The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially rejects many applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If an application is rejected – or a beneficiary is denied further benefits — they can appeal and have a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Many of these hearings are conducted in person, but now the SSA is seeking to conduct essentially all appeals for people denied Social Security disability benefits via video conference, despite concerns from advocates that many claimants will not be able to participate by video.
“The proposed rule by SSA would . . . allow the agency to determine the method of hearing for claimants and remove claimants' ability to opt out of video hearings,” the group Justice in Aging wrote in a news release. “This could have significant negative effects on many claimants who, for various reasons, sometimes due directly to their disabilities, are not able to effectively participate in a video hearing.”
Starting in the late 1990s, video conferences have become the preferred method for conducting SSDI and SSI appeals. Under Obama Administration regulations enacted in 2014, people seeking to opt out of video hearings must make a request within 30 days of receiving notice of their scheduled hearing date, absent good cause for an extension.
Although about a third of applicants choose to opt-out and have their hearing in person, the SSA, in regulations proposed November 15, wants to eliminate this opt-out process entirely.
This means that the SSA would have full discretion to determine whether an appeal hearing would be held via video conference or in person, depending on its own determination of the claimant’s needs, the resources available at the local Social Security office, and other factors. The regulations specify that hearings can still be held via telephone in rare situations, such as where it’s physically impossible for the hearing to be held otherwise, as with incarcerated applicants, or under “extraordinary circumstances.”
As the SSA sees it, the streamlined process is essential to reducing its huge appeals backlog. In fiscal year 2018, people seeking to appeal an initial determination denying them benefits had to wait an average of 595 days before arguing their cases in front of an administrative law judge.
“We expect these proposed changes would improve our service to the public by increasing the efficiency of our hearings processes and reducing the amount of time it takes us to schedule and hold hearings,” the SSA wrote in the summary of the proposed rule in the Federal Register.
In comments submitted to the SSA on December 21, 2018, the National Organization of Social Security Claimant’s Representatives (NOSSCR) argued that video hearings are infeasible for many people with hearing loss, who experience seizures prompted by video technology, have significant intellectual disabilities, or a combination of these or other disabilities. Justice in Aging also points to “recurring technical difficulties and inadequate accommodations at specific video locations used by SSA.”
NOSSCR contends that a blanket rule would likely violate federal law.
“Federal agencies have an affirmative duty to make ‘reasonable modifications’ for qualified individuals,” NOSCCR wrote. “Some qualified individuals would need the modification of an in-person hearing. Given that SSA currently conducts approximately 70% of hearings in person, the modification of providing in-person hearing appears to be reasonable. Yet the proposed rule does not indicate any process by which such a modification would be requested or granted.”
To read the full proposed rule, click here.