If you are one of the thousands of people who have a pending claim for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income benefits, you are probably wondering what changes and additional delays you will be facing in light of the partial shutdown that has been undertaken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent news from the SSA has indicated that local offices are now closed to the public and many SSA employees are working from home. If you were scheduled for a hearing in the last couple of weeks, you likely were contacted and told that your hearing was being postponed. Representatives and disabled folks (Claimants) were given minimal information concerning what was transpiring and how the Administration was planning to handle the evolving problems. Unfortunately, the pandemic grew so quickly that the SSA was scrambling to handle the crisis, continue functioning and maintain the safety of their employees.
With all of that said, the SSA is now making efforts to communicate with representatives and address our growing concerns. Representatives practicing in District 9 (California amongst other places) were invited to attend a teleconference yesterday morning put on by the SSA and mediated by Honorable Judge Horne. I attended the conference and was joined by hundreds of my fellow colleagues. We were provided an update concerning the status of the Administration and how the pandemic is affecting the processing of claims. We were also provided an opportunity to present questions and obtain answers concerning ongoing issues that we will face while attempting to properly represent our clients during this uncertain time. A vast amount of information was shared. What follows are the most pertinent issues that were covered. I wanted to share this information and invite clients to contact me with their specific questions. Here are the main issues that were covered:
- Claims Processing: While the SSA offices are closed to the public, calls are still being answered by a skeleton crew. Many employees are working from home and more were slated to begin working from home this week. Claims are thus moving forward and being processed. With that said, the SSA is not making its normal efforts to obtain medical records and/or other evidence in processing claims. As such, decisions are being made with even less evidence than previously. The SSA explains that obtaining medical records in a timely fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely difficult and therefore they cannot delay the processing of claims for medical records and evidence requests.
- Hearings: If you were scheduled for a hearing during the last two weeks, your representative was contacted and either offered a hearing via telephone or a postponement. Personally, my clients that were scheduled for hearings over the last couple of weeks were not offered telephonic hearings. Instead, we were told that our hearings were being postponed because the judges in our jurisdiction were on shelter in place orders and therefore unable to carry out the hearings. Presently, judges do not have the capability to conduct hearings from their homes. In our conference call, the SSA indicated that they may be providing judges this technology in the future, but presently they are not. Therefore, if a judge cannot come into the local hearing office, the hearing must be postponed.
Many representatives raised several concerns surrounding telephonic hearings. Claimants who are hard of hearing or require a translator may not be able to effectively participate in their hearings. In addition, a telephonic hearing does not allow the judge to see the physical affects of a disability on the Claimant. Sometimes a Claimant’s abilities to walk into the hearing room or demonstrate use of their extremities are extremely powerful in conveying their limitations. Telephonic hearings do not allow for the same level of visual communications. As such, when these points were raised, the SSA indicated that in the future, they planned to offer Claimants the option of proceeding with a telephonic hearing or waiting for a future date for an in-person hearing. Unfortunately, the SSA could not provide any projected time frames for how long these additional waits would be. In addition, they indicated that they did not have any plans to implement any form of video hearing options. They did indicate that they would give priority in scheduling these postponed matters, however we have no idea how great the backlog will be as time goes on.
- Payment Processing: When asked about the status of the payment processing centers, the SSA responded that they are operational. Fee petitions, benefit disputes, etc. are all being processed.
- New Claims: With the closure of the local offices, questions were asked concerning how new claims were being processed. The SSA indicated that they have developed a specialized system for notating the date of receipt of the new claims, however they were not being processed at the same speed as they previously were. New claims can still be made online (SSD) and via phone (SSD and SSI), however wait times to speak to a representative are longer than ever. Therefore, patience will be needed to submit a new claim during this time. Many folks are instead choosing to hire a representative right away and have their representative file their claim on their behalf.
- Consultative Examinations: If the medical evidence concerning any of the Claimant’s disabilities are lacking, the SSA will schedule the Claimant for a consultative examination. Several representatives noted that their clients are continuing to receive notices that the SSA has scheduled them for consultative examinations during the shelter in place order. The SSA was questioned concerning this issue. They advised representatives that their clients will NOT be penalized for failing to attend these examinations during the shelter in place order. We were very pleased to learn of this change to normal protocol as Claimants cannot remain safe if they are required to attend these evaluations during this time period.
As I said above, this is a very general list of the main concerns that were covered. However, if you have more specific concerns regarding your particular claim, please feel free to reach out. I am taking calls and emails during normal business hours, five days a week and am here to ensure you are properly represented and protected.
Christina Miller, ADR, EDPNA