Day One: Attack Social Security

Social Security Wall St card After less than one full working day, the Republican controlled House of Representatives pulled a fast one, a move that places Social Security in jeopardy. [TPM]

“Included in a new set of rules passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday was a new measure making it more difficult to move funds between separate accounts maintained by the Social Security Administration. A seemingly technical provision on the surface, critics says it puts millions of disabled and elderly Americans at risk and sets the stage for further attacks aimed at the wider program.” [CD]

Representative Dina Titus (D-NV1) voted against this ploy; Representatives Heck (R-NV3), Amodei (R-NV2), and Cresent Hardy (R-Bundy Ranch) voted in favor of the new rules. [rc6]  And, what would the “seemingly technical provision” do?

“This House Rules change would allow a 20% benefit cut for millions of disabled Americans unless there are broader Social Security benefit cuts or tax increases improving the solvency of the combined trust funds.  It is difficult to believe that there is any purpose to this unprecedented change to House Rules other than to cut benefits for Americans who have worked hard all their lives, paid into Social Security, and rely on their Social Security benefits, including Disability, in order to survive.” [NCPSSM]

And, here they go again, “We have to cut Social Security in order to save it” one of the more antique lines in the GOP repertory.   The CBPP has another take on the situation created by the new rules:

“Its drafters state that the rule “would protect the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund from diversion of its funds to finance a broken Disability Insurance system.” But DI — a vital part of Social Security — isn’t broken. Its recent growth stems primarily from well-understood demographic and program factors, chiefly the aging of the baby boom into their 50s and 60s, the growth of women’s role in the labor market and hence their eligibility for DI, and the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age. And the Social Security trustees have long anticipated the need to replenish the fund in 2016.”  [CBPP]

See, they – the Republican leadership – is going to “save” one trust fund by slashing another one!  Except that’s really not necessary.  In fact, the Republicans ignored one very obvious fix:

“A modest and temporary reallocation of part of the 6.2 percent Social Security tax rate to the DI Trust Fund would put the entire Social Security program on an equal footing, with all benefits payable at least until 2033.” [NCPSSM]

However, had they done this rather easy bit of legislating then later on it would be more difficult to demand harsh new eligibility requirements, or to advocate reductions in benefits.

Someone is betting that American voters can’t find the FAQ section of the Social Security Administration’s web page?  If the FAQ part doesn’t answer questions about eligibility and benefits, and more data is of interest, it doesn’t take much effort to find the Research, Statistics, and Analysis section.  From thence it’s an easy hop to the annual report.

The bottom line is that the “new Rule” makes it more difficult to shore up benefits for the 965,190 people who receive assistance because of disabilities under Social Security guidelines.  The largest number of these beneficiaries, both men and women, fall into the “Musculoskeletal system and connective tissue” category.  Translation: Have you lost two limbs? Have you lost a limb and a prosthetic device cannot work for you? Have permanent joint problems which make it impossible for you to work? Paralyzed? [DBH]   According to the 2013 report there are 324,881 persons in the U.S. who qualify for benefits in this category.

There is a persistent whine from the right wing – which also keeps repeating the evident falsehood that Social Security is driving the national debt – that Americans are “gaming the disability system” – and yes, you guessed it, There Are Takers Out There Getting Your Hard-Earned Tax Dollar. [Forbes]

The opponents of Social Security decry the “relaxation” of benefit eligibility for the disabled. Those “musculoskeletal/connective tissue” disorders are “exploding,” they say.  What these critics don’t say much about are the standards for evaluating a disabling condition in this category:

“For most musculoskeletal conditions, you will need to show that you have been treated by a doctor. Medical imaging (X ray, CAT scan, MRI, etc.) is generally accepted as one form of proof of the disability. Depending on the type of musculoskeletal condition, you may also have to undergo a battery of physical tests.

“Many types of musculoskeletal conditions improve with time. In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you will need to demonstrate that your disability has lasted or is expected to last twelve months or more. It’s important that those who are claiming disability benefits due to musculoskeletal conditions to continue seeing their doctors. The SSA will consider whether you have been following prescribed treatments and whether they have had an impact on your condition.” [DBH] (emphasis added)

Notice that the ‘burden of proof’ remains on the applicant, and that the gratuitous allegation that the moochers are making things up because they have an OWIE is on shaky ground if that “battery of physical tests” and other “forms of proof” are taken into consideration.  Doesn’t sound much like a “weak system which invites abuse” after one reads the actual evaluation standards.

Another element left untouched by Social Security critics who have convinced themselves that the beneficiaries of disability funds are moochers is the Inspector General in the Social Security Administration.  This would be the same Inspector General who issues period reports to Congress. Had any of the Congressmen read the latest report they would have discovered some good news.

“Work CDRs for Disabled Title II Beneficiaries with Earnings, in which we estimated that almost 120,000 disabled beneficiaries received $1.02 billion they were not eligible for, due to their work activity. SSA had identified approximately $872.58 million of these overpayments, but had not detected $146.43 million. We estimate that, as of April 2014, SSA recovered about $489.37 million in overpayments.” (pdf)

Yes, there were over-payments, however, of the $1.02B over-payments, the SSA spotted $872.58M, and so far has recovered $489.37M in FY2013.  If the critics were truly interested in assisting the SSA in its efforts to reduce over-payments, or fraudulent payments, then the obvious way to go about that would be to appropriate additional funds for inspection, evaluation, and recovery action.  One sure way to create opportunities for fraud and abuse is to under-fund the agency in question, (then complain loudly that they must be incompetent because they didn’t catch all the fraudsters,) without hiring the additional personnel or improving information systems which would lead to earlier discovery and the reduction of case backlogs.

The IG evaluated 63,210 allegations of overpayment/fraud; opened investigations on 4,147 of them; closed 4,266 investigations; yielding 270 arrests, 613 indictments, 707 convictions, and 242 civil actions or civil monetary penalties. The other bit of good news is that of the 965,190 disability beneficiaries the IG’s Cooperative Disability Investigations found only 1,952 cases of “confirmed fraud.”  Putting these numbers into the Plastic Brains yields a confirmed fraud rate of 0.002022 – or o.2%. [IG SSA pdf]

Given these numbers the critics of the Disability benefits can’t argue (1) the system if rife with fraudsters, or (2) that the system is “unsustainable,” so they’ve settled on (3) the system is “too generous.”

I’m personally not sure what it takes to countenance a 20% cut in benefits for those least able to work — unless American workers pay more in payroll taxes, or agree to lesser benefits.  A simple, temporary, 6.2% payroll tax re-allocation would have balanced the scales until 2033.  However, that wouldn’t satisfy the likes of Heck, Amodei, and Hardy, and their GOP colleagues in the House – they’ll likely continue to spout variations on the “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” until they’ve created a situation in which Social Security can be privatized.

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