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COVID-19 and the SSA (with Hearings Information)

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    COVID-19 and the SSA (with Hearings Information)

    The Social Security Adminsitration has finally issued formal top-down guidance for their offices in the coming days in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The most recent press release can be found at:

    https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/releases/2020/#3-2020-2

    Here is my take on the press release. Please confirm any information below with the SSA office and/or your attorney before taking any action.

    (1) Hearings
    The SSA has indicated that starting tomorrow, March 17, hearings will no longer be held in person. The SSA is to contact claimants and offer to (1) have their hearings via telephone or (2) wait for a rescheduled hearing in person. In my experience, telephone hearings can be challenging for everyone, as it is tough to avoid issues with sound quality and interruptions (dogs/kids), as well as the fact that the human element of a hearing is lost without face to face interaction. Conversely, the wait for an in person hearing may be 3 months or more, depending on how long the outbreak impacts SSA scheduling. Claimants with a scheduled hearing should be discussing their preferences with their attorneys ASAP. Claimants awaiting a hearing without an attorney... may want to reconsider and seek formal guidance.

    For some hearing offices, hearings are simply cancelled for the near future. My understanding is that this includes some offices in Washington state. Some individual judges have cancelled all hearings, and I have no doubt more judges and offices will follow suit in cancelling all hearings through all formats as illness and recovery require. Again, you should check with your attorney to confirm your hearing status.

    If you are considering appealing a recent Social Security denial, there is no indication that these deadlines will be waived! Continue to act promptly and use their online portals.

    (2) General Social Security Operations
    The SSA will not be offering in person services at their offices in the near future. As of right now, they will continue to offer services via telephone and online. Be prepared for longer hold times, longer response times, and more instances when your call will simply not be answered.

    (3) The Coming Weeks
    Simply put, nobody knows how the SSA will handle their operations the next few weeks. Please be patient with their staffers who are doing their best, and know that the SSA will attempt to place updates on their website when appropriate. I will also attempt to keep you informed through this sticky-noted message as we move forward. My hope is that this sticky gets removed as soon as possible, and we are able to return to normal as soon as possible. In the meantime, follow your doctor's advice - stay home when you can, maintain social distancing when you can't, wash your hands, and turn off the news from time to time. If you look outside, you may even see that spring is coming (I promise)!

    -Jamie R. Hall, Esq.
    Attorney Jamie R. Hall's practice is focused on assisting individuals with claims and appeals for Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits. He has assisted claimants nationwide, approximately half of whom are MS patients, from his Pennsylvania and Ohio locations. **No attorney/client relationship is created by this communication, and information provided herein is not a substitute for formal advisement.**

    #2
    Thank you, Jamie, for this important information. You are such an asset to MSWorld!!
    1st sx '89 Dx '99 w/RRMS - SP since 2010
    Administrator Message Boards/Moderator

    Comment


      #3
      As an update, the SSA is struggling to maintain necessary staffing levels while many of its employees are understandably out due to illness or family obligations. Hopefully, the following information is helpful for the planning of those on the board, and does not cause any undue stress.

      My region's hearing office in eastern Pennsylvania is postponing all hearings starting tomorrow. It is currently unclear how long this blanket postponement will last. Several judges in neighboring New Jersey have postponed all hearings through the end of the month. If you have a hearing scheduled, please confirm that the hearing has not been cancelled with your attorney and/or the hearing office.

      Additionally, the group that gathers medical records and issues medical recommendations for the SSA in Pennsylvania (called DDS) shut down all operations earlier today for an unknown duration. As such, decisions on new applications and on reconsideration appeals will be delayed indefinitely as of a day or two from now. If you have a case pending decision at these levels, please anticipate a longer than normal wait for a decision.

      Please note that the SSA has not declared that any deadlines for appeal or other action required by claimants will be waived.

      Although the above involves only two states, my discussions with other attorneys suggest that these shutdowns are not isolated events, and I anticipate that further shutdowns in other locales are fast approaching. I will provide further updates as information becomes available. Please plan accordingly.

      -Jamie R. Hall, Esq.
      Attorney Jamie R. Hall's practice is focused on assisting individuals with claims and appeals for Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits. He has assisted claimants nationwide, approximately half of whom are MS patients, from his Pennsylvania and Ohio locations. **No attorney/client relationship is created by this communication, and information provided herein is not a substitute for formal advisement.**

      Comment


        #4
        New update as of Thursday morning:

        The following activities have been delayed indefinitely by the SSA, nationwide:
        -Continuing Disability Reviews (the SSA reviewing previously approved claimants to confirm they still qualify for benefits);
        -Most processing of SSDI benefit overpayment reimbursement requests;
        -Third party requests for claim information (except for from attorneys).

        The SSA has also indicated that they will grant some flexibility to claimants who file late appeals or are delayed in responding to SSA requests for information. They have not specified how flexible they will be, and I continue to recommend that all appeal and response deadlines be adhered to.

        -Jamie R. Hall, Esq.
        Attorney Jamie R. Hall's practice is focused on assisting individuals with claims and appeals for Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits. He has assisted claimants nationwide, approximately half of whom are MS patients, from his Pennsylvania and Ohio locations. **No attorney/client relationship is created by this communication, and information provided herein is not a substitute for formal advisement.**

        Comment


          #5
          A brief update...

          Social Security is still conducting limited hearings, all via telephone. Generally, the Administration is contacting claimants a day or two prior to the hearing, to confirm that a telephone hearing is acceptable. These hearings are generally starting late due to the technical changes and the difficulty of having everyone in different rooms. Despite the best efforts of most of the SSA, many hearings are also being cancelled at the last minute due to the lack of a judge or court reporter to oversee the proceedings.

          If you have a hearing scheduled, you should discuss with your attorney whether a telephone hearing is acceptable. Also, a pro tip: the SSA only has two 'good' telephone lines for hearings, and has been putting clients on a 'bad' third line. This makes it more difficult for the claimant to hear the proceedings. The workaround is to have your attorney conference call with you on their phone system, then call the SSA. This way, you and your attorney share one of the 'good lines.'

          As for initial and reconsideration decisions, we are seeing a very small number being finalized. For these most part, these are claims that were already done, but just needed to be processed. Nevertheless, you should file a claim if you have a claim to make, as this will confirm your spot in line for review when the system starts moving at its normal pace.

          Finally, if you have a consultative examination (where the SSA asks that you go to see one of their doctors), you can generally ask that it be rescheduled without penalty to avoid exposure to coronavirus. Be sure to contact your claims examiner as soon as possible if this is the case.

          -Jamie R. Hall, Esq.
          Attorney Jamie R. Hall's practice is focused on assisting individuals with claims and appeals for Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits. He has assisted claimants nationwide, approximately half of whom are MS patients, from his Pennsylvania and Ohio locations. **No attorney/client relationship is created by this communication, and information provided herein is not a substitute for formal advisement.**

          Comment


            #6
            I wanted to provide an additional update on how the SSA is handling Covid-19, five months into the pandemic.

            Local SSA offices are still closed to the public for the most part, but their staffers are now reachable via telephone. The fact that local office SSA employees are now working from in the office again has also increased their responsiveness.

            For those applying for disability benefits, initial claims are being processed once again and wait times are slowly going back to normal. Claimants are often asked to attend an in person examination called a consultative examination. Depending on the rules of the individual state, these examinations are occurring again. Many areas offer the opportunity to conduct psychological evaluations via telephone, and they are attempting to do physical examinations in person. Neither option is perfect. If a claimant is not comfortable with these options the SSA is allowing individuals to place their claim on hold, but this could result in a significant wait.

            For those at the hearing level, there is currently the option of having a hearing via telephone or waiting for an in person hearing at a later date. Many of the early issues with telephone hearings (and there were significant issues!) have been ironed out by the SSA. Several of my clients have opted for telephone hearings without issue. For those whose MS is not apparent upon walking in the door to the hearing, there may actually be a benefit to participating via telephone. For those with cognitive and word finding issues, however, telephone may not be the best way to express limitations. If you choose to wait for an in person hearing, the rumor is that you will be waiting until at least 2021, depending on the course of the virus. To protect both claimants and judges, in person hearings will likely be one of the last things to get back to 'normal.'

            Finally, the SSA has begun shifting many pending hearings between hearing offices. Some offices have too few cases and some have too many, so the SSA has been scheduling telephone hearings in remote locations to increase efficiency. This certainly is a good idea, but claimants should be aware of how favorable their local pool of judges is vs. the pool they are being transferred to.

            As always, thank you for allowing me to share these updates with the group.

            -Jamie
            Attorney Jamie R. Hall's practice is focused on assisting individuals with claims and appeals for Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits. He has assisted claimants nationwide, approximately half of whom are MS patients, from his Pennsylvania and Ohio locations. **No attorney/client relationship is created by this communication, and information provided herein is not a substitute for formal advisement.**

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