Jun 30, 2016

An Opinion On eBB

     Below is a comment posted on this blog concerning the Electronic Bench Book (eBB) for drafting Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions that I think deserves more attention:
Blogger David Hatfield said...
This should have been a classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but some just could not leave well enough alone. FIT [Forms Integrated Template] was designed by a handful of users from the hearings operation. Decisions were made by me, an ALJ, with input from users. Then Commissioner Barnhart saw the wisdom of allowing adjudicators to create their own tools, and she gave me full decision authority to make it happen. It was done by users for users. Expenses were virtually zero, utilizing the amazing talents of SSA's DGS [Digital Government Strategy] staff. We created the system in less than a year, and by the following year almost every decision was written in FIT and it was embraced by almost every ALJ. Why? It saved folks time, and led to better written decisions. ALJs liked it because the quality of drafts increased, allowing the ALJs to hear and decide more cases instead of editing drafts all day. Decision writers liked it as the prompts inside the templates gave them a virtual GPS, saving them time and reducing errors. Perhaps most importantly it allowed for flexibility and did not impede the huge process of hearing and deciding cases. We never had to mandate its use, as users wanted it. We made modifications based on user input, and everything we did was with the user in mind. We were not concerned with data mining, or production of management reports. FIT was all about making the adjudication process better in quantity and quality. We built in SmartFIT features that eliminated obvious errors, such as not allowing a favorable decision to be written when the date last insured expired before the established onset date, or not allowing a case to be denied when the medical/vocational Grid directed a conclusion of disabled.
True, FIT was and is just a WORD product. But when the agency was looking at a web-based system, it could have easily converted FIT. We urged that. But some thought the hearing level could be converted to the eCAT system that was being designed for the DDS. We tried to convince folks that while the polices at the levels are the same, the adjudicative operations are very different. FIT "fit" the hearings operation. I thought they were listening. eBB was then created, and I, along with a colleague, sat down with a big group of people, none of them hearings operation employees, attempting to guide them toward FIT. However, unlike FIT, eBB had many masters and agendas, each wanting features to serve their own purposes (eg, data mining), or who still wanted elements of eCAT at the hearings level. The primary purpose of creating an adjudicative tool was frustrated. It was clear decisions had been and were being made behind the scenes. As a result, 4 years and a lot of money expended later, eBB is still struggling. It is a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, with many of them never having cooked a meal.

Jun 29, 2016

Closing That Office For A Day Will Really Deter Vandalism

     From WLUK:
The Social Security Office in Green Bay was closed Tuesday after graffiti was found spray-painted on the building.
Police say the decision to close was made by social security officials.
The phrase "bomb the system," was scrawled on the brick building.
Police say anytime the word "bomb" is used, it's very concerning.

Jun 28, 2016

As Social Security Workload Increases, Agency's Headcount Decreases

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at the Social Security Administration as of March 2016:
  • March 2016 64,264
  • December 2015 65,518
  • September 2015 65,717
  • June 2015 65,666
  • March 2015 64,432
  • December 2014 65,430
  • September 2014 64,684
  • June 2014 62,651
  • March 2014 60,820
  • December 2013 61,957
  • September 2013 62,543
  • June 2013 62,877
  • March 2013 63,777
  • December 2012 64,538
  • September 2012 65,113
  • September 2011 67,136
  • December 2010 70,270
  • December 2009 67,486
  • September 2009 67,632
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990

Jun 27, 2016

SSA.Gov Having Problems

     The Social Security Administration is reporting that some people are having difficulty accessing its ssa.gov website. This problem has been going on since Friday.

Stay Classy Eric Conn, Stay Classy

     Eric Conn's defense team is getting ready for a trial on the criminal charges brought against him for his representation of Social Security disability claimants. They're hired an investigator who is himself under indictment in an unrelated case.

Jun 26, 2016

Electronic Bench Book Controversial

     Social Security has spent $25 million to develop and implement "electronic Bench Book" (eBB), a system to process hearing decisions. Only 20% of Administrative Law Judges use it. A recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) shows that it is controversial. Many at Social Security believe it increases processing time. Here's a chart based upon interviews of those who use eBB showing what OIG heard from ALJs and others who have used or tried to use eBB.

Jun 25, 2016

It's Not April 1 And This Isn't The Onion -- Social Security For Robots?

     From Reuters:
Europe's growing army of robot workers could be classed as "electronic persons" and their owners liable to paying social security for them if the European Union adopts a draft plan to address the realities of a new industrial revolution. ... 
The draft motion called on the European Commission to consider "that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations". ...

Jun 24, 2016

Pilot Program Allowing Agency To Set Time And Place For ALJ Hearings Extended

     The Social Security Administration has extended for one year their pilot program that authorizes the agency to set the time and place for hearings conducted by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). As best I can tell from outside Social Security, the agency has only used this to deal with a few problem ALJs.

Jun 23, 2016

Disability Trust Fund Looking Better

     From the written testimony of Stephen Goss, Social Security's Chief Actuary, to the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday:
At the time of enactment [this year of changes designed to shore up the Disability Trust Fund], we estimated that the date of trust fund reserve depletion for DI [Disability Insurance] would be extended 6 years, from 2016 to 2022. In the 2016 Trustees Report, we now project that DI reserves will not deplete until 2023, largely due to the lower than expected recent level of benefit expenditures. Applications for disability benefits have been declining since 2010, and have continued to be below our prior projections.
     In fact, if you look at the full Trustees report, you'll find that there are three projections for each trust fund, the Low-Cost, Intermediate and High-Cost projections. The projection of a 2023 exhaustion date is the Intermediate projection. The High-Cost projection has an exhaustion date of 2020 and the Low-Cost projected exhaustion date is never.

Jun 22, 2016

Trust Fund Balance Increases By $23 Billion: GOP Will Claim Sky Is Falling

     The Social Security Trustees Report has been released. Here's a summary from a Social Security press release:
  • The asset reserves of the combined OASDI [Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance] Trust Funds increased by $23 billion in 2015 to a total of $2.81 trillion.
  • The combined trust fund reserves are still growing and will continue to do so through 2019. Beginning in 2020, the total cost of the program is projected to exceed income.
  • The year when the combined trust fund reserves are projected to become depleted, if Congress does not act before then, is 2034 – the same as projected last year. At that time, there will be sufficient income coming in to pay 79 percent of scheduled benefits.

Jun 21, 2016

Another Sign That The American Right Has Lost Its Mind

     The Wall Street Journal seems disappointed that Donald Trump doesn't share their zeal for "Social Security reform." Of course, "Social Security reform" to them is code for cutting Social Security. It's hard to believe that any sophisticated person would think that any major party Presidential candidate would campaign on cutting Social Security. This is a sign of just how far the American right has departed from political sanity.

Jun 20, 2016

Many Comments On Gun Control Proposal

     There are 3,774 comments already on Social Security's Notice of Proposed Rule-Making that would require that the Social Security Administration refer individuals with a history of serious mental illness to a database used to prevent certain people from buying firearms. Comments will be allowed until July 5.

Jun 19, 2016

About Time For Democrats To Start Acting Like Democrats

     Robert Pear at the New York Times reports on how the President and Hillary Clinton came to endorse increasing Social Security benefits. Give Bernie Sanders a lot of credit.

Jun 18, 2016

Trustees Report Finally Coming On Wednesday

     The 2016 Social Security Trustees report is scheduled for release on Wednesday, June 22. The House Social Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing that day.

Jun 16, 2016

Planning To Rewrite Everything

     From FCW Magazine:
"We have a full-blown plan to basically re-write everything," Social Security Administration CIO Rob Klopp told FCW on June 14.
If the proposed $3.1 billion federal IT modernization fund becomes a system-shocking reality, Klopp said he plans to be among the first requesting a cut.

"We have very detailed plans, we know how we’re going to ask for the money," he said. ...
Klopp pointed to the Disability Case Processing System as a reference point. In 2014, SSA killed and restarted the DCPS project after sinking $300 million and six years into it. The new DCPS push has cost less than $40 million, Klopp told FCW, and should be rolling out this December, thanks to an agile development approach. ...
     OK, a successful rollout of DCPS will impress a lot of people. Automating the windfall offset will impress even more. I think that should be your next goal after DCPS. Of course, how many people are confident that DCPS is going to work?
     I have no idea how likely that $3.1 billion federal IT modernization fund is or what share of it that Social Security might get.

Jun 15, 2016

Jun 14, 2016

Former HOCALJ Pleads Guilty

     From a Department of Justice press release:
A former social security Chief Administrative Law Judge pleaded guilty in federal court today for conspiring to retaliate against a former employee of the Social Security Administration (SSA) who provided information regarding potential corruption and fraud to federal investigators. ...
Charlie Paul Andrus, 66, of Huntington, West Virginia, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves of the Eastern District of Kentucky to a one-count information charging him with conspiracy to retaliate against an informant.  Andrus had been an administrative law judge with the SSA for nearly 28 years, where he was responsible for adjudicating claims for disability benefits on behalf of the SSA.  In 1997, Andrus was promoted to the position of Chief Administrative Law Judge for the hearing office located in Huntington. ...
Andrus admitted that at the time of his demotion, he was aware that an SSA employee from the hearing office was meeting with investigators and relaying information about potential federal offenses.  According to his plea agreement, Andrus met with Conn shortly after the article was published and the two devised and implemented a plan to discredit the informant.  According to court documents, the plan involved filming the informant violating a program that allowed employees to work from home, with the hope that the informant would be terminated as a result.  By pleading guilty today, Andrus admitted that he was aware that the SSA employee reported truthful information to federal investigators and that he wanted to retaliate against the employee by interfering with the employee’s employment and livelihood.

Jun 13, 2016

Thanks GOP

     The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported out the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, which begins on October 1, 2016. I don't have a link but my understanding is that Social Security's administrative funding in the bill is $12.464 billion.  This is up from $12.162 billion in FY 2016 but the entire amount of the modest increase would be appropriated only for program integrity. This means that the money that the agency gets to pay its employees, answer its telephones, keep its offices open, process people onto benefits, hold hearings, etc. has been frozen even though the cost of all of these has been increased by inflation. If this budget is enacted, every problem that the Social Security Administration has is going to get worse. It will be even harder to get through to the agency on the telephone. There will be ever longer lines outside Social Security field offices. It will take even longer to get a hearing. 
     I don't know what it's going to take before the public starts raising holy hell. I'm sure that when that does finally happens, Republicans will blame the Social Security bureaucracy which, in a sense, will be deserved since the agency's leaders have been so timid about blaming their service delivery problems on the Republican led Congress.

Doing Less With Less -- Part One

Jun 12, 2016

The Hell Of Applying For Government Benefits

     The Atlantic has a piece written by Laura Kwerel on The Hell of Applying for Government Benefits. Here's an excerpt:
It’s 11:30 a.m., and after three hours of waiting, I have finally gotten to the front of the line at the Social Security Administration on M Street in Washington, D.C. I have come to see if they received a fax—the agency rarely uses email to communicate with the public.
The harried worker in front of me click-click-clicks something into her computer terminal, then looks up at me disapprovingly. “You have an appointment,” she says. Um ... what? This was the first I had heard of an appointment. After weeks of calling their 800 number without success, I decided to just show up in person. “It’s at 3 o’clock,” she went on. “Didn’t you receive the notice?”
I would later find out that their office had indeed sent me a letter, but because a “2” was incorrectly entered as a “4,” it had gone to the wrong address. The fact that I appeared on the day of my “appointment” was a fluke. And they had not received the fax.

Jun 11, 2016

Jun 10, 2016

You Don't Get What You Don't Pay For

     Joe Davidson writes for the Washington Post on the serious service delivery problems that the Social Security Administration has and on the cause of these problems -- grossly inadequate administrative appropriations.

NPRM On Excluded Medical Evidence

     From a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) that Social Security had published in the Federal Register today (footnotes omitted):
In accordance with section 812 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA section 812), we propose to revise our rules to explain how we would address evidence furnished by medical sources that meet one of BBA section 812’s exclusionary categories (statutorily excluded medical sources). Under this proposed rule, we would not consider evidence furnished by a statutorily excluded medical source unless we find good cause to do so. We propose several circumstances in which we would find good cause, and we also propose to require statutorily excluded medical sources to notify us of their excluded status when they furnish evidence to us. ...
Specifically, we may not consider evidence from the following medical sources:
• A medical source convicted of a felony under sections 208 or 1632 of the Act,
• a medical source excluded from participating in any Federal health care program under section 1128 of the Act, or
• a medical source imposed with a civil monetary penalty (CMP).

Jun 9, 2016

Shots Fired Outside Social Security Office

     From the Sun Herald of Gulfport, MS:
Moss Point Police Chief Art McClung said shots were fired Wednesday in the parking lot of the U.S. Social Security Administration office at 6000 Mississippi 63.
McClung said a man was conducting business in the office when he became angered and left the building, saying something to the security guard as he exited the building.
“He went outside and went to his car and got a gun and discharged it three or four times in the air and then got in his vehicle and left,” McClung said. “The shots were fired into the air and no one was injured, nor was any property destroyed.”
McClung said police have a good idea who fired the shots and are pursuing him.

Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/news/local/crime/article82508227.html#storylink=cpy

Blahous And Reischauer Nominations Barely Clear Finance Committee

     The re-nominations of Charles Blahous and Robert Reischauer to Social Security's Board of Trustees were narrowly reported out of the Senate Finance Committee yesterday by a vote of 14-12 for each. 
     Blahous's nomination has been criticized because he has been a consistent advocate for Social Security "reform" that would cut benefits. I think it would be fair to say that he is philosophically opposed to the concept of social insurance and wishes to undermine it in any way possible. Reischauer has been opposed to the sorts of cuts that Blahous advocates but he hasn't been an advocate for increasing Social Security benefits.
     In any case, Social Security's Board of Trustees has no power. The Trustees have no role other than to sign off on a yearly report that is really the product of Social Security's actuaries. It's little more than a ceremonial position.

New Respiratory Listings

     The Social Security Administration has posted new Listings for respiratory system disorders. These are final rules, effective October 7, 2016.

Why Is It Harder To Win With Newer ALJs?

     It's a matter of common knowledge among attorneys who represent Social Security disability claimants that it's harder to win with Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) hired in the last five years or so. 
     Theories on why this is so range from they've found some way to hire more conservative ALJs to they've found some way to train them to be more conservative to they're somehow encouraging them to deny more claims or they're  hiring agency employees who they know will deny claims. I've had doubts about each of these theories.
     Let me propose the theory that it has to do with the veterans preference and the end of the military draft. The federal government gives a heavy preference to hiring veterans. This preference has led to far higher percentage of ALJs who are military veterans than in the population of lawyers in general. This didn't matter much when the veterans being hired were mostly of the Viet Nam era as was the case until not that long ago. The draft assured that those who served during that era were not that far from being a microcosm of the male population. The draft ended as the Viet Nam war ended. Military veterans being hired now chose to serve in the military, usually as a career. This cohort is different from their Viet Nam era predecessors. On average -- and, of course, there's plenty of individual variation -- they're considerably more conservative politically and socially, making them more likely to turn a jaundiced eye to disability claims.
     That's my theory. What do you think?

Jun 8, 2016

I Can't Get Away From Work

     I attended an opera last week and was surprised to find it exploring themes that are quite familiar to me.
     I'm not an opera buff. However, my wife and I went to Charleston, SC for a few days last week for the Spoleto Festival, as we have for more than thirty years. I generally stick to the non-opera performances but this year the main opera is George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. How could I miss an opera sung in English featuring songs such as Summertime, Bess You Is My Woman Now, I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' and It Ain't Necessarily So? My wife and I went and enjoyed it greatly.
     While Porgy and Bess is set in the African American community of Charleston in the 1920s, it may be more about the subject of disability than anything else. The opera's most important character, Porgy, is disabled, apparently by paraplegia. Gershwin based his opera on the novel Porgy written by Charleston native Dubose Heyward. The title character of that novel was loosely based upon a well known personality in Charleston, "Goat Sammy," a crippled beggar who got around in a goat cart. Heyward had been fascinated to find out that "Goat Sammy" had been arrested on a charge of aggravated assault for a crime of passion. As Heyward put it “the object of public charity by day, had a private life of his own by night." Note that this disabled man in the 1920s had to resort to begging to support himself. Yes, we still have beggars but that's generally not the fate of disabled people today and that's largely due to Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. My bigger point is that Heyward thought it important to tell the world that disabled people actually have lives apart from their disability. Disabled people are quite capable of passionate romance, among many other things. It remains a point worth making. I have seen cases where Social Security Administrative Law Judges were surprised, even affronted, by evidence that a disabled person had a life apart from their disability. How dare a disabled person father a child or become pregnant! How can a person be truly disabled if they attend church or get arrested for a crime or enjoy the company of friends and family? To think like that denies the possibility that disabled people are truly human, that they have the same hopes, dreams, pleasures, pastimes, urges, shortcomings and frailties as the rest of us.
     I don't think it's an accident that the novel Porgy dealt so much with the theme of disability. Dubose Heyward's own health was poor. He suffered from the effects of polio, as well as other illnesses. As a result of his own experiences, I expect Heyward had reason to contemplate the ways in which society thinks about the disabled. I wish those attitudes had changed more since Heyward's day.

Jun 7, 2016

Proposed Regs On Program Uniformity At Hearing And Appeals Council Levels

    The Social Security Administration has just asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the White House, to approve a set of proposed regulations on Ensuring Program Uniformity at the Hearing and Appeals Council Levels of the Administrative Review Process. I don't know what this is about. If OMB approves the proposal, it will be published in the Federal Register and the public will be able to comment on it. Social Security will have to consider the comments, possibly make changes in the proposal and then submit it again to OMB for final approval.

DPCS Project Not Going Well

     In 2010 Social Security awarded a contract to develop a Disability Case Processing System (DPCS). This is a database system that would be used in processing disability claims at the initial and reconsideration levels. So far the agency has spend over $300 million on the project but has received no benefit. A recent report by the agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) shows that things have been going so badly with the DPCS project that OIG is recommending that the agency strongly consider terminating the project and either sticking with its legacy system or using off the shelf software. The off the shelf software may not have all the functions the agency wants but it works and is relatively inexpensive. Of course, it appears that DPCS itself, if it ever works, isn't going to have all the functions the agency wants anyway, at least not in the beginning.

Jun 6, 2016

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Jun 4, 2016

This Corpse Isn't Worth Fighting Over

     The Binder and Binder bankruptcy drags on. At the moment the hedge fund that has already sunk a lot of money in Binder and Binder wants to take it over but is being rebuffed.
     Take a clue from someone who knows a thing or two about these things, Binder and Binder's business model never made sense in anything other than a very favorable environment and we've got an extremely harsh environment at the moment. Even in the unlikely event of the return of a favorable environment, Binder and Binder's "good will" is so far into the red that recovery is out of the question. The idea that the hedge fund that took Binder and Binder into bankruptcy is going to turn this thing around is preposterous. 

Jun 3, 2016

Jun 2, 2016

Time To Give Paul Ryan Heartburn

     President Obama says it's time in increase Social Security. Hillary Clinton has said the same. What will Donald Trump say? What will other Republicans running for office say?

Jun 1, 2016

This Is No Video Game

     I'm hearing there was a recent suicide attempt in Pike County, KY after a former client of Eric Conn was cut off benefits and told of a $76,000 overpayment. Everyone involved in this needs to understand this isn't a video game. There are dramatic real world consequences at stake here. If you have discretionary responsibility over any aspect of these cases, you must take what you are doing  very seriously.