SSA is coding every claim taken during this period so that they know they have been impacted. During this period, they will adjudicate claims without requiring evidence and then will go back after the crisis to collect that evidence. They are working to eliminate wet signatures, instead using heightened authentication procedures over the telephone.They are identifying workloads and breaking them down granularly to adapt them to a remote-work environment.
They said that the biggest challenge is in the Office of Hearings Operations. In-person hearings have been discontinued. More offices are closing to staff every hour due to the spread of the virus. In-office staff are limited. Phone hearings are limited to between 8:30 am and 2 pm in each respective time zone, although the end-time is flexible if a hearing is in progress. When staff reaches out to representatives of claimants whose hearings are schedule outside of that window, they will ask that they be rescheduled within the window in an effort to prevent postponements.
SSA clarified that, as of now, ALJs cannot conduct hearings from home telephonically, but reiterated that they are working with the IT team to implement equipment for ALJs working remotely that will be clear and secure. In the meantime, they are balancing workloads so that ALJs who are working from home are editing and filing decisions. Other staff working remotely can schedule hearings, exhibit case files, write decisions and screen cases for on the record decisions. SSA is working to assign the hearing workload to those judges who are able to come in to the office.
SSA indicated that they have instituted alternative authentication procedures for three-way calls when the 1696 cannot be processed in a timely manner. They are directing staff to document that they authenticated the individual telephonically and follow up with wet signatures after the fact. SSA also is stopping action on overpayments and CDR cessations. They are putting waivers and appeals into workloads they can continue to process without wet signatures.
In response to a question from NADR Government Relations Liaison Phil Litteral, SSA clarified that ALJs are not authorized to require representatives and claimants to be in the same location for a telephonic hearing. SSA needs to provide that flexibility for claimants. They also indicated that new guidance will be in place shortly to provide clarity to DDS offices regarding missed filing deadlines, failure to attend a consultative and other issues. DDS offices need to abide by social distancing guidelines and claimants should not be penalized for failing to appear for a consultative exam. In these cases, they will provide guidance that the ALJ should go forward with the hearing and put the case in post-hearing status until the required evidence can be provided. They said they will continue to suspend workloads that would cause a reduction, suspension or termination of benefits and instead will focus on income security. They will assess their stewardship obligations when this crisis over.