Dec 31, 2015

Workers Comp Offset Change

     From a notice that Social Security is posting in the Federal Register on Monday:
We propose to amend our regulations to incorporate changes made by the ABLE Act to section 224(a) of the Social Security Act. The ABLE Act amends section 224(a) by changing the age at which disability insurance benefits (DIB) are no longer subject to reduction (offset) based on receipt of workers’ compensation or public disability benefits (WC/PDB), from age 65 to the day the individual attains full retirement age. This change will make our rules consistent with the provisions of the Act, as amended by the ABLE Act

Dec 30, 2015

A Popular Topic

     It's interesting to me that a post I made four and a half years ago continues to attract attention and comments. It received more hits this year than anything I posted this year! My contribution was small. I only quoted from a fact sheet prepared by others. It didn't have what I think of as a catchy title but it keeps attracting more attention and comment than anything else I've posted. The blog post was "SSI Is Not Enough To Live On." It still isn't enough to live on.

Dec 29, 2015

Colvin Gets Personal

     Carolyn Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, has written an unusually personal piece for Social Security Matters, the agency's blog. She talks of the impact of Social Security on her own family -- her brother's disability, her mother's last years and the death of her son at age 34.

Dec 28, 2015

Field Office Employee Disgusted

     One Social Security employee is disgusted by the working conditions at her field office.

Dec 27, 2015

Christmas Is Over!

Dec 26, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 25, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 24, 2015

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

Dec 23, 2015

Stay Safe

     I've heard that Social Security's Program Service Center in Birmingham, AL has just closed due to the threat of tornadoes. That's a big facility with, I'd guess, hundreds of employees.

Don't Jump!

An Idea For Improving Retirement Savings

     From an Op Ed by Dean Baker in the Los Angeles Times:
The vast majority of Americans who expect to retire in the next decade can count on little income other than their Social Security. This is true not only for low-income workers, who have struggled most of their lives, but also for millions of middle-income workers. ... Many if not most can expect to see sharp reductions in living standards.
The reason for such bleak retirement prospects is the disappearance of traditional defined benefit pensions and the failure of 401(k)-type plans to fill the gap. A recent analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that, in 2011, only 14% of private-sector employees participated in a defined benefit pension plan. The participation rate has been falling quite rapidly ...
Although many people were hopeful that 401(k)s would be sufficient to support a comfortable day-to-day retirement, this has proved not to be the case. In 2013, the middle fifth of households of people ages 45 to 54 had less than $60,000 in total financial assets. And most homeowners in this age group still had less than 40% equity in their homes, meaning they could look forward to paying off a mortgage well into their retirement.
In response to this situation, Illinois is developing a state-run retirement program that will make it easier and cheaper for workers to save. Many other states, including California, are studying this option. ...
Workers would have a modest amount (around 2% to 3%) deducted from each paycheck, although they could opt out if they chose. The money would then accumulate like a 401(k) during a person's working years, with the option to receive a lump sum or draw a monthly payment at retirement. ...
[P]articipation would be the default option. There is now a considerable body of research showing that workers will contribute to their retirement if they're automatically enrolled, but won't contribute otherwise. ...
[A] publicly run plan would have far lower costs than many privately run alternatives. The administrative fees for a plan in a large state such as California would almost certainly be under 0.5% of the annual holdings. By contrast, private plans can easily charge 1.5% or more. ...

Merry Christmas

Dec 22, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 21, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 20, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 19, 2015

Merry Christmas

Dec 18, 2015

Social Security Seeking Information On Moving Its Data Operations To The Cloud

     Huge sums of money were spent in recent years building two computer centers for the Social Security Administration, a National Computer Center in the Baltimore area and a backup computing center near me in North Carolina. It now looks like this money was wasted. The agency just issued a request for information on moving its data operations to the cloud. At the rate things are going, the National Computer Center may never even be used. Great planning.

Merry Christmas

Dec 17, 2015

Does It Cost This Much To Renovate An Office Building?

     Congress is about to appropriate $150 million to renovate Social Security's Altmeyer Building. The agency had not requested any money for this purpose. I had earlier asked how many square feet there are in the Altmeyer Building. A reader was kind enough to find the answer to my question -- 213,716 square feet. If you divide $250 million by 213,716 you find out that the appropriation would work out to be $701.87 per square foot. 
     Let's try to get some scale on this.  Imagine if you bought an old 2,000 square foot home that needed renovations -- just renovations, not an addition. If you spent $701.87 per square foot doing renovations on that old home you'd end up spending $1.4 million. Does that sound plausible? Office renovations are, of course, different than home renovations but do you really think that renovating Altmeyer will cost $150 million? Even if it does cost $150 million, does Congress have to appropriate all the money now? Such a big project is going to take more than a year. I'd guess that the agency doesn't even have a comprehensive plan to renovate the building. Could construction even begin during the current fiscal year? Wouldn't it be better to appropriate some money to come up with a plan and then appropriate money for construction once you have a better idea what it will cost? Aren't you inviting waste by appropriating a ton of money when you don't know exactly what the agency is going to do with the money? That $150 million would really help the agency deal with its backlogs.

Let Me Put This In Terms People Can Understand

     The whole appropriations process is confusing. You may wonder whether it matters. Let me put it in terms that people can understand. Social Security's plan to start working down its hearing backlog by hiring more ALJs probably went up in smoke. There's no money to increase the number of ALJs without cutting something else. The agency's plan to reduce the hearing backlog with senior attorney and re-recon decisions probably went up in smoke also. They needed to hire more people and use more overtime for this. The money's not there. Improving service at the field offices in any significant way? No money for that. Improving computer systems? No money for that.
     By contrast, the National Institutes of Health got a near 7% increase in its budget. I'm sure that's money well spent but the money would have been well spent at Social Security also.

Starting At Page 999

     There is an appropriations agreement in Congress. It appears that it is likely to pass. Below are quotes from the parts of the 2,009 page Consolidiated Appropriations Act of 2016 that concern the Social Security Administration. If you want to study the bill yourself, the Social Security parts start on page 999.
  • For necessary expenses ... not more than $10,598,945,000 [$10.6 billion] may be expended
  •  [N]ot less than $2,300,000 shall be for the Social Security Advisory Board
  • $116,000,000 may be used for the costs associated with conducting continuing disability reviews under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act and conducting redeterminations of eligibility under title XVI of the Social Security Act.
  • $150,000,000, to remain available until expended, shall be for necessary expenses for the renovation and modernization of the Arthur J. Altmeyer Building
  • In addition, for the costs associated with continuing disability reviews under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act and for the cost associated with conducting redeterminations of eligibility under title XVI of the Social Security Act, $1,426,000,000 [$1.4 billion] may be expended ...  Provided, That, of such amount, $273,000,000 is provided to meet the terms of section 251(b)(2)(B)(ii)(III) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, as amended, and $1,153,000,000 is additional new budget authority specified for purposes of section 251(b)(2)(B) of such Act.
  • For expenses necessary for the Office of Inspector General in carrying out the provisions of the Inspector General Act of 1978, $29,787,000, together with not to exceed $75,713,000, to be transferred and expended as authorized by section 201(g)(1) of the Social Security Act from the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund. In addition, an amount not to exceed 3 percent of the total provided in this appropriation may be transferred from the ‘‘Limitation on Administrative Expenses’’, Social Security Administration, to be merged with this account, to be available for the time and purposes for which this account is available
     If I'm understanding this correctly (and the numbers are reported in a confusing fashion), the total amount for Social Security is $10.6 billion plus $116 million for continuing disability reviews (CDRs) and SSI income and resources redeterminations plus $1.4 billion also for CDRs and SSI redeterminations plus $30 million for the Office of Inspector General for a total of $12.1 billion. I'm not considering the $150 million for the Altmeyer Building renovations since that may not even be expended in this fiscal year). By way of contract the total appropriation for Fiscal Year 2015 (which ended on September 30, 2015) was $12 billion. If I'm understanding correctly, Social Security is being treated quite badly by the appropriations bill. There's almost no increase in the appropriation. $150 million was drained off for office building renovations even though the agency wasn't seeking the renovations.
     By the way, does anyone know how many square feet there are in the Altmeyer building. $150 million is a lot of money for building renovations.

Merry Christmas

Dec 16, 2015

$150 Million In Budget For Altmeyer Building Renovations

     From the Baltimore Sun:
The $1.1 trillion spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders early Wednesday morning includes ... $150 million for renovations at the Social Security Administration's headquarters at Woodlawn. ...
The Social Security Administration would receive $150 million for renovations to its 1950's-era Altmeyer Building in Baltimore County. The 10-story building requires "major upgrades" to address health and safety concerns, according to [Senator Barbara] Mikulski's office. The renovation would also allow an additional 350 staff to work from the building. ...
     I've never been in the Altmeyer Building. It may be in urgent need of renovations. I do know that $150 million for building renovations is probably $150 million less for agency operations. That means fewer new employees, less overtime and less money spent on upgraded software. I know that politicians love to spend money on construction projects. The jobs gained, while temporary, are highly visible and concentrated in one location instead of spread out over the country. Money spent on operations isn't glamorous but it's often more important. I hope this $150 million is well spent.

Merry Christmas

Dec 15, 2015

Merry Christmas From A Social Security Field Office

     Here's an message to me from a legal assistant at my firm: "TC [Telephone Call] _____ DO [District Office]. She said they have 60 days to get the clt in pay after it gets to their office and it has not hit the 60 day mark yet. So they have not began to process SSI." The legal assistant had called about a client whose Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claim had been approved on November 5. Generally, these benefits are paid within a month after a favorable decision. They certainly should be. 
     I'm not blaming the field office too much. We've seen other signs that field offices are now having more trouble than usual keeping up. My guess is that things are worse now due of a lack of overtime because the agency is operating on a continuing funding resolution rather than a real appropriation.
     No one in Social Security management or in Congress should think that the service that the agency is giving the public is excellent, good or even fair. Everyone who works at a field office or who deals with the agency on a regular basis knows the service is poor. This isn't because employees are lazy or uncaring. It's because there aren't enough employees and because they're forced to use cumbersome, inefficient systems.

Merry Christmas

Dec 14, 2015

More Social Security Benefits To Be Subjected To Income Tax

     From a study by Social Security's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy:
Since 1984, Social Security beneficiaries with total income exceeding certain thresholds have been required to pay federal income tax on some of their benefit income. Because those income thresholds have remained unchanged while wages have increased, the proportion of beneficiaries who must pay income tax on their benefits has risen over time. A Social Security Administration microsimulation model projects that an annual average of about 56 percent of beneficiary families will owe federal income tax on part of their benefit income from 2015 through 2050. The median percentage of benefit income owed as income tax by beneficiary families will rise from 1 percent to 5 percent over that period. If Congress does not adjust income tax brackets upward to approximate the historical ratio of taxes to national income, the proportion of benefit income owed as income tax will exceed these projections.

Dec 13, 2015

Dec 11, 2015

People Cut Off Social Security Disability Benefits In England Didn't Return To Work

Background Many governments have introduced tougher eligibility assessments for out-of-work disability benefits, to reduce rising benefit caseloads. The UK government initiated a programme in 2010 to reassess all existing disability benefit claimants using a new functional checklist. We investigated whether this policy led to more people out-of-work with long-standing health problems entering employment.
Method We use longitudinal data from the Labour Force Survey linked to data indicating the proportion of the population experiencing a reassessment in each of 149 upper tier local authorities in England between 2010 and 2013. Regression models were used to investigate whether the proportion of the population undergoing reassessment in each area was independently associated with the chances that people out-of-work with a long-standing health problem entered employment and transitions between inactivity and unemployment. We analysed whether any effects differed between people whose main health problem was mental rather than physical.
Results There was no significant association between the reassessment process and the chances that people out-of-work with a long-standing illness entered employment. ...

Dec 10, 2015

Lots Of Allegations But Not Many Convictions

Click on this to see it full size. This is from the Annual Report of Social Security's Office Of Inspector General

Dec 9, 2015

SSNs To Go Off Army Dog Tags

     From the Army Times:
Soldiers' Social Security numbers will no longer be part of their dog tags, the Army announced Tuesday.
The change, which some have argued is long overdue, is the first update to the ubiquitous identification tags in more than 40 years.
A soldier's Social Security number will be replaced by a 10-digit, randomly-generated number. ...

Dec 8, 2015

Field Office Telephone Service Improves

     Social Security has released the statistics shown below on how well its field offices are answering their phones. They're only able to answer them 84% of the time but this is a dramatic improvement over January 2014 when they were only answering the phone 61% of the time.

Dec 7, 2015

First Re-Recon In 33 Months

     My firm received an "informal remand" decision today. These are also called re-recons. This was the first one for us since March 2013. Informal remand is a way of approving disability claims for those with very strong cases who are trapped in the long way for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Across the country, there are tens of thousands of similar cases that the agency should approve in this fashion.

Look What Happened After The GOP Took Over The House

     There's been no formal change in Social Security's rules for determining disability due to intellectual disability or mental illness in decadess. However, look at what's happened in recent years to the number of people approved for disability benefits for these reasons:

Number Of Disability Insurance Benefits Claims Approved For Intellectual Disability
2010 -- 18,867
2011 -- 14,145
2012 -- 12,009
2013 -- 10,141
2014 -- 9,738

Number Of Disability Insurance Benefits Claims Approved For Mental Illness (Including Intellectual Disability)
2010 -- 218,862
2011 -- 191,898
2012 -- 172,995
2013 -- 145,997
2014 -- 123,676

     What happened in 2010 that started this change? Could it be the fact that Republicans took control of the House of Representatives? Is that the same as a change in the statutes or regulations? What do Republicans have against the intellectually disabled? What do they have against those suffering from mental illness? And the biggest question -- why should a change in the control of Congress affect how Social Security determines disability?

Dec 5, 2015

Disability Causes Poverty

Dec 4, 2015

How Can You Function Like This?

     Earlier in the week I had posted an e-mail I had received about the serious problems attorneys have in getting the Social Security Administration to simply recognize that they are representing particular clients. The post attracted a number of comments from attorneys expressing the same frustration. I think this comment, obviously from a Social Security employee, posted anonymously, is worthy of greater attention since it helps explain why the problem exists and because it demonstrates one of many serious systems problems at Social Security:
This problem is not going away. It results from:

1)A terribly complicated process for adding/changing representatives.

I'll simplify it for those who aren't agency employees. Key in attorney info into the attorney database and link it to the claims. Go to the claims processing systems (one or Social Security Claims another for SSI claims) and pull the attorney information into the claims processing systems. Then you go to the the disability claims system (medical file that is sent to DDS and subsequently ODAR) and pull the attorney information into it. Then you have create the acknowledgment letters to mail to the attorneys and store copies of the actual documents in the electronic folder. If you don't complete all those steps then the attorney is not correctly added and one (or more) components (DDS, ODAR, AC, PC) may not be aware the attorney is involved. Or you may do all that and forget to send the acknowledgement letter, which means the attorney never receives confirmation. Here's the kicker, let's say you sign up to represent a claimant and their claim is already pending at ODAR. The FO is the only component that can take all the steps above. Needless to say, it's hard for FO employees to prioritize that work when the claim is pending at ODAR and may not get a hearing for another 6 months. Even FO employees who understand the need to process the attorney forms timely will still make numerous makes due to the number of steps involved in adding or changing representatives.

Add this to the mix, ODAR can (and does) add the attorney to their case processing system, which will make sure the representative gets the notices from ODAR. BUT, if the FO fails to do it's part, then the payment center or the FO processing the ALJ determination, may accidentally process the claim without the attorney information.

2)There is not enough staff in many offices to process these actions timely. As a result, These actions pile up. Attorneys follow-up and send duplicate packages, which makes the problem worse. Resentment builds up on the part of FO employees towards attorneys, which demotivates FO employees regarding this workload.

The problems may lessen if the Agency is properly staffed. However, even if it is properly staffed, there will always be a level of dysfunction in this area due to the complexity of the process/system for adding and changing representatives. They aren't going away and it's unrealistic to expect them to.
9:13 PM, December 02, 2015

Dec 3, 2015

Delayed SSI Payments

     From an Emergency Message that the Social Security Administration has released to its staff:
... On December 1, 2015, approximately 18,773 recipients did not receive their recurring monthly SSI payments. After researching the issue, the agency discovered a systems coding issue that prevented the release of the payments. The payments were correctly annotated on the Supplemental Security Income Master Record (SSR), but were not included in the payment files sent to Treasury for processing....
Inform recipients that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is aware of the issue and working to re-release the payments. Electronic payments should be deposited on 12/03/2015. Paper checks will take about 5 to 7 business days. Refer the recipient to his/her servicing field office for further assistance for dire need situations....

Proving Homelessness

     Given the ridiculous hearing backlog at Social Security now -- approaching two years in much of the country -- it's crucial that homeless claimants receive the expediting that Social Security allows them. But how are we supposed to prove homelessness? You might say, "That's easy. Just get the homeless shelter to write a letter on their behalf." That's easier said than done even when we're talking about homeless shelters and most homeless people don't stay in homeless shelters. There are few homeless shelters in rural areas. Homeless shelters can be dangerous places. Most homeless people avoid them when they can. They move around between relatives and friends, never staying anywhere long. Some live in tents or shacks in the woods. How are these claimants supposed to prove their homelessness?
     At the moment, I’m asking homeless clients either to write a letter that I can send to Social Security or get someone at a homeless shelter or a relative or friend to write a letter but this doesn’t work so well. Homeless people often lack the ability to write a letter and lack people in their lives who can or will write a letter on their behalf. 
     I keep thinking there’s got to be a better way. What are other people doing? Would a form that a claimant or someone in their life could complete work?

Dec 2, 2015

This Is Frustrating

     Here's a message I received recently on a listserver for North Carolina Social Security attorneys, edited to remove names and locations:
I can echo ____'s experience with the SSA FO [Field Office] in _____.  The letters of representation along with my 1696s, 1695s, and 827s [apart from the 827 these are forms that Social Security needs to establish that the claimant is being represented]  routinely that I mailed to the FO would disappear into some black hole.  Taking them down to the FO for personal delivery did not work either as the security guards are not permitted to handle materials pertaining to SS benefits nor was a receptacle into which I could put correspondence readily available.  Since delivery confirmation and certified mail are rather expensive, we started faxing in addition to mailing our LOR and initial forms to the SSA FO so that we would receive a fax confirmation sheet showing that we submitted our LOR and initial forms.  Even then, the SSA FO staff there would always react like it was our fault if we called to find out if our letters of rep and initial forms were received and they could not find any record of our represent ation of our client in their system.  The addition of a reminder or "tickle" to f/u with the FO sounds like a great idea for helping to deal with this situation. 
     Note that the field offices complain when these forms are submitted more than once, saying it makes extra work for them and causes confusion, but, at least where I am, the field offices are unreliable in entering an attorney's representation documents into their system. The documents disappear for weeks or months or disappear altogether. The field offices also complain about having to take calls asking whether they've entered attorney representation into their system. When the forms disappear, the field offices always blame the attorney.

Dec 1, 2015

The Choo Choo Is Running Late In Chattanooga

     Here's another story about the huge backlog of people awaiting hearings on their Social Security disability claims. This one concerns Chattanooga. The backlog there is officially 19 months but that number is misleading. Social Security always averages in cases that are quickly dismissed because the claimant was late in filing the request for hearing. The real wait there is probably more like two years.

Social Security Crime Wave

     From the Miami Herald:
As the feds put the screws to South Florida criminals who steal income-tax refunds, more thieves have come up with alternative scams to rip off government benefits — most notably, from elderly Social Security recipients, according to authorities.
By tapping into a federal website, “My Social Security,” they have been able to swipe names, dates of birth and ID numbers to open online accounts and redirect retirement benefits from the victims to themselves. ...
Frisler Clairvil, 29, of Lauderdale Lakes was charged in mid-November with stealing more than 1,300 identities of Social Security recipients and redirecting more than $300,000 in benefits to himself by manipulating personal information on the “My Social Security” website from 2013 to 2015, according to an indictment. ...

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