Dec 31, 2019

OHO Backlogs Continue To Dwindle

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 to non-members.
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Dec 30, 2019

Not Such A Good Place To Work

     Each year Federal News Network ranks agencies on their Best Places to Work list. This is based upon surveys done by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). For 2019, Social Security ranked near the bottom in the large agency category, a significant downgrade from 2018. I wonder how Social Security will rank on the 2020 list.
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Dec 27, 2019

I Don't Think They Anticipated This Kind Of Backlash

     From Common Dreams:
"This policy change is abhorrent and absolutely unjustifiable."
"We all know that the cruelty is the point with this administration, but this sinks to yet another low."
"This would be a crushing blow to me and my family."
Those are just a few of the more than 1,700 official comments members of the U.S. public have left on President Donald Trump's proposed Social Security rule change, which could strip lifesaving disability benefits from hundreds of thousands of people.
The proposal received hardly any media attention when it was first published in the Federal Register in November. But recent reporting on the proposed rule change, as well as outrage from progressive Social Security advocates, sparked a flood of public condemnation and calls for the Trump administration to reverse course.
Backlash against the proposal can be seen in the public comment section for the rule, where self-identified physicians, people with disabilities, social workers, and others have condemned the change as monstrous and potentially deadly. The number of public comments has ballooned in recent days, going from less than 200 to more than 1,700 in a week.
The public comment period ends on January 17, 2020. Comments can be submitted here. ...

Dec 23, 2019

Good Luck Getting Home For Christmas!


Update From Commissioner Saul

      An e-mail message to staff from Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security:
Subject: Budget Update

    I am happy to report that the President signed the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, which funds our work through September 2020. Knowing our budget for fiscal year 2020 allows us to better plan hiring and make other funding decisions. Our approved budget is about the same amount as last year. This legislation also contained an average 3.1 percent pay raise for Federal employees, effective in January 2020.
    As I have said, our fundamental goal is to ensure timely and accurate service for the public. We will focus our funding on improving service and reducing wait times. We will build on our progress in reducing the disability hearings backlog and modernizing our information technology. We must also continue to protect the integrity of our programs by processing our medical continuing disability reviews as they come due for a review.

    We have already started efforts to maximize our resources for the front lines. I asked our leadership team to closely review all of our spending to identify any opportunities to reduce costs and to redirect any savings to our direct service operations. I have been visiting local offices to better understand your concerns and hear your ideas for improvement. Based on your input and feedback from systems experts, as well as the top reasons people contact or visit us, we are developing new, customer-centric automation to better support you and the public we serve. We are also enhancing our website to make it easier for people to find and use our online information and services.

    You handle an incredible amount of work, helping millions of people a year. Therefore, I understand that in addition to better tools and technology, you want more people to help you serve the public. I already approved 1,100 hires in the processing centers (PC) and on the National 800 Number. While we still need to work through the details of our budget, I intend to fund additional hiring in field offices, PCs, the National 800 Number, and the State disability determination services.

    Thank you for your hard work and dedication to public service. We have made progress. We are on track to meet our commitment to eliminate our hearings backlog next year. Our service on the National 800 Number is better now than it was this time last year. Yet, there is still more we need to do, and we will use this funding to continue to improve.

    Andrew Saul
    Commissioner
     Without knowing more, I wouldn't get a bit happy about the 1,100 hires. On its face that's a small number but there's a long history of Social Security Commissioners announcing hiring plans without mentioning that the hires weren't new positions, just replacements for workers who were leaving. Sometimes there's a net staff loss despite the hiring.

Social Security Employee Speaks Out

     A long time Social Security employee speaks out about the problems caused by Commissioner Saul's decision to open the agency's field offices on Wednesday afternoons. I hope she won't be punished. She's only speaking the truth.

It's OK To Be Sad At Christmas


Dec 20, 2019

I Don't Know What To Make Of This

     I can track the top countries from which readers access this blog. Below is the list from yesterday. Notice one or more countries high on the list that surprise you? I've seen other days on which Ukraine, yes Ukraine, was listed as a country from which many have accessed this blog. I can also tell when people access the blog. Often there are a lot of hits in the middle of the night Eastern Time, like 4:00 a.m. I know that there are also quite a number of comments posted in the middle of the night.  It's hard for me to believe that it's all night owls.
  • United States 3440 
  • Brazil 2548 
  • Russia 125 
  • Unknown Region 103 
  • Finland 33 
  • Mexico 29 
  • Canada 20 
  • Portugal 18 
  • Puerto Rico 12 
  • France 7

Would This Be Workable?

     From Florida Daily:
Three members of the Florida delegation are championing a proposal to have state courts notify the federal government when guardians are removed in order to keep them from collecting Social Security benefits.
At the end of last week, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., introduced the “Senior Guardianship Social Security Protection Act” which will direct “state courts to notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) when a court-appointed guardian is removed for cause, so they can be blocked from collecting Social Security benefits on behalf of the seniors under their care."
Two other members of the Florida delegation–Republican U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Democrat U.S. Rep. Darren Soto–are cosponsoring the proposal. ...
     I wouldn't count on getting really good compliance if this is passed.

Merry Christmas


Dec 19, 2019

Proposal To Have AAJs Hold Hearings

     From a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) that will appear in tomorrow's Federal Register:
... We propose to clarify that an AAJ [Administrative Appeals Judge] from our Appeals Council may hold a hearing and issue a decision on any case pending at the hearings level under titles II, VIII, or XVI of the Act. Just as ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] have the authority to hold hearings on a variety of disability and non-disability claims, we would not limit the kinds of claims that AAJs could hear. AAJs would be required to follow the same rules as ALJs, and the hearings they hold would apply the same due process protections as hearings held by our ALJs. ...
     This is only a proposal. The public may comment on the proposal. Social Security must consider the comments. If the agency wishes to go ahead with final regulations, they have to submit them to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval. This is a process that ordinarily takes many months.
     I have heard recently that the Appeals Council is seeking "decision-writers." In the past, the category of employees reviewing Appeals Council filings and writing Appeals Council decisions has been called "analyst." Decision-writer is the job title for those writing decisions for ALJs. Hiring decision-writers makes sense if AAJs will soon start holding hearings but I don't see how that will happen, given the length of time it takes to go from the NPRM to final regulation stage. Could the AAJs start holding hearings under the framework of the current regulations?
     As a workload matter, this NPRM makes no sense. The ALJs are rapidly working off their backlog. I haven't seen any improvement in the Appeals Council backlog. I think you have to assume that there's something about ALJs that Social Security management doesn't like.
     By the way, this NPRM was cleared by OMB back in May. It's been sitting there, waiting for the Commissioner's approval for more than seven months. I don't think it's a coincidence that this gets published just before Christmas when it will get less attention.

Turning Them Down In Mississippi

     From the Meridian Star:
Amanda Evans sought Social Security Disability Income 20 years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when her advancing condition made it more and more difficult for her to move around her Pearl home.
But it wouldn’t be until 2016, two years after applying, before an administrative law judge determined she was eligible for benefits. 
She had to go before a Social Security administrative law judge (the third level of appeal after initial claim and reconsideration). She had been denied on three separate initial applications and finally exercised her right of appeal on the third application. By then, she had to use a rolling walker to get into the courtroom. 
Evans said the judge looked at her and said, “I am so sorry that this has happened and no one has paid attention.” 
Her experience is not an uncommon one in Mississippi, which has the lowest rate of allowances for initial claims and reconsiderations among its neighboring Southern states, according to data from the Atlanta Regional office for the Social Security Administration.  ...
Mississippi also has a higher processing time for claims than what SSA considers reasonable, with the SSA field offices taking an average of eight days to determine financial eligibility for benefits, while the Mississippi DDS takes 76 days on average to make a medical decision. ...

Merry Christmas


Dec 18, 2019

Chrismas Eve Hearings To Be Rescheduled

     There were actually 175 Administrative Law Judge hearings scheduled for December 24 which surprises me. NOSSCR is reporting that those hearings will be rescheduled now that the agency will be shut down that day. 
     I think that scheduling hearings that day was asking for trouble.

Changes To Musculoskeletal Listings Move Forward

     Social Security has asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to approve final changes to its musculoskeletal Listings used in determining disability. There has been considerable opposition to the proposal. We cannot know at this point what is in the final regulations. OMB will probably approve the proposal in the next few months at which point Social Security can finalize the process by publishing the regulations in the Federal Register.

Appropriations Bill Report

     The Social Security portions of the Committee report (Social Security part begins at page 157) on the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill covering the Social Security Administration that has been passed by Congress:
The agreement includes an increase of $100,000,000 for SSA's base administrative expenses for additional hires and resources to improve public service at SSA field offices and direct service operations. 
Continuing Disability Reviews.-The agreement directs SSA to include in its next continuing disability review (CDR) report to Congress an evaluation of its CDR prioritization models and a cost-benefit analysis of how it uses estimated savings in determining which beneficiaries receive a full-medical CDR. Additionally, the agreement requests in the fiscal year 2021 Congressional Justification, the process by which SSA intends to pace its CDR workload to properly manage Limitation on Administrative Expenses funding.  
Disability Case Processing System (DCPS).-SSA is encouraged to engage with States to explore all possible options for modernization of the case processing system, to align with the needs of each State, so long as such options have similar or better functionality as DCPS, similar or lower costs to DCPS, and are consistent with Federal procurement and security standards. SSA should continue to provide regular updates on the effort to upgrade DCPS, including the cost and anticipated timeline of the project, and efforts by SSA to engage stakeholders, including any barriers to implementation.  
Disability Hearings Backlog-The agreement encourages SSA to include comprehensive information in its existing reports to Congress on the specific policies SSA has implemented, or has considered, to streamline the disability determination and adjudication process. When considering or implementing changes, SSA should ensure due process, and that applicants have a full and adequate opportunity to present their claims.  
Field Office Closures.-While SSA's Inspector General reviews decisions to close field offices, the Commissioner is strongly encouraged to take every action possible to maintain operations at the offices under review. SSA is expected to support front line operations. As part of the fiscal year 2021 Congressional Justification, SSA should include a plan to identify opportunities for improved field office operations. Finally, SSA is strongly encouraged to ensure its policies and procedures for closing field offices include at least 120 days advance notice to the public, SSA employees, Congress, and other stakeholders. Such notice should include a rationale for the proposed closure and an evaluation of the effects on the public and SSA operations.  
Mail and Printing Systems.-SSA is encouraged to consider and evaluate modernization of its mail and printing systems and contracts that could result in budgetary savings while improving fraud prevention. The agreement requests a briefing for the Committees within 180 days of enactment of this Act on current mailing and printing systems and contracts, including systems or contracts relating to Social Security Cards, and any ongoing efforts to modernize or otherwise improve such systems.
Medical Vocational Guidelines.-The agreement directs SSA to provide a report to the Committees within 90 days of enactment of this Act on its plan and timetable for updating and modernizing medical vocational guidelines and to engage appropriate Committees of jurisdiction prior to making any changes to such guidelines.  
Telework.-SSA is urged to develop a telework plan for Operations employees as quickly as practicable and to brief the Committees on the status of efforts to reinstate telework within 60 days of enactment of this Act.  
Video Hearings.-The agreement reiterates the language included under this heading in House Report 116-62, and directs SSA to provide an update in the fiscal year 2021 Congressional Justification detailing the extent to which SSA meets best practices outlined by the Administrative Conference of the U.S., and the extent to which SSA video hearings, policies, and practices are accessible to individuals with disabilities.  
Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) and Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS).-The agreement includes $23,000,000 for WIPA and $7,000,000 for PABSS. 
     A few comments:
  • This is mostly precatory language included in the report rather than language actually included in the bill itself. Nevertheless, it's unwise for any agency to ignore it.
  • $100 million is a lot of money but it's nowhere near enough to cover increases in the cost of living. In real dollar terms this is a funding cut.
  • Congress can order all the studies it wants but you're never going to be able to cut many people off disability benefits under a medical improvement standard. That's because few of them get better, a fact that many in Congress have trouble understanding but, then, there's a lot they don't understand about Social Security disability benefits.
  • If Congress doesn't want field office closures, it ought to appropriate more money to the agency.
  • I'm going to guess that some company wants a big printing and mailing contract with Social Security and got language into this report supporting them. That seems inappropriate to me.
  • This demonstrates what a foolish decision it was to stop telework. How does it feel to get your hand slapped, Andrew Saul?

Merry Christmas


Dec 17, 2019

Offices Closed On Christmas Eve

     President Trump has signed an executive order closing federal offices on December 24.

Ability To Opt Out Of Video Hearings Preserved

     Social Security is publishing final rules tomorrow on Setting the Manner for the Appearance of Parties and Witnesses at a Hearing. The ability to opt out of video hearings is preserved.

Merry Christmas



Dec 16, 2019

A Brutal Game Of Chance

     From the Post & Courier of Charleston, SC:
Sick and injured workers face a brutal game of chance when they apply for federal disability benefits: their odds hinge as much on the judge they are assigned as on the facts of their case. ... 
Draw one particular Charleston-area judge and the odds of winning benefits will be worse than almost anywhere else. That judge, Tammy Georgian, was the second-toughest in the country in the 2019 fiscal year, approving only 12 percent of her cases. ... 
If you saw Judge Jim Scott [of the same office] in 2018, you had an 87 percent chance of winning.  ...
    I can tell you there’s no way an ALJ can get to a 12% reversal rate honestly. You have to be guided almost completely by your personal political and social beliefs rather than the law and the facts. 
     There’s only so much the agency can do about brutal Administrative Law Judges such as Tammy Georgian. The thing is that Georgian is the Chief Administrative Law Judge in the North Charleston Office. They can’t easily fire aberrant ALJs but they don’t have to make them the Chief ALJ for a hearing office.

Merry Christmas


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. ...