Monday, March 25, 2013

Congresswoman DeLauro Criticizes Lack of Funding for SSA

Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, whose district includes Greater New Haven, is speaking out against the lack of funding that the Social Security Administration has received over the past two years.  DeLauro, a senior democrat on the Labor Health and Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees Social Security Disability programs, made these statements at the subcommittee's hearing on March 14, 2013. 
As a Connecticut Social Security Disability Lawyer who deals with the SSA on a daily basis, I must a give a pat on the back to the Third District Congresswoman.  I am glad to see her defending our Social Security programs with tenacity.  Unfortunately, over the past few years many of our political leaders have chosen to make a scapegoat out of Social Security recipients who receive, on an average, a mere $1,000.00 a month.
From my perspective, as a Social Security Disability Lawyer, DeLauro's remarks are important because she highlighted that lack of adequate customer service at the local field offices and the increasing backlog of pending disability applications.
"Right now, people are waiting desperately for resources they deserve, earned, and need to get by. But with these deep cuts, fewer applications will be processed, backlogs will grow, more erroneous payments will be made, and people will have to wait even longer in offices, or to have their phone calls answered.  The Social Security Administration is already understaffed, and these cuts will only make things worse. Due to limited resources, the Social Security Administration has already taken measures such as curbing hiring and closing offices."  --said the Congresswoman.
In addition, she stated that "funding over the past two fiscal years for routine operations has been essentially flat.  In each of these years the funding level provided was below the President’s request by $924 million, or 8 percent." Moreover, she pointed out the sequestration budget cuts "will only make these problems worse". 
I'm in the front lines of this terrible tragedy.  As a Connecticut Social Security Lawyer, I see everyday the horrible mistakes that are made by the understaffed and overworked employees of the Social Security Administration.  For example, today a client who went to the Hartford Social Security Field Office experienced an inexplicable mishap.  She is a fifty year old Hispanic lady who speaks no English and suffers from intellectual disabilities and mental illness.  She went the Field Office to pick up some  paperwork regarding her case and then walked back and brought it to my office.  When she walked up to my desk and showed me the paperwork, I noticed that the paperwork was in someone else's name and had a different social security number.  The field office had given her the paperwork for another person!  And, not only did the paperwork contain someone else's social security number, it also contained financial information regarding social security payments! 
So much for reducing spending through budget cuts.  The particular mistake made this morning by the Hartford Field Office could cost taxpayers money by giving out confidential information.  Problems such as the one that I saw today invite identity theft and fraud, and undermine the integrity of our Social Security programs.    

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why is Social Security Sending me to a Doctor?

It is fairly common for Social Security Disability claimants to receive a letter stating that they have to be examined by a doctor appointed by the Social Security Administration.  In Social Security talk, this medical examinations are called "consultative examinations" or "CE's".
These examinations are usually ordered when the Social Security examiner in charge of the case feels that there isn't enough up to date medical information on the file.  As a general rule, claimants should not get too stressed out about a CE.  In my experience as a Social Security lawyer, CE's rarely make a difference in winning or loosing a case.  However, it is extremely important for the claimant to attend the examination and to be cooperative during the process.
It must be pointed out that the doctor who conducts the CE is not an employee of the Social Security Administration.  These doctors are independent physicians who have a contract with the SSA to examine claimants.  Their examinations are usually very short (sometimes a short as 5 to10 minutes). 
Once the doctor completes a CE, he or she writes a report regarding the claimant's physical or mental conditions.  These reports are usually very vague and add very little to a case.  Since most doctors spend very little time conducting a CE, I usually argue successfully that their findings or opinions should be given very little weight.
The most important thing to remember, when going to a consultative examination, is that the doctor who conducts it is probably not on your side.  For this reason, you must be very careful not tell him or her any information that could prejudice your case.  It is also very important to remember to tell the doctor all your pain and/or mobility issues that you may have.  Finally, be aware that these doctors will often observe what you do since the time that you enter their office parking lot and will ask you specific questions as to how you arrived at the appointment.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What to expect at your Social Security Disability Hearing

Many of our clients get nervous when they find out that they have to appear at a Social Security Disability Hearing.  For this reason, shortly before the hearing, we like to take some time to prepare them and explain what will happen during this process.  We believe that, the better prepared our clients are, the more likely it is that they are going to win their case.  Here is a brief discussion of some of the things that we tell our clients in preparation for a hearing.
First, it is important to keep in mind that a Social Security hearing is an informal process.  It is not adversarial like most of the court proceedings shown on television.  It is held in a small court room which is presided by an Administrative Law Judge.  The hearing usually takes between 30 minutes to an hour.
During the hearing, the claimant will be asked to give testimony under oath and answer questions from his or her own attorney (if the claimant has one) and the judge.  In addition to the attorney and the judge: a court reporter, an assistant to the judge and a vocational expert, will be present at the hearing room.  The vocational expert will not ask questions directly to the claimant.  The role of this expert is to assist the judge in determining whether there are any jobs that the claimant can do based on his or her physical or mental limitations. 
The claimant should be prepared to describe his or her physical and/or mental limitations.  In order to ascertain how severe these limitations are, most judges ask many questions about the claimant’s daily activities.  For this reason, claimants should be ready to talk at great length about: their daily chores, their past-times and activities with family and friends.  Claimants should be careful not to exaggerate their limitations.  Administrative Law Judges see lots of cases everyday and can usually tell when a claimant is lying or embellishing the facts.  On the other hand, claimants should not be afraid to tell their story.  The hearing is the best time to tell the Social Security Administration why a person can’t work.  The hearing stage is the time to “lay it all out” and describe in great detail how the disabling condition affects the claimant’s life. 
The disability hearing is probably the most crucial step in a Social Security Disability claim.  Although the process is less formal that other court proceedings, the claimant should still consider hiring a Social Security Disability Lawyer, who is thoroughly familiar with the process, to appear at the hearing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sequestration Will Increase Backlog of Social Security Disability Cases

The budget cuts --known as sequestration--  that took effect last Friday will probably increase the time that SSDI and SSI applicants will have to wait to have their cases decided.  These cuts will also affect the quality of the services provided to disability applicants at Social Security Field Offices and at the agency's toll free numbers. 
Fortunately, sequestration will not affect the monthly payments sent to those who are already receiving SSDI or SSI.  The amount of their benefits will remain the same and payments are expected to continue to be issued on a timely basis.
The negative impact of these cuts will be felt by those disabled individuals who still have their cases pending at the application stage or at the hearing level.  Over the past few years, the Social Security Adminstration has struggled with a backlog of applications for SSDI and SSI.  In the past, special funds had been identified to deal with this problem and important steps had been taken by the federal government to speed up the process.  Now, it is evident that the Agency will be forced to make one giant step backward.  A news report from "The Federal Times" predicts that the "Social Security Administration’s pending disability insurance claims backlog" could nearly double. 
Given this sad state of affairs, individuals considering filing for Social Security Disability Benefits should consult with a Social Security Disability Lawyer before applying for disability benefits.  In my experience, many claimants delay their claims when they file incomplete applications or when they fail to mention important issues during the early stages of the Social Security Disability process.  For this reason, in my office, we always like to help claimants with their intial application.  There is no additional cost for helping prepare the application documents.  In fact, we will not charge any legal fees unless we win.