Obama to forgive the student debt of permanently disabled people

of The Washington Post (April 12, 2016)

The Obama administration plans to forgive $7.7 billion in federal student loans held by nearly 400,000 permanently disabled Americans.

By law, anyone with a severe disability is eligible to have the government discharge their federal student loans. The administration took steps four years ago to make the process easier by letting people who are totally and permanently disabled use their Social Security designation to apply for a discharge, but few took advantage. The Department of Education is now taking it upon itself to identify eligible borrowers and guide them through the steps to discharge their loans.

“Too many eligible borrowers were falling through the cracks, unaware they were eligible for relief,” said Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell in a statement. “Americans with disabilities have a right to student loan relief. And we need to make it easier, not harder, for them to receive the benefits they are due.”

Working with the Social Security Administration, the department has been identifying borrowers receiving disability payments and have the specific designation of “Medical Improvement Not Expected,” which indicates they are eligible for the discharge. The agencies found 387,000 matches in its first review. About 179,000 of those people are currently in default on their loans, putting them at risk of losing their tax refunds and having their Social Security benefits garnished.

“The creation of the matching program is a great first step, but the administration needs to go further to ensure that no borrower who has a right to student loan relief has their benefits taken,” said Persis Yu, the National Consumer Law Center’s student loan borrower assistance project director. “Borrowers receiving SSDI need these payments to survive.”

Starting next week, borrowers identified in the match will receive a letter from the government explaining the steps needed to receive a discharge. They will not be required to submit documentation of their eligibility, unlike disabled borrowers who apply for the discharge on their own. Notification letters will be sent over a 16-week period, and followed up with a second letter after 120 days.

The letters will inform borrowers of the tax implication of the discharge, since the government has the right to tax the amount of money forgiven.



A Fix For The Disability Trust Fund

In the final three months of 2016, the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund will run out of money and beneficiaries will see an immediate 20 percent cut in benefits. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: Congress can simply reallocate a small amount of payroll tax income from the larger Social Security retirement fund to the disability fund. In fact, this routine move has been done 11 times over the past several decades. And because the disability fund is so small compared to the general retirement fund, the fix would extend disability benefits until 2033 while hardly making a dent in the retirement fund.

Congress Doesn’t Get It

I am still hopeful that the President and Congress will pay attention to the disabled persons of our country, but they are not off to a very good start. The President seems to have all but forgotten them and Congress has demonstrated its incompetence to start the New Year. Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times has an excellent grasp on the dilemma facing this country’s disabled individuals and he has been following Congress as it prepares to address the disability trust fund issues. Please read his article “On Day One, the new Congress launches an attack on Social Security.”

Text Phishing

Text Phishing Scheme: Disability Applicants and Beneficiaries Should Be Careful

Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., Inspector General for the Social Security Administration (SSA), is warning the public, and Social Security disability applicants and beneficiaries in particular, about a text phishing scheme that has recently surfaced. Disability law offices in the Greater St. Louis area and Michigan have reported several of their clients have recently received suspicious text messages, requesting them to call a telephone number for information about their Social Security disability benefit claims.

According to these reports, individuals posing as Government officials have sent texts to several Social Security disability applicants and beneficiaries in an attempt to elicit a response—possibly to obtain their personal and financial information.
The text reads: “Disability Alert: Please call 253-xxx-xxxx regarding your recent disability benefits application.”
Inspector General O’Carroll urges everyone to be aware that Social Security will never send you a text message about your application for Social Security benefits. Moreover, you should always take precautions when asked to provide personal information. Mr. O’Carroll stated, “You should never provide your Social Security number, bank account numbers, or other personal information unless you are extremely confident about the identity of the person asking for it. Social Security representatives may call to follow up on a benefit application—but they will not send text messages—and they generally will not ask for personal identifiers or financial information.”

If you receive a text message, e-mail, or phone call from anyone claiming to be from a government agency and requesting personal information, Mr. O’Carroll recommends that you contact the agency directly to verify the employee’s identity. For the Social Security Administration, you may contact your local Social Security office, or call Social Security’s toll-free customer service number at 1-800-772-1213alt1-800-772-1213, to verify the employee’s identity and the information request. (Those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can call Social Security’s TTY number at 1-800-325-0778alt1-800-325-0778.)

Also, you may report suspicious activity involving Social Security programs and operations to the Social Security Fraud Hotline at http://oig.ssa.gov/report, or by phone at 1-800-269-0271alt1-800-269-0271, 10 am to 4 pm Eastern Time. (Those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may call TTY 1-866-501-2101.)

Driving Safety

I am often asked about how diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease affect a person’s ability to drive.  I recently came across an article in the October/November 2014 issue of Neurology Now which covers this subject.  It can be found at http://journals.lww.com/neurologynow/Fulltext/2014/10050/The_Keys_to_Safety__How_neurologic_conditions.10.aspx

Be a Smart Consumer of Legal Services

I am hearing more and more horror stories about persons hiring lawyers and non-attorney representatives only for them to find out that they are doing almost all of the work required to pursue their case or in some instances even providing vital identity information to persons over the phone or through the internet whom they have never met. Some persons have even thought they were applying for social security disability online only to find out later that the information was being providing to a national disability law firm or “advocates” group. If a person hires us to help with an application for social security disability benefits, we will do this in person.

That being said, what does it mean to be a smart consumer of legal services? I think it is important for everyone to understand that there are a lot of lawyers and disability advocates groups out there casting large nets (literally from one coast to the other) trying to lure in as many disabled clients as possible. They do this over the internet or by advertising toll free numbers in countless phone books.

To be a smart consumer of legal services you should be knowledgeable of the person or law firm you are hiring. You can become knowledgeable by asking the lawyer or advocate some simple questions like the following:

1. How much experience do you have doing social security disability cases? Watch out for those who “dabble” in social security disability law or aren’t actually lawyers.

2. Do you practice in other areas of the law? Be warned here that if a lawyer gives a laundry list of other areas of practice, you can probably bet that they spend most of their time doing family and/or criminal law and simply “dabble” in social security disability law.

3. Do you carry malpractice insurance? Believe it or not most states do not require lawyers to carry malpractice insurance, but ethical lawyers will always carry malpractice insurance.

4. Do you get continuing legal education to keep up with latest changes in the law or policies affecting social security disability claims? The laws and policies affecting social security disability is changes regularly and your lawyer should be knowledgeable of these changes.

5. Do you meet with clients more than once and prepare them well for hearings, or, am I simply going to be working with an assistant and never be able to talk to you? Remember, you are not hiring an assistant. You are hiring a lawyer and the lawyer should be available to speak with you within a reasonable time. While it is not unusual to speak to an assistant regarding administrative matters like updating them on your medical condition, the lawyer should be available to speak with you if you wish. Unfortunately, I have been told by many persons that when they have hired large national disability firms or groups that they do not even meet or speak to a lawyer until the day of hearing and only for about 10 to 20 minutes.

6. Do you advance costs to get medical records and the like for your clients to prepare the case? While we do this in every case, many social security disability lawyers do not do this. I personally do not want to rely upon my client’s ability or inability to pay for medical records to have an impact on presenting their case. Therefore, I advance these costs in every case and have my assistants order the medical records. Additionally, many of my clients simply cannot afford the cost to get medical records. Part of representing a disabled client is to take as much burden out the process as I can for my clients.

7. Where are you located? If you cannot drive to the lawyer’s office within a reasonable amount of time and meet with your lawyer, then they are too far away.

8. Are you a lawyer? Not all persons that represent social security disability claimants are lawyers. While there are some good “non-attorney” representatives out there, only lawyers are bound by state ethics rules, can be disciplined by state legal disciplinary commissions for violating ethics rules and have been issued a law license after having gone through years of law school and passed a rigorous bar exam. I personally would not hire a “non-attorney” representative if I could hired an experienced lawyer.

9. Who are you, really? Be wary of providing vital “identity” information (ie., social security numbers, dates of birth) before actually meeting with the lawyer. While a lawyer may want to get some information to further help him or her evaluate your case before the first meeting, it is not necessary to have your social security number or date of birth before you hire that lawyer. Think about it. How do you know the person you are talking to is who they say they are? Would you really give out your social security number to someone over the internet or telephone without really knowing who they are? Believe it or not, there are identity thieves out there and they swim the waters of the internet just like sharks swim the waters of the ocean looking for prey. There are also countless identity thieves out there trying to obtain social security numbers and other vital information from you. The point is — BE CAREFUL!

These are only some suggestions for you to consider. Please use common sense.



Why not?

Where do you think those attorneys, disability advocates and non-attorney representatives get all of their cases from? Do you think they will act in your best interests or the interests of their bread and butter—the long-term disability carrier. These representatives have an inherent conflict of interest and have no business representing you.

When your long-term disability carrier contacts you and says “we have an attorney or a disability advocate for you who will help you with your Social Security disability claim,” RUN FOR THE HILLS !!! You are not required to use the attorney or disability advocate that the long-term disability carrier recommends.

Contact us. We will help you through the process and represent YOU !!!

SSDI: The truth behind media and political mischaracterizations

August 25, 2014
The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is an integral part of the Social Security system that provides vital economic security to workers and their families. SSDI provides modest but essential coverage that American workers earn, and protects against the economic devastation that often accompanies life-changing disability. Unfortunately, recent media coverage (including recent opinion pieces in The Hill) has painted a highly inaccurate picture of this program, in an effort to encourage damaging changes that would hurt people with disabilities.

Eligibility criteria for the SSDI program are extremely strict and only people with the most significant disabilities qualify for benefits. An applicant must prove with medical evidence the inability to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (defined as earning less than $1,070 monthly in 2014), due to a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for at least one year. Most applicants are denied; only about 40% are approved, a fact which belies claims that there is a “systematic bias” toward approving applicants who are not actually disabled.

People with disabilities turn to the program as a last resort, often having attempted to continue working after it is no longer healthy to do so and having spent down their savings before applying. There is no evidence that people are leaving the labor force to receive SSDI. While it is true that SSDI applications increased during the recent economic downturn, approval rates also declined. In fact, the current approval rate is the lowest it has been in 40 years.

Growth in the SSDI program has long been predicted by the Social Security Chief Actuary and is due almost entirely to two demographic factors: the aging of the baby boomers and women entering the workforce. According to the SSA, program growth has peaked and is projected to level off.

The SSDI program is complex so it is not surprising that many applicants choose to retain a representative, given the importance of the outcome. Having an experienced professional provide assistance is valuable for people with disabilities. Representatives help ensure that applicants provide SSA with all relevant medical evidence and help the agency make the right decision as early in the process as possible. SSA’s policies and procedures to regulate representatives do a good job of dealing with the very small number of representatives who violate the rules.

Notably, Congress has not uncovered any evidence of fraud in the SSDI program beyond the cases SSA itself uncovered, after several years of investigation. Nor has Congress found any evidence that people who should not be eligible are wrongly approved. Senator Coburn has been quoted on the topic and appears to mischaracterize what his 2012 investigation actually found. That investigation reviewed only 300 appeals decisions from just 3 counties, and his staff questioned the quality of about 25% of the written decisions but did not claim the decisions were wrong. In fact, the investigation did not find that a single individual was approved who should have been denied.

The Social Security Administration does a good job of identifying potential fraud in the program, despite its woefully inadequate recent funding levels and resources. SSA’s administrative budget is only about 1.4 percent of benefits paid out each year. However, Congress has provided nearly $1 billion less than requested over the past three years. SSA’s program integrity work has suffered too, receiving $421 million less than authorized over the last two years. The result? SSA has lost more than 11,000 employees since 2011 – a heavy blow to the agency’s ability to serve the American people.

If Congress is serious about protecting the integrity of this program, it should start by providing SSA with adequate funding to do so. It should enact H.R. 4090, the Social Security Fraud and Prevention Act of 2013, introduced by Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA) earlier this year. It would provide SSA with dedicated mandatory funding for program integrity activities, strengthen fraud detection activities, and increase penalties for people convicted of exploiting the program.

The SSDI program does not need significant changes. It has provided economic security to workers who become disabled, and their families, for more than 50 years. But Congress does need to enact legislative changes to secure the future of Social Security and prevent cuts for SSDI beneficiaries in 2016. A rebalancing of the Old Age Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance trust funds through reallocation of the payroll tax going into each of the funds, approved by Congress multiple times in the past, would account for demographic shifts and solve short-term funding gaps. This program is a key piece of our national social insurance infrastructure and it needs to be kept strong for current and future generations.

Reprinted from NOSSCR