Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Winston-Salem disability lawyers at Collins Price, PLLC have made a point of keeping clients and potential claimants informed. Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to disrupt the Social Security Disability benefit process, impacting pending claimants and those who may apply in future.
While these changes and disruptions aren’t always negative, it is important to know what to expect when applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits during the pandemic.
Social Security Telephone Hearings During The Pandemic
One of the earliest and most impactful changes the Social Security Administration (SSA) made in response to the pandemic was to close local field offices. As a result, all in-person hearings which took place at those offices were also cancelled. In their place, the SSA offered claimants two options: they could wait on an in-person hearing or they could conduct their hearing by telephone.
This directive went into effect in March 2020 and remains in effect today. There is no indication to date from the SSA as to when in-person hearings might resume. Given the lengthy delay, we’ve advised most clients to continue forward with telephone hearings since many are in immediate need of their benefits for financial support.
Combined, the Winston-Salem disability lawyers at Collins Price, PLLC have conducted hundreds of telephone hearings. Our experience with telephone hearings to date is positive. Our recommendation continues to be to move forward with a hearing unless your disability lawyer recommends otherwise.
With that said, we have been in touch with the Social Security Administration (SSA) throughout the pandemic to express our desire to return to in-person hearings as quickly and safely as possible.
Most disability lawyers agree and our experience suggests that in-person hearings are more favorable to claimants. Judges have an opportunity to meet the claimant in person and as a result, the claim narrative is more compelling. And, as we all know, it’s easier to read body language, cues and for judges to experience some claimants’ disability impairments in person.
As of this writing, the SSA is still unsure when or if in-person hearings will resume. There has been some discussion within the agency about moving to telephone hearings long-term or even introducing video hearings as an alternative. We’ll keep you updated as new developments arise.
Hearing Office Application Delays and Timelines
The other aspect of Social Security Disability most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic is state hearing office timelines. Thankfully, not all these changes have been negative and, in some cases, waiting periods for disability benefits are shorter than expected.
You may be aware that most disability claims are denied at the initial stage. That’s why a majority of claimants end up in a hearing. To proceed to a hearing, claims originate at the local Social Security field office, then they move to North Carolina’s statewide Disability Determination Services (DDS) office.
At DDS, claims are evaluated at both the initial and reconsideration level. If claims are denied at reconsideration and appealed on a timely basis (within 60 days according to SSA’s rules), they move to the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) that has jurisdiction in that claimant’s geography.
Even without a pandemic, delays are common in the process. It can take years for a claimant to receive a disability decision. Covid-19 continues to disrupt this ‘typical’ disability deadline.
On one hand, telephone hearings speed up hearing scheduling which is positive for claimants waiting on a hearing. On the other hand, North Carolina’s DDS office is moving more slowly, causing extended delays at the initial and reconsideration levels. Recently, in an effort to address the backlog, SSA is transferring some claims out-of-state to new judges. We’ve been objecting to these transfers in some cases as appropriate for our clients. In cases where we object, claims transfer back to the local OHO and are assigned to new judges.
Cumulatively, with hearing schedules speeding up and initial applications slowing down, we don’t expect much of a change in the typical waiting period.
Working With Winston-Salem Disability Lawyers During The Pandemic
With Covid likely to be an issue for quite some time, we recommend now more than ever that claimants work with a qualified disability lawyer on their claim.
The Winston-Salem disability lawyers at Collins Price rigorously prepare disability claims and claimants for the application process. And, we monitor and step in as needed to ensure the best possible result for our clients during uncertain times. Contact us today for a free consultation.