Mar 31, 2017

Why So Many Disability Claims From Rural Areas?

     The Washington Post is running an article on rural disability. There's a far higher incidence of Social Security disability claims in rural areas. The drift of the article is that this is related to the lack of job opportunities in rural areas, i.e., people can't find jobs so they file disability claims.
     I think there is a link between lack of job opportunities in rural areas and Social Security disability claims but I think it's more complicated than this article presents. What happens when there are poor job opportunities in an area but better job opportunities elsewhere? Some people leave to pursue job opportunities elsewhere. Those who leave are on average younger, better educated, smarter and healthier than those who stay. Those left behind are people who are more likely to file disability claims regardless of the job opportunities in their community. Those left behind also have much worse access to health care than those who leave. Health care in most rural areas sucks. Even if you have insurance, it's hard to get good medical care and many in rural areas lack health care insurance. You're more likely to get sick and stay sick if you have poor access to health care.
     Those of us who represent Social Security disability claimants like to talk about demographics and access to health care as factors in determining who files disability clams. Newspaper reporters don't like to write articles about demographics and access to health care. It's boring. They like nice simplistic explanations since those are easier for them to understand and convey to readers.
     By the way, there's nothing new about the higher incidence of disability claims in rural areas. I live in Raleigh, which was a fair sized and relatively prosperous city when I started practicing Social Security law in 1979. Raleigh and surrounding cities such as Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill have gotten much bigger and more prosperous since. This area has always been surrounded by poor rural counties. From the beginning of my practice, I've gotten more clients from the less populous rural areas than from the urban areas. The incidence of disability has always been higher in rural areas.

Mar 30, 2017

Was This Fake News Concocted In Russia?

    From the New Jersey Herald:
Widely circulated online reports crediting President Donald Trump for 2017 increases in retirees' Social Security checks don't accurately portray how the system works.
Social Security payments are based on a government measure of inflation, and are set automatically without any involvement of the White House. ...
Some of the online stories accurately use numbers from Social Security's website, showing that the 0.3 percent increase ...
But the figures are not, as one version said, Trump's "first move to fulfill his campaign promise" to protect Social Security.

Mar 29, 2017

Problems At AALJ

     There's a dispute at the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), the employee union the represents Social Security's ALJs. The Treasurer is being accused of "mishandling, misappropriating or otherwise misusing union funds or properties." AALJ is part of a larger union, IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers), which is being asked to investigate. You can read the accusation, the response and an audit report. (Access to this uploaded file expires on April 4 so read it while you can and download it if you want to save it.)

Mar 28, 2017

Social Security Gets Hiring Freeze Exceptions

Granting exceptions
     Upon taking office, Donald Trump did what Republican Presidents have often done in the past, order a federal hiring freeze. This is based upon a general contempt for the work that federal agencies do and the federal employees who do the work. 
     These hiring freezes always start breaking down as it becomes apparent that voters will be discomfited by understaffed federal agencies. Social Security is usually one of the first agencies where it becomes apparent that a hiring freeze will cause visible problems.
     The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is in charge of administering Trump's hiring freeze and can grant exceptions to it. OPM has now granted an exception to the hiring freeze to allow Social Security to hire Administrative Law Judges, hearing support staff and processing center employees. Unfortunately, there is no exception so far for field office staff.

Mar 27, 2017

Three Rulings Rescinded

     From today's Federal Register:
We are rescinding the following SSRs [Social Security Rulings]: 
      • SSR 96–2p: Titles II and XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical Opinions. 
      • SSR 96–5p: Titles II and XVI: Medical Source Opinions on Issues Reserved to the Commissioner. 
     • SSR 06–03p: Titles II and XVI: Considering Opinions and Other Evidence from Sources Who Are Not ‘‘Acceptable Medical Sources’’ in Disability Claims; Considering Decisions on Disability by Other Governmental and Nongovernmental Agencies. 
These three SSRs are inconsistent or unnecessarily duplicative with our recent final rules, Revisions to Rules Regarding the Evaluation of Medical Evidence, published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017 (82 FR 5844).

Mar 26, 2017

Still Worried?

     If Republicans can't agree on an Obamacare replacement, what are the odds they'll agree on significant changes to Social Security? You can promise all kinds of things in the abstract when you're in the opposition. It's very different when you're voting on real legislation with real consequences for real voters. 

Mar 25, 2017

Social Security Prevents Suicides

     From the Pacific Standard:
When officials of the Trump administration and the Republican-majority Congress speak of “reforming” entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the conversation is largely confined to cost-cutting. It’s easy to forget the enormous impact these programs have on Americans’ lives.
A striking reminder comes in a new study, which finds “a significant, sudden drop in suicide rates upon turning 62 years old” — the age at which one becomes eligible for Social Security benefits.
“This decline is large, particularly among males, (and) has emerged for females and widened for males in recent years,” writes economist Jeffrey DeSimone of the University of Alabama–Birmingham.
“Much evidence suggests this discontinuity is attributable to the Social Security early retirement age, more so than the act of retiring itself,” he adds in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy. ...

Mar 24, 2017

Eric Conn Pleads Guilty

     From the Lexington Herald-Leader:
Flamboyant Social Security lawyer Eric C. Conn, who won disability checks for thousands of people in Eastern Kentucky but caused heartache for many former clients after he was accused of cheating on cases, pleaded guilty Friday in a federal fraud case.
Conn, 55, pleaded guilty to one count of stealing from the Social Security Administration and one count of bribing a federal judge. ...
He faces up to 12 years in prison. He is to be sentenced July 14. ...

Read more here:

Read more here: faces up to 12 years in prison. He is to be sentenced July 14.

Read more here:

New Ruling On Medical Equivalence

     From Social Security Ruling 17-2p, which will be published in the Federal Register on Monday:
At the hearings level or at the AC [Appeals Council] level when the AC issues its own decision, the adjudicator is responsible for the finding of medical equivalence [to a Listing]. The adjudicator must base his or her decision about whether the individual’s impairment(s) medically equals a listing on the preponderance of the evidence in the record. To demonstrate the required support of a finding that an individual is disabled based on medical equivalence at step 3, the record must contain one of the following:
     1. A prior administrative medical finding from an MC [Medical Consultant] or PC [Psychological Consultant] from the initial or reconsideration adjudication levels supporting the medical equivalence finding, or
     2. ME [Medical Expert] evidence, which may include testimony or written responses to interrogatories, obtained at the hearings level supporting the medical equivalence finding, or
     3. A report from the AC’s medical support staff supporting the medical equivalence finding.

No Telework For An ALJ Unless They Schedule 45 Hearings A Month

     Obtained from the ALJ Discussion Forum:
Date: February 15, 2017

To: All HOCALJs [Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judges]

From: Patrick Nagle /s/
Chief Administrative Law Judge
Office of the Chief Administrative Law Judge

Robert Jandrlich /s/
Associate Commissioner
Office of Executive Operations and Human Resources

Subject: UPDATE: Telework Requests for IFPTE/AALJ [union that represent ALJs and staff attorneys] Employees – INFORMATION

This guidance applies to all Office of Disability Adjudication and Review bargaining-unit employees covered by the National Agreement between the Social Security Administration, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and the Association of Administrative Law Judges, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO & CLC (IFPTE).

In accordance with Article 15, Section 5A of the 2013 SSA/ODAR-AALJ/IFPTE National Agreement, all administrative law judges (ALJs) who wish to participate in the agency’s telework program should submit their requests and schedules to you by February 28, 2017. You should approve or deny the telework requests by March 14, 2017. ALJs who receive approval for their requests may begin to work their new telework schedules on the first full pay period in April, which begins April 2, 2017.

When reviewing your ALJs’ requests for telework for this next 6-month period, please keep in mind the guidance that we have previously provided regarding what constitutes a “reasonably attainable” number of hearings, and the considerations you should take into account to make that determination. That guidance is contained within the Telework Guidance for HOCALJs document and the Reasonably Attainable Guidance, both of which are in the HOCALJ Telework Guidance library. Judge Bice’s September 2016 guidance stated that an average of 45 to 50 scheduled hearings per month would constitute a “reasonably attainable” number of hearings for the October 2016 through March 2017 telework period. Even prior to the implementation of this telework expectation, ALJs were regularly conducting a minimum of 50 hearings per month and this is a reasonable expectation for all ALJs. Therefore, for this upcoming telework period, April 1, 2017 to September 30, 2017, we will maintain that an average of 50 scheduled hearings per month is a “reasonably attainable” number of hearings.

Please remember that our expectation for all ALJs, teleworking and non-teleworking, is that they issue 500 to 700 legally sufficient dispositions per year; their scheduling of hearings should therefore be commensurate with this goal. To that end, please review carefully the Reasonably Attainable Guidance as you consider an ALJ’s telework request, and please take into account those circumstances that apply to that ALJ. If no such circumstances apply, an average of 50 hearings a month will be considered to be a “reasonably attainable” number of hearings. An ALJ who does not meet this expectation may have his/her telework restricted.

Please continue monitoring cases in judge-controlled status that may be “seriously delinquent.” You will find further guidance on addressing delinquent cases in the Addressing Delinquent Cases folder in the HOCALJ Telework Guidance library.

SIGN 10 days or greater
EDIT 30 days or greater
ARPR/ARFL and ALPO/ALFL 30 days or greater

As a reminder, effective October 9, 2015, Judges must use the Virtual Private Network (VPN) software on their device for all Telework. If an ALJ does not comply with this requirement, he/she is no longer eligible for telework and must wait until the next request period to apply for telework.

Before removing an ALJ from telework, please have a collegial conversation and explain the importance of using technology/the laptop as part of telework. You may consult with your regional attorney or labor and employee relations specialist for the next steps and to ensure we are addressing these issues consistently.

If you have any questions, please contact _____________, in the Division of Quality Service, at (888) 238-_______ ext. _________

Mar 23, 2017

Former SSA ALJ Sentenced To Jail For Trading Sex For Benefits

A former Alabama Social Security Administration judge was sentenced to federal prison today for trading social security benefits for sex.
Paul Stribling Conger Jr., 73, was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison by U.S. District Judge Virginia Hopkins. Because of the additional one day, he will be eligible for early release. ...
Court documents show in 2013, Conger was presiding over the hearing of a claimant who was approved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly payments and benefits. The claimant, who is only identified in records by her initials T.M., approached Conger in Nov. 2013 about receiving her retroactive benefits in a lump sum of about $10,000.
The two then engaged in a sex act and other sexual contact that day at the federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, documents show. T.M. and Conger remained in contact by phone, and Conger invited her to return to the courthouse later that month. She didn't go back. ...

Mar 22, 2017

Members Of Congress Ask That Social Security Be Exempted From Hiring Freeze

     Fifty members of the House of Representatives have written a letter to the President urging that the Social Security Administration be exempted from the hiring freeze he ordered for most of the federal government. They're all Democrats so they probably won't even get an acknowledgment letter in response.

Mar 21, 2017

Congressional Hearing On Rep Payees

     There will be another Congressional hearing tomorrow on representative payees at Social Security. 
     I'm a bit mystified. There have been no important developments concerning representative payees. There's no clear path to Social Security doing a better job with representative payees even if they had the manpower to do so, which they don't. It's messy. It's always been messy. It's going to remain messy. It's unlikely this will attract media attention or lead to significant legislation. What's the point of the hearing?

Waiting In The Heartland

     From the Kansas City Star:
The tumors and cysts that blinded Barbara Sales in her left eye and, years ago, lodged in her brain have robbed her of far more than her sight and memory. ...
Three seizures forced Sales, 53, a former Lenexa resident, to lose a job she’d hoped to get full time. Her maladies and medications, treatments for a rare genetic disease, have made her short-term memory so faulty that she once drove 100 miles in the wrong direction before realizing her mistake. ...
Despite these difficulties, one question has for four years consumed the thoughts of this college-educated woman who worked full time for 25 years while raising her daughter as a divorced, single mom.
Why is it taking the government so long to decide whether she is eligible to receive Social Security disability?
“This is not right,” Sales said, coming to tears. “This is not what we pay into Social Security for. This is not the American dream. This is certainly not what I went to college for.”
Sales’ situation goes to the heart of problems that have plagued the Social Security Administration for years: Underfunded and overwhelmed, it operates with a workforce that has remained all but flat for more than 20 years in the face of a rising population and an explosion of disability applications. ...
“Eight thousand people died during fiscal year 2016 who were waiting for a (disability) hearing,” [Lisa] Ekman [of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, NOSSCR) said. “That’s 23 people a day, almost one an hour to get a hearing. … We see people who lose their homes. We see people who are evicted. We see people who can’t afford to pay for medications, who become very debilitated while they wait. It creates people who are homeless.” ... 
When fiscal 2017 began in October, the number of first-time claims that had not been processed from the year before stood at more than 560,000, according to the Office of the Inspector General’s semi-annual report to Congress.
The backlog of cases being reconsidered, waiting to be heard by an administrative law judge, ballooned from 700,000 in 2010 to more than 1.1 million cases at the end of June 2016, the report showed.
In that same period, the average processing time it takes to see and get a decision from a judge has stretched from 426 days to more than 530 days. ...

Read more here:

Read more here:

Read more here:“Eight thousand people died during fiscal year 2016 who were waiting for a (disability) hearing,” Ekman said. “That’s 23 people a day, almost one an hour to get a hearing. … We see people who lose their homes. We see people who are evicted. We see people who can’t afford to pay for medications, who become very debilitated while they wait. It creates people who are homeless.”

Read more here:

Read more here:

Read more here: seizures forced Sales, 53, a former Lenexa resident, to lose a job she’d hoped to get full time. Her maladies and medications, treatments for a rare genetic disease, have made her short-term memory so faulty that she once drove 100 miles in the wrong direction before realizing her mistake.

Read more here:
Despite these difficulties, one question has for four years consumed the thoughts of this college-educated woman who worked full time for 25 years while raising her daughter as a divorced, single mom.
Why is it taking the government so long to decide whether she is eligible to receive Social Security disability?
“This is not right,” Sales said, coming to tears. “This is not what we pay into Social Security for. This is not the American dream. This is certainly not what I went to college for.”
Sales’ situation goes to the heart of problems that have plagued the Social Security Administration for years: Underfunded and overwhelmed, it operates with a workforce that has remained all but flat for more than 20 years in the face of a rising population and an explosion of disability applications.

Read more here:“Eight thousand people died during fiscal year 2016 who were waiting for a (disability) hearing,” Ekman said. “That’s 23 people a day, almost one an hour to get a hearing. … We see people who lose their homes. We see people who are evicted. We see people who can’t afford to pay for medications, who become very debilitated while they wait. It creates people who are homeless.”

Read more here:“Eight thousand people died during fiscal year 2016 who were waiting for a (disability) hearing,” Ekman said. “That’s 23 people a day, almost one an hour to get a hearing. … We see people who lose their homes. We see people who are evicted. We see people who can’t afford to pay for medications, who become very debilitated while they wait. It creates people who are homeless.”

Read more here:

Mar 20, 2017

OMB Director Wants To Cut Social Security Disability

     From CBS News:
Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney said Sunday [on Face the Nation] that President Donald Trump’s budget is cutting costs in the administration ...
As for entitlements, Mulvaney said Mr. Trump’s budget is consistent with his promise not to take away anyone’s Social Security or Medicare -- and drew attention to programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance as potential areas that could be cut.
“Let me ask you a question, do you really think that Social Security Disability Insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security?” he asked. “I don’t think so. It’s the fastest-growing program, it grew tremendously under President Obama, it’s a very wasteful program and we want to try and fix that.”
     Mulvaney may not think that Disability Insurance Benefits is part of Social Security but history suggests that most Americans do. Any Congressman who votes to cut Social Security disability is going to face political ads accusing them of cutting Social Security. And, no, cuts in Social Security disability won't be bipartisan.
     Mulvaney also said that as a way of saving money OMB is not providing business cards to its employees. They have to pay for them personally, if they want them. Is this going to end up with all public employees treated like teachers who have to buy their own supplies?

OIG Report On ALJ Oversight

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
A claimant can appeal an ALJ’s [Administrative Law Judge's] decision to deny or dismiss a disability case. Claimants file these appeals through a request for review to SSA’s AC [Appeals Council] in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). If the AC grants a review of the case, it will issue a fully favorable, partially favorable, or unfavorable decision; or it may remand the case to an ALJ. If the AC does not grant a case review, the earlier decision remains unchanged. 
ODAR tracks the AC’s decision on every appealed case and calculates a quality performance measure for each ALJ. The decision agree rate represents the extent to which the AC concludes the ALJ decisions were supported by substantial evidence and contained no error of law or abuse of discretion justifying a remand or reversal. At the time of our review, the national agree rate goal for ALJ decisions was 85 percent. The national dismissal agree rate goal for ALJ dismissals was 72 percent, but less than 6 percent of the AC workload related to dismissals. ...

... Regarding the 11 ALJs whose decision agree rates were 65 percent or lower for 3 consecutive years, we found ODAR managers had taken action to improve the quality of their decisions. Five ALJs had undergone a focused quality review, three were scheduled for this type of review, and one had been nominated to undergo a review. Of the remaining two ALJs, one had undergone a regional quality review, and the other was scheduled for a one-on-one counseling session with the Regional Chief ALJ. A focused quality review involves an in-depth review of a sample of an ALJ’s decisions to ensure the decisions are policy compliant and legally sufficient. If managers find a pattern of error-prone cases, they offer advice on how to correct errors and determine whether the ALJ should take additional targeted training. Three of the five ALJs who underwent focused quality reviews had completed targeted training.
     Note that there is no similar system for tracking remands and reversals by the federal courts. I think some interesting patterns would be seen if that were studied.

Mar 19, 2017

Is This Legit?

     Here's a website that says it's figured out a path to follow when calling Social Security's 800 number so that one can get to a human with less delay. They say the average delay when calling that number is 36 minutes, which is a lot more than Social Security claims. They also offer, for a price that's not stated, to wait on hold for you and then call you back when there's finally a Social Security employee on the other end of the phone that you can talk with.

Mar 18, 2017

Republican Senators Want Time Limited Disability Benefits

     From Sunshine State News:
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined with two Senate conservatives on Wednesday to back a proposal reforming Social Security disability benefits. 
Noting that disability benefits are consuming more Social Security funds, Rubio and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are co-sponsoring U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton’s, R-Ark., “Return to Work Act" which places new applicants who qualify for Social Security disability benefits in four groups based on whether medical improvement is expected, likely, possible or not expected. 
Beneficiaries in the first three groups would be given a timeline to receive disability benefits while those who are not expected to recover would not. If beneficiaries in the first three groups have not recovered at the end of their timelines--two years for those deemed expected to recover, five years for those deemed likely to recover, longer for those whose recovery is possible--they will be able to reapply for disability benefits.
     The number of people drawing Social Security disability benefits is declining. That's a fact. There's no crisis for this bill to address.
     This bill is based upon the mistaken premise that many Social Security disability recipients get better over time and should be cast off benefits. However, beneficiaries are already subject to continuing disability reviews and are cut off benefits if they have improved to the point that they can work. What's wrong with this process? Not enough claimants are cut off benefits to satisfy these Senators. I think this should lead a reasonable person to conclude that few claimants actually get better. However, if you base your judgments not upon the facts that exist but upon what you think the facts should be, you might conclude that you just have to be much sterner about cutting people off. Don't worry about whether they've improved. Just make them prove over and over and over again that they're disabled. We'll get them off benefits!
     Forcing claimants to prove over and over that they are disabled would be cruel. How many people think that schizophrenics get better over time? Not many who are actually familiar with schizophrenia. However, if you subject schizophrenics to this plan, many would lose their benefits, not because they've improved but because they're too impaired to effectively pursue new claims. Would that result please these Senators?
     By the way, I was around when the Reagan Administration did wholesale continuing disability reviews without a medical improvement standard and without interim benefits, which is the functional equivalent of what these Senators propose. It was by far the most unpopular policy of the Reagan Administration. It's how we came to have a medical improvement standard we have today. These Senators weren't around for that. If they had been, they wouldn't be proposing this.

Mar 17, 2017

Big Problem With Remittances

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
SSA [Social Security Administration] receives remittances for a variety of reasons, but the majority of remittances are made to repay overpaid benefits. Remittances primarily consist of checks/money orders and credit card charges. SSA also receives a small number of cash payments. SSA’s Remittance and Accounting Unit (RAU) in the Mid -Atlantic Program Service Center (MATPSC) is primarily responsible for processing remittances. However, SSA’s field offices, teleservice centers, and Office of International Operations also process some remittances ... 
RAU processed over 1.7 million remittances, totaling over $892 million, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. This included over 475,000 remittances, totaling over $600 million, SSA field offices received and sent to RAU for final processing. ... 
While SSA processed remittances accurately , it did not process all remittances timely . As of April 22, 2016, RAU had 84,253 unprocessed checks (those RAU received without a remittance coupon), some almost 8-months-old. Without a remittance coupon, RAU cannot scan, process, or deposit the check until it identifies the associated remittance record. RAU also had 57,636 pieces of unopened mail, some pieces almost 2-months-old. ...
[A]s of April 22, 2016, RAU’s workload report identified 57,636 pieces of unopened mail, some dating back to March 9, 2016 and 84,253 unprocessed checks, some dating back to September 1, 2015 ... 
RAU had no unopened mail or unprocessed checks at the end of FY 2012. However, the backlog of unopened mail significantly increased from about 4,000 pieces in FY 2015 to over 57,000 pieces in FY 2016. Additionally, over the same period, the number of unprocessed checks increased from 56,000 to over 84,000 ...
According to SSA, the remittance backlog primarily occurred for two reasons. First, although the number of remittance checks RAU received in FYs 2013 through 2015 remained constant at about 1.5 million, annually, staff size decreased 26 percent from 31 employees in FY 2012 to 23 in FY 2016 ... 
Second, RAU received a large number of remittances without coupons, which delays the remittance process as RAU staff must perform additional research to identify the record associated with the remittance. For example, in FY 2013, RAU received about 317,000 remittances without coupons, and it received about 402,000 in FY 2016. ... 
Because of this backlog, SSA initiated unnecessary collection actions against some beneficiaries. When SSA does not process overpayment remittances for several months, the related debt appears past due in SSA’s debt management system. The past- due rating triggers the Agency to use its external collection tools to recover the debt. For those SSA beneficiaries who are not receiving benefits, SSA may attempt to collect the debt by reporting it to a credit bureau, administrative wage garnishment, or Federal payment offset. SSA uses the Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Treasury Offset Program (TOP) to offset a debt against an individual’s Federal income tax refund or withhold other Federal or State payments. Additionally, when debts are past due, SSA continues sending collection letters and making calls.
     The report goes on to give several examples of tax refunds seized, wages garnished and Social Security benefits reduced unnecessarily because remittances had not been timely processed.
     Social Security is taking corrective action on this problem.
     We might expect a Congressional hearing on this except for the fact that the biggest contributing factor to this mess was lack of adequate staffing caused by an inadequate budget passed by Congress.

Long Lines At Orlando Office Create Parking Problem

     From a TV station in Orlando:
If you've ever been to the Social Security office in Orlando, you may be very familiar with the long lines and sometimes difficult-to-find parking spots.
An Orlando woman wants to get results after her car was towed last week after she says she couldn't find a place to park.
The overflow has created a problem for businesses close to the office, as well.
Angel Garcia says that a few weeks ago, an elderly woman visiting Social Security decided to park in the Polo Apartment complex-- a move that is clearly prohibited if you're not a resident.
The result, he said: About $20,000 in damages.
 "She missed all of these trees. I don't know how but she came around from this direction and went right into the living room of that apartment there," said Garcia, a maintenance employee at the complex. ...
Marilyn Hernandez says the overflow of parking has become such a hindrance, the company has hired a towing company. ...
7-Eleven has a contract with a local tow company, as well. ...
We called and emailed the Social Security office.
Patti Patterson, regional communications director with the Social Security office, says that on average, about 700 people visit the center each day.
There are 169 parking spots including eight for the handicapped and public transportation is also available.

Mar 16, 2017

Trump Budget Proposal For Social Security

     The White House has released its "skinny" budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which begins on October 1, 2017. The "skinny" reference is to the limited information in the proposal. If this is adopted, Social Security's operating budget would increase by 0.2%. (See page 50). Because of inflation, this would amount to a small decrease in the agency's budget. However, "program integrity" at Social Security would increase by 26.8%. By contrast, this budget proposal calls for major decreases in spending at most agencies, a 16.2% reduction at HHS, for instance.
     This budget proposal faces widespread criticism from Republican as well as Democratic legislators and won't be adopted as proposed. However, it is a sign that to some extent the message is getting across to the White House that these is no way to make even modest cuts in Social Security's operating budget without causing dramatic and very visible problems in the agency's service delivery.

Claimant Dies After Disability Benefits Ceased

     From WATE:
A mother is mourning the loss of her daughter.
Amy Schnelle, 31, died of an epileptic seizure on February 17. She died less than half a year after the government cut her benefits, including medication....
On disability for several years, Amy Schnelle was receiving powerful anti-seizure drugs and had been seizure free since 2015. Then the United States Social Security Administration threw her a curve ball in September 2016 when they informed her she was no longer sick. ...
She appealed the decision, but while her appeal was under consideration, Amy Schnelle’s benefits stopped. Nevertheless, three of the drug manufacturers provided her with sample drugs, but one did not. Sylvia Schnelle, Amy Schnelle’s mother, said without the full supply of prescription pills, her daughter relapsed in late October. ...
Writing to Congressman Jimmy Duncan, Amy Schnelle was able to convince the government to resume her benefits. That happened in January 2017, but in February 2017, from her apartment, she texted her mother she had a “bad” seizure and asked her to “please” come. Her mother rushed to Knoxville from her home in Dandridge.
“Amy was on her stomach and she had already died. She died from a seizure,” said Sylvia Schnelle through tears. ...

Tough Way To Make A Living

     The Buffalo Law Journal reports on how difficult it is to make a living representing Social Security disability claimants. Of course, it's a lot tougher being a disabled person filing a claim with Social Security.

Mar 15, 2017

I Knew There Was Something Good About Trumpcare!

     Matt Fuller noticed something interesting hidden in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projection of the effects of the Republican plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act. The CBO is projecting that Social Security expenditures over the time period 2017-2026 would decrease by $3 billion under the GOP plan. The explanation is that more people will die under the Republican plan, about 17,000 in 2018 rising to 29,000 in 2026 alone. People can't draw Social Security benefits if they're dead.

HIV Ruling Rescinded

     Social Security is rescinding Ruling 93-2p on the evaluation of HIV. This is being done because of the adoption of a new Listing.

Mar 14, 2017

Central Offices Closed

     A message from Social Security:
Social Security Administration (SSA) offices at headquarters and the Baltimore Metropolitan area will be closed on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 [by a large snowfall]. ITC and Falls Church offices should continue to monitor and follow OPM guidance.
     Somebody correct me if I'm wrong but I'll guess that ITC stands for the International Trade Center, a large government office building in Washington, and I'll also guess that's where the Commissioner's office is. I've never understood why it's better for the Commissioner's office to be there rather than in Woodlawn. There must be a fair amount of time wasted by staffers who have to travel into Washington for meetings at the Commissioner's office.

Mar 13, 2017

Ever Heard Of HITECH?

     If you work at a hearing office, you probably already know that Social Security disability claim files have been getting longer over the last few years. Let me explain why this is happening and why it is going to get worse over the next year or two. Also, I'll explain why this has major implications for the Social Security Administration.
     The most important reason files have been getting longer is electronic medical records. It has become easier for medical providers to create and store medical records. When they were storing medical records in physical files, medical providers had incentive to keep the records concise. How do you store a 2,000 page physical file? How does a physician make use of such a huge physical file? Once things went electronic, medical files started ballooning. Medical records systems used in many physician offices and at some large providers, including the VA, regurgitate almost the entire medical history as a new medical record every time a patient sees a physician. With VA records in particular, the new material gets lost in a mass of repetition.
     Because of electronic medical records, Social Security hearing files are exploding. Files of 1,000 pages or more used to be rare. Now, they're common. Files of 2,000 pages or more were almost never seen in years past. Now, I see them on a regular basis.
     This is going to get a lot worse because of a statute that I'll bet that almost no one at Social Security has heard of -- the HITECH Act. HITECH stands for Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. The Act was designed to encourage physicians to convert to electronic medical records. HITECH happens to address, in passing, a couple of problems that attorneys representing Social Security claimants have had -- slow processing of requests for medical records and excessive charges for providing those records. HITECH puts a time limit on responding to requests for medical records and prohibits providers from charging more than what it actually costs them to provide medical records as long as the records are provided in an electronic format. Attorneys are rapidly switching over to making their requests for medical records under the HITECH Act. It's cutting our costs significantly and making the turnaround time on medical records requests shorter.
     Before HITECH, attorneys were careful to specify exactly what they wanted because they would be paying for each page of medical records. Now, that's no longer important. One thousand pages of medical records are no more expensive to obtain than ten. Even when an attorney makes a narrow request for medical records, providers often send far more than was requested. If you don't have to print out the records and you're not able to charge for each page, why bother sorting out exactly what the attorney requested? Just send the whole thing. And once an attorney receives medical records, even if they are records the attorney didn't ask for he or she has no alternative but to send everything to Social Security. EVERYTHING. That's what agency regulations demands. If you don't do that, you get in trouble. I recently submitted more than 850 pages of medical records recently covering about ten months of outpatient treatment for one of my clients and the medical care she was receiving wasn't all that intensive.
     So why is this important for the agency? It takes a lot longer to review a 2,000 page file than a 300 page file even if most of the 2,000 page file is of zero consequence for the disability claim. Administrative Law Judges cannot be expected to hear 40-50 cases a month and know what they're doing if they have to deal with such huge files. There's no technical fix for this. Exhorting employees to work harder isn't going to help. Social Security is running headlong into a brick wall on this one. And those foolish regulations demanding that attorneys submit EVERYTHING are just making things worse. I told you that you were trying to go after a fly with a sledgehammer but you wouldn't listen.

Mar 12, 2017

Denied Disability Claimants Don't Return To Work

     The Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee asked Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to gather information on Social Security disability claimants whose have been denied on the grounds that they can still work. I don't have any idea what he thought they might find. I don't see anything in the report that he's likely to find all that interesting. However, I did find this table that I find interesting:
     I find it interesting because it displays an important fact. When Social Security denies disability claims, those denied don't often return to work. When they do return to work, they seldom earn enough to support themselves because generally they're only working part time or intermittently.
     Policy makers shouldn't comfort themselves with the thought that denying so many disability claims frees people to work by preventing their dependence upon government benefits. All these denials do is make large numbers of sick people even more poor and miserable than they would be if their disability claims had been approved.

Mar 11, 2017

SSAB To Hold Forum On Rep Payees

     From the Social Security Advisory Board:
The Social Security Advisory Board will host a public forum to discuss the Social Security Administration’s representative payee program. The day’s discussion will cover the process of determining benefit management capacity, best practices, collaborative efforts and new approaches from the front lines, necessary oversight, program evaluation and preparing for the future. The forum will be held on Monday, March 27, 2017 at the McGowan Theater in the National Archives Building. Please click here to register.

Mar 10, 2017

ALJ Charged With Misdemeanor Sexual Assault

     From the Detroit Free Press:
A federal administrative law judge is facing sexual assault charges in Livonia after prosecutors say he groped a woman at an office in the city.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office announced this afternoon that Judge Henry Perez, 74 of Novi will be arraigned Friday morning on three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, all misdemeanors. The prosecutor's office said the complainant, a 33-year-old Pontiac woman, was working the evening Dec. 28, 2016 in the Social Security office at 19575 Victor Parkway in Livonia when Perez called her into his office.
Once inside, the prosecutor's office said it is alleged Perez made sexual contact with her by touching her body against her will.
Perez is a federal administrative law judge for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. He is currently on leave from the position, according to the prosecutor's office. ...

Mar 9, 2017

Trump Budget Could Lead To Massive Furloughs At Social Security

     A message from the head of the union that represents most Social Security employees:
President Trump announced yesterday that he would increase defense spending by $54 billion and cut non-defense discretionary spending by the same $54 billion.
Non defense discretionary spending is currently $666.7 billion.  A cut of $54 billion is 8.1%.
SSA has informed the union that they will be forced to furlough the SSA workforce for 5 days for every 1% cut in its administrative budget.
If Trump succeeds in reducing non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion equally to all non-defense agencies, SSA will have to furlough SSA employees for 8 weeks or 40 days.  This would be an across the board pay  cut of 15.4%.  In addition, SSA's ability to process the public's work would collapse.
We have the fight of our lives ahead of us.
Witold [Skwierczynski, union president]

Acting OIG Head To Testify

     From the House Committee on Appropriations:
Management Challenges at the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and the Social Security Administration: Views from the Inspectors General

Thursday, March 9, 2017 10:00 AM in 2358-B Rayburn

Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies


Scott S. Dahl
Inspector General, U.S. Department of Labor
Daniel R. Levinson
Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Gale Stallworth Stone
Acting Inspector General, Social Security Administration
Kathleen Tighe
Inspector General, U.S. Department of Education

Mar 8, 2017

This Hasn't Been Merely A Matter Of Courtesy

     I'm hearing reports that several hearing offices around the country are now scheduling hearings without first contacting the claimant's attorney. This is contrary to settled practice. The purported goal is to save time. I don't know whether this is something that is supposed to become universal.
     This isn't going to work. Contacting attorneys before scheduling hearings wasn't just a matter of courtesy. It was to avoid having to reschedule hearings. If you don't contact attorneys first, you're going to have endless conflicts between hearings scheduled by different Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and different hearing offices, much less conflicts with various obligations that attorney have with other cases pending before other tribunals much less personal obligations such as those associated with being a parent or medical care. No, using Social Security's online systems to identify conflicts won't work. Often, the attorney of record isn't the attorney who will actually appear for the hearings. Don't blame law firms for this. It happens because the agency refuses to recognize law firms. No, I don't think that having attorneys inform hearing offices of every item on their calendar will work. There's just too many items on anyone's schedule to expect this to work even if hearing offices knew exactly which attorney is supposed to appear at each hearing. I've also found that hearing office employees can be completely unrealistic about time and distance. Too many times I've hearing questions like, "Your hearing in Greenville is at 9:00, so why can't you do a hearing in Raleigh at 10:30?" coming from people who don't realize that it's a hour and a half drive between Greenville and Raleigh.
     Rescheduling hearings takes time and leaves blank spots in ALJ schedules. I really, really want to get hearings scheduled as quickly as possible but I don't think this will help. There are practical reasons that Social Security called before scheduling hearings. It doesn't take that much time and it avoids wasting time down the road.

Mar 7, 2017

OMB Head Wants To "Reform" Social Security Disability

     From The Hill (emphasis added):
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Monday that President Trump could soon review potential reforms to Social Security and Medicare — but he stressed that the reforms under consideration wouldn’t touch payments for current beneficiaries.
Mulvaney said he plans to prepare several entitlement reform proposals for Trump after finishing the White House’s first budget outline proposal this week. Mulvaney previously said the top-line budget proposal wouldn’t address entitlements. ...
“I’ve already started to socialize the discussion around here in the West Wing about how important the mandatory spending is to the drivers of our debt,” Mulvaney told radio host Hugh Hewitt in a Monday interview. “People are starting to grab it.”
“There are ways that we can not only allow the president to keep his promise, but to help him keep his promise by fixing some of these mandatory programs.” ...
Mulvaney said Trump wasn’t likely to propose raising the age at which someone could retire and receive full entitlement benefits. Instead, he floated changes to Social Security disability payments, which Mulvaney called “one of the fastest growing and probably one of the most abused mandatory programs in the country.” ...
     I've heard the "we'll be able to get away with cutting Social Security as long as we don't touch benefits for current recipients" strategy many times before. Anybody remember that working for Republicans? I've also heard the "disability is the soft underbelly of Social Security" strategy before but the belly has always proven a lot tougher than Republicans expected. So, please proceed GOP. There's always an election coming.

Online SSI Claims Coming On March 25 -- For Some People

     From Emergency Message EM-17008:
This Emergency Message explains the policy and procedures associated with enhancements to the online benefit application (iClaim) scheduled for release on March 25, 2017.  ...
For this first release, applicants applying online for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) who answer “Yes” to the question, “Do you intend to file for SSI [Supplemental Security Income]?” are able to submit an iSSI application if they meet all of the following criteria:
    · Age 18 through 64;· Resides in 1 of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands;
    · Alleges disability, but not blindness;
    · Never married; and
    · Claimant’s Social Security Number (SSN) does not exists in any SSI system such as the Modernized SSI Claims System (MSSICS) and Supplemental Security Record (SSR).
     The "never married" provision rules out most adults. Why is that necessary? I assume the last provision would rule out anyone who has filed a prior SSI claim. Why is that necessary? Are these two provisions just intended to keep the roll-out slow to allow kinks to be worked out?

Mar 6, 2017

Former Social Security Employee Indicted

     From the New York Daily News:
An ex-Social Security Administration worker was indicted by a Brooklyn federal grand jury for swiping social security numbers and birthdates, authorities said Friday.
Sharon Coffee-Dean, of Queens, is charged with stealing the information of 41 people and selling them to individuals who filed fraudulent tax returns.

Mar 5, 2017

Imposter Phishing Scheme

     From a press release:
The Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, is warning citizens about a nationwide telephone “imposter phishing” scheme.  The Social Security Administration (SSA) and its Office of the Inspector General (OIG) have received several reports from citizens across the country about persons receiving phone calls from individuals posing as OIG investigators.  The caller indicates an issue exists pertaining to the person’s Social Security account or Social Security number (SSN) and directs the person call a non-SSA telephone number to address the issue. 
The reports indicate the calls include a recording from a caller stating she is “Nancy Jones,” an “officer with the Inspector General of Social Security.”  The recording goes on to say the person’s Social Security account, SSN, and/or benefits are suspended, and that he or she should call 806-680-2373 to resolve the issue.  Citizens should be aware that the scheme’s details may vary; however, citizens should avoid calling the number provided, as the unknown caller might attempt to acquire personal information. ...

Mar 4, 2017

Damage At Social Security Central Offices

     From the Baltimore Sun:
Severe storms brought wind gusts upwards of 60 mph Wednesday afternoon, downing trees and power lines, tearing off siding and shingles and breaking windows.  
A person was injured when a gust tore a satellite dish and part of the roof from a building on the Social Security campus in Woodlawn, agency spokesman Mark Hinkle said. A 50-by-100-foot section of the roof was stripped off, exposing heating and cooling equipment, said Natalie Litofsky, a Baltimore County spokeswoman.

Creepy Field Office Employee Quits

     From some television station that tries to keep its call letters a secret:
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla., - A local Social Security Office worker accused of getting personal information from women while on the job, then texting them on their cell phones looking for a relationship, broke his silence exclusively with 4 In Your Corner. 
Despite the allegations, he continued to work at the Charlotte County Office until Friday, when he resigned. 
"The first day it became a news thing, I heard some off hand remarks I just couldn't take. It was the day before my birthday. I just had to explain this to my children and I left in tears," Foster said.

Mar 3, 2017

Ruling Rescinded

     The Social Security Administration has rescinded its Ruling 87-6 on The Role of Prescribed Treatment in the Evaluation of Epilepsy due to the adoption of new Listings for seizure disorders.

Mar 2, 2017

Some Relief For Confused Claimants Because "Nobody Knew Healthcare Could Be So Complicated"

     From Emergency Message EM-16033-REV:
This emergency message (EM) provides instructions for handling Medicare Part B (Supplementary Medical Insurance) enrollment requests from beneficiaries with Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) who also are or were enrolled in an individual Marketplace plan. It also contains instructions for Part B premium surcharge rollback for certain beneficiaries with both Medicare Part A and Part B who have or had Marketplace coverage.
Coverage under Medicare Part A meets the legal requirement for minimum essential coverage. Individuals with Medicare Part A are not eligible to receive premium and cost-sharing assistance (often referred to as advanced payments of the premium tax credit (APTC) or income-based cost sharing reductions (CSRs)) to help pay for a Marketplace plan premium and covered services to make the costs of a Marketplace plan more affordable. Individuals receiving APTC while dually-enrolled in coverage through the a Marketplace and Medicare may have to pay back all or some of the APTC received for months an individual was enrolled in both Marketplace coverage with APTC and Medicare Part A when they file their federal income tax return.
Some people may have had coverage through the Marketplace (and possibly received APTC or CSRs) before being eligible for Medicare. When first eligible for premium-free Medicare Part A, these individuals may have refused or dropped Medicare Part B coverage because the costs for Marketplace coverage, with any financial assistance they may have been receiving, was more affordable than Medicare Part B, and they believed they were eligible for APTC and CSRs. In addition, some people with Medicare Part A coverage may have enrolled in coverage through the Marketplace believing it was an alternative way to get medical coverage equivalent to Medicare Part B at a more affordable cost. These individuals may not have found out they were not eligible for APTCs or CSRs or not learned about the coverage rules prior to the end of their Medicare Initial Enrollment Period (IEP), resulting in them either 1) declining to enroll in Medicare Part B at all; or 2) enrolling in Medicare Part B during the General Enrollment Period (GEP) and being assessed a Medicare Part B late enrollment penalty.
CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] believes that many of these individuals did not receive the information necessary at the time of their Medicare IEP or initial enrollment in coverage through the Marketplace to make an informed decision regarding their Medicare Part B enrollment. ...
Equitable relief will be considered on a case-by-case basis for certain dually-enrolled beneficiaries (those who have or had both Medicare and Marketplace coverage) of any age who refused or dropped Part B and for those who subsequently enrolled in Part B during the 2015, 2016 or 2017 GEP. 
Beneficiaries who refused or dropped Part B may receive equitable relief in the form of an enrollment opportunity with an effective date outlined in Section E of this instruction. The ability to provide the enrollment opportunity under equitable relief is limited to Part B enrollment requests received from September 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. No late enrollment penalty will be applied for individuals who enroll in Part B under this limited equitable relief. ...
     By the way, I had clients who asked about declining Part B for this reason and I told them not to do it. I can't think of a reason to decline Part B other than getting all of one's healthcare from the VA (and being happy with it) or living outside the U.S.
     Also, by the way, I can just imagine a Trump transition team member trying to review this Emergency Message and being completely befuddled by it. As President Trump said, "nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated."

Mar 1, 2017

Something We Rarely See

     Here's a report from Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) about Social Security underpaying claimants. Underpayments happen a lot but OIG seems vastly more interested in overpayments. Both issues deserve attention.