Monday, October 28, 2013

Social Security Increase Will be Low, Once Again

For a second year in a row Social Security increases will be historically low.  Preliminary figures put the raise at about 1.5 percent.
Next year’s raise will be smaller because consumer prices haven’t gone up much in the past year, according to figures from the government. The exact size of the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) won’t be known until the Labor Department releases September’s inflation report.
The report was supposed to be published on October 9th, but the news media has stated that the government shutdown delayed it. The COLA announcement is made in October, so that Social Security and other benefit programs have time to adjust their January payments.
While the shutdown has delayed and halted several projects, reports, and payments, social security benefits haven’t been affected. The Social Security Administration hasn’t indicated whether raises will be delayed because of the shutdown either.

Monday, October 21, 2013

4,000 SSDI Cases Will Have to Be Heard "All Over Again" Due to Bias By Judges in Queens

A lawsuit alleging that five administrative judges in Queens, N.Y. were biased against Social Security Claimants has been settled by the federal government.
Under the terms of the settlement approved by Chief Judge Carol Bagely Amon, the five administrative law judges will undergo new training and will be monitored for 30 months. 
The SSA has not provided any figures about exactly how many cases in Queens will get a fresh hearing. But the lawyers who fought the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs in Queens estimate that there are at least 4,000 cases that are eligible for a new hearing based on the period of the settlement agreement, which states fresh hearings for all claims denied by the five judges between Jan 2008 and the date of the settlement.
"Thousands of disabled workers suffering from financial hardship and declining health will now receive long overdue consideration of their claims, said Emilia Sicilia, director of the Disability Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center.
Plaintiffs’ case was proven based on statistics. The rejection rate for the Queens ALJs was the highest in New York State and the third highest in the nation. The rejection rate for Queens was twice as high as the adjacent borough of Brooklyn. Both boroughs are located on Long Island, NY.
Also, the Queens ALJ approval rates for applicants who were immigrants and had been low-income citizens were very different from those who came from a higher income bracket.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What is the "Onset Date" in a Social Security Disability Case?

Even when you are represented by a lawyer, it is good to be aware of some of legal terminology used by lawyers and judges in Social Security Disability cases.  One of the terms that I have noticed that many of my Social Security Disability clients get confused with is the term "onset date" or "disability onset date".
The "disability onset date" or the "DOD", as some disability examiners call it, is the date when a claimant has enough medical evidence to prove that he or she meets the definition of disability under the Social Security rules.  The definition of disability under Social Security is very strict and is very different from other programs.  No payments are payable under Social Security for partial disability or for short term disability (less than 12 months).  Therefore, it is important to note that the onset date is not necessarily the date when a person was diagnosed with an illness or condition or, when the person began to feel sick or limited by a disease or physical injury.  The onset of disability is the date when the condition finally prevented the claimant from working. 
There is often a gray area as to when a condition prevented a person from working.  This is why Administrative Law Judges (ALJ's) often raise this issue at the hearing.  At this point, I find that it is very helpful if my client is fairly well acquainted with Social Security rules, particularly with the term "onset date".  Judges often may request that a different (usually later) onset date be used in order to allow a favorable decision.  Amending the onset date at the hearing is in some circumstances something positive.  In many instances, an amended onset date results in a favorable decision.  However, the claimant gives up past due benefits owed between the original onset date requested and the amended onset date. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

60 Minutes Story About Social Security Disability was Inaccurate and Misleading

I was going to spend part of this afternoon writing a Blog rebutting the shameful attacks made in last night’s 60 Minutes story.  The television segment sought to portray Social Security Disability beneficiaries as freeloaders who are gaming a system that is “ravaged by waste and fraud”. 

However, as I was preparing to write, I was “interrupted” by a visit to my office from Carlos, a client who has an SSD hearing coming up this November.  (I have changed my client’s name for obvious confidentiality reasons.)  Before Carlos came to my office, I thought that I was going to write a blog pointing out all the statistical reasons why there has been an increase in Social Security Disability claims.  Among other things, I was going to explain that 60 Minutes misrepresented the number of Social Security Disability beneficiaries and that the reason for the increase in claims stems from demographic changes in our society. 

More importantly, I was also going to explain that it is inappropriate to use mere anecdotal statements to criticize a program as important as SSDI.  As an advocate for the disabled, I maintain that it is incorrect to draw broad conclusions from a few sensational stories of fraud or abuse.  Then, as Carlos’ visit was about to end, it occurred to me that instead of writing about numbers and statistics, I should write a blog that gives Mr. Kroft, Senator Coburn, and the rest of the CBS crew a taste of their own medicine.  Why not write a Blog about Carlos’ ordeal with the Social Security Administration?  Why not blog about a real life anecdote of what an SSD claimant goes through?  This is precisely the most important perspective that the 60 Minute story failed to portray.  It is appalling that they did a piece criticizing Social Security Disability claimants without interviewing a single disabled person.

As I helped Carlos get out of his chair and ushered him carefully to the front door for fear that he might fall, I became and angry and wondered: “Why isn’t Steve Kroft here filming this?  Why doesn’t he come over to Hartford and Springfield and film the dozens of Carlos’s that are desperately waiting to receive benefits?  Why doesn’t Kroft have the courage to stand in front of people like my client --who lives in constant pain and has obvious difficulties walking--, and ask in his FoxNewesque and arrogant tone: “Hey Carlos, isn’t it really easy to get SSDI benefits?”  

The story that Kroft would get from people like Carlos is far more convincing that the campaign of hate waged against the disabled by a few powerful figures like Senator Coburn.  Carlos’ story is the farthest thing from that of a person who is trying to “game” the system.  Before Carlos became injured, he was a driver of eighteen wheeler trucks.  He put in many hours of overtime, driving all over the snowy roads of Western Massachusetts and Worcester County.  (He got badly injured in an accident.  His shoulder is now almost completely frozen.)   He is the proud father of two children.  No one can call him a freeloader.  In fact, after driving trucks, he went to school to learn how to be a diesel mechanic.  He eventually found a higher paying job fixing large trucks.  Unfortunately, he got reinjured shortly after starting the mechanic job and, after thinking it over for a long time, he had no other option but to apply for disability.

As Carlos was leaving, he asked the usual litany of questions that most my clients ask me: why do people like me have to wait two years to get to a hearing?  Do you think we will win the case?  Will I get food stamps? 

I should not have to listen to these questions all by myself.  Is there anyone from the news media willing to join me?  Forget about CBS; they have lost all credibility.  Are there any responsible journalists brave enough to listen to the questions raised by those who have been abused by the Social Security Disability bureaucrats?  Are they willing to talk to thousands of people like Carlos whose voices are not being heard?

Important note: Michael Hiltzik a Pulitzer winning business columnist for the LA Times has written an outstanding article debunking the baseless allegations made by 60 Minutes and Republican Senator Tom Coburn.  Please read: “60Minutes” A Shameful Attack on the Disabled.