COVID has caused significant changes in the process for obtaining Social Security Disability benefits. While the criteria for being found disabled has not changed, in person contact has been eliminated which may not be a good thing for disability claimants.
The Bishop Law Firm has represented Social Security Disability clients since 2009 in Raleigh, NC and surrounding areas. Attorney Kimberly Bishop is a NC State Bar Board Certified Social Security Disability Specialist and Chasity Everett is an EDPNA representative who has been helping clients for more than 14 years.
Social Security Disability Overview
Social Security offers two types of disability benefits (in general) for people who are unable to work because of their health, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI is based on the credits from the work that you have done in the last 10 years while SSI is a need based program. You must be found disabled under SSA’s five step sequential evaluation before you are entitled to either benefit.
The five step sequential evaluation:
- Step 1 – Are You Working?
- Step 2 – Is Your Condition “Severe”?
- Step 3 – Is Your Condition on the List of Disabling Conditions?
- Step 4 – Can You Do the Work You Did Previously?
- Step 5 – Can You Do Any Other Type of Work?
For a detailed discussion of the above five steps look here.
The Social Security Disability Process During COVID
In the past, a claimant could call their local SSA office and schedule an in-person appointment to file for benefits. This is no longer possible as Social Security offices are closed to the public as of March 17, 2020. Anyone who wants to apply for benefits must do so online or by phone. This may seem like a small thing but many times the Social Security employee often makes helpful comments about what they see when the disabled claimant applies in person (difficulty standing, difficulty concentrating…). In addition, if SSA needs documentation from you to substantiate your claim for benefits, you will have to fax or mail those documents to them which can result in lost paperwork.
After you apply for disability benefits with your local Social Security Office, your case is sent to Disability Determination Services (DDS) or the equivalent in your state. While we cannot speak for all DDS, our NC DDS staff is working from home and this has translated to difficulties getting cases transferred from the SSA office to DDS and also problems with getting DDS on the phone. This contributes to delay at DDS for our North Carolina clients.
If you are denied at the DDS level twice, you will have to request a hearing with an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJs). In addition to your local SSA office being closed, so are SSA’s hearing offices. This means that all staff, including the ALJs, are working from home. In the past, a claimant had a right to request an in person hearing and still has that right, but SSA is not offering in person hearings at this time. This means that if a claimant wants an in-person hearing with an ALJ, they will be waiting until SSA decides to do in-person hearings again.
Phone hearings and video hearings (videos have not began yet in NC) are all that are being offered to applicants currently. Phone hearings present many challenges including being impersonal and technical difficulties (including terrible cell phone reception and barking dogs, if I may say so). One of the most important reasons to have an in-person hearing is to allow the ALJ to see and hear your story first hand. A phone hearing eliminates this benefit. When video hearings roll out, maybe this will improve the experience.
In addition to the logistic problems with SSA, there are also similar problems with receiving medical treatment. Social Security relies heavily on observations and examinations from your medical provider that can be only made at a physical appointment. Many of my client’s appointments these days are by telemedicine. This lack of personal contact can limit what your physician can tell SSA about your condition in their medical records.
In spite of all the above issues, our firm starting conducting telephone hearings with ALJ’s as soon as SSA made them available. We must admit that the above is not an ideal way of handling disability claims, but in light of the circumstances, it seems the best way at the moment. In fact, many Social Security Disability applicants are in the high-risk category for COVID which means that they need to use extra caution.
COVID has caused changes in almost every aspect of our daily life, the Social Security Disability process is not exempt to those changes. While the process may have changed, if you are unable to work because of your health, you need to apply for disability as soon as possible. Delay may cause you to lose benefits!
The Bishop Law Firm represents disabled clients in Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Fayetteville, Smithfield, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Chapel Hill, Roanoke Rapids, Louisburg and other areas in North Carolina. Call us today for a free case review, (919) 615-3095.