Social Security actuary in rift with boss

Great quote Sunday from the always discreet New York Times, discussing a rift between Social Security’s chief actuary, Stephen C. Goss, and his boss, Michael J. Astrue:

Actuaries often run into difficulty because they can deliver an unwelcome analysis that carries great weight.

Well, ain’t that the truth?

However, says the Times, the current row is as much style as substance:

People close to Mr. Goss and Mr. Astrue said the disagreements involved personal chemistry, Social Security policy and the technical quality of Mr. Goss’s work on disability programs — not political ideology.

Relations have been strained since late 2008, when the two men clashed over the scope of the actuary’s independence. Basically, aides said, the commissioner views Mr. Goss as a conscientious employee and agrees that he is free to make calculations and use data as he sees fit.

But, they said, in an effort to keep the agency out of politics, Mr. Astrue has sometimes tried to limit what Mr. Goss can say publicly about Social Security, and Mr. Goss has sometimes bridled at the restraints.

Sound familiar? Medicare’s actuary ran into a similar problem during the debate in 2004 to add prescription drug coverage. Medicare Administrator Thomas Scully essentially threatened to fire actuary Richard Foster if he provided his cost estimates to Congress.

And of course, Scully’s final report card on Obamacare carried this tantalizing bon mot:

The statements, estimates, and other information provided in this memorandum are those of the Office of the Actuary and do not represent an official position of the Department of Health & Human Services or the Administration.

We’ll mark down as coincidence the fact that the actuary’s annual report on Social Security has been delayed since March 31. (When it finally does surface, it will be here.)

This supposed oil-and-water problem becomes an issue this week as Congress gets ready to debate Social Security reform again. CBO is throwing out some actuarial type analysis showing how far out of balance Social Security is (0.6% of GDP over 75 years, which, honestly, isn’t much). But Congress has said that the Social Security actuary will be keeping the official scorecard.

It sounds as if the boss – a 2007 Bush appointee – believes making any comment on policy is playing politics. Of course, that’s not true. The American Academy of Actuaries contributes mightily to the understanding of politicians and regulators on actuarial issues. Right now, its contributions on implementing health care reform are essential. Other actuaries, myself included, contribute to the public policy debate, too.

It is possible – even with today’s polarization – to be nonpartisan. Prioritizing facts and supplying them to policymakers is hardly acting politically.

And in this country, to advise on public policy, you have to talk to politicians. That doesn’t make you one.

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