Oct 25, 2021

COLA Deteminations, Including Max User Fee

      Social Security has posted all of it cost of living adjustments in the Federal Register.

     Among other things, the maximum user fee for attorneys representing claimants goes up to $104 next year. Of course, there is no increase in the maximum fee that attorneys can charge.

     I've noticed over the years that Republicans in Congress seem to think that federal domestic agencies are infinitely wasteful. They believe that operating budgets can be cut and cut without any effect upon the public. There seems to be a parallel attitude by Social Security management. Allowing the fees that attorneys can charge to represent claimants to keep going down by not adjusting for inflation can't possibly have any effect on the public. Attorneys are infinitely inefficient and infinitely wealthy. They can absorb anything.

Oct 24, 2021

Congresswoman Has Illusions

      From radio station KMA:

Iowa Congresswoman Cindy Axne says too many people are having issues with the Social Security Administration's hotline services. …

Axne says she's heard from hundreds of Iowans having difficulties with the hotline service.

"I've had Iowans tell me they've been on the phone for four hours," she said. "I had a gentleman tell me that, unfortunately, his wife passed away. He couldn't get the answers that he needed on what his social security would look like after his wife died. He ended up having to put in his income back to 1966 into the system. It took him so long to even figure out what would this look like for him." 

Axne says no additional funding is required for Social Security to provide adequate hotline staffing. 

"It doesn't cost us a dime," said Axne, "because they have a $5 billion annual budget, and 80,000-person staff. So, we just need to make sure they allocate to addressing folks during work hours." …

     Actually, if Social Security had 80,000 employees, it could answer its telephones. Unfortunately, even though its budget is a lot more than $5 billion, it only has about 60,000 employees, almost all of whom are working from home. If you want better telephone service, it’s going to take more employees who cost more money but, first, members of Congress like Ms. Axne need to get past some of their illusions. Bad service at Social Security isn’t the result of laziness or poor management. It’s because of inadequate operating budgets.

Oct 23, 2021

14 Months For Threatening Social Security Employee

      From a television station in Denver:

A 56-year-old Denver man, Harold Ortiz, was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison for threatening government workers after his Social Security benefits were terminated. ...

Ortiz, according to his arrest affidavit, phoned the facility about his benefits and first spoke to a claims specialist. That person told Ortiz he was no longer entitled to receive benefits and that the SSA had several notices in the mail announcing the decision.

“I’m going to stand outside your building and blow all of your [expletive] heads off,” Ortiz reportedly yelled at the claims specialist. “You’re dealing with a crazy person!” ...

Oct 22, 2021

Criticism For Social Security Form

      The Paperwork Reduction Act allows the public to comment on new or revised forms used by federal agencies. The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), the major umbrella group for non-profits advocating for the disabled, has submitted seven pages of comments to Social Security on a new revision of form SSA-454-BK, which is used when disability benefits recipients are subjected to continuing disability reviews. Here are a few excerpts:

SSA grossly underestimates the burden that responding to SSA-454-BK places on claimants and the public when it suggests the average burden is 60 minutes. [These estimates are required by the Paperwork Reduction Act.] Anecdotally, we believe that if you consider the complete time burden spent by the claimant and third parties to review SSA-454-BK, collect documentation, complete and transmit this form, it would take an average of 15-20 hours. This would include:

  • times spent by the claimant receiving and reviewing the letter;
  • time spent by assisters (neighbors, family, community assisters and sometimes SSA claims representatives) helping the claimant understand the SSA-454-BK form, and the steps required to respond (particularly in cases where SSA knows the claimant has intellectual, cognitive, behavioral or language deficits);
  • time spent to collect information or documentation needed to complete the form;
  • time spent by medical, behavioral health, and other providers furnishing documentation and or fielding specific questions necessary to complete the form;
  • time spent securing assistance from advocates or lawyers;
  • time spent to actually complete form;
  • and the time required to transmit the SSA-454-BK to SSA. ...

Just completing the SSA-454-BK form is burdensome in and of itself. It is 15 pages long and requires multiple stamps to be mailed back to SSA. It requires beneficiaries to write short essays in response to questions, report all the medication they take and all of the medical treatment and providers they attend, and all of their daily activities. For adults and children with disabilities, this is usually a huge amount of information. ...

We recommend SSA take steps to reduce the burden on claimants by truncating and streamlining the SSA-454-BK. Specific consideration should be paid to the utility to each piece of information solicited as well as the burden it places on the claimant. Although detailed medical information is no doubt useful to evaluating ongoing disability claims, some of this information is not absolutely necessary to adjudicating the claim but may place a large burden on the responder. ...

     On the whole, I find Social Security's forms to be terribly drafted. They are usually poorly organized, too long, confusing and ask for more information than is needed. They seem to be created with little input from the Social Security employees who have to read the forms and with zero regard for the public which has to struggle with the forms. I am glad that CCD is giving some much-needed attention to this dark corner at Social Security.

Oct 21, 2021

OIG Report On VR

      From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (footnote omitted0:

Our objective was to determine whether beneficiaries1 who received Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services attribute those services to their work-related outcomes. ...

The Social Security Act authorizes SSA to pay State VR agencies for the services they provide beneficiaries who meet certain conditions. ... SSA does not manage State VR agencies. ...

More beneficiaries in our population had unsuccessful work outcomes after they received VR services than those who had successful outcomes – 62 percent did not have successful work outcomes while 38 percent did. Per our survey, the beneficiaries with unsuccessful work outcomes did not find VR services as helpful as those with successful work outcomes. While SSA reimburses VR agencies for services provided, SSA does not have authority over the quality of those services. Accordingly, while our survey indicates VR agencies could better serve some beneficiaries, SSA has limited ability to effect change in the quality of VR services its beneficiaries receive. ...

Of the 122 beneficiaries with successful outcomes who responded to whether they would have been able to return to work without the VR services they received, 79 (65 percent) replied no. Of the 123 beneficiaries who responded to whether they would have been able to work for as long as they had without VR services, 85 (69 percent) replied no. ...

     Note the implicit assumption that VR would do a better job if only it were managed by Social Security. LOL. 

     The entire thrust of the report seems to be that a 38% success rate is poor. Actually, that rate seems pretty good to me. Of course, VR turns away a lot of people. They only work with those who seem to have potential. You can call it cherry picking if you wish but I'd say they're just realistic. OIG seems to assume that there's some way of rehabilitating most Social Security disability recipients which is wrong. The people drawing those benefits have very serious health problems. Few of them get better. In fact, the majority keep getting worse over time.

Oct 20, 2021

OHO Stats

      The report shown below was obtained from Social Security by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and published in its newsletter, which is not available online to non-members. It contains basic operating statistics for Social Security's Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). 

Click on image to view full size

Oct 19, 2021

Draft Senate Appropriations Bill

Senator Leahy

      Patrick Leahy, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has released a draft Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 appropriations bill (see page 293) covering Social Security. The top line number in his version is virtually the same as the bill that has already passed the House of Representatives, a $1 billion increase for Social Security over FY 2021.

     As is normally the case, the draft report on the bill, an explanation of the bill which isn't officially enacted, contains recommendations for the Social Security Administration. These aren't binding but agencies take them seriously. Here's what's in the draft Senate bill for Social Security:

Delayed Disability Payments.—The delayed payment of Social Security Disability Insurance claims can create a significant burden on claimants. The Committee requests a briefing within 90 days of enactment on the issues that can result in delayed payments, and the polices SSA has implemented, or has considered, to streamline the disability payments’ process. 
Disability Hearing and Initial Claims Backlogs.—The Committee commends SSA for the progress it has made reducing the average disability hearing processing time and the disability hearing backlog. The Committee recommendation combined with investments in recent years will help SSA stay on schedule to eliminate the backlog in fiscal year 2022 and further reduce the average disability hearing processing time. At the same time COVID–19 has created significant challenges for SSA, and has contributed to a growing backlog of initial disability claims. The Committee recommendation will support additional hires for Disability Determination Services to help address the growing backlog and an estimated increase in initial claims. The Committee requests a briefing within 60 days of enactment, and quarterly thereafter, on its progress towards reducing initial disability claim and hearings processing times and backlogs. 
Field Offices Closures.—The Committee remains concerned about decisions to permanently close field offices and the impact on the public. The Committee encourages SSA to find an appropriate balance between in-person field office services and online services for beneficiaries. While the SSA’s Inspector General reviews decisions to close field offices, the Committee directs SSA to take every action possible to maintain operations at the offices under review. 
Occupational Information System [OIS].—The Committee is aware that SSA continues to operationalize OIS using BLS ORA data, O*NET, and other DOL-derived occupational statistics. The Committee commends SSA’s progress in implementing OIS, and directs SSA to provide an update in writing to the Committees on Appropriations and Finance within 60 days of enactment detailing the status of implementation, to what extent OIS is fully operational, a timeline for moving from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles entirely to OIS, and an action plan to accomplish said timeline.

     This is almost completely different from the House version which discusses the regulations allowing Administrative Appeals Judges to hold hearings, judicial independence of ALJs, backlogged claims processing, the attorney fee cap, telework and telephone hearings. The differences between the two draft reports will be sorted out in the legislative process so there will be one final report on the bill.

     The current continuing resolution that keeps Social Security and other agencies running ends in early December. I don't think that appropriations have been as contentious this year as most. I hope we can get something passed by that early December deadline.

Oct 18, 2021

CCD On SSI Reform

      The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), the major umbrella group of non-profits concerned with the rights of the disabled, has posted a letter it has sent to Congressional leaders concerning changes in SSI which it desires in the budget reconciliation bill currently being negotiated. The letter may give us an idea of what is in play. It doesn't promote the idea of a major boost in SSI but it does say that:

Some of the President’s commitments are very affordable: increasing the income disregards is only $60 billion over ten years, eliminating the rules prohibiting help from family and friends is only $31 billion, and updating the resource limits is only $8 billion. Other smaller changes we have long supported have negligible costs of under $500 million over ten years (including expanding SSI to the territories, excluding retirement accounts from resources, eliminating dedicated accounts, and other technical changes from the SSI Restoration Act).

Oct 17, 2021

Social Security And Household Wealth

      A tweet from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College:

Today is #EndPovertyDay. Without #SocialSecurity, a typical white household has 5 to 7 times the wealth of a minority household, but adding in Social Security reduces the gap to 2 to 3. Learn more: bit.ly/36aJ6EV #EndPoverty #PovertyEradication #RDRCResearch

Oct 16, 2021

Oral Argument At SCOTUS On Social Security Case

      From SCOTUSblog:

Wednesday’s argument in Babcock v Kijakazi displayed a bench still uncertain about how to resolve a problem about the Social Security benefits available to a small group of National Guard workers.

The case involves a special rule that protects certain members of the “uniformed services” from a rule that limits Social Security benefits for people with irregular work histories over the course of their lifetime. … The case involves a group of about 50,000 people still living who worked before 1984 as a “dual-status military technician.” Although paid as civilians, those technicians provide a variety of services involving the National Guard and are obligated to maintain membership with an appropriate rank in the National Guard and to wear the corresponding uniform while on duty. At bottom, the question is whether the pay they receive for that work is “wholly” based on service “as” a member of a uniformed service, even though much of it is civilian rather than military work.

None of the justices seemed to approach the case with certainty. Two main threads of analysis dominated the argument. For Chief Justice John Roberts, it seemed obvious that some of the pay was for the serviceman’s work “as” a member of the National Guard, but much of it was for the various civilian duties of his technician status. …

Justice Elena Kagan – the only justice who seemed to state a settled view during the argument – seconded Roberts’ perspective, commenting “that we can sort of make this simpler” by following his lead, “and this is the way I read the language too.”

Conversely, Justice Neil Gorsuch found most relevant the statutory requirement that dual technicians must be members of the National Guard. In a colloquy with Nicole Reaves (appearing on behalf of the government), Gorsuch commented that “the work may be civilian for a bunch of other purposes, but it can only be performed by someone who is serving in the capacity of a National Guardsman.” …