Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Changes coming to federal disability programs’ application process in PA

Originally published by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on April 17, 2019

By Kate Giammarise

The process of applying for federal disability assistance will change this week in Pennsylvania — and for many applicants, it will become longer and more complicated.

Anyone applying for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits, Supplemental Security Income, or both, will face an additional step in what already can be a lengthy process. The change is being criticized by disability advocates, attorneys and members of Congress.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., last week called the change “an attack on individuals with disabilities,” and said the extra step will make “obtaining disability benefits more complicated and more frustrating for Pennsylvanians.”

Currently, anyone applying for disability assistance whose initial application is denied can request a hearing before an administrative law judge. The average wait from a hearing request until disposition of a claim is 524 days, roughly 17 months.

Starting April 20, an applicant denied at this first stage must appeal in a process called reconsideration. If they are turned down a second time, they can request a hearing.

“I am very concerned for our clients, as well as all people in Pennsylvania who are applying for Social Security disability. It amounts to an extra three or four months that people will struggle to survive,” said Cindy Berger, a Pittsburgh attorney who helps individuals apply for disability and assists them with appeals.

Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that hasn’t had reconsideration since 1999. The process is being reinstated so there is a uniform process for disability claimants across the country, said Daniel O’Connor, a regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

Mr. O’Connor said this will also lead to earlier decisions for some applicants.

Nationally, 13 percent of applicants are approved at the reconsideration stage, but for those who aren’t approved, it adds an average of 101 days to the process. It will also halt the process for some altogether, advocates say.

“Many claimants and representatives view reconsideration as a meaningless step, a rubber stamp, of the decision of the original denial,” advocate Lisa Ekman testified last year before a Congressional subcommittee on Social Security.

“This procedural hurdle can cause many claimants to abandon their appeals despite the fact that they meet the statutory definition of disability,” testified Ms. Ekman, now director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

The change is expected to compel more than 20,000 people in Pennsylvania to go through reconsideration in the first 12 months, according to Mr. Casey’s office, citing estimates from the Social Security Administration.

Existing apllications are impacted by the change and are not grandfathered in to the prior process.

“Many of those individuals who lose after the reconsideration will give up,” said Jennifer Modell, managing attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services, which represents people during the application process.

Ms. Modell said making the process longer will be a hardship because people often are not working when they apply.

“They’re impoverished often, they’re not receiving any money. … They sleep on people’s couches. Often, they lose housing. The irony is they begin to lose their ability to seek medical treatment and get prescriptions,” she said.

A state program called General Assistance, which many individuals use while in the process of applying for disability assistance, provides $205 in a monthly benefit. However, various pending proposals would either end the program altogether or convert it into a housing program, instead of a cash benefit.

The average SSDI benefit for a disabled worker is $1,234.74 monthly and the average SSI payment is $593.20, according to information from National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

The change “will be very confusing and time consuming for people with disabilities,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, speaking at a press conference Wednesday at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

He encouraged Pennsylvanians impacted by the change to contact their members of Congress.

“We will be very vigilant in following up on this particular issue,” he said.