×

SSA and Advocates Respond to COVID-19 Crisis

Empire Justice Center April 30, 2020

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has been an evolving and challenging one.  SSA’s offices have been closed to the public since March 17, 2020, and operational status, policies, and information have changed frequently across the various SSA levels.  We will provide an overview here of some of the major issues and changes.

Since things are continuing to change rapidly, for the most up-to-date information regarding SSA operations and COVID-19 response, you should visit and subscribe to the agency’s Coronavirus information page.  You can also reference the following Google Drive created by Empire Justice Center and updated every Friday.

 

General Policies

SSA has stated on its website that it will “extend[] deadlines wherever possible” and that its good cause policy should be applied with “maximum flexibility.”  SSA’s definition of good cause can be found at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.911; 416. 1511.  Advocates have been concerned about this being     applied consistently.  They have asked about formalizing the policy and urged SSA to improve on how the policy is communicated and applied.

SSA has also stated it would suspend its “failure to cooperate” policy.  But again, advocates are asking SSA about a formal suspension policy available to the public and all SSA employees, in the hopes it will be applied more uniformly.

 

Office Operations

According to a joint memorandum to federal agencies issued April 20, 2020, by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) the federal government’s return to “normal” full operational status will vary by office geography and will not depend on  national-level directive to reopen.  See related article on page 13 of this newsletter.

 

Workload Prioritization

SSA is suspending the following workloads:

  • Will not start or complete any Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) or age-18 redeterminations; if a hearing is pending on a CDR, it will only go forward if the claimant is not in pay;
  • Will not process or collect any new overpayments;
  • Will not respond to third party information or FOIA requests; and
  • Will not review rep payee accountings but state Protection and Advocacy programs (P&As) are handling all monitoring.

In addition, the Treasury Offset Program (TOP) is suspended through September.  The TOP is how the federal government recoups federal debt such as student loans or outstanding taxes from federal benefit payments such as Social Security Disability benefits.

 

Local Offices and DDSs

Local offices are focusing on priority workloads and providing critical services by phone, fax and mail.  They may be contacted at the numbers on SSA’s website and the fax numbers available on the Google Drive.  Processes vary at different offices but advocates have reported that there are managers that go to the field offices on a weekly basis to pick up mail and faxes.

New applications are being taken and processed but consultative examinations (CEs) have been suspended indefinitely.  SSA recently revised its POMS DI 22510.012 to clarify procedures for video psychiatric CE exams.  See page 8 of this newsletter for more details.

With some variation among offices, items that have previously required “wet” signatures are now accepted by efax.  Desk top fax numbers for all local offices are available at the Empire Justice Center Google Drive.

There are no hearings being held by the Disability Hearing Units (DHUs) at the Disability Determination Services (DDSs) – Department of Disability Determinations (DDD) in New York.

 

OHO & Appeals Council

At the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) level,   in-person and video hearings are being cancelled and ALJs are holding telephone hearings whenever possible.  While unconfirmed at this time, the latest report is that this policy may extend until the rest of the summer.

SSA has clarified on its website that the telephone hearings are not mandatory, and that a claimant may decline and request a postponement instead.  However, the procedures and notice language about the ability to opt out have not been consistent.

As with the local offices, advocates have reported learning that there are managers that go to the offices to periodically pick up mail and faxes.  They may be contacted at the numbers available on the Google Drive, which include a new directory of desktop faxes.

Prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 crisis, SSA had changed its CSU procedures to require representatives to submit availability (and no longer unavailability) information.  You should continue to submit your availability information to OHO’s CSU contacts:

There has been very little information provided by the Appeals Council but we have heard reports of fax machine problems due to a failure to load the machines with paper.  As at the OHO level, submission by ERE whenever possible is best practice.

 

ERE Issues

All ARS eFolder access issues should continue to be sent to OHO.HQ.ARS@ssa.gov.  Additionally, the ERE Technical Support Line (1-866-691-3061) is not currently staffed.  For questions or concerns regarding password resets and new ERE account registration, please dial 1-877-405-3624.  This number will be staffed from 7am – 7pm EST, Monday thru Friday. After hours questions about password resets and new ERE account registration may be emailed to ERE.OUTREACH.CENTER@SSA.GOV.

We will continue to do our best to keep everyone informed as the situation continues.  As always, the  observations you share with us are very valuable to us all – please continue to send information along.  We are all in this together!