It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times. With our apologies to “A Tale of Two Cities,” the recent NOSSCR General Session in Phoenix gave the impression that the state of Social Security Disability on Capitol Hill is, at least for the moment, mixed.
That said, looking forward, the political situation for Social Security Disability claimants – and their representatives — could get very bad.
This is our first of two reports from the September general session meetings of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR).
In this post, we’ll examine the news regarding the political climate for Social Security Disability, including Firmidable’s observations.
Next week, we’ll look at what officials from the Social Security Administration say they’re trying to do about their massive, unacceptable backlog of disability cases.
Let’s get started. Here are the top 6 political insights Firmidable spotted at the NOSSCR General Assembly:
1. Anxiety is Down, but Not Done
Compared with their last meeting in June, the political report from NOSSCR leaders this time appeared less filled with anxiety.
In June, speakers practically pleaded with conference attendees to meet with their representatives and senators when they came home for the August congressional recess.
I followed up on this observation with NOSSCR Government Affairs Director Lisa Ekman after she spoke.
This is what she said: “I think the Social Security Disability programs are in as much potential jeopardy now as they were in June, but perhaps we know more about the form that the threats will take than we did in June. Maybe that is part of why it appeared there was less urgency.”
So what is the political landscape today?
2. Social Security Disability Funding Uncertain for New Fiscal Year
The biggest theme from both NOSSCR and SSA speakers was how desperately Social Security needs a substantial budget increase in the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But what Social Security will actually get for its budget remains entirely uncertain.
“Social Security is doing better than many federal agencies,” NOSSCR Deputy Director Stacy Cloyd said in her remarks. But there’s “a long way to go on the budget and long way to go on appropriations.”
Social Security received $90 million in fiscal year 2017 to help with hiring. It’s not yet known if that funding will continue or disappear during the new fiscal year.
“Even level funding is not good enough, but a cut would be worse,” Ms. Cloyd said.
Yet, members of Congress continue to put Social Security Disability in their crosshairs.
When I talked to Ms. Ekman, she said “The Social Security Disability programs face serious potential threats both on Capitol Hill and from the Trump administration.”
In addition to pure funding matters, “forthcoming proposed regulations could fundamentally alter the way disability determinations are made through changes to the medical-vocational guidelines, and the practice of Social Security Disability representation through changes to the code of conduct,” she said.
3. One Hopeful Sign: Hiring Freeze Ends
As NOSSCR leaders fret about where the budget is headed in the future, at least one piece of the current situation has improved.
This year’s hiring freeze, instigated in January by the incoming Trump administration for most federal agencies, sent the SSA’s backlog of cases to unheard of — and for needy disability claimants, tragic — heights.
For example, due to the hiring freeze, 70,000 disability decisions — already made — are just waiting to be written. That’s more than double the normal amount.
But the freeze has thawed and hiring has resumed.
The SSA is currently hiring 100 administrative law judges and 300 decision writers, among 600 administrative staff.
4. No New Sheriff, But a New Hardline Deputy
All the budget uncertainty is accompanied by leadership uncertainty at the SSA.
In the halls of the NOSSCR conference, there was much talk about the possibility that the Trump administration is having trouble finding a new commissioner for Social Security and that potential nominees are turning down offers to be nominated.
Regardless, there is a new SSA Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy: Mark J. Warshawsky.
Warshawsky comes from the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. He has called the Social Security program “fraud riddled.”
He has advocated for eliminating the vocational grids used in determining disability cases.
People are worried about the ideas that could come from his leadership.
For example, instead of the grids, the agency may turn more to “evidence based approaches” to evaluate ability to work. It could raise the definition of “advanced age.” It could eliminate English language difficulty as a factor.
5. The Endless Search for SSA Efficiencies
Considering all of these dynamics, it’s not surprising there remains a drive to find efficiencies for the Social Security Administration.
The head of the administrative law judges union has filed 47 suggestions for increasing efficiency. NOSSCR views some of them as good, such as an idea to create templates for favorable decisions so they can be issued faster.
NOSSCR also had the opportunity to make its own hour-long presentation to Congress with suggestions on efficiencies.
Those included eliminating the rule that claimants must submit all their evidence at least five days before a disability hearing. Or if the SSA keeps the rule, NOSSCR calls for clarifying it and providing better training.
NOSSCR opposes other suggestions, like allowing claimants to be questioned about their social media profiles.
6. SSA Has More Pilots than an Airline
Other ideas for changing the system are already moving.
The “CARE” program, created by SSA to reduce the case backlog, is looking at prioritizing cases nationally — on a first in, first out basis — to minimize the differences between local hearing offices.
“For some that can be really good, for some that can be really bad,” noted Ms. Ekman.
It’s already underway as a pilot program. Social Security lets you add your client to a voluntary standby list. When someone else’s disability hearing is cancelled, you can jump your client to an earlier time spot.
The agency is also piloting new software for scheduling, to reduce problems such as client hearings getting booked in two different cities without enough travel time allowed for the attorney.
NOSSCR continues to express concern about the SSA’s use of software to save time by eliminating purported duplicate copies of evidence. The problem is, sometimes things that look like duplicates are not.
For example, you might want to include a seeming-duplicate to provide context to, say, a doctor’s review of a patient’s file. The idea of having your evidence removed from the file is troubling.
Disability attorneys are also concerned that increased pressure to use video hearings is taking away the claimants’ choice between a hearing in person or via video.
It has yet to be officially proposed, but there is talk that the agency may remove video hearings as a voluntary “opt in” option, requiring claimants to “opt out.”
And implications of other recent changes remain uncertain, such as a reorganization of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
In the constant political turmoil, the NOSSCR team stressed that they work hard to find out about changes as they begin to take shape in Washington, D.C. They work with Capitol Hill staff, aiming to stop bad ideas before they get officially proposed.
And they ask disability attorneys around the country to stay engaged in the policy fight. It’s vital to help ensure that people with disabilities trying to receive the benefits they deserve do not find themselves applying in the worst of times.
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