Jun 30, 2022

Offical Announcement Of Increase In Fee Cap

     The Social Security Administration is today publishing in the Federal Register the increase in the fee cap under the fee agreement process from $6,000 to $7,200 effective November 30.

Jun 29, 2022

Proposed New Cardiac Listings

    The Social Security Administration has published proposed new Cardiovascular Listings in the Federal Register today. This is only a proposal. Comments may be made until August 29, 2022.

Jun 28, 2022

Ways And Means Republicans To Hold Roundtable

      The top Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee and its Social Security Subcommittee have scheduled a roundtable at noon on Wednesday, Eastern Time, on  “Democrats’ Social Security Expansion Fails Generations of Working and Retired Americans.” Charles Blahouse and Holly Wade, both of whom are reliably hostile to Social Security, will testify.

     I don’t know why they would bother with this with Congress in recess or even if it were back in session. Do they really think the Democrats might advance a bill? Maybe it’s a sign that they really don’t want to have to vote on a bill that increases Social Security benefits while raising taxes only on the wealthiest Americans.

     I’m sure this roundtable will get “tens and tens of views” to quote a recent commercial.

Jun 27, 2022

What Do You Think?

    It's the week before the 4th of July and nothing much is happening in Social Security world so let me throw out a question. What does the Social Security Administration need? My feeling is that if the agency stays on its current trajectory, Social Security disability benefits and SSI will rapidly become unimplementable. They'll mostly disappear because it will have been made too difficult to apply for benefits or get claims adjudicated once filed. Even if you don't have such a dire view of the situation, if you're reading this blog, you're probably aware that the agency has major problems implementing these programs. So, what should be done? Please be specific. Don't simply say give the agency more operating funds. Say how you would like the extra money spent both short term and long term. Don't simply say to manage the agency better. Say exactly how the agency should be managed better. Which parts of the agency need the most help and what sort of help should they get? Don't simply say simplify. What should be simplified and how should it be simplified. Don't just say to improve information technology. What should be improved and how?

    To give you my opinion, there are four main components of the Social Security Administration with major problems -- field offices, teleservice centers, payment centers and disability determination services, which, of course, is most of the agency. In the short run, all of these components need a lot of money for overtime. In the medium run, they need a lot of hiring. This is necessary to handle the workloads but also to improve employee job satisfaction. Huge backlogs and incredible workload pressures have made these jobs unattractive to existing employees much less new employees. There's no way to significantly improve employee job satisfaction without addressing workload issues. Continued high employee turnover will make my dire predictions come true. That has to be the major focus in the medium and long term.

Jun 25, 2022

It Gets Hot In Albuquerque

     From KRQE in Albequerque:

Anyone who drives by the Lead Ave. Social Security office every day, sees long lines that wrap around the building. KRQE News 13 spoke to people in line today who told us they wait in line for hours and sometimes never get seen. 

“I got here 15 minutes after it opened and the line was wrapped around the building and thankfully it’s a little bit cooler today but I can imagine that when the temperatures are warmer, the elderly and people who are disabled are having some problems in the heat,” said Callie Rizzo, a woman waiting in line. 

When KRQE News 13 first got to the office this morning people in line were positive and said the line was moving quickly. However, after 2 hours, the line barely moved and only a few people could be seen leaving the building after being helped.

A woman told KRQE News 13 she was in line yesterday for 4 hours and went home with a sunburn and dehydration. Some of those in line said they tried making an appointment but never reached anyone.

“I made an appointment but then they called me back and said that they had to cancel my appointment that I needed just to come in,” said Carol Johnson, another woman waiting in line. …

Jun 24, 2022

Full House Committee Schedules Markup Of Appropriations Bill

     The full House Committee markup of the appropriations bill covering the Social Security Administration has been scheduled for June 30 at 10:00 a.m. 

    Remember that this is just one step in a long process.

Jun 23, 2022

House Appropriations Committee Releases Chairman's Mark Of Bill Covering SSA

    The Chairman's mark of the FY 2023 Labor-HHS appropriations bill provides $14.4 billion for Social Security operating expenses, an increase of $1.1 billion, or 8%, above the FY 2022 enacted level. This is about $600 million below the President's budget proposal and more than a billion dollars below the Acting Commissioner's proposal. 

    This is only a Democratic proposal. Senate Republicans have a veto over what goes into the budget even though they're in the minority. This is only the start of a process that is almost certain to continue until at least December and more likely to go into the new year.

    Subcommittee markup of this bill is scheduled for 5:30 today. 

Braving The Heat Outside The Lubbock Field Office

     From a television station in Lubbock, TX:

Many community members braved the heat for hours outside of the Social Security Administration Building. Most, waiting for hours as the building only allows 14 people inside at a time. 

“I think it’s very inconsiderate and I think they should take the necessary measures to provide us with some kind of shelter. I mean, we’re already standing together out here, what’s the difference between being crowded out here and being inside?” said John Buentello who was already waiting in line for 45 minutes. 

Many residents attempted to make it out to the office several times before. 

“Today is day three of trying to get my name changed from being married. 

I’m super grateful because I’m physically able to stand in this heat for that long but we have already seen a couple elderly people here that are obviously struggling,” said Ashley Sharp who waited approximately two hours to be seen. 

Community members have waited in temperatures in the upper 90s outside of the building. 

“About an hour and fifteen minutes in the line and into waiting, there was a lady that they wheeled over to load up in an ambulance that had fainted in line because it was very hot that day,” said Donna Bowels, who had waited in line a previous day. ...

    What I've seen over the years is that reporters pay attention to what's being reported by other news media outlets. They're always looking for new stories to cover. If they read that people are waiting in line in the heat outside the Houston or Lubbock Social Security offices, they may drop by the Waco or Fort Worth field offices to see whether there's a line in their community. If there are many offices with lines outside the building, there may be many more of these stories and not just in Texas.

Jun 22, 2022

Angry People At OIG

      You might want to take a look back at my last post on the situation at Social Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), not for the post itself but for the comments. I’ve never had a blog post draw anything like this many comments — 267, the last time I looked. I can’t say how many different people are commenting but there are clearly some very angry people at OIG with stories to tell. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s really exceptional.

Jun 21, 2022

Social Security Changed One Of Its Listings But Kept It Secret

     From a new issuance in Social Security's POMS manual:

The Office of Disability Policy (ODP) is updating its instructions in DI 24555.005 for genitourinary disorders listing 6.05,Chronic kidney disease, with impairment of kidney function. The revised POMS advises adjudicators to stop using the African American estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) and use the unadjusted eGFR for all claimants regardless of race. This conforms with the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and American Society of Nephrology’s (ASN) recent recommendation to exclude race in eGFR calculation and reporting. It also aligns with the agency’s initiative to promote consistent and equitable disability determinations for African American claimants whose impairments would satisfy the criteria in listing 6.05A3 if adjudicators use the unadjusted eGFR to evaluate their claims.

DI 24555.005 includes the same instructions provided in EM-22012 SEN, Guidance on Using the Estimated Glomerular Filtration Rate (eGFR) in Cases Involving Genitourinary Disorders. Upon publication of the POMS, we will archive EM-22012 SEN.

    Note that the link to EM-22012-SEN doesn't work if you're not on Social Security's network. The SEN part may be there because this was deemed "Sensitive." In any case, it was not divulged to the public at the time these new instructions were issued to agency staff. I don't even know when the staff was told about this.

    This is basic stuff. It determines who wins and who loses. Why was this kept secret from claimants and their attorneys? We have an obvious need to know.

    And what about African-Americans who were denied in the past under an arguably racist policy?

Jun 20, 2022

Little Change In Employee Headcount

    The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has posted updated numbers showing the headcount of employees at each agency. Note that these numbers do not tell the whole story. They don't account for part time employees nor for overtime. Overtime is a huge part of the story at Social Security. Here are Social Security's numbers as of last December with earlier headcount numbers for comparison:

  • December, 2021 60,422
  • September, 2021 59,808
  • June 2021 59,707
  • March 2021 60,675
  • December 2020 61,816
  • September 2020 61,447
  • June 2020 60,515
  • March 2020 60,659
  • December 2019 61,969
  • December 2018 62,946
  • December 2017 62,777
  • December 2016 63,364
  • December 2015 65,518
  • December 2014 65,430
  • December 2013 61,957
  • December 2012 64,538
  • December 2010 70,270
  • December 2009 67,486
  • December 2008 63,733

Jun 19, 2022

Happy Juneteenth!


Jun 18, 2022

Recommendations From GAO

     The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has some recommendations for Social Security. As is usual, they're vague, hardly actionable, little more than an exhortation to do better. I guess the GAO must do some valuable work but you seldom see evidence of it when it comes to Social Security.

Jun 17, 2022

What’s Your Advice?

      A message I received:


      My advice to this person is to not write anything all in caps but I’ll let others make more substantive comments.

Jun 16, 2022

A Little Help In Houston

     From KRPC in Houston:

The Social Security Administration announced Wednesday it was taking steps to mitigate wait times at Houston area offices.

KPRC 2 News viewers have reported standing outside in long lines in the extreme heat for hours at SSA offices in Conroe, Houston, and Pasadena.

In response to inquiries from KPRC 2 News Wednesday, the agency said it was adding a canopy to the northwest Houston office at 16200 Dillard Drive but was exploring the “feasibility” of doing so at other offices.

A spokesperson said the SSA will also temporarily assign additional employees to help triage the lines. They pointed to drop boxes at all Houston offices for people to use if they simply need to drop off documents and evidence. Restrooms and water fountains are also available inside for people waiting in line. ...

Some States Have It Worse Than Others

Many people who have turned to Social Security for help in recent years have found long waits for service.

The pandemic made those delays worse. But the issue actually dates back to before the onset of Covid-19.

Congress has cut Social Security’s core operating budget by 17% since 2010, after adjusting for inflation, according to recent research from the Center on Budget on Policy Priorities. ...

Some states have been more affected by those budget cuts than others, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found.

Social Security’s staff was reduced by 15% between 2010 and 2021. Ten states lost more than 20% of their Social Security staff since 2010. They include Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Four states — Alaska, Iowa, Virginia and West Virginia — lost more than 25%. The same goes for Puerto Rico. ...

The agency’s Disability Determination Service employees, who decide whether people qualify for either disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, shrank by 16% between 2010 and 2021. Eight states lost more than 30% of their DDS staff, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The states most affected are Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. ...

    Note how many of the worst affected states vote reliably for Republicans who are the ones responsible for the budget problems and thus for the staffing cuts.

Jun 15, 2022

OHO Stats

     Posted by Social Security. Click on image to view full size.

Jun 14, 2022

You Knew The Stories Were Coming -- Waiting In High Heat Outside SSA Office -- Note That The Reporter Doesn't Quite Get That The Lines Are A National Problem


Why Not Look At Both Sides?

     From Incorrect Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance Benefit Payment Computations that Resulted in Overpayments, an audit report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG):

... SSA makes incorrect benefit computations when employees enter the wrong information into SSA’s systems or incorrectly calculate benefits. Benefits are incorrectly computed when employees or systems base calculations on inaccurate information. When SSA detects an error or obtains accurate information, it corrects the benefits and establishes an overpayment or issues an underpayment. We focused our review on overpayments. ...

We estimate SSA could have avoided approximately 73,000 overpayments totaling more than $368 million if it had effective controls over benefit-computation accuracy. SSA’s controls did not always ensure the Agency calculated benefits accurately. ...

    OK, those overpayments aren't good but what about the other side of the coin. Wasn't Social Security as likely to underpay claimants as overpay them? How many claimants were underpaid and by how much? Isn't that as least as important?

    This report is a microcosm of OIG's priorities and not just under the current Inspector General -- an intense focus on overpayments with only a limited interest in underpayments, which are at least as big a problem.

Jun 13, 2022

Markup Of House Appropriations Bill For Social Security

    The Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that has jurisdiction over legislation to fund the administrative operations of the Social Security Administration will markup their share of the FY 2023 appropriations at 5:30 on June 23.

    This may not matter much. Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster in the Senate. This means that Senate Republicans can, and almost certainly will, prevent passage of a bill until after this November's elections. If things go as now expected, Republicans will control at least the House of Representatives beginning next January. Also, both Republicans and Democrats would each continue to have an effective veto over appropriations in the Senate. The President would continue to have a real veto as well. In other words, this markup session would be very, very important if there were no filibuster in the Senate but there is a filibuster so this markup may have little value other than giving some idea of the priorities that Democrats have. We have some suggestion that Social Security isn't regarded as a priority. The Appropriations Committees have been busy holding hearing concerning appropriations for various agencies including the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Park Service, etc. but no appropriations hearing in either the House or Senate on Social Security.

    By the way, to give you an idea of the process for this markup, the Chair of the Subcommittee, Rosa DeLauro (who is also the Chair of the full Committee), will come up with what is known at the "Chairman's Mark" -- her proposal for what the Subcommittee should do. Members of the Subcommittee can then vote on proposals to modify the Chairman's Mark. The Chairman's Mark isn't released to the public until a few hours before the markup session.

Jun 12, 2022

$90,000 Backpay For Widower

      From Business Insider Personal Finance:

Anthony Gonzales and Mark Johnson were married at the Bernalillo County Clerk's Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside more than 100 other LGBTQ+ couples, on August 27, 2013. 

Same-sex marriage was legalized statewide in New Mexico in December 2013 — and was legalized nationwide on June 26, 2015 by the Supreme Court — however, some local county clerks in New Mexico began issuing marriage licenses to LGBTQ+ couples as early as August 2013, arguing that New Mexico's definition of marriage made no mention of sex or gender. … 

Johnson died on February 19, 2014, six months after he legally married Gonzales at the county clerk's office. … 

When he turned 60 in 2015, one year after Mark's death, Gonzales was let go from his job. He applied for survivor benefits, Social Security benefits that widows and widowers get when their spouse dies. … 

Gonzales was denied survivor benefits three weeks after he sent his application. He says, "I got a letter saying, 'Sorry, but you weren't married the required nine months.' And I was like, 'Well, how could we fulfill that requirement when we could not get married?" … 

In May 2021, the US District Court of Arizona ruled in favor of … same-sex couples who had been denied survivor benefits. According to records reviewed by Insider, Gonzales started receiving $1,700 a month in survivor benefits starting May 2021, along with $90,000 in backpay for the years he was denied benefits. …

Jun 11, 2022

Big Jump In DDS Processing Time

    This is the processing time at the Disability Determination Services. I don't think the report specifies but this looks like the initial level processing time.

From Medical Evidence Collection In Adult Social Security Disability Claims, a report to the Social Security Advisory Board

Jun 10, 2022

A Tale Of Two Newspapers

    From Rudy Boschwitz writing for the Wall Street Journal:

Social Security is a perennial crisis. Eighty-three percent of Generation X and 77% of millennials say they worry that the program will run out of money in their lifetimes, according to a June 2021 Harris poll for the Nationwide Retirement Institute. The latest report of the Social Security Trustees backs them up, finding that the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund “will be able to pay scheduled benefits on a timely basis until 2034, one year later than reported last year.” That’s only 12 years from now. ...

I’ve updated my reform proposals:

Raise the full retirement age further. ...

Raise the early eligibility age. ...

Change the way benefits are calculated for new recipients. [To cut benefits] ...

Slow the growth of benefits for new and existing beneficiaries alike by changing the basis on which they’re indexed for inflation.  ...

Withhold some Social Security COLAs from higher-income retirees. ...

Give the COLA not annually but every 14 or 15 months using the 12 months of lowest inflation.

Tax Social Security income for higher-bracket taxpayers, and give them the option to forgo all or part of their monthly payment. ...

Raise the payroll tax by 0.1% of wages every other year—half from withholding, half for the employer’s contribution—for 20 years, a total tax increase of 1%. ...

    Social Security benefits are already taxed for high income recipients -- at least 85% of the benefits are taxed so that would be only a modest tax increase which would raise only a small amount of money. A rise in the FICA tax by 0.05%? That's hardly a token tax rise. No increase in the wage base. And all these cuts in benefits! That's what passes for a reasonable dialogue at Rupert Murdock's Wall Street Journal.

    From Michael Hiltzik writing for the Los Angeles Times: 

The army of perennial doomsayers about the financial condition of Social Security had to be a little crestfallen after the release of the program trustees’ annual report last week.

That’s because the report documented that the program’s condition had actually improved in the last year, if modestly.

More to the point, the trustees’ data underscored that the cost of maintaining Social Security benefits at current levels, or even expanding and improving them, is well within the capacity of the American economy at least to the end of this century, which is as far as the trustees looked. ...

This year, the trustees reckon, Social Security’s combined costs for retirees, those with disabilities and their dependents will come to about 4.98% of an economy valued at $25 trillion. Through the turn of the century, that percentage will peak at 6.18% in 2075, when GDP is estimated to be more than $208 trillion, then will fall to about 5.87% in 2100, when GDP is projected to be $574.5 trillion.

Is this “unaffordable”? Not by international standards. Some of our closest allies in the developed world spend much more than we do on public retirement and disability programs — Japan spends 10.5% of its GDP, France 15.3% and Germany 12.5%. ...

That’s the point of efforts in Congress to expand and increase Social Security benefits, as would be done by a bill dubbed Social Security 2100, introduced by Rep. John B. Larson and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats from Connecticut.

The measure would increase benefits across the board by an average 2%, set a minimum retirement benefit at 25% above the federal poverty line and extend dependent benefits for students up to age 26 (the current cutoff is 19), among other improvements.

 On the revenue side, the bill would eliminate, over time, the existing cap on wages subject to tax, which is $147,000 this year — a level that in effect gives the 1% a pass on their obligation to support this universal system. (The payroll tax is 12.4% up to that wage cap, shared equally by employer and employee.) ...

More could be done to provide additional revenue for Social Security. One option would be to make all income, not just wages, subject to the Social Security tax, thus bringing the capital gains and dividends that make up a disproportionate share of income for the wealthiest Americans into the revenue stream.

That option doesn’t get talked about much, perhaps because politicians know that the wealthy would go to the mat to protect their capital gains from higher taxes. ...

    I'm with Hiltzik. The idea that we can't afford an increase in Social Security benefits is nuts. There is no justification for even talking about benefit cuts, especially a plan that talks of huge benefits cuts coupled with the tiniest increase in taxes for the wealthy.



Jun 9, 2022

31% Complete?

     My firm has recently started receiving calls from clients informing us that their My SSA account is showing that work on their case pending at the initial or reconsideration level is 31% or 90% or some other percentage complete. This is nuts. The work at DDS doesn't translate into percentages like this. Where are they coming up with these numbers? Is there any point other than to try to get the claimants to hold off a little longer before they call to ask what's going on with their cases? If so, I don't think this is going to help for long. What are they going to do about claimants whose cases have supposedly been pending at "31% complete" for six months?

A Little Progress But So Far To Go

From Huffpost:

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has won a key Republican ally in his quest to improve one of the most outdated social welfare programs in the United States.

This week, Brown joined forces with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to announce their co-sponsorship of a bill updating the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to nearly 8 million Americans with disabilities. 

The program pays less than $700 per month for the average recipient meeting its strict eligibility criteria, which include a requirement that recipients have less than $2,000 in their bank accounts. The Brown-Portman measure, called the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, would boost the asset limit from $2,000 to $10,000 for individuals and peg the limit to inflation.  ...

Getting the change into law, however, will be no easy task. Brown attempted unsuccessfully to hitch the measure to a big social spending bill Democrats tried to write last year, but Democrats omitted the proposal even before the bill collapsed. Its $8 billion cost is relatively small, but not exactly chump change, given current attitudes toward spending on Capitol Hill.

Having a Republican on board makes passage a bit more plausible. Brown and Portman said they would try to attach their bill to bigger pieces of legislation Congress may pass in the coming weeks. ...

The Brown-Portman bill would boost the limit to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for married couples, eliminating the marriage penalty. Lankford said he would need to see the bill’s text, but that he had been interested in addressing the penalty for years.

Brown has pushed to boost SSI’s meager benefits and limitations on earned income as part of a broader bill but said he would take what he can get in partnership with Portman. ...

    Brown needs not just one but at least ten Republican votes to pass this as a stand-alone bill because of the filibuster in the Senate.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for this bill seems limited even among Democrats. I have no idea what bigger piece of legislation may be forthcoming that this could be attached to. I hope there is one. The enthusiasm in the House of Representatives also seems limited. Is the reason the enthusiasm is so limited a perception that since this is a poverty program that it must be primarily something affecting African-Americans? That notion is not only offensive; it's inaccurate. Most people getting SSI are white. However, the awful "welfare queen" prejudices die hard.


Legislation Passes To Help Ukrainian Refugees With SSI

Click on image to view full size

     A new Social Security Legislative Bulletin reveals that recent legislation passed to appropriate funds to help Ukraine in its struggle for survival also contains language concerning Ukrainian refugees and SSI. Those refugees will now be eligible for SSI if they otherwise meet its requirements and Social Security must not count the income and resources of their sponsors.

    Now, if this could also be done for other refugees!

Jun 8, 2022

How Common Is Serious Long Covid?

      From the Washington Post:

… The coronavirus pandemic has created a mass-disabling event that experts liken to HIV, polio or World War II, with millions suffering the long-term effects of infection with the coronavirus. Many have found their lives dramatically changed and are grappling with what it means to be disabled. …

“We’re at this real confrontational moment of trying to educate as many people as possible about disability and structural inequalities and trying to make sure [long haulers] get the resources they need right now,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress …

     There’s just one problem. I’ve seen virtually no Social Security disability claims based on long Covid. I’m pretty sure the Social Security Administration hasn’t seen many. I’m not disparaging those with long Covid problems. It’s just that I’m pretty sure this is a much less common problem than articles like this suggest, at least at a level that precludes work.

Jun 7, 2022

Some Questions

     On May 11, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security spoke to a Continuing Legal Education conference sponsored by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). She announced that the cap on the fees that attorneys and some others can charge for representing Social Security claimants under the fee agreement process would go up from $6,000 to $7,200 on November 30.

    I have some questions. I imagine that some people reading this blog know the answers to most of these questions. I don't know whether they'll share anything with us but I'll ask the questions anyway.

  • The increase in the fee cap isn't effective until November 30. Why such a long lead time? This length of time certainly isn't necessary in order to train staff. (I'll guess that there won't be any real training no matter how far in advance the agency announces this. There certainly wasn't in past years when the fee cap was raised.) When the fee cap was raised previously, the change wasn't announced this far in advance.
  • There has been no notice in the Federal Register about the increase in the fee cap as there was in the past when the fee cap was hiked. Has the agency just not gotten around to the notice? Is this somehow still up in the air?
  • Why $7,200? If adjusted for inflation, it should be more than a $1,000 higher. I can guess that there were proponents within the agency, and perhaps the Biden Administration, for a higher or lower increase. Who were the proponents on each side? What were their arguments? Did the Acting Commissioner make this call or was it the White House? (I don't know why the White House should have been involved but I also don't understand what took so long. I think it was last November when I first heard that an increase was coming.)
  • Does the low increase reflect a desire on the part of some to change traditional representation patterns -- to force attorneys to be more amenable to a switch to all telephone/video hearings? A desire to generally reduce the effectiveness of representation? (I may be giving those involved too much credit. My impression has  long been that, in general, government employees have little comprehension of the economics of Social Security law firms. It's a high overhead, low profit margin kind of business. Reduce gross fees even modestly and the profit margin is greatly diminished or eliminated. What I've just written is painfully obvious to people like me but must seem like Greek to many who receive a paycheck every two weeks regardless. Of course, I heard a rumor that the Chief Administrative Law Judge has talked about attorneys needing to "become more efficient." What did he have in mind? Whether or not there was a desire to manipulate attorneys to become less effective and to agree to dispense with in person hearings, I predict those will be the effects. Attorneys are struggling under the effects of incredibly poor performance across most parts of the Social Security Administration which delays adjudication and payment of benefits as well as payment of attorney fees at a time when attorney fees have been effectively cut in a dramatic way by inflation. There's nothing we can do to stay afloat but to cut service to our clients which may be "more efficient" in the eyes of some. Claimants don't get the service they're willing to pay for but the service that others who may not have their best interests at heart are willing for them to pay.)

Jun 6, 2022

What's A Social Security Disability Claim Worth?

     One question that gets asked from time to time is "How much is a Social Security disability claim worth?" If you try to figure out some average amount of total lifetime benefits that might be paid per person approved, what does it come to? You may be surprised to hear that there are no available official or even unofficial numbers on this. To the best of my knowledge Social Security's actuaries have never produced a figure. I don't recall seeing anyone outside the agency even attempt to come up with a number in many years. The very old estimates I remember were crude.

    I'll jump in with a very rough estimate, $457,000. Let me explain my methodology. The amount of benefits paid last year to all Social Security disability recipients was $145,470 million. The number of people approved for Social Security disability benefits last year was 671,952.  Divide $145,470 million by 671,952 and you get about $249,000. That's what I'm coming up with as a rough estimate of the value of the cash benefits. The amount of Medicare benefits paid for Social Security disability recipients was $139,996 million in 2021. Divide that by the 671,952 who were approved for benefits last year and you get $208,000 as an average value for the Medicare. Total that with the cash benefits and you get $457,000. 

    I don't expect you to say QED!

    Why divide the gross benefits paid in a year by the number added to benefits in that year? My reasoning is that the average length of time that a person stays on disability benefits is the total number of people drawing benefits divided by the number approved per year. The total benefits paid in a year is the summation of the amounts paid to claimants still on benefits who were approved over the years. That number is effectively the amount for one year's cohort of claimants going on benefits multiplied by the average length of time they stay on benefits. I told you that my method was crude but try coming up with a better formula yourself!

    Let me list some objections that I can think of for my methodology and my response:

  • Those benefits aren't all being paid in one year. You need to reduce the amount to a current value by discounting it. That's what actuaries do based upon imputed interest rates. Right, but the problem is that reducing the value of an income stream to a current value only works if it's a steady income stream. Both the cash benefits and the Medicare benefits go up over time due to inflation in unpredictable ways. If you factor in the inflation protection, does it really matter that I'm not trying to reduce to current value?
  • At best, you're only figuring the value of Disability Insurance Benefits. SSI only claims are worth a lot less. True, but many claimants receive both Disability Insurance Benefits and SSI so those cases are worth more. Don't these two factors roughly offset each other if you're trying to come up with an average? 
  • You're not figuring numbers for Disabled Widows and Widowers Benefits or for Disabled Adult Child Benefits. Yes, but those are a fairly small part of the picture. The value of Disabled Widows and Widowers benefits would be lower because of the age of these claimants. On the other hand, the value of Disabled Adult Child Benefits would have to be quite high because of the youth of those claimants.
  • The number of people approved for Social Security disability benefits in 2021 was below the number approved in prior years due to Covid and other reasons. This means that the average length of time on benefits may be lower than the number on benefits divided by the number approved in 2021. In my mind, this is the most valid of the objections but I'm just trying to come up with a ballpark number.
  • The value of a claim approved by an ALJ is of more interest to most people reading this blog than a general number for all claims approved. The numbers would have to be significantly higher for cases approved by ALJs since those claimants are younger on average that those approved at the Initial and Reconsideration levels. They're also less likely to have illnesses that are quickly terminal.  Yes, but I have no idea how to compute a number specific to claims approved by ALJs.
  • At best, you're only coming up with a dollar figure. The disability benefits approved prevent homelessness in many cases. Disability benefits recipients are able to live in greater dignity. Try living as the uninvited house guest of a relative who doesn't want you in their home but doesn't want to throw you out on the street if you think dignity doesn't matter. Maybe more importantly, approved claimants have medical treatment that allows them to live longer. All I can say to that objection is “Amen.” Social Security disability benefits have a huge value that cannot be expressed in dollars and cents.

    As I said above, if you don't like my methodology try coming up with something better. If you do, please share it with us.

    Also, start to think about the process used to adjudicate Social Security disability claims. Is the process commensurate with the value of what's at stake for the claimants and the taxpayers?

Jun 4, 2022

WEP And GPO Hopes And Dreams

     From Federal News Network:

Congress — at least the House side of it — is closer than ever to giving the green light to repeal or reform WEP [Windfall Elimination Provision] and GPO [Government Pension Offset], the so-called “Evil Twins” that eat into, or eliminate, the Social Security benefits of hundreds of thousands of former government employees or their widows. ...

For decades, many whose Social Security benefits have been reduced by WEP or Offset have been pushing Congress to fix them. Backers of WEP and Offset say they prevent former feds under the CSRS retirement plan, and state and local government employees whose jobs were not covered by Social Security for most or all of their careers, from collecting higher benefits based on relatively short employment in a Social Security job. Backers of the laws say they prevent people from using what they call a “welfare tilt” in Social Security toward people with lower lifetime earnings, protecting the program from being ripped off by preventing “excessive” payments to government retirees/survivors who spent the minimal time paying into Social Security. Opponents say it was a cruel way to save money by denying some or all benefits to people who need it most, and that the former government people are the ones being ripped off when their benefits are reduced or simply wiped out. ...

John Hatton, staff vice president for policy and programs at NARFE [National Active and Retired Federal Employees association] said “While NARFE and organizations representing state and local retirees have built significant support for repeal of WEP and GPO over the years, securing floor voters in either chamber of Congress has remained out of reach, perhaps due to the likely costs of the repeal bills and projected solvency challenges for Social Security. But a recent rule change in the House of Representatives allows bills to bypass committee consideration if they receive 290 cosponsors. H.R. 82, the Social Security Fairness Act, which would repeal both WEP and GPO is up to 276 cosponsors, just 14 short of that mark. So we continue to push representatives to cosponsor the bill, and hope for some long-awaited progress on these issues.” …

    In other words, it's extremely unlikely to happen in the House of Representatives. Also, although this article doesn't say so, it's out of the question in the current Senate.

Jun 3, 2022

You Can't Always Get What You Want

     From Federal News Network:

The Social Security Administration wants to hire 4,000 new frontline workers to address a growing backlog of cases.

But with many employees citing unreasonable workloads and one of every eight SSA workers leaving the agency, the process of increasing staff is a steep hill to climb.

The fiscal 2023 budget request includes funding for workers in both disability determination services and frontline operations, not only to improve customer service, but also to ease the burdensome and mounting work that current SSA employees face. ...

    Note that this says Social Security WANTS to hire 4,000 new employees. That would only happen in the NEXT fiscal year IF Social Security gets the entire appropriation requested by the Administration which is unlikely. In the CURRENT fiscal year Social Security's workforce is actually DECLINING.

Jun 2, 2022

Trustees Report Released

From the just released annual report of the Social Security trustees:

...  Considered separately, the OASI [Old Age and Survivors Insurance] Trust Fund reserves become depleted in 2034, and, for the first time since the 1983 Trustees Report, the DI [Disability Insurance] Trust Fund reserves do not become depleted within the 75-year long-range projection period. ...

[T]he projected hypothetical combined OASI and DI Trust Fund asset reserves become depleted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2035. ...

Investigation Ordered Of Inspector General

      From the Washington Post:

An independent watchdog this week opened a broad investigation into Social Security Inspector General Gail Ennis and her office following a Washington Post report that revealed how an anti-fraud program has imposed massive penalties on disabled and elderly people.
The inquiry by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), a group that investigates misconduct allegations against inspectors general, comes as Ennis has been directed by the acting Social Security commissioner to suspend the program amid mounting political pressure.
In a letter, a senior White House official urged a quick response from the chairwoman of the inspectors general council, Allison Lerner, who took the unusual step of notifying Congress and the White House that she had opened the probe. On Thursday, congressional staffers will question Ennis’s deputies about the program. …

Jun 1, 2022

30 Million Americans With Undiagnosed Disorders

...  Some 30 million Americans ... experience significant health problems that defy diagnosis. Their symptoms range from mysterious heart attacks in teenagers to spine abnormalities, intellectual disabilities, low muscle mass, digestive troubles, and countless others. Their ailments don’t follow well-known disease patterns. 

In many such cases, doctors order batteries of tests: DNA sequencing tests to gather information about genetic changes that may cause disease, exome sequencing tests to examine the protein coding regions of the genes, and imaging scans like MRIs, PET scans and CAT scans to get a detailed look inside the body. 

But even then, diagnoses elude these patients. At a loss, they seek answers on the internet or in medical books. ...

[T]he Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN) ... works to help patients get diagnoses and advance our understanding of health and disease. ...

The UDN provides an avenue of hope. Difficult-to-diagnose patients typically reach the UDN through referrals from their primary care physicians. Patients or their parents complete a short online application that is reviewed by the UDN Coordinating Center at Harvard University. The Coordinating Center determines which patients to accept and which site to send them to. To date, the UDN has received 5,700 applications and accepted 2,246. “For those who are not accepted, we still try to provide a specific recommendation to help them” ...

    Why do I post this? It's  because a fair number of Social Security disability claimants have undiagnosed disorders. Social Security usually deals with these cases by denying them at the initial and reconsideration levels. Administrative Law Judges often deny them. If there's no label, the problem has to be imaginary, right?