Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Social Security Administration - Prescription for Real Chaos

Proposed budget will cut close to a billion dollars from the SSA budget and release thousands of employees.

From today’s Federal Times (Copyright © 2011 Gannett Government Media Corporation), comes a succinct assessment of the chaos that close to a billion dollar budget cuts and loss of four thousand employees will have on the Social Security Administration staff and Americans who turn to SSA for retirement, health care and disability benefits. The article, entitled Social Security Administration struggles with budget cuts written by Andy Medici and posted on June 7, 2011; begins seven months ago, with Commissioner Astrue, shovel in hand, discussing the agency’s plans to deal with increased claims:

Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue broke ground in the small town of Jackson, Tenn., for his agency's first new call center in 10 years. The center, slated to open by the end of this year, would allow the agency to better respond to the fast-growing number of customers.

But the call center sits half-finished — a casualty of congressional budget cuts.

In April, Congress passed a 2011 budget that cut Social Security's administrative budget by almost $1 billion from the Obama administration's requested amount. The cuts not only shut down construction projects like the call center in Tennessee, but also information technology projects, hiring and investments needed to clear a backlog of disability claims.

Social Security was forced to close hundreds of direct contact stations and cancel plans to open eight new hearing centers across the country. Direct contact offices are remote locations open only a few days a week or month. Social Security Administration spokeswoman Dorothy Clarke said that by making "tough choices," the agency can avoid furloughing employees and closing down field offices entirely. "We will continue to review all aspects of our operations, including considering office consolidations, for ways to balance cost savings with our mission to serve the public," Clarke said.

At a March 9 hearing, Astrue warned lawmakers that his agency's staff is declining and that funding is "barely above the level where we have to have furloughs."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in the same hearing that the Social Security Administration should have spent earlier appropriations on streamlining its claims processes and reducing administrative overhead. He said that its use of stimulus funding instead to address those expenses was a "dangerous mismanagement" of funds and that Congress should not be looking to throw money at the problem. Joe Dirago, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said he expects even more severe budget cuts next year. The Obama administration's request for 2012 is $12.5 billion, but Dirago said signs point to a budget that will come in below $11.4 billion in 2010.

He also said his organization expects Social Security will lose 3,500 employees this year through attrition and a hiring freeze. If budget cuts continue, he estimates the agency will lose another 4,000 employees in 2012.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the Social Security Administration, said the agency is "cut to the bone" and its overhead expenses amount to only 1 percent. "Administratively,you will find no business in the private sector or agency in the government sector that is more efficient than Social Security," Becerra said.

He said in the first four months of 2010, there were 246,000 disability appeals, while in the first four months of 2011, there were 294,000 — an increase of almost 20percent.

But because of budget cuts, the agency cannot open the hearing centers to help lessen the backlog, Becerra said. He said that he does not see the budget situation for Social Security improving any time soon and that Social Security may have to shutter field offices to cope with the cuts.

"It's a prescription for real chaos," Becerra said.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Strengthen Social Security - Don't Cut It

This web site, Strengthen Social Security is full of resources for those interested in Social Security matters. Importantly, it features an on line petition one can sign in less than a minute. The petition reads as follows:

Dear Speaker Boehner:

Social Security belongs to the people who have worked hard all their lives and contributed to it. Social Security is a promise that must not be broken. If you pay in, then you earn the right to benefits for yourself, your spouse and your dependent children when you retire, experience a severe disability, or die.

We need to strengthen Social Security, not cut it. That is why I oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits, including increasing the retirement age. I also oppose any effort to privatize Social Security, in whole or in part.

We support the petition and plan to visit the web site often. It has an active blog and provides facts about the program. For example:

The projected point at which the combined Trust Funds will be exhausted comes in 2036 per the SSA Trustees 2011 Annual Report to Congress. And, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will not run out of money in 2018. Money will be reallocated from the Retirement Trust Fund to the DI Trust Fund.

Now is the time to ask our legislators to stick to facts, not speculation and to act in unity for a program that is integral to the American public. This means also supporting those in the House and Senate who continue to advocate for strengthening Social Security. If we sincerely care about the future we are leaving our children, we would not delay and/or deprive them of the simple trust generations have held. This is not a "hand out" it is a decent tenet of democracy - you pay in and you receive benefits for disability and protection for retirement.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Government would continue to make Social Security payments to 53 million beneficiaries

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue noted this week he planned to continue services in concert with White House's statement that Social Security checks will continue to go out in the event of a shutdown. He noted SSA’s field and hearing offices, teleservice and program service centers, and State disability determination services will provide "limited services" if there is a shutdown. "Limited services" remains a bit unclear. Speculation continues that interruption of new claims and pending appeals will occur.

The New York Times advises the government would continue to make Social Security payments to 53 million beneficiaries. “We will continue to process applications for benefits, but it might take longer if a shutdown does occur,” said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for Social Security. “Our local offices will open for limited services. We are working on the specifics.” However, a huge backlog of applications for Social Security disability benefits would grow even larger, agency officials said. Medicare, the program for people who are 65 and older or disabled, would continue to pay doctors and hospitals for several weeks, using money from its trust funds. While Obama administration officials hoped to notify federal employees by Friday April 8th, whether they would be furloughed as nonessential workers, they also expected all federal employees — essential and nonessential alike to go to work on Monday April 11th, to help “close up shop in an orderly way”, the officials said.

Meanwhile, The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) discussed the potential shutdown - asserting that if the current continuing resolution expires at 12:01 a.m. on April 9, 2011 without passage of an FY 2011 appropriations bill or a further continuing resolution, Federal departments and agencies will be required to execute contingency plans for a shutdown. These contingency plans detail which agency activities are allowed by law to continue to operate, and which activities must stop. Employees whose salaries are funded through annual appropriations will not be able to work and will be furloughed, unless their duties qualify under the law as "accepted" to continue to work during periods of lapsed appropriations. During a shutdown, non-excepted employees are not permitted to work. OPM assures it will provide information through its website and updates regarding these matters no later than Friday, April 8th.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Balancing the Texas Budget on the Backs of the Disabled

Jason Embry in today’s American Statesman writes about 50 facts in the House’s proposed state budget.

Texans can be thankful that the republican dominated house has no plans to raise their taxes.

However, if you are disabled, access Medicaid, have a child with autism, suffer from a mental disability, are deaf or hard of hearing, care about abuse at child day care centers, and other residential centers; happen to be aging, require community mental health hospitalization, happen to be a homeless individual or a part of a homeless family, need Medicaid for nursing homes, access or plan to access community mental health services or care about the Children’s Health Insurance Program; the house plans to significantly cut, zero out and downright remove significant services.

Here are just a few:

$3.3 billion short in necessary state funds and $8 billion of all funds of the money that state agencies say they will need to pay for Medicaid, an entitlement program that the state is legally obligated to provide.Reduce funding for state-supported living centers so much that, as a spokeswoman for the Department of Aging and Disability Services told the Texas Observer this week, the state would default on a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. During the Bush administration, the Justice Department found the conditions in the homes for Texans with mental disabilities were so bad that the constitutional rights of the residents were violated.

The budget zeroes out $6.7 million from a program that provides services to children with autism.Reduces rehabilitation services to individuals who have general disabilities or are deaf or hard of hearing by 13.5 percent.

Cuts $4 million — 6 percent — from the agency that enforces minimum standards and investigates reports of abuse at child day care centers, residential child care and maternity homes.Cuts Medicaid rates to nursing homes by 10 percent, even though Texas already ranks 49th nationally in Medicaid rates for nursing homes. Many nursing-home operators say the cuts will force them to close.

Cuts funding for community mental health services by $162 million, and it cuts $34 million from state and community mental health hospital funding.In addition to cuts made during the interim, it reduces reimbursement rates for health-care providers that see patients on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program by 10 percent.

Virtually eliminates all funding — $20 million — for housing placement and retention services for homeless families and individuals.

Legislative Budget Board, House Research Organization, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, CSHB 1.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Democratic Members to Speaker Boehner - Abandon Plan to Shut Down SSA

The following is taken from a March 16, 2011
press release by Democrats Ways and Means Committee:

WASHINGTON, DC—Today 125 members of the House Democratic Caucus sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) urging him to restore reasonable funding levels to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the House Republican 2011 budget to avoid shutting down the agency for the equivalent of a month this year. The letter was spearheaded by Reps. Sander M. Levin (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee, Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

Ranking Member DeLauro: “Social Security ties generations together, providing economic security to millions of American seniors who otherwise might not be able to afford their daily expenses. And yet, it will be one of the first casualties of the Republican’s spending bill. The $1.7 billion drop in funding to the Social Security Administration could cause a shutdown of four weeks; leaving current beneficiaries without help should they need it, new retirees without benefits, our current workforce without the knowledge that their wages are being accounted for, and even newborn children without Social Security numbers. Americans of all ages depend on Social Security, and we must stand up to defend it against these reckless Republican cuts.”

In a letter to employees last month, SSA cautioned that it may have to furlough workers if cuts to its budget are enacted into law. In their Continuing Resolution, Republicans have proposed cutting SSA’s administrative funding by more than 9 percent in 2011, from $11.8 billion in 2010 to $10.7 billion this year. In addition, the Republican proposal provides for $1.7 billion less than SSA needs to keep pace with inflation and rising workloads.

We note Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett was a signing member and has been active in his support of disability issues. These cuts have real impact on SSA who has suspended sending earning statements, overtime and other services due to the biweekly budget scenario and lack of ability to plan out the rest of the year. We hope Speaker Boehner takes the letter seriously. Disabled Americans are not asking for a stimulus or a bail out. A promise kept for their safety net would be sufficient.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Social Security offices across U.S. to protest cuts

From the Washington Post, Lisa Rein Staff Writer penned an article regarding Social Security workers who will be demonstrating today.

Social Security workers around the country, “Rhode Island to Montana” will be holding demonstrations today. Members of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign and other groups were also scheduled to take part in Wednesday's protests.Last year some state furloughs affected the Disability Determination offices and the agency's workers have consistently warned that drastic cuts in service will impact what the agency's employees can do in this time of increasing claims and limited employment.

Dana Duggins, an official with the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of Social Security Administration locals, states that some SSA workers will hand out fliers and carry signs that read "No furloughs" and "No budget cuts" during a staggered midday lunch period and tell the public what they think would happen if the Republican plan - or a smaller version of it - were to be enacted. Federal workers have been targeted by Republican lawmakers and the White House as both seek to reduce the deficit by reorganizing and reducing government.

We have long felt that cuts to SSA's budget and staffing limitations are pound foolish and not even penny wise. Every cut delays the claims disabled submit and the appeals that occur in the process. The safety net that SSA provides is the last place to look for cuts. We support the union's efforts and agree with employees who are asking for budget and staffing levels that support the disabled who depend on SSA's field offices and Disability Determination Services. You cut SSA staff and you cut services for the disabled. It is that simple.