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


Anonymous said...

Now, take that process and multiply it by all of our processes!

Anonymous said...

The Agency has problems comprehending that there are things called law firms, made up of multiple attorneys, that represent clients. The agency can't comprehend that not every attorney that practices before them is a solo practitioner. The agency should allow firm 1696, fas.

Anonymous said...

re 12:16 The Reps don't seem to comprehend this either. SSA has always recognized only individual reps but long time reps seem to think we will recognize the firm. (I agree that we should.)

Anonymous said...

Assuming everything the author of the posted comment is true, how can the rep help? What can I do to make it easier for the FO? I MUST follow-up and send duplicate packages if I do not get confirmation that my information has been put into the system. What would the author or other FO employee suggest?

Anonymous said...

I would suggest:

1)ask local management what they think is a reasonable amount of time for processing the action based on local factors so you will know when to follow up. Generally, attorney paperwork submitted with an appeal get processed pretty quickly. Changes or initial forms submitted after the appeal or claim has been filed and transferred to DDS or ODAR will take longer.

2)if you don't receive the acknowledgement letter add the case to a list for follow up.

3)once you have several cases on the list call the FO and ask someone to check the status to make sure it's not a matter of a lost acknowledgement letter.

4)only send duplicates once you have confirmed the originals have not been processed and the FO has no record of them.

Anonymous said...

Some of the things to make sure the forms get filed appropriately:
Submit forms after a claim is filed; if the FO receives the forms prior to a filed claim, they can't link the forms 1696, fee agreement and 1695 to anything. Some FO's may hold them in a file but if the claimant doesn't file for 6 months then there is a higher chance of the original forms not being placed in the file. Also, you won't get confirmation of the forms received until the FO links the appropriate forms to a claim.

If an appeal is pending, you could submit the forms to ODAR and ODAR will alert the FO to add an attorney to the claims. Unfortunately, ODAR can't process the 1695, so the FO does need to be involved. When submitting the appeal you can submit the forms during the appeals process. Also, since it is ODAR policy to have a 1696 and fee agreement if a new rep from the same firm is going to hear the case there really isn't a need for the forms to be sent to the FO again. Submitting them to ODAR will alert the FO there is another attorney on record, but in reality the FO doesn't need to know that as long as the primary rep is at the same firm and in POTS. FO will pay the firm when approved. If your firm has received a confirmation notice of the 1695, then you will be paid regardless of how many different 1696's are received in ODAR.

Charles is correct - this process could surely be simplified. Right now, if done correctly, FO will input in POTS update the SSID and MCS and/or the MBR if the case has been denied (since the FO can't update an MBR that doesn't exist and won't exist until a denial or award) then alert DDS or ODAR and send the letter with the 1695 returned. Lastly, I believe but could be mistaken because it has been awhile since I've worked in ODAR, but you should see the forms on the CD ODAR sends out. If all else fails, you could contact FO management to make them aware of the problems you've been having. They may not be aware of the problems and may be able to come up with a solution because we are just creating more work for ourselves if we don't do it right, so they have a vested interest in finding a solution.

Anonymous said...

As a follow on to 8:29pm above,

Try to file everything (both initial claims and appeals) that you can electronically, and upload your 1695/1696/fee agreement with that electronic filing. I know the upload facility isn't the greatest and that it doesn't work that reliably sometimes, but when it does work and the documents are uploaded, the FO can't transfer the case anywhere without dealing with those uploaded documents (the system won't let them do it). At minimum, this will vastly increase the likelihood you'll at least get your 1696/fee agreement into the file. It doesn't create the necessary processing links with the 1695, but DDS/ODAR should at least be able see it to tell you are the rep when you inquire. If nothing else, it might mean you are able to at least get your decision notices from DDS/ODAR.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the real problem is that the system was set up by people who don't actually have to use the system, not an uncommon experience when dealing with IT.

There really is no reason why it has to be this hard. Every attorney that has registered as a representative, necessary to ever get paid, was assigned an ID number. All we really need to have to do is submit that number with the filing and the rest should be able to propagate to the right database.

But, (to 10:06 above) we can't attach any documents electronically when the case is first filed and there is no place on the application to note the representation other than in Remarks which would then have to be read and entered. There could be an entry on the application for the attorney info, as there is on recon, but there is none on initial. And I see no good reason why we cannot attach electronic documents to the application as well.

And don't even get me started on the mess SSA has made of the 1099's to attorneys.

And finally, law firms exist. Its time the Agency learned that.

Deborah Maury said...

EVERYBODY who handles DIB and/or SSI cases should keep a copy of this comment Charles has published here among his/her most important papers (wills, car titles, etc.).

This letter from the SSA employee would have been invaluable to me in defending myself in NC Bar complaint which was made by a client for whom my representation had been acknowledged only once by SSA(their other docs did not reflect me as rep). This was back in the 2012-2014 period when files were being shuffled all over the country due to backlog), was finally paid in an otr by some SSA employee in a midwest office I had never heard of. That person knew we were rep, called and asked paralegal to send another 1696 which she did but not registered (yes, we did produce cover l. and RR for initial 1696 and fee agreement). Do not have file here but as I recall, back benefits were around $40,000. Somebody at SSA approved the fee agreement. Cl called me and asked me to waive fee or accept "a very small fee." I can sort of see her perspective because, although we had done a fair amount of work even by then dealing w SSA, it probably didn't didn't effect the result, and she was correct in thinking her claim should have been decided faster (though not our fault).

I told her that as we had not yet gotten final award cert and some other docs we needed to conclude the case, would consider fee cut when everything was in but was not inclined to agree to the few hundred dollars she was apparently was willing to pay.

After atty fees in excess of any I ever got from any SS case -including a few which went on for 8+- yr and up and down to fed ct multiple times - the st bar committee ruled in my favor. I can't say this incident alone sunk my 30+ yr SS practice, but it contributed.

I would mention also that the DO mgr with whom I myself and my office staff had an excellent relation (and I still think is the model of the career employee SS would do well to promote to top level policy-making positions) told me he could not help me much in explaining what had happened since SSA now prohibited their employees from acknowledging fault on SSA's part. Within those limits, he tried.

The "ethical issue" was not whether I had been rep, but whether the fee was so clearly excessive as to warrant discipline. I understand the Bar decision was published elsewhere by my (former) office, but if anyone wants a copy of that I'll send it, tho may need a few weeks.

Anonymous said...

I really like the chorus of "law firms exist"--maybe our SCTs can start using that line as they sign up a claim for a hearing when a law firm employee balks at multiple offered hearing slots because the single attorney of record (part of a firm with multiple attorneys) isn't available.

Anonymous said...

There is another issue tied to this process and the shortage of staffing. Unfortunately, this is caused largely by a top-down model of operation at SSA that believes that worthwhile information only comes from on-high. The agency has become largely nonresponsive to local needs due to the insularity of Woodlawn whether it involves programming or policy. Too often the focus is on making Congress happy and/or public appearances. Or the worst reason, making it so that a person in Woodlawn can look at a spreadsheet regardless of the inefficiencies imposed on the rest of the agency in supplying that data at the expense of the public's business. The field's needs are largely corked at the local level except for advocates like the management associations. The issue I wish to bring up is workload sharing. My office staff has been reduced by decades of budget cutting driven by ideology rather than any non-existent Congressional study of what resources are needed where to provide the level of service the public has paid for (a great argument for running government like a private As a result, other neighboring offices are taking our phone claims and the bulk of our internet claims and appeals. Even though we are the servicing office, we have no access to the claim or the appeal and cannot update the information. We have to mail the attorney information on to another office that we receive here because the firm did a zip code search for our FO. The real answer to all this is to expand internet capabilities for reps so they can download forms not just to the disability files (ERE) but to field offices. And we need to lighten up on the "horse-and-carriage days" rules about who in SSA can access claims records that are pending. We should be looking at making certain screens open to anyone with any agency profile. 21st century needs with a 20th century leadership paradigm. Still think getting rid of the agency suggestion program was a great idea?