Monday, April 21, 2014

SSDI Enrollment Has Stopped Growing

Over the past year, Social Security Disability programs have been under intense scrutiny.  SSDI critics have created an atmosphere of hysteria alleging that disability rolls are growing out of control and that in 2016, it will run out of money.  Many conservative business publications such as the Washington Times and Forbes magazine have been instrumental in waging this assault against Social Security Disability.  However, the truth about what has really happened with the raise in disability claims is finally coming out.  This past week, a blog in the Wall Street Journal presented statistical evidence that shows that the raise in Social Security Disability benefit rolls might be hitting a plateau.  (See Has Social Security Disability Enrollment Hit a Plateau? by Damian Paletta and Josh Zumbrun)  

What critics of the Social Security Disability program have failed to explain to the general public is that the sharp raise in claims since 2004, as well as the current plateau that it is currently experiencing, was forecast years ago by program analysts.  The raise in claims was generated by demographic changes, not by fraud and abuse or, by the economic downturn.

While the Wall Street Journal Blog does not fully acknowledge that demographics changes have been the true cause of the sharp rise in disability claims, it certainly confirms that the program is not growing out of control as it had been originally reported.  Another important fact mentioned by the blog is that the amount of money that is being paid to Social Security Disability Lawyers and representatives has definitely declined.  It would be interesting to know whether this decline in fees paid to lawyers is also due to a trend by ALJ's and agency examiners to change the disability onset dates alleged by applicants; this practice has the effect of reducing the amount of back due benefits paid to applicants and the amount of money paid in legal fees. 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Social Security Tries To Collect an Overpayment Made 37 Years Ago!

Its tax season and the SSA is, once again, aggressively intercepting the tax refunds of those who they claim have received an over payment of benefits.  However, as most social security lawyers know full well, these attempts to collect old debts are not always fair.  Just a few weeks ago the tax refund of a Mary Grice, a Maryland resident, was stopped because of an alleged over payment that someone in her family allegedly received 37 years ago when she was a minor.  

One of the most troubling aspects about this case is that the SSA has not been able to identify who in Grice's family received the over payment.  (Grice was 4 years old when the over payment was made.)  Grice filed a lawsuit against SSA alleging that the government violated her due process rights by holding her responsible for a debt allegedly incurred under her father's Social Security number.  It was about time someone had the guts and the resources to take the incompetent bureaucrats from the SSA to Federal Court!    

In response to this and other scandalous stories of Social Security's outrageous attempts to collect old debts, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) have asked the SSA to stop its practice of intercepting federal and state tax refunds to cover overpayments that the agency says it made to families more than 10 years ago. “Grice and other families like hers are unfairly being held responsible for decades-old errors at the Social Security Administration — even though many of these taxpayers were children at the time the error was made,” Boxer and Mikulski wrote. “Too many of these families are now finding themselves trapped in a mess of paperwork and red tape.”  

Thanks to Ms. Grice, her attorney Robert Vogel and, Senators Boxer and Mikulski for taking on this fight on behalf of all of those who are constantly abused by the arrogance and ineptitude of the Social Security Administration.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Social Security Issues New Ruling on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

Effective April 3, 2014, the Social Security Administration will adopt a new ruling regarding the evaluation of Social Security Disability cases involving chronic fatigue syndrome also known as CFS.  (SSR 14-1p)  To read the full ruling click here.  This ruling replaces the prior ruling on CFS issued in SSR 99-2p.  

A Social Security ruling is a decision by the SSA which is supposed to be followed by all disability adjudicators including judges.  However, a ruling does not have the same level of authority as statutes, regulations or case law.       

The purpose of the new ruling is to clarify how social security develops evidence to establish that a person has a medically determinable impairment (MDI).  This new ruling takes into consideration the medical advances and the latest research on the diagnosis and treatment of this condition.  The ruling relies on the definition that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses for chronic fatigue syndrome.  The ruling states that CFS is characterized as "a syndrome that causes prolonged fatigue lasting 6 months or more, resulting in a substantial reduction in previous levels of occupational. educational, social or personal activities".      

SSR 14-1p is very important because it recognizes the existence of a disease that many in the medical community have doubted as a legitimate illness.  The fact that the Social Security Administration has issued two rulings regarding CFS reinforces the idea that this disease is real.  Unfortunately, other diseases such chronic lyme disease have not been acknowledged by a Social Security ruling.  Social Security Disability Lawyers around the country are anxiously waiting to hear whether the SSA will address lyme disease in a future ruling.   


Monday, March 31, 2014

Social Security Disability Payees Under Scrutiny

Unfortunately, Social Security Disability beneficiaries often are the victims of predators who abuse them and steal their monthly checks.  Perhaps one of the most dramatic cases involving this problem was the "Tacony Dungeon Case" in Philadelphia where four mentally disabled persons were held captive in a filthy basement in a scheme to steal their benefits.  Now, the Social Security Administration has launched a new initiative that bars persons with a criminal record from serving as a payee for SSI or SSDI beneficiaries.

However, it is not clear how well Social Security employees will be able to carry out this new initiative given the fact that they are understaffed and don't have access to the FBI's criminal database.  Instead, agency employees are going to be relying on private third party databases and other public records.  

Pursuant to the new program, representative payees who collect payments for those who are unable to handle their own finances would be rejected if they have committed one of 12 crimes: human trafficking, false imprisonment, kidnapping, rape/sexual assault, first-degree homicide, robbery, fraud to obtain government assistance, fraud by scheme, theft of government funds,/property, abuse/neglect, forgery and identity theft.

In some cases non-profit corporations act as payees for social security disability beneficiaries who cannot handle their own finances.  Just this week, sad news came in from Portland, Oregon where a non-profit group called Safety Net is under investigation for mismanaging the funds of the disabled. A federal warrant has closed Safety Net's facilities and now approximately 1,000 Social Security Disability beneficiaries are in danger of loosing their next check.  Obviously, much more needs to be done to prevent payee fraud and mismanagement.  Unless immediate action is taken to address this problem and appropriate funds and resources are assigned to implement the new initiative, it is likely that this problem will continue.       

Monday, March 24, 2014

Support "The Social Security Fraud Prevention Act of 2014"

Ranking member of the Ways and means Social Security Subcommittee Xavier Becerra (D-CA) has announced that he is introducing legislation to give the SSA the real effective tools to fight fraud and abuse of the disability benefit programs.

While many opponents have wasted time and efforts criticizing the Social Security disability programs, H.R. 4090 provides "a secure stream" of funds to allow the agency to implement a system of fraud prevention.  This bill will give the SSA the funds it needs to perform much needed continuing disability reviews (CDR's).  Currently there is a backlog of 1.3 million cases that have not been reviewed by the agency as they were supposed.  

This proposed bill would require the Social Security Commissioner to create "Cooperative Disability Investigations Units" in all 50 states and its territories by October 1, 2017. 

I applaud Congressman Becerra's efforts and urge the Connecticut and Massachusetts Congressional Delegation to support H.R. 4090.  To see Congressman Becerra's statements before the Ways and Means Committee watch the video below:

Monday, March 17, 2014

What to Expect in a Video Social Security Disability Hearing

If your SSDI or SSI hearing has been scheduled, it is possible that your case will be one of those in which Social Security conducts the hearing via video.  You might be wondering what such hearings are like and how best to prepare for it.  Here are some tips, as well as some important information on what to expect from your video hearing.

The best way to be mentally prepared for this type of hearing, is to understand that the technology used in these types of proceedings is very similar to the technology used when conducting conversations via skype.  Therefore, you should think of your video hearing as if it were a skype interview conducted by the judge.

In a video hearing you will be able to see all the participants in a really large T.V. screen. The administrative judge stays in his or her office, while you sit in a room that is close to your residence.  A technician hired by the Social Security Administration is present at all video hearing to assure that the equipment works properly.  Except for the equipment, a video hearing is no different than a hearing at which you appear in person.  Video hearings are very common in remote areas of the country where it is difficult for Social Security claimants and their lawyers to be present directly in front of the judge. 

The number of video hearings is currently on the raise.  It is estimated that in fiscal year 2013 the SSA conducted 179,308 video hearings.  This is more than twice the number of video hearings conducted in 2009.  Often an appearance by video hearing can be scheduled faster than an in-person appearance.  For this reason, it is estimated that the use of video technology has helped considerably in decreasing the backlog of pending claims.

Monday, March 10, 2014

SSDI for Persons Who Have Low Vision or are Blind

I receive frequent calls from persons who want to know whether they qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits based on their poor vision.  Most people don't seem to be aware that the legal requirements needed to qualify for disability benefits due to this condition are fairly strict. 
With respect to blindness and Social Security Disability, there are two important points that must be kept in mind:  First of all, Social Security determines whether a person qualifies for benefits based on their vision on the better eye.  Therefore, if you are completely blind in one eye but have 20/20 vision on the other, you will not meet the blindness listing.  Second, Social Security determines whether you are blind based on your corrected vision, not on the vision that you have when you are not wearing glasses.
In essence, Social Security will find that you are eligible for benefits if your vision cannot be corrected better than 20/200 in your better eye, or if your visual field is 20 degrees or less, even with a corrective lens.
If you do not meet the definition mentioned above, you may still be able to qualify if other health problems combined with your age prevent you from working.  There are a number of Social Security Rulings that evaluate a person's ability to do work if they have problems with visual acuity.  In this respect Social Security Ruling 96-9p states:   
    Visual limitations or restrictions: Most sedentary unskilled occupations require working with small objects. If a visual limitation prevents an individual from seeing the small objects involved in most sedentary unskilled work, or if an individual is not able to avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace, such as boxes on the floor, doors ajar, or approaching people or vehicles, there will be a significant erosion of the sedentary occupational base. These cases may require the use of vocational resources.
If you feel that low vision or blindness is preventing you from working, you should talk to an experienced Social Security Disability Lawyer as soon as possible.  Most Social Security Lawyers like me provide free legal consultation and don't charge any fees unless we are able to get benefits for you.  As you can see from this posting, Social Security Rules with respect to blindness can be quite complicated and it is never a good idea to go at it alone.