Feb 28, 2022

Going Online To Schedule Appointments To File Claims

      Under the Paperwork Reduction Act Social Security must post notices when it develops new forms requiring information from the public. This is from such a notice posted today in the Federal Register:

... SSA developed an online tool to allow internet users to request an appointment to file an application for benefits and to establish a protective filing date with SSA. The electronic protective filing tool will allow individuals to submit information for the appointment request using a computing device, such as a personal computer or handheld (mobile) device instead of calling SSA by phone or visiting an FO [Field Office]. The tool will be available to potential claimants, as well as those individuals assisting them ...

[T]he system will ask the individual to tell us whether they are answering these questions about themselves, or about another person. To do so, the system will present several options for individual to select from the categories of individuals who, under current regulations, can establish a protective filing date. The next screens ask for basic information about the individual who will be claiming benefits, or requesting SSI payments. Additionally, the tool will collect the name, phone number, and email address (optional) of the person submitting the information, if that person is different than the person who will be claiming benefits or SSI payments. Once the system collects the data, it gives the individual the opportunity to review the information provided and electronically sign and submit the form. The system then transmits the information into eLAS [?] and establishes a protective filing date. ...

     The notice does not say when this might come into effect. The agency estimates that only 21,250 of these forms will be completed annually, which sounds awfully low.

Feb 27, 2022

Fighting To Survive


Feb 26, 2022

The Least Partisan Issue


Feb 25, 2022

EMs Allowing Benefits For Those Who Had Been Unable To Marry Due To Unconstitutional State Laws

      Social Security had earlier announced that it was settling two class actions concerning those who had been denied benefits due to the nine month duration of marriage requirement for widows/widowers benefits in the setting of couples who had been unable to marry due to state laws, later found unconstitutional, prohibiting same sex marriages. Now, the agency has issued two Emergency Messages (EMs) showing how it will implement the new policies.

     The Thornton v. Commissioner EM and the Ely v. Saul EM tell agency adjudicators to consider these questions in determining whether there was an intent to marry that was thwarted by unconstitutional state laws:

· Would the claimant have married their partner if not for a State law that prohibited same-sex marriage? 
· What date would the couple have married if they were not prohibited from doing so? 
· Did the law of the State where the couple lived permit same-sex marriages before the NH died? For information about when States and U.S. territories permitted same-sex marriages, refer to GN 00210.003. 
· Did the couple have a commitment ceremony or attempt to have the relationship formally recognized in any other way prior to the NH’s death? 
· Did the couple exchange commitment rings? 
· Was the claimant in a committed relationship with the NH? If so, for how long?
· Did the couple live together? If yes, how long did they live together?  
· Did they own property together?
· Did the claimant inherit from the NH based on a will?
· Did the NH name the claimant as a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement benefits?
· Did the couple have children together or did they raise any children together from prior relationships?
· Did the claimant and the NH share joint responsibility to care for one another?· Would the claimant and the NH have been otherwise eligible to marry if the law had not barred same-sex couples from marriage? Consider the following questions when determining whether the parties were eligible to marry:
          · Were the claimant and NH related to each other in a way that would prevent them from marrying?
          · Were the claimant and NH both over the age of 18 during their relationship (or, if not, over the relevant age of majority to marry)?
          · Were the claimant and NH prevented from marrying each other because one of them was married to someone else?
        · Did the couple choose not to marry prior to the NH’s death for reasons other than a State law prohibition on same-sex marriages?

        · Is there any other available evidence regarding whether the couple would have married, and what date they would have married, if State law did not prohibit same-sex marriages?

    Feb 24, 2022

    It's Time To Get These Problems Solved

          From some television station in central New York:

    On March 17th, 2020, Social Security offices across the country closed their doors to the public. The federal agency cited the emergence of COVID-19 as the reason - aiming to "protect" those they serve.

    While restaurants, schools, and other government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles have all since resumed in-person business, social security offices are still closed. They won't open again until early April, according to a spokesperson, over two years since the pandemic began.

    This has caused problems for people in Central New York, left to try to reach representatives on the phone. Some have reported waiting for hours trying to get through to someone at Social Security - at times, the call will just drop without anyone answering.

    Jeanne Marshall first reached out to CNY Central in November of 2021. Having moved to Nedrow at the end of the summer from Colorado - Marshall said she was in a desperate situation, missing thousands of dollars worth of checks from Social Security.

     She said she had spent over 48 hours cumulatively on the phone - finally learning that there was an alleged issue with her bank routing number. Even after learning that, she said nothing was actually fixed, left without money coming in for three months in a row. ...

    Checking the google reviews for the office, she's not alone.

    As recently as one month ago - a user wrote "been calling for couple months and no one ever answers."

    Another from 3 weeks ago said, "I can't wait till they reopen this office and these people go back to work and are held accountable for their actions of not doing their job!" ...

    Feb 23, 2022

    SSA Phones Down?

          My firm has been experiencing even greater difficulties than usual communicating with Social Security since yesterday. There seem to be technical difficulties so that nothing is going through. I'm hearing reports that this problem extends at least into other parts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

         How extensive is this problem?

    Black History In Social Security's Early Days


    The "Black Cabinet"

       From Black Past (emphasis added):

    The Black Cabinet was an informal advisory group of African American civil servants who lobbied for African Americans to receive equal access to federal benefits and employment and job training programs associated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Often promoting programs closely aligned with the demands of working-class Blacks, they encouraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and white liberals to press FDR on institutionalizing support for racial justice within his New Deal administration. ...

    The leaders included Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, economist Robert C. Weaver in the Department of the Interior; educator Ambrose Caliver in the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Office of Education; lawyer William Hastie in the Department of the Interior; former National Urban League Executive Director Eugene K. Jones in the Department of Commerce; social worker Lawrence W. Oxley in the Department of Labor; and sociologist Ira De A. Reid in the Social Security Administration. ...

    Officially this group called itself the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, but it was popularly known as FDR’s “Black Cabinet.” Its central leadership usually met every Friday for group updates and planning sessions...

    Feb 22, 2022

    Who Is Naive Enough To Believe This?

          From Roll Call:

    If Republicans take one or both chambers of Congress in November, don’t be surprised if shoring up Social Security’s finances becomes an area of bipartisan focus.

    Pronouncements like that have been made before only to die on the next election campaign’s vine. But the spirit of compromise that animated discussions around last year’s bipartisan infrastructure package appears to be creeping into nascent talks about finally, really, this-time-we’re-not-joking doing something to stave off Social Security insolvency.

    The prospects look brighter now in the Senate, where veterans of previous bipartisan “gangs” have begun talking about the need for fixes. ...

         What are the chances that Democrats agree to benefit cuts? Nearly zero. What are the chances that Republicans agree to tax increases? Nearly zero. Spirit of compromise? Are you kidding? Nothing's going to happen until there's a gun to their heads.

    Feb 21, 2022

    What Will Social Security Do About The Marasco & Nesslebush Case?

          I had written recently about Social Security's inability to react to an adverse ruling by a court at anything other than a glacial pace. Let me ask when the agency might decide what it's going to do about Marasco & Nesselbush v. Collins. On July 16, 2021 the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that:

    ... SSA's rule barring payments to attorneys for work completed before they enter government service is both arbitrary and, in some circumstances, in conflict with the statutory mandate to pay "a reasonable fee" for successful representation of SSA claimants. ...

    and further held that:

    ... SSA must adjust its rules, as described above, to ensure that the law firms that employ salaried associates to represent SSA claimants may receive direct payment of the attorney's fees to which the firms' associates are entitled for representation performed while employed by those law firms. ...

         This didn't go to the Supreme Court so Social Security has no choice but to implement it in the First Circuit area (most of New England) but it makes little sense to try to apply it just to that one area of the country. Payment centers all over the country are involved in authorizing attorney fees in the cases of claimants residing in the First Circuit area. Why would you want to have two systems? I can't exclude the possibility that Social Security will be that pig-headed but I hope that wiser heads prevail. Something should have been done about this problem decades ago.

    Feb 20, 2022

    So, Wendell Primus Is The Problem?

          From The Intercept:

    Democratic Rep. John Larson of Connecticut has written a bill titled“Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust” that would immediately expand the program’s benefits for all 65 million recipients. It has at least 200 co-sponsors, all Democrats, in the House. And increasing Social Security payments should be an easy lift for Democrats, especially in an election year.

    Yet the bill still awaits a vote in the Subcommittee on Social Security — chaired by Larson — of the House Ways and Means Committee, much less a vote on the floor. Why?

    Part of the answer appears to be Wendell Primus, a senior aide to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Primus is seen by many in the world of Washington, D.C., progressive politics as embodying a mindset from the Democratic Party’s past, when all that seemed possible was preventing cuts to important social programs, rather than going on offense.

    Primus “passionately cares about children, he’s always made the point that we have to make sure that we’re taking care of the children,” Larson said in a recent appearance on The Intercept’s podcast Deconstructed. “Wendell’s concern would be that there’s only so much money to go around. We have only so many expenditures.” Pelosi’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. …

    According to Larson, Mark Meadows, former chair of the House Freedom Caucus and later chief of staff for former President Donald Trump, once told him that if his legislation “makes it to the floor, you’re going to find a lot of Republicans are going to be voting for [it].”

    Social Security 2100 would then face a tougher challenge in the Senate. According to Senate rules, changes cannot be made to Social Security via the reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority. It would therefore need to attract the votes of all 50 Democratic senators as well as 10 Republicans to end a certain filibuster. …

    Feb 19, 2022

    Workshop On Covid And Social Security Disability

          From the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:


    Monday, March 21, 2022 | 10:30am - 4:00pm ET

    Tuesday, March 22, 2022 | 10:30am - 3:30pm ET

    A planning committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will hold a public workshop to explore the long-term and potentially disabling health effects stemming from COVID-19 infection and how they might impact survivors’ ability to work.

    This two-day virtual workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Social Security Administration, will bring together invited experts to discuss a range of topic a

    reas including:

    • Overview of long COVID, characteristics of the population affected, and research initiatives underway
    • Postacute sequelae of SARS-COV-2 infection and implications for recovery
    • Experiences of long COVID patients and their caregivers
    • Long-term impairments from COVID-19 and effects on work-related functioning
    • Best practices to improve recovery and potential future advancements in knowledge

    The workshop agenda and list of confirmed speakers will be posted to this page soon.

         By the way, my impression over the years has been that the National Academies are less a scholarly organization and more a Beltway Bandit, set up to attract lavish consulting contracts from government agencies. They always produce lengthy reports that say nothing of consequence and which contain the vaguest imaginable recommendations, except that there's always a definite recommendation for more "research", presumably done by them. I've never seen a report from a Beltway Bandit that had the slightest impact on actual operations at Social Security. Hiring them is what you do when you think you're supposed to do something but you really don't want to do anything other than kick the can down the road.

         It doesn't take any grant of money from Social Security for me to tell you the state of knowledge at this point. There hasn't been enough time elapsed to get a really good idea of the long term impacts of Covid. While there are suggestions that Covid will lead to disability claims, either directly or indirectly, there hasn't been more than a trickle of such claims filed at Social Security so far. No one knows what that means. I'll be amazed if we learn anything more specific that that at this workshop.

    Feb 18, 2022

    Post-Covid Anxiety And Depression

          From the New York Times:

    Social isolation, economic stress, loss of loved ones and other struggles during the pandemic have contributed to rising mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

    But can having Covid itself increase the risk of developing mental health problems? A large new study suggests it can.

    The study, published Wednesday in the journal The BMJ, analyzed records of nearly 154,000 Covid patients in the Veterans Health Administration system and compared their experience in the year after they recovered from their initial infection with that of a similar group of people who did not contract the virus.

    The study included only patients who had no mental health diagnoses or treatment for at least two years before becoming infected with the coronavirus, allowing researchers to focus on psychiatric diagnoses and treatment that occurred after coronavirus infection.

     People who had Covid were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety over the months following infection than people without Covid during the same period, the study found. Covid patients were 38 percent more likely to be diagnosed with stress and adjustment disorders and 41 percent more likely to be diagnosed with sleep disorders than uninfected people. ...

         You might say this won't have much impact on Social Security since there aren't many people found disabled due to depression and anxiety much less stress and adjustment disorders but I think that would be naive. Depression, anxiety, stress and adjustment disorders are bad for a person's physical health. These conditions also make people less able to cope with their physical ailments. There are many people who are still tenuously holding on to employment despite serious physical health problems. Add in depression and anxiety and those health problems can become too much to bear while still working. There are many people on the borderline who are still working but who can be easily tipped in the other direction. There's also the question of Covid's effects on those who already suffered significant mental illness. What effects will Covid have on people with bipolar disorder, for instance? I'm sure somebody is studying that question but I haven't heard of any research reports yet.

         I'm getting almost no calls from people with post-Covid syndrome but we'll have to see whether Covid is a significant indirect factor in producing disability.

    Feb 17, 2022

    It's Nearly Impossible To Get Through To Social Security On The Phone


         From CNBC (emphasis added):

    When Charlene Latsha calls the Social Security Administration, she’s placed on hold for so long that she hangs up.

    Latsha, 70, of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, has been trying to reach the government agency about her husband’s application for retirement benefits. Though he has been disabled and unable to work for the past two years, he is unable to claim disability benefits. But as he turns 65, the couple decided now would be a good time for him to claim his monthly retirement checks.

    When Latsha logs on to her husband’s online account, a message reading “account has been suspended” comes up. When she calls Social Security’s 800 number, she typically waits on hold for about 45 minutes to an hour before she gives up.

    “You call, and you’re on hold forever,” Latsha said. “For three weeks now, I’ve been trying to get in touch with them.” ...

     While the average wait time for Social Security’s 800 number was around 13.5 minutes in 2021, some months have had longer delays. In January, for example, the average wait was around 40 minutes. ...

    Dorothy Pritchette, 48, a schoolteacher from Newport News, Virginia, has been unable to work since she had a stroke in August. She applied for disability benefits shortly thereafter. While the Social Security Administration website shows that the benefits have been approved, [she] has yet to receive a payment. ...

    Feb 16, 2022

    Seizure Of Social Security Benefits To Satisfy Student Loan Debt Suspended Until November

          From CNBC:

    The U.S. Department of Education has suspended the seizure of tax refunds, Social Security and other government payments to satisfy defaulted student loans until November, the agency said.

    About 9 million people have a federal student loan in default, which means they’ve fallen at least 270 days behind on payments.

         Why is it that the government has the power to seize Social Security benefits to collect on a student loan debt? We don't allow collection of other debts in this way. For that matter, why is it nearly impossible to discharge a student loan debt in bankruptcy? 

         I ask clients if they have outstanding student loan debts. I'd say that 90% have no student loan debt and are surprised at the question. The other 10% are surprised to find out that being disabled may have an effect on their student loans. It's like asking about disabled children. Most of my clients don't have disabled children so the question doesn't matter to them but for that minority of my clients who have disabled children, it matters a lot.

    Feb 15, 2022

    Slow Reaction Time

          On August 24, 2020 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Maxwell v. Saul, 971 F.3d 1128, holding that coming up with two job titles to which a claimant could transfer skills isn't enough to support a finding of transferable skills. Since that time the agency has been thinking about what to do about the Maxwell decision. It's still thinking about whether to issue an Acquiescence Ruling but it's now told its staff to follow Maxwell in the 9th Circuit.

         I don't know whether to attribute this extraordinary delay to a sclerosed decision-making process or stubborness. Maybe they're both contributing factors.

    Feb 14, 2022

    Heavy Telework Usage At Social Security Compared To Other Agencies With Predictable Results


    Click on image to view full size

    ... The Social Security Administration (SSA), for example, reported that it faced challenges transitioning the work of its call center operators to a telework environment. According to SSA, nearly 4,000 of its customer call center agents did not telework prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. SSA explained that it was in the initial stages of replacing its telephone infrastructure at the onset of the pandemic and the transition to maximum telework required the agency to re-engineer the way it used current technology to provide all customer call center agents the ability to answer calls until its new agency-wide telephone system could be installed. When SSA transitioned to maximum telework in March 2020, the agency said it had enough equipment for only about one-third of these agents to perform their duties while teleworking.

    SSA officials told us that call center agents without remote equipment were placed on administrative leave or weather and safety leave. Additionally, it took a couple of weeks for the agency to provide the customer call center agents on leave with the essential equipment that allowed them to telework. However, SSA officials reported that internet connectivity issues created challenges for employees receiving calls on its 800-customer service number. As a result, SSA operated with a limited number of employees available to respond to the 800 number calls from the public. This resulted in longer-than-normal call-wait times. SSA officials said that by June 2020, they had equipped employees with necessary technology to answer the increasing number of calls while teleworking.

    SSA’s Office of the Inspector General reported that only 27 percent of teleservice center employees were answering calls on the national 800-number in mid-March of 2020. As of October 2020, according to the report, nearly all call center employees were answering calls, with approximately 1 percent on weather and safety leave who were unable to answer calls remotely due to internet connectivity issues. The report also stated that while SSA reduced the amount of callers receiving a busy message, this was partially enabled by reducing hours for the national 800-number. ...

    Feb 13, 2022

    What Does It Tell You If Less Than Half Of People File Their Social Security Retirement Claims Online?

          From a piece by Alicia Munnell, the director of the Boston College Center for Retirement Research for Market Watch:

    The Social Security Administration faces an enormous challenge to maintain its services as retiring baby boomers increase the demand and budget constraints and retiring staff limit the agency’s capacity to deliver.  ...

    To investigate how individuals claimed or intend to claim their retirement benefits, my colleague JP Aubry surveyed 2,600 people ages 57-70. The responses showed that, while 60% of respondents applied or intend to apply online (a somewhat higher share than the SSA data show), only 43% of respondents claim completely online — that is, without contacting SSA in-person or by phone. Scaling the survey results to the SSA data for online applications suggests that 37% of retirees claim completely online  ...

    To better understand the factors associated with online claiming patterns, JP estimated a regression that relates respondents’ demographic characteristics to full online claiming (see Figure 3). Two of the characteristics most associated with claiming completely online are the use of online banking and Turbo Tax — both of which are proxies for a high level of comfort with online financial tools. Additionally, claiming completely online is associated with living in a metropolitan area, being college educated, and being married. On the other hand, the characteristics most associated with not claiming completely online are — essentially — being nonwhite. ...

    In response to in-depth questioning, respondents identified four reasons for contacting an SSA representative: 1) complex issues that clearly require an SSA representative, such as discussing the specifics of spousal and survivor benefits; 2) general aversions to online services, like a concern about data privacy; 3) straightforward inquiries that could be addressed without contacting a representative, like checking the benefit amount and eligibility; and 4) obstacles to online claiming that could be remedied by SSA service improvements, such as fixing data errors.  ...

         Note that this piece concerns retirement claims, not the more complicated survivor claims, not to mention the vastly more complicated disability and SSI claims.

    Feb 12, 2022

    It Really Is A Struggle

         "NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with economy reporter Chabeli Carrazana from The 19th News about women whose spouses and children have died of COVID struggling to seek benefits from Social Security offices."

    Feb 11, 2022

    Fee Cap Chokes Claimant Representation

         From The Legal Intelligencer (registration required):

    A limit on the fees attorneys may collect on Social Security cases has remained unchanged for nearly 13 years, leaving some smaller firms and solo practitioners struggling to keep their practices running as inflation and costs of business outpace their earnings.

    The stagnating cap has has resulted in a practice area that both fails to attract new talent and drives established practitioners to seek out more profitable types of law, say some Social Security attorneys. Those attorneys say the drain on resources is creating a smaller pool of representation available to vulnerable populations that will ultimately lead to fewer claimants getting the help they need.

    In June 2009, the Social Security Administration raised the previous maximum limit for fee agreements under Section 206 of the Social Security Act from $5,300 (adjusted in 2002) to $6,000 in order to “adequately compensate representatives for their services while ensuring that claimants are protected from excessive fees.”

    That limit has not been adjusted since. ...

    According to National Organization of Social Security Claimants president David Camp, the tax that Social Security imposes for releasing the fee—currently 6.3%—has continued to go up in that time, as have most other business costs. 

    “Nobody likes to say they want more money,” said Camp, “but at some point, when you’re operating a small business or when you’re a solo attorney with maybe one assistant, it’s very hard to have a payroll … and it’s been brutal, and it’s now been 13 years.” ...

    Tim Cuddigan of Omaha-based Cuddigan Law said his firm had to adapt the services it offered about five years ago when it became clear that the cap wasn’t going to change any time soon. Cuddigan Law’s focus on Social Security disability proved unable to generate enough income to support the three-attorney firm, so it supplemented its offerings with a veterans disability practice. 

    “The rent has gone up, salaries have gone up, insurance has gone up, and the fee cap hasn’t gone up,” said Cuddigan. 

    “It’s become this low-wage way to practice law, and such an unfortunate overall reduction in the number of people that are willing to do it,” Camp said.

    Camp and Cuddigan said they have seen fewer law school graduates looking to enter the field as well as experienced attorneys leaving behind their Social Security practices because of the low pay. They said in some cases small firms and solos have gone out of business. ...