Apr 29, 2017

Underpayment Problems

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):
An OASDI [Old Age, Survivor's and Disability Insurance] underpayment accrues when a beneficiary is due a partial or full monthly benefit amount that has not been paid. SSA’s automated systems should detect and process most underpayments due living beneficiaries. However, when SSA’s systems cannot process these underpayments, SSA employees must manually issue them. Further, SSA employees must manually process all underpayments due deceased beneficiaries.
Manually issued OASDI underpayments of $6,000 or more require a secondary review. However, SSA policy does not require a secondary review of manually issued underpayments less than $6,000. ... 
Of the 250 sampled underpayments, SSA issued 62 (25 percent) incorrectly, with payment errors totaling $90,235. Specifically, SSA employees issued 
  • 45 underpayments totaling $69,348 more than what was due the beneficiaries — we project SSA issued 187,620 underpayments totaling approximately $289 million more than what was due and 
  • 17 underpayments totaling $20,887 less than what was due the beneficiaries — we project that for 70,880 underpayments, SSA did not issue approximately $87 million that was due.
     You might think that the solution would be to just require supervisory approval of all underpayments but there are two problems with this. First, it would require more staff time and the agency lacks the personnel to get its current workload done. Second, supervisory approval would only get you so far. Supervisors also make mistakes, especially when they're overworked.
     If you want better performance from Social Security, you're going to have to give the agency additional operating funds.

Apr 28, 2017

Early Intervention For Schizophrenia Not Preventing Disability

     Schizophrenia is a truly horrible disease. It's tragic to see once promising young people reduced to unstable, unproductive lives haunted by the madness of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia always starts before age 30 but continues for the rest of a person's life. There is no cure for schizophrenia. The treatments available generally make long term institutionalization unnecessary and can prevent frequent hospitalization but do little to restore normal functioning. In particular, the treatments available don't touch the negative symptoms of schizophrenia -- lethargy and inability to have appropriate emotional and social responses. The negative symptoms may not sound that bad but they are actually devastating. Everyone familiar with the disease prays for some treatment that would improve the lives of schizophrenics.
     One approach to schizophrenia that seemed to have promise was early intervention -- identifying schizophrenics as soon as possible and offering them intensive treatment. This led to various Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) studies funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).
     Some results from a RAISE study are available and they're not encouraging, at least insofar as Social Security might be concerned. Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a RAISE study:
Method: The Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode–Early Treatment Program (RAISE-ETP) study, a 34-site cluster-randomized trial, compared NAVIGATE, a coordinated specialty care program, to usual community care over 2 years. Receipt of SSA benefits and clinical outcomes were assessed at program entry and every 6 months for 2 years....

Apr 27, 2017

Not Much Fraud To Talk About

     The Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing yesterday on antifraud efforts at Social Security. The hearing was more notable for what didn't happen than what happened. There was no new announcement of some fraud ring preying upon Social Security. I'm not sure how much longer Republicans will try to milk the Conn case but they don't have a new case to talk about.
     The agency witness talked about anti-fraud computer systems that Social Security has installed. Apparently, a fair amount of money and time has gone into this. However, the agency witness didn't have anything to say in his written remarks about fraud that had been uncovered using these systems. Maybe it's too early to expect results from these systems, maybe Social Security hasn't tried hard enough to make the systems work or perhaps organized fraud at Social Security is actually quite uncommon. I think the Republican leadership of the Subcommittee would really, really, really like for Social Security to uncover lots of organized fraud since that would be in keeping with their political and social beliefs. I think they're going to be disappointed. If there is anything organized, it's probably quite small and more likely involves Social Security employees than members of the public.

     Update: Here's a report from the right wing Washington Times on the hearing. You can sense the disappointment pervading the piece.

Apr 26, 2017

Don't Plan On Working On And On

     From CNBC:
A stark reality of retirement planning is that your future is riding on the quality (read: plausibility) of your assumptions. Abject optimism can be dangerous. ...
[A] potential flawed assumption is that you will be able to keep working past 65. Yet the recently released 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute finds that more than half of workers say they expect to still be on the clock past age 65. By comparison, less than 15 percent of today's retirees kept working that long. ...
It's simply too risky to assume you will indeed be able to work longer. A survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) found that nearly two-thirds of retirees left the workforce earlier than expected because they were laid off, reorg-ed out of a position, or due to general unhappiness with a job. Only 16 percent of retirees who exited the work force earlier than they expected did so because they felt they could financially afford to.
Moreover, a new report from Prudential puts a dollar value on why your current employer may not be inclined to do back flips to keep an older you happy and engaged. The estimated one-year cost to a firm when an employee delays retirement: $50,000. ...
     And they're not even mentioning the effects of health conditions on retirement decisions.
     Raising full retirement age to 67 was a bad idea. Increasing it further would be a terrible idea. People need security in retirement and Social Security is the only assurance that the vast majority of Americans have or will ever have.

Apr 25, 2017

What Do You Think?

Apr 24, 2017

Comments Will Now Be Moderated

     It's become apparent to me that most of the comments posted on this blog are now coming from two sources, paid shills and cranks. The shills bother me worse than the cranks. When I see multiple comments filed at 3:30 in the morning all saying that government employees are lazy, Social Security is horribly inefficient and its management is corrupt, I'm pretty sure it's been posted by paid shills who are seeking to undermine funding for Social Security. Russia isn't the only one who employs these shills. It's a cheap way to influence public opinion. Trump's election suggests that it can make a difference. Yes, I do believe the Koch brothers and others are this devious.
     I will now moderate the comments. If you submit a comment, it won't be posted until I have reviewed it. I'll try to act on the comments promptly but I'm not making any promises on the time frame. I have a life. I'm going to reject repetitive or abusive comments. I'm not planning to censor them otherwise. It's my blog so I get to make the decisions. I'd be delighted if others would start their own Social Security blogs. Many voices should be heard.

Life Expectancy And Retirement Benefits

     The National Bureau of Economic Research has done a study on increases in life expectancy and retirement benefits in the United States. A few years ago when this study was begun there was much talk of increasing the full retirement age for Social Security benefits. That talk has mostly died away. It's politically impossible now. It's hard to imagine it becoming politically possible in the foreseeable future. Perhaps the least unlikely change would go in the opposite direction -- lowering the age limit for Medicare from 65 to 50 or 55. There is a fair chance of that happening should Democrats control the White House and Congress after the 2020 elections or even if Democrats control Congress after the 2018 elections.
     The study points out what was already well known, that while there has been an increase in overall life expectancy, those with lifetime earnings in the lowest 40% are experiencing little or no increase in life expectancy. This is increasing the gap in lifetime benefits between those with the highest and lowest lifetime income by $130,000.     
     The study contains this interesting graph (click on it to see it full size):
     To explain this, the 1930 cohort is people born in 1930 and the 1960 cohort is people born in 1960. Quintile 1 is the 20% of people who have the lowest lifetime earnings while quintile 5 is the 20% of people who have the highest lifetime earnings.
     Note that there was essentially no change between the 1930 cohort and the 1960 cohort. People make silly arguments about how different generations of people are vastly different. I've never seen that. 
     Note that poor people are much more likely to draw disability benefits than wealthy people. It shouldn't be hard to understand why. The same factors that make people poor make them more likely to become disabled. Low cognitive abilities, low educational attainments and serious chronic mental illness all predispose to both poverty and disability. Also, poverty leads to poor health care access which also predisposes to disability. None of this has anything to do with rural versus urban poverty. There's just more poverty these days in rural areas than urban areas.

Apr 23, 2017

Glad This Didn't Happen Here

     U.S. Social Security has its problems but it does an excellent job of protecting data security. Look to India for an example of how things can go very wrong. Somehow, the names, addresses, bank account information, and Aadhaar number (the equivalent of a U.S. Social Security number) of 1.4 million Indians were posted on a Indian government website.

Apr 22, 2017

Still Livid

     Disability advocates remain livid about that Washington Post piece that wrongly suggested that any poor person could get Social Security disability benefits just by asking.

Apr 21, 2017

Why So Much Disability In Rural Areas?

     I'm not sure exactly what The Center for Michigan is but they have posted a long piece about the high rate of disability in poor regions of the state. You wonder if they, unlike the Washington Post, have their numbers right.
     As I've said before, the high rate of disability in poor rural areas is nothing new. It's been a prominent fact for me since I started in the private practice of law in 1979. It's where my clients are clustered. As I've also posted, I see nothing surprising in this. Younger, healthier, smarter, better educated individuals leave poor rural areas to find jobs in urban areas. The population left behind is on average older, sicker, less smart and less well educated. These are all factors that lead to higher rates of disability. People who live in poor rural areas have poor access to health care. Poor access to health care also predisposes to disability.
     The subtext of pieces such as this is that these people aren't really disabled; they're just poor. And all these poor people who aren't sick getting on Social Security disability just shows how lax the standards are. The solution, of course, is to tighten up on disability and enact policies which "grow" the economy. Of course, the best way to "grow" the economy is to cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans. I think virtually everyone actually involved in the Social Security disability process knows it's quite difficult to get on Social Security but that's not what people are hearing.
     By the way, pieces like this don't simply arise out of a reporter's curiosity. Whenever you see David Autor quoted, you can bet that a Washington think tank supported by Koch brothers money planted the piece. All these pieces seem like they come out of a cookie cutter which is why I sort of expect that the stats quoted might be wrong.

Apr 20, 2017

Pete Peterson Keeps Wasting Money

     The McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative, which is part of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), has issued a book containing "Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program." 
     CRFB is officially bipartisan and has Democrats as well as Republicans on its board. However, it is closely affiliated with Pete Peterson who seems to have cutting Social Security as his primary goal in life. Peterson has huge wealth to support his mania.
     The book has been out for a month or two but has not been promoted, probably because there's little in the book that would actually bring about cuts in Social Security disability or which is practical.
     The book is a mishmash with each chapter by a different author or group of authors. For the most part, I'd say that few, if any, of the authors have ever met a Social Security disability claimant or recipient. It seems to mostly be "blind people describing an elephant" or perhaps describing how they would build a better elephant. I think that if the authors of this book had to actually try to help real, live Social Security disability claimants that they would be likely to say "Who knew disability could be so complicated?"
     One of the most important types of recommendation in the book is for "early intervention" to prevent disability. Roughly speaking, the idea is that if people can receive "early intervention" of some type after they become sick or injured, that reliance upon disability benefits can be avoided. I have no idea how this would work. I have no idea what the "early intervention" would consist of. More important, I'm pretty sure the authors don't have much idea how this would work or what the "early intervention" would consist of. I see no reason to believe that such "early intervention" would help any significant group of people. One of the authors is at least honest enough to tell us:
What is clear to me from all three papers in this section is that there is neither completed research nor an evidence base upon which to enact nationwide early intervention or work support programs. Additional study and evaluation will be needed to generate this evidence; certainly before making changes to the SSDI program.
      However, even this statement assumes that such evidence would be forthcoming if the "additional study and evaluation" is done. I think there's strong reason to doubt that.
     There already is a good deal of "early intervention" in workers compensation cases, at least where I am. All I've seen from that is heavy-handed pressure on claimants to resume work, even for brief periods of time, not because the injured person achieves any long term benefit but because it helps the employer's insurance company limit what it has to pay. I've seen no evidence that it has done anything to reduce reliance upon Social Security disability benefits. If there were such evidence, I think one of the authors of this book would be touting it.
     Otherwise, the book makes recommendations such as eliminating reconsideration, introducing some sort of government representative at hearings, encouraging private long term disability insurance, performing more continuing disability reviews, time limited disability benefits, partial disability benefits and changing the definition of disability. I'm not going to bother to discuss any of this since none of it could possibly be adopted at this time or at any foreseeable time in the future. Yes, for example, doing away with reconsideration would be nice but it would cost a lot of money since far more people would request hearings and hearings are more expensive so it's not going to happen. If you really think this is possible, you fail to understand the problems that Social Security has in getting enough money to continue its current operations much less more money to fund a more expensive version of its operations.
     Overall, when I read this book, I keep thinking the authors are nothing more than amateur dilettantes whose "advice" to Social Security policymakers is no more valuable than the "advice" I might give to the head coach of an athletic team I follow.

Apr 19, 2017

Hearing On Stopping Disability Fraud

     From a press release:
House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) announced today that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing, entitled “Stopping Disability Fraud: Risk, Prevention, and Detection,” on Wednesday, April 26, at 10:00 AM in room 2020 of the Rayburn House Office Building. At the hearing, Members will discuss the status of the Social Security Administration’s efforts to prevent disability fraud after several high-profile multi-million-dollar fraud schemes. On the day of the hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will release a new report to update Members on the SSA’s efforts to fight disability fraud. ...
In 2015, the GAO created the Fraud Risk Framework as a guide to federal agencies in developing antifraud strategies by using leading practices for managing fraud risk. As part of the framework, the GAO recommends that agencies like the SSA conduct a fraud risk assessment and develop their antifraud strategies based on identified fraud risks. In response, Chairman Johnson requested the GAO to conduct a study of the SSA’s implementation of the Fraud Risk Framework and to provide an analysis of the SSA’s antifraud activities. GAO will release the findings of its study at the Subcommittee’s April 26 hearing.

We Remember

     A message sent yesterday:

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast Sent: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 2:01 PM Subject: Oklahoma City Bombing, Remembering Those Affected

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: Oklahoma City Bombing, Remembering Those Affected

Tomorrow we commemorate the 168 Oklahomans who died on April 19, 1995, when a bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 
The nation suffered a great loss with this act of terrorism and we experienced our own personal sorrow with 16 Social Security employees being among the fatalities.  Today, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum stands where the Murrah Building once stood.  The museum chronicles the journey of loss, resilience, justice, and hope – something we can all build from and remember. 
Please join me tomorrow in a moment of silence at 9:02 a.m., to remember those lost and their loved ones.
Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner

Failing To Take Responsibility For a Drive-By Shooting

     After being criticized for inaccuracies in Disabled, Or Just Desperate?, the Washington Post has issued a "correction." However, as  Rebecca Vallas, Rachel West and Katherine Gallagher Robbins point out, the "correction" doesn't go anywhere near correcting all the mistakes in the misleading article.

Apr 18, 2017

Appropriations Situation Looking Surprisingly Good

     From the Huffington Post:
Republicans may hold the House, the Senate and the White House, but when it comes to the upcoming omnibus spending bill, it’s Democrats who look in control. ... 
It’s the first real instance where Republicans and President Donald Trump need Democratic votes to enact their agenda ― short of once again blowing up Senate rules ― and that leverage has Democrats blocking many Republican priorities. ... 
The difficulty for Republicans is that they need eight votes in the Senate to pass an omnibus spending bill, which will fund the government until October. Needing eight Democratic votes in the Senate is basically akin to needing all Democrats, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will have to sign off on the bill. And if Schumer has to give the deal his blessing, it’s tough for Republicans to get much. ...
Almost every lawmaker concedes they are going to blow through the Budget Control Act spending caps Congress set in 2011. The question is by how much and for what priorities. Republicans would like to add substantial money to defense. But the traditional agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Washington has been that, for every dollar of defense spending above the caps, non-defense priorities get a dollar too. ... 
Perhaps the best sign of just where a deal stands is that Democrats told The Huffington Post that negotiations were going well, whereas conservatives sounded hopeless about supporting the measure. ...

Apr 17, 2017

Will The Last One To Leave Please Turn Out The Lights

      The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated figures for the number of employees at the Social Security Administration -- and the downward trend continues:
  • December 2016 63,364
  • September 2016 64,394 
  • December 2015 65,518
  • September 2015 65,717
  • June 2015 65,666
  • March 2015 64,432
  • December 2014 65,430
  • September 2014 64,684
  • June 2014 62,651
  • March 2014 60,820
  • December 2013 61,957
  • September 2013 62,543
  • June 2013 62,877
  • March 2013 63,777
  • December 2012 64,538
  • September 2012 65,113
  • September 2011 67,136
  • December 2010 70,270
  • December 2009 67,486
  • September 2009 67,632
  • December 2008 63,733
  • September 2008 63,990

Apr 15, 2017

I Wonder Why Mick Mulvaney Thinks Trump Didn't Mean What He Said

     From The Hill:
President Trump scrapped potential reforms to Social Security and Medicare while preparing his first budget request, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. ...
“I laid to him the options that Mick Mulvaney would put on a piece of paper,” Mulvaney told CNBC in an interview that aired Tuesday. “And [Trump] looked at one and said, ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘Well, that's a change to part of Social Security.’ He said, ‘No. No.’ He said, ‘I told people I wouldn't change that when I ran. And I'm not going to change that. Take that off the list.’ ”

Apr 14, 2017

He Takes Fox News Seriously Which Marks Him As A Fool

     Take a look at the memo that Mick Mulvaney sent out to all federal agencies on the subject of "Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce." The amount of naivete and arrogance contained in this one memo is just stunning. It's what you get when someone takes all the nonsense spewed out by Fox News seriously. Of course, the federal government is just crammed full of waste, fraud and abuse. Of course, all it takes to end this and bring about dramatic reductions in government expenditures is for a tough-minded businessman to come in and demand that agencies become efficient. 
     Like Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney will have to learn on the job and to do that he's going to have to abandon many of his cherished beliefs. One way or another, he's going to be defeated by his job because the federal government is vastly more complicated than he believes and he really has no idea in the world of how to "reform" it. He doesn't know it but there have been endless attempts to "reform" the federal government. Mick Mulvaney doesn't know it but he isn't smarter than his predecessors.

Apr 13, 2017

Washington Post Screwed Up Big-Time

     From Talk Poverty:
Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about Social Security disability benefits in rural counties, followed this past Sunday by an editorial calling for a wholesale restructuring of Social Security Disability Insurance. ...
The Post’s central assertion—flanked by an interactive map—was that as many as one-third of working-age adults in rural communities are living on monthly disability checks. But the data analysis supporting this argument doesn’t hold up. ...
In a sidebar to the article, the Post says they used publicly available county-level data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) to count “every working-age person who receives benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program or both.” But the Social Security Administration doesn’t publish the data needed for that calculation. In an email response to our request for these data, the SSA  confirmed that these data are “not readily available.”
The Center for American Progress also reached out to the Post to ask about their data. The Post confirmed in an email exchange that they did indeed rely on publicly available data, and identified the specific reports, tables, and figures they used.
We tried to replicate their analysis, and here’s why their numbers are flat-out wrong....
The analysis overcounts working-age people receiving disability benefits by nearly 500,000. The SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries in the age range the Post defines as “working age” (18 to 64). SSA’s OASDI Beneficiaries by State and County report does provide county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries (Table 4), including disabled worker beneficiaries. However, of the 8,909,430 disabled worker SSDI beneficiaries whom the table breaks down by county, 472,080—or about 5 percent—are age 65 or older. Including these older disabled workers would inflate the share of working-age people with disabilities.
It overcounts “disabled adult children” by about 750,000. About 1 million SSDI beneficiaries are disabled adult children (DACs)—people whose disability onset occurred before age 22 and who are insured for SSDI benefits based on a parent’s work record. Since the Post claims to count working-age people receiving SSDI, SSI, or both, they need to include working-age DACs. But—contrary to the Post’s data sidebar—there are no data available on working-age DACs at the county level. ...
 It can’t accurately adjust for double-counting the 1.3 million working-age people who receive both SSDI and SSI (a.k.a. “concurrent beneficiaries”). ...
It’s missing data for a whopping 106 counties. Mostly because of small population size, SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSI beneficiaries for 106 counties. This would be problematic for any county-level analysis. But it’s especially notable given that the Post’s article focuses on rural counties—as some 97 of the counties with missing data are rural. It’s unclear how the Post treats these counties in their analysis. ...

"From A Dud To A Stud In Less Than 14 Months"

   Rob Clopp, the outgoing Chief Information Officer at Social Security, is proud of what happened with the Disability Case Processing System (DCPS) under his watch. From Federal News Radio:
The Social Security Administration has turned its disability case processing system from a dud to a stud in less than 14 months.
Over the previous four years, SSA had spent almost $300 million for software and had little to show for it.
Rob Klopp, the Social Security Administration’s outgoing chief information officer, said SSA did a complete turnaround with DCPS by taking over the management of the project, applying an agile or dev/ops approach and listening to their customers at the state level.
SSA launched the first iteration of DCPS on Dec. 16 and expects to continue updates and deployments throughout 2017.
 “This time through, we accomplished more for a fraction, really a small fraction of the spend of the previous attempt, and deployed a production actually in December that is now processing cases, end-to-end real life cases,” Klopp said on Ask the CIO. “We’ve completed this 14-month project for a little over $30 million. It was a giant, giant success. By the way, it’s also a fraction of the original estimate, which was not counting that this thing blew up.”
SSA first hired Lockheed Martin and MicroPact to modernize the Disability Case Processing System in January 2011 under a six-year, $200 million contract. ...
By 2014, Klopp said he joined SSA and the program was in trouble and spending well above the initial $200 million estimate.
“The vendor was always one release away from victory, and it just never came,” he said. ...

Apr 12, 2017

Hiring Freeze Ends

     From the New York Times:
The Trump administration on Wednesday will lift the hiring freeze that it had imposed on the federal work force, even as it directs agencies to submit plans for personnel cuts and other restructuring moves to fit the budget blueprint released by President Trump last month. ...
The administration is now making clear that it is not giving a green light for agencies to start hiring; instead, the White House is seeking long-term plans from each agency to, in most cases, prepare for cuts. ...

OIG Report On DCPS

     Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed a "Congressional Response Report" on Progress in Developing the Disability Case Processing System as of March 2017. Here are some excerpts from the report (footnote omitted):
SSA partners with State disability determination services (DDS) to evaluate disability claims and make disability determinations. The DDSs use various customized systems to process disability cases.
DCPS is an SSA initiative to develop a common system for all DDSs that the Agency expects will simplify system support and maintenance, improve the speed and quality of the disability process, and reduce the overall growth rate of infrastructure costs.
SSA is using an Agile approach to developing DCPS. The Agency continually identifies functional requirements that are expressed as user stories. Each user story is assigned a level of effort, called a story point. Velocity refers to the number of story points completed during an iteration,or “sprint.” User stories that need to be addressed are considered the backlog. ...
In May 2016, SSA estimated the first release of DCPS would be available in December 2016 — at a cost of less than $38 million — and would support initial disability claims and reconsiderations. However, the Agency subsequently scaled down the functionality it would include in the first release....
At the time of our review, SSA was planning to deliver the functionality needed to process all initial disability claims and reconsiderations (as well as initial continuing disability reviews) by January 2018 at an estimated cumulative cost of $75 million. ...
SSA reported, that, as of March 14, 2017, it had completed 12,810 of the 22,082 total story points identified to-date (58 percent). ...
In August 2016, the vendor that supported the software used by 46 of the 52 DDSs announced plans to modernize its legacy systems over a 24-month period. Our December 2016 report stated that SSA should evaluate its plans to ensure it can demonstrate to Congress and the public that it has chosen the most cost-effective alternative to achieve its goals. At the time of this review, SSA was evaluating the cost and schedule of the internally developed DCPS compared to the vendor-developed alternative....

Hiltzik Doesn't Like The Idea Of Replacing FICA

     Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times doesn't think much of the idea being floated by the Trump Administration of replacing the FICA tax that funds Social Security with some other tax.  Hiltzik's rationale mostly comes down to the logic in this old quote from Franklin Roosevelt:
We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions. … With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.

A Good Response

     From the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
At a time of unprecedented inequality, the Washington Post is quick to seize on the country's real problems: a Social Security disability program that is too generous. ...
Just to get some orientation, the benefit that the Post considers to be too generous averages $1,170 a month. ...
The concern about the low employment rates (EPOP) in the United States is reasonable, but it bears no obvious relationship to the Social Security disability insurance program. The EPOP for prime age workers (ages 25-54) has fallen by almost four percentage points since 2000, with no increase in the generosity of the disability program. In fact, if we combine the number of workers receiving disability and workers compensation, there has been little change in the share of the working age population receiving benefits over this period.
In fact, the United States ranks near the bottom of OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a major international body] countries in the generosity of its benefits, yet it also ranks near the bottom in the employment rate for prime age workers. In its most recent data, the OECD put the EPOP for prime age workers in the United States at 78.2 percent. This compares 83.3 percent for the Netherlands, 84.2 percent for Germany, and 86.0 percent for Sweden, all countries that spend considerably more money on disability benefits than the United States. ...

Apr 11, 2017

Kenneth Nibali Passes

     Kenneth Nibali, formerly Associate Commissioner of the Office of Disability at Social Security, passed away on April 4. He was 69.

Living Large On Social Security Disability?

     The Detroit Free Press is running a piece on a woman disabled by multiple sclerosis struggling to find a place to live. Her Social Security disability benefits aren't enough to enable her to pay rent, leaving her and her 16 year old daughter homeless.

Hiring Freeze Starting To Cause Frostbite

      From The Week:

On Jan. 23, President Trump signed an executive order instituting a 90-day federal hiring freeze, as the first step in a "long-term plan" to cut the federal workforce. It's unclear how far along that plan is, but 79 days into his presidency, the effects of Trump's freeze are already being felt at government agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday — and the public is starting to feel the reduced staffing levels, too. ...
At the Social Security Administration, an inability to replace the workforce after departures, combined with a rise in claims as baby boomers retire, has led to longer lines at offices and on the phone. "The agency is doing things they never did before, like sending people home without any service," Witold Skwierczynski, president of a union that represents 25,000 Social Security employees, tells The Wall Street Journal. "You can't just establish a hiring freeze and expect us to continue to do all our work." ...

Apr 10, 2017

Why So Brutal?

     A patient dying of cancer is told her Social Security disability claim has been approved but she's also told that she must wait six months before she'll be paid a monthly check. The patient thinks that's crazy. Why would the Social Security Administration behave in such a brutal way? Because they have to. It's the way the law is written. Anybody want to justify this as reasonable? Anybody want to make an argument about discouraging dependency? What about "ENTITLEMENTS ARE DRIVING US BANKRUPT?" I put that last one all in caps since that's usually the tone of anyone making the "argument" even though the same people always favor humongous increases in defense spending.
     And if you think that six month waiting period is terrible, what do you think of the two and a half year waiting period for Medicare?

Trump Wants To End FICA?

     From the Associated Press:
President Donald Trump has scrapped the tax plan he campaigned on and is going back to the drawing board in a search for Republican consensus behind legislation to overhaul the U.S. tax system. ... 

One circulating this past week would change the House Republican plan to eliminate much of the payroll tax and cut corporate tax rates. This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. ... 

This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts even though it would involve changing the funding mechanism for Social Security, according to the lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal without disrupting early negotiations. ... 

Apr 9, 2017

Write About What You Know

     A Washington Post editorial is calling for "reform" of Social Security disability benefits. I don't know how to characterize the editorial other than to say they thing "something" must be done. That "something" must encourage disabled people to work. The Post seems unfamiliar with the extensive work incentives that already exist in the Social Security Disability programs. It's a really incoherent editorial.

Why Isn't The President's Photo Posted In Federal Offices?

     A newspaper in Wilmington, NC is asking why Donald Trump's picture isn't posted in federal offices, including Social Security, in that city. Is it some dark plot by Democrats? What I'm hearing is that it's not just Wilmington. The photos haven't yet been distributed. It hasn't been that long since Inauguration Day.
     By the way, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, I don't see the point of posting the President's photo in federal offices. At best, it's a needless expense.

NADE Newsletter

     The National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE), an organization of the personnel who make initial and reconsideration determinations on disability claims for Social Security, has issued its Spring 2017 newsletter.

Apr 8, 2017

Wait Until Trump Hears About This -- Social Security Helping Foreigners Work In U.S.

     From the Cape Cod Times:
The Social Security Administration will have satellite locations set up in Orleans and Provincetown starting Wednesday to help J-1 and H-2B seasonal workers finalize their applications before they begin working at local businesses. ...   
“Seasonal workers must obtain a Social Security number before working in the United States, and the Cape Cod Chamber (of Commerce) has worked on behalf of its member businesses to implement special remote locations to assist with their overall business operations and the time it takes to travel to Hyannis to fulfill Social Security requirements,” a statement from the chamber says.

Three Pinocchios For OMB Director Who Said Social Security Disability Is "Very Wasteful"

     The Washington Post gives Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), three Pinocchios for his statement that Social Security disability is "very wasteful."

Apr 7, 2017

ODAR Numbers

     Below is the Workload and Performance Summary for Social Security's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) for the month ending February 24, 2017. Click on it to view it full size. The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) published this in its newsletter, which isn't available online.
     I noticed a number of things:
  • New appeals are declining
  • Overtime went up greatly starting in December
  • Backlogs are going up
  • Senior attorney decisions are minimal (see the footnote of the summary)

Apr 6, 2017

Nine Year Sentence For Stealing Social Security Checks

     From the Tampa Bay Times:
A former U.S. Postal Service mail handler was ordered to serve nine years in prison Wednesday for stealing close to $3 million in Social Security checks from a St. Petersburg mail-processing facility.
Stacy Darnell Mitchell, 48, once worked at the St. Petersburg Processing and Distribution Facility, where over the course of several months in 2012, he stole more than 3,000 checks....

That's A Total Of $83.2 Million If I'm Adding Right

     From the Associated Press:
A Kentucky lawyer facing prison time for a scheme to defraud the government of nearly $600 million in federal disability payments took another legal hit Wednesday when a judge ordered him to pay nearly $31.5 million in damages to the government and two whistleblowers.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar was the latest fallout for Eric C. Conn, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Social Security" who lived in a palatial home and was a frequent world traveler. Thapar ordered Conn to pay $12 million in damages and $19 million in penalties. The penalties represent the maximum $11,000 assessed for each fraudulent claim identified.
"He doesn't have those kind of assets anymore," said Scott White, one of Conn's attorneys.
Conn pleaded guilty recently to stealing from the Social Security Administration and bribing a federal judge. ...
As part of that plea deal, Conn is to pay $5.7 million to the government, reflecting the amount of fraudulent fees he received, and reimburse to Social Security $46 million it paid in disability claims based on fraudulent information Conn used. ...

Apr 5, 2017

First Social Security Regs Under Trump Administration

     From today's Federal Register:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is issuing a final rule to amend its Privacy Act regulation exempting portions of a system of records from certain provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, entitled Anti-Harassment & Hostile Work Environment Case Tracking and Records System. Because this system will contain some investigatory material compiled for law enforcement purposes, this rule will exempt those records within this new system of records from specific provisions of the Privacy Act.
     The Privacy Act allows individuals to inspect government records about them. This regulatory change appears to be intended to prevent individuals from inspecting these records.
     By the way, the website of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) doesn't show this regulation as one that was even submitted for review. I would guess that the OMB website isn't properly reflecting what's going on.

Apr 4, 2017

"Disability Isn't So Easy Even For The Desperate"

     Lynda Waddington of The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa explains why Disability Isn't So Easy Even For The Desperate.

Apr 3, 2017

"The Wheels Are Already Coming Off The Bus"

     From the Roanoke Times:
More than a million people, including 5,000 in Southwest Virginia, are trying to convince a skeptical federal disability program that they are too disabled to work. ...
Federal disability claimants who have been turned down for assistance, but who insist they deserve the aid, wait an average of a year and a half for a final decision from the Social Security Administration. ... 
People living in the Roanoke area wait nearly two years. The local office ranks 155th, or 10th from the bottom nationally, in average case processing time, according to agency data. 
A hiring freeze ordered by the Trump administration means there’s little to no chance for a substantial increase in staffing to address the problem, according to an association of judges who work in the system. 
“I shudder to think what will happen if we don’t get significant relief from the hiring freeze. We desperately need support staff,” said Administrative Law Judge Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. 
“The wheels are already coming off the bus,” said Zahm, who hears Social Security cases in Buffalo, New York. ...  
One in three support jobs in the Roanoke office is vacant, according to association figures. One judge’s job is vacant as well. The backlog of disputed disability cases, which exceeds 5,600, isn’t large by national standards. But the office’s nine judges deal with above-average amounts of paperwork, which increases decision-making time. ... 
That’s especially true in Roanoke, where 29 percent of case files run more than 1,000 pages, above the national average of 22 percent. Small case files, those with fewer than 500 pages, make up 15 percent of Roanoke’s case load, well below the national average of 28 percent. A judge must read each file, including handwritten medical notes. ...

Apr 2, 2017

Inadequate Budget Causes Declines In Customer Service

     From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):
Years of Social Security Administration (SSA) funding cuts have hampered the agency’s ability to serve the American people ...
The current 2017 spending measure, set to expire at the end of April, froze funding for basic SSA functions like staffing field offices and call centers at last year’s level. ...
SSA’s core operating budget shrank by 10 percent from 2010 to 2016 in inflation-adjusted terms even as the demands on SSA reached record highs. The freeze on SSA’s operating funds in the 2017 continuing resolution (CR) only stressed the agency further. Anticipating the CR, SSA imposed a hiring freeze in the spring of 2016 and then eliminated nearly all overtime when the CR began.  ... Beneficiaries and taxpayers are paying the price:
  • SSA has lost 1,400 field staff since the hiring freeze began. As a result, 18,000 field office visitors every day must wait more than an hour for service. Nearly half of visitors must wait at least three weeks for an appointment.
  • SSA’s teleservice centers have 450 fewer agents than they need to handle the 37 million calls they receive each year. As a result, most callers to SSA’s national 800 number don’t get their questions resolved. The average wait for an agent is 18 minutes, and nearly half of callers hang up before connecting. Another 13 percent of callers get busy signals.
  • SSA has been able to hire more staff to address appeals for disability benefits, in part due to the $150 million in dedicated funding that policymakers provided for this purpose in 2017.  As a result, SSA has made initial progress in reducing its record backlogs. But that progress will disappear unless the President and Congress continue to provide adequate funding in the final 2017 appropriation bill and in future years.
  • The hiring freeze and cutbacks in overtime have hampered SSA’s ability to complete behind-the-scenes work, leading to growing delays in processing applications or changing benefits when a beneficiary’s circumstances change. This creates unnecessary hardship for beneficiaries. It also costs taxpayers, since it allows overpayments to build up and delays their collection — increasing the risk that they will never be recovered. By the end of 2016, the number of pending behind-the-scenes tasks had more than doubled. ...

Apr 1, 2017

Why Do Claims Like This Get Denied?

     I just took on a client whose Social Security disability claim was medically denied even though the Disability Determination Service knew he recently had a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) installed. No, this wasn't some technical denial. No, there's no date last insured issue. They just flat said he wasn't disabled. An LVAD is a partial artificial heart. In this case, it's being used as a last ditch measure to help the patient survive until a heart transplant is available. This isn't the first time I've seen this sort of thing. I had another client recently who had an LVAD installed. He didn't make it out of the hospital alive after he had it installed. It was obvious he was headed in this direction but he was still denied.