Jun 28, 2019

Social Security 2100 Act Moves Forward

     John Larson, the Chair of the House Social Security Subcommittee, has been pushing the Social Security 2100 Act. Now comes word that he's planning a hearing on the bill next month and a markup in September. This doesn't guarantee that the bill will proceed to markup before the full Ways and Means Committee much less that it will get a vote on the House floor but it's a sign that the bill is moving forward. Of course, the bill won't get a vote in the Senate in this Congress. This is about setting the stage for what happens after the 2020 election if Democrats control both Houses of Congress plus the White House. Of course, that's a big "if" but this bill would be hugely important if that "if" comes to pass.
  • Benefit bump for current and new beneficiaries – Provides an increase for all beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2% of the average benefit. The United States faces a retirement crisis and a modest boost in Social Security benefits strengthens the one leg of the retirement system that that is universal and the most reliable. [Sec. 101]
  • Protection against inflation – Improves the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) formula to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors through adopting a CPI-E formula.  This provision will help seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities.  Improved inflation protection will especially help older retirees and widows who are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as they age.  [Sec. 102]
  • Protect low income workers – No one who paid into the system over a lifetime should retire into poverty.  The new minimum benefit will be set at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind.  [Sec. 103]
  • Cut taxes for beneficiaries – Over 12 million Social Security recipients would see a tax cut[ii].  Presently, your Social Security benefits are taxed if you have non-Social Security income exceeding $25,000 for an individual or $32,000 for couples.  This would raise that threshold to $50,000 and $100,000 respectively. [Sec. 104]
  • Holding SSI, Medicaid, and CHIP Beneficiaries Harmless – Ensures that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or CHIP. [Sec. 105]
  • Have millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else – Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900. This legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages above $400,000.  This provision would only affect the top 0.4% of wage earners. [Sec. 201, 202]
  • 50 cents per week to keep the system solvent – Gradually phase in an increase in the contribution rate beginning in 2020 so that by 2043, workers and employers would pay 7.4% instead of 6.2% today. For the average worker this would mean paying an additional 50 cents per week every year to keep the system solvent. [Sec. 203]
  • Social Security Trust Fund Established – Social Security provides all-in-one retirement, survivor, and disability benefits funded through the dedicated FICA contribution paid by workers. There are technically two trust funds, Old-Age and Survivors (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI), and that are usually referred to as the Social Security Trust Fund. This provision combines the OASI & DI trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.  [Sec. 204]

Jun 27, 2019

SSA And Its Employee Unions

     Tom Temin has written a piece for Federal News Network on Social Security's problems with its employee unions. The latest is that the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), which is a union, has declared that their negotiations with Social Security are at an impasse.
     This is not just an in-house matter. I'm not sure how many fans the AALJ has in Congress but the much larger American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents most Social Security employees, has friends in high places in the House of Representatives.

Jun 26, 2019

Andrew Saul's Docket

     We have heard little from Andrew Saul since he was sworn in as Commissioner of Social Security. Below are some of the decisions he'll have to make in coming months in addition to the obvious staffing decisions he must make. I'm sure there are other items on his plate, particularly in Informational Technology, but I'm not familiar enough with those to write about them.

What To Do About Hicks v. Commissioner of Social Security
  • Social Security twisted its rules to cut off benefits for as many of Eric Conn's former clients as possible. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the agency on November 21, 2018. Ever since then the Solicitor General and Social Security have been "considering" whether to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. I doubt that they are seriously considering that. I think they've just been stalling until a new Commissioner was confirmed because it's hard to decide how to implement the decision of the Court of Appeals.  They can't stall much longer.

What To Do About Cases Pending At The Appeals Council Which Were Decided Prior To Lucia v. SEC And An Objection Has Been Made To ALJ
  • The Supreme Court decided last year that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) as then appointed were unconstitutional. Social Security changed the way ALJs were appointed to adjust to this decision but there are thousands of cases still pending at the Appeals Council that were heard before the Lucia opinion. The agency has suggested that they want to avoid remanding all these cases for new hearings with different ALJs by having the Appeals Council issue new decisions on its own. This is arguably illegal and probably impractical. A decision on this can't be delayed much longer.

Proposed Regulation That Has Been Published For Comments And Can Now Be Made Final

Proposed Regulations That Have Not Yet Been Published For Comments
Stance On Employee Unions
  • The Trump Administration has taken an extremely aggressive and antagonistic stance on federal employee unions. Social Security has followed suit. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee are already pressuring Saul to soften Social Security's approach. Will he be a loyal Republican and continue the harsh anti-union stance or does he modify it to avoid conflict with Congressional Democrats who can make his life difficult? His message to agency staff suggests that he'll soften the anti-union stance.
Process For Appointing New ALJs
  • The old process for appointing ALJs was found unconstitutional. What will the new process be?
Fee Cap 
  • This one may be wishful thinking on my part. The cap on fees that may be charged for representing Social Security claimants hasn't been raised since February 9, 2009. By any normal standard it's way past time to increase it. However, I'm not sure that the organizations that represent those who represent claimants have been able to generate any real pressure to increase the cap.

Jun 25, 2019

This Isn't Something To Crow About

     Congresswoman Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is taking credit for a $300 million increase in Social Security's appropriation included in the House of Representatives bill. 
     While the Congresswoman's efforts are appreciated, the $300 million isn't enough to keep up with inflation much less to improve service and almost certainly the Congresswoman had nothing to do with it. She's in her first term in the House of Representatives and is not on the Appropriations Committee.

Jun 24, 2019

Evidence To Support The Discouragement Theory

     Back in April I posted a longer piece speculating on the reasons behind the declining number of Social Security disability claims being filed. I'm sure that we can't credit any reduction in unemployment for what is going on at the moment. The number of disability claims is continuing to decline even though there's been little or no decline in the unemployment rate in the last two years. What is causing the decline isn't clear.
     I ended the piece by speculating that at least some of the decline may be due to declining service at Social Security discouraging claimants from applying. I admitted that I had no evidence to support this theory. However, I had forgotten about a study that does support this theory. About two years ago I had posted about a study done by a couple of researchers about what happens to the number of disability claims filed when Social Security closes a field office. They found that the number of claims declined because people with lower education levels and lower earnings were discouraged from applying. The effect they found, 11%, was significant and the effect persisted.
     Social Security hasn't closed that many offices. What's happened is that service has declined at the offices which are still open. It's harder to get through to Social Security over the telephone. Your wait time if you visit in person is longer. People get discouraged and give up.
     This issue merits more study but I think the discouragement theory looks like a major factor in the decline in the number of disability claims.

Jun 23, 2019

Social Security Online System Vulnerable

     From ZDNet:
The 2017 Equifax security breach has thrown a wrench in the process used by US government agencies to verify the identity of US citizens applying for various benefits via its online portals.
This process, called online identity verification or remote identity proofing, relied on data provided by credit reporting agencies (CRAs) like Equifax, as a proof of the applicant's identity. ... 
In 2017, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reacted to this hack by issuing guidance to government agencies, with recommendations on replacing the CRA-based online identity proofing with other solutions like sending an SMS to a user's phone, or having the user send/upload a scan of a physical ID to the government agency, as a proof of identity. ... 

But a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a bi-partisan government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, has found that only two of six of the government agencies they tested had followed the NIST guidance. 
GAO found that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Social Security Administration (SSA), the US Postal Service (USPS), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were still relying on the old CRA databases for online identity verification. ... 
The agencies who were part of the GAO inquiry said that one of the reasons they haven't migrated to a new system yet, as per the NIST guidance, is because of "high costs and implementation challenges for certain segments of the public," which the agencies fear might prevent certain US citizens from being able to use their online portals. ... 

The Social Security Administration (SSA) and the United States Postal Service (USPS) intend to reduce or eliminate their use of knowledge-based verification some time in the future but do not yet have specific plans for doing so. ..

Jun 22, 2019

Smaller COLA This Year?

     The Motley Fool says to expect a smaller cost of living adjustment this year.

Jun 21, 2019

SSAB Recommends That SSA Get Out Of The Death Master File Business

     The Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has issued a report recommending that the Social Security Administration ought to get out of the business of maintaining the Death Master File that is used to prevent improper payments of not just Social Security benefits but many other types of government benefits. It is also widely used by private financial institutions. The SSAB thinks the Department of the Treasury should get the job. There’s just one problem with this idea. I’m pretty sure that Treasury wants nothing to do with maintaining the Death Master File and would strongly resist any legislation foisting the job on them.

Jun 20, 2019

Trying To Hit The Reset Button

     The union that represents Social Security’s Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) has asked newly sworn in Commissioner Andrew Saul to suspend negotiations on a new contract with the union. I think they want to hit the reset button on the negotiations.

SSA Makes Top Ten List

     The Social Security Administration has made a top ten list — the top ten of agencies with critical federal agency legacy information technology systems in need of modernization, according to the Government Accountability Office (OMB).

Jun 19, 2019

Class Action Helps Protect Some Social Security Disability Benefits From Student Loan Collection

     From Marketwatch:
Since 2007 Linda Carrasquillo has been unable to work due to an injury she suffered at her job cleaning buses.  

And yet, every month for seven years, the government took great pains to collect on a $4,000 loan she took out to pay for her daughter’s schooling — by withholding part of the money she received through her Social Security disability benefits. 

Feeling stressed by the loan, Carrasquillo and her daughter called the nonprofit organization collecting the debt on behalf of the federal government to see if she could work out a deal. But they couldn’t come to an arrangement Carrasquillo could afford. Eventually she fell behind on her rent and faced the possibility of eviction. ... 

But what Carrasquillo didn’t know is that the entire time she was struggling to manage her limited finances, the government should have never been collecting on her debt. She qualified for what’s known as a total and permanent disability discharge, which allows borrowers to have their federal student loans wiped away if they have a physical or mental disability that makes it impossible for them to work.  

Recently, Carrasquillo finally got the more than $4,000 the government garnished from her Social Security checks back — but it took a lawsuit. She’s one of nine plaintiffs in a case brought by Brooklyn Legal Services, a division of Legal Services NYC, in 2016 against multiple federal agencies that settled last month. In total, the plaintiffs got back nearly $23,000 that was garnished from their disability benefits to repay their student loans. ... 

But advocates would like the government to go further by automatically cancelling the debt in cases where they know a borrower qualifies for a disability discharge. A bipartisan group of 51 attorneys general wrote to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last monthasking that she automatically cancel the debt of veterans who the agency has identified as qualifying for a disability discharge. ...

Former Social Security Employee Facing Many Years In Prison

     From the Sacramento Bee:
A former Social Security Administration employee from West Sacramento plead guilty Monday to stealing $480,000 from the agency through identity theft, officials said.  
Eric Lemoyne Willis, 43, targeted at least 160 Social Security beneficiaries and spent the money on trips to Las Vegas and Rolex watches, according to a news release from the Department of Justice. Willis plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, theft of government property and aggravated identity theft, the Department of Justice said.  
From 2003 to January 2018, Willis was employed by the SSA, the news release said. From 2016 on, he was an operations supervisor in the south Sacramento and Lodi field offices. Willis used his power as an SSA employee to access confidential records for multiple Social Security beneficiaries, according to the news release. These records contained personal information, including names, addresses, social security numbers, dates of birth, account numbers, family information and benefit payment amounts, according to the news release.  
Willis sought beneficiaries who received large amounts of money and used direct deposit, according to court documents. 
Then, he gave their personal information to his alleged accomplice, Darron Dimitri Ross, who lived in North Carolina. Ross, who plead not guilty and is awaiting trial, allegedly called numerous SSA offices across the country and impersonated beneficiaries, court documents say. 
He allegedly opened at least 44 online bank accounts under fraudulent identities to redirect the Social Security benefits, according to court documents. If Ross convinced the SSA he was the beneficiary, he would allegedly request the beneficiary’s direct deposit account be changed to one of the fraudulent accounts, according to the Department of Justice. The benefits would then deposit into the fraudulent account until the fraud was detected, the Department of Justice said. Willis and Ross could spend the money in the accounts using debit cards, officials said. ...

Jun 18, 2019

Message From New Commissioner

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast <Commissioner.Broadcast@ssa.gov> 
Sent: Monday, June 17, 2019 4:03 PM
Subject: New Commissioner

A Message to All SSA and DDS Employees

Subject: New Commissioner

This afternoon, I was sworn in as your Commissioner, and I am eager to get to work.  In ways that many of us do not have the perspective to appreciate, running an agency for this long without confirmed leadership is quite difficult.  Please join me in thanking Nancy Berryhill for her leadership, and I welcome her ongoing support.  

Throughout the confirmation process, one consistent theme has been how fantastic SSA employees are.  I can certainly use your help.  Although I am just now beginning my briefings, I am aware that we face a number of challenges.  I look forward to hearing your ideas about how best to improve public service and be supportive to you in that endeavor.  

My plan is to get out and talk with as many of you as I can.  I will also be meeting with SSA’s senior leaders, associations, and unions.  Meanwhile, I thought you might want to know a little about me.  I am a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in New York City.  My wife of 50 years, Denise, and I are blessed with two daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren.  I am a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and I have worked in the private and public sector and with non-profit organizations.  I am most proud of my nine years as the Chair of the Federal Thrift Investment Board, which administers the Thrift Savings Plan, working to improve service by modernizing it into what is today one of the most successful 401K plans in the nation.    

My family and friends will tell you I have a sense of humor, but I take work seriously.  Hard work is especially necessary when what we are doing matters to every American.  As I mentioned, I have already heard how dedicated you are to SSA’s mission, and your dedication gives me great confidence about what we can achieve.  

I am taking a little time to assess how the agency is doing, and you will hear more soon about my priorities and plans in the coming weeks.

Thank you for the warm welcome I have received thus far.  I look forward to working with you.

Andrew Saul
Commissioner

Updated Stats On Fee Payments

     Social Security has updated its posted statistics on payments of fees for representing claimants before the agency. You may recall that a few months ago I posted that the agency had taken down the statistics altogether and they then put them back up. More recently I posted that they had stopped updating them. Now they’ve updated them for the last two months.
     Come on guys! I know you’re keeping track of these numbers internally. It can’t be that hard to post them online. I’m not the only one paying attention to them.

Saul Officially Commissioner

     Andrew Saul has been sworn in as Commissioner of Social Security.

Jun 17, 2019

GAO Criticizes SSA Online Verification

     From a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report:
Remote identity proofing is the process federal agencies and other entities use to verify that the individuals who apply online for benefits and services are who they claim to be. To perform remote identity proofing, agencies that GAO reviewed rely on consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) to conduct a procedure known as knowledge-based verification. This type of verification involves asking applicants seeking federal benefits or services personal questions derived from information found in their credit files, with the assumption that only the true owner of the identity would know the answers. If the applicant responds correctly, their identity is considered to be verified. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses this technique to verify the identities of individuals seeking access to the “My Social Security” service, which allows them to check the status of benefit applications, request a replacement Social Security or Medicare card, and request other services. 
However, data stolen in recent breaches, such as the 2017 Equifax breach, could be used fraudulently to respond to knowledge-based verification questions. The risk that an attacker could obtain and use an individual’s personal information to answer knowledge-based verification questions and impersonate that individual led the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to issue guidance in 2017 that effectively prohibits agencies from using knowledge- based verification for sensitive applications. Alternative methods are available that provide stronger security, as shown in Figure 1. However, these methods may have limitations in cost, convenience, and technological maturity, and they may not be viable for all segments of the public. ...

Jun 16, 2019

Social Security Reform Proposal Draws Widespread Protests In Brazil

     From Xinhua:
Brazilians took to the streets on Friday for a nationwide massive protest against the social security reform proposed by the government. 
According to local media, there were protests in at least 190 towns in all Brazilian states.
As a full strike was called, buses halted in 19 state capitals, subway and urban train workers in several cities joined the strike, classes were cancelled in public schools and many private schools in at least 23 state capitals, and road blockades were seen in the country. ...

Jun 14, 2019

Still Missing The Fee Payment Stats

     Back in April I posted the news that Social Security had taken down its website where it posted the stats on payments of fees to attorneys and others who represent claimants before the agency. Soon thereafter the website reappeared.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the problem. Now, they're stopped updating the stats. Nothing has been posted since the March stats. In the past, the website was updated in the first week of each month.

Jun 13, 2019

More On DDS Backlogs

     I had posted recently about the increasing backlogs I was seeing on Social Security disability claims at the initial and reconsideration levels. A friend was able to find the data from North Carolina, where I practice, and put it into a chart.
Click on image to view full size
     You can see why I would be concerned.
     My friend also charted the nationwide data but it doesn't paint the same picture:
Click on image to view full size
     Don't think that this means there's not a growing backlog problem at the initial and reconsideration levels nationally. The number of disability claims filed has gone down dramatically. With the number of claims filed having gone down dramatically, you would expect to see dramatic reductions in the number of cases pending in the backlog. That hasn't happened. The only way the cases pending holds steady is if the time it's taking to get initial and reconsideration determinations is increasing. It's not happening nationwide so dramatically as in North Carolina but it's happening.

Jun 12, 2019

eCBSV Coming

     From a notice posted in the Federal Register by the Social Security Administration (footnotes omitted):
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is announcing the initial enrollment period for a new electronic Consent Based Social Security Number (SSN) Verification (eCBSV) service. SSA will roll out the service to a limited number of users in June 2020, and plans on expanding the number of users within six months of the initial rollout. ... 
Section 215 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (the Banking Bill) directs SSA to modify or develop a database for accepting and comparing fraud protection data provided electronically by a permitted entity. In response to this statutory directive, SSA is creating eCBSV, a fee-based Social Security number (SSN) verification service. eCBSV will allow permitted entities to verify an individual's SSN based on the SSN holder's signed consent. ...

Jun 11, 2019

Washington Post On Proposed Regs On Inability To Speak English

     The Washington Post has an article out on the proposal to eliminate consideration of inability to speak English in determining disability under Social Security's grid regulations.
     I don't see why anyone would think that English proficiency has no effect on one's ability to hold down a job. Sure, people who can't speak English hold down jobs in the U.S. but they can't be cashiers or bank tellers or bus drivers. Even in Puerto Rico, you can't work in the tourism industry or many other jobs if you can't speak English. Also, there are far, far more job opportunities for those who only speak Spanish than there are for those who only speak Russian or Yoruba or Greek.
     One thing that needs to be said about this proposal, however, is that it won't affect that many people. The regulations in question matter in only a few borderline cases.
     It's rich that the Trump Administration is protesting criticism of this proposal by saying it isn't intended to be anti-immigrant. We all know why this proposal is coming forward during the Trump Administration.

Jun 10, 2019

The Trump Administration Never Ceases To Amaze

     From The Hill:
President Trump has quietly appointed his Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General to also oversee a much different agency: the Interior Department. 
On May 28 Gail Ennis began her second job overseeing the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a role she will keep for the foreseeable future, an OIG office source confirmed to The Hill.
The Trump administration is still awaiting the confirmation of Mark Greenblatt, the former Commerce Department Inspector General (IG), to formally head the Interior’s OIG office. ...
Ennis is the second Trump political appointee who the administration has attempted to put in the Interior OIG role.
Earlier this year, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced to staff that Assistant HUD Secretary Suzanne Tufts would replace Kendall. Because Tufts had been previously confirmed by the Senate, she would not have to go through another confirmation process for the role. 
However, following backlash to that announcement, the Interior Department later said the announcement was a misunderstanding and Carson reversed the move. Tufts resigned not long after. ...
     There's the obvious problem here of one person trying to do two jobs but there's the less obvious problem that even though the Inspectors General are appointed by the President, they're supposed to act in a non-partisan way. This indicates to me that Ennis is involved with the White House more than I think appropriate.

The Kentucky Bar Association's Shameful Role In The Eric Conn Debacle

     There is one part of the debacle left behind by Eric Conn that has received little attention and that is the irresponsible behavior of the Kentucky Bar Association (KBA). Ned Pillersdorf has written an op ed for the Louisville Courier Journal on this aspect of the case.
     After Social Security started its highly dubious effort to cut off benefits for thousands of Conn's former clients you would expect that the KBA would try to organize or at least assist pro bono legal representation for the claimants involved but the KBA did nothing. While individual Kentucky attorneys, including most prominently Ned Pillersdorf, did pro bono work to help those affected, most of the representation of Conn's former clients has been done by out of state attorneys in an effort organized by AppalReD Legal Aid.  The KBA has been nowhere to be seen while this effort has been going on.
     The biggest failing by the KBA has been its refusal to appoint a receiver for the files that Conn had on his clients. Yes, Conn did keep files. I've seen some. They weren't nearly as disorganized as I expected. Yes, he did request some medical records and certainly received some others from clients. However, his office did not always file medical records they received with Social Security. It wasn't that the records not submitted were harmful to the cases. Conn's office just never got around to submitting them. Getting access to Conn's files was an obvious step in representing his former clients. Some of the doctors involved are no longer in practice. Some of the claimants have forgotten which doctors they saw. I am representing one of Conn's former clients who is now in the early stages of Alzheimer's but you don't have to have dementia to have forgotten some of the details of your medical treatment history. Once it became clear that there were client files left behind by Conn, you would expect that the KBA would step in to appoint a receiver for the files. since their own rules give them this authority. Occasionally, an attorney gets arrested or suddenly dies. That's why there are rules for this sort of thing in Kentucky and other states. As the agency that regulates Kentucky attorneys you would expect the KBA to step up to help out with Conn's files but to the amazement and dismay of everyone involved, including the U.S. Department of Justice and federal judges, the KBA refused to do anything.
     I hate to be critical of another state's bar but I cannot comprehend the KBA's behavior. I find it shameful. I would be up in arms about it if the the KBA's counterpart in North Carolina where I practice behaved like this but I cannot imagine that happening.

Medicare Screwup At SSA Affects 250,000 People

     From National Public Radio:
A quarter of a million Medicare beneficiaries may be receiving bills for as many as five months of premiums they thought they had already paid.  ...
Because of what the Social Security Administration calls "a processing error" in January, it did not deduct premiums from some seniors' Social Security checks and it didn't pay the insurance plans, according to the agency's "frequently asked questions" page on its website.
The problem applies to private drug policies and Medicare Advantage plans that provide both medical and drug coverage and that substitute for traditional government-run Medicare.
Some people will discover they must find the money to pay the plans. Others may find their plans canceled. Medicare officials say approximately 250,000 people are affected. ...

Jun 9, 2019

There's Also The Problem That They May Not Have The Money To Put Away

     From the New York Times:
New state-based accounts that let disabled people work and save money without risking the loss of government aid are slowly catching on. But advocates say millions more people with disabilities could be taking advantage of the accounts.
Forty-one states and Washington, D.C., now offer the accounts, which first became available in 2016. The tax-free accounts, known as ABLE accounts, are named after the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, the 2014 law that created them. ...
But just a tiny fraction of people eligible for the accounts are using them so far.
More than 40,000 ABLE accounts were open by the end of March, with combined balances of about $225 million, said Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. But the institute estimates that as many as eight million people are eligible under current rules, which limit the accounts to people who became disabled before age 26. ...
Part of the challenge in fostering more growth is that ABLE accounts have nuanced rules, and states have limited budgets to promote the accounts, said JJ Hanley, director of the Illinois ABLE program. When people do hear about the accounts, she said, they are often skeptical that opening one truly won’t jeopardize their benefits. ...
     ABLE was always about helping well to do parents put away money to help their disabled offspring without jeopardizing their SSI and Medicaid. Most families just don't have the money to put away and there's little to be done about that.
     My thought all along is that ABLE is OK but that we need reforms to remove some of the harshness in the SSI and Medicaid income and resources rules. That would help far, far more people and is long overdue. ABLE targeted a small amount of relief from these rules at a few relatively well off people while ignoring the large number of people who suffer under antiquated income and resource limits.

Jun 8, 2019

That Title Is Jarring

     The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College is funded by the Social Security Administration. It's now produced a "brief" entitled The Implications of Social Security's "Missing Trust Fund." Here's how it starts:
As policymakers consider restoring financial balance to Social Security, understanding the reason for the shortfall is important. If the cost of currently scheduled benefits simply exceeds what today’s workers are paying into the system, the traditional proposals to reduce benefits or raise payroll taxes would be most relevant. However, the cause of the shortfall lies elsewhere. Specifically, the program’s “pay-as-you-go” approach – with the exception of the recent build-up and spend-down of a modest trust fund in anticipation of the baby boom – makes the program expensive. This financing approach is the result of a policy decision in the late 1930s to pay benefits far in excess of contributions for the early cohorts of workers. The decision essentially gave away the trust fund that would have accumulated and, importantly, gave away the interest on those contributions. This brief, based on a recent paper, explores the implications of the “Missing Trust Fund.”
     Basically, this is the Republican argument against the very existence of Social Security. I find reading this in a government financed report jarring. "Missing Trust Fund"? Were they trying to incite Democrats? I will say that the article goes on to say that it may be best to partially fund Social Security out of general income tax revenues which definitely is not a Republican position.

Jun 7, 2019

Caseload Analysis Report

Click on image to view full size
     This was obtained from Social Security by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and published in its newsletter, which is not available online except to members. It concerns hearings, primarily on disability claims.

Jun 6, 2019

DCPS Making Progress, I Guess

     From an Emergency Message issued by Social Security:
Purpose
This Emergency Message (EM) is to notify all disability claims adjudicating components that the Disability Case Processing System (DCPS) is a policy compliant place to record case information for adjudicating components using DCPS.
Background
DCPS is a critical initiative that will replace 52 independently operated legacy systems used by state agencies (Disability Determination Services or DDSs) that make disability determinations for SSA as required by statute. DCPS will replace the legacy systems with a modern, accessible, and secure application capable of providing the flexibility and high performance that the DDSs and federal sites need to process disability claims timely and efficiently.

Chair Of Social Security Subcommittee Wants GAO Investigation Of DDS Docs

     From The Tennessean:
The chairman of a Congressional Ways and Means subcommittee is requesting an investigation into doctors hired to review applications to the federal disability program.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., cited recent reports by the USA TODAY NETWORK in a letter sent Wednesday to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the federal government's chief fiscal watchdog agency. ...
In Tennessee, an investigation revealed some doctors were racing through applications submitted by people seeking to prove they are too sick or injured to work.
Paid by the case, doctors were reviewing up to five application files per hour. Experts said such speedy review of applications, which can contain thousands of pages of medical records, isn't plausible. ...
Larson, who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee, is asking the GAO to conduct its own state-by-state examination of doctors' performance.

Former Commissioners Ask For Budget Process Change

     From Mark Miller, a columnist for Reuters:
A worsening customer service crisis at the Social Security Administration has prompted three of its former commissioners to urge the U.S. Congress to fix the annual budgeting process that has starved the agency of the resources it needs to do its job.
A letter calling for administrative budget reforms signed by the former commissioners - two appointed by Democratic presidents, and one by a Republican - will be delivered to congressional leadership later on Wednesday.
An advance copy of the letter was provided to this column by the authors, and by advocates pushing for reform of the Social Security budget process. It will be sent to 19 key lawmakers, including the leadership of both parties and the chairs and ranking members of all the key congressional committees controlling budget, appropriations and finance.
To read the letter and view the list of recipients, see: (https://bit.ly/2KnIt3C) ...
Congress cut the agency’s budget nearly 11% between fiscal years 2010 and 2019, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while the number of beneficiaries grew by more than 16%. ...
Since passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which places caps on nondefense discretionary spending, the Social Security budget has been forced to compete with other federal spending priorities - for example, the National Institutes of Health. ...
The trio of former commissioners is proposing a legislative fix to the problem. The letter to be sent to Congress on Wednesday is signed by Ken Apfel, who served as commissioner during the Clinton administration, Jo Anne Barnhart, who was nominated by President George W. Bush and served from 2001 to 2007; and Carolyn Colvin, who served from 2013 to 2017 during the Obama administration.
The former commissioners propose that Congress eliminate the requirement that the Social Security administrative budget be included in the caps. Congressional appropriations committees would still approve the agency's budget. "But importantly," they write, "the Committees would be able to approve the funding that would be needed for the Social Security Administration to provide adequate service to the public." ...
     You can bet that Andrew Saul will be asked about this when he testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee in the near future. I think this will be an early test of his independence from the Trump Administration. You would expect him to agree with these former Commissioners but I doubt that this would be the position of the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House, or of Congressional Republicans.
     By the way, I wonder who organized this letter. The timing is interesting. Could Saul have been in on this?

Jun 5, 2019

Vote On Saul Confirmation

     Here's how the Senators voted yesterday when Andrew Saul was confirmed as Commissioner of Social Security:
Alexander (R-TN), Not Voting
Baldwin (D-WI), Nay
Barrasso (R-WY), Yea
Bennet (D-CO), Yea
Blackburn (R-TN), Yea
Blumenthal (D-CT), Not Voting
Blunt (R-MO), Yea
Booker (D-NJ), Nay
Boozman (R-AR), Yea
Braun (R-IN), Yea
Brown (D-OH), Yea
Burr (R-NC), Yea
Cantwell (D-WA), Yea
Capito (R-WV), Yea
Cardin (D-MD), Yea
Carper (D-DE), Yea
Casey (D-PA), Yea
Cassidy (R-LA), Yea
Collins (R-ME), Yea
Coons (D-DE), Yea
Cornyn (R-TX), Yea
Cortez Masto (D-NV), Yea
Cotton (R-AR), Yea
Cramer (R-ND), Yea
Crapo (R-ID), Yea
Cruz (R-TX), Yea
Daines (R-MT), Yea
Duckworth (D-IL), Nay
Durbin (D-IL), Yea
Enzi (R-WY), Yea
Ernst (R-IA), Yea
Feinstein (D-CA), Nay
Fischer (R-NE), Yea
Gardner (R-CO), Yea
Gillibrand (D-NY), Not Voting
Graham (R-SC), Yea
Grassley (R-IA), Yea
Harris (D-CA), Not Voting
Hassan (D-NH), Yea
Hawley (R-MO), Yea
Heinrich (D-NM), Nay
Hirono (D-HI), Nay
Hoeven (R-ND), Yea
Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Yea
Inhofe (R-OK), Yea
Isakson (R-GA), Yea
Johnson (R-WI), Yea
Jones (D-AL), Yea
Kaine (D-VA), Yea
Kennedy (R-LA), Yea
King (I-ME), Yea
Klobuchar (D-MN), Nay
Lankford (R-OK), Yea
Leahy (D-VT), Yea
Lee (R-UT), Yea
Manchin (D-WV), Yea
Markey (D-MA), Nay
McConnell (R-KY), Yea
McSally (R-AZ), Yea
Menendez (D-NJ), Yea
Merkley (D-OR), Nay
Moran (R-KS), Not Voting
Murkowski (R-AK), Yea
Murphy (D-CT), Yea
Murray (D-WA), Nay
Paul (R-KY), Yea
Perdue (R-GA), Yea
Peters (D-MI), Yea
Portman (R-OH), Yea
Reed (D-RI), Nay
Risch (R-ID), Yea
Roberts (R-KS), Yea
Romney (R-UT), Yea
Rosen (D-NV), Yea
Rounds (R-SD), Yea
Rubio (R-FL), Yea
Sanders (I-VT), Not Voting
Sasse (R-NE), Yea
Schatz (D-HI), Nay
Schumer (D-NY), Yea
Scott (R-FL), Yea
Scott (R-SC), Yea
Shaheen (D-NH), Yea
Shelby (R-AL), Yea
Sinema (D-AZ), Yea
Smith (D-MN), Nay
Stabenow (D-MI), Yea
Sullivan (R-AK), Yea
Tester (D-MT), Yea
Thune (R-SD), Yea
Tillis (R-NC), Yea
Toomey (R-PA), Yea
Udall (D-NM), Nay
Van Hollen (D-MD), Nay
Warner (D-VA), Yea
Warren (D-MA), Not Voting
Whitehouse (D-RI), Nay
Wicker (R-MS), Yea
Wyden (D-OR), Yea
Young (R-IN), Yea

Crucial Decision On Social Security Union

     From Government Executive:
A panel tasked with resolving contract disputes between agencies and federal employee unions sided with management at the Social Security Administration on several key issues, gutting official time and telework rights for union employees at the agency.
In a May 29 decision, the Federal Service Impasses Panel weighed in on 12 proposed articles of a new contract between SSA and the American Federation of Government Employees. The panel asserted jurisdiction over the matters after labor and management officials negotiated for seven months on a new collective bargaining agreement, eventually coming to agreement on more than 50 provisions.
The panel gave a green light to a proposal by Social Security officials that would significantly reduce the amount of official time AFGE employees can spend on representational duties. According to the agency, the union used “roughly” 181,181 hours of official time during fiscal 2018, which officials said cost nearly $10.5 million. The agency proposed a “bank” for the union as a whole at 50,000 hours of official time per fiscal year, with individual employees capped at between 250 and 650 hours per year, and said it “is seeking to eliminate official time ‘loopholes.’ ”
     The Federal Service Impasses Panel is entirely composed of Republicans.  The union is livid.

Jun 4, 2019

Saul Confirmed By Senate

     By a vote of 77 to 16, Andrew Saul has been confirmed by the Senate as Commissioner of Social Security. His term extends to January 2025.

SSA Wants To Get Around Lucia By Having Appeals Council Rewrite ALJ Decisions?

     See below for an order from the Appeals Council concerning a case where an objection had been made to the consideration of the case by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who had not been appointed in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the constitution in Lucia v. SEC. The agency thinks it can get around Lucia by having the Appeals Council rewrite the decision. Click on each page below to view full size.
     There are some obvious problems with what the Appeals Council has done. In Lucia itself, the Supreme Court didn't remand the case to the SEC to rewrite the decision. It specifically remanded it to a different ALJ. Why would the Appeals Council remedy the constitutional defect in a manner different from the Supreme Court? The Appeals Council is saying the hearing held previously was fatally defective yet it is not giving the claimant a new hearing. Isn't the claimant entitled to a hearing before an ALJ who was properly appointed? There's not going to be a hearing before the Appeals Council itself. There's also the not so small problem that it's been more than a year since the ALJ hearing and decision. The Appeals Council decision will cover the issue of whether the claimant is disabled all the way up to the date of its action yet the claimant is given no opportunity to submit medical evidence concerning this time period or to have a new hearing concerning this time period.
     I can only guess what's been going on behind the scenes at Social Security with respect to Lucia. My guess is that there's been a lot of disagreement and little leadership. Despite this order, I doubt that the agency's final position has been resolved. We'll see what happens once Andrew Saul is confirmed as Commissioner, which will likely happen later today.
     By the way, note that the Appeals Council supposedly issued this notice of May 22 but we didn't receive it until May 28. There are serious problems printing and mailing decisions at every level of the Social Security Administration. This matters because of appeal deadlines.



Saul Nomination To Get Vote Today

     There was a unanimous consent agreement in the Senate yesterday that the debate and vote on the nomination of Andrew Saul to become Commissioner of Social Security will occur today.

Jun 3, 2019

Senate Vote On Saul Nomination May Come Today

     The Senate is tentatively set to vote today on invoking cloture on the nomination of Andrew Saul to become Commissioner of Social Security.