Stimulus Bill Means Good News for SS Claimants
Good News! The U.S. Government’s Stimulus Bill contains provisions that will help Social Security Disability claimants.
With all the bleak news in the media about the economy, job loss, and whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009–commonly referred to as the Stimulus Bill– will be able to improve the economic prospects of the American people, there is also some good news for America’s disabled.
Among the provisions of the Stimulus package is a one-time $250 stimulus payment to be made to Social Security beneficiaries within 120 days of the enactment of the new law.
Additional good news is that the Social Security Administration has been slated to receive $900 million, of which over half is to be used to process the additional work that SSA is receiving as a result of the economic downturn. This means that Social Security is making plans to hire caseworkers and claims processors to try to move the Agency’s tremendous backlog of cases through the process.
That, together with new procedures set in place to expedite critical cases and to increase the number of “compassionate allowances,” means that the most obviously disabled won’t have to wait months or even years for their claims to be approved by Social Security.
Disability in the News
The mainstream press has suddenly taken an interest in Long Term Disability Insurance. The February 2010 issue of Smart Money Magazine (published by The Wall St. Journal) contains an article entitled “Too Sick to Work? They Disagree.” The same week this article hit the stands, The New York Times weighed in with “The Odds of a Disability are Themselves Odd.”
I’ve always wondered how cars from different manufacturers can look so similar in the same model year. By the same token, how is it that Long Term Disability (LTD) has crossed the radar of two of the most respected organs of the national press just at the same time?
Why the articles are coming out now is clear: unemployed workers are looking for anything that will generate income, and individuals with disabilities are often more likely to be let go. We began to see this in our own practice in 2008. Although we represent the whole spectrum of the economy, from doctors to factory workers, when the economy began its downturn we noticed an obvious increase in the number of professionals seeking representation for both Social Security Disability and LTD claims.
In the past six months we have been getting referrals from a whole new source, as financial planners are starting to refer their clients to us. As their carefully constructed plans are incapable of execution once their client’s income stream is cut off or constricted, they too have come to realize that some of their clients may be eligible for benefits.
We find these referrals to be among our favorites, as the financial planners take the same comprehensive view of their clients’ finances that we take of their entitlement to benefits.
The Smart Money article points out that some insurance carriers hire their own “disability advocates” to help disabled workers file claims with Social Security. Although the mainstream press only hints at the potential conflict there, we have had many clients who realized it intuitively and came to us as soon as their insurance carrier tried to “assign” them an advocate.
The articles point out that fighting for both LTD and Social Security is a confusing and lengthy process. Anything a claimant can do to clarify his or her rights and shorten the time he or she has to wait for benefits is going to be a huge benefit. Getting a competent, concerned representative is the best way to start.
Government Stimulus Payments to be Sent in June; Backlog in Cases Continues
I mentioned in a previous post that the Social Security Administration had announced it was going to issue checks to all adults who were presently receiving Disability payments. Among the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009–commonly referred to as the Stimulus Bill–is a one-time $250 stimulus payment to be made to qualifying Social Security beneficiaries.
In a press release issued on March 26, 2009, the Commissioner of Social Security and Vice President Biden announced that those checks–to Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries who were eligible for Disability benefits in November and December 2008 and January 2009–would be sent out by the Social Security Administration beginning in early May.
The announcement that the money will start going to people presently in ‘pay status’ with Social Security is terrific news. However, I, together with my colleagues and the members of Congress, continue to be frustrated by the Social Security Administration’s backlog of cases.
The U.S. Government has now allocated over $100 million into the Social Security system in order to reduce backlogs in the disability claims process. Yet despite this enormous infusion of cash, the Social Security Administration has not decreased its overall backlog of cases. In fact, while the backlog has decreased in some areas, it has increased in others. This means that for the most part, the people who are waiting for decisions from Social Security continue to wait longer and longer to get decisions at every step in the Administrative process.
The sentiment in Washington, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is this: with an annual budget of $11 Billion and a work force of 63,000 people in 1,300 field offices nationwide, you would think that the Social Security Administration would be able to fix its backlog problem.
Social Security News from Bergen County New Jersey
The Social Security Administration has announced that their District Office servicing Northern Bergen County has transferred operations from their antiquated facility on Sussex Street to new offices in Continental Plaza in Northern Hackensack, opposite the Riverside Square Mall, at 401 Hackensack Avenue, 2nd Floor, Hackensack, NJ 07601.
Phone numbers all remain the same.
The move is occurring over this weekend but it is expected that the new offices will be fully operational on Monday September 13, 2010 at 9AM.
Social Security Disability: New York and New Jersey Approve the Most Claims Nationwide
According to the most recent issue of the NOSSCR Forum, the New York region leads the nation in the percentage of Social Security Disability claims approved at their initial stage! 44.4% of all claims filed in New York are approved on their initial application, the second highest in the country! New Jersey is leading at 45%. Both numbers represent a significant increase over past figures, which hovered just under 40%. By contrast, the national average for Fiscal Year 2008 was only 36%.
In the almost 30 years I have practiced Disability Law I have always said that if the State Agencies responsible for the initial determinations on SSI and Social Security Disability claims did their jobs properly I would be out of a job! The Social Security Administration contracts with every state to do the inital medical evaluation of each disability claim, so what state you live in really does make a difference.
Far from putting us out of work, the aging of the Baby Boomers plus the current economic slowdown has made us busier than ever! But, at least here in the New York Metropolitan area, the Social Security Administration finally appears to be starting to do it “right”!
Simple Overview of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA)
HUD Announces Rental Assistance to Thousands of Disabled Americans
As an advocate for the disabled, I frequently see firsthand how disability and the corresponding inability to earn the income necessary to pay bills—most significantly rent or mortgage—has forced my clients out of their homes while they wait for their Disability claims to be approved.
While the latest news from the banking industry that many of the largest national banks are suspending foreclosure proceedings while they investigate fraud in the mortgage granting process (see: NYT 10/8/10: Largest U.S. Bank Halts Foreclosures in All States) offers a reprieve for those of my clients who own their homes but are far behind on their mortgage payments, there is also good news now for those of my clients who need access to affordable housing in a community that adequately meets their needs.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last week that they will be issuing approximately 4300 housing assistance vouchers totaling nearly $33 million to thousands of non-elderly Americans with Disabilities to assist them with their housing needs. To read more, visit http://portal.hud.gov/portal/page/portal/HUD/press/press_releases_media_advisories/2010/HUDNo.10-214.
New Jersey to Offer Insurance Program Providing Immediate Health Coverage for Those with a Pre-existing Condition
In Monday’s Bergen Record, it was reported that New Jersey has started to offer health insurance to uninsured New Jersey residents who suffer from a pre-existing condition. The program, called NJ Protect, is available to any US citizen or legal resident who can prove residency in New Jersey and can document that he or she has been uninsured for 6 months and suffers from a “pre-existing condition.” The requirements for eligibility for the insurance are clearly explained in great detail on the NJ Protect website.
It is reported that this program is expected to help up to 21,000 previously uninsured people in a program to be administered by Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey. I actually expect far, far more to fill out applications in the hopes of securing health insurance that is even moderately cheaper than what is otherwise available for people with chronic medical conditions.
As an attorney assisting clients with their Disability claims, I often hear about my clients’ difficulties getting and affording health insurance. Hopefully, this program will make things easier for many of my clients that have been receiving their treatment in oversubscribed clinics and from physicians not trained to treat their chronic conditions.
New York State Health Insurance Program for People with Pre-Existing Conditions
Several months ago I wrote about the New Jersey health insurance program available for individuals with pre-existing conditions (click here for that blog entry).
A similar program exists in New York State as well.
As with the New Jersey plan, pre-requisites include:
• having a pre-existing condition – although, in New York, the conditions are specifically identified and if an application’s condition is not on the list, eligibility is subject to medical review.
• Not having had health insurance coverage for 6 months
• Being a legal US resident and a resident of New York State
Rates are as follows:
$421 for residents of the 5 counties that make up New York, Nassau and Suffolk, and counties North of the city including Ulster, Dutchess, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Sullivan.
$362 for all other counties of New York State.
Please note that this program is first come, first served and thus will likely fill up quickly. If that happens, the state and GHI (the plan administrator) will create a waiting list.
Click here for an application and further details.
Happy New Year!
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COBRA Coverage Under the Stimulus Package
Good news from the Stimulus Package for people who elected to continue COBRA coverage after losing their jobs! Among the benefits offered under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009–also known as the Stimulus Package–are new changes to the COBRA benefits.
Individuals who were involuntarily terminated on or after September 1, 2008 and before January 1, 2010, who elected to continue health care coverage under COBRA, are provided a subsidy equal to 65% of the premium for COBRA payments for a period of coverage for up to 9 months.
Even those who are eligible for the subsidy who did not elect COBRA as of the date of enactment of the law may elect COBRA from February 17, 2009 until 60 days after receiving notice of this special election period. The provision also permits group health plans to provide a special enrollment right to eligible individuals, allowing them to change coverage options under the plan in conjunction with electing COBRA continuation coverage.
Please note, though, that if the premium subsidy is provided with respect to any COBRA continuation coverage which covers you, your spouse, or any of your dependents during a taxable year in which your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $145,000 ($290,000 for joint filers) then the amount of the premium subsidy for all months during the taxable year must be recaptured. The subsidy is repaid proportionately for individuals with adjusted gross income between $125,000 and $145,000 ($250,000 and $290,000 for joint filers).
What does all this mean for you? In plain terms, if you were terminated from your job for any reason, it won’t be as difficult to continue to pay for medical care necessary to treat a disabling condition. While this provision of the Stimulus Package does not specifically focus on individuals who have filed for Social Security Disability benefits, it is nevertheless great news for the millions of people who have been relying on a spouse’s or parent’s health insurance coverage to obtain medical care to treat disabling physical and mental conditions.
New York State Proposes to Limit Free Park Access by those Receiving Disability Benefits
Last month, New York State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation proposed eliminating or limiting two categories of qualified persons under its Access Pass program, which gives reduced or free admission to parks, campsites, golf course and other state-operated recreational facilities. One category is the “semi-ambulatory.” The other is people receiving any of several federal disability benefits: Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income and Railroad Retirement Board Disability. (For more information, see “No More Free Golf for the Not-Quite Disabled.”)
While the impetus for this action was the abuses of the Disability system by former Long Island Railroad Employees, widely reported in the New York Times in 2008, the execution of the plan is faulty.
The proposed change states that while certain categories of people will still be automatically entitled to Access Passes (including the blind, the deaf, the nonambulatory, amputees, disabled veterans and the mentally disabled), people receiving Federal disability benefits, including the railroad benefit, would no longer automatically be qualified to receive the Access Passes.
It seems to me that whatever money might be saved by cutting off peoples’ free access to walking and hiking trails, pools, boating— and, yes, golf courses and snowmobile trails—will be substantially offset by the legal fees that will occur when the state has to defend a decision not to grant an Access Pass to a person determined to be “Disabled” by a federal agency such as Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board who must now again prove ‘disability’ to a park ranger or some other employee of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Gunman Kills 2 in Las Vegas Courthouse; Motive: Reduction of his Social Security benefits!
By now you have probably heard about the tragic shooting in a Las Vegas courthouse on Monday. Police believe the gunman’s motive was anger over the dismissal of his Social Security benefits claim.
The problem with any news article is that the further away you are from it the less truth it contains. Yet the kernel of truth in this case is that Social Security Disability and SSI clients have had the rug pulled out from under their lives. Many people are on the edge to begin with, and they take the delays in the system personally. Some people react violently. What “the system” must take from this act is that these delays rob people of their dignity, and that to end violence the claimants must get speedy justice.
We are currently representing a claimant whose case is also at Federal Court. The problem is that the Magistrate Judge to whom it is assigned has sat on it and done nothing for three years!! While our client is not about to resort to violence, there is little that can be done to force a Federal Court Judge, an Administrative Law Judge or the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration to render a decision. While there are time limits on filing claims and appeals, there are no time limits on when decisions must be made.
I am scheduled to speak with our client and his family shortly to consider our course of action. We had previously discussed getting the press involved and this may be the perfect time to do so! Otherwise, our only legal alternative is to move for a writ of mandamus: asking the Court to order the Magistrate Judge to perform her duty and render a decision in this case. Maybe seeing what happened in Las Vegas will make he do something! It’s not what I would have wanted as the wakeup call, but a wakeup call is definitely needed.
“Mega Disability Agencies”: Arkansas to Accept $9 Million in Federal Funds to Process Other States’ Social Security Disability Claims
A couple of months ago I wrote about how many states have made the questionable decision to furlough Office of Disability Determinations workers (see my blog entry of May 18, 2009). In a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger of California, Senator Diane Feinstein called on the governor to cancel furloughs for employees paid with federal funds so payments to thousands of disabled Californians aren’t delayed.
Last Friday, in what might be a consequence of that foolish decision by Governors throughout the country, a legislative panel of the Arkansas Legislature authorized Arthur Boutiette, the Director of the Arkansas Office of Disability Determination for Social Security, to accept $9 Million of Federal funds to process other states’ disability claims. The money will pay for 150 new claims analysts to evaluate disability claims.
According to Mr. Boutiette, the Social Security Administration asked Arkansas for help because they have been “number one in the country the last four years in a row in quality. [Arkansas ODD has] one of the cheapest costs per case.”
When asked whether Disability claims will be processed any faster, Mr. Boutiette stated that the 66 day average in Arkansas is faster than just about any other state. He also noted that it would take about a year to train the new claims workers and that he wants his “seasoned people” to handle Arkansas cases.
This is certainly good news for Arkansas. 150 permanent jobs is nothing to sneer at. I am, however, troubled with the feeling that the Arkansas ODD is focused on the speed of decisions. Nothing in this report tells me about the accuracy of the decisions made by the ‘seasoned people’ at the Arkansas ODD. Fast and cheap doesn’t equate with accurate decisions, and it seems to me that when these new hires start to build their own caseloads in 12 months, they are also going to sacrifice the accuracy of decisions for quantity and efficiency, affecting not only the citizens of Arkansas but possibly also my own disabled clients in the New York metropolitan area.
In Fiscal year 2008 Arkansas DSS allowed 36.1% of all claims at the Initial Application and 11.1% of the denials where a Request for Reconsideration was filed. By contrast, New York DSS allowed 44.3% of Initial claims and 51.2% of Reconsiderations. New Jersey’s allowance rate of 45% at the Initial level and 20.8% at Reconsideration is also significantly higher than that of Arkansas. As my partner Lew Insler said months ago, the New York and New Jersey DSS offices are starting to get it right when analyzing claims, but I fear that with the creation of this “Mega Disability Agency,” there will be an increased number of denials for claimants in New York and New Jersey, who will be forced to wait even longer for a hearing as more cases are appealed.
From the Arkansas Democrat Gazette – August 22, 2009
Allowance data from SAOR (State Agency Operations Report) prepared on 12/12/2008; courtesy of NOSSCR Social Security Forum Vol 31, No. 2 (February 2009)
Recap of the NOSSCR Fall Conference
Last month, Social Security Disability claimants’ advocates from around the country gathered for their fall conference hosted by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) in Chicago, Illinois. Hermann Law Group was represented by senior partner Lew Insler and myself. Approximately 1200 members attended the three-day conference to learn the latest developments in the practice area and to exchange information. In attendance were not only claimants’ representatives, but federal judges, vocational experts, physicians, and employees of the Social Security Administration.
Workshops covered a wide variety of topics, including the Social Security Administration’s increasing use of the internet for transactions and file review. With the recent passage of healthcare reform, there will be new issues to be considered by practitioners when filing disability claims. Ethical considerations are emphasized as they should be. Some workshops were focused more on specific medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, visual disabilities, and even spinal disorders, where attendees got a first-hand look at the anatomy of the spine. These conferences allow advocates to learn from our peers and better serve our clients.
Just a reminder, our office is now on twitter, and I’d encourage you to follow us @InslerHermann where we’ll be posting recent legal developments, firm announcements, and news about our involvement in the community.
Reflections on Our Social Security Disability Seminar
Last Thursday, November 19th, I held a Seminar in Northern New Jersey, entitled “Social Security Disability: How to Fight for your Rights and Win.” The program was open to the public and it was very gratifying to see that despite incredibly bad weather, people from around the county came out to hear me speak about Social Security Disability benefits. Despite all the articles in the news lately about Social Security delays and about the significant upswing in the number of claims being filed in recent months, people are obviously so eager for clear information about the Social Security Disability process that they are willing to attend these kinds of presentations regardless of the distances necessary to travel.
Thank you to all those who attended.
The National Organization of Social Security Representatives (NOSSCR) Conference: Gabe Hermann Reports
Having just returned from the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) conference in Washington D.C. last week, I have some good news and some bad news to share.
The good news is that the Social Security Administration is aggressively working on making my work representing disabled claimants in their Social Security Disability claims a little more productive, and thus potentially allowing me to help my clients get their Disability benefits faster. The Federal Government is working hard to reduce delays and backlogs in the processing of Social Security Disability claims by improving technology and by executing plans to hire hundreds of Administrative Law Judges and thousands of employees to work in the Social Security Administration’s District Offices and at State Offices of Disability Determination (the State Agencies).
The bad news is that even as the Federal Government is making progress in reducing delays and backlogs, state governors continue to proceed with their plans to furlough State Agency employees, despite the fact that Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue has repeatedly made it clear that rather than fire or furlough State Agency employees, he wants to hire more.
At the Conference, Commissioner Astrue specifically identified New York State, reporting a planned 8% cut in the staff of the New York State Department of Disability Determinations even as Social Security is prepared to increase that staff by 15%! As I’ve noted in prior posts, furloughing those workers at the Department of Disability Determination has no positive impact on the New York State budget and, instead, only causes lengthier delays in processing the claims of our most vulnerable disabled citizens.
Returning to the good news: thanks to the efforts of the Social Security Administration on a federal level, the improvements in technology should have an obvious positive outcome. It is expected that by the end of 2009, both attorneys and claimants’ representatives will be able to access our clients’ Disability files directly online without waiting for Social Security employees to create a CD of the contents of the Administrative file. This will enable representatives like me to provide more medical records to the fact finders sooner than otherwise, because I’ll have the opportunity to review the claims file and avoid providing duplicate evidence. Also, the sooner I have the opportunity to review the Disability claims file, the more likely I am to be able to flag it for specialized review.
If only the State Governors would stop furloughing State Agency employees, I believe we would see a real difference in how much more quickly Social Security Disability claims could be processed.
Supreme Court Unanimously Backs Veterans in Henderson v. Shinseki Ruling
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court recognized that disabled Veterans might need more flexibility with regards to filing deadlines, particularly when missing a deadline is due to the very disability being alleged. Justice Alito delivered the unanimous ruling in Henderson v. Shinseki, in which he stressed “Congress’ longstanding solicitude for veterans.” It’s nice that the Supremes have given Disabled Veterans something that has been written into the Regulations for Social Security claimants for many years.
Gabriel J. Hermann, Esq.
Cutting Disability Benefits Will Not Solve the Social Security Problem
On November 14th Andrew Biggs wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times pointing out that Disability is the fastest growing piece of the Social Security pie and implying both explicitly and implicitly that many recipients are unworthy. Mr. Biggs suggests that allocating more money to the CDR’s (Continuing Disability Reviews) would be wise and would save money by assuring that only the disabled remain on the rolls.
His assertions contain two major fallacies. First, as one who has practiced Disability Law since the 1980’s I can assure you that Congress did NOT pass “looser eligibility standards in the 1980’s.” What actually happened then was that the governors of all 50 states (the states being contracted by Social Security to do the initial determinations and CDR’s) were so appalled by the Reagan Administration’s attempt to limit the number of new beneficiaries and squeeze those already receiving benefits that they refused to execute the policies set forth by that Administration. In response, Congress passed laws that clarified the current methods and how they were to be applied.
The second fallacy in Mr. Biggs’ argument is that costs have risen because increasing numbers of claimants hire attorneys, causing the SSA to lose two-thirds of claimants’ appeals against denied benefits. The reason that the SSA loses two-thirds of the appeals of initial claims is because the State Agencies still routinely deny valid claims. Mr. Biggs suggests giving more weight to the agency’s expert witnesses; these so-called experts, who are paid by the SSA, routinely give cursory or worse examinations.
According to Mr. Biggs’ own figures, disability payments make up only 18% of the total Social Security expenditures. By Social Security’s own numbers, only 5% of the people whose claims are reviewed lose their benefits. That means that 95% of the people who are receiving benefits deserve them. It is astounding for Mr. Biggs to suggest that tightening up regulations would get rid of unworthy beneficiaries, thereby significantly reducing expenditures.
Finally, it should not go unsaid that two-thirds of the people who are denied by Social Security never even bother to appeal. The real tragedy is the number of people who are disabled and deserving of benefits, but who are too discouraged to fight for them.
The Check is in the Mail – Though Not for Much Longer
Beginning on March 1, 2011, Social Security checks will no longer be mailed out to new recipients of disability benefits.
The Treasury Department recently announced that all United States Government benefits payments will be made electronically to beneficiaries via direct deposit or onto a special debit card. Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income claims allowed on or after March 1, 2011 will be affected. Those whose claims were allowed before that date will have until March 1, 2013 to make the conversion if they are receiving their checks in the mail.
For those who do not have a bank account into which the benefits can be deposited, the Treasury Department has a Direct Express debit card to which payments will be made. That same card also accepts payments of Veterans benefits, Unemployment benefits, and Railroad Retirement benefits.
The move to paperless transactions is hoped to improve government efficiency and reduce costs normally associated with manually sending those checks in the mail. An estimated $48 million is expected to be saved annually on postage alone, and it will reduce or eliminate the problems associated with lost checks and fraud.
9/11 Victim Compensation Fund
If you are a 9/11 first responder or survivor, winning Social Security Disability could substantially increase your award from the federal 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund looks closely at a favorable Social Security disability award in determining your amount of economic damages if you cannot work due to your 9/11 illness. The Hermann Law Group works with Turley Hansen & Partners, one of New York’s top 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund law firms. We can help you coordinate your Social Security disability claim with your 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund claim so you receive maximum compensation from both claims. Call us today if you would like to discuss how our law firm can win your Social Security disability claim and increase your 9/11 award.