The number drawing benefits at the end of June 2015 is below what it was at the end of June 2014. No one predicted this but it's happening. Given the dramatic decrease in the number of disability claims filed, the number drawing benefits is likely to continue to decline for an extended period of time.

House Ways And Means Committee Schedules Hearing On Promoting Work Opportunities For The Disabled

     The House Ways and Means Committee has announced that a hearing will be held on Thursday, July 9 at 10:00 a.m. on promoting work opportunities for Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries. 
     I wonder what it would come to if someone counted up the number of hearings this Committee or its Social Security Subcommittee has held on this topic over the decades. I bet it would average at least one a year for the last 50 years.

Senator Lankford Has A Plan

     Senator James Lankford (R-OK) has written a piece for The Hill about Social Security disability. Here are a few excerpts:
In May, over a thousand West Virginians and Kentuckians went to their mailbox and found letters telling them their disability checks would soon be cut off. 
Why? Because a government watchdog group had reason to believe that yet another lawyer and/or doctor was involved in Social Security fraud.  ...
It is time for a major overhaul of the disability system and a renewed focus on the disabled. Before the SSDI program goes insolvent in 2016, there are things that Congress and the Social Security Administration can do to protect the program for those who rely on it and the taxpayers who fund it.
A step in the right direction would include preventing individuals from receiving checks for the earned income tax credit or unemployment benefits and Social Security disability in the same year. ...
The “vocational grid” that defines which jobs are available in America has not been updated since the mid 1970s. Obviously, a few things have changed in the American economy since the ’70s, but the definition of employment used for disability has not changed. 
Many of these are potentially productive citizens who may have an additional challenge to employment, but they are not incapable of work.
Currently, disability attorneys are paid by Social Security offices around the country, not by the individuals who hire them. Disability attorneys take a portion of the disabled person’s check from them if they win the case, but the federal government is tasked to extract that fee from each individual and become the third party to every disability legal contract.
Why not allow the person who hired the attorney and signed the contract to also pay the bill? 
The incentive for the attorneys is to delay the case as long as possible, so their payment can extract the maximum amount from the disabled person’s check at the end. 
No law or regulation prevents a lawyer acting on behalf of a claimant from delaying a hearing by introducing new evidence moments before the hearing begins, effectively forcing the judge to put off the hearing. This prevents the claimant from getting benefits to which he or she may be entitled, but it ensures a bigger paycheck for the lawyer. That’s not how it works in a regular court, and that’s not how it should work for SSDI. ...