• sarasmith

Demand Additional Economic Relief for Individuals Awaiting Disability Benefits

Updated: May 22



Our country has left behind one of its most vulnerable populations of citizens – individuals with disabilities, caught in limbo applying for Social Security disability benefits. Individuals who have applied for disability benefits have had their cases put on hold because the Social Security Administration (SSA) is not equipped to operate properly during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Wait times for the attainment of a disability hearing after a hearing request has gone in vary across the country. However, the average wait time in April of 2020 was almost a year.[1] Now, with hearings offices needing be closed and a large portion of the SSA’s staff needing to either work from home or being unable to work at all, individuals applying for disability benefits may be asked to wait even longer.


How can we as a country, in good conscience, tell people who are already experiencing extreme hardship that they may have to wait even longer with no alternative relief? We must reach out to our representatives in Congress and explain the urgency of providing additional emergency relief for people awaiting disability determinations.


It is very unclear by exactly how much wait times will be increased. The following is a summary of information we have gathered by either speaking to the SSA’s staff directly or through other attorneys practicing in the field of Social Security disability law sharing what they have been told. Please note that this information is not based on official statements released by SSA. The purpose of this summary is to give the reader an understanding of the amount of uncertainty that exists and why we are so concerned about the potentially disastrous effects these increased wait times may have on our clients and other individuals applying for disability benefits. What we have been told:


  1. Cases at the initial and reconsideration are being “put on hold” because SSA’s analyst have determined that the individuals applying may need consultative evaluations. A consultative evaluation traditionally takes place in-person with a provider that Social Security pays to evaluate an individual’s impairments and any resulting limitations. One of my staff members was recently told that the Agency may not begin to schedule these again until even as late as October or November of 2020 because the doctors who perform these evaluations do not feel they can do so safely in-person.

  2. SSA will continue to only have phone hearings available in our region through August of 2020, and maybe even later than that. We have been told that once in-person hearings are available people who have consented to phone hearings will be given the option for an in-person hearing. However, we have been given no definitive date for when they will be able to offer in-person hearings for sure. Whether a person should consent to a phone hearing requires the evaluation of many factors. For example, if a person has difficulty communicating because they are hearing impaired or have some other kind of impairment that makes communication difficult, then a phone hearing may not be in their best interest. If a person does not agree to a phone hearing, then their hearing will be postponed indefinitely until the hearing offices reopen.

  3. A lack of recent medical treatment may make it more difficult for our clients to prove their cases. Many clients have told us that they are having a very tough time receiving primary and specialty care. Diagnostic testing is being delayed. Medical records documenting a person’s receipt of care create the foundation of evidence that SSA uses to make informed decisions about the severity of a person’s medical conditions. Without this type of care individuals can be denied for having insufficient evidence to support their claim.


The purpose of this call to action is not to point a finger of blame at the SSA. We understand that many of the safety measures the SSA is putting in place are for the purpose of protecting our clients just as much as they are for protecting the attorneys who represent them, and the SSA’s employees.

Having individuals with chronic illnesses appear in public for a consultative evaluation or a hearing does not appear to be consistent with the guidelines government and medical officials have put in place.


However, we are not willing to go forward without the benefit of having our clients’ cases fully developed. We are also not willing to just sit idly by and listen to our clients’ devastating experiences during this very scary time. We believe that our government officials need to come together and provide additional emergency relief for people who are awaiting the resolution of their disability cases.


Congress has already enacted several bills that have provided emergency relief to American citizens. The CARES Act included $1,200.00 direct payments to every American making $75,000.00 or less a year. While this type of economic stimulus was a big help for many, it will not be enough to sustain individuals who may have to wait many more months to get their disability cases back on track. For this reason, we are asking our community to come together to raise awareness about this very important issue.


We ask that if you have applied for disability benefits and have experienced additional hardship because of COVID-19’s impact on the Social Security disability process, that you share that experience with your congressional representatives.


We also ask that you share how the first $1,200.00 stimulus check assisted you and your family, and how more money could help you.


Click here to see an example of what format to use, along with talking points, and a sample letter from me to Senator Ron Wyden. Handwritten letters are encouraged. If you type your letter, please sign the letter in blue or black ink.


Below, we have provided you with the contact information for Oregon’s members of Congress. You may also click here to find your Senators by state and click here to find your Representatives by zip code.


We must keep fighting for each other.


Sincerely,

Sara Smith

Partner


Oregon Congressional Representatives


The Honorable Ron Wyden

United States Senate

221 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

(202) 224-5244


The Honorable Jeff Merkley

United States Senate

313 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

(202) 224-3753


The Honorable Suzanne Bonamici

United States House of Representatives

2231 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

(202) 225-0855

The Honorable Greg Walden

United States House of Representatives

2185 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

(202) 225-6730


The Honorable Earl Blumenauer

United States House of Representatives

1111 Longworth House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

(202) 225-4811


The Honorable Peter DeFazio

United States House of Representatives

2134 Rayburn Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

(202) 225-6416


The Honorable Kurt Schrader

United States House of Representatives

2431 Rayburn Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

(202) 224-3121

[1] https://www.ssa.gov/appeals/DataSets/01_NetStat_Report.html

© 2021 by Schneider Kerr & Robichaux