Dec 13, 2019

Opposition To Proposed Rule On Continuing Disability Reviews

     From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The Trump administration is proposing changes to Social Security that could terminate disability payments to hundreds of thousands of Americans, particularly older people and children.

The new rule would change aspects of disability reviews — the methods by which the Social Security Administration determines whether a person continues to qualify for benefits. Few recipients are aware of the proposal, which is open for public comment through January. ...
The new rule, advocates for low-income Americans say, is just a way to push people off the disability rolls.

“I have serious concerns about this proposed rule,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), adding that it “appears to be yet another attempt by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for people with disabilities to receive benefits.” ...
     I don't trust the people behind this proposal at all. I'm sure their motivations are bad. They want to cut as many people off benefits as possible. However, they know that cutting a lot of people off benefits would be highly unpopular. Thus, they try to work around the edges. However, there's little they can do without legislative changes that won't happen. I don't think this proposal amounts to much.

Merry Christmas

Dec 12, 2019

Field Offices To Open To Public On Saturdays?

     I'm hearing that Social Security Commissioner Saul is considering opening his agency's field offices to the public on Saturdays. Nothing is definite yet. This comes on the heels of a recent decision to keep the field offices open Wednesday afternoons.
     I represent claimants before the Social Security Administration. I am extremely concerned about the level of service the agency delivers. If I thought this would help, I'd applaud it. However, I know it's going to have the opposite effect. Field office staff was already stretched almost to the breaking point before the decision to keep the offices open Wednesday afternoons. There is now no time for field office staff to deal with complicated time-consuming tasks because they're on a treadmill dealing with customers who want to be seen. You make the problem worse if you open the field offices on Saturdays. Opening the offices on Saturdays would be great for service if the agency had plenty of staff. With severe staff shortages, it can only hurt service.
     It concerns me that many field office employees are eligible to retire. How will they react to being forced to come in on Saturdays to deal with claimants? My guess is that a significant number will decide to retire. Those experienced employees are the very ones who are most productive. A wave of retirements even if immediately replaced with new employees will mean worse service because the new employees won't be as productive and will make many mistakes.
     It bothers me that the Commissioner seems to know little about what goes on in the field offices and isn't listening to those who do. Please go out of your office, Mr. Saul, and talk with field office personnel. Let them show you what they do all day.

Bill To Require Mailing Of Annual Earnings Statements Clears First Hurdle

     A bill that would require the Social Security Administration to resume mailing annual earnings statements has passed the House Social Security Subcommittee. This is a bipartisan bill that faces no opposition in the House.

Social Security Helps Minority Households Overcome Wealth Disadvantage

      From Alicia Munnell, published in Market Watch:
A forthcoming study by two of my colleagues, Wenliang Hou and Geoff Sanzenbacher, looks at retirement wealth by race. ...
The results are shown in the table below. Without Social Security, the wealth of white households was seven times that of black households and five times that of Hispanic households. Add in Social Security and the disparity for both black and Hispanic households is reduced to 2 to 1. 
The reason that Social Security has such a powerful effect is that the program is universal and its benefit formula is progressive. A universal program allows minority workers to build up credits as they move from job to job. This constancy differs from employer-sponsored retirement plans, where minorities often work for employers that do not provide coverage. A progressive benefit formula provides much higher benefits relative to earnings for low-wage workers than for their high-wage counterparts. Since blacks and Hispanics earn significantly less than white workers, they receive a much higher percentage of their preretirement earnings in Social Security benefits.  ...

Merry Christmas

Dec 11, 2019

DCPS Remains Problematic

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
SSA [Social Security Administration] is developing DCPS [Disability Case Processing System] as a common case processing system for the DDSs [Disability Determination Services]. The Agency expects DCPS to simplify system support and maintenance, improve the speed and quality of the disability process, and reduce the growth rate of infrastructure costs.
SSA is using an incremental approach to develop and deploy DCPS. In December 2016, the Agency released its first working software to three DDSs, enabling them to process certain disability cases in the new system. Since then, the Agency has developed and implemented new releases that have provided additional functionality and has made the system available to users in 31 DDSs.
In September 2019, SSA made DCPS available to 31 participating DDSs, that, on average, used DCPS to process approximately 7 percent of their workload. DDS Administrators reported gaps in functionality prevented them from increasing their use of DCPS. SSA’s goal is for the DDSs to transition from their existing case processing systems 9 to 12 months after the DDS deploys DCPS or between July and October 2020, whichever is later. In March 2019, SSA reported to Congress that product development would be completed in September 2019, as scheduled on the DCPS Road Map. SSA plans to continue developing DCPS beyond November2019, and it is unknown when DCPS will provide the functionality needed for a DDS to completely stop using its existing case processing system.
In September 2019, SSA estimated its DCPS costs through Fiscal Year 2022 would be approximately $178 million. However, the Agency still needs to develop functionality and implement DCPS in the remaining 21 DDSs. We could not conclude that SSA’s cost and schedule estimates for developing and implementing DCPS were reasonable because SSA had not determined when DDSs will have the functionality to process all their workloads in DCPS. Further, until DCPS has the functionality DDSs need to process all their workloads, the DDSs will need to continue using their existing systems, which—according to the Agency—cost approximately $31 million annually to operate and maintain. ...

Merry Christmas

Dec 10, 2019

Senators Object To Ending Telework

     From Government Executive:
A group of 44 Democratic senators on Monday urged Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul to reverse his decision to cancel telework for nearly 12,000 employees. ...
In a letter Monday, 44 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., urged Saul to “reconsider” the decision to end the telework program.
“We understand that SSA’s new contract with the American Federation of Government Employees has just come into effect, and that this contract conferred some degree of discretion to SSA management to set new rules for teleworking,” the lawmakers wrote. “We do not believe, however, that this justifies management’s unilateral decision to rescind telework entirely for the 12,000 affected employees . . . We are concerned that SSA is not providing sufficient time for workers to alter their arrangements to account for this policy change.”
The senators wrote that while improving customer service for Social Security beneficiaries is a laudable goal, killing telework is not the way to go about it. ...

Merry Christmas

Dec 9, 2019

Artificial Intelligence Sought

     From a "Sources Sought" notice posted by the Social Security Administration:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting market research/sources sought to help determine the availability and technical capability of qualified businesses providing an artificial intelligence interface that can provide customer service in a conversational manner. This is not a request for quotations or proposals, and we do not guarantee the issuance of a solicitation as a result of this notice.  We will use the information we obtained from this research for planning purposes only. ...

SSA needs to incorporate technology to supplement our first level customer support interactions with automated and intelligent self-serve options our customers expect. We want to go beyond a static FAQs knowledge base, and interact with customers in a conversational manner using Artificial Intelligence (AI).
This technology should be capable of undergoing both supervised and unsupervised learning for continuously improving its support capability.

The technology should be able to remember actions and contextual details during conversations, and leverage the captured information for suitable responses to other users, as appropriate.

A suitable, user-friendly interface for business experts who will be involved in supervised learning is essential. The interface should allow the experts to define and refine business rules, responses and response patterns, for example.

The technology should include tools that allow testing of user inputs and intent as well as conversation flow.

The new technology cannot require extensive training for proficiency. It must provide flexibility in offering technicians with a broad range of skillsets the opportunity to successfully share and complete tasks for the public.

This technology should support seamless transition of conversation history of authenticated users across channels and sessions.

The technology should recognize when it has reached its limitations with customer support, and offer transferring the customer to a live agent.

The technology should provide appropriate administrative functions to manage users and access for testing, refinements and deployment. In addition, it should include a comprehensive analytics capability.

The technology must continue to give our customers the service they have come to expect to complete business with SSA accurately and quickly, at any time, in any location, and on any platform. ...

Merry Christmas?

Dec 6, 2019

Bill Seeks Annual Social Security Statements

     From a press release issued yesterday:
Today, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John Larson (D-CT), Ways and Means Committee Member Vern Buchanan (R-FL), Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Finance Committee Member Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) introduced the Know Your Social Security Act.

The legislation will clarify the requirement for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail an annual Social Security Statement to all workers ages 25 and older with covered earnings, who are not receiving Social Security benefits. Since Fiscal Year 2011 SSA has failed to mail annual Statements to these Americans, citing limited operating budgets, even though in 1989 and 1990 Congress enacted requirements for SSA to provide a Statement annually. ...
The bill has been endorsed by:
Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC)
Coalition for Paper Options
Justice in Aging
National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
Paralyzed Veterans of America
Social Security Works
The Arc of the United States
The Senior Citizens League

Can They Do This?

     On November 4 my firm received a Title XVI fee by direct deposit. On November 22, Social Security reached back into our bank account and took the money back without any prior notice. We've received no written notice from Social Security about this event.
     Fee overpayments happen from time to time. Typically, we get a notice to return the money. We do. In fact, we’ve generally returned the money even before receiving a notice. I've never seen Social Security just grab the money. Has anyone else seen this? Can they do this?

Dec 5, 2019

Four People Taken Ill At Nashville Field Office But Problem Quickly Solved

     From a television station in Nashville:
Four people have been treated after feeling ill by a reported odor at a social security administration office in Nashville, the Nashville Fire Department (NFD) says.Crews were first dispatched to the social security office on Cumberland Bend around 10:15 a.m. Thursday, when someone smelled the odor and called NFD.
The cause of the odor was determined to be hydrogen sulfide, also called sewer gas, the source of which was a dry plumbing trap. ...
     What's a plumbing trap? You have drains in bathrooms in office buildings. These drains are connected to sewer systems which are full of sewer gas which is nasty stuff. The gas is kept out of the building by a P trap or something like a P trap that depends upon some water caught in the trap to keep the gas out. Let the water evaporate and the gas gets in the building. Run some water into the trap and the problem is solved. Cleaning crews are supposed to take care of this but sometimes forget.

The Invisible Dog Named Timmy

     From The Spectator:
The Social Security office in Detroit is a dispiriting place done up in industrial grays. It is filled with the long, glum faces of those who molder in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy waiting for some faceless bureaucrat to help them. ...
Into this purgatory enters Gus Malone, a raggedy 52-year-old homeless man, along with his invisible dog Timmy. Gus parades Timmy up and down the gray carpet of the waiting room as if it were the competition floor of the Westminster Kennel Club. ...
Here, Gus casts a sideways glance up at the government clerk who is sitting behind the bulletproof glass, wanting to be sure she is taking all this in. But it appears that imaginary dogs are as common at the Social Security office as daffodils in spring. The bureaucrat bats not an eyelash at the dog who is not there.
Gus has come to the Detroit office to file a disability claim with the federal government, hoping to hit the jackpot of all jackpots — $771 a month, every month, for the rest of his natural-born days.
Gus then admits that there really is no Timmy. It is a ruse that he characterizes as ‘playing crazy’. The invisible-dog bit may be the dollop of perceived schizophrenia that will fast-track his application directly to the top of the ‘approved’ basket. ...
For all the electronic chatter about the comeback of Detroit, it is hard to see it here at the Social Security office, miles from the refurbished office towers of downtown where the artificial beach, deck chairs and outdoor cocktail stands have become something of a surrogate Puerto Vallarta for the skinny-jeaned millennials who work the cubicles there. ...
The Motor City is hardly alone. Nationwide, more than 8.5 million people of working age collect a federal disability check. The phenomenon has been dubbed the ‘disability-industrial complex’. Consider: more is paid for federal disability claims than for welfare and food stamps combined. It is into this army of have-nots that Gus hopes to enlist. ...
      A few thoughts:
  • I guess Gus is real but I've seen a few contrived psychiatric disability claims but I don't think that I've ever seen one as ridiculously contrived as the one described here.
  • It's actually quite difficult to get Social Security disability based upon psychiatric illness. It's almost impossible to get a claim approved if the claimant isn't receiving active treatment. 
  • What are the odds that Gus will be willing to see a psychiatrist for treatment even once, much less on a regular basis?
  • What are the odds that Gus could fool a psychiatric professional for a minute? I'll answer that one since I may have some readers who have less than no knowledge of psychiatry. The answer is NO!
  • Assuming Gus is real, he really may have serious psychiatric illness; just not the sort of thing he's acting out. There are "gild the lily" claimants who are quite ill but who add a layer of contrivance on top that makes it harder to get them approved. Factitious disorder is itself a real psychiatric illness. 
  • My experience is that the vast majority of homeless people have serious psychiatric problems. Sometimes, it's substance abuse that won't qualify for disability benefits but mostly it's other problems.

Dec 4, 2019

Former Commissioner Hardy Passes

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast <>
Sent: Wednesday, December 04, 2019 1:59 PM
Subject: The Passing of Former Commissioner Dorcas Hardy

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees 

Subject: The Passing of Former Commissioner Dorcas Hardy

I regret to inform you that former Commissioner Dorcas R. Hardy passed away on Thanksgiving Day after a long illness.   

Dorcas had a long and distinguished career in both the private and public sector.  In 1986, President Reagan appointed Dorcas as the Commissioner of Social Security.  She was the first woman confirmed to this role.  Just prior to leading SSA, Dorcas served in the Reagan Administration as Assistant Secretary for Human Development Services at the Department of Health and Human Services.  She had previously served as Assistant Secretary for Health of the California Health and Welfare Agency during Reagan’s governorship and had begun her career as a legislative assistant to former New Jersey Senator, Clifford Case.
During her tenure as Commissioner, Dorcas spearheaded several significant initiatives, including the launch of SSA’s National 800 Number, the Enumeration at Birth program, and the Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statement (now known as the Social Security Statement).  She continued her commitment to SSA through her 14 years on the Social Security Advisory Board, where she offered her considerable expertise on programmatic and policy matters.
I appreciate Dorcas’ legacy at SSA and invite you to join me in keeping her loved ones in our thoughts.

Andrew Saul

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

     Mike Causey at Federal News Network has written a column titled Teleworking: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. He mostly writes about the situation at Social Security. Here's an e-mail he received from a Social Security employee:
As if the telework situation could not get any worse, the administrator is having the top managers over [at] the Security West building send us moderately threatening emails. One went out yesterday. Speaking to us like we children, he told us that we were to be committed to our work and that our numbers have increased since 2018. It is scary and menacing. He wants the managers to walk up and down the aisles while we work to intimidate us. They don’t want to do this but are threatened as well.
“[SSA Commissioner Andrew] Saul is angry that we are fighting back through the media and senators. I am writing everyone. Our building does not service the public over the phone. We do claims, etc. He stated that he ended telework because the work could not be tracked, which is a lie. Here in the payment center we have a paperless system where we process work and the manager can see the movement in real time as well to see if we actually worked the cases. They would contact us while we teleworked so we were managed. Anyone caught abusing the system was removed. It was as simple as that.
Now we are back in the office and we are being harassed for no reason. Can anyone help us? People want to retire right and left before their time. He does not realize how serious this can be as we need people. We only hire about 50 to replace 300. [It] takes two to three years to be proficient. Truth is I think he wants the system to fail. — Just Plain Joe

Dec 3, 2019

Dumb Decision By Commissioner

     Social Security has issued a press release boasting about Commissioner Saul improving service by keeping the agency's field offices open all day on Wednesdays.
     I think this decision by Saul qualifies as one of, if not the, most bone-headed actions I can ever remember a Commissioner taking. This isn't going to improve service. It's going to hurt service. I'm pretty sure Saul did this not merely because he lacks understanding about how Social Security's field offices work but because he was unwilling to listen to those who do. I'm pretty sure all of those who do know advised against this. It also comes from an unshakeable belief that federal employees are lazy and that if you just crack the whip, you'll get better work out of them. That's naive. Inevitably in a large organization there are a few bad eggs but Social Security's service delivery problems come almost 100% from not having enough employees.
     If you're like Saul and don't have an understanding about how field offices work you probably think that almost all the work a field office does is done while a claimant is sitting across the desk from a Social Security employee. A lot of it is but certainly not all. Let me give a few examples:
  • Claimant has been approved for Supplemental Security Income. Information is needed from a former employer or a family member in order to compute the benefits. A field office employee has to make some calls.
  • A claimant who has been overpaid mails in a check to pay down the overpayment. Someone has to enter that information into the agency's computer system and forward the check on to another office that completes action on the payment.
  • A woman contacts the field office wondering whether she can get benefits on the account of her husband. He disappeared for unknown reasons eight years ago. The Social Security employee who has the case remembers something from their training years ago about this sort of situation but has to spend time looking at the agency's manual to determine how to handle this sort of case.
     These and a thousand other types of tasks some mundane, some unusual, some taking only a little time, some taking a lot of time aren't done while a claimant sitting across the desk from the field office employee. You can't find that time if you've got a waiting room full of people many of whom are visibly impatient from having waited a long time to talk with someone. Things pile up. They don't get done. You don't gain by having the office open more hours; service actually get worse.
     As you can tell if you read this blog, I'm extremely interested in the Social Security Administration giving better service to the public. Unlike Andrew Saul I actually know something about how the agency functions and I know this isn't just counterproductive. It's dumb, dumb, dumb. It's OK that Saul doesn't know exactly how things work at Social Security. What's not OK is that he clearly didn't listen to experienced staff on this one.

Dec 2, 2019

Starving DDS

     A letter published in the Newsletter (not available online to non-members) of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives:
I am the state lead for the SOAR program in North Carolina. SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery) trains case managers to assist people experiencing homelessness with applications for Social Security disability benefits.
Recently, it came to my attention that 33% of the positions at the North Carolina DDS [Disability Determination Services] are vacant. These positions include: 
  • DDS specialists, 
  • Supervisory positions, 
  • Medical consultants, 
  • Psychological consultants, and 
  • Office assistants.
NC DDS must receive approval from SSA Headquarters to hire for vacant positions. NC DDS is not allowed to hire without that permission, including hiring to backfill positions where people left the agency or retired throughout the year. This hiring policy led to an ongoing deficit in filled positions at the agency. For example, in the last year (2018-2019) DDS lost 63 employees and only received permission to hire 18 people. For the coming budget year (2019-2020), NC DDS has received approval for only 36 hires. This amount still does not cover the number of people who left last year, and if any employees leave NC DDS this year, their positions will not be able to be filled, resulting in a greater net loss for the agency.
Secretary Cohen at the NC Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to the SSA Acting Commissioner in November 2018 regarding the staffing issues. The response came back from the SSA-Atlanta region that they were working to provide additional hiring authority after the budget was established which resulted in authorizing 18 hires for the year and did not address the 63 losses.
Despite the staffing shortage, NC DDS continues to receive a high volume of applications. The high number of vacant positions leads to increased caseloads for DDS specialists which presents more challenges in processing applications. The stress of managing high caseloads causes more staff attrition, continuing the cycle of vacant positions.
Every year, SSA provides DDS agencies with a staffing and hiring allocation that is tied to their projected workload. However, DDS agencies do not have the authority to backfill positions that are vacated throughout the year. These positions are already a part of the approved spending plan so do not require additional funds.
A national SSA/DDS Strike Force team was convened in 2018 to address concerns regarding hiring. A recommendation of this SSA/DDS Strike Force team was to allow hiring authority of positions lost due to attrition, as long as it was within a DDS agency’s current funding total. This recommendation was tabled by SSA until all DDS agencies could receive budget training. However, now that all DDS agencies received this training, SSA decided that they will not implement this recommendation.
To date, I have reached out to the North Carolina Congressional delegation, SSA headquarters, and the US Interagency Council on Homeless programs (USICH) regarding the vacancies in North Carolina’s DDS. The USICH is interested in finding out more about the issue and possible solutions but need to know if other DDS agencies in the country are facing similar vacancy rates.
If you are in another state that has a high vacancy rate at your DDS agency, please contact me so that I can connect you to the USICH staff who is working on this issue. Similarly, if you are in a state that has resolved a similar issue, please contact me as well so we can learn from your experience.
I appreciate your assistance with this matter.
Thank you,
Emily Carmody
Project Director
NC Coalition to End Homelessness