Thursday, July 10, 2014

 Working for the Disabled - Examining Darrell Issa’s Hubris


Or don’t you like to write letters. I do because  it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something. – Ernest Hemingway

Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Committee and Oversight and Government Reform recently wrote Acting Social Security Acting Commissioner Carol Colvin a 5 page letter . His intentions may be swell, but his letter is not working for the disabled.
The letter demands SSA produce all documents and communications, referring or relating to actions, taken in response to the focused reviews [of Administrative Law Judges - ALJs] the agency has conducted since they were initiated in 2011. Focused reviews look at “specific issues.” The letter dated July 1, 2014 is ripe with inaccuracies.  The letter attacks Administrative Law Judges, but it is part of a campaign to cast dispersions on the disabled and SSA’s administration of the disability program.  Let’s look at the fabrications Issa et al are parlaying into the request. Issa writes “the agency allowed hundreds of ALJs to rubber-stamp applicants onto disability programs over the past decade, the nation now has an enormous number of people who are inappropriately on disability programs.”

“Hundreds of ALJs” – “inappropriately on disability” - Really? Where’s this documentation from? He cites “strong evidence” from  Senator Tom Coburn, Issa’s republican cohort who  had his staff pull about 300 disability cases last year - a completely non-statistical sample. Their “review” is puzzling because the staffers’ credentials for knowing what is a correct and incorrect SSA disability decision or even one that is flawed is suspicious. Coburn’s opinion of the disabled includes the statement that a claimant should be denied as long as they could do any job. This is not the law which requires consideration of age, education and work experience. We are sure some folks who are wheelchair bound or have had a triple bypass at age 60, might be able to accept tickets 8 hours a day, but when they have already met the medical and legal criteria for disability, discussion of jobs is moot. As Charles Hall said in his blog,

“Social Security isn't supposed to deny the claim of a retired coal miner because he can still be a nuclear physicist.”

Or a ticket taker.
As of this date, Coburn has not identified just who in his staff found the allegedly incorrect determinations and what their credentials were. But Issay didn’t just rely on his astute, global warming denying cohort; he went to the ultimate Sunday Night Science, Sixty Minutes.  On page 5. of his letter, Issa notes he is troubled by Colvin’s admission “that you have not watched the 60 Minutes story from last fall on significant problems with federal disability programs. We expect that all government officials in leadership positions are kept fully informed about key problems, particularly when that agency is charged with management of multi-billion dollar disability programs for our nation's most vulnerable citizens.”

Right, same goes for the chairman of a congressional committee who relies on a widely discredited TV show.  Last year Sixty Minutes featured a show with SSA claims employees who were suing the only claimant representative featured.  The Administrative Law Judge they interviewed was part of a law suit against SSA (since dismissed). No other ALJ who might have offered a counter opinion was allowed to speak and no other claimant representatives, despite scores of organizations that offered to do so. Of course, the producers of 60 minutes avoided contacting a disabled individual.
Media Matters noted the myths pushed by 60 Minutes had been repeatedly debunked by experts. What the show Issa cites failed to note was the vast majority of people applying for benefits are denied, the majority of appeals are also denied, and that award rates have actually fallen during the economic recession. In April, the Wall Street Journal called the claim that federal disability benefits were to blame for people leaving the labor force "exaggerated," explaining that disability was in fact the least common reason individuals left the workforce. Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times calls the Sixty Minutes story "shameful." Sixty Minutes apparently could not be bothered to present a more balanced picture of the disability program. The Center for Economic and Policy Research posted criticism of the Sixty Minutes show, stating it completely ignored comments from experts in the field and pointed out that fraud is in fact not rampant in the disability program.

Issa’s letter mainly attacks four Administrative Law Judges with high allowance rates. There was a dog and pony show on Capitol Hill last month with these four, but they were given virtually no chance to accurately defend themselves and republicans and democrats alike spewed unfounded accusations ranging from  sexual harassment to judicial malpractice. Congressman, one a dentist (who repeatedly referred to his medical expertise) wanted to know how a judge formulated a diagnosis. The hearing was more disgraceful than the alleged misconduct by the judges. One of the ALJs from New Mexico mounted a reasoned explanation for his allowance rate that involved demographics of his state and adherence to the law, - vocational grids that require a favorable decision in many instances. But Issa makes it clear in his letter, that judge should be fired. Here are the facts: the majority of ALJs follow the law and the statistical outliers are in the minority. Judges who deny 85-95% of cases were not dragged up on the hill by Issa and similarly slandered.
When Issa speaks of “evidence of widespread waste, mismanagement and abuse by ALJs in the disability determination and appeals process” – know he bases this on evidence such as manufactured reports by Coburn, and a widely discredited TV show. Widespread abuse and fraud are words often thrown around. Fact is there is virtually no fraud. The GAO Found That Error Rate In Improper Payments Of Social Security Benefits Is Negligible. Yes, improper payments of Social Security benefits that include Disability Insurance had an error rate of just 0.6 percent, [See Government Accountability Office report, 3/28/12].

Issa’s letter also asserts the trust fund's projected shortfall is around the corner. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has "reallocated" payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds - about equally in both directions - some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target, [See an Open Letter from Former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration, 4/4/13]. Actually, things are looking better. SSA’s Advisory Board will soon issue a report and it is likely the next action required will be 2017.  
Nowhere in his letter does Issa acknowledge Congress’s role in refusing to budget enough funds for the disabled. Instead, Issa and Senator Coburn repeatedly talk about the disabled who don’t deserve any money. Coburn alleges that a third of disability claims are phony. No evidence for this number is provided but Coburn recently stated his staff – remember those experts who reviewed the 300 cases –are working to ferret out the "scalawags" who have bankrupted SSA and don’t deserve the money. Rather than wasting time and money having staffers write letters requesting old records, subpoenaing Administrative Law Judges for scorn and misstating the facts about what is failing to protect taxpayers and the truly disabled; Issa has the ability to take immediate action, and he should.

Here’s a suggestion and it doesn’t involve requesting all ALJ focused reviews since 2011. We do not have to start borrowing money to pay Social Security benefits once more money starts flowing out of the trust funds than comes in. The trust funds are still large and can support net outflows for decades. So, simply asking high income workers to pay FICA, the Social Security tax, on all their wages will solve the problem without raising the retirement age or cutting back on cost of living adjustments. Social Security payroll taxes only apply to the first $ 113,700 of a worker’s wages. Former SSA Commissioner Astrue in a February 2013 interview stated that “there’s some historic inevitability on at least some lifting of the (payroll tax) cap. I think that most politicians and I think most economists I’ve talked to generally think that that would have less of a negative impact on the economy than raising the rate itself.
Chairman Issa might get on board and suggest congress fund the SSA budget as requested (that will allow sufficient staff for Administrative Law Judges to review cases and for the claims workers in the field offices and the disability determination offices to accurately determine cases, and resolve his “ALJ production” concerns). And yes the GAO can provide real statistics for accuracy and credentials for those who review cases.

By 2016, a new president and congress will meet and adjust the payroll taxes resolving the real problem with SSA’s disability program. In the mean time, it is likely that Issa, Coburn and those out to undermine the disability program will continually bloviate and pressure the disabled and those who work with them. Writing demanding letters is a swell way to pass the time, but it does absolutely nothing to resolve the real problems SSA’s disability program faces.

One disabled individual who reviewed Issa’s letter later posted on the Internet, “I'm a person with a disability…. I find it remarkable that no detailed example was given of the alleged improperly placed applicants on disability." That’s because it appears facts about the disabled of America are simply not a priority for this Chairman. And that is the real Social Security Crises.
Thanks to Charles Hall's SSA Blog Social Security News for many of the above citations.