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November Nationwide SSDI Awards: Lowest Month Since 2004

2018 December 17
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by Steve Perrigo

The number of SSDI awards issued for November 2018 was 47,715, which is the lowest monthly total reported since July 2004. It’s also significantly lower than the first 10 months of 2018, which averaged 63,198 awards per month. Factors in the awards decline may include lower staffing, fewer applications, lower award rates, weather interruptions, limited overtime, and the Thanksgiving holiday.  

The most current quarterly employment data shows the SSA lost 589 staff in Q2 2018, down to 60,898 from 61,487, as of June 30, 2018. The number of administrative law judges also declined by 18, down to 1,662 ALJs from 1,680 the prior quarter.

 

 

SSA Disability Forum Focuses On Upcoming Reconsideration Level Changes

2018 November 30
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) hosted its latest National Disability Forum, Nov. 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C., to gather ideas for “Enhancing the Reconsideration Process.” Among the panelists and speakers were representatives from the SSA; the House Ways & Means Social Security Subcommittee; the National Council on Disability; organizations comprised of disability examiners who work at state Disability Determination Services (DDS); and trade groups for claimant representatives.

The agency didn’t invite discussion of its controversial initiative to reinstate the Reconsideration level of the Social Security Disability program in 10 states.  Nor did the agency initially provide the group with any details about the roll out of their plan.

However, Kathryn Olson, Democratic staff director for the Social Security subcommittee included a critical detail in her presentation – the agency’s fast-approaching reinstatement timeline. In response to a question from the audience, an agency representative confirmed the dates, and Allsup later obtained hiring data. The reinstatement adds a total of 777 staff who will be trained to administer and adjudicate Reconsideration appeals in the 10 states.

Olson also reported that the subcommittee, as well as both Democratic and Republican members from 48 states in the House and 10 states in the Senate, had requested the agency reverse its decision to reinstate Reconsideration in the skip states. Several panelists reiterated their organization’s position that the Reconsideration level should be eliminated from the disability program entirely.

Other wide-ranging topics discussed in the three-hour program were recommendations for enhancements and, generally, fell into evergreen subject areas. Panelists discussed ideas for improving the collection of medical evidence, obtaining qualified contractors to conduct Consultative Exams (CEs), bolstering staff training on agency policies and procedures, stronger one-on-one communication with claimants and more effective use of technology tools.

SSA Receives Reduced Budget In FY 2019

2018 October 23
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration can expect reduced administrative funding in fiscal year (FY) 2019 (Oct. 1, 2018-Sept. 30, 2019) when compared with FY2018.

Congress passed and President Trump signed a minibus appropriations act that incorporated SSA funding and offered $12 million less in total Limitation on Administrative Expenses (LAE). The budget allocates $12,741,945,000 for the current fiscal year, which is a decline from $12,753,945,000 in FY 2018.

The allocation stipulated a $52 million reduction in funds directed to program integrity activities, including Continuing Disability Reviews. With the SSA’s reported progress in eliminating the CDRs backlog, the difference in allocation should provide up to $40 million toward other SSA operations. Information technology funding also declined from $280 million to $45 million for FY 2019, though unspent funds provided in 2018 may roll-over to the current fiscal year.

One bright spot is $100 million allocated toward reducing the disability hearing backlog in FY 2019, with the ability to rollover unspent funds through the end of FY 2020.

Although the allocations result in a slight increase in funding to core SSA operations, essentially it represents a decline due to an estimated $300 million in fixed cost increases, such as facilities and personnel, which take a larger bite of administrative costs each year. 

The bill also contained guidance for the SSA on key reports and operations, including oversight of administrative law judges (ALJs). It states, “It is vital that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) be independent, impartial, and selected based on their qualifications. The conferees expect SSA to maintain a high standard for the appointment of ALJs, including the requirement that ALJs have demonstrated experience as a licensed attorney and pass an ALJ examination administered by the Office of Personnel Management.”

 

SSA Announces 2.8% COLA For 2019

2018 October 11
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by Steve Perrigo

Today the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for 2019 will be 2.8%.  This is higher than last year’s 2.0% raise and the largest increase since the COLA in 2011 of 3.6%.  Click here for full list of COLAs since 1975.

The average monthly SSDI benefit will increase to $1,234 from $1,200, an increase of $34 (or $408 annually), according to SSA. The COLA is based on third-quarter results reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

The amount of earnings subject to Social Security tax, or taxable maximum, will increase to $132,900 from $128,400. The SSA outlines additional details in its Fact Sheet.

  • Substantial gainful activity (SGA). The monthly threshold for non-blind will increase to $1,220 per month from $1,180 per month. For blind, it will increase to $2,040 per month from $1,970 per month.
  • Quarter of coverage. Earnings required for a quarter of coverage increases to $1,360 from $1,320. This refers to the amount of earnings required, per quarter, to receive insured status for retirement and disability benefits.
  • Trial Work Period (TWP). The monthly TWP threshold increases to $880 per month from $850 per month.

The increase takes effect in January 2019 for more than 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. 

SSA Commissioner Nominee Completes Senate Hearing

2018 October 3
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by Steve Perrigo

The Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, to consider Andrew Saul as the next Social Security Administration (SSA) commissioner was relatively brief, but Senators were quick to zero in on several critical bi-partisan concerns – the disability hearing backlog, in-person field office service and modernization of agency technology infrastructure.

Saul is not well known in Social Security circles and had a large in-person audience, including representatives from Allsup, professional trade groups, non-profit organizations, House Ways & Means Social Security Subcommittee staff, media, and Saul family members.

Saul several times referred to his business experience and to his leadership of the Federal Retirement Thrift Board. He gave few specifics about plans for the SSA, but vowed he would work closely with Congress and “become an expert.”

Specifically, he pledged to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of the disability hearing backlog and “get to the bottom of what’s going on. People are in really bad shape and need this help,” he said.

Several Senators asked for his position on privatizing the Social Security retirement program. Senator Wyden (D-OR) asked if Saul “supported” privatization and Saul responded “no.” The nominee went on to testify that “privatization is a decision of the U.S. Treasury and Congress.”

One topic noticeably missing was the recent Lucia Supreme Court case and subsequent Executive Order which puts the power of hiring Administrative Law Judges in the commissioner’s hands.   

Confirmation seems likely at this point and Saul would serve the remainder of the current term ending January 19, 2019.  At that time, he would again have to be nominated and confirmed for the next six-year term expiring in 2025.

No committee vote has been scheduled.

 

Senate Sets Oct. 2 Hearing For SSA Commissioner Nominee

2018 September 26
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by Steve Perrigo

The U.S. Senate Committee on Finance has scheduled a hearing on the nomination of Andrew M. Saul of New York as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA). If confirmed, Saul would serve the remainder of the current term, which expires Jan. 19, 2019. The hearing is Tuesday, Oct. 2, at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time at 215 Dirksen Senate Office Building. It can be viewed online by live stream.  

It’s the third of upcoming Congressional hearings involving the SSA. The Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on the nomination of Gail S. Ennis, Maryland, as SSA Inspector General is set for Thursday, Sept. 27, at 10 a.m. Eastern. Click to view online. In addition, the House Ways and Means’ Social Security Subcommittee is holding a hearing Sept. 27 at 11 a.m. Eastern on the topic, “The State of Social Security’s Information Technology.”

 

Hurricane Florence Closes Numerous SSA Offices

2018 September 13
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration has announced 33 office closures so far in North Carolina and South Carolina due to the potential impact of Hurricane Florence. The combination of hearing and field offices include 19 in North Carolina and 14 in South Carolina, with continuous updates available online. Users also can subscribe for updates via email and text.

 

Social Security Adds Five Conditions to Compassionate Allowances (CAL) Program

2018 August 21
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announced the addition of five conditions to the Compassionate Allowances (CAL) program Monday, Aug. 20. A prior expansion was announced last September.

The new CAL listings are:

  • Fibrolamellar Cancer
  • Megacystis Microcolon Intestinal Hypoperistalsis Syndrome (MMIHS)
  • Megalencephaly Capillary Malformation Syndrome (MCAP)
  • Superficial Siderosis of the Central Nervous System
  • Tetrasomy 18p

The CAL program was implemented in 2008 and has grown to a list of 233 conditions, such as pancreatic cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and acute leukemia, that receive fast-track status for receiving Social Security disability benefits.

It is designed to quickly identify claimants where the applicant’s disease or condition clearly meets Social Security’s statutory standard for disability due to severity.  To date, more than 500,000 individuals with disabilities have been approved for benefits under CAL.

Find a complete list of CAL conditions online.

 

Congressional Hearing Addresses Proposed Changes to Appeal Process

2018 July 26
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration’s plan to reinstate the reconsideration level in 10 states generated a number of questions and scrutiny by members of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee during Wednesday’s hearing.

The hearing, “Examining Changes to Social Security Disability Appeals Process,” primarily covered the reconsideration initiative, and also touched on the hearing backlog, the recent presidential Executive Order (EO) on administrative law judges (ALJ) and a General Accounting Office (GAO) report calling for the SSA to implement more comprehensive metrics for assessing the effectiveness of program changes.

Several members asked SSA Deputy Commissioner Patricia Jonas for an explanation on the timing of the agency’s reconsideration initiative. Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX), in particular, questioned the decision to move forward without strong leadership from a Senate-confirmed commissioner. Over the next three years, the agency plans to reinstate reconsideration, adding one level of appeal after the initial application in: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and two offices in California. Nearly 250,000 claimants are pending hearings in these prototype states that currently skip the reconsideration level and proceed to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ).

Jonas, with SSA’s Office of Analytics, Review and Oversight, stated the change would allow some claimants to receive approval more quickly, while those denied at the reconsideration level would ultimately experience a longer overall wait. Nationally, only 13% of claimants are approved for disability benefits at reconsideration. Jonas stated SSA officials felt the time was right to move forward with the plan because of the significant drop in applications, which the SSA believes frees necessary resources that can be dedicated to the reinstatement plan.

Jonas stated that reintroducing reconsideration is a part of the SSA’s overall strategy to reduce the hearing backlog and would cut the agency’s previous projection of when hearing wait times would drop to 270 days by one year, to 2021.

Subcommittee members representing these prototype states emphasized the impact on their constituents. For example, New York and Pennsylvania have some of the longest hearing wait times in the U.S., with New York City at 780 days and Philadelphia at 720 days. Residents of Michigan could have the most to lose with an additional appeal level. Current wait times there include 620 days for the Flint hearing office and 584 days for the Lansing hearing office.

Subcommittee members also asked about the GAO report on SSA’s efforts to transfer cases between offices in order to reduce the hearing backlog. In fiscal year 2017, 43% of cases at the hearing level had been transferred between offices, according to Elizabeth Curda, with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This compares to 14% in 2008.

Congressman Darin LaHood (R-IL) questioned this practice, citing the dramatic rise in wait times for those transferred to National Hearing Centers (NHC), noting Chicago NHC wait times were now the second highest in the country at 825 days.

The GAO found that the SSA does not have accurate measures, or data metrics, to determine if transferring cases between offices may be lengthening or shortening processing times for claimants. Currently, the SSA’s processing time measurement attributes the entire processing time to the office that finishes the case, without regard for other offices involved in the determination process.

There was limited discussion of the EO on ALJ hiring, but some subcommittee members asked for guidance on its significance. Ronald Cass, attorney and president of Cass & Associates PC, stated in his testimony that EO “leaves a lot left for decisions, program by program.”  He continued “there are still important questions that need to be answered, agency by agency.” The SSA has not yet released a plan on how they will proceed to implement the EO.

Hearing: SSA Changes to Disability Appeal Process

2018 July 23
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security disability appeals process will come under scrutiny with this week’s House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee hearing.

The hearing, “Examining Changes to Social Security’s Disability Appeals Process,” is set for Wednesday, July 25, at 10 a.m. Eastern, and will address “recent and planned changes affecting the SSA’s disability appeals process, the metrics the SSA uses to evaluate process changes, and the progress the SSA has made to address the appeals backlog,” according to the advisory.

Issues covered in the testimony are wide ranging. They are likely to include the recent Executive Order issued by the White House that initiated a change in the hiring process for administrative law judges (ALJs) following the Supreme Court’s decision siding with Lucia in Lucia v. SEC. The SSA has provided limited information publicly in the wake of the order.

At the same time the ALJ hiring process is receiving attention, the number available to conduct hearings has dropped, from 1,722 ALJs on Dec. 31, 2017, to 1,680 ALJs as of March 31, 2018. The 42-judge decline seems out of alignment with the SSA’s stated plans of maintaining a strong corps of ALJs and support staff to improve the hearing backlog.

The committee also appears to want an update on how the SSA is spending $100 million in additional funds to address the hearing backlog and if resolution will occur before the projected date of 2022. While the number of people waiting for a hearing has dipped below one million, to 925,793, the average wait time for a hearing decision remains high at 598 days from the date the hearing is filed.

Also, on the agenda is more detail about the federal agency’s plan to reintroduce the Reconsideration level in 10 “skip” states.

Allsup will monitor the hearing and provide updates, as appropriate.