May 23, 2022

What A Disaster!

     From Promoting Opportunity Demonstration: Final Evaluation Report, submitted to Social Security by Mathematica, a contractor:

...  POD [Promoting Opportunity Demonstration] was a randomized controlled trial that included two treatments of a benefit offset. The two treatment groups had the same benefit offset but different termination rules. Treatment group 1 (T1) did not face termination, but treatment group 2 (T2) faced termination after 12 consecutive months of earnings above the full offset amount (the point at which benefits were reduced to zero). ...

The key features of POD implementation included benefits counseling services and support for processing earnings adjustments, led by the implementation team, and recruitment, led by the evaluation team. ...

Approximately 30 percent of treatment group members used the POD benefit offset, with a median monthly offset amount of $351. More than 80 percent of offset users experienced a work-related overpayment or underpayment, requiring a retroactive adjustment to reconcile the difference. ...

We did not observe any statistically significant differences in outcomes between the two treatment groups for overall offset usage or the impact estimates for the primary outcomes. ...

There were limited statistically significant differences in observed outcomes for the POD treatment and control groups. There were impacts on one primary outcome (annualized SGA) and several other employment-related measures. For example, we found positive impacts on job search and use of Vocational Rehabilitation services, which might contribute to longer-term outcomes. These impacts were notable because they indicate that impacts could still emerge beyond the two-year evaluation window. ...

POD had positive net benefits for beneficiaries and net costs to SSA. The net benefits for beneficiaries were driven by increases in earnings and fringe benefits, and SSDI benefit amounts. The new costs were driven primarily by the increased benefit payments and costs for counseling services. ...

    Even with counseling, 80% of those using the offset ended up with an overpayment or underpayment! The experiment had only a limited effect on outcomes and ended up costing more money than it saved! Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?

    Why can't policymakers admit the obvious? Social Security disability recipients are, for the most part, really, really sick. Everything under the sun has been tried to get them back to jobs. Nothing has worked. Nothing. The work incentive schemes just get more difficult and expensive to administer. They end up with messy results for the disability recipients who do attempt to return to work because the offsets are too complicated The schemes always end up costing more money than they save. There's no possible work incentives that will get any significant number of disability recipients back to work because they're too sick. 

    Crappy experiments like this are likely to go on forever because policymakers are blinded by their own preconceptions that it's easy to get on Social Security disability benefits and that a lot of disability recipients could work if given the right incentives. They don't bother to study the pathetic history of work incentive failure. They get sold on new schemes by contractors like Mathematica who end up getting paid even though their schemes never work. Even after this disaster this 406 page report ends with ideas for new schemes that could be tried!

May 22, 2022

“Serious Concerns” About IG

      From the Washington Post:

… The acting commissioner [of Social Security] “has very serious concerns about the issues raised by The Washington Post about the inspector general’s oversight of this program,” Scott Frey, chief of staff to Kilolo Kijakazi, said in an interview. Kijakazi has scheduled a meeting with her senior staff on Monday “to discuss how to proceed,” Frey said. …

A spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee, which also has jurisdiction over Social Security, said the committee is “evaluating a number of steps” in response to the article. …

     An extreme reduction in productivity has been signaling for months that something is wrong at OIG. 

More On House Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

    From the U.S. Sun, which is affiliated with a major British newspaper:

... [The Social Security Administration]  has encountered some issues keeping up with the volume of beneficiaries.

One of the major ways that problem manifests is in a lack of customer service.

Getting through to the SSA over the phone is difficult, and callers experience long wait times before getting any help. ...

On May 19, Congress held a hearing to see how it could help alleviate the administration's issue.

“In my home district in Oklahoma, seniors are completely unable to reach the Social Security Administration by phone,” Representative Kevin Hern (R-OK) said at the hearing.

“As a result, my elderly constituents end up calling my staff after many failed attempts to call the office at the Social Security Administration,” he said. ...

    I'd love to see some reporting on this from the NY Times and Washington Post.

May 21, 2022

Harsh Penalties For Overpaid Claimants Lead To Tumult At OIG

From the Washington Post:

Four years after her longtime partner died of kidney cancer, federal agents knocked on Gail Deckman’s door outside Chicago and told her she was in trouble: She had kept thousands of dollars in Social Security disability benefits that should have stopped when he died.

Deckman told the agents she thought the $1,400 check deposited each month into an account to which she had access was a payment for land her partner had sold in Michigan. She spent the money on rent and clothes and gifts for her grandchildren, she said.

The inspector general’s office, which investigates disability fraud and tries to recoup money for the government, ultimately charged her $119,392 — nearly three times what she received in error.

Deckman didn’t have the money. So the Social Security Administration garnished the entire $704 check she was going to receive every month when she retired from her minimum-wage job flipping burgers at the convenience store in her local Rebel gas station. She can apply for retirement in 2032 — when she’s 83. ...

The inflated fees were set in motion during the Trump administration, when attorneys in charge of a little-known anti-fraud program run by the inspector general’s office levied unprecedented fines against Deckman and more than 100 other beneficiaries without due process, according to interviews, documents and sworn testimony before an administrative law judge. In doing so, they disregarded regulations and deviated from how the program had recovered money since its inception in 1995, failing to take into account someone’s financial state, their age, their intentions and level of remorse, among other factors. ...

The escalating penalties created a giant jump — at least on paper — in the amount of money the inspector general could show lawmakers it was bringing in, according to interviews and sworn testimony obtained by The Washington Post. Fines as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars were imposed on poor, disabled and elderly people, many of whom had no hope of ever being able to pay.

A Chicago woman was fined $132,000 after wrongly receiving as much as $10,618 in benefits, according to internal data of penalties and assessments obtained by The Post. A Denver woman was sanctioned $168,000 after cashing as much as $14,960 in wrongly received checks. A New Jersey woman is on the hook for nearly $435,000 after she accepted about $47,000 in benefits but failed to report a $120,000 house she inherited from her father and car loans she co-signed for her children, on what she said was a lawyer’s advice. ...

The remarkable penalties led to tumult inside the Office of Inspector General Gail Ennis, where a whistleblower was targeted for retaliation, according to a ruling this month by the administrative judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board. ...

     The Chairmen of the Social Security Subcommittee and the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee  (which has jurisdiction over SSI) are calling for an investigation. There’s actually a process for investigating IGs.

May 20, 2022

Trying To Cram Telephone/Video Hearings Down The Throats Of Claimants?

     Yesterday I received word through the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) that the number of hearings Social Security has scheduled for July and August is down more than 30%. We are told that they will try to schedule more hearings if we'll agree to hearings being held without receiving the notice period required by the agency's regulations and agree that the hearings be held either by telephone or video. 

    I've got three questions:

  • Why has the agency scheduled so many fewer hearings this summer? It's not like they're run out of cases to schedule.
  • If the problem were merely scheduling, why is it necessary to put pressure on claimants to accept telephone and video hearings? If you're doing in person hearings, you're doing in person hearings.
  • Will there be a continuing effort to cram telephone and video hearings down the throats of destitute claimants by scheduling those hearings far more quickly?

May 19, 2022

Backlogs Go Up When Overtime Goes Down, As It Must When SSA Is Underfunded

     From the written testimony of Grace Kim, Deputy Commissioner, Operations, to the House Social Security Subcommittee:

Click on image to view full size


PC = Payment Center, where Title II disability benefits for older claimants are computed

OCO = Office of Central Operations, where Title II disability benefits for younger claimants are computed

EOY = End Of Year

A Report On Tuesday's Hearing

  There's a report on the CNBC website on Tuesday's House Social Security Subcommittee hearing. I don't see anything indicating that this appears anywhere other than online. There's no video that I see.

    Social Security's problems are receiving only limited media attention.

May 18, 2022

NCSSMA Says Field Office Employees Need To Be In The Office -- And What's This About SSA Being Unable To Accept E-Signatures?

     From the written testimony of Peggy Murphy for the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) to the House Social Security Subcommittee:

... Field offices can be more responsive to the public only when employees are onsite. The current telework program in field offices makes it difficult to adjust to surges in office visitors or telephone calls while balancing appointments, scheduled and unscheduled employee leave, and back-end work. This is further complicated by having an appreciable number of field office employees continuing to work from home full-time due to personal circumstances. SSA has the technology and flexibility to consider transferring field office employees, who are unable to work in the office, to other components that can better accommodate their telework needs and limit the impact on front-line public service. We need employees in field offices who are able to work onsite and assist those who seek our help in person and to handle the multitude of workloads that are not portable. As an agency we need to be able to maintain our flexibility in the field offices so we can respond to surges from the public.

    By the way, Murphy's written testimony says that Social Security ought to accept electronic signatures. Per a White House order, they must! Social Security is mentioned by name in that order. Grace Kim, Social Security's  Deputy Commissioner for Operations, also testified that the agency couldn't yet accept electronic signatures. I don't understand this.

May 17, 2022

Testimony Of Grace Kim

     From the written testimony of Grace Kim, Deputy Commissioner Operations to the House Social Security Subcommittee:

... While we appreciate the increase over FY 2021, the FY 2022 appropriation of $13.3 billion is not sufficient. This budget limits our capacity to provide service to the millions of people who are applying for SSN cards; retirement, survivors, and disability benefits; and Supplemental Security Income benefits for people who are aged, blind, and disabled. Our funding has remained relatively flat for the previous four years, and appropriations for base administration have failed to cover our fixed costs over the past decade. For instance, the $411 million increase in FY 2022 does not fully pay for cost increases of approximately $550 million to cover employee pay raises, step increases, and Federal Employees Retirement System contributions. Of the $411 million increase we received, over 30 percent covered increased funding for our program integrity workloads, requiring us to prioritize stewardship over other essential workloads. We are also absorbing costs related to expanding in-person services, such as COVID-19 testing, facilities cleaning, more guards, and information technology (IT).

To fund these expenses and our fixed costs, we are delaying critically needed hires, reducing much needed overtime, and postponing select IT improvements. These delays in hiring and technology modernization, coupled with reduced overtime, are resulting in growing backlogs, which have reached unacceptable levels, and a deterioration in service. Less staff and delayed technological upgrades also mean we are not fully prepared to handle potential surges of people returning to our offices for in-person service.

Our employees are one of our greatest assets to help us address these unprecedented demands. We are facing our lowest staffing level in 25 years. This is driven by insufficient funding over multiple years to hire the level of staff needed, and higher than average attrition rates across the agency. Our funding level will constrain our ability to add the necessary staff to reduce the backlogs that have built up during the pandemic. It will also affect employee morale, which is already at a very low level, as demonstrated by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and recent Pulse Surveys.

Because of the FY 2022 funding level, we were forced to implement a temporary hiring freeze, including all external Federal hires and DDS hires. In our front-line components such as Field Offices, Teleservice Centers, and Processing Centers, attrition is nearly 7 percent so far this fiscal year, or 2,900 losses. The highest rate is in our Teleservice Centers at over 12 percent to date. At this pace, we believe we will lose over 4,500 front-line operations employees this year, which is 1,000 more losses than we experienced before the pandemic. This would equate to an annualized attrition rate of 11 percent, or about 4 percentage points higher than our historical average.

In our State DDSs, where medical decisions are adjudicated, attrition is also unprecedented, at over 25 percent. These complex jobs require about two years of training. The loss of experienced examiners significantly affects the ability to train new employees and complete program integrity workloads, such as continuing disability reviews, which are generally performed by more experienced examiners due to their complexity. We are working with the States to understand the underlying reasons. 

We are also severely limiting our use of overtime, which reduces our ability to compensate for staff losses. Reduced overtime in our Processing Centers is contributing to our current 4.5 million pending actions, which are up from 3.2 million at the end of 2018. We expect pending cases to surpass our 2016 record high of 4.6 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Additionally, the lack of overtime opportunities and the increasing workloads have resulted in low morale, with our employees reporting they feel overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

We are at a crossroads. The cumulative impact will increase our customers’ wait times for in-person and phone service, increase claims processing times, and lead to increases in pending workloads. As we dig out from the effects of the pandemic, we must have sustained funding for the public to have continued confidence not just in our agency, but in government. We know people need our help, and Congress recognizes the importance of our local offices to communities. None of us think it is okay for applicants to wait six months for a decision on their disability application, but that is the level of service Congress and the public should expect absent sufficient resources. It will take a multi-year effort and adequate funding to restore pre-pandemic initial claim wait times. We hope we can work with you to resolve these funding challenges and restore the level of service the public requires. ...

    I have no reason to believe it's coming but Social Security needs a special appropriation -- now!

Biggs Nomination

     The President has nominated Andrew Biggs to become a member of the Social Security Advisory Board.

    During the George W. Bush Administration, Biggs was Deputy Commissioner of Social Security -- only in an acting capacity if I remember correctly. Biggs openly plotted partial privatization of Social Security and campaigned for it with George W. Bush while serving as Deputy Commissioner. That was beyond the pale in my opinion. Completely inappropriate. As I recall saying at the time, Biggs was put in a position where he was supposed to be making the trains run on time but what he actually wanted to do was to blow up the locomotives and tear up the tracks.

    As you may recall, George W. Bush's campaign to partially privatize Social Security went nowhere because it was a disaster politically. I have no idea why Republicans would want a man who is partially responsible for that fiasco in a position of honor.

    Why is President Biden nominating Biggs? I don't know but there must be some deal. He certainly wouldn't be nominated by this White House based on his merits. I have no idea what the White House is getting in return.