Guest Blog By: Susan Michele Schaefer, Cardea Law Group, LLC
Every year, one week before Thanksgiving, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week brings to light the struggles many people have with hunger and lack of shelter. As part of the awareness effort, I am sharing my experience helping the homeless and others facing barriers with their Social Security disability claims.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic Social Security offices were closed to in-person service from March 2020 through April 2022, and applications for SSDI and SSI claims decreased significantly. (See, OIG Informational Report, “Comparing the Social Security Administration’s Workload Statistics During the COVID-19 Pandemic to Prior Years,” A-05-21-51062 (July 2022), pages 4-7). During that critical time, a local outreach program in central Alabama asked me to help the people they serve with their Social Security claims. This program was already providing basic resources such as housing, food, and health care. Adding Social Security assistance was a good fit with their goal to secure stability for those in need. I agreed to volunteer my time to participate in local outreach events and offer some pro bono representation on Social Security disability claims.
During outreach events, I answer questions about the difference between SSI and SSDI, how to apply for Social Security disability, and appeal rights on denied claims. I also provide computer access to individuals so they can request an appointment to apply for benefits using SSA’s electronic protective filing tool (See, EM-22015 REV).
In the majority of cases referred to me by the outreach program, I provide pro bono representation at the very start of the SSI disability claim. In these cases, the application packet generally consists of a signed SSI application SSA-8000; SSA-3368-BK Disability Report-Adult; a signed SSA-827 Authorization to Disclose Information to Social Security. An SSA-8001, an abbreviated application, can be used for those who are 65 years old or older. In some cases, additional forms can be completed at the same time, such as the SSA-3373 Function Report. The goal is to have a complete application since recontact can be difficult or sporadic.
It is important to maintain regular contact with the person I am representing so that we respond to Social Security within expected timeframes. A cell phone or a third-party contact number helps. Even better is when the person has some type of residence or an in-care-of address to receive mail. Social Security generally gives 10 calendar days for a response to their requests for evidence or action, and any appeal must be filed timely within 60 days, so promptness is important. If there is no response after a follow-up to a request for evidence or action, Social Security may decide the person’s whereabouts are unknown, that they are failing to cooperate, or there is insufficient evidence in the case (See, POMS DI 23005.001, DI 23007.001, and DI 22505.014).
Social Security has a nationwide program called “Third Party SSI Claims Taking Partners” (Partners) that help people facing barriers file SSI claims (See, Outreach Materials for People Facing Barriers). I, along with individuals from our outreach program, took the requisite training so the organization could become one of those Partners. We began taking SSI applications under this program following the initial Emergency Message policy (see, EM-21035 REV 2 below), identifying the claim with the code “VPAP,” and filing it with Social Security for expedited processing. Partners may also notify Social Security of a referral or lead so that a Social Security representative can take the application for the referred individual. Not all Social Security claims fall under this initiative and for those that do not, I continue to follow the procedure of ensuring the case is flagged as “Priority,” “Critical, Dire Need” so that Social Security uses special handling and expedites processing. (See, POMS DI 23020.001 and HALLEX I-2-1-40).
On March 30, 2022, Social Security published EM-21035 REV 2 which is in effect through March 30, 2023. The EM defines the term “People Facing Barriers” as the aged; children with disabilities; individuals with limited English proficiency; individuals experiencing homelessness; individuals diagnosed with mental illness; individuals recently released from incarceration; and veterans. Information was added about the Vulnerable Population Liaison (VPL) who works with Partners to ensure that claims, leads, or referrals are accurate. The VPAP Coversheet was also introduced.
On April 7, 2022, Social Security reopened their offices to in-person service and people experienced long lines and wait times. The backlog has not diminished much today. Partners continue to be part of Social Security’s effort to help those facing barriers. If your organization wants to be a Partner and participate in this initiative, contact your local Social Security Public Affairs Specialist or Regional Communications Director.
My impression of the Partner program is generally positive. In my experience, the program does expedite disability decisions. I would like to see data to confirm the program’s outcome.