Social Security Administration to Implement Major Changes to Disability Insurance

The beneficiary rolls of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program are increasing rapidly, as is public and legislative scrutiny over the process. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is making major changes. A recent article on the Wall Street Journal’s blog outlines six changes currently underway for the SSDI.

Occupations: When considering an applicant for SSDI, the agency must evaluate the applicant’s employment prospects. Currently, it tasks vocational experts to match the applicant with potential occupations. But these experts are supposed to use a “dictionary” of occupations that has not been updated since 1991. It still includes anachronistic occupations like “blacksmith,” and, more importantly, it does not reflect the technology boom of the past twenty years. Numerous jobs working with computers are well-suited to physically disabled individuals. Rewriting the dictionary is a huge job that may not be completed until 2016 at the earliest.

Grid Use: Administrative law judges who rule on SSDI applications use a decision-making tool known as the “grid” to help them decide whether an applicant qualifies for benefits. It accounts for age, education, disability and other factors. But like the occupation dictionary, the grid has not been updated in years, and it does not reflect the ability of some people to work productively into advanced ages. Additionally, some judges believe it is too easy for lawyers and other experts to tailor applications to the grid so that an award of benefits is more likely.

Disclosure: Currently, SSDI attorneys may withhold medical records that weaken a client’s case for disability benefits from submissions. Many believe that this practice should not be allowed, and some claim the SSA has backed down from pressure against implementing a rule against it in the past. An agency official recently stated the SSA would soon propose a rule preventing the withholding of relevant information from applications, but the official would not elaborate on the nature of the proposal.

Caseload: To deal with large case backlogs, some judges have, in recent years, handled upwards of 1,000 cases per year. Many judges claim due diligence on so many cases is impossible. The agency has now placed a cap of approximately 800 cases per year for each judge.

Third-Party Groups: The SSA and its inspector general are investigating whether doctors and lawyers are facilitating fraud in disability applications. This investigation only began recently, and no targets or findings have yet been identified.

Judges’ Job Description: It is very difficult for SSA judges to be removed from their positions. For some, the post amounts to a lifetime appointment. But the agency is changing the job description to clarify that judges are subject to supervision and to oversight from various parties. The SSA has also intensified scrutiny over the judges’ casework and can recommend additional training for those whose results (e.g. the percentage of applications approved) fall outside the norm.

As the SSDI continues to grow, it is important to keep the program modern and to remain vigilant against fraud so that the benefits of future, worthy applicants are not endangered.

Posted on Thursday, January 30th, 2014. Filed under Social Security Disability.

NHTSA Announces 5 to Drive Campaign to Help Parents Instill Safe Driving Habits in Teens

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced a new safety campaign to reduce the rate of fatal auto accidents among teenage drivers. The campaign, called “5 to Drive,” encourages parents to discuss one safety topic each day with their teenage children. The five topics are:

  • Refraining from cell phone usage, including text messaging
  • Refraining from carrying passengers
  • Obeying the speed limit
  • Refraining from alcohol consumption
  • Wearing a seat belt at all times while driving or riding

Auto accidents are the number one killer of American teens, according to the NHTSA. In 2011, 2,105 teens lost their lives on U.S. roads.

The good news? That number represents a huge improvement over the course of the last few years. From 2007 to 2011, the number of teen driving fatalities has fallen by 43 percent. Unfortunately, some markers have remained steady during this time period, including the percentage of teen drivers killed in auto accidents with positive blood alcohol concentrations (27 percent), the percentage who were speeding when they died (35 percent) and the percentage who were unrestrained (53 percent).

The NHTSA also says that distraction was a factor in 12 percent of fatal crashes involving teen drivers. Both cell phones and teenage passengers contribute to distractions for young drivers.

Teen passengers also play a unique role in creating peer pressure, which is likely to lead teen drivers to engage in risky behavior they might otherwise avoid. For instance, the agency found that in fatal crashes in which the teen driver was not wearing a seat belt, nearly 80 percent of that driver’s teen passengers rode unrestrained. Another study found that having one teenage passenger increased the likelihood that a teenage driver would engage in risky behavior by 2.5 times. Having multiple passengers increased the likelihood by three times.

If you have a teen driver in your household, speak with them regularly about the topics listed above and about defensive driving skills. Teach them that, as a driver, they must exercise maturity. They are responsible for their own safety and that of their passengers.

When your teen has a learner’s permit, take every opportunity possible to allow him or her to drive under your direct supervision. This is by far your best chance to instill safe driving habits that will stay with your child for life.

Posted on Tuesday, January 14th, 2014. Filed under Auto Accidents, News & Press.

Reallocate Payroll Taxes to Shore Up Social Security Disability Trust Fund

In American politics, partisan gridlock is the norm. It is therefore not terribly surprising that Congress has so far delayed reforming Social Security for retirees. After all, reforms to extend the program’s solvency would require increases to payroll taxes, cuts to benefits, or both – all politically toxic proposals. And the program’s trust fund is forecast to be solvent until 2035 – a virtual eternity in the political world.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is another story altogether. That program draws from a separate trust fund – one that is forecast to be depleted in 2016. If that happened, benefits could only be paid to the extent they were covered by incoming payroll tax revenue. That would mean an immediate benefit cut of some 20 percent to each and every disabled beneficiary.

One temporary solution is actually quite simple. A small portion of revenues from payroll taxes could be reallocated from the retirement program to disability. Reallocations are nothing new – Congress has enacted them at least six times already, most recently in 1994. According to Social Security Administration chief actuary Stephen Goss, shifting just one tenth of 1 percent of revenues would bring the forecast depletion date of both trust funds in line with each other.

To be clear, this would accelerate the depletion of the retirement program’s trust fund, and thus it is not necessarily a politically simple fix despite being logistically simple. But the reallocation itself would not result in any workers having to pay more in taxes, nor any beneficiaries – retired or disabled – suffering a cut in benefits. This should spare the measure from significant controversy, as past reallocations have been.

The SSDI program has recently faced intense scrutiny and criticism because of its rapidly swelling roll of beneficiaries. There is a sense among some that fraud is rampant in the program and that unemployed baby boomers who do not yet qualify for retirement benefits are freeloading despite being physically capable of work. This makes disabled Americans pawns in games of political brinksmanship as Congress argues over fiscal policies and debt ceilings.

The reality is that while examples of fraud may be found in the SSDI program, its growth was predicted by simple demographics. Baby boomers are nearing retirement age. The rate of physical disability among those age 40 is half that of 50-year-olds, which itself is half that of 60-year-olds. Moreover, women’s increased participation in the labor force over the last several decades means they are increasingly eligible for disability benefits.

Millions of Americans depend on disability benefits to make ends meet, and many more depend on retirement benefits for the same. Reforming both these programs in order to make them solvent long into the future may be a lengthy political process. In the meantime, reallocating funds to SSDI is the right thing to do to protect the livelihood of those who depend on it.

Posted on Friday, December 13th, 2013. Filed under Social Security Disability.

Social Security Audit Shows Agency Has Overpaid $1.3 Billion in Disability Benefits

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Social Security Administration (SSA) has made significant overpayments to some recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance, causing some of those individuals a great deal of trouble. The SSA is reluctant to admit the mistakes, but worker advocacy groups and beneficiaries’ attorneys say the agency is to blame.

The GAO recently conducted an audit that shows the SSA overpaid $1.3 billion in benefits over a two-year span. While some portion of that figure may be attributed to fraud, many innocent beneficiaries have received erroneous payments and have either tried to stop them or have not realized what was happening.

Steve Lord, a director at the GAO in charge of investigations and audits, says that the SSA should reallocate its resources to prevent such mistakes.

“Right now getting people off the [disability] rolls is secondary,” Lord told CNN. “They have to balance their resources between getting people off the rolls and getting people on the rolls.”

The SSA touts the accuracy of its accounting as nearly perfect, despite tight funding and an increased workload. The agency has lost approximately 11,000 employees since 2011. Meanwhile, as Baby Boomers age and become more prone to disability, the beneficiary rolls and applications have swelled.

Recent high-profile stories by media outlets such as NPR’s “This American Life” and CBS’s “60 Minutes” have highlighted limited instances of fraud within the Social Security Disability Insurance program. It is possible that these programs have left the public with a skewed understanding of the scope of the problem. Unfortunately, the SSA’s own response to concerns about the overpayments may be contributing to a narrative of widespread fraud and abuse.

Cheryl Bates-Harris of the National Disability Rights Network says the agency is quick to attribute the errors to malicious intent on the part of beneficiaries.

“It doesn’t want to admit it’s culpable, so it throws the responsibility on the beneficiaries . . . but there are critical failures within its system,” Bates-Harris told CNN.

In cases where the SSA makes an overpayment, the administration is likely to catch the mistake at a later date and then tell the recipient they must pay back the difference. This can be a serious setback for financially struggling families, who are very likely to have spent all available income on their living expenses already.

To avoid overpayments, be sure to report a change of income or a new job to the SSA right away. If you know you are being overpaid, notify the agency and keep a careful record of the amounts overpaid. If possible, keep the funds in a separate account.

If you receive a notice of overpayment that you believe to be erroneous, you may request a reconsideration. If you know you were overpaid, but you believe you were not at fault or you cannot repay the money, you can request a waiver. Whatever decision the agency renders in these procedures may be appealed, which is often a lengthy process. In all cases, when in doubt, consult with an experienced Social Security disability attorney.

Posted on Monday, November 25th, 2013. Filed under Serious Injury, Social Security Disability.

Amid Rising Pedestrian Fatality Rates, Federal Agencies Unveil Grants and Online Tools for Safety Initiatives

A recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) covering auto accidents involving pedestrians shows that in 2011, for the second year in a row, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased from the year before. In response, the Department of Transportation (DOT), which includes the NHTSA, announced the availability of pedestrian safety grants to cities with high rates of pedestrian deaths.

The DOT named 22 cities eligible for the grants. Unfortunately, Tampa is not on the list, despite ranking second in the nation in pedestrian fatalities in a survey by Transportation for America, a nonprofit transportation safety organization. Four other Florida cities – Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, and Orlando – made the list and are eligible for the grants.

The grants are limited in size and scope and will not be used to make any upgrades to infrastructure. They total $2 million and are intended for education and enforcement initiatives.

Another tool available to communities to improve pedestrian safety is a new NHTSA website called “Everyone is a Pedestrian.” The site brings together resources and tips that communities can use to keep pedestrians safe, such as information to help parents teach children about safe walking, reports on effective existing projects to improve safety, and guides for community safety advocates.

“Pedsafe,” a project of the Federal Highway Administration, is another website available to communities with pedestrian safety issues. It contains suggestions for engineering, education, and enforcement initiatives, including case studies of actual implementations of those ideas.

“We continue to see high rates of pedestrian fatalities in major cities and across every demographic,” said David Strickland, administrator of the NHTSA, in the agency’s announcement. “To help stop the recent increase in deaths and injuries, we need everyone to play a role in pedestrian safety. Working with partners on the federal, state, local and individual level, we hope to turn this concerning trend around.”

One attention-grabbing fact in the recent NHTSA report is that alcohol played a role in nearly half of all auto accidents in which a pedestrian died. That means either the driver or pedestrian had been drinking. And over one third of the pedestrians killed were legally drunk.

According to NHTSA reports, pedestrian fatalities declined each year from 2005 to 2009. Despite this mitigating factor, a two-year trend of increasing deaths should not be taken lightly. It is the responsibility of safety groups, individual drivers and pedestrians, and all levels of government to work together to improve the safety of our roads for all users.

Posted on Friday, October 4th, 2013. Filed under Auto Accidents, News & Press.

U.S. Traffic Deaths Increased in 2012 for First Time Since 2005

Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes a detailed analysis of auto accident statistics in the U.S. Compiling and studying the data takes a long time, and the full reports are not ready until about 18 months after the end of the calendar year. But a preliminary report on auto accident fatalities in 2012 has just been released, and the early indications are a bit troubling.

The NHTSA estimates that 34,080 people died in auto accidents on U.S. roads in 2012. If that estimate holds true, it represents an increase of about 5.3 percent over 2011 fatalities, which numbered 32,367. What many do not realize is that the U.S. has enjoyed a decrease in traffic fatalities each year since 2005, when the figure was 43,510. Last year will therefore likely mark a break in a strong and very positive trend in safety.

Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 0.3 percent to 9.1 billion and therefore only account for a small portion of the increase. The estimated fatality rate per VMT for 2012 is 1.16 per 100 million VMT, up from 1.10 in 2011. In plain English, this means that U.S. drivers are driving slightly more, but dying at a higher rate for every mile spent behind the wheel. Like the total number of fatalities, the fatality rate declined each year from 2005 to 2011.

The number of miles driven varies throughout the year. People drive more during the summer and holidays. The hazards of the road vary as well – more accidents occur during rainy and snowy months. Therefore, it is useful to compare accidents from a given quarter of one year with the same quarter from the previous year. The NHTSA report illustrates the strength of the earlier downtrend in traffic fatalities by showing that from 2006 to 2010, there were 17 consecutive quarters that showed a year-over-year decline. That is the single longest unbroken downtrend since the agency began compiling auto accident statistics in 1976.

Although any increase in traffic deaths is disheartening, this report should be taken in context. Deadly accidents have fallen steeply over the past several years. The U.S. is making significant strides in road safety. Hopefully, 2012 statistics will turn out to be an anomaly and fatal auto accidents will continue their longer-term downtrend in 2013 and beyond.

Posted on Thursday, August 22nd, 2013. Filed under Auto Accidents.

Will Florida’s Texting-While-Driving Ban Prevent Car Accidents?

Florida has enacted a ban on texting while driving, but critics say the law has no teeth.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on May 28, 2013. The ban prohibits the use of cell phones for sending text messages or email while driving under most circumstances. But “most circumstances” comes with a number of exceptions. The law does not apply to drivers at red lights or in traffic jams. And drivers may still use phones for navigation, weather, and music, and they may also use voice-to-text applications.

But the biggest weakness in the law, some say, is the fact that violation of the ban is a secondary offense. That means that police cannot pull over a driver whose only offense is texting – they must commit some other infraction, such as speeding. They could then be ticketed for speeding and/or texting. Police also cannot require drivers to hand over their phones to show whether they have been texting or emailing. Enforcing the ban may therefore prove quite difficult.

State legislators have tried for years to pass a ban, but Republican leaders in the House have thwarted the efforts. This year, new House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, broke the gridlock when he indicated his support for the legislation.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the bill’s sponsor, defended the measure, saying the fact that texting is a secondary offense will not affect the public’s perception of it.

According to a recently-published study by Cohen Children’s Medical Center, texting while driving is the leading cause of death for teenagers, claiming the lives of more than 3,000 teens each year. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said that texting contributed to nearly 200 crashes in Florida last year. And the National Safety Council said that texting contributes to over 100,000 crashes per year in the U.S.

The law goes into effect on October 1, 2013. A first-time offense carries a $30 fine and is a nonmoving violation. A second violation within 5 years of the first carries a fine of $60 and is a moving violation.

Regardless of the state of the law, drivers as individuals need to take personal responsibility for their safety. This means not only the careful and judicious use of cell phones and other electronic devices in cars, but also defensive driving to protect oneself against the ever-present threat of others’ unsafe driving.

Posted on Wednesday, July 10th, 2013. Filed under Auto Accidents.

Hiring an Attorney Can Ease Stress of a SSDI Appeal

Appealing a Social Security disability claim can seem like a daunting task, but the chances of that claim being successful increase significantly with the help of a qualified attorney.

Many claimants balk at the idea of hiring an attorney because of cost, but they often do not realize that there is no up-front cost in SSDI representation. Everyone has the right to be represented during the appeals process and the Social Security Administration has strict rules about the fees associated with that representation.

In fact, an attorney or representative cannot charge a fee without written approval from the SSA. In many cases, the lawyer only gets paid if the appeal is successful and even then the fee comes from the past-due benefits, according to the SSA’s website.

The SSA determines how much the representation was worth, which is usually 25 percent of the past-due benefits. A claimant never owes an attorney more than this except if there were fees associated with medical record acquisition. If a claimant comes to an agreement with the attorney about a fee structure before the appeal, the SSA will consider that agreement as long as the total is not more that 25 percent of the past-due benefits.

Hiring an attorney for a SSDI appeal could be considered a steal at this price since in most other types of cases attorney’s fees would be greater than that. If the appeal is won, then the lawyer is paid directly by the SSA and the claimant receives a check for the remainder of the past-due benefits.

There are clear benefits of having legal representation when filing a SSDI appeal. An attorney will be able to access a claimant’s file and act on his or her behalf before the SSA. An attorney also will be able to help a claimant access medical records or other information that supports the appeal of the claim. Accessing medical records can be a challenge and attorneys with Social Security appeal experience will know how to get that information in a timely manner.

A claimant can bring an attorney to any interviews, conferences or hearings with the SSA. An attorney also will be experienced at preparing witnesses for a hearing, which can be critical to the appeal.

The Social Security Administration will need to approve the fee structure even if a second party like an insurance company is paying the attorney’s fees, according to the SSA website.

Posted on Friday, June 14th, 2013. Filed under Social Security Disability.

Social Security Judges File Lawsuit Alleging They are Held to Quotas

Claims for Social Security Disability Insurance take a long time to be processed and decided these days. An increase in the number of claims in recent years has caused wait times for some applicants to stretch into the hundreds of days. It is in everyone’s best interest for this backlog to be eliminated so that every new application can be decided in a timely manner.

To that end, the Social Security Administration (SSA) encourages its administrative law judges (ALJs) to hear between 500 and 700 claims each year – they call the numbers a “goal.” But some judges claim that the numbers constitute an unlawful “quota.” And now the judges are taking the SSA to court.

The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) recently filed suit on behalf of 1400 of its members, claiming that the SSA’s expectations cause them to have to improperly rush evaluations. It also creates an incentive to approve cases because approvals are faster than denials. This leads to the potential approval of claims that should be denied, which results in greater fraud, abuse, waste, and expense to taxpayers, the judges say. Their specific legal allegation is that the agency’s directive violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Social Security Act. They also claim, contrary to the agency’s statements, that judges who do not hear enough cases are subject to reprimands, “counseling,” and “threats and intimidation,” according to the lawsuit.

SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, who was appointed by President Bush, stepped down in February, 2013. President Obama has not yet named a successor – the agency is currently headed by acting commissioner Carolyn Colvin, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Judge Randall Frye, president of the AALJ, says a lack of permanent leadership may be contributing to the problem.

“One way to protect the treasury and help deserving claimants is to end the quota system,” Frye said. “However, an acting commissioner may not feel that she has the authority to make the necessary changes and correct problems.”

Meanwhile, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, from which disability benefits are paid, is currently paying out more than it is taking in. It is projected to reach zero in 2016. If that were to happen, it would result in an immediate 21 percent cut in benefits to nearly 11 million Americans with disabilities.

Disability insurance, like most government programs these days, faces intense budgetary pressures. Even in good economic times, ALJs will scrutinize disability claims to make sure taxpayer money is not wasted. If you are disabled, it pays to have an experienced Social Security Disability attorney on your side to get you the benefits you deserve in a timely manner.

Posted on Wednesday, June 12th, 2013. Filed under Social Security Disability.

Social Security Disability Advocates Respond to NPR Story

A story recently aired on National Public Radio (NPR) has sparked a national conversation on a federal government benefit program, including passionate defenses and calls for its overhaul.

The program is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and as the NPR series “Unfit For Work” described, its payroll, after sharp growth in recent years, now numbers over 14 million. This growth is in spite of medical advances and laws banning employment discrimination based on disability.

NPR reporter Chana Joffe-Walt found that declining real wages, a stagnant economy, and limited employment opportunities create powerful incentives for disabled workers to seek SSDI. She visited Hale County, Alabama, where nearly a quarter of working-age adults are SSDI beneficiaries. There, openings for jobs not requiring physical labor are almost completely unattainable for many due to a lack of education. The states with the highest percentages of disability beneficiaries are also the states with the lowest percentages of college-educated population, including West Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Joffey-Walt also visited the family of a 10-year-old boy with a learning disability in the Bronx. That disability makes him eligible for $700 per month in Social Security, the family’s primary source of income. If Jahleel were to completely overcome his disability and excel in his education, it would threaten his family’s livelihood. The story illustrated the conflicting motivations some families with benefit income struggle with.

A group of eight former Social Security Administration (SSA) commissioners wrote an open letter to the public responding to the NPR story. The commissioners pointed out that analysts at the SSA had predicted the current uptrend in SSDI’s growth for decades. Two demographic swells combine to account for the majority of the growth in SSDI: the baby boom and the influx of women into the American workforce in the 1970s and 1980s. These groups are now entering their high-disability years.

The letter added that the growth in children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits is due to the nationwide growth in poverty. Less than four percent of low-income children receive SSI benefits – a figure that has held steady, according to the commissioners.

Advocacy group the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CDC) also published an open letter shortly after the story aired. They called attention to the strictness of the eligibility requirements, saying only about 40 percent of adult applicants are approved.

SSDI ensures the livelihood of millions of Americans, but has swelled at an eyebrow-raising rate in recent years. Congress may reform the program in the coming years to help those on the margin remain gainfully employed. But they must take care to ensure the economic security of the most vulnerable Americans.

Posted on Tuesday, May 14th, 2013. Filed under News & Press, Social Security Disability.