How COVID-19 Affects Your Disability Claim—and What We Can do to Help!
COVID-19 has changed how life looks in many ways. Likewise, it has changed how Social Security Disability hearings are conducted. Typically, a disability hearing is held before an Administrative Law Judge in person or by video conference at a hearing office. These hearings involve you, your attorney, the Administrative Law Judge, a hearing reporter, a Vocational Expert, and sometimes a Medical Expert. In light of COVID-19 restrictions, the Agency has closed hearing offices nationwide and is only conducting hearings by telephone. Before the hearing, SSA now sends a telephone hearing agreement form, where you and your attorney will indicate whether or not you agree to a hearing by telephone.
How Do We Decide Whether or Not to Agree to a Phone Hearing?
The option to opt in or out of a telephone hearing is a difficult decision. Overall, we’ve found them to be a great opportunity for clients, and we are choosing to have phone hearings. Why? We know from the Agency that no in-person hearings will be conducted for the remainder of 2020. For our clients, that means waiting for six months or longer for a judge to hear his/her case. This is simply not a reasonable option for many clients. Clients contact us because they have a disabling mental or physical condition that keeps them from working. Finances are almost always tight, bills are piling up, medications and procedures are needed, and clients need a quick resolution. We are sensitive to the fact that our clients need money and medical insurance as soon as possible. (Being found disabled under Social Security’s rules means a monthly income as well as Medicaid/Medicare insurance benefits.)
Additionally, physical disabilities often make it difficult for our clients to travel to a hearing office location. Many have compromised immune systems that make being in public difficult or dangerous, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. For these reasons, holding a hearing by phone may be best to ensure the health and safety of all parties involved.
Many disability attorneys are choosing to blanketly refuse all telephone hearings, and their clients are faced with waiting for a future hearing date in 2021. The Wettermark Keith team has found that this delay isn’t necessary in most instances. Ultimately, we weigh the pros and cons of moving forward with a phone hearing versus postponing for an in-person hearing on a case-by-case basis.
How Are We Preparing Differently for Telephone Hearings?
Preparation is even more important than usual! A few tips & reminders that we offer our clients:
- Your attorney will fully prepare you for your phone hearing. From the technology used to the types of questions you should expect, we’ll make sure you are comfortable before your scheduled hearing.
- Remember that for your upcoming hearing, you will not go to the hearing office; instead, wait for a phone call from the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). (Note this call might come from a private phone number, as most OHO employees are working from home.)
- Speak up! With many people on the conference call, it’s important for the judge to hear you clearly and understand your responses.
- You should be in a quiet room, alone, with a good phone connection.
- Non-medical evidence is important. For example, statements from coworkers and supervisors, statements from relatives, and statements from friends about their observations of how you function day-to-day can impact the judge’s decision on your case. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, obtaining medical evidence can be more difficult as some doctors’ offices and medical facilities are closed or have limited hours.
Overall, the Wettermark Keith disability team will advise each client on how they can improve their chances for success during their hearing.
Am I Eligible for Disability Benefits due to COVID-19?
Social Security does not have a specific rule related to COVID-19, and we do not anticipate that they will; however, losing your job due to the coronavirus shutdowns does not entitle you to disability benefits. Under SSA rules, disability benefits are available only for people who have severe medical conditions that make it impossible for them to work for a period of at least 12 months.
Social Security will evaluate if your condition prevents you from performing your previous types of work. If you can’t do your previous work, they will evaluate whether there is other work you can do. In making this determination, Social Security will consider several factors, such as your medical records, your current abilities, your age, and your training and skills.
If you think you might be eligible for Social Security Disability, or if you have questions regarding your eligibility, please contact Wettermark Keith at (205) 933-9500.