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Social Security Launches National Disability Coalition, Holds Inaugural Meeting

In July, the Social Security Administration (SSA) established a National Disability Coalition aimed at providing “an opportunity for all interested stakeholders to share their unique insights on topics of particular interest to Social Security early in the process and directly with policy makers.”  SSA designed the coalition as an opportunity to ensure that their vision and planning for SSA’s disability program keeps pace with advances in medicine, technology, health care, and constantly evolving work environments.  The coalition is seeking ideas from all interested parties on empowering individuals with disabilities, minimizing the financial hardships of the disabled, and helping to preserve the solvency of Social Security’s Disability Trust Fund.

The National Disability Coalition plans to use the ideas offered to them to “supplement” the rule-making process SSA must follow per the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) to implement new regulations or changes to existing policy.  Per the APA, administrative agencies, such as SSA, must publish rules in the Federal Register and allow for a notice and comment period during which the public can offer objections or support regarding the regulatory change in question.  The agency can only adopt changes to their rules after considering the comments.  The National Disability Coalition will not allow SSA to make changes affecting the public without also going through the formal rulemaking process.

The National Disability Coalition launched an online comment forum on the Disability Decision Process on IdeaScale.  They also plan to meet three times a year and held their inaugural meeting on September 24, 2014.  Some of the ideas already offered to the coalition include using vocational rehabilitation counselors in disability claims, using video conferencing to take applications from individuals with cognitive impairments, seeking evidence from caregivers when applicable, broaden outreach when revising the medical factors of disability criteria, amongst others.

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Senate Finance Committee Approves Colvin for Commissioner

On September 18, 2014 the Senate Finance Committee voted 22-2 to approve Carolyn Colvin to be the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The vote followed a hearing by the Committee held on July 31, 2014 to consider the Colvin’s nomination for SSA’s top position. President Barack Obama announced on June 20, 2014, that he was nominating Carolyn Colvin as Commissioner of Social Security. Colvin has been the Acting Commissioner since February 2013 since the former Commissioner, Michael Astrue, departed the role. Colvin had been Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) since January 0f 2011. Her appointment is now subject to a vote by the full Senate, which will not take place until after the mid-term elections in November, as most Senators are currently in their home states campaigning. The outcome of the election could have a substantial impact on her approval, where a majority of senators will need to agree to the appointment.

If appointed as the Commissioner, Colvin will have the same supervision and direction over the agency that she did as the Acting Commissioner, however, many feel that she will have more power to command resources and support from Congress. The appointment as Commissioner provides a structured term (6 years) and allows an agency head to initiate large-scale or agency wide changes that a Commissioner with Acting status may be less apt to make given the uncertainty of their future in the role. Nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate also significantly bolsters the credibility of the role. Colvin’s nomination comes during a critical period for the agency, as the Disability Trust Fund is projected for insolvency by 2017 if changes aren’t made, and budget cuts have led to staff attrition and the closing of SSA offices. Furthermore, the backlog of Social Security Disability claims that was reduced under Astrue has begun to increase again to an average wait time of over 400 days to receive a hearing after a denied claim.

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SSA to Resume Mailing Paper Statements

The Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a press release on September 16, 2014 announcing that they would resume mailing Social Security statements.  The Social Security statement provides workers age 18 and older with individualized information regarding their earnings, tax contributions to the Social Security programs, and estimates for future retirement, disability, and survivors benefits.  SSA had suspended mailing paper statements in 2011 citing budget constraints and the potential to save as much as $70 million annually by making the statements available online only.  Succumbing to political pressure, in 2012 the agency resumes mailing statements to workers over 60 and a one-time mailing  to individuals in the year they turn 25.

Carolyn Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of SSA is quoted in the release as having “listened to our customers, advocate, and Congress” in arriving at the decision to resume the mailings.  The statements won’t be sent to everyone on an annual basis as they were before the mailing of the paper statements ceased in 2011.  Only workers who attain the age of 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 and who are not registered for a “my Social Security” account (an on-line portal where workers can log-in to view their statement at any time) will be mailed a statement approximately 3 months before their birthday.  Everyone over age 60 will receive a statement on an annual basis.

SSA has been trying to move many of their services online, in light of budget appropriations which have been well below what the agency requests to operate with on an annual basis.  They have made the statements available to workers at any time at “my Social Security” and have made online applications for benefits available to the public.  However, they receive significant pressure from Congress with regard to these efforts, with assertions that much of the population requiring the use of SSA’s services are still hesitant to receive these services online.

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Social Security Disability Awards Trending Slower

Data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) shows that in 2014, the volume of claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits that are awarded on a monthly basis is significantly lower than in the recent past. Click here to view 3 graphs depicting DDS and ODAR Decision Trends, as well as changes in representative fee payments over the last several years.

Since the government shutdown in October of 2013, the number of awards issued by the SSA has steadily decreased, coming in at just over 64,000 in July of this year despite the fact that an average of 212,997 applications for benefits are filed each month.   July showed a 35% award rate from the 206,056 disability determinations made that month, and while this is identical to the award rate in 2013, the average number of decisions made has decreased by nearly 20,000 per month since 2013. These changes are largely due to some SSA staffing and budget constraints causing applications to be awarded at a slower pace than they were prior to the shutdown.

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Social Security Extends Expedited Decision Making for the Most Severely Disabled

In October of 2010, the Social Security Administration (SSA) changed their internal process to allow disability examiners that make determinations on claims for Social Security Disability benefits to make expedited decisions for claimants diagnosed with medical conditions that are considered so severe, they clearly meet SSA’s disability standards.  Normally, favorable disability determinations must be made in conjunction with a medical or psychological consultants approval.  SSA amended their rules in 2010 to allow disability examiners at Disability Determination Services (DDS) to make decisions on the most severe claims without the medical or psychological consultation.  This rule change was set to expire on November 14, 2014, but SSA took action to extend the expedited processing until November 13, 2015 by publishing an extension of the “susnset” date in the Federal Register

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SSA Reports on Effects of Reduced Staffing

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on August 7, 2014 on the effect of SSA’s reduction in field office hours available to the local public.  SSA’s field offices are the local offices situated throughout communities where the public can visit to receive face-to-face service from SSA personnel.  Prior to 2011, most SSA filed offices were open to the public from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM, Monday through Friday.  In August of 2011, SSA began closing field offices 30 minutes earlier each day in order to provide SSA staff with more time to handle the backlog of administrative duties.  In November of 2012, SSA again trimmed the hours available to the public by closing field offices at 3:00 PM.  In January of 2013, hours were reduced yet again by closing field offices to the public at noon every Wednesday, which reduced the number of hours field offices were open to the public to 27 hours per week.

The OIG report concluded that the public was often unaware of the reduced field office hours, creating inconvenience for them, and ultimately resulting in reduced public satisfaction.  The report also found that managers of field offices allowed for increased workload processing, but had the adverse effect of increasing wait times and creating crowds when the office is open to the public.   The report comes on the heels of a Senate hearing held on June 18, 2014 regarding SSA office closures and service cuts at a time when the baby boomer generation is filing a record number of retirement, disability and survivor claims.  The reduction in SSA office hours is said to be related to budget cuts and SSA staff attrition and limited means for the agency to replace the lost workers.

According to the report, SSA field offices vary broadly in the volume of customers they serve on a face to face basis: the Huron, South Dakota office averages 19 visitors a day, while a field office in Miami, Florida averages 568 visitors per day.  The face to face services provided to the public include processing applications for benefits, Social Security numbers, or replacement Social Security cards.

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SSA Expands Anti-Fraud Efforts

The Social Security Administration (SSA), the agency’s Office of the Inspector general (OIG) (an independent unit responsible for ensuring the integrity and accountability of the agency), and the state of Michigan’s Department of Human Services issued a joint press release announcing a Cooperative Disability Investigations (CDI) unit to be based out of Detroit. The aim of the new unit is to identify and prevent fraud by applicants for Social Security disability benefits who reside in Michigan.

The new Detroit CDI unit is the 26th CDI unit covering 22 states and Puerto Rico. The CDI units collaborate with SSA, OIG, and state based Disability Determination Services (DDS) to investigate suspicious or questionable claims for disability benefits before a final determination of whether or not to pay benefits is made on the claim. The press release announces that the Detroit CDI unit is the first of seven new units to be opened before the end of the agency’s 2016 fiscal year. The CDI program was established in 1997, and SSA believes that its efforts have resulted in over $2.8 billion dollars in savings to Social Security’s programs.

Although fraud in government disability programs draws a lot of attention from the media and congress alike, given the size of the program fraud makes up a very small portion (estimated at less than 1%) of the entire program size.

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Social Security Board of Trustees Releases Annual Report on Status of Trust Funds

The Social Security Board of Trustees released its annual report on the long-term financial status of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds on July 28, 2014. As has been projected for some time, the combined asset reserves of the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) trust funds are projected to have insufficient funds to pay out all benefits on a monthly basis by 2033. At that time, 77 percent of benefits will be payable. The report also reiterated that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which is kept separate from the Old-Age and Survivors (OAS) Trust Fund, will become depleted by 2016 at which time only 81 percent of benefits will be payable to disability beneficiaries. This projection also remains unchanged from last year’s report. (more…)

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SSA Further Defines Policy for Same-Sex Couples

The Social Security Administration (SSA) published new instructions permitting the agency to process more claims in which entitlement or eligibility to benefits is premised on a same-sex marriage. The change in policy comes nearly one year after the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in their landmark decision United States vs. Windsor. Section 3 of DOMA had defined marriage for the purpose of federal benefits as between a man and a woman.

The policy changes allow the agency to recognize some non-marital same sex relationships, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships, as marriages for the determination of entitlement to benefits. A married individual may be eligible for various Social Security family benefits if the earnings record of their partner or spouse proves more lucrative than claiming benefits on their own record. However, in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage or unions, the agency is still prevented from extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples residing in those states. Applications for benefits in states that do not recognize same sex marriage remain on hold until those states change their laws, or sweeping federal legislation is passed.

SSA worked closely with the Department of Justice in arriving at their most recent policy change regarding benefits for same-sex couples. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn Colvin cited respecting state laws in arriving at this decision.

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Senate Holds Hearing on Closure of SSA Offices

The United States Senate Special Committee on Aging recently released a report and held a hearing in an investigation on “Reduction in Face-to-Face Services at The Social Security Administration.” The investigation was concerned that SSA’s continuing budget constraints at a time when Baby Boomers are retiring and filing disability claims in record numbers has resulted in the loss of 11,000 agency employees, the closure of 64 field offices and 533 contact stations, the reduction in hours field offices are open to the public, as well as the reduction of services available in-person. In an effort to leverage technology to keep up with demand, SSA is shifting many of their services online or over the phone.

At the hearing, the Senators remarked that they were concerned that SSA was not seeking public input regarding the decision to close field offices, citing the long term strategic goal of SSA to utilize online systems as the primary means of serving applicants and beneficiaries. The committee’s concern was that the demographic population the agency serves most, the elderly and the disabled, are not accustomed to doing business online and rely on in-person services. SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations testified at the hearing that the agency is fully committed to sustaining a field office structure the provides face-to-face services to those who need or prefer such service, but are adjusting services based on the growing demand to interact with the agency electronically and in response to budget constraints.

The agency currently requires representatives to utilize electronic services when availablee, and in an effort to stay innovative, efficient, and compliant, The Advocator Group leverages technology whenever possible in our dealings with SSA. Our representation services minimize the need for claimants to interact directly with SSA or visit filed offices. We support SSA’s efforts to adopt innovative technological changes to become more efficient in their claim handling. Staff attrition at SSA will undoubtedly have some impact on the agency’s ability to process claims, but leveraging technology when working with SSA will allow The Advocator Group to minimize this impact.