Agreement on Social Security Between the United States and the Czech Republic; Entry Into Force
On January 1, 2009, an agreement coordinating the United States (U.S.) and the Czech Republic social security programs will enter into force. The agreement with the Czech Republic, which was signed on September 7, 2007, is similar to U.S. social security agreements already in force with 22 other countries. This agreement is authorized by section 233 of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. 433. The U.S.-Czech agreement eliminates dual social security coverage a situation that exists when a worker from one country works in the other country and is covered under the social security systems of both countries for the same work. Without such agreements in force, when dual coverage occurs, the worker or the worker's employer or both may be required to pay social security contributions to the two countries simultaneously. Under the U.S.-Czech agreement, a worker who is sent by an employer in one country to work in the other country for 5 years or less remains covered only by the sending country. The agreement includes additional rules that eliminate dual U.S. and Czech coverage in other work situations. The agreement also helps eliminate situations where workers suffer a loss of benefit rights because they have divided their careers between the two countries. Under the agreement, workers may qualify for partial U.S. benefits or partial Czech benefits based on combined (totalized) work credits from both countries. If you want copies of the agreement or want more information about its provisions you may write to the Social Security Administration, Office of International Programs, Post Office Box 17741, Baltimore, MD 21235-7741 or visit the Social Security Web site at http:// www.socialsecurity.gov/international.
Rate for Assessment on Direct Payment Fees to Representatives in 2009
We are announcing that the assessment percentage rate under sections 206(d) and 1631(d)(2)(C) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. 406 (d), and 1383(d)(2)(C) is 6.3 percent for 2009.
Establishment of the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel
We are establishing the Occupational Information Development Advisory Panel (Panel) under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The creation of the Panel, while discretionary, is necessary and in the public interest. It will help us to perform our statutory duties. We have consulted with the Committee Management Secretariat, General Services Administration.
Clarification of Evidentiary Standard for Determinations and Decisions
We are amending our rules to clarify that we apply the preponderance of the evidence standard when we make determinations and decisions at all levels of our administrative review process. These rules do not change our policy that the Appeals Council applies the substantial evidence standard when it reviews a decision by an administrative law judge (ALJ) to determine whether to grant a request for review. We are also adding definitions of the terms ``substantial evidence'' and ``preponderance of the evidence'' for use in applying these rules.
Use of Date of Written Statement as Filing Date
We propose to revise our rules for protective filing after we receive a written statement of intent to claim Social Security benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). Specifically, we propose to revise from 6 months to 60 days the time period during which you must file an application for benefits after the date of a notice we send explaining the need to file an application. We are proposing this revision to make the time period used in the title II program consistent with the time period used in other programs we administer under the Act. We believe that eliminating the difference between the time periods in the programs we administer would make it easier for the public to understand and follow our rules.
Social Security Disability Program Demonstration Project: Benefit Offset Pilot Demonstration
We are announcing our plans to terminate the Benefit Offset Pilot Demonstration (BOPD) project, which relates to the disability program under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). In this demonstration, we are testing modifications to current program rules that apply to working title II disability beneficiaries. We are also modifying current rules for making outcome payments to providers of services under the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency program (Ticket to Work program).
Technical Revisions to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Regulations on Income and Resources
We propose to amend our Supplemental Security Income (SSI) regulations by making technical revisions to our rules on income and resources. Many of these revisions reflect legislative changes found in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), an amendment to the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, and the Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (SSPA). We further propose to amend the SSI home exclusion rules to extend the home exclusion to individuals who, because of domestic abuse, leave a home that would otherwise be an excludable resource. Finally, we propose to update our ``conditional- payment'' rule to eliminate the liquid resource requirement as a prerequisite to receiving conditional payments.
Compassionate Allowances for Brain Injuries; Office of the Commissioner, Hearing
We are considering ways to quickly identify diseases and other serious medical conditions that obviously meet the definition of disability under the Social Security Act (Act) and can be identified with minimal objective medical information. We are calling this method ``Compassionate Allowances.'' In December 2007 and April 2008, we held two Compassionate Allowance public hearings. These hearings concerned rare diseases and cancers, respectively. This hearing is the third in the series. The purpose of this hearing is to obtain your views about the advisability and possible methods of identifying and implementing compassionate allowances for children and adults with brain injuries. We plan to address other medical conditions at subsequent hearings.
Setting the Time and Place for a Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
We propose to amend our rules to clarify that the agency is responsible for setting the time and place for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Consistent with our regulations at lower levels of the administrative process, we propose to use ``we'' or ``us'' in the rules setting the time and place for a hearing. These changes will ensure greater flexibility in scheduling hearings both in person and via video teleconferencing and will aid us in our effort to increase efficiency in the hearing process and reduce the number of pending hearings. The number of cases awaiting a hearing has reached historic proportions, and efforts toward greater efficiency are critical to addressing this problem.
Representative Payment Under Titles II, VIII and XVI of the Social Security Act
We are amending our rules governing how we investigate representative payee applicants. Under these rules, any payee who previously satisfied the payee investigation criteria, including a face-to-face interview, and currently serves as a payee generally need not appear for another face-to-face interview when subsequently applying to become a payee unless we determine within our discretion, that a new face-to-face interview is necessary. The payee applicant would still be required to satisfy the rest of the investigation process as set forth in the regulations. Reducing the number of subsequent face-to-face interviews of payee applicants will streamline our representative payee application process, allowing payee applicants to become qualified more quickly when they already serve as a payee. This rule also will expedite payment of benefits in certain representative payee situations and reduce the burden on our field office employees by eliminating the necessity of interviewing such payee applicants.
Technical Revisions to Overpayment Rules
These rules amend our title II regulations to explicitly provide that we apply an underpayment due an individual to reduce an overpayment to that individual in certain cases. Our title XVI regulations already state this policy. Additionally, these rules reflect our procedures for collecting overpayments when a payment of more than the correct amount is made to a representative payee on behalf of a beneficiary after the beneficiary's death. These rules clarify that we collect overpayments in this situation from only the representative payee or his estate but not from the representative payee's spouse or from the spouse's estate.
Cost-of-Living Increase and Other Determinations for 2009
We have determined (1) A 5.8 percent cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), effective for December 2008; (2) An increase in the Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly benefit amounts under title XVI of the Act for 2009 to $674 for an eligible individual, $1,011 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse, and $338 for an essential person; (3) The student earned income exclusion to be $1,640 per month in 2009 but not more than $6,600 in all of 2009; (4) The dollar fee limit for services performed as a representative payee to be $37 per month ($72 per month in the case of a beneficiary who is disabled and has an alcoholism or drug addiction condition that leaves him or her incapable of managing benefits) in 2009; (5) The dollar limit on the administrative-cost assessment charged to attorneys representing claimants to be $83 in 2009; (6) The national average wage index for 2007 to be $40,405.48; (7) The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) contribution and benefit base to be $106,800 for remuneration paid in 2009 and self-employment income earned in taxable years beginning in 2009; (8) The monthly exempt amounts under the Social Security retirement earnings test for taxable years ending in calendar year 2009 to be $1,180 and $3,140; (9) The dollar amounts (``bend points'') used in the primary insurance amount benefit formula for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2009 to be $744 and $4,483; (10) The bend points used in the formula for computing maximum family benefits for workers who become eligible for benefits, or who die before becoming eligible, in 2009 to be $950, $1,372, and $1,789; (11) The amount of taxable earnings a person must have to be credited with a quarter of coverage in 2009 to be $1,090; (12) The ``old-law'' contribution and benefit base to be $79,200 for 2009; (13) The monthly amount deemed to constitute substantial gainful activity for statutorily blind individuals in 2009 to be $1,640, and the corresponding amount for non-blind disabled persons to be $980; (14) The earnings threshold establishing a month as a part of a trial work period to be $700 for 2009; and (15) Coverage thresholds for 2009 to be $1,700 for domestic workers and $1,500 for election workers.
Technical Amendments to Definition of Persons Closely Approaching Retirement Age
We are modifying the rules we use to determine disability under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (``Act'') to revise the definition of persons ``closely approaching retirement age'' from ``60-64'' to ``60 or older.'' These changes acknowledge that we make disability determinations for persons over age 64. We are also making minor technical changes that will not have any effect on how we determine your eligibility for benefits.
Agreement on Social Security Between the United States and Denmark; Entry Into Force
The Commissioner of Social Security gives notice that an agreement coordinating the United States (U.S.) and Danish social security programs will enter into force on October 1, 2008. The agreement with Denmark, which was signed on June 13, 2007, is similar to U.S. social security agreements already in force with 21 other countriesAustralia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Agreements of this type are authorized by section 233 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 433). Like the other agreements, the U.S.-Danish agreement eliminates dual social security coveragethe situation that exists when a worker from one country works in the other country and is covered under the social security systems of both countries for the same work. Without such agreements in force, when dual coverage occurs, the worker, the worker's employer, or both may be required to pay social security contributions to the two countries simultaneously. Under the U.S.- Danish agreement, a worker who is sent by an employer in the U.S. to work in Denmark for 5 years or less remains covered only by the U.S. social security program. Similarly, a worker who is sent by an employer in Denmark to work in the U.S. for 3 years or less remains covered only by the Danish social security program. The agreement includes additional rules that eliminate dual U.S. and Danish coverage in other work situations. The agreement also helps eliminate situations where workers suffer a loss of benefit rights because they have divided their careers between the two countries. Under the agreement, workers may qualify for partial U.S. benefits or partial Danish benefits based on combined (totalized) work credits from both countries. Individuals who wish to obtain copies of the agreement or want more information about its provisions may write to the Social Security Administration, Office of International Programs, Post Office Box 17741, Baltimore, MD 21235-7741 or visit the Social Security Web site at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/international.
Privacy Act of 1974 as Amended; Computer Matching Program (SSA /Bureau of the Public Debt (BPD)-Match Number 1304)
In accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act, as amended, this notice announces the renewal of an existing computer matching program that SSA is currently conducting with BPD.
Privacy Act of 1974, as Amended; Computer Matching Program; (SSA/Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) Match Number 1076)
In accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act, as amended, this notice announces the renewal of an existing computer matching program that SSA is currently conducting with CMS.
Revisions to Rules on Representation of Parties
We are proposing several revisions to our rules on representation of parties. These proposed rules would recognize entities as representatives, define the concept of a principal representative, and authorize principal representatives to sign and file a claim for benefits on behalf of a claimant. These proposed rules would also mandate the use of Form SSA-1696 to appoint, revoke, or withdraw an appointment of a representative, and to waive a fee or direct payment of the fee. We propose to define the concept of a professional representative and require professional representatives to use our electronic services as they become available, including requiring professional representatives to submit certain requests for reconsideration or a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) electronically. Finally, we propose to require representatives to keep paper copies of certain documents that we may require. We are proposing these revisions to reflect changes in representatives' business practices and to improve our efficiency by enhancing use of the Internet.
Authorization of Representative Fees
We propose to revise our rules regarding payment of representative fees to allow representatives to charge and receive a fee from third parties without requiring our authorization in certain instances. We also propose to eliminate the requirement that we authorize fees for legal guardians or court-appointed representatives who provide representational services in claims before us if a court has already authorized their fees. We are proposing these revisions to reflect changes in representatives' business practices, and in the ways in which claimants obtain representation, and to make more efficient the way we process representative fees.
Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Hearing Loss
We propose to revise the criteria in the Listing of Impairments (the listings) that we use to evaluate claims involving hearing loss. We apply these criteria when you claim benefits based on disability under title II and title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act). The proposed revisions reflect current medical knowledge, treatment, and methods of evaluating hearing loss, as well as our adjudicative experience since the publication of the current rules.
Privacy Act of 1974, as Amended; Computer Matching Program (SSA/Railroad Retirement Board (RRB))-Match Number 1006
In accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act, as amended, this notice announces the renewal of an existing computer matching program that SSA is currently conducting with the RRB.
Technical Changes to the Title II Regulations
We are issuing this direct final rule to make technical corrections to our title II regulations affecting the Federal Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance programs. This rule amends our regulations by correcting a cross-reference affecting entitlement to mother's and father's benefits, to include alternatives to the 9-month duration of marriage requirement. We are deleting an out-of-date cross- reference to the definition of ``substantially all.'' In its place, we are restoring the regulatory definition for ``substantially all'' that had been inadvertently deleted to show if a grandchild or stepgrandchild is dependent based on our support requirements. Also, we are revising headings in six of our regulations to conform to plain language provisions of Executive Order (E.O.) 12866, as amended. We are also amending one of our regulations for clarity and to correct a typographical error.
Technical Revisions to Overpayment Rules
These proposed rules would amend our title II regulations to explicitly provide that we apply an underpayment due an individual to reduce an overpayment to that individual in certain cases. Our title XVI regulations already state this policy. Additionally, these proposed rules reflect our procedures for collecting overpayments when a payment of more than the correct amount is made to a representative payee on behalf of a beneficiary after the beneficiary's death. These proposed rules would clarify that we would collect overpayments in this situation from only the representative payee or his estate but would not collect these overpayments from the representative payee's spouse or from the spouse's estate.
Technical Amendments to Definition of Persons Closely Approaching Retirement Age
We propose to modify our rules on age used in determining disability under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (``The Act'') to revise the definition of persons ``closely approaching retirement age'' from ``60-64'' to ``60 or older.'' The purpose of these changes is to acknowledge that we make disability determinations for individuals over age 64. These proposed changes are technical corrections that would help to explain how we currently determine disability for such individuals and would not have any substantive effect.
Clarification of Evidentiary Standard for Determinations and Decisions
These proposed rules clarify that we apply the preponderance of the evidence standard when we make determinations and decisions at all levels of our administrative review processes. These proposed rules would not change our policy that the Appeals Council applies the substantial evidence standard when it reviews an administrative law judge's decision to determine whether to grant a request for review. We also propose to explicitly define substantial evidence and preponderance of the evidence in applying these rules.
Privacy Act of 1974, as Amended; Computer Matching Program (SSA/Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Match Number 1016)
In accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act, as amended, this notice announces the renewal of an existing computer matching program that SSA is currently conducting with the IRS.
Extension of the Expiration Date for Several Body Systems Listings
This final rule extends until July 1, 2010, the date on which Listing of Impairments (the listings) for six body systems will no longer be effective. We use the listings at the third step of the sequential evaluation process when we evaluate your claim for benefits based on disability under title II and title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act). Other than extending the effective date of the listings, we have made no revisions to the listings; they remain the same as they now appear in the Code of Federal Regulations. This extension will ensure that we continue to have the medical evaluation criteria in the listings to adjudicate disability claims involving these body systems at the third step of the sequential evaluation process.
Amendments to the Ticket To Work and Self-Sufficiency Program
We are revising our regulations for the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program (Ticket to Work program), which was authorized by the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999. The Ticket to Work program provides Social Security Disability Insurance and disabled Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries expanded options for access to employment services, vocational rehabilitation services, and other support services. We are revising our prior rules to improve the overall effectiveness of the program to maximize the economic self-sufficiency of beneficiaries through work opportunities. We have based these revisions on our projections of the future direction of the Ticket to Work program, our experience using the prior rules, and recommendations made by commenters on the program.
Rescission of Social Security Acquiescence Ruling 99-1(2)
In accordance with 20 CFR 402.35(b)(1), 404.985(e) and 416.1485(e), the Commissioner of Social Security gives notice of the rescission of Social Security Acquiescence Ruling 99-1(2).
Parent-to-Child Deeming From Stepparents
We are changing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) parent- to-child deeming rules so that we no longer will consider the income and resources of a stepparent when an eligible child resides in the household with a stepparent, but that child's natural or adoptive parent has permanently left the household. These rules respond to a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, codified in Social Security Acquiescence Ruling (AR) 99-1(2), and establish a uniform national policy. Also, we are making uniform the age at which we consider someone to be a ``child'' in SSI program regulations and are making other minor clarifications to our rules.
The Commissioner of Social Security gives notice that SSA intends to add a new calculator to its online Benefit Calculators suite. The Retirement Estimator will allow authenticated individuals to calculate estimates of potential retirement benefits in real-time, based in part on their SSA-maintained records and in part on user- entered information, such as the last year of Social Security earnings. In addition to quick estimates of retirement benefits at specific points such as full retirement age, users may also submit a number of ``what if'' scenarios based on information they provide regarding future earnings and retirement dates. The estimates can be printed and saved. The initial release of the Retirement Estimator will not reflect offset due to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), or Government Pension Offset (GPO). SSA currently has four benefit calculators on its Web site-the Quick, Online, WEP and Detailed calculators (http://www.ssa.gov/ planners/calculators.htm). The Quick Calculator provides a simple, rough estimate based on user-entered date of birth and current year earnings. For more precise estimates, the Online, WEP and Detailed calculators require that the user have access to his or her Social Security Statement in order to manually key each year of their lifetime earnings for use in the benefit computation. American Customer Satisfaction Index Surveys consistently indicate that less than 25% of users have their Statement available when using the calculators; therefore, 75% of users cannot immediately use the Online, WEP and Detailed calculators. The Detailed Calculator also requires downloading and installing software. In accordance with OMB Circular A-130 and OMB Memo M-04-04, E- Authentication Guidelines for Federal Agencies, SSA conducted an authentication risk assessment. Based on the analysis of the Impact Categories and corresponding Assurance Level Impact Profiles, the Retirement Estimator was assessed at a medium level of risk (Level 2). There will be no disclosure of Personal Identifying Information that could lead to identity theft, no disclosure of address information that could facilitate physical harm, and no disclosure of earnings information from SSA records. Further, the source data cannot be reverse-engineered from the estimate. Based on the risk assessment, a knowledge-based authentication protocol will be used to match user- entered information with SSA records in order to control access to the application. SSA consulted with privacy experts and added additional data matches in the authentication protocol and a ``block access'' feature that allows clients to prevent online access to their account. The Retirement Estimator calculator will provide a safe, user- friendly and convenient tool that will: (1) Contribute to financial literacy by helping members of the public plan for retirement; (2) help to promote SSA's online benefit application; and, (3) save Agency resources.
Testimony by Employees and the Production of Records and Information in Legal Proceedings; Change of Address for Requests
Our regulations describe when a Social Security Administration (SSA) employee will testify or provide records or other information in a legal proceeding to which we are not a party. The regulations also describe how you request testimony of an SSA employee. This final rule updates the address you should use to request testimony of an SSA employee.
Privacy and Disclosure of Official Records and Information
We are issuing this final rule to adopt without change the final rules with request for comment published on December 10, 2007, at 72 FR 69616. This final rule amends the regulation at 20 CFR Part 401, Appendix A, which requires us to release an employee's location of duty station upon request. This final rule also revises the regulation at 20 CFR 402.45 that describes the availability of records.