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.

Updated CARES Plan

     From Social Security's newly updated CARES Plan for dealing with its hearing backlog:
The original CARES Plan issued in January 2016 assumed a certain hiring of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) – 250 ALJs in each of fiscal years (FY) 2016, 2017 and 2018 along with the corresponding support staff. While we were able to hire 264 ALJs in FY 2016, an agency-wide hiring freeze hindered the hiring of corresponding support staff. At the start of FY 2017, the agency-wide hiring freeze continued and included ALJs followed by an Executive Order initiating a government-wide hiring freeze. While we were able to obtain an exception for hiring staff in the hearings operation, our funding level in FY 2017 did not support hiring at the levels originally assumed in the original 2016 CARES Plan. Our 2017 Updated CARES and Anomaly Plan builds on the tactical initiatives laid out in the 2016 plan. We are also introducing new initiatives in 2017. ...


... Proactive Analysis and Triage for Hearings (PATH) – PATH is a new initiative introduced in FY 2017. However, this initiative builds upon successful screening and data analytic tools developed for the SmartMands and National Adjudication Team (NAT) initiatives from the 2016 CARES Plan. PATH also incorporates the robust use of na├»ve Bayes classification that will identify cases likely for allowance prior to hearing assignment. Through this initiative, we will assign appropriate staff to review and process cases identified through our screening methodologies. We plan to continue developing the PATH methodology in an effort to use this robust analysis at all levels of disability processing. Through PATH, we expect an increase in non-ALJ adjudications (reversals, on-the-record decisions), which will create a significant savings and opening a hearing slot for another case where a hearing is necessary. Our early projections for PATH modeling efforts in March 2017 suggested that approximately 3 percent (about 22,000) of unassigned cases pending at the hearing level could be identified by this model to be appropriately reviewed for a fully favorable decision without a hearing. We continue to monitor the percent of cases that are selected through the PATH model to validate our expected outcomes and will continue to update and improve our triage models as we learn from and incorporate the results of our efforts. ...
Move from Office-Based to National-Based First-In First-Out (FIFO) Model – This is a new initiative in FY 2017 that enhances the method of FIFO workload assignment by sharing resources across the country and matching up resource availability. This assists in prioritizing cases that have been waiting the longest. We will begin testing in the Seattle Region with the first stage of our process, when the hearing office first gets the case. We expect to see a balance in wait times and reduce bottlenecks in key parts of case processing (e.g., case intake, workup). ...
Pre-Hearing Conference (PHC) Expansion – We introduced this initiative with our original CARES Plan. As of December 31, 2016, over 30 participating offices conducted over 6,000 PHCs since May 2015. Data showed PHC participants had completed their hearing without postponement or rescheduling 56 percent of the time compared to 28 percent for those who did not participate in a PHC. Due to competing priorities, we paused this initiative in December 2016 to allow offices to focus on decision writing. With support from special anomaly funding, we will resume the PHC program on a limited basis in FY 2017, eventually normalizing the practice of PHCs for unrepresented claimants nationwide. Overall, we should see an increase the number of successful first time hearings a reduction in postponed hearings that needlessly take up hearing slots. ...
Voluntary Standby List – This CARES initiative is new for FY 2017 and may be supported by special anomaly funding for systems support to develop new notices. We will create the opportunity for claimants to have their hearings sooner by filling empty hearing slots on short notice. Participation will be voluntary, and participants must sign a waiver of advanced hearing notice should a spot become available. We expect to increase flexibilities with scheduling hearings by filling every available hearing timeslot. ...
     I salute those who drafted this document for trying but the only things that will really work are hiring more personnel and getting serious about screening cases for approval by a senior attorney or at what has been referred to informally as "re-recon." They can't do much hiring now because of budget constraints. While this plan talks of screening cases for early approval the way they have actually done this has been so restrictive that almost no cases have been disposed of. It appears to me that they are almost literally terrified of doing anything that results in more claims being approved even if, as here, it's just a matter of claims being approved earlier. Virtually all the cases approved in the past in the senior attorney and re-recon programs would have been approved eventually.
     Unfortunately, I'm not expecting anything but a worsening of the backlogs until there's a change in the control of the House of Representatives. That will get more resources for the agency and bring about different ways of thinking.
     By the way, the backlogs would have been much worse except for a major downturn in the number of Social Security disability claims filed. I hear that the agency's actuaries can't figure out the downturn. I can. Prospective claimants are discouraged by the huge backlogs and high denial rates. They delay filing claims. It may seem irrational to delay filing a disability claim because of bad backlogs. Wouldn't you want to get your place in line as soon as possible? Sure, if you're rational but humans are deeply irrational beings, especially when they're facing a crisis in their lives, as is the case with newly disabled people.

Sep 21, 2017

Caseload Analysis Report

     Below is a report that the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) obtained from the Social Security Administration and published in its newsletter. That newsletter is not available online. Click on the thumbnail to view it full size. The published original is a bit fuzzy but it's readable.

Sep 20, 2017

Another Editorial On Backlogs

     The Denver Post has published an editorial on the backlogs in processing Social Security disability claims. It's got a reference to fraud but I think that the Republican effort to portray the Social Security disability programs as being rife with fraud is fading. They could only go so far with that because it's just not true. Instead, we're seeing more reporting on the horrible backlogs.

CUFF That Impulse

     From a press release issued by the Coalition for Citizens with Disablities (CCD), the major umbrella group of nonprofits working to help the disabled:
On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, the House Ways and Means Committee passed an amended version of H.R. 2792, the Control Unlawful Fugitive Felons [CUFF] Act of 2017. This bill would 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. The Social Security Administration (SSA) currently notifies law enforcement of the whereabouts of every person with a warrant for an alleged felony or an alleged violation of probation or parole who turns up in SSA’s databases. This bill would not change these policies and procedures.
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.
Resolving these warrants can be extremely hard and costly: people often must go before a judge in the issuing jurisdiction, and typically need counsel to assist them in navigating the process. Often, people have moved in the intervening years and live far from the issuing jurisdiction. ...
     Having seen this before, I definitely agree with CCD. This is the sort of thing that looks good from 30,000 feet. However, at ground level it's obviously unfair. People are deprived of their income over minor matters from many years earlier and sometimes they've done nothing wrong. They have to persuade prosecutors to dismiss ancient charges that couldn't possibly be prosecuted. Prosecutors are sometimes cooperative, sometimes hostile. It just depends upon the prosecutor. It's not fighting crime. It's not achieving any worthy goal. It's just harsh.

Sep 19, 2017

Equifax And Social Security

     Dave Lindorff at Salon wonders "How badly did Equifax breach damage the Social Security system?" The question arises because Equifax, which has suffered a massive hacking breach, has a contract with Social Security to help with security for the mySocialSecurity system that allows Americans to have some degree of access to their Social Security records.
     It's a reasonable question to ask. Unfortunately, when Lindorff asked Social Security, he got nothing. Their public affairs office refused to answer questions.
     Let my try to give the answer that Social Security should have given. Social Security obtains information from Equifax to verify identities but gives none to Equifax in return. For example, Social Security would ask Equifax for information on a person who is attempting to establish a mySocialSecurity account and those records might show that the person had recently purchased a car. Social Security would ask the person what brand of car they purchased. If the person attempting to open the mySocialSecurity account is the true number holder, they'd be able to answer the question and open the account. The key fact is that there is no information exchange. All of the information goes in one direction, from Equifax to Social Security. Equifax gets no information in return apart from the knowledge that Social Security was asking for information on that person.
     If there is a problem, it would be that the information hacked from Equifax could be used to open mySocialSecurity accounts but that risk quickly disappears assuming Equifax has stopped the data breach since Social Security is only using recent information to verify identity. Also, even apart from the Equifax hack, identity thieves have been able to access mySocialSecurity accounts to change bank deposit information to divert payments made to claimants. So far, Social Security has regarded this as a low level problem. To some extent that's true. It doesn't take long for people to complain about not receiving their Social Security benefits so little money is stolen and it's all eventually restored to the rightful people. However, it's a big problem for those who are deprived of their Social Security benefits for a month or two or three. Social Security seems to prefer that this not be publicized since it undermines their effort to get people to open mySocialSecurity accounts.
     I should say that Social Security eventually got its act together and was able to give a terse but accurate response when the Wall Street Journal asked the same question. The Wall Street Journal article is behind a pay wall.
     Update: Social Security really should have put out a statement on this as soon as possible after the Equifax breach became public. Two Senators have written a letter to  the Acting Commissioner asking about Equifax.

Brilliant Analysis

     The Scranton, Pennsylvania Times-Tribune has published an editorial saying that the Social Security disability "system is disabled and in need to rapid rehabilitation" It then goes on to cite the extensive backlogs at the agency. So what "rehabilitation" does this newspaper think is needed? They don't say. They just wonder why key staff shortages developed at Social Security and think someone needs to take a look at "whether the system’s earlier stages need to be improved to prevent so many appeals." 
     I don't expect a newspaper's editorial writers to have detailed Social Security knowledge but the research behind this piece must have taken less than a minute. I'm going to miss newspapers when they're gone but I'm not going to miss worthless editorials like this.
     Update: Here's a much better editorial on the same subject from a much smaller paper in Council Bluffs, Iowa showing what you can do if you put a little time into it.

Sep 18, 2017

People Want Smaller Government -- But Not For Themselves

     From Tom Margenau's column in the Arizona Daily Star: 
 I sure am glad President Trump isn’t considering me to be the new head of the Social Security Administration. What a thankless job! As about 10,000 people retire every day, and as thousands more file for disability and survivor benefits, the agency’s workforce keeps dwindling. And it’s going to get worse. ... 
The Trump administration has ordered the Social Security Administration (and almost all other government agencies) to downsize. At SSA, early retirement incentives have been offered to about 15,000 employees. That’s one-fourth of the agency’s total workforce of 62,000.That’s going to mean the closure of more local Social Security offices, which means fewer people available to answer the thousands of calls the agency gets every day. By far, the No. 1 complaint I hear from my readers is the overly long wait times when they call SSA’s 800 number. Well, all I can say is: Get used to it.
I’ve made this following point many times in this column. So many Americans claim they want smaller government. But if my e-mails are any indication, what they really mean is they want smaller government for everyone else — but not for themselves. ...
And if you also think that SSA, just like any other government agency , has a bloated administrative budget that could stand some trimming, well, think again. Out of every dollar collected in Social Security taxes, less than one penny goes toward running the agency that maintains earnings records for almost every American and pays monthly benefits to 1 out of every 6 Americans. ...
And if you think that these Trump cuts will merely be reversing all the growth in government that happened during the Obama years, you’re wrong. Between 2010 and 2016, SSA’s budget dropped by more than 10 percent. During that same period, its beneficiary base went up by 12 percent and its fixed costs increased by about $300 million each year....

Sep 17, 2017

You Can't Make Bricks Without Straw

     From the Associated Press:
More than 1 million Americans await a hearing to see whether they qualify for disability benefits from Social Security, with the average wait nearly two years -- longer than some of them will live. ... 
Last year, the agency's budget was $12.6 billion, roughly the same as it was in 2011, even though an additional 6 million people receive either retirement or disability benefits from Social Security. ...  
"No search for efficiencies, reprioritization of tasks or technological improvements can substitute for adequate resources," said Lisa Ekman of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives.

Sep 16, 2017

There"s No Mailing List For This Blog

     I keep getting e-mails asking from people asking me to add their e-mail address to the mailing list for this blog. There isn't a mailing list for this blog. There used to be but technical changes at Blogger made that impossible. If you want to access this blog, you have to come to this website on a regular basis.

Sep 15, 2017

I Don't Think You'll Get Any Argument From The Social Security Administration

     From an op ed in the New York Times:
... Consumers are asked for their Social Security number perhaps dozens of times each year: by banks, by utility companies, by their health care providers, by government agencies, even by websites. Every time the number is given, the odds go up that it will fall into the wrong hands. Still, America’s identification system relies on the fantasy that these nine digits are a secret. Publication of the full Social Security number list would shatter that fantasy and force the banking industry to invent new and genuinely effective ways to protect consumers from identity thieves. 
It seems that has finally occurred. The Equifax credit-reporting agency is being terribly, dangerously vague about its stunning loss of “potentially” 143 million Social Security numbers. The data belong to roughly three-quarters of Americans with a credit report. Might as well be everyone. 
Whatever the company finally admits to, this much is certain: Social Security numbers are no longer a secret. 
These numbers were created for a single purpose: to track worker contributions to a national retirement fund. Until the 1970s, the cards even arrived printed with the warning “Not for identification.” It’s time we heeded that warning and stopped using the number for applications of any kind. For loans, for jobs, for cellphones. It’s going to be very expensive, but the jig is up. 
Identity theft is an unfair shifting of costs. It has always been cheaper to avoid investment in security upgrades and instead push the real costs of this system onto victims, who spend hours cleaning up the messes left behind. They sometimes even pay a monthly fee for protection from a system they never asked to be a part of in the first place. 
This fragile authentication arrangement based on Social Security numbers persists so that retailers and banks can offer easy credit. Walk in with a number and a name, walk out with a new TV and a credit card. As long as a credit score attached to the Social Security number listed on the application is high enough, many creditors are more than happy to make that snap decision and take the risk. ... 
Social Security numbers were never designed to be a security tool, and their usefulness for that purpose has run its course. 
     Just please let the Social Security Administration continue using Social Security numbers. 

Sep 14, 2017

New Ruling On Sickle Cell

     The Social Security Administration is publishing a new Ruling on sickle cell disease tomorrow but you can read it today.

Nobody Wants The Job -- And One Explanation Why

     I'm at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) conference in Phoenix and I'm hearing that the job of Social Security Commissioner has been offered to several people by the Trump Administration and they have all turned it down.
     I'm also hearing that the backlog of Administrative Law Judge decisions awaiting decision writing has more than doubled in last year to more than 70,000. There are problems like this throughout the agency. These backlog problems may be one of the reasons no one wants the job.

Sep 13, 2017

Acting Commissioner's Staff Message On Hurricanes

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast 
Subject: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Update


A Message to All SSA Employees 

Subject: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Update

The one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma has presented challenges for our employees and facilities.  The tireless efforts of regional, area, and local staff in Dallas, Atlanta and New York have helped ensure that we continue to deliver on the mission of the agency in trying times.  Thank you for your dedication and commitment.  

Many Social Security offices in Florida remain closed. Widespread power outages in Florida and across the Southeast are complicating office re-openings.  The Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas field offices remain closed and we continue to work on securing alternate space.  The remediation work in those and other offices, including in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has begun.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) authorized the activation of the Hurricane Harvey Emergency Leave Transfer Program (ELTP) as another measure to help adversely affected employees.  For employees who wish to donate annual leave to the ELTP, please complete Form OPM-1638, Request to Donate Leave and contact your supervisor for additional information.  If OPM makes a similar authorization for employees affected by Irma, we will let you know immediately.  For general donations, visit the Federal Employee Education and Assistance (FEEA) Fund at http://www.feea.org/, which collects contributions specifically for federal employees. 

To stay updated on service delivery in hurricane-affected areas, please visit our office closings and severe weather pages.  Recovery efforts in these areas will take time.  Please join me in keeping those affected in your thoughts.


Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner 

Still No Trump Photo In Federal Offices

     From the Washington Post:
In the lobby of every federal building, just inside security turnstiles and before the elevator banks, a framed photograph of the president has always hung on the wall.
Not so anymore. Months after Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, pictures of the president and Vice President Pence are missing from thousands of federal courthouses, laboratories, military installations, ports of entry, office suites and hallways, and from U.S. embassies abroad.
On the walls are empty picture hooks left when workers took down official portraits of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 20. ...
The changeover appears to be tangled in a bit of red tape and mystery.
Federal agencies ordered photographs of their new commander in chief months ago. But they say they are still waiting for the Government Publishing Office, the printer of official portraits, to send them for distribution by the General Services Administration, which owns or leases 9,600 federal buildings across the country. 
The Government Publishing Office says it has yet to receive the images from the White House. And the White House says the president and vice president have not yet decided when they will sit for the type of high-quality official photographs usually churned out by the modern GPO, continuing a portrait tradition that began after the Civil War. ...

Sep 11, 2017

Many Field Offices Closed By Weather

     Below is a list of Social Security field offices that will be closed today due to hurricanes. I have not seen any list of ODAR office closures:

Alabama
  • Alabama ADO
  • Alexander City
  • Andalusia
  • Anniston
  • Bessemer
  • Birmingham Downtown
  • Birmingham East
  • Birmingham Mega TSC
  • Dothan
  • Montgomery
  • Opelika
  • Selma
  • SEPSC PC3
  • Talladega

Florida
  • Allapattah
  • Belle Glade
  • Bradenton
  • Carrollwood
  • Clearwater
  • Cocoa
  • Dade City
  • Deland
  • Ft. Lauderdale East
  • Ft. Lauderdale TSC
  • Ft. Lauderdale West
  • Ft. Walton Beach
  • Ft. Myers
  • Gainesville
  • Hialeah
  • Jackson Memorial Hospital
  • Jacksonville North
  • Jacksonville South
  • Key West Resident Station
  • Kissimmee
  • Lake City
  • Lake Mary
  • Lakeland
  • Leesburg
  • Little Havana
  • Little River
  • Marianna
  • Melbourne
  • Miami Beach
  • Miami North
  • Miami South
  • Naples
  • New Port Richey
  • North Broward
  • Ocala
  • Orlando
  • Orlando SSCC
  • Panama City
  • Perrine
  • Pensacola
  • Port Orange
  • Port St. Lucie
  • Pt. Charlotte
  • Sarasota
  • Sebring
  • South Broward
  • South Palm Beach
  • St. Augustine
  • St. Petersburg
  • Tallahassee
  • Tampa Downtown
  • Tampa TSC
  • Tampa WSU
  • Valrico
  • Venice
  • Vero Beach
  • West Palm Beach
  • Winter Haven 
Georgia
  • Albany
  • Athens
  • Atlanta Downtown
  • Atlanta RO
  • Atlanta West
  • Augusta
  • Blue Ridge CS
  • Brunswick
  • Columbus
  • Cordele
  • Covington
  • Dalton
  • Decatur
  • Dublin
  • Gainesville
  • Georgia ADO
  • Griffin
  • Gwinnett
  • LaGrange
  • Macon
  • Marietta
  • Milledgeville
  • Morrow (Southlake)
  • Newnan
  • Rome
  • Savannah
  • Statesboro
  • Savannah DDS
  • Thomasville DDS
  • Tifton
  • Toccoa
  • Valdosta
  • Vidalia
  • Villa Rica
  • Warner Robins
  • Waycross
  • Winder
Puerto Rico
 
All offices are closed in Puerto Rico

South Carolina
 
  • Beaufort
  • Charleston
  • Columbia
  • Walterboro
Texas

  • Beaumont
  • Port Arthur
Virgin Islands
 
 All offices are closed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sep 8, 2017

Initial And Recon Allowance Rates

     This was obtained from the Social Security Administration by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) which published the document in the NOSSCR newsletter, which is not available online.


Sep 7, 2017

Acting Commissioner Message On Hurricanes



From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Thursday, September 07, 2017 9:02 AM
Subject: Update on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

A Message to All SSA Employees

Subject: Update on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma


Recovery efforts continue in Texas and Louisiana.  Social Security offices in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are closed, with Hurricane Irma striking those Caribbean locations yesterday.  Due to the uncertainty of the hurricane’s path, we closed many southern Florida offices beginning yesterday as residents are either under mandatory evacuation orders or preparing to evacuate.

Most employees in the affected areas of the Dallas region have returned to work, and all offices except for Port Arthur, Texas and Beaumont, Texas have reopened.  We have employees on site in several Texas shelters to provide immediate payments for those who qualify.  Over the weekend, employees assisted about 600 individuals with their Social Security service needs in these shelters.

To keep updated on service delivery in hurricane-affected areas, please visit our office closings and severe weather pages on the Internet.

These are trying times for so many Americans, many of whom are our family, friends, and colleagues.  While we continue to deliver on the mission of the Agency, please remember those in harm’s way in your thoughts and prayers.

Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner

Alleged SSI Fraud Found During A Terrorism Investigation

     From the Buffalo News:
When FBI agents searched Ari Elias Baum's Facebook page, they were looking for evidence of a terrorist in training.
They already knew about Baum's posting of a photo depicting a couple dressed in military garb and holding weapons, with the caption, "Husband and wife fighting for Islam. The most beautiful photos I have ever seen."
The FBI also knew about the Buffalo man's travels to Yemen and Facebook friendship with a man whose inflammatory posts had come to the attention of terrorism investigators.
Baum was never charged with any terrorism crime but he will stand trial later this month for Social Security fraud, and the government would like to resurrect the terrorism claims as part of its prosecution.
That was until a federal judge said no. ...
He ordered prosecutors to stay away from any mention of the terrorism investigation but allowed them to get into Baum's travels overseas, as well as make general references to his religion. ...
Baum is charged with Social Security fraud and making false statements, and the evidence against him was uncovered as part of the FBI's terrorism investigation. The evidence includes an alleged Facebook conversation between Baum and his stepfather while Baum was traveling overseas.
"How is your money holding out?" asks his stepfather, Dr. R. Bruce Baum.
"Life is cheaper here but I will lose the SSI eventually if I stay here because they will find out that I am out of the country," Baum replied. ...
The FBI's investigation into Baum became public shortly after his arrest on fraud charges three years ago. The four-count indictment against him claims he stole $4,277 in Social Security disability benefits over a four-month period in 2013. ...
     To explain, while benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, that is, benefits based upon FICA contributions, are payable to those who are traveling or living outside the U.S. (with one rare exception), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are not supposed to be paid in a month in which an individual is outside the United States (except in one extremely rare circumstance). These rules are not well understood by SSI recipients. I don't think a prosecution would be common for something like this because there would be no proof that the SSI recipient was intentionally breaking the law. In this case, maybe there is proof of what lawyers call scienter.

Sep 6, 2017

What Does This Mean?

     From the testimony of Bea Disman, Acting Chief of Staff, Social Security Administration, to the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee:
... To ensure our decisions remain accurate, we are developing a new Occupational Information System (OIS) that will be the primary source of occupational information used in our disability adjudication process. We are working closely with the DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and will have our first complete set of occupational data in 2019 after BLS completes its third year of data collection. We plan to implement the OIS in 2020 with the introduction of a Vocational Information Tool that adjudicators will use to decide claims. Working with us, BLS will immediately begin a new data collection cycle that will allow us to update the OIS at regular five-year intervals. 
Parallel to our efforts to develop the OIS, we are working on updating our Medical-Vocational Guidelines, which were issued in 1978. At step five of our sequential evaluation process, we evaluate an individual’s ability to adjust to other work that exists in the national economy. The Medical-Vocational Guidelines are a crosswalk used by adjudicators when considering an individual’s RFC in relation to age, education, work experience, and work that exists in the national economy. We are currently considering potential evidence-based approaches to updating these guidelines to ensure we remain current with changes in medical and vocational practice, technology, and the workforce. We are closely coordinating any potential changes to how we consider vocational efforts with our development of the OIS....
     Here are some questions I'd like asked of Ms. Disman:
  • There have been endless, unexplained delays in developing the OIS. Why? 
  • Is Social Security allowing BLS to collect the data and see what it shows or is Social Security pressuring BLS to massage the data so that it meets pre-determined goals set by Social Security? 
  • What would an "evidence-based" approach to updating the Medical-Vocational guidelines look like?

Actually, This Shows SSA Is Doing Good Work

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
Each month, the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] furnishes SSA [Social Security Administration] with automated death records. Before SSA terminates benefit payments or records death information on the Numident [a major SSA database], SSA employees must independently verify the VA death information. In April 2016, we obtained data from VA identifying approximately 17 million deceased individuals. We matched the VA data against SSA’s payment records to identify potentially deceased beneficiaries in current payment status. ...
SSA issued payments to 3,925 beneficiaries who had dates of death in VA’s records. Our audit results indicated that at least 11 percent of these beneficiaries were alive, and death information in VA’s records was erroneous. However, our audit results also indicated that at least 19 percent of these beneficiaries were deceased , and death information in VA’s records was accurate....
      You can see Social Security's problem. They're receiving a lot of bad information from VA. Mistakenly declaring someone dead when they're not is a very bad thing. Not only are their Social Security benefits ceased, their bank accounts and credit cards are frozen and they can no longer receive medical care. Social Security has to independently confirm that the person has died. That can take a little time and mistakes will be made. In the end, even though Social Security received 17 million death reports from VA, OIG could only identify 19 cases where individuals had died but benefit payments were continuing. Nineteen out of 17 million is actually a pretty good record. That's an error rate of 0.00011% if my math is correct. Of course, the right wing Washington Times accuses Social Security of incompetence.

Sep 5, 2017

Cynical Move

     There's a Congressional hearing tomorrow on the enormous backlog of Social Security disability claims awaiting adjudication. This afternoon, Social Security adds three extremely rare conditions to its "compassionate allowance" list. The "compassionate allowance" list is and always has been meaningless. It's just a list of rare conditions for which a disability claim would be approved anyway. The list has always been a way of pretending to do something about the backlogs while actually doing nothing of consequence. The compassionate allowance list is just a fig leaf for Social Security and Congress to hide behind. If you work at Social Security and you think otherwise, you either don't understand the situation or you're fooling yourself.

Judge Posner Retires

     Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has announced a sudden retirement.  Posner  wrote several major Social Security opinions. He was widely hailed for his fine writing.

Most Retirees With Dementia Lack A Representative Payee

     Three researchers associated with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College have taken a look at representative payees and retirees with dementia. Representative payees help those who can no longer manage their money. Usually, representative payees are family members or friends.
     It turns out that while over 10% of retirees have dementia, only 1.5% have a representative payee. The report notes that many of those without a representative payee receive help anyway. For those with mild cognitive impairment 85% have some help and 95% of those with dementia receive help. As a personal aside, I'm familiar with how this happens. I've ended up handling the financial affairs of two relatives with dementia who have since passed away. In neither case was I appointed representative payee.

Sep 4, 2017

Study On Disability Claims By Homeless Individuals

     From NC State News:
A recent study of homeless adults finds that women are at a significant disadvantage compared to men when it comes to accessing disability benefits. The study also finds that medical records are key to accessing disability benefits, which poses a problem for many homeless adults.
... This study focused on SSI and SSDI applications completed with the assistance of the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) program, which was created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SOAR is designed to facilitate access to those disability benefits and primarily assists homeless and low-income adults. ...
Prior reports found that homeless adults had only a 10-15 percent success rate when applying for disability programs without assistance. Since SOAR was implemented in 2005 and 2006, that success rate has risen to 65 percent.” ...
[W]omen were 30 percent less likely than men to have their applications approved. And applicants who were already on public assistance were 20 percent less likely to get approved.
“The most important of the critical components was the inclusion of medical records with an application,” Lowder says. “Applications with medical records were twice as likely to be approved compared to other applications.
On the other end of the spectrum, applicants who were required to get a consultative exam were two times more likely to be denied – and it took an average of 43 additional days for their applications to be processed. ...

Sep 3, 2017

An Old Overpayment

     From WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, MI:
More than a decade after the Social Security Administration overpaid a Hesperia couple, they’re being told they owe the federal government nearly $22,000.
Janet and Edward Marshall said they were floored when they got a letter last week telling them to repay the money within 30 days. They have no idea how they’re going to come up with the cash.
“I’m almost died. My husband almost died. Couldn’t believe it,” Janet Marshall told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday. “I mean, after 15 years you send a letter? And what part of disability don’t they understand?”
In each check sent to the Marshalls between 2002 and 2005, Social Security overpaid them by roughly $600.
“(In) 2004, he was receiving $1,038 and he should’ve only got $463.60,” Marshall said, reading the letter from Social Security.
In all, they got an extra $21,970. ...
     I post from time to time about how unfair it is that there is no statute of limitations on the collection of Social Security overpayments by setoff. This sort of case is why I think the lack of a statute of limitations is wrong.

Sep 2, 2017

Playing Trump

     From Politico:
Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s budget director, walked into the Oval Office in early May on a longshot mission. The slash-government conservative wanted to persuade the president to break one of his most popular campaign promises.
During his populist run for the White House, Trump had vowed to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. But Trump had also vowed to rein in America’s national debt, which Mulvaney didn’t think was possible without reining in the two biggest chunks of the federal budget. So Mick the Knife brought a cut list to his meeting in the Oval. 
“Look, this is my idea on how to reform Social Security,” the former South Carolina congressman began.
“No!” the president replied. “I told people we wouldn’t do that. What’s next?”
“Well, here are some Medicare reforms,” Mulvaney said.
“No!” Trump repeated. “I’m not doing that.”
“OK, disability insurance.”
This was a clever twist. Mulvaney was talking about the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which, as its full name indicates, is part of Social Security. But Americans don’t tend to think of it as Social Security, and its 11 million beneficiaries are not the senior citizens who tend to support Trump.
“Tell me about that,” Trump replied.
“It’s welfare,” Mulvaney said.
“OK, we can fix welfare,” Trump declared.
Sure enough, the Trump budget plan that Mulvaney unveiled a few weeks later would cut about $70 billion in disability benefits over a decade, mostly through unspecified efforts to get recipients back to work. That may sound like welfare reform, but the program isn’t welfare for the poor; it’s insurance for workers who pay into Social Security through payroll taxes. The episode suggests Trump was either ignorant enough to get word-gamed into attacking a half-century-old guarantee for the disabled, or cynical enough to ditch his promise to protect spending when it didn’t benefit his base.
The story is also revealing about the source who told it on the record: Mulvaney himself, an ideological bomb-thrower from the congressional fringe who has become an influential player in the Trump administration. ...

Sep 1, 2017

SSA Press Release On Hurricane Harvey

     A press release from the Social Security Administration:
Many Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit payments are scheduled for Friday, September 1. The following information covers the various delivery methods for these payments in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Payments by Paper Check Delivered by the US Postal Service
Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the Gulf Coast resulted in the temporary suspension of mail delivery service, as well as the closure of some postal facilities in the Houston area. The U.S. Postal Service is providing additional information on how customers displaced by Hurricane Harvey can retrieve checks they receive via the mail.
Provided here about.usps.com/news/state-releases/tx/tx.htm is a list of Post Office locations, by ZIP Code, where checks will be made available for pick-up beginning Friday, September 1. People must have proper identification to receive their check.
Payments by Direct Deposit
Nearly all payments issued by direct deposit will arrive as scheduled. If a person’s payment is delayed, they should contact their financial institution. If the financial institution is not operating, please see the “emergency payment” information below.
Payments by Direct Express Debit Card (a Treasury Department program)
For recipients in the affected areas who receive their payment through a Direct Express card, fees will be waived, even if they have evacuated out of the area. Payments will be posted to Direct Express cards on September 1.
People may contact Direct Express at 1-888-741-1115.

Emergency Payment Locations
Social Security has established three emergency payment locations in Texas where Social Security and SSI beneficiaries may request an immediate payment in person if they cannot receive their regular payment. The locations and hours are:
Friday, September 1, and Saturday, September 2:
  • Houston: NRG Center
    2 NRG Park, Houston, TX 77054
    From 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM

  • Dallas: Kay Bailey Hutchison Dallas Convention Center
    650 S. Griffin Street, Dallas, TX 75202
    From 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM

  • Austin: Tony Burger Center
    3200 Jones Rd Austin, TX 78745
    From 9:30 AM – 3:00 PM
For people who cannot receive their regularly scheduled Social Security payment as a result of Hurricane Harvey, in most cases they can go to any open Social Security office and request an immediate payment. A list of offices that are currently closed, as well as additional information for the public, is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/emergency.
To find the nearest open Social Security office outside of the affected areas, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or go to www.socialsecurity.gov/locator.
     To this point, Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) hasn't posted any information that I can find about the status of its hearing offices in the Houston area. Of course, I'm sure that all of the ODAR offices in the area are closed and that ODAR has a team working on the problem.

     Update: I've been told that Social Security is saying that only the Houston North hearing office is closed and that it will reopen next Tuesday. I'm having trouble believing this could be accurate. Even if all the hearing offices are "open" next week, they're certainly going to have only skeleton crews working and claimants will have enormous difficulty reaching the offices for hearings. If any Houston area claimant with a scheduled hearing is reading this blog, try to contact your attorney if you have one. They may have some information. If you're a claimant and your hearing hasn't been scheduled yet, relax. Give Social Security some time to sort things out.

Aug 31, 2017

Two Congressional Hearing

     The House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled two hearings for Wednesday, September 6. One definitely has to do with Social Security. The other may touch on Social Security. 
     First, at 10:00, the Social Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing on disability determination at Social Security. The announcement focuses on how long it takes for the agency to process cases. The Subcommittee wants to know what plan the agency has for doing something about the backlogs. That's rich since the overwhelming cause of the backlogs is inadequate administrative funding. That's controlled by Congress. Of lesser importance is the agency's reluctance to allow senior attorneys to approve some very strong disability claims after a request for hearing is filed. This reluctance also seems to be related to the atmosphere created by Republicans in Congress who seem to regard disability claims and claimants with suspicion if not hostility.
     At 2:00 the Human Resources Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Missing from the Labor Force: Examining Declining Employment among Working-Age Men. I haven't been able to find a full announcement on this hearing. In the past, Republicans have favored the argument that the declining employment to people going on Social Security disability benefits. However, recent research makes that argument look very weak.

Aug 30, 2017

Acting Commissioner's Broadcast E-Mail



From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 3:40 PM
Subject: Hurricane Harvey Update

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: Hurricane Harvey Update


Most of you know that the Dallas region is still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Harvey.   Harvey is now affecting both Texas and Louisiana.

Forecasters expect strong winds, heavy rain, flooding, and power outages to continue in both states.

Again, all of our SSA and DDS employees are safe and accounted for.  Offices in the Houston area will remain closed this week.  We are assessing damages to some of our local offices.

I’ve heard your concerns for all those impacted by this natural disaster, and especially for our claimants who are in harm’s way.  I offer the following information:

  • How you can help—we are awaiting word from the Office of Personnel Management about a special solicitation for Hurricane Harvey relief.  We will provide that information as soon as we have it.
  • September 1 payments—we are working closely with the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure scheduled payments arrive on time.  We will provide additional information regarding emergency payments soon.

Please keep your colleagues and their families who are struggling in your thoughts and prayers.

Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner