Oct 20, 2017

Starving Social Security

     From Michael Hiltzik writing for the Los Angeles Times:
Since they’ve been unsuccessful (thus far) at cutting Social Security benefits, congressional Republicans are continuing to resort to the backdoor assault on the program by starving its administrative budget. In the latest versions of the agency’s budget under consideration in Washington, the House is planning to keep the budget at the same inadequate funding level as the current year. The ever more ambitious Senate is trying to cut it by $400 million, or nearly 4%.
To retirees, near-retirees, and disability applicants the effects aren’t invisible. They show up in deteriorating customer service at every level. ...
The sole area of long-term growth in the budget has been a separate appropriation for “integrity funding,” which essentially means ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse in the disability program, a favorite Congressional hobby horse. That line item has grown to about $1.7 billion (in the budget proposals of President Trump, the House, and the Senate) from an inflation-adjusted $871 million in fiscal 2010 ...
Whether that search for fraud is worth the money is hard to gauge, since the level of improper payment in Social Security disability has been estimated at less than 1%, with underpayment a bigger problem than overpayment. A far greater impact on disability applicants is the record backlog. The Social Security Administration has been struggling with that issue for nearly two decades, but has been unable to get a handle on it consistently because of Congressional budget cuts. The backlog came down sharply from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2012, a period in which the average wait time for a disability decision fell from more than 500 days to 350 days, the first time the wait had been less than a year since 2003.
Since 2012, wait times have again climbed steeply, as a surge of applicants during the recession combined with an inability to hire disability judges and support staff. The average wait time is back up to 626 days. ...

Oct 19, 2017

I Hate This Kind Of Story

     From ABC News:
Dean Otto of Charlotte, North Carolina, was riding his bike one humid morning in September 2016 when the unimaginable occurred: The husband, father and marathoner was struck by a truck.
His spine was fractured. His pelvis, tailbone and ribs were broken. And he could not feel his legs.
After surgery, Otto's surgeon Dr. Matt McGirt gave him a 1 percent to 2 percent chance of ever walking on his own again. 
But, after months of grueling physical therapy, Otto was taking his first steps with the help of a walker. Slowly, he picked up speed, eventually climbing stairs and then running.  ...
During Otto's rehabilitation, he was also visited in the hospital by Will Huffman, the driver of the truck. The two became friends.
Otto said today that forgiveness had been key to his recovery.
"To be able to forgive Will immediately after the accident has been paramount in my positive attitude, in my recovery from this terrible accident," he said. ...
Eventually, Otto invited Huffman and McGirt, with whom he'd formed a friendship as well, to run a half-marathon with him. Neither men had run in years but felt motivated by Otto's perseverance. 
On Sept. 24, a year to the day of the accident, the three completed the Napa Half Marathon in California. ...
     I'm glad that Mr. Otto recovered but I hate this kind of story. Mr. Otto's hard work and good attitude may have been some help in his recovery but mostly he just got lucky or, perhaps, his surgeon was a poor prognosticator. What about all the other people who suffer severe injuries and never recover? Is it because they didn't work as hard at recovery as Mr. Otto or because they weren't brave enough or because they lacked the grace that Mr. Otto showed in befriending the man responsible for his injury?
     We like hearing stories like Mr. Otto's because we want to believe that if we suffer some terrible injury that our courage and hard work and the grace of God will allow us to recover but we're wrong. Whether we recover mostly has to do with the nature of our injury rather than factors attributable to ourselves. We'd like to believe that we can control what happens but we can't.
     The instinct to believe that we can recover from injury or illness is a  real problem for those who suddenly become disabled. People think recovery is right around the corner despite strong signs that they're not recovering. They fail to take appropriate action to try to secure an income for themselves -- applying for Social Security disability benefits -- even as their financial situation rapidly deteriorates. They regard themselves as failures when they finally have to concede that they aren't recovering. Why can't they transcend their injuries like Mr. Otto did? What "right stuff" did he have that they lack? This sense of failure contributes to depression which compounds the disability they suffer. Mr. Otto's story may seem inspirational but it's a positive menace to many people who have suffered serious injury.
    Stories like Mr. Otto's also lead many people to believe that most who receive Social Security disability benefits aren't truly disabled, that they're people who could have transcended their injuries or illnesses and continued working if they really wanted to. If Mr. Otto could do it, why can't anyone? Disability isn't a real thing; it's just a lack of courage and hard work. If we have any type of disability benefits, it should only be for the most severely disabled because we don't want a bunch of lazy people abusing the system. Stories like Mr. Otto's are part of the reason why we got to the incredibly harsh system of disability benefits we have now.
     By the way, in case Mr. Otto or some member of his family happens to read this, I'm not blaming you, for goodness sake. You're not the problem. The problem is everyone's very human but still pathetic urge to believe that we can overcome all injuries and illnesses when that's just not true.

Oct 18, 2017

Be Careful What You Ask For

     I just uploaded a 500+ page medical report on one of my clients. This isn't unusual these days. Electronic medical records have led to explosive growth in the quantity of medical records. The hearing offices are drowning in medical records. Why do I have a feeling that Social Security's next Ruling will urgently demand that I not submit lengthy medical reports, that I somehow cull out what's not really important?

Oct 17, 2017

Acting Commissioner's Broadcast Message On Disasters



From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 10:18 AM
Subject: Hurricane Maria and California Wildfires Update

A Message to All SSA Employees

Subject: Hurricane Maria and California Wildfires Update

Last Sunday, October 8, wildfires started in the Napa and Sonoma counties of California, quickly spreading to surrounding counties due to high winds.  Firefighters battled 17 separate and active wildfires.  At last count, these wildfires burned more than 221,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,500 homes and businesses, affecting thousands of individuals.  

Thankfully, all of the region’s employees are safe and accounted for.  Twenty-six employees are under mandatory evacuation and the fires destroyed one employee’s home.  Currently, two offices in the Napa and Sonoma areas remain closed; the fires have directly affected three other offices, resulting in short-term or intermittent closures.  There have been no reports of damage to any of the field offices in the impacted area.  This is a very fluid situation.  Please keep our colleagues in your prayers. 

In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, some improvements have occurred.  Power continues to fluctuate, with 17 percent of the population now with power.  We opened the San Juan, San Patricio, and Caguas field offices to employees yesterday, for limited hours.  We anticipate opening these offices to the public today.  

We also opened the Mayaguez and San Juan hearing offices to employees as well yesterday.  We are working to begin rescheduling hearings in those offices.

A special thanks to personnel from the New York Regional office and the Office of the Inspector General, who are on site and have been helping employees in recovery efforts.

I will continue to keep you updated on the status of our employees and offices affected by these natural disasters as we try to restore our services to help those in need.


Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner

Indictments In Conn Flight

      From the Lexington, KY Herald-Leader:
Disgraced former disability lawyer Eric C. Conn plotted his escape for a year before absconding from home detention weeks before he was to be sentenced in a massive fraud case, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday.
The indictment levels new charges against Conn and Curtis Lee Wyatt, who worked for Conn at his law office in Stanville and allegedly tested security at the U.S. border with Mexico on Conn’s behalf. ...
The indictment charged that Wyatt, of Raccoon in Pike County, took a number of steps to help Conn escape, including opening a bank account in Wyatt’s name that Conn used to transfer money out of the country. ...
Wyatt also allegedly bought a 2002 Dodge Ram pickup truck from an unnamed seller in Somerset in May for $3,425, then delivered it to Conn in Lexington on June 1 for him to use in the escape. Wyatt had the truck registered under the name Disability Services LLC. ...
In the weeks leading up to the escape, Conn also had Wyatt use pedestrian entrances to Mexico at Nogales, Ariz., and Columbus, N.M., in order to test security procedures for people crossing into Mexico from the U.S., the indictment said.
The FBI found the truck in New Mexico. ...
The indictment also mentions an unindicted co-conspirator. That can refer to someone who is cooperating with authorities in a case. ...
Wyatt also allegedly played a role in trying to discredit an employee at the Social Security Administration who had tried to bring attention to potential improprieties by Conn and David B. Daugherty, an administrative law judge who rubber-stamped disability claims for Conn. Conn came up with a scheme to have his employees follow the woman, Sarah Carver, to try to discredit her by catching her not working from home on days when she was supposed to, according to sworn statements from other former Conn employees to U.S. Senate investigators. ...
     I've never crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Don't the Mexican authorities ask to see a passport?

Oct 16, 2017

Why Are There So Many Disabiltiy Recipients In Kentucky?

     Dustin Pugel at KY Policy Blog has responded to the recent arguments from the Kentucky Disability Determination Service director about the increase in the number of Kentuckians drawing Social Security disability benefits. Here's a long excerpt:
While some argue the considerable increase in DI beneficiaries in Kentucky is the result of a deficient culture that doesn’t value work, the data does not support this.  The rise in DI beneficiaries in Kentucky — from 148,375 in 2000 to 203,471 in 2016 — might seem alarming, but it is actually closely related to demographic factors, including the aging of the large baby boomer population and the increase in the number of women in the workforce who have the paid work history to qualify for DI.
Older workers are simply more likely to become disabled, and there has been growth in the number of older workers as the baby boomers aged. The likelihood that a worker will collect DI doubles between ages 30 and 40, 40 and 50, and ages 50 and 60. In Kentucky, 76 percent of DI beneficiaries are between 50 and 64 years old.
Kentucky, like the nation as a whole, has been undergoing a swell of population in that age group as the youngest baby boomers began to turn 50 in the late 1990s.
  • As a share of the state’s population, those 50-64, has increased 49 percent, from 13.6 percent in 1990 to 20.2 percent in 2016.
  • The number of 50-64 year old Kentuckians has increased 79 percent, from 501,679 in 1990 to 896,268 in 2016
This also means, however, that we should expect the number of DI beneficiaries to decline as more boomers reach full retirement age – and out of eligibility for DI. And that is exactly what has been happening.
After rising for a number of years, DI enrollment in Kentucky has dropped every year since 2013.
Women have also become a larger share of the workforce and subsequently, a larger share have been paying into Social Security and begun to qualify for DI. This is why women have accounted for much of Kentucky’s growth in DI beneficiaries. In fact the number of men receiving DI in Kentucky grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2016, but women with DI benefits nearly doubled, at 95 percent.
Some point to Kentucky’s high number of DI beneficiaries compared to other states as a reason for concern. However, most of the variation among states can be largely explained by four factors: a less educated workforce, an older workforce, fewer immigrants (as most immigrants do not qualify for DI) and an industry-based economy (including mining) that involves more physical wear and tear. Kentucky ranks high in these categories compared to other states:
  • 5 percent of Kentuckians aged 25 or older completed at least a high school degree (3rd worst in the U.S.).
  • The median age in Kentucky is 38.5 years old (18th oldest in the U.S.).
  • Only 3.1 percent of Kentuckians are foreign-born (6th lowest in the U.S.).
  • 4 percent of Kentuckians work a blue collar job (14th highest in the U.S.).

Oct 15, 2017

This Is What Happens When There Aren't Enough Employees To Get The Work Done

There's also the problem that by the time they finally get to talk to someone they're really exasperated and hard to deal with.


Oct 14, 2017

Clarification On Third Party Assistance In Filing Claim

     This is from Social Security's Emergency Message EM-17032:
... A third party can help a claimant file for disability benefits by completing an iClaim for DIB or DIB/SSI. Once the third party submits the iClaim, the claimant receives an Internet Application Summary by mail to review, sign, and return to a field office (FO) or workload support unit (WSU). ...
     I post this -- and Social Security issued it -- because at times past some agency employees have felt it was improper, even illegal, for a third party, such as an attorney, to complete an online claim form at the behest of a claimant. This always seemed ridiculous to me but it must still make some sense to Social Security since they are still insisting that if a third party completes the online form, what has been filed is only a protective filing date until the claimant puts her or her "wet signature" on a piece of paper.
     I've often wondered whether someone could make a living just charging people a fee for helping them file their Social Security claims of all sorts; not representing them just helping them file claims. Social Security would probably try to hassle anyone who did this by insisting they get any fees they charge approved case by case even though there would be no real representation but should they? People need better help than they're getting from the Social Security Administration. Their employees do their best but the agency is understaffed and unable to deliver service at the level many people need.

Oct 13, 2017

2% COLA

     The Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security for 2017 is 2%. This applies to benefits beginning December 2017. Payments for that month will be made in January 2018. Below is the entire list of 2018 adjustments announced at this time (you can click on it to view it full size:

There's No Mystery Why Backlogs Are Increasing


Oct 12, 2017

Kentucky DDS Issues Report

     From WTVQ:
A new report issued Tuesday shows an increase of staggering proportions in the number of Kentucky adults and children receiving disability benefits. The report was prepared by Kentucky’s Disability Determination Services (DDS) ...
The groundbreaking study of outcomes covers a 35-year timeframe between 1980-2015. During that time, Kentucky's population grew by 21 percent while its combined disability enrollment grew exponentially by 249 percent. Childhood enrollment growth was an astounding 449 percent.
In 2015, 11.2 percent of Kentuckians were receiving some form of disability benefit payment, which is the second highest percentage in the country. ...
As the rolls have increased, so has the rate of controlled substance prescriptions. Per capita opioid prescriptions for SSI/Medicaid adult recipients have increased from 47.58 doses in 2000 to 147.29 doses in 2015, a 210 percent increase. Per capita psychotropic prescriptions SSI/Medicaid children have increased from 272.61 doses in 2000 to 456.87 doses in 2015, an increase of 168 percent. ...
The report states Social Security disability benefit dependence should be created by genuinely disabling conditions which permanently preclude individuals from ever performing remunerative work. For people so afflicted, the integrity and solvency of the system must be preserved. Tragically, some individuals in Kentucky have never experienced life without public assistance. The culture within the Social Security Administration (SSA) is described as a bureaucratic institution, the SSA is motivated to protect and, if possible, expand the scope of its activities across the full horizon of its operational domain. For the SSA, claims and beneficiaries equal budget. This simple equation drives the SSAs internal culture thereby making it a significant obstacle to long-term change. 
An outline for SSA reforms is laid out in the report and includes a recommendation for an overhaul of the SSA Program Operations Manual System (POMS) to include:
1) Mandate the use of objective medical evidence using best practices in forensic evaluation to determine benefit eligibility. Objective evidence of injury or illness must be paired with objective functional capacity evaluations that include cross-validation and intra-test reliability protocols which measure the legitimacy of demonstrated physical effort and limitation.
2) Mandate the use of best practices in forensic psychological evaluation to include symptom and performance validity tests such as the Miller Forensic Assessment of Symptoms Test (M-FAST), the Structured Inventory of Malingered Symptomatology (SIMS), the Test of Memory and Malingering (TOMM), and the Rey 15 Item Memory Test. These tests should be accompanied with the application of clinical thresholds of benefit eligibility.
3) Remove all subjective non-severe conditions from the listing of eligible conditions and require mandatory termination reviews for all recoupable conditions based on clinically accepted recovery timelines.
4) Eliminate the SSAs Medical Improvement evidentiary standard of continuing disability review in favor of an Objective Functionality review founded upon objective forensic evaluation standards.
5) Cease payment of benefits upon CDR termination pending the outcome of an appeal to an ALJ.
6) Eliminate the SSAs Lost Folder policy which restricts the re-evaluation of a beneficiary whose file has been lost. This policy is referred to as the Golden Ticket because the individual whose file is lost will likely receive benefits for the rest of his/her life without any prospect of termination. ...

Oct 11, 2017

Notice Some Trends Here?

     Social Security has released its Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2016. Here are some numbers from the report to consider:

 Approval rate at the initial level on all disability claims

  • 2008 -- 38.7%
  • 2009 -- 38.5%
  • 2010 -- 36.9%
  • 2011 -- 35.7%
  • 2012 -- 35.7%
  • 2013 -- 35.3%
  • 2014 -- 34.9%
  • 2015 -- 35%

Approval rate at the reconsideration level on all disability claims

  • 2008 -- 10.8%
  • 2009 -- 9.9%
  • 2010 -- 9.0%
  • 2011 -- 9.0%
  • 2012 -- 8.8%
  • 2013 -- 8.6%
  • 2014 -- 9.1%
  • 2015 -- 9.0%

Approval rate at the hearing level or above on all disability claims

  • 2008 -- 68.3%
  • 2009 -- 64.5%
  • 2010 -- 59.9%
  • 2011 -- 55.9%
  • 2012 -- 52.9%
  • 2013 -- 54.2%
  • 2014 -- 53.7%
  • 2015 -- 48.8%

Some Tidbits From NADE

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on Social Security disability claims, has issued its most recent newsletter. Here's some tidbits from a summary of remarks made by Deborah Harkin, Senior Advisor in Social Security's Office of Disability Policy (ODP), at a NADE conference:
ODP explored many factors while updating the musculoskeletal listings to ensure the new listings adequately addressed the needs of the disability program and disability adjudicators. Among those factors were: Requirements for objective/diagnostic imaging criterion for a disorder of the spine resulting in nerve root compromise; How to assess adults who have had unsuccessful back surgeries; Adult and childhood listings for pathologic fractures; and New childhood listings for musculoskeletal developmental delays in infants from birth to age 3 ...
When complete, OIS [Occupational Information System, being developed by the Department of Labor for Social Security to replace the Dictionary of Occupational Titles] : 
  • Will contain fewer than 1,000 occupations 
  • Will utilize the O*NET - Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) 
  • Will code occupations’ strength and skill requirements like the DOT but also include detailed information 
  • For manipulative requirements, will specify whether one or two hands are needed; reaching will include above shoulder level vs. at or below; and will include alternating sit/stand 
  • Will eventually include descriptors of the basic mental and cognitive work requirements. ...
     The problem with having fewer than 1,000 occupations in your OIS is that many, perhaps most, of the occupations described would actually be composites, covering disparate jobs performed in significantly different ways. Doing this makes makes the data presentation muddy. Many of the occupations will be done at the sedentary, light and medium exertional levels as well as at the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled levels, depending upon how it's done at the exact employer. You can use such such muddy data to justify anything you want to justify. I fear that the ability to justify any desired result is exactly the point for Social Security. The agency can say that there are some jobs in a broad category that are performed at the sedentary level and that there are some jobs in that same broad category that are performed at the unskilled level without having to show that they are the same job. The "basic mental and cognitive work requirements" would be the least that is required by any employer rather than what is normally required by an employer. Instead of the horribly outdated DOT, we'd have a synthetic OIS that would give "answers" for which there would be no real world proof. Real people would be denied disability benefits based upon a "let them eat cake" OIS.

Oct 8, 2017

COBRA Only Disability Claim?

     From a recent addition to Social Security's Program Operations Manual Series (POMS):
Claimants do not have to meet the non-disability requirements for Title II (e.g., insured status or an onset date more than 5 months before full retirement age (FRA)) or Title XVI (e.g., income or resources) to qualify for the additional 11 months of health care benefits under COBRA. ...
To extend health care coverage under COBRA based on disability, the individual must:
  • File for disability benefits (Title II, Title XVI, or concurrent) with COBRA extension, or
  • File for COBRA extension only. ...
     I've never seen any of these claims. I can't imagine many are filed.

Oct 7, 2017

They Keep Piling On

     The Washington Post has added one more piece to its series stigmatizing Social Security disability benefits recipients.

Oct 6, 2017

Can They Do This?

     Here's something from the preamble to Social Security Ruling (SSR) 17-4p:
Through SSRs, we make available to the public precedential decisions relating to the Federal old-age, survivors, disability, supplemental security income, and special veterans’ benefits programs. We may base SSRs on determinations or decisions made at all levels of administrative adjudication, Federal court decisions, Commissioner’s decisions, opinions of the Office of the General Counsel, or other interpretations of the law and regulations. 

Although SSRs do not have the same force and effect as statutes or regulations, they are binding on all components of the Social Security Administration. 20 CFR 402.35(b)(1).
     The SSR specifically says that it does not have the same force or effect as a statute or regulation. It only talks about it being binding upon the Social Security Administration itself. Doesn't this say on its face that it doesn't bind members of the public?
     The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) says that regulations, which have the force and effect of law, can only be adopted after a cumbersome process which requires publication of the proposed regulation in the Federal Register, allowing the public to comment on the proposed regulation and considering those comments before final adoption. Presidential orders also require that proposed and final regulations be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House, for approval before publication in the Federal Register. The APA provides that the notice and comment procedure applies to all rules other than "interpretative rules, general statements of policy, or rules of agency organization, procedure, or practice." That's why the preamble quoted above is attached to all SSRs. Isn't the fact that regulations can bind the public the reason why the APA requires notice and comment? Binding the public is the role of statutes and regulations, not SSRs.
    I don't think this SSR passes muster under the APA. I know the agency is trying to address conduct it has good reason to consider obnoxious but there are limits. Would Social Security really try to discipline someone based upon the contents of a mere ruling?

Oct 5, 2017

How Much Does Motherhood Cost Women in Social Security Benefits?

     From the abstract of How Much Does Motherhood Cost Women in Social Security Benefits?, a study by Matthew S. Rutledge , Alice Zulkarnain and Sara Ellen King:
  • The lifetime earnings of mothers with one child are 28 percent less than the earnings of childless women, all else equal, and each additional child lowers lifetime earnings by another 3 percent.
  • When examining Social Security benefits, the motherhood penalty is smaller than the earnings penalty. But mothers with one child still receive 16 percent less in benefits than non-mothers, and each additional child reduces benefits by another 2 percent.
  • The motherhood penalty is almost negligible among women receiving spousal benefits, but mothers who receive benefits on only their own earnings histories see significantly lower Social Security income.

Oct 4, 2017

And Down We Go

      The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at the Social Security Administration -- and the downward trend continues:
  • June 2017 61,592
  • March 2017 62,183
  • December 2016 63,364
  • September 2016 64,394 
  • 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
  • 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

Oct 3, 2017

New Social Security Ruling And It's Something Else

     From Social Security Ruling 17-4p to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow:
... We expect individuals to exercise their reasonable good faith judgment about what evidence “relates” to their disability claims. Evidence that may relate to whether or not a claimant is blind or disabled includes objective medical evidence, medical opinion evidence, other medical evidence, and evidence from nonmedical sources. ...
[W]e expect representatives to submit or inform us about written evidence as soon as they obtain or become aware of it. Representatives should not wait until 5 business days before the hearing to submit or inform us about written evidence unless they have compelling reasons for the delay (e.g., it was impractical to submit the evidence earlier because it was difficult to obtain or the representative was not aware of the evidence at an earlier date). In addition, it is only acceptable for a representative to inform us about evidence without submitting it if the representative shows that, despite good faith efforts, he or she could not obtain the evidence. Simply informing us of the existence of evidence without providing it or waiting until 5 days before a hearing to inform us about or provide evidence when it was otherwise available, may cause unreasonable delay to the processing of the claim, without good cause, and may be prejudicial to the fair and orderly conduct of our administrative proceedings. As such, this behavior could be found to violate our rules of conduct and could lead to sanction proceedings against the representative. ...
We will evaluate each circumstance on a case-by-case basis to determine whether to refer a possible violation of our rules to our Office of the General Counsel (OGC) . For example, in accordance with the regulatory interpretation discussed above, we may refer a possible violation of rules to OGC when:
  • a representative informs us about written evidence but refuses, without good cause, to make good faith efforts to obtain and timely submit the evidence;
  • a representative informs us about evidence that relates to a claim instead of acting with reasonable promptness to help obtain and timely submit the evidence to us;
  • the representative waits until 5 days before a hearing to provide or inform us of evidence when the evidence was known to the representative or available to provide to us at an earlier date;
  • the clients of a particular representative have a pattern of informing us about written evidence instead of making good-faith efforts to obtain and timely submit the evidence; or
  • any other occasion when a representative’s actions with regard to the submission of evidence may violate our rules for representative. ...
     I do not know if there is any practical way to notify the Social Security Administration immediately of the existence of new medical evidence. Am I supposed to send Social Security a notice about each visit my client has with a physician? Am I required to separately obtain a report on each physician visit? This appears to impose a duty upon an attorney to obtain every piece of medical evidence concerning a client -- including the hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of records generated by each hospitalization. The Ruling says we can't just inform Social Security of the existence of evidence. We have to obtain it and there is no limit upon this duty. How reasonable is this?
     I know there's some people that Social Security wants to put out of business. They probably deserve to be put out of business but this is over the top. No one will be able to strictly comply with this. No one.

Crime Doesn't Pay, Part Eleventy Million

     From the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram:
A former Social Security Administration employee from Worcester who pleaded guilty in June to fraudulently disbursing thousands of dollars in government money in return for bribes was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison Friday. 

Julio Klapper, a married father of five who solicited sexual activity from a cooperating government witness while under investigation, told a judge Friday he was ashamed of his conduct and apologized. ... 

On June 10 Mr. Klapper pleaded guilty to a single count of bribery after federal investigators caught him in a 2016 attempt to funnel $8,600 to a claimant in exchange for $2,000. Separately from that offense, the government said, he funneled more than $70,000 to others between 2015 and 2016 in exchange for more than $15,000 in bribes. ...

Oct 2, 2017

Why Should Becoming Disabled Lead To Impoverishment?

     Eric Harwood has written a moving piece for the Washington Post about his struggles as he waited for Social Security to act on his disability claim. Here's an excerpt:
... My wife and I began selling our things. We had to sell our car, and I sold my motorcycle, which I had built from the ground up. It wasn’t anything special, nothing fancy; but it was something I put a lot of time and sweat in to. I sold it to cover living expenses for about four months. We sold our furniture, and my wife took her clothes to a secondhand consignment shop in Las Vegas to sell them, too. I had 23 remote-controlled cars that I had accumulated over many years — one of my hobbies. I had to sell the entire collection to make it by. Kitchen appliances and everything else we could think of to put up for sale went, too.
On Feb. 12, 2016, my wife and I officially became homeless. We decided to leave Nevada for Arizona, where we would move in with my wife’s parents. When we left our home, we rented a 17-foot U-Haul truck, and we didn’t even fill half of it. That was all we had left in our world. We also left behind my wife’s brand new business. But the worst part was leaving behind our grown daughter, the most important thing in both of our lives. We waved goodbye to her, and went to Arizona. ...
     By the way, the author and whoever at the Washington Post edited this piece seem to be confused about the difference between Medicare and Medicaid but there's nothing unusual about that.

Oct 1, 2017

Sep 30, 2017

Social Security Disability Critic Appointed By Trump

     Richard Burkhauser has been appointed to the President's Council of Economic Advisers (CEO). I mention this because Burkhauser  has been a proponent of outlandish ideas for "reforming" Social Security disability benefits, such as forcing employers to pay disability benefits for the first two years and experience rating employers for the disability experience of their workers. These ideas would have devastating effects upon manufacturing,  construction, mining and other fields where there is a high incidence of disability. We need to help U.S. manufacturing, not place unnecessary burdens on it.
     I would not expect Burkhauser's appointment to have any effect upon Social Security. The ideas he has espoused in the past are complete non-starters with both Republicans and Democrats. Even if he had a plan that could conceivably be enacted, the CEO doesn't give him much of a platform for pushing his views on Social Security. It's not likely that the White House chief of staff would want him even trying.

Sep 29, 2017

The Struggle To Work As A Schizophrenic

     Erica Crompton has written a moving piece for the New York Times describing her struggle to work as a schizophrenic -- actually now her diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder but that doesn't affect the story.
     In reading this piece, you may want to say "See, that shows you can work even if you're a schizophrenic." However, her work history has been extremely fragmented. Fragmentation is an inevitable part of schizophrenia, affecting both work and private life. It's part of the disease. By the end of the story, Crompton isn't earning enough to support herself. Maybe most important, Crompton is a talented writer. She has had opportunities that are not open to the vast majority of schizophrenics and she still can't support herself.
     I've said it many times. Social Security ought to just go ahead and approve every last disability claim filed by a person suffering from schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Very few people who suffer from either of these conditions are able to maintain regular employment for extended periods of time. Social Security approves a lot of these claims but not all.

Facing A Long Wait In Nashville

     From a television station in Nashville:
Across the nation 1.1 million Americans who are trying to claim their social security benefits are stuck in a backlog with an average wait of two years just for a hearing. In Tennessee that wait is more than a year long. 
Anita Robinson spent 41 years working as a nurse in middle Tennessee. Now she spends a lot of her time sorting through her manifold of medication. 
"Its just kind of lonely , I'm too young," Robinson said with tears in her eyes. 
Several years ago a doctor visit changed her life, turns out the rash on her foot was much more than it seemed. She was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and other immune disorders as well as lymphocytic colitis.  ...
"In 16 months I'll either be worse or dead," said Robinson. ...

Sep 28, 2017

H.R. 2792 Passes House

     From a press release:
On Thursday , September 28 , 2017, the House of Representatives approved by a vote of 224 to 171 an amended version of H.R. 2792 , a bill to cut off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits entirely for certain people with disabilities, as well as seniors. The proposed cut would bar payment of SSI benefits to people with an outstanding arrest warrant for an alleged felony or for an alleged violation of probation or parole. 
H.R. 2792 would revive an old, failed policy that had catastrophic effects for many people with disabilities and seniors, employing procedures that did not withstand judicial scrutiny. This proposal would not help law enforcement secure arrests. The Social Security Act already prohibits payments to people fleeing from law enforcement to avoid prosecution or imprisonment. ...
Based on prior experience with SSA’s failed former policy, the people who would be affected are those whose cases are inactive and whom law enforcement is not pursuing. Most of the warrants in question are decades old and involve minor infractions, including warrants routinely issued when a person was unable to pay a fine or court fee, or a probation supervision fee. Many people are not even aware that a warrant was issued for them, as warrants are often not served on the individual. Some people will be swept up as a result of mistaken identity, or paperwork errors, which can take months or even years to resolve. ...

Do Medical Marijuana Laws Increase Disability Benefits Claiming?

     From the abstract of The Impact Of State Medical Marijuana Laws On Social Security Disability Insurance And Workers' Compensation Benefit Claiming by Johanna Catherine Maclean, Keshar M. Ghimire and Lauren Hersch Nicholas:
We study the effect of state medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Workers' Compensation (WC) claiming. We use data on benefit claiming drawn from the 1990 to 2013 Current Population Survey coupled with a differences-in- differences design. We find that passage of an MML increases SSDI, but not WC, claiming on both the intensive and extensive margins. Post-MML the propensity to claim SSDI increases by 0.27 percentage points (9.9%) and SSDI benefits increase by 2.6%. ...
     A few words of caution in interpreting this:
  • The Social Security Act forbids granting disability benefits on the basis of substance abuse disorders, a point which the authors of this study seem not to understand.
  • The effect found is small and could have other causes.
  • If there is an effect, it may be a little less direct than the authors (who are economists) think. My guess is that if there is an effect, it would be because marijuana lessens the effectiveness of medications given for mental health problems such as bipolar disorder.

Huge Layoffs At Binder And Binder

     From Newsday:
Binder & Binder plans to lay off 100 of the 147 employees at its Hauppauge headquarters, a state regulatory filing says. ...
The layoffs are planned for Dec. 11.
In addition, Binder & Binder plans to close its Long Island City, Queens, office and lay off all 90 employees, also on Dec. 11, a separate WARN notice says....

Keep Your Fingers Crossed

     Social Security has been working on the Disability Case Processing System (DPCS) for some time now. It's a major project to develop a common computer system for disability determination at least at the initial and reconsideration levels. They're already spent $64.8 million on the project. Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a report on the progress of the DCPS project. So far, Social Security has only been able to process 1,665 cases using the system. They report that the staff members who have used DCPS seems happy with it. The agency plans plan a widespread rollout by January 2018 and a complete rollout by April 2018.

Sep 27, 2017

She Doesn't Have The Luxury Of Ignoring The Problem

     I'm unable to embed it here but television station WATE in Knoxville ran a long piece on a young woman whose Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits may be terminated. She has digestive problems. She says she needs to go to the bathroom too frequently to work. This sort of limitation is always ignored at the initial and reconsideration levels of review. Always. It's like the problem doesn't exist as far as Social Security is concerned. Unfortunately, this young woman can't ignore the problem.

Altman Appointed To SSAB

     From a press release:
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that she will appoint Nancy Altman to the Social Security Advisory Board.  The Board is a bipartisan, independent federal government agency established to advise the President, the Congress, and the Commissioner of Social Security on matters of policy and administration of the Old-age, Survivors and Disability Insurance and the Supplemental Security Income programs. ...
Altman is the co-founder and president of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition and Social Security Works ...

Sep 26, 2017

Acting Commissioner's Message On Hurricane Maria

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast 
Sent: Tuesday, September 26, 2017 3:15 PM
Subject: Hurricane Maria Update

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: Hurricane Maria Update

When Hurricane Maria swept across the Caribbean, it devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  We continue to work to account for our hundreds of employees in more than a dozen offices on these islands.  However, because communications are an ongoing issue, we still cannot reach about half of our offices or managers.  Please keep our colleagues in Operations, ODAR, the Puerto Rico DDS, OIG, and OGC in your thoughts and prayers.

All of our offices remain closed, severely impairing our ability to deliver service.  Limited power, spotty telecommunications, and extreme gas shortages will further impair recovery efforts.

On Friday, we put our Cycle 4 payments in the mail.  In Puerto Rico, the postal offices remain closed.  All payments destined for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will be sent via express mail as soon as the United States Postal Service can get a plane into San Juan.  The New York Region is prepared to send a team to Puerto Rico when it is safe to do so.

I will keep you updated on the status of our employees and offices in the affected areas.  Recovery efforts are just beginning, but know that we are doing everything possible to reach and account for all SSA staff and restore our critical services to those in need.


Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner

The Disability Backlogs Are A Disgrace

     The Altoona Mirror editorializes on the awful Social Security disability backlogs:
... [T]his nation, which, for the most part, prides itself on being compassionate, has, for the past half-decade, been guilty of an increasingly terrible disservice to individuals dealing with disabling physical and mental conditions. ..

Off Topic But I Hope I'll Help Somebody

     I'm going to succumb to the temptation of playing amateur physician and give readers a little advice that only a very few of you need. If you've got hidradenitis suppurtiva, see a dermatologist.
     First, I need to explain what hidradenitis suppurtiva is, since if you already know that you have it, you're probably already seeing a dermatologist. Hidradenitis suppurtiva is a skin condition that causes severe recurrent boils in the arm pits and groin areas. It's extremely painful. It can absolutely be disabling. It's just a matter of how frequently you get the boils and how long they last. (No, thank goodness, I'm not talking from personal experience. I've just heard enough about it from my clients, including one I saw recently.)  Most people who have hidradenitis suppurtiva don't get referred to a dermatologist because they don't get diagnosed. They keep going to general surgeons who keep treating the disease as a series of individual boils to be drained or excised rather than as a dermatological problem to be managed with medication. Almost every time I see a client with this problem I have to refer him or her to a dermatologist. Dermatologist do a better job of managing the problem than surgeons.
     Your first impulse on considering this may be that a skin condition couldn't possibly be disabling. Your second impulse is probably that if a skin condition is disabling, it must be an awful disease to have. Your second impulse is the correct one. Hidradenitis suppurtiva is a really nasty skin problem. There are other really nasty disabling skin problems. You don't want to be on disability for any of them.
     By the way, you might be surprised how often these cases come up before Social Security Administrative Law Judges. The incidence rate of this disease may be as high as 4% of the adult population so it's not rare. Statistically, it's almost a certainty that there will be at least on reader of this blog who has an undiagnosed case of hidradenitis suppurtiva. Of course, not everyone with hidradenitis suppurtiva is disabled by it. There are mild cases and there are severe cases. It's only the extremely severe cases that lead to disability claims.

Sep 25, 2017

And I'd Like To Have Flying Monkeys At My Disposal

     From a contracting notice posted by the Social Security Administration:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting market research/sources sought to help determine the availability and technical capability of qualified businesses providing an artificial intelligence interface that can provide customer service in a conversational manner. This is not a request for quotations or proposals, and we do not guarantee the issuance of a solicitation as a result of this notice. We will use the information we obtained from this research for planning purposes only. ... 
This technology should be capable of undergoing both supervised and unsupervised learning for continuously improving its support capability. The technology should be able to remember actions and contextual details during conversations, and leverage the captured information for suitable responses to other users, as appropriate. ...
The new technology cannot require extensive training for proficiency. It must provide flexibility in offering technicians with a broad range of skillsets the opportunity to successfully share and complete tasks for the public. 
This technology should support seamless transition of conversation history of authenticated users across channels and sessions. ...

Sep 24, 2017

Online Social Security Fraud Decreasing

     From Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
... [I]n 2012, SSA implemented my Social Security, an internet portal that allows people to create a personal online account to access their Social Security information. In January 2013, SSA enhanced my Social Security to allow beneficiaries to change their direct deposit bank information. The innovation was helpful for SSA and beneficiaries alike; however, soon after SSA added the direct deposit function, the agency began to receive reports of misdirected benefits due to unauthorized direct deposit changes in my Social Security....
To address this issue, SSA said it would strengthen controls over my Social Security accounts to address fraud and improve service to beneficiaries. ...
Our auditors followed-up on this issue in a recent report, and they estimated the amount of misdirected benefit payments from 2014 to 2016 was considerably less than it was in 2013. ...

Sep 23, 2017

Hurricanes May Increase Social Security COLA

     From The Motley Fool:
... Unquestionably, these hurricanes were respective disasters for Texas and Florida, and it's going to take months for some individuals and families to get their lives back together. ... 
But the more immediate impact from the U.S. being hit with this double-whammy is that it's pushed crude oil prices, and thusly prices at the pump, higher. ... 
More importantly, per the BLS' August report that was released last week, the CPI-W increased to 1.9% on an annualized basis from the 1.6% reported in the previous month. This implies that Social Security beneficiaries are in line for a larger benefit increase in 2018 than was expected just a month or two ago. ...

Sep 22, 2017

Why Do More Experienced ALJs Approve More Disability Claims?

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
In FY [Fiscal Year] 2015, the most experienced ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] had, on average, higher allowance rates than ALJs who had fewer years’ experience. Also, on average, ALJs who had more experience had agree rates [the rate of accuracy according to Social Security management but I would submit that this number is meaningless since there is no way of validating these numbers, i.e., there is no gold standard of ALJ decisional accuracy] of about 84 percent — about 6 percent lower than the ALJs who had less than 5 years’ experience. 

     While I don't recall any prior studies on the issue, the increase in ALJ allowance rates with more experience is nothing new. Attorneys who represent Social Security disability claimants pay close attention to this sort of thing.It's been a matter of common knowledge among us for a long, long time. We've long speculated that this is caused by the training process for new ALJs. However, I have heard many new ALJs who had represented claimants in the past assure me that the training wasn't slanted. They were all surprised that it wasn't slanted.
     Although I've presented it here, I think the "agree rate" is meaningless. You're just fooling yourself if you think there's a gold standard of disability determination. It doesn't exist. It's never existed. It's never going to exist.