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Another way not to pay for Social Security

AARP has a report on current SSA procedures and standing. For those that think Social Security is wrong, so be it, but it is there and is promised.

Texans were already lining up to get help at the Social Security office in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston, at 8 a.m., an hour before the office opens. The glass-and-concrete building, which sits in a no-frills strip mall, is “known for its long waits,” says Angelica Obregón, who was leaning against her walker on this muggy September morning, eyeing a gray sky that threatened rain.
“People bring chairs, people bring umbrellas, people bring their breakfasts…because they have a long wait—a long wait,” says Obregón, 49, who has visited the office repeatedly about her Social Security disability case.
The Social Security Administration (SSA)—which touches the lives of virtually every American—was once touted as the preeminent can-do agency. But budget cuts, staff reductions and a growing list of new duties involving everything from Medicare to homeland security processing are taking a toll on the system that administers the nation’s retirement program, its 1,500 offices in neighborhoods across the country—and the people who rely on them.
“This is a train wreck unfolding right in front of us,” says Sylvester Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, an independent, bipartisan body whose members are appointed by the president and Congress to report on the agency.
“People will be alarmed,” Schieber says, “to learn this agency they think they’re going to depend on … doesn’t have the resources to deal with the cases coming its way.”
In small towns and big cities, delays and backlogs at the Social Security office can sometimes be the rule—whether it’s an hour wait to see a representative in Pasadena, Texas, or a 1,020-day wait for a judge to hear a Social Security disability insurance claim in Atlanta.
Calling a Social Security office can be as frustrating as lining up there. Today, an average of 51 percent of all calls to local offices get a busy signal, according to the SSA’s own study.
The Bloomington, Ind., office, for example, serves five counties and has one person answering the phones, says Vicki Ketchum, who was interviewed before she retired as the district manager last month. “People have told me they’ve called the office for two weeks and couldn’t get through,” she says, “so they packed up the car and drove up to two hours to get here. That’s not right.”
Most disturbing may be the backlog in claims for disability insurance. Largely driven by boomers in their 50s—the years when working men and women are most prone to develop illnesses and disabilities, according to the SSA—the number of workers who say they are too sick or disabled to continue to work has grown by a staggering 60 percent in the past few years. Today 750,000 of these vulnerable Americans are waiting an average of 520 days—and in some areas close to three years—for a hearing on their claims.
“The agency is struggling to balance its new responsibilities and its traditional work,” without added resources, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue told a congressional hearing in May.
In a more recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, Astrue said that he is “trying to be optimistic. We’re doing our best to stay as far ahead of the curve for as long as we can.”
“Right now,” he says, “in most parts of the country the level of service is quite high. But waiting times in some offices are more than what I or anyone else would like to see. And the disability backlog is simply unacceptable.”
Among the agency’s new responsibilities is determining the eligibility of applicants for Extra Help under Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. Since SSA started taking applications in July 2005, 6.7 million people have applied. In the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress assigned the SSA a whole raft of new homeland security regulations to enforce after 9/11, tightening or changing the rules for issuing or replacing Social Security cards.
In 2005, for example, offices were told women could not change their name on Social Security cards to a married name if they had only a foreign marriage certificate as proof, says Paul McGinley, a former operations supervisor in Knoxville, Tenn., who retired this year. “Fathers who had paid for big destination weddings for their daughters in Jamaica and places like that came down and gave us an earful. We fought that one almost every day for a year and a half until it was changed.”
Immigration-related legislation that Congress is considering would require employers to verify the employment eligibility of all new hires. That could significantly increase workloads at SSA, which already verifies huge numbers of Social Security numbers for employers—84 million in 2006.
As the workload has been increasing, the number of SSA employees has been shrinking. The agency has lost 4,000 workers in the last two years alone, and staffing is at its lowest level in 33 years.
“We’re not just treading water now, we’re sinking,” says Rick Warsinskey, who represents the agency’s managers and supervisors as president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations.
SSA officials say the agency doesn’t have the funds to add to its staff, or even to replace all the employees who leave. In the last 10 years, the agency’s budget requests have been reduced first by the administration, which cut them to maintenance level, then by Congress, which cut them even further, “to the tune of $1 billion,” Astrue says. The agency’s periodic reevaluations of people receiving disability payments—to ensure continued eligibility—return $10 in savings for every $1 spent, but even they have been drastically cut back.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says his staff “hears the phrases ‘completely outrageous’ and ‘entirely unacceptable’ repeatedly from North Dakotans frustrated by their experiences with local Social Security offices.” His committee recommended a Social Security appropriation of $430 million more than the president’s budget request for the agency for 2008.
The final bill is expected to allocate only $100 million to $125 million more. That might allow the agency to maintain current staffing levels, but not increase them.
And yet this month the first of 78 million boomers, three months shy of turning 62, can begin applying for early retirement benefits they are eligible to receive next year. Astrue says that he’s banking heavily on more boomers using the agency’s website for a wide range of services. But even if they do, experts say, SSA staffers must review and process the applications—using an antiquated computer system.

We seem to be seeing a pattern among agency service delivery systems. Is this part of infrastructure of services and systems for the commons, a broken promise, or lousy administration.

It does appear to be bi-partisan as the fear of being blamed for failure for Iraq is laid on the American people and immobilizes looking at other priorities and other services.

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Antigua pushes some more in WTO GATS tribunal

The Antigua Sun reports:

Antigua and Barbuda’s claims against the US are likely to reach as high as US$7 billion as the internet gambling dispute continues.
Antigua and Barbuda’s attorney at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Mark Mendel has warned the US to expect billions more in sanctions as the country prepares to file its claim in respect of America’s decision to withdraw from its General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) commitment to international market access in the areas of gambling and betting services.
In June, Antigua and Barbuda initiated an effort to impose trade sanctions valued at US$3.4 billion annually on the United States, filing a claim for concessions primarily through the suspension of Antigua’s copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs and patents obligations to the US.
“The US$3.4 billion is just what we’re entitled to by virtue of them not having complied with the decision,” Mendel said, explaining that Antigua has not yet filed a claim to address the GATS withdrawal issue.
“We haven’t even told them what that claim will be yet. The only thing I told them is it’ll be at least as big as our other claim,” Mendel told the Antigua Sun.

I thought people would want to know how its going.

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Healthcare share

LA Times reports diverse interests coming together on healthcare costs and plans. If MA has found a better formula in the companies of Tufts and Harvard Pilgrim, maybe the rest of the nation can as well.

The National Federation of Independent Business will join AARP, the Service Employees International Union and the Business Roundtable — which represents chief executives of major companies — in an umbrella group called Divided We Fail. The effort is aimed at ensuring that healthcare and retirement security are at the top of the presidential candidates’ domestic agendas next year.

The strange bedfellows are trying to forestall the kind of political polarization that doomed Clinton’s healthcare plan, as well as President Bush’s effort to overhaul Social Security.”What is missing right now is not policy ideas,” said Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, the senior lobby. “There are lots of policy ideas. What is missing right now is political will.”

The new alliance does not mean that its members are united behind one specific approach to healthcare reform; significant disagreements still divide them. But they do appear to agree on the need for action and — with opinion polls showing widespread support for change — they see their alliance as a vehicle for assuring that its members will have a role in formulating new policies.”

Access to affordable health insurance is the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 issue for small business across the United States,” said Todd Stottlemyer, president of the National Federation of Independent Business. “For us not to be at the table in any serious conversations makes no sense. There really can’t be a national debate about healthcare unless small business has a seat at the table.”

Said Stottlemyer: “We have an obligation to at least actively listen to one another and engage with one another, instead of talking past one another or at one another.”

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Four more soldiers

More soldiers have concerns about policy.

Rear Admiral Donald J. Guter, United States Navy (Ret.) Judge Advocate General of the Navy, 2000-02

Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, United States Navy (Ret.) Judge Advocate General of the Navy, 1997-2000

Major General John L. Fugh, United States Army (Ret.) Judge Advocate General of the Army, 1991-93

Brigadier General David M. Brahms, United States Marine Corps (Ret.) Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant, 1985-88

Update: Phoney as used in Bill O’s comments has been deleted and replaced with a title no one will read. (Sigh)

Update 2: Could any of the objecting servicemen be staunch Republicans, but as military men think the policies are wrong, and wrong enough to speak out? Or the other 25 senior officers? Is every conservative or Republican (not the same necessarily) for waterboarding? That appears to be the implication by saying these guys are just liberals (not true) or the military is 70/30 or 60/40 Rep to Dem. Waterboarding is a political sport?

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Costs not in the news…boring Part 1

The Prostrate Cancer Foundation reports costs of treatments often are not reported accurately.

Wilson and colleagues compared patterns of healthcare utilization and direct costs of prostate cancer-related treatments over a 5.5-year period in 4553 newly diagnosed patients, stratified by age, risk group, and ethnic group

In the first 6 months after diagnosis, direct prostate-related costs per patient were high ($11,495) and highly variable ($2586 for watchful waiting to $24,204 for external-beam radiation therapy), the researchers report.

After the first 6 months, prostate-related costs were only $3044, ranging from $2418 for radical prostatectomy to $6019 for androgen deprivation therapy.

Cumulative costs for the entire period were highest for androgen deprivation therapy ($69,244) and external-beam radiation therapy ($59,455) and lowest for watchful waiting ($32,135) and brachytherapy ($35,143), the researchers note.

The most costly treatments were generally reserved for the highest risk groups, the report indicates, whereas the least costly treatments were primarily used by the lowest risk groups.

“Our data demonstrate that prostate-related costs per person are substantial and sustained over time, and that short-term treatment cost comparisons most commonly found in the literature do not truly reflect the cost of treatment choices over the long term,” the investigators conclude.

“It appears that current treatment is following clinical treatment guidelines from our data,” Dr. Wilson added. “Our paper also reminds us that it is important to examine the downstream costs (which indicate more care needs) of each of the different treatments.”

Compare that to Rudy’s complaints and soundbite. Which would you read?

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More accurate information is valuable on the surge

Thinkprogress has reported on Congressional testimony the other day and carries a video excerpt on site.

Looking for signs of progress in Iraq, the Bush administration has been quick to jump on reports of reduced violence in Iraq. The “violence is thankfully coming down,” said White House spokesperson Dana Perino. Violence is “down significantly from last year,” declared President Bush.
In a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee today, Joe Christoff of the Government Accountability Office stated that this recent reduction in violence should be taken with a grain of salt, as it coincides with increased sectarian cleansing and a massive refugee displacement:
I think that’s [ethnic cleansing] an important consideration in even assessing the overall security situation in Iraq. You know, we look at the attack data going down, but it’s not taking into consideration that there might be fewer attacks because you have ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, particularly in the Baghdad area. […]
It’s produced 2.2. million refugees that have left, it’s produced two million internally displaced persons within the countryas well.
Watch it:
Christoff’s conclusions echo that of ret. Gen. James Jones last month, who observed “progress” in a Shi’a-led ethnic cleansing campaign.
Also in attendance at the hearing was Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen. In his quarterly report to Congress released today, Bowen acknowledged the reduction in violence but stated that it has not been accompanied by tangible political reconciliation, a finding that was neglected by the traditional media in its reporting today. In Baghdad, for example, Provincial Reconstruction Team officials note:
Despite reduced violence, officials are pessimistic that lasting reconciliation is occurring. … In Diyala, there is a desire to work toward reconciliation, but it will take years to overcome ill-will between tribes.
Earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus confidently declared, “There’s a local reconciliation” in Diyala province.

I was unable to obtain a transcript at this time to ascertain context. Shorter term goals under 50 year timetables seem more reasonable to me. What are our goals for sure this time?

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