Jun 30, 2020

Field Offices To Resume Very Limited In-Office Appointments

    From an update to Social Security's Covid-19 webpage:

... Will SSA provide in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Date: June 29, 2020

If you have a critical situation we cannot help you with by phone or online, we may be able to schedule an in-office appointment for you. We remain unable to provide service to walk-in visitors due to the pandemic. ... 

New Card Requests 

We assign the vast majority of SSNs and issue SSN cards at birth. We will continue to process new card requests through our automated processes for newborns as part of the hospital registration process (we call that process Enumeration at Birth). We will also continue to process SSNs and issue cards for certain lawful immigrants [we call these processes Enumeration at Entry (EAE) and Enumeration beyond Entry (EBE)]. 

If these automated processes are not available to you, we will schedule an in-office appointment for a new card request for those with a critical need. ...

Jun 29, 2020

Bye, Bye Andrew Saul!

     The Supreme Court has issued its opinion in Seila Law v. CFPB. The Court held that the position of Director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board is unconstitutional because the incumbent serves a set five year term and may only be removed for cause. The holding is that this unconstitutionally removes the President's authority to manage the Executive Branch.
     The position of Director of the CFPB is almost identical to that of Commissioner of Social Security in that the Commissioner serves a set six year term and may only be removed for cause. I see no reasonable way of distinguishing the two. The position of Commissioner of Social Security as currently constituted is unconstitutional.
     Where does this leave Andrew Saul? The Seila Law opinion doesn't seem to leave open the possibility that the Director of the CFPB just remains in her position while now serving at the pleasure of the President. The Court clearly ruled that the action that the Director of the CFPB had taken that was on appeal was invalid. Thus, I have to say that Andrew Saul just lost his job. He ought to resign immediately in order to avoid any confusion. However, "confusion" seems to be this Administration's middle name.
     Where does this leave the Social Security Administration? Well, even though it's not part of a cabinet level department, it's no longer an independent agency. It could be made an independent agency again by replacing the Commissioner with a Board, which the agency had in its earliest days, but I doubt that would be practicable. The agency could be stuffed back into some cabinet level department as it once was but that seems unlikely. It could be made a cabinet level department, which would be my preference. It could stay neither fish nor fowl, neither a cabinet level department nor an independent agency. I don't think that this Congress will act on the issue. We'll see what, if anything, the next Congress does.
     Where does it leave administrative decisions made by the Social Security Administration that are now on appeal? The agency's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) made decisions on a delegation of authority from the Commissioner. So too do members of the Appeals Council. Are those decisions made heretofore now invalid? I expect this issue will be litigated. For matter, what about contracting decisions and personnel decisions?
     By the way, the majority opinion contains this language:
... [T]he CFPB’s defenders note that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been run by a single Administrator since 1994. That example, too, is comparatively recent and controversial. President Clinton questioned the constitutionality of the SSA’s new single-Director structure upon signing it into law. ...
    In successive sentences the Chief Justice refers to the head of the Social Security Administration as its "Administrator" and as its "Director" rather than as its Commissioner.

Man Arrested On Charge Of Threatening Senator Over Social Security Payment

     From WSET:
A Virginia man has been charged with threatening to kill Sen. Mark Warner for not getting Social Security payments.

United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen and U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund said 37-year-old Dylan Stephen Jayne was arrested Thursday on a federal criminal complaint and charged with one count of transmitting a threat via interstate commerce.

Court documents show that Jaynce called the Abingdon office of Sen. Mark Warner the morning of September 2, 2019. They show he left a voicemail threatening to kill the senator regarding his perceived lack of receiving Social Security payments. ...

Jun 28, 2020

As Long As It Saves Money, It Has To Be A Good Thing

... If a claimant disagrees with SSA’s initial disability determination, he/she can appeal that determination. In most cases, the first level of review is a reconsideration by the disability determination services. In 1999, SSA eliminated the reconsideration level in 10 States. In these 10 States, the first level of appeal was a hearing by an administrative law judge (ALJ). In 2019, SSA began reinstating the reconsideration level in the 10 States. ...

Of the 616,917 claimants denied at the reconsideration level in CY 2015, we estimate 86,400 (14 percent) did not take action after the reconsideration denial while 530,500 claimants (86 percent) appealed to an ALJ and/or filed new claims. Of the 530,500 claimants, we estimate 290,000 (55 percent) subsequently received allowance decisions.In FY 2018, it took on average 79 days longer for a claimant to receive an allowance decision by an ALJ in States with the reconsideration level of appeal. ...

Reinstating the reconsideration level allows for a uniform disability process that standardizes services for all claimants nationwide. With reinstatement of the reconsideration level, the Agency estimated $3.9 billion in program savings over a 10-year period (FYs 2019 to 2028). ...
     And why is it that reconsideration saves hundreds of millions of dollars a year? Because it increases delay and frustration for disabled people. Fewer of them get an ALJ hearing because they drop out after the added hurdle of reconsideration. For OIG, however, causing sick people to suffer delay and frustration is of no consequence, as long as it saves money. The attitude isn't far from being "The only good disability claimant is a denied disability claimant."

Jun 27, 2020

Some Questions For The Commissioner

Congressman Larson
     Congressman John Larson seems to have rediscovered the fact that he's the Chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee. He's actually sent a letter to the Commissioner of Social Security asking for a response to the recent report by the Social Security Advisory Board on field office closures. Maybe someone should tell him that he can schedule a hearing to really get some answers.
     What is the problem with Larson? Did he get stuck with a Subcommittee he isn't interested in chairing?

Jun 26, 2020

Commissioner's Investments During Early Days Of Covid-19 Come Under Scrutiny

    From Salon:

In early 2020, Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul engaged in several stock transactions that appear to have anticipated market reactions to the coronavirus crisis, according to financial disclosure forms.

Specifically, Saul made seemingly prescient investments in Abbott Laboratories, UnitedHealth, thecloud workflow company ServiceNow and Eurofins, a foreign company that manufactures personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, among other things.

Though Saul — a wealthy New York businessman with prior government service and decades of financial expertise — has a substantial and diverse portfolio, the timing of the transactions, together with his activity in the administration and investment experience, is intriguing. ...

Recent disclosure forms, however show that Saul bought shares in Abbott Labs worth between $15,000 and $50,000 on Jan. 15, Feb. 21 and March 16 — the latter date being exactly when the Social Security Administration announced it would close its offices and two days before the Food and Drug Administration approved Abbott's coronavirus test for hospital use.

On March 30, Trump showcased Abbott's rapid-response COVID-19 test, gameshow-style, in a televised Rose Garden address. ...

Along with the Abbott buys, Saul made a string of investments in the insurance company UnitedHealth in late January and March. Though he entered the administration with investments in the company, he did not make any market moves until late January, as administration officials were behaving one way about the virus in private and another in public. ...

On Feb. 7, Saul invested in a company he had not previously: Eurofins Scientific, a medical lab company headquartered in Luxembourg that manufactures PPE. He put between $15,001 and $50,000 into Eurofins that month, then sold an unknown amount, amid widespread outcry about shortages, on March 31. ...

Saul furthered his investment in a company called ServiceNow in January. He dropped an additional $50,001 to $100,000 into the cloud computing company that manages digital workflows on Jan. 21, one week before the company announced a major acquisition. ... 

It is not clear how Saul's investment patterns may have changed since April. He did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

     The implication here is that it's possible that the Commissioner traded stocks based upon insider information. At least, there's no sign that he sold stock that was about to take a tumble, such as airline or hotel stock.

Jun 25, 2020

I Agree But Do You Have To Use That Word "Notch"?

From an earlier "Notch Baby" controversy
     From Paul N. Van de Water writing for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
The next COVID-19 relief bill should fix an unintended benefit “notch” under which, due to the pandemic and resulting recession, Social Security benefits will be significantly lower for workers who turn 60 this year and will be eligible for early retirement benefits in 2022. Those becoming eligible for disability or young survivors benefits in 2022 will also see lower benefits. ...
Normally, average earnings in the economy rise from one year to the next. Due to the sudden, sharp unemployment increase in 2020, however, many workers will suffer a big decrease in their annual earnings. And those decreases will cause the economy-wide average annual wage to fall as well. That, in turn, will reduce the average indexed earnings and Social Security benefits of workers turning 60 in 2020 compared to those with similar earnings who turned 60 in 2019. If the average wage falls by 5 percent in 2020, as now seems likely, the retirement benefit of a 60-year-old worker with average earnings will drop by about $1,200 a year for each and every year of retirement. If the average wage falls more, the decreases will be even larger. ...
Policymakers should fix this unfair result. One solution would be to specify that the wage-indexing factor couldn’t fall from one year to the next, even when the average wage index declines. ...

Jun 24, 2020

Beltway Bandit Report On Medical Improvement

     The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has done a study for Social Security of Selected Health Conditions and Likelihood of Improvement with Treatment. The National Academies may sound like a purely scholarly group but it's basically a Beltway Bandit paid large amounts of money to do studies for the federal government. Almost always the studies end up gathering dust.
     I suppose that some at Social Security wanted a hit list of medical conditions whose sufferers could be targeted for continuing disability reviews on the grounds that medical science has improved their conditions. They didn't get that.
     One thing I particularly loathe about this sort of Beltway Bandit report on Social Security disability is that they always begin with a statement about how the authors conceptualize the term "disability". Who the hell cares how you conceptualize the term "disability"? We're dealing with a statutory definition of disability. Social Security has to deal with it. I have to deal with it. So, shut up and deal with it yourselves! No one is interested in this sort of throat clearing.
     This tome goes on with all sorts of amazing irrelevancies such as "During a biopsy, a sample of cells is collected for testing. In most cases, a biopsy is the only way to definitively diagnose cancer (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Methods by which a sample may be collected include ..." followed by a description of biopsy methods. If you're an oncologist or other physician tasked with diagnosing cancer, biopsy methods are really important. If you're a government employees dealing with disability claims, biopsy methods aren't of much importance. Besides, I think that even the lay public already knows that most cancers are diagnosed through biopsies.
     Why put discussions of the conceptualization of the word "disability" and descriptions of biopsy methods in such a report? Well, I guess it makes the report longer. If you're going to charge your customer hundreds of thousands of dollars for a report that doesn't give them what they want -- academic support for a hit list of  claimants to attack with continuing disability reviews -- you'd better make the report at least a few hundred pages long so the customer won't feel cheated.
     I will give the National Academies this. I don't see in this report a recommendation for additional studies. You almost always see that self-serving recommendation in Beltway Bandit studies.
     I'll be happy to give Social Security a hit list of medical conditions where there's a good chance of improvement --  for free:
  • Severe trauma. The one year duration requirement in the definition of disability that Social Security must use means that few who have experienced trauma are found disabled but those who are found disabled sometimes do get better after they finish all their surgeries and physical and occupational therapies.
  • Metastasized cancer. Most of the time people die from this but those who beat the odds may get better after they finish all their surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy. They may relapse later but they may have an interval during which they can work.
  • Transplant patients. It takes quite some time to get over a kidney, liver, heart or lung transplant but you can. You probably can't return to work at the moment, though, since you'll be on immunosuppressive drugs and should hardly be leaving your house but in better times you might be able to return to work.
     Guess what? Social Security is already going after everyone on my hit list. Most of those  on the list who are cut off don't complain too much because they are better. If my list seems short, it's because of that pesky one year duration requirement in the statutory definition of disability. You see, if you're disabled for at least a year, you're probably never going to get much better. You shouldn't expect to find much medical improvement among Social Security disability claimants.

Jun 23, 2020

Court Holds That SSI Available In Guam

     A U.S. District Court judge has found that it is unconstitutional to deny Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to Guam residents while allowing them to residents of the 50 states or the Northern Marianas. 
     The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has already ruled that SSI benefits can’t be denied to residents of Puerto Rico. The Solicitor General will soon have to decide what to do about the Puerto Rico case. At least, I guess so. I haven’t heard that the Puerto Rico case is being reheard en banc. The government has only 90 days to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case or, at least, to ask the Court for more time. The Puerto Rico case was decided on April 10. 
     The only other U.S. territory where there’s no court order is the Virgin Islands. 
     Emergency legislation will be needed unless the Supreme Court holds that the denial of SSI in territories is constitutional. I’m not completely sure the Supreme Court will even agree to hear it. Social Security is not prepared to adjudicate what will probably be hundreds of thousands of SSI disability claims, primarily in Puerto Rico. I’ll post more on this later but what will have to be done is to grandfather in the current recipients of territorial permanent and total benefits These are paid for with federal money. These benefits were paid in every state prior to the implementation of SSI. Those benefits were ended when SSI was implemented but continued in the territories. By statute the recipients were grandfathered onto SSI. These were called conversion cases. That’s what will have to be done.

Jun 22, 2020

Why Don't More Claimants Accept Phone Hearings?

     I saw a comment on this board expressing annoyance with attorneys who don't accept telephone hearings for their clients. It seems worth responding since most Social Security employees have little idea of the dynamics involved.
     I don't know what percentage of claimants awaiting hearings on their Social Security disability claims are accepting telephone hearings, the only type of hearing available to them as the moment. If the agency is compiling numbers, perhaps some Social Security employee can tell us. Certainly, a lot of claimants are declining telephone hearings.
     I can speak to what I'm doing. The most important thing to remember is that it's the client's choice. I've heard that a few attorneys just automatically accept or decline telephone hearings without consulting with their clients. I'm aghast at this. I've heard other attorneys express amazement that any of their colleagues would do this.
     However, even though it's the client's choice, attorney opinion matters a lot. Whenever an attorney lays out a choice that a client has to make, whether it's on this issue or any other, most of the time the client asks "What do you think?" They're paying for our expertise so they ought to take our opinions into account.
     The advice I'm giving clients depends upon the client's financial situation.
     If it's an SSI or concurrent claim or even a Title II only claim where I know that the client has run out of money or soon will, I almost always strongly advise accepting a telephone hearing. Telephone hearings are not ideal but delay is potentially catastrophic for  desperately poor claimants. I've had a couple of clients commit suicide. I've had several others who died of overdoses where you couldn't be sure whether the overdose was accidental or intentional. I'm pretty sure that financial stress was a factor in most, if not all, of these tragic situations. I've had too many conversations with clients who were facing imminent homelessness. I've had too many conversations with clients who stayed in abusive relationships for fear of homelessness. I take delay very, very seriously.
     There are some situations where I can't recommend a telephone hearing even for poor claimants. If there are communication problems, a telephone hearing may be impractical. Some clients aren't in medical care. I can look at their files and see that they're going to lose if they don't get back in medical care. I tell them this in strong terms and advise that they refuse a telephone hearing at least until they can get back in medical care.
     If my client is not in financial distress, my advice is that "it's your choice" but I tell them not to expect an in-person hearing to be scheduled until there's a vaccine for Covid-19. There's no reason to hope that a vaccine will be available until sometime next year. Even if  you're not in financial distress, a long wait for a hearing can be difficult. Claimants want it all behind them. Having this hanging over their heads wears them down. I also warn that there's a risk that Social Security will eventually force a telephone hearing on them. If there's no vaccine in sight later this year, I expect that. Many of my colleagues may violently disagree with me but I think that would be a rational choice for the agency to make. I haven't run any numbers but I'd guess that well over half of my clients who aren't in financial distress elect a telephone hearing.
     Other attorneys may be advising their clients differently. I can think of four factors that might make others recommend waiting for an in-person hearing.
  • First, the attorney may expect that the Covid-19 pandemic will go away soon. In many areas of the country Covid-19 cases are declining. I happen to live in a state where Covid-19 cases are increasing so I can't be optimistic. Even if you're in an area where Covid-19 cases are declining, I don't think you should expect in-person hearings this years. As Social Security leaders remind us, they're running a national program. Can you resume holding hearings in Harrisburg, PA but not in Raleigh, NC? Can you resume holding hearings when the official advice is that individuals who are older or sicker or immunocompromised should stay at home as much as possible? Too many participants in hearings -- and not just claimants -- fall into one of these categories.
  • A second factor is a fear that the telephone hearings being held now are just the start of a campaign to end in-person hearings. I am sure there are some at Social Security who might like this idea but I don't think that's likely to happen. It would draw massive opposition and have little support in Congress. In any case, the grand scheme of things isn't an individual claimant's concern. They need to know what's best for them. Also, individual claimants declining telephone hearings don't make telephone hearings go away. Others are accepting.
  • Third, many attorneys have concerns about the mechanics of the telephone hearings. At least early on, there was a problem with hearing participants being dropped from the call without warning for no apparent reason. The other participants often had no idea that this has happened for several minutes. There's no way to log back on if you've been dropped. Also, I've found the sound quality on the telephone hearings to be only fair. I don't understand why the sound quality isn't better. It should be digital. Assuming they can hear each other, it's too easy for people talk over each other in these telephone hearings without intending to do so. I've also had several hearings in which the ALJ started to question the Vocational Expert but the claimant tried to answer because he or she thought the question was directed at them. I've seen that happen at in-person hearings but not too often.
  • Fourth, and maybe most important, many attorneys believe that their clients' chances of winning may be lower with a telephone hearings than with in-person hearings. That could be but I haven't seen that myself. From what I've heard, I think most other attorneys who have done a few telephone hearings would agree with me on this. I haven't heard of attorneys doing a few telephone hearings and then start advising their clients to refuse them. I'd be interested in seeing some numbers from Social Security on how claimants who have telephone hearings fare.

Jun 21, 2020

Jun 20, 2020

I've Never Seen Something Like This

     I would invite readers to review this heavily redacted report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on fraudulent internet claims released late Friday afternoon and say whether they think it was properly redacted. Was OIG's point in redacting this to protect information which could be used to defraud the trust funds or was it to reduce the agency's embarrassment? Here's a little bit of the report to give you an idea:
     Why are all the numbers that would give one an idea how bad the problem is redacted? Also, why was this released late on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time for dumping embarrassing information? I wouldn't think that OIG would be trying to reduce the agency's embarrassment but just look at the redactions! Were the redactions OIG’s idea or something done at the agency’s insistence? I have seen dozens, probably hundreds, of OIG reports over the years but never one with redactions. There have been quite many where only a stub is released due to security concerns but never one with redactions. There has to be a story behind this.

Jun 19, 2020

Mr. Buckets Of Money Settles His Case

     Reuters reports that Raymond Lucia of Lucia v. SEC fame has settled his case with the Securities and Exchange Commission.  In the Lucia case, the Supreme Court decided that the constitution requires that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) be appointed by agency heads. This caused problems at Social Security since its ALJs had not been appointed by the Commissioner of Social Security. That problem has since been rectified but litigation continues in cases decided before the ALJs received their official appointments. In fact, I'm surprised that there's only been one decision from a Court of Appeals on this issue so far.
     The new case that Mr. Lucia settled had to do with the issue of whether ALJs are unconstitutionally shielded from dismissal. This is all part of the Federalist Society "unitary executive" theory that Presidents must have unbridled discretion, that is if they're Republicans. The Federalist Society will suddenly discover that the constitution imposes dramatic limitations on Presidential power if Joe Biden is elected President.
     Mr. Lucia eventually settled because he was tired of fighting constitutional battles. All Mr. "Buckets of Money" really wants to do is bilk simple-minded investors!
     The assault on ALJs isn't over just because Mr. Lucia settled his case. It doesn't identify them but the Reuters article says there are at least three other such ALJ removal cases pending. The upcoming Supreme Court decision in the Seila Law case will probably have implications for this litigation.

Jun 18, 2020

Small Bore Identity Theft Bill Passes In Senate

     From a press release: "The U.S. Senate yesterday passed bipartisan legislation ...  to require the Social Security Administration (SSA) to provide a single point of contact to help Americans who are victims of identity theft."

New Retirement Claim Portal

     Social Security has issued a press release saying that it has redesigned its online portal for filing retirement claims.

That's A Lot Of Underpaid Widows And Widowers

... We identified 30,768 individuals receiving retirement benefits as of January 2019 who may be eligible for additional widow(er)’s benefits. From this population, we selected a random sample of 100 beneficiaries for review. ...

Of the 100 retirement beneficiaries sampled, 69 were eligible for higher widow(er)’s benefits. Of these 69 widow(er)s, there were
  • 20 who filed claims and whom SSA determined were entitled to widow(er)’s benefits before the start of our audit and
  • 49 who were eligible for approximately $630,000 in widow(er)’s benefits. ...
This occurred because SSA (1) employees did not always assess and take action when cases were alerted for possible payment increases, and/or (2) did not have processes to detect beneficiaries potentially eligible for higher widow(er)s benefits. Based on the results of our review, we estimate 15,076 retirement beneficiaries were eligible for $193.8 million in widow(er)’s benefits as of September 2019. Further, we estimate 12,615 of these beneficiaries could lose an additional $530.9 million in widow(er)’s benefits over their lifetimes. ...
     Social Security agreed that it will have to do something to address this problem.
     My guess is that the underpaid group includes more widowers than you might think. A lot of widower claims get missed because the widowers just don't think of applying for benefits on their late wife's account. In my experience two types of claims most often missed are Disabled Adult Child and Widowers benefits.

Jun 17, 2020

Looking For A New Path Forward

     From a Request For Information (RFI) posted by the Social Security Administration:
... The Social Security Administration’s Digital Identity team is issuing this RFI. The information obtained because of this RFI will be used to create a Market Assessment Report, which may inform budget and acquisition decisions for the agency.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) Office of Systems is researching a solution for managing all aspects of Identity Credential and Access Management (ICAM) for external users that is separate and apart from anything we have in production today; the potential end goal is to replace the existing external ICAM platform(s) currently in use at SSA. ...

     What they're talking here about here is how the public logs on to their Social Security portals (my Social Security) to transact business, such as changing bank account information. I can guess that the agency needs to address at least two problems. First, what they're using now hasn't been completely successful in preventing fraud. Second, Social Security would like to encourage members of the public to do more business with the agency online. Perhaps easier login would help. Obviously, there may be tension between these two goals. In any case, they're clearly not happy with what they have now which is based upon credit information.

Jun 16, 2020

A Benefit Computation Controversy Coming?

     From Think Advisor:
If Congress does nothing to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund, benefits will be cut 21% when the [trust] fund is depleted, which could happen as soon as a dozen years from now if not sooner. ...

Pre-retirees born in 1960 may suffer another blow to benefits. That’s because the Social Security Administration employs a complicated formula to calculate benefits, which includes using the top 35 years of a retiree’s earnings, adjusted by an indexing factor. That factor, in turn, is based on the Average Wage Index for the year an individual turns 60, which will be 2020 for those born in 1960.

Job losses and declines in average wages this year due to the pandemic will affect the average wage index, which has risen almost every year since the 1950s, according to Wade Pfau, director of the Retirement Income Certified Professional (RICP) program at the American College of Financial Services. The index fell in 2009 but only slightly, according to Pfau.

“We don’t know what will happen this year but if the average wage index has a dramatic drop, then suddenly those born in 1960 would have a lot lower benefit than those born in 1959,” said Pfau. ...

     People are being laid off in this recession in numbers not seen since the Great Depression but I don't know that average wages have been cut. We'll see. I started to compare this to the Notch Baby controversy but unlike that controversy this could be real. I've probably made some old timers mad at me for even mentioning "Notch Babies"! Sorry to bring up the bad memories!

Jun 14, 2020

I Agree That It’s A Problem But I’m Still Aghast

There is a provision of Social Security law that is rather archaically called the “annual earnings test.” It is sometimes also called the “retirement test.” (More about where those terms come from in a minute.) But I call it the Social Security earnings penalty. And I’ve never liked this law. Before I explain why, let me clarify what I am talking about.

The rules say that if you are a Social Security beneficiary who is under full retirement age and still working, $1 must be deducted from your Social Security checks for every $2 you earn over $18,240 annually. A more lenient penalty applies in the year you reach full retirement age. The earnings threshold is $48,600 with a 3-for-1 withholding scheme. In other words, $1 is withheld from your benefits for every $3 you make over $48,600. And once you reach your full retirement age, the penalties go away. Starting with that month, you could make $1 million a day and still be eligible for Social Security checks. ...

To illustrate, I’ll use my own mother as an example.

Back in the 1970s, she was getting Social Security widows benefits, but she was working part time to supplement her rather meager benefits. She would start out the year reporting her anticipated earnings to her local Social Security office. They would adjust her benefits accordingly, applying the $1 deduction for every $2 earned. Inevitably, as the year went on, she’d work a little overtime or pick up a couple of extra hours of work. She would dutifully report her change in anticipated earnings to the Social Security people, and further adjustments would be made to her monthly widows checks. More often than not, she’d be charged with an overpayment and be asked to return some of her Social Security funds. 

Then maybe she’d be laid off for a time, and her earnings would go down; she’d file yet another report with the SSA, and there would be more adjustments to her benefits. Sometimes, the SSA owed her some extra money. 

Eventually, once the year was over and she got her W-2 form, she would make a final report of her earnings to the Social Security office, leading to yet another benefit adjustment. And on top of that, they would ask for an estimate of her anticipated earnings for the new year; more adjustments would be made, and the whole vicious cycle would start over again.  

My mom used to complain bitterly to me about this, saying, “Can’t you do anything to help me?” I always had to tell her that there was (and still is) a law that says SSA employees cannot work on any cases involving their relatives. 

Still, when people griped to me about how they couldn’t understand the constant tinkering with their Social Security benefit amount due to the earnings penalty, I used to tell them, “If I can’t keep my own mother’s records straight, how do you expect me to help you?!” .. 

So, because the earnings penalty isn’t going away any time soon, let me share with you some tips for dealing with it. Of course, you could play by the rules and religiously report your earnings to the SSA — and then get stuck in the vicious cycle of earnings variances and benefit adjustments that plagued my mother. ... 

Or you could bend the rules a bit. You could tell the SSA that you plan to make less than whatever the earnings threshold happens to be. So, for example, for this year, you would say you expect to make less than $18,240, even if you think you will make more than that. What that means is that the SSA won’t withhold any of your benefits. But you must remember that you will have to pay back some of that money once the year is over with. At the beginning of 2021, you will tell the SSA how much money you made in 2020, and they will calculate how much money you have to pay back. 

If you don’t like the idea of having to owe the government any money, you could go the other way around. For example, you could tell the SSA you plan to make $100,000 in 2020, even though you actually expect to make much less. In this scenario, the SSA won’t send you any Social Security checks. Then in early 2021, you would tell the SSA how much money you actually made in 2020, and they will send you a check to cover the benefits you are due. 

I know some of my former SSA colleagues will be absolutely aghast at these suggestions. They will say that I am coaching people to lie to the government. But c’mon, chill out! Both scenarios I presented require the claimant to eventually settle the books with the SSA. ...

Jun 13, 2020

COLA This Year?

     Some analysts say there may be no Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries this year. 
     I can’t get over how much attention is paid to the annual COLA. It’s merely supposed to hold beneficiaries harmless, not to improve their purchasing power. Of course there are issues with whether the current COLA formula is fair but if the cost of living goes down without a cut in benefits, recipients are better off even though they won’t believe it.

Jun 12, 2020

Don Wortman 1927-2020

     Don Wortman, who served as Acting Commissioner of Social Security in the late 1970s, has died at the age of 92. Wortman had an incredibly varied career as a federal employee, working at various times with Medicare and Medicaid, refugee resettlement, Head Start, the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA and the GAO in addition to Social Security.

Jun 11, 2020

Jun 10, 2020

Another Useless Study Coming

     From a Request For Information (RFI) recently posted by the Social Security Administration:

The purpose of this study is to collect information about the service, medical, and employment needs of individuals exiting Social Security disability programs because of medical improvement.  It also serves to produce testable policy recommendations that help the study population become self-sufficient.  This study will involve conducting qualitative and quantitative data activities, including focus groups and a survey, to gather information about the needs of Exiters and Possible Exiters from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability programs after a determination of medical improvement.  Furthermore, this effort will involve small-scale use of Motivational Interviewing (MI) to gain more insight about their needs and what motivation is necessary to promote work activity among this population.  The ultimate goal of this information gathering is to identify potential interventions and to inform policy recommendations that are likely to help Exiters and Possible Exiters achieve sustainable, substantial employment leading to self-sufficiency. 

SSA expects to make public all study data, subject to legal and privacy considerations.  Any offeror delivering services under this contract will not be barred from providing services for any subsequent Exits demonstration.

The purpose of this RFI is to obtain information, for planning purposes, regarding (1) the availability and capability of potential sources that can provide the required services described in the attached draft Statement of Work (SOW) and (2) to seek industry comments regarding the noted SOW.

Jun 9, 2020

In-Person CEs Resuming In At Least One State

     I had posted yesterday that it was time for Social Security to either schedule in-person consultative medical examinations (CEs) or to make decisions without them -- that the agency couldn't just hold disability claims in suspense indefinitely. It turns out that I wasn't the only one thinking that. My office was told today that North Carolina Disability Determination Services (DDS) has resumed scheduling in-person CEs.