To adapt to the COVID-19 situation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has introduced significant changes in the way they function and in their policies. The SSA has closed their field and hearing offices temporarily. Since they have not specified a date when they would reopen, these operational changes are of great significance to the general public, social security disability attorneys, as well as the medical review companies assisting them. The SSA is continuing to work on some emergency tasks such as processing the disability applications for severely disabled people, processing address changes, changes of representative payee, changes of direct deposit, and reports of death. Dire need cases are also being attended to. That is, for example, the case of someone who didn’t receive their monthly check and are homeless/at risk of becoming homeless. People who have been getting payments from the SSA will continue to receive the benefits, whether by direct deposit or mail.
Let us look at some operational changes.
- The SSA is extending deadlines for filing, wherever possible
- “Good cause policy” that allows the Administration to extend the time limits for submitting appeals and take other actions during an emergency situation, will be applied wherever possible
- Continuing disability reviews have been suspended until further notice
- Most new overpayment cases are not being processed for the time being
- The SSA will continue to collect repayments on existing overpayment cases
Jonathan Ginsberg, a social security disability attorney, has posted a useful video on YouTube highlighting 7 changes he believes will happen to social security disability in light of COVID-19.
- Claimants will need to communicate with the SSA online. Now there are fewer people to attend your phone calls. So, if at all you try to call the SSA, you may either not get connected or may have to wait for a long time. Whether filing for disability, appeals, or any other interaction, it is best to do it online. If you need to send them some document or other, you can send it via registered mail. The SSA is set up to be paperless, and the less paper you give them the more efficient they are bound to be.
- The SSA has put a temporary hold on all consultative examinations. Judges are expected to develop the record and a major role is played by consultative exams of the claimant with a physician. However, now the situation is such that either doctors are handling emergencies more and have few slots for disability review, or the claimants themselves are hesitant to go to the physician for fear of being exposed to the virus. If you have filed for benefits or a reconsideration appeal and require a consultative exam, it may not be scheduled or will very likely be delayed. Hearings are more quickly scheduled but benefits and reconsideration appeals are slower to be scheduled. There is always the option for the claimant to request the SSA to waive the consultative exam. But that means you are also waiving their responsibility to develop the record properly.
- Scheduled hearings are now being done over phone. Of course, the claimant has the right to object or demand an in-person hearing, which could be delayed by as much as 8 – 9 months. When attending a hearing on phone, the challenge is to ensure the judge clearly understands what you are going through or what you are saying. A major drawback is that judges cannot pick up on any non-verbal cues.
- Hearings over phone need a different kind of preparation altogether. Mainly, claimants don’t have the comfort of their attorney near them. They are all alone and it is a very different feeling. Live hearing has a better vibe. It is important that the claimant clarifies with his or her attorney how they will be prepared for phone hearings. Ginsberg says he prepares his clients for what the hearing is going to be like. For phone-based hearings claimants have to be in a quiet room, with a good phone and good signal. They should also have a backup phone, and avoid all kinds of distractions. He says his clients practice well and he prepares them for all the possible questions. The important thing is to provide information to the judge in a firm, consistent, and assured way.
- The fifth change is that judges may now look at things a bit differently. The chances of approval are more because the judges understand the challenges faced by the claimants. There are fewer jobs out there, and no consultative exams. People who have a disability will find it more difficult. Ginsberg says judges have a way when things are going against a claimant. They strive to make things a bit easier and provide a positive judgment.
- It is best to file your claim immediately if you are planning to file one. It is to be noted that there will be numerous applications on account of unemployment. There is every chance of considerable delay, so you cannot afford to wait.
- Non-medical evidence is going to gain more significance than ever before. This comprises statements from co-workers, supervisors, siblings, relatives and so on about the claimant’s functioning. These are people who observe the claimant in the real world, and so judges may give more importance to such evidence in the current situation, though chart review continues to be of prime importance.