The hardest part for many Social Security disability applicants is the waiting. Gathering medical information, appealing denials, scheduling a hearing: it all takes time. For applicants struggling on limited income, waiting a year or more for a disability hearing is a struggle.
Due to COVID-19, all Social Security Administration (SSA) and Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) offices were closed to the public. In-person hearings were no longer possible. But thanks to online video and telephone hearings, claimants can still get their day in court.
Remote hearings are easy and accessible. In fact the national wait time for disability hearings has decreased through 2020, despite complications from the pandemic. Read on to learn more about new hearing procedures and how to prepare for your upcoming remote disability hearing.
Do I have to have a remote disability hearing?
Claimants do not have to have a remote disability hearing. But their ease and accessibility make them the best option while offices are closed to the public.
Remote hearings have been available for some time now, even though in-person hearings were the default. Before the SSA shut down local offices, disability hearings were done in person, over the phone, or via video teleconference (VTC).
If in person, the administrative law judge (ALJ) would hear the claimant, their attorney, and any witnesses in a courtroom. Hearings done over VTC used specific equipment, with the ALJ in one hearing location and the claimant and their attorney or representative in another location. Witnesses like medical experts gave their statements from the same location as the judge, or give their testimony over the phone. Much coordination goes into scheduling a VTC hearing.
Now that hearing offices have been closed to the public, all disability hearings are done remotely. But due to safety concerns, it is no longer possible to share rooms to use VTC. Instead, claimants now have three options:
- Wait for their hearing to be scheduled for in-person once hearing offices reopen
- Have their hearing by telephone
- Have their hearing by video using Microsoft Teams
So while claimants do not have to agree to a remote hearing, there is no way to tell how much longer they will have to wait until hearing offices reopen.
How do online video hearings work?
Starting in September 2020, the SSA offered video hearings using Microsoft Teams free of charge to claimants. This secure online video service is similar to Skype or Facetime. With Microsoft Teams, claimants can attend their hearing from any camera-enabled computer, phone, or tablet with internet connection.
If you have a hearing coming up, the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) will reach out to your disability attorney about remote hearings options. Don’t reach out to the OHO yourself. They will try to keep your remote hearing date the same as your original hearing date.
Depending on what device you choose for your online video hearing, you may need to download the Microsoft Teams application in advance. If your device does not have Microsoft Teams installed, follow the instructions in the “Testing Your Device” section of the SSA’s Online Video Hearings User Guide.
The SSA will send you an email with a link to your online video hearing. On the day of your hearing, the SSA recommends opening the link at least 15 minutes before your hearing start time.
Remote hearings are safe and convenient
Besides the safety benefits, remote video and telephone hearings offer several benefits for claimants. The biggest benefit to remote hearings – besides keeping everyone safe – is convenience, especially for claimants in a lot of pain or discomfort, or with financial constraints.
There are only four hearing offices in Indiana. A claimant may need to travel hours to their local office. With remote hearings, claimants don’t have to worry about arranging accessible transportation or running into traffic. No one has to be in the same place at the same time, like with VTCs. Remote hearings can be done from wherever the claimant feels most comfortable.
Because they can be done from any location, administrative law judges (ALJs) are not limited to only hearing cases from their state. Claimants had to wait for an opening at their local OHO, which only had so many judges for all the claimants in their area. The SSA has long struggled with a backlog of hearings. But now, judges based in any OHO can hear cases from across the country, contributing to lower wait times.
It’s important for claimants to feel like they get their day in court. For all its benefits, testifying via video camera doesn’t feel the same as standing in front of a judge in a courtroom.
While it may feel strange to do a hearing over your laptop or cell phone, it won’t affect the disability application process. Disability benefits are awarded on objective evidence – medical records, exams, and observations from the claimant’s physicians. Even though you may not get to testify in person, your testimony carries just as much weight over video or telephone.
How to prepare for your Remote Disability Hearing
Remote disability hearings are the new normal – for the time being. Here are some ways you can prepare for your online video or telephone hearing.
- Discuss with your attorney about which format is right for you.
- Make sure you have a valid email address on file. The SSA will send information about your remote hearing to your email.
- Again, though you may feel anxious, do not reach out to the SSA about scheduling your hearing. Your OHO will reach out to you or your attorney.
- If you will have an online video hearing, make sure your computer, laptop, or phone has a camera and access to the internet. Install Microsoft Teams on your device if needed by following the instructions on the SSA website.
Your attorney will help prepare you for your remote hearing. They will tell you what to expect during your hearing and go over your application with you. Local disability attorneys are familiar with local judges and can best prepare you for dealing with their personalities in court. They’ve done this before, and they’re here for you.
Help from a Local Social Security Disability Attorney
If your disability claim is denied in front of a judge, you have two options. You may be able to start the disability process over again, or you can appeal the judge’s decision. Sticking to appeal deadlines is very important: failing to appeal a judge’s decision means the decision is final.
A Social Security disability attorney can help you decide whether or not filing an appeal is the best decision in your individual case.
Hensley Legal Group has offices in Indianapolis, Evansville, Lafayette, Merrillville, Muncie, and Fishers, and serves disabled Hoosiers throughout the state. If a local disability attorney seems like the right choice for you, you can give us a call or contact us online for a free conversation about your disability claim.