At SSA, a crack coding crew cranks out changes

At SSA, a crack coding crew cranks out changes

SSA Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel promised beneficiaries they'd get automatic refunds.

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

When Congress repealed the retirement earnings limit for Social Security beneficiaries aged 65 to 69, it touched off a programming scramble at the Social Security Administration.

The agency had to put together an in-house team of Cobol and assembly language programmers who could write routines to find the affected beneficiaries, calculate what was owed them and issue refunds. The project was urgent in light of Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel's promise that affected beneficiaries would get their refunds automatically, without lifting a finger.

The programming team consisted of benefits experts and technicians who already understood the agency's records system and had an inkling of what needed to be done. They were all from SSA.

'We had no time to contract,' said Al Grau, director of the Title II Processing Division at SSA's Office of Systems Design and Development in Baltimore. 'We were basically writing what we had to do and coding it and validating it all at the same time, instead of sequentially, as usually is done.'

The team identified 421,000 refund recipients within the first few weeks, Grau said.

Agency programmers also had to fix code so that from now on, first-time Social Security claimants would come under the new rule. SSA finished the task April 17, just one week after the repeal took effect, Grau said.

Previously, retirees aged 65 to 69 could earn only $17,000 per year from wages or self-employment if they wanted to keep their maximum Social Security benefits. After income rose above $17,000, they lost $1 in benefits for every $3 they earned.

On April 10, President Clinton signed the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 2000, which immediately repealed the earnings test for retirees in that age group. The act is retroactive to the beginning of this year, so that affected retirees who already had racked up income higher than $17,000 and were owed a refund of lost benefits.

Lots of records

SSA keeps a master file, the Master Beneficiary Record, of all persons who have received benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. MBR contains about 208 million records on everyone, living or dead, who has ever filed a claim for Social Security benefits. That includes current and deceased retirees, persons receiving disability payments, and surviving spouses and children. MBR also records disability claims that SSA denied.

The homegrown MBR database, which started back in the days of IBM card readers, now stows its 87.3G of data on magnetic disks. It runs on two IBM S/390-compatible Skyline Trinium 825 mainframes and five GX 8824 mainframes from Hitachi Data Systems Corp., SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said.

Grau said SSA backs up the MBR data every night. The agency periodically ships backup copies to a long-term underground storage facility in western Pennsylvania.

Early in March, SSA put together a group of 25 programmers and policy workers to handle the impending changes. The project manager was Marsha Rydstrom, associate commissioner of SSA's Office of Public Service and Operations Support.

Grau was in charge of the computer-related part of the project. He said his programmers had to write two or three programs to pay the one-time-only refund checks, as well as change seven or eight other programs to reflect the new rules.

At the beginning of last month, SSA sent out 421,000 refunds, 65 percent by direct deposit and 35 percent by check, he said. The agency paid $1.44 billion because of the rule change. The average refund was about $3,500, Grau said.

Most of the programs were written in Cobol II, 'our major processing language,' Grau said. Some of the selection programs were written in assembler for maximum speed.

The SSA team finished its search of the records by running 20 simultaneous search jobs on April 27. Each of the concurrent jobs took four to five hours.

This month the agency will sweep through MBR again in case anyone who is owed a refund was missed during the earlier searches, Grau said.

After identifying the refund recipients, the team started work on identifying several million other Social Security recipients who weren't due refunds but are in the affected age group and meet other criteria. SSA is now sending them letters informing them of the rules change.

'We're telling them they have a chance to go back to work if they want to,' Grau said.

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