Jan 31, 2022


      Some stories from the weekend:

Seditious Conspiracy And Social Security Benefits

One of those charged

      Eleven individuals have been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. Did you know that they can lose their Social Security benefits if convicted? It's right there in 42 U.S.C. §402(u). It's not automatic. It's at the discretion of the judge in sentencing. The way it's accomplished is by wiping out any existing wage credits so it would be possible to re-establish entitlement to benefits by continuing to work but, of course, after conviction there's likely to be a significant prison sentence.

     I'll bet that Social Security hasn't had to deal with this provision too often.

     Perhaps some of the accused are among those on the right who go around saying "I'll never receive a penny in Social Security." If so, I wonder how they will react to the possibility that their prediction will come true -- but just for them.

Jan 30, 2022

Don't Think We'd Have Seen This While Trump Was In Office

      From a new update to Social Security's main operating manual (POMS):

Transgender individuals contact us for all of the same reasons other people do. ... During and after any interaction with a transgender individual, be mindful to:

  • Protect the confidentiality of each individual;
  • Always treat the individual with dignity and respect;
  • Ask only questions that are necessary to complete the transaction;
  • When speaking to or calling a person, use the name and pronouns appropriate to the individual’s self-identified gender, even if the person has not changed his or her name or updated his or her records; and
  • Be aware that the individual’s gender transition is a personal matter. Questions or comments regarding a person’s medical treatment and appearance are inappropriate.

Jan 29, 2022

Nomination To SSAB

     From a press release:

President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Sharon Lewis of Oregon to serve on the Social Security Advisory Board ... The position is subject to Senate confirmation.

Lewis is a Principal at Health Management Associates, where she consults with government entities, providers, and advocates to advance opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of their communities. Before that, Lewis served nearly six years in presidentially appointed roles at the Department of Health and Human Services. There, she was one of the chief architects of the Administration for Community Living and worked to improve access to quality integrated home and community-based services by working with states, stakeholders, and other federal agencies, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Social Security Administration, and the Departments of Labor, Education, Transportation, and Justice.

Before joining the Obama administration, Lewis worked as a Senior Disability Policy Advisor to the House Committee on Education & Labor and as a Kennedy Public Policy Fellow for the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Children and Families. Lewis is the recipient of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Chairman’s Award and is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. ...

Jan 28, 2022

Walk In Service Matters -- Especially If SSA Can't Answer Its Phones

     From HuffPost:

Byron Jones just wanted a printout with his Social Security number on it so he could apply for an apartment.

But when Jones showed up to the Social Security office in Northeast D.C. with a receipt saying he’d filled out an online application for a replacement card, a man at the door turned him away, explaining the office is closed except for appointments.

Jones, a 45-year-old hospital worker, didn’t know what else to do. If he has to wait until the replacement card arrives in the mail, he said, he’ll miss his chance this week to fill out a rental application for the apartment he wants.

“No one answers the phone,” he said. “It hangs up on me and then when I get down to the Social Security place, they say I’m not allowed to come in.” ...

Jones ...  was just one of five people HuffPost observed knocking on the Northeast D.C. field office door Monday and being turned away — all within half an hour.  ...

In May 2021, the Social Security Administration announced people who need replacement cards can arrange special “express interviews,” but only if they’re unable to order a new card online, as Jones had already done. Jones said he had planned to apply for an apartment this week and the card won’t arrive on time, and all he needed was some other document proving he had a Social Security number.

The field office worker who turned Jones away gave him a number to call. He dialed it right away and got a busy signal.

     I keep posting this sort of thing because the biggest issue facing the Social Security Administration now, by far, is its inability to do that which it was created to do, serve the public. I see an agency in the midst of a crisis. It seems incapable of doing anything other than urging the public to use its online systems, even though it knows that the online systems are incapable of handling many issues and many people with issues are incapable of using the online systems for anything.

Jan 27, 2022

These Aren't "The Good Old Days" At Social Security

      A former Social Security employee can't believe how bad service is at his old agency these days. By the way, I was around in what he supposes were the "good old day" and service wasn't all that great even then. It's deteriorated tremendously since then and is just unbelievably bad now.

Senators Asking Pointed Questions

       The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and 16 other Democratic Senators wrote a letter to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on January 25 asking pointed questions about the state of service to the public at the agency. 

     Now, if these same Senators would just insist on giving the Social Security Administration an adequate appropriation, we just might get somewhere. If they even scheduled a hearing on the issue, it would help. Social Security is only the most important Democratic legislative victory in FOREVER. You'd think Democratic Senators would be extremely protective of the agency that administers this towering achievement.

Jan 26, 2022

Public Has Low Opinion Of Social Security Service

      From a press release:

Citizen satisfaction with U.S. federal government services declines sharply in 2021, down 2.6% to 63.4 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s (ACSI®) 100-point scale. This is the fourth consecutive annual decline in citizen satisfaction and marks an unprecedented run of negative movement in the index. Significantly, the federal government score is now at its lowest-ever recorded level. The results for this study are based on interviews with citizens who experienced a federal government service throughout 2021. ...

     This is what happens when government operations are starved for operating funds.

Jan 25, 2022

Unhappy Employees At Social Security

      From Federal News Network:

... The President’s Management Council, together with the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, released the first data from its Federal Pulse Survey.

The first-round pulse survey, a pilot project which launched in October, went out to the approximately 2 million civilian federal employees who work in the 24 largest agencies. ...

Employees at SSA, followed by the Veterans Affairs Department and USAID, were more likely than employees at other agencies to feel exhausted in the morning at the thought of another day of work.

Employees at DHS and SSA said they were most likely to take another job that offered the same pay and benefits as their current position. ...

Respondents who work at SSA, followed by USAID, gave the lowest marks to the reasonableness of their workloads. ...

The survey data shows employees at the Interior Department, Social Security Administration and the State Department showed the lowest response rate. ...

Jan 24, 2022

Final 2021 Trust Fund Numbers

      Social Security has posted final 2021 numbers for the Trust Funds. There are two tables below, the first for combined Old Age, Survivors and Disability Trust Funds (even though these are two separate funds) and then for the Disability Trust Fund alone. As always, click on the image to view full size.

Jan 23, 2022

Trajector Lays Off 500 Employees

      I have no idea where this leaves their Social Security operations. This may just affect their VA claims operations. I’m getting the 500 number from anguished tweets from laid off employees.

Jan 22, 2022

First I've Heard Of This

      From Market Watch:

Devin Carroll knew that Social Security is the backbone for many Americans’ retirement security, and yet, because it’s wildly complicated to understand, and everyone’s situation is different, people often lose out when they claim these benefits. 

As a result, there was a “tremendous appetite” for information about Social Security, so Carroll, founder of Carroll Advisory Group, created a blog called Social Security Intelligence and, in 2015, began a YouTube channel, though it didn’t get much traction at first. Two years after abandoning the YouTube project, he noticed one of his videos had 40,000 views, so he decided to try it again. His videos and blogs eventually brought in so much traffic—with thousands of hits—that he was bombarded with questions. 

“It got to the point I wasn’t able to help people,” he said. “It would have taken all day and then some to respond to these emails.” Instead, he created a group on Facebook in 2019, where people could ask and answer questions. It is one of many groups dedicated to personal finance. 

The group, called Social Security Intelligence Member’s Group, has 21,300 members, who discuss strategies and scrutinize the extensive rules under the Social Security Administration. Carroll has administrators who run the page, and they provide answers to users’ questions. Other members also join in to give their perspective. “It gives them a community,” Carroll said. “The community is answering. And if someone gives a wrong response, someone calls them out on it.”

Jan 21, 2022

Broadcast E-Mail From Acting Commissioner On Reopening

From: ^Commissioner Broadcast

Sent: Friday, January 21, 2022 8:58 AM

Subject: Reentry Update

A Message to All SSA Employees

On Wednesday, I shared that we reached agreement with our three labor unions.  I have additional updates to share about timing.

We are planning reentry and the implementation of new telework schedules for most employees on March 30, 2022.  This date allows us to ensure that the necessary measures are in place to keep you and the public safe, is consistent with our union agreements, and gives us time to provide you with appropriate notice of return.

I appreciate your patience while we continue to work through the reentry process.  In early February, your managers will talk with you about telework eligibility and the days for your position, as well as explain next steps including when and how to request telework.

We anticipate that field offices will restore increased in-person service to the public, without an appointment, in early April.  As we expand the availability of in-person service, we will continue to encourage the public to go online, call us for help if they cannot complete their business online, and schedule appointments in advance.  Customers who walk in without appointments may encounter delays.

We will begin limited in-person hearings in March with our management judges and plan to expand in-person hearings in the spring and early summer based on required notice to affected claimants.

 Please plan according to the dates above.  We will continue to monitor the course of the pandemic, and our reentry plan allows us respond to changing pandemic conditions.

I will continue to share updates as we move forward with our preparations for reentry.

Kilolo Kijakazi 

Acting Commissioner

Why Doesn't Social Security Have A More Sophisticated Telephone System?

      My calls to larger institutions are usually answered by sophisticated systems that tell me that "All agents are busy" but which also often give me an estimate of how long it will take before a human answers the phone. Probably more important, many of the systems give me the option of a call back. All I have to do is enter my phone number and I get a call back in less than half an hour. 

     Why doesn't Social Security's phone systems have these features? I'll give you my best guesses on the answers. They don't want to tell you how long you may be on hold because they don't want to admit just how bad their telephone service is. They can't include a call back feature because they lack the personnel to do it. Their system depends on callers getting fed up with the wait and hanging up. If that's not enough, Social Security's system just hangs up on persistent callers. They lack the personnel to handle the calls they're getting. Not now, not later in the day, not tomorrow, not ever. They have no choice but to deprive telephone service to many members of the public one way or another.

     Social Security management could just publicly admit to how bad their telephone service is and plead for more budgetary help but they feel ashamed of the situation and do everything they can to hide the problem or downplay it. They act like it's a management problem that they ought to be able to fix instead of a problem inherent in the lack of funding the agency has received. They're aided in their pathetic pretense by the House Social Security Subcommittee. In years past, that Subcommittee would have held hearings that would have exposed the problem and forced the agency to admit how bad things are. Now, it's mostly crickets. The Chairman of that Subcommittee, John Larson, seems largely uninterested in holding hearing on agency operations. I don't understand why he even wants to be the Subcommittee Chair.

     By the way, can Social Security say "Your call is important to us. Please hold" with a straight face? It seems to me that the unstated message in Social Security's telephone system is "Your call is unimportant to us. Please hang up and quit bothering us."

Jan 20, 2022

More On Reopening Agreements With Unions

      From Federal News Network:

... The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents employees in SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations, said NTEU Chapter 224 has negotiated an agreement that increases telework opportunities for all employees for the first six months of the reentry back into the workplace, extends scheduling flexibilities and maximizes safety for those who return to the office.

NTEU President Tony Reardon said in a statement Thursday the union has not yet received a 30-day notice of exactly when the reentry process will begin ...

“NTEU expects the agency will revisit telework, and bargain as appropriate, on extending and expanding telework opportunities in the future,” Reardon said. ...

AFGE [American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most SSA employees] and SSA, in a memorandum of understanding, agree to hold several meetings over component-level reentry, workplace safety and evaluation period issues.

The first of these reentry meetings will take place no later than Feb. 1. The agreement requires two follow-up meetings should be completed no later than March 1.

The memo specifies that a phased reentry for AFGE bargaining unit employees will begin no earlier than 30 days after the agreement is implemented.

Within seven days of the final reentry meeting, the memo states AFGE may submit a bargaining request to address “unresolved issues.” ...

As long as the MOU remains in effect, all AFGE employees, contractors, visitors and members of the public will be required to wear masks inside SSA facilities, regardless of vaccination status. ...

     And more from Government Executive:

...  According to an agreement reached between the Social Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers across several of the agency’s subcomponents, the current target date for employees to return to the office is March 30, although that date can be postponed if there is another spike in COVID-19 cases.

 The deal also provides AFGE’s various component-level councils and locals the opportunity to bargain over reentry issues specific to their offices between now and March 1, something the union has been pushing for since last year. And it sets up a framework for the union and management to continue to negotiate for six months after reentry begins over operational and personnel policies, including over issues like post-pandemic telework. ...

The agreement with AFGE also eliminates some pre-pandemic barriers to telework instituted under a Federal Service Impasses Panel-mandated contract during the Trump administration, including so-called "core days" in which every employee was expected to report to the office, and the use of minor reprimands to bar employees from working from home altogether. ...

SSA Reaches Reopening Agreements With All Three Labor Unions

     A press release:

Statement from Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, about Agency Reentry

“I am very pleased to share that we have successfully reached agreement with our three labor unions on our reentry plan.

This will be a significant step toward improving access to our services as we implement this plan.

I want to thank our labor representatives for working with management to achieve this outcome, which will help us better serve the public.

I also want to thank the public and our employees for their patience during this unprecedented time.

I know the public will have questions about what this means to them.

For now, you should continue to reach us online at www.socialsecurity.gov or by calling our National 800 Number or your local office. We will let you know when we are able to restore additional services.”

Jan 19, 2022

Memorandum Of Understanding Between ALJ Union And SSA

     NOSSCR has obtained a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the union representing Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and the Social Security Administration. I suppose I may as well post the link here. 

     I guess we all hope that a lot of what's in this agreement will turn out to be overkill because after the Omicron variant subsides almost everyone will have some degree of immunity to Covid and the number of Covid cases and their severity will die down to the point that the threat is similar to the threat posed by seasonal influenza. I'm really, really tired of Covid and so are you.

When I Say Attorneys Representing Social Security Claimants Are Hurting, I'm Not Kidding

     Social Security has posted final numbers showing total fees paid to attorneys for representing claimants in 2021. Let's do a comparison with the last two years:

  • 2019: 390,809 fees were paid for a total of $1,214,557,861. 
  • 2020: 360,493 fees were paid, down 8% from 2019. The total fees paid were $1,081,523,523, down 11% from 2019.
  • 2021: 296,847 fees were paid, down 18% from 2020 and down 24% from 2019. The total fees paid were $932,887,938, down 14% from 2020 and down 23% from 2020.
      One big problem is that even though the number of new claims filed has gone down significantly, the number of clients at Social Security law firms hasn't gone down much because cases are so piled up at the initial and reconsideration levels, not to mention the huge backlogs of claimants waiting to be paid after favorable decisions. Our workloads are still there even though our gross receipts have plummeted. There are fewer hearings but more effort expended trying to make sure Social Security does what it is supposed to do. In the current environment many cases get sidetracked for months. Some get lost. Overwhelmed agency employees do little to sort out these problems. Social Security employees may get tired of lawyers repeatedly contacting them about cases but if you're on the receiving end, it's impossible to tell a case that's just in a backlog pile from one that's not even in the pile.
     Contrary to what many Social Security employees may think, representing Social Security claimants is a high overhead, low profit margin business in the best of times. Everybody need normality at Social Security. Social Security attorneys also need and deserve a cost of living adjustment in the maximum attorney fee under the fee agreement process.

Jan 18, 2022

ALJs To Start Returning To Their Offices In May

Welcome Back!

      The ALJ Discussion Forum is a message board for Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and wannabe ALJs. It's independent of the Social Security Administration. Yesterday, reports began to be published on the message board about an e-mail that ALJ union members received telling them of an agreement to allow ALJs to return to their offices on a voluntary basis beginning on May 4 with return required in June. However, ALJs will only be required to come in on days on which they have hearings. The reports on the board indicate that there's still no agreement with the larger AFGE union that includes most non-ALJ personnel at Social Security.

Jan 15, 2022

A Question

      I have cases at the Appeals Council whose status is variously given in ERE as Assigned to Adjudicator, Assigned to Analyst and Case Workup. What is the difference? What can I tell from these case statuses? Anything?

Jan 14, 2022

Slow Progress In Obtaining And Analyzing Medical Records Via IT

      From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):

Despite spending more than 10 years trying to increase the number of medical records received through health IT, SSA still receives most records in paper or ERE format. In the Fiscal Year (FY) that ended on September 30, 2020, SSA received only 11 percent of medical records through health IT. 
SSA experienced a decreasing trend in adding new health IT partners from 56 in FY 2018 to 12 in FY 2021 (as of August). During this time, SSA reduced the number of staff and contractors involved in health IT outreach and did not fully fund projects to increase electronic medical evidence. Also, expanding the number of health IT records by adding new partners is not a unilateral decision made by SSA, as prospective partners must be willing and able to meet SSA’s technical requirements, and COVID-19 was a factor. In October 2021, SSA informed us it was (a) working on Memorandums of Understanding with 3 entities to exchange health IT records with over 30 large health IT organizations and (b) adding more staff to develop and implement strategies to expand health IT.
Challenges in expanding the number of health IT records include some partners’ inability to send sensitive medical records, acceptance of SSA’s authorization form to release records to the Agency (Form SSA-827), and medical industry-wide differences in patient-identifying data fields. 
Additionally, SSA has had limited success analyzing medical records because MEGAHIT is limited to analyzing only structured data. MEGAHIT generated data extracts on only 7.3 percent of the 1.6 million health IT records SSA received in FY 2020. The extracts assist SSA disability examiners in making accurate disability determinations. Since 2018, SSA has been developing and testing the Intelligent Medical-Language Analysis GENeration application with new capabilities for reviewing medical records. As of August 2021, SSA was still testing and rolling out this application to its offices. ...

Jan 13, 2022

Supreme Court Opinion On Obscure Windfall Offset Issue

      From the syllabus of the Supreme Court's opinion in Babcock v. Kijakazi:

This case concerns retirement benefits due under the Social Security Act for a retired “military technician (dual status)" ... Like all dual-status technicians, Babcock was required to maintain membership in the National Guard. ... Upon retirement, Babcock applied to the Social Security Administration for benefits. The agency granted Babcock benefits but applied a statutory “windfall elimination provision” and reduced the amount of benefits to reflect Babcock’s receipt of civil-service pension payments for his work as a technician. ...

Held: Civil-service pension payments based on employment as a dual-status military technician are not payments based on “service as a member of a uniformed service” ...

     In other words, Babcock loses. Social Security will continue to apply the windfall offset to his Social Security benefits.

     While this seems like an obscure question to me, it probably affects at least hundreds of people, maybe thousands. That's the way it is with Social Security. It's so big that even tiny changes affect significant numbers of people.

It's A Bad Month To Be Trying To Do Business With Social Security

     January is usually a tough month for the Social Security Administration. There's a bit of hangover of work that didn't get done during the holidays but, more important, there's an increased workload because of the number of people who retire at the end of a calendar year and because SSA-1099s go out in January and their receipt occasions calls, not to mention those who call because they didn't receive an SSA-1099. All of this is still happening in January 2022 but Social Security faces more service delivery obstacles than usual. We still lack an appropriation for FY 2022 so the agency has little money to spend on overtime and the Omicron variant is causing a lot of employees absenteeism. All of this put together is a perfect storm that is causing horrific problems for anyone trying to do business with Social Security's field offices and teleservice centers. It's also likely to lead to little regular work getting done at the payment centers which get called upon to help the teleservice centers when they can't answer their phones.

Jan 12, 2022

Big Decline In Disability Claim Approvals Continues

      Social Security has posted final 2021 numbers on disability claims. Claims filed in 2021 went down slightly from 1,838,893 in 2020 to 1,820,282 in 2021 but there was a sharp 11.75% decline in the number of claims approved from 648,121 in 2020 to 571,952 in 2021. This is on top of a 10.46% decline in claims approved in 2020. Note that claims approved went down far faster than claims filed. The difference is vastly increased backlogs, mostly at the initial and reconsideration levels but also at the payment centers where favorable Title II decisions are implemented. The number of claimants in current payment went down 3.36% in 2021 from 8,151,016 in 2020 to 7,877,129 in 2021.

Click on images to view full size


Jan 11, 2022

Vaccine Mandate Compliance Rate Increases At Social Security While Suspensions Loom For Those Who Fail To Comply

     From The Hill:

Federal government agencies are preparing to take increasingly harsh steps against unvaccinated employees in order to implement President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers.  

Some agencies plan to send letters warning of possible suspensions to employees who have not complied with the mandate. Many are also prepared to fire employees who don’t follow the rule, though such moves would be further down the road. ...

The departments of Treasury, Transportation and Agriculture as well as the General Services Administration, Social Security Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are all expected to begin suspending employees who are not complying with the mandate in the coming weeks. ...

Some agencies also saw success in convincing unvaccinated workers to get the shot toward the end of the year. The Social Security Administration, for instance, as of Friday had achieved a 98.9 percent compliance rate and a 91.5 vaccination rate, compared with a 95 percent compliance rate and 87.7 percent vaccination rate as of November.  ...

Jan 10, 2022

Is This A Good Idea Or Just Too Intrusive?

This is a Request for Information (RFI). This RFI is for informational and planning purposes only and shall not be construed as a solicitation or as an obligation or commitment by the Government.  ...

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting market research to identify potential vendors capable of providing record locator services to help identify interactions between a disability claimant and the healthcare system (e.g., physician visits, hospitalizations). ...

During the application process [for Social Security disability benefits], claimants may spend a great deal of time gathering information and trying to remember dates of medical treatment and provider details.  The process relies solely on claimant recall for the names and addresses of medical providers and dates of treatment.  As such, the body of medical evidence assembled for evaluation may be incomplete and omit information that could be critical in making an accurate determination of disability. ...

Technical Requirements:

  • The service shall support the ability to accurately identify a patient based on key demographic information supplied by SSA, such as patient name, date of birth, gender, address, and Social Security number.
  • The service shall support the ability to provide an encounter/treatment history within a specified timeframe for an identified patient, which consists of a list of treating facilities/providers, including address information, Medical Record Number (MRN), date of encounter, and conditions that were treated or evaluated.
  • The service shall support the ability to provide a list of active medications within a specified timeframe for an identified patient, including the prescription date along with the prescribing doctor, facility, and address.
  • The service shall support the ability to identify the electronic address of a specific patient’s electronic medical record based on key demographic information supplied by SSA.  ...
  • The service shall support the ability to notify SSA when specific patients, identified by key demographic information supplied by SSA, have had medical encounters, and provide information about the treating provider or facility, the date of the encounter, and the electronic location of where the associated electronic medical record could be found.

      I really want for Social Security to have a complete medical record on my clients. I try hard to figure out who they've seen and to help complete the record set that Social Security has. Contrary to what some would think, the problem isn't claimants trying to conceal medical sources they've seen. I don't think that's what this RFI is even about. The problem is that medical histories get complicated and claimants forget. Still, this RFI seems a bit creepy to me. Do we really want the government to have the power to troll across all medical records to find every last bit of records on an individual? To be able to construct a list of prescribed medications at any given moment? Would you want the government having this kind of power to gather your medical records?