Social Security Administration (SSA) operations have expanded since the beginning of the pandemic but there are still almost no in-person services. On August 31, 2020, SSA resumed almost all of the workloads that had been suspended during COVID-19. This included the processing of any adverse actions, and work on any continuing disability reviews (CDRs), age-18 redeterminations, and non-disability hearings and decisions. Here are the key developments since our last update in July 2020.
Limited Video Hearings Available
With the return of in-person hearings nowhere in sight, the number of claimants and representatives agreeing to telephone hearings is increasing since the beginning of the pandemic. As you decide whether to accept a phone hearing in a particular case, you may find it helpful to refer to the memo Considerations for Telephone Hearings During the COVID-19 Pandemic, saved in the DAP-COVID Google Drive.
As an alternative, SSA announced on September 3, 2020, that it will begin offering video hearings on a new online platform, Microsoft Teams. The technology allows the administrative law judge (ALJ), representative, and claimant to all participate remotely. Teams can be used by clients on a computer, tablet, or mobile device by downloading the app. Access to email is also required.
Hearings via Microsoft Teams can be requested but will initially be offered only by the Hearing Office Chief ALJs, Regional Chief ALJs, and at the National Hearing Centers with a focus on aged and dire needs cases. As of now there are only 70 scheduled through March 2021 nationwide.
Both phone and video hearings will remain optional and opt-out forms are being sent to both claimants and representatives. SSA is retrofitting its hearings offices to comply with COVID-19 safety measures but there is still no known date for when in-person hearings will resume. Hearing offices are expected to reopen to the public at different times depending on location.
SSA has not indicated when video hearings can be held using Representative Video Project technology.
In recognition that the COVID 19 pandemic may create situations that would constitute good cause for missing deadlines to file hearing requests, SSA announced on August 31, 2020 that it would mail notices requesting a “good cause” explanation for late filings. A Notice to Show Cause was otherwise not required under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.957 & 416.1457. SSA also temporarily expanded its quality reviews of hearing dispositions.
Local Office In-person Appointments
SSA is now offering in-person appointments at its local offices for dire need situations. The agency has stated that dire need includes: if you are without food or shelter, including utilities or are without medical care or coverage and need to apply for or reinstate benefit; or currently receive benefits and have an urgent need for payment to meet expenses for food, shelter, or medical treatment, and you cannot receive the payment electronically.
SSA is also prioritizing new card services for individuals age 12 or older applying for their first SSN card or those who need to update or correct SSN information to obtain income, resources, or other services or benefits.
In-person visitors must complete a self-assessment and wear a face covering. If a visitor does not have a mask one will be provided.
Streamlined Waiver Process
As explained in more detail on page 4 of this newsletter, SSA issued an interim final rule on August 27, 2020, regarding waiver of certain overpayment debts that SSA identifies as having been incurred between March 1 to September 30, 2020, and resulting directly from a suspension of workloads during COVID-19. SSA will assume the recipient is not at fault and that it would be against equity and good conscience to collect the overpayment.
Statutory Benefits Continuation
On September 10, 2020, SSA issued an Emergency Message with instructions for finding good cause for late requests for statutory benefits continuation (SBC). EM-20040, “Statutory Benefit Continuation (SBC) Requests during the COVID-19 National Public Health Emergency- Title II and Title XVI” addresses the procedure for finding good cause if an individual appealing a CDR termination decision requests continuation of benefits after the 15-day initial period normally provided. Good cause for an untimely request for SBC can be found even if the deadline for filing the appeal has also been missed. Such individuals are entitled to a good cause exception for missing that deadline. This EM cites SSA’s policy of providing maximum flexibility in finding good cause and provides a non-exhaustive list of circumstances that are sufficient during the pandemic, such as mail disruption, transportation disruption, or stay-at-home orders.
The DAP COVID-19 shared Google Drive continues to be available for you to consult for the latest weekly summaries and updates.
Subscribing to SSA’s Coronavirus website will also enable you to get up-to-date notifications of changes.