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Bad Things Still Happening at the Social Security Administration (June 2018)


The Social Security Administration (SSA) is facing problems from many sides. As 10,000 persons in the U.S. turn 65 each day, SSA is meeting the challenge by reducing access and services. It has closed 125 field offices since 2000. Recent Inspector General reports have criticized high claim processing times, below average staffing levels, low morale, difficulties with telework, and quality of staff work.

Most concerning of all is that SSA has had to tap into its reserves, the infamous $3T SSA Trust Fund, for the first time since 1982, which is three years sooner than anticipated due to lowered economic growth projections. The current estimates reveal that the Trust Fund is due to be depleted by 2034 while Medicare will be depleted earlier in 2026. Replenishing the fund is problematic as the number of workers supporting a Social Security beneficiary has declined from 3.3 in 2007 to 2.8 today. This is further affected by reduced revenues resulting from the tax cuts effectuated this year.

As a reminder, if SSA becomes insolvent, it remains legislatively obligated to pay scheduled benefits at a rate of 79%. As an aside, the cost of administering the SSA program is only 0.7% of total expenditures.

A sample of 200 beneficiary payments in a study by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in May 2018, found that SSA has incorrectly paid 77 beneficiaries almost $1.3M. From this, the OIG estimates that SSA has paid over $571M to over 35,000 beneficiaries. Worse, leading causes of improper payments have not seen significant improvement or corrective actions despite multiple OIG studies pointing out the deficiencies. This has resulted in deficiency dollars of over $1B in SSI payments in both 2015 and 2016.

A Workload Review of the Atlanta and New York Regions Office of Hearings Operations in May 2018 by the OIG revealed that high average processing times resulted from below-average staffing levels (especially with losing senior staffers), low morale, issues with telework (availability, allocation, duties which can be performed), problems with dealing with claimant representatives, difficulty scheduling expert witnesses, large numbers of supplemental hearings and postponements, insufficient decision writers, and information technology problems.

Workers interviewed cited problems including office micromanagement, goals not agreeing with actual capabilities, negative messaging/tone, lack of managerial support, insufficient staff (understaffing at 25 of 37 Atlanta area hearing offices), excessive pressure/overwork, lack of career development opportunities, and frequent changes implemented with little notice or input.

Managers interviewed cited problems including no effective mechanism to hold staff accountable for poor work quality, low productivity, or mistakes.

Criticisms concerning claimant representatives included:

  • Not knowing about their client’s file and being unprepared for the hearing, which then often results in a supplemental hearing, therefore increasing processing time;
  • Having little availability to schedule the hearing;
  • Not communicating with their client;
  • Not working with their client to obtain necessary evidence for the file; and
  • Submitting evidence shortly before the hearing, which often causes the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to delay the hearing to review the new evidence.

Criticism of ALJs include:

  • Adversarial relationship between ALJ Union and management;
  • Not providing adequate instruction for decision writers;
  • Not issuing enough decisions (500 – 700 decisions expected per year);
  • Not moving cases out of judge-controlled statuses;
  • Ordering too many supplemental hearings and granting too many postponements; and
  • Over-developing the claimant record and ordering unnecessary evidence.

ALJs cited complaints including:

  • Difficulty scheduling claimant representatives;
  • Claimant representatives submitting late evidence;
  • Uncommunicative claimants or failing to submit evidence; and
  • Claimants not having representation at time of hearing.

Information technology (IT) problems at hearing offices include:

  • IT support staff unavailable;
  • Broken computers;
  • Broken remote site equipment;
  • Inability to access case processing management system; and
  • Broken video equipment in hearing offices.

The OIG 2017 Auditor’s Report set forth additional deficiencies in need of correction, including:

  • IT deficiencies in access and configuration management with no controls to ensure SSA employees comply with existing directives, policies, and procedures for these items; and
  • Failure to properly reconcile accounts receivable to the general ledger and including detailed listing of these with need for updated training and IT system functionality in this regard.

On the only somewhat bright side, by April 2018, SSA had reduced the hearing backlog to under a million cases (968,000).

Even with this slight glimmer of hope, the overwhelming litany of problems at SSA is daunting and will not be resolved in the near distant future.

Posted in Social Security, Social Security Administration, SSA | Tagged , , |


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