Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Surviving SSI Disability Fiascos

Since 1996, I had been receiving SSI Disability benefits due to my panic disorder with agoraphobia which I had developed shortly after graduating college. As to why I developed this disability I have no idea, as it literally came out of the blue. When I started receiving my monthly benefits, it wasn't a lot, just a little over $300.00 a month. The reason for my benefits being so low, was that, one, since I had never worked I didn't have the work "points" necessary for higher benefits, and two, my then still alive mother was considered a financial resource I could rely on for my basic needs, such as shelter and food.

Then, on August 27, 2006, my mother passed away, and by that time my benefits through the years had been raised up to a mere $425.00 a month. I managed to go to my local Social Security office and since my mother had died, and I was now living alone, my benefits were increased to $710.00, just enough to survive on in the paying of my rent, and utilities. It was fortunate also that now, for the first time, I was also eligible for food stamps, otherwise, with my monthly benefits, I just plain wouldn't have had enough to live on.

When my mother died, she did have a very small policy that was due to me, and amounted to slightly over $5,000.00, and I received the policy money during the early part of the month of October of 2006. As you can imagine, the bulk of that policy money paid for my mother's funeral costs, some other bills, and with what was remaining, I saw it as a golden opportunity to finally get my own computer system which up until then, I didn't have. While I did have my agoraphobic condition, I was no longer completely housebound, but neither could I remain away from my home for long periods or time, or travel distances, but I was at least able to go to my local library and use the computers there. The main problem, however, was being very limited to time, as one was only allowed one hour usage of a computer. When I first taught myself computers at the library about four years ago, I immediately saw how a computer could set me on the road of possibly developing an on-line business, working at home and perhaps become self-sufficient enough to eventually get off of SSI benefits.

However, not long after receiving my mother's policy money in October of 2006, I received a letter from Social Security stating, that due to the money I had "inherited" that it was over the $2,000.00 in financial "assets" that Social Security allows when receiving SSI benefits. The letter went on to inform me that my benefits were therefore to be terminated due to this fact. Right away I filled out and filed with Social Security a Request for Reconsideration form. I also filled out the 15-page application PASS Program, as I wanted to prove that the "extra" funds left over after paying my mother's funeral costs and other related bills were to be used to establish a possible work at home business. In filling out this lengthy 15-page PASS Program application, I did an itemized estimated cost of how the money would be spent and listed the necessary computer items I planned to purchase.

I then had erroneously assumed that both my Request for Reconsideration and the PASS Program application had been approved, since in early November I received a notification from Social Security indicating that my benefits were to continue. Then only a week later received another notification that not only was I to continue my benefits, but I was to get the slight raise in benefits that would begin as of January of 2007. Then the bombshell quite literally hit me. I received a letter, dated April 11, 2007 on a Saturday, April 28, 2007, that the original decision made in October 2006 to stop my benefits was the correct one, and that my benefits were to be completely terminated as of the beginning of this month. You can imagine my panic about this, as I had no financial resources at all now, save for my SSI benefits; that policy money that I had received in October of 2006 was long gone, there was absolutely nothing left of it, and when I got this notice, I had exactly $5.71 to my name in my bank account...that was all.

So on that Monday, April 30th, I tried contacting my local Social Security office. All I succeeded in doing was leaving a message to the caseworker who had previously handled my case back in August of 2006, shortly after my mother had died. Feeling rather frustrated in not being able to speak to a "real" person, I then called the Social Security toll free 800 number. I just plain wanted to know why my benefits were being cut off so suddenly. When I got through to someone, and they looked up the particulars of my "case", it was explained to me, that forms had been sent out to me to determine my continuing eligibility for benefits. Oh? I never got them, and there obviously was no follow up on my case as to why I hadn't sent the forms in.

So by now, since I had the benefit of my own computer, I downloaded and printed up just about every imaginable form directly from the Social Security website, filled them them all out, and sent all kinds of proof of my financial resources. This included an indication that I had indeed spent that "extra" money of my mother's policy, plus sent them photo-copies of exactly how that money was spent--down to the last penny. The envelope I sent them was a virtual stack one-inch thick that I mailed off via certified mail on May 1, 2007, and by tracking it, saw that it was received the very next day. In the meantime, during the next few days I continued to send more forms to them and even called the toll free number again. This time the person I spoke to indicated that yes, they had received all the forms and had that information at their disposal and that what was probably needed was a waiver about the extra money...well, like why when I spoke to the first Social Security agent on April 30, 2007, wasn't this indicated to me and the form sent out to me then?

Then another "winning" notification arrived to me on May 17, 2007, as I received another letter dated May 10, 2007 from Social Security that I have an overpayment of $4,910.00 for the months of October 2006 to April 2007 and could you please pay this by June 9, 2007. All I could think about was, are they out of their minds? I had kept emphasizing to them that I absolutely had no financial resources at all. I hadn't been able to pay my rent, utilities or any other bills just to live on. In my phone calls, letters, etc, I had stated over and over again that I do not have any financial resources to me now except for what I was receiving from SSI Disability, which was nothing at that point since my benefits had been cut off completely.

I'm pointing all this out, as my story isn't a unique one. I have heard from fellow SSI recipients of their own horror stories of trying to get benefits, either first time round, when applying for the first time, or if like me, their benefits are suddenly terminated as they were in my case. Naturally it was suggested to me, that I should seek legal help of some kind and had one law firm, Binder and Binder, one of the top law firms that handle SSI Disability disputes, and of which I did contact. However, I was in for a further blow, as it was explained to me, that due to that over-payment issue of $4,910.00, they couldn't do anything, that I had to get that issue settled first, and on my own! So once again, my computer came in handy, and downloaded and printed up the over-payment waiver form from the SSA website, filled that form out as well and sent it to Social Security. In the meantime, the clock is ticking, and I haven't heard a thing whether or when my benefits were, if at all going to be re-instated. You can bet and imagine I was in high level panic here.

Then an inspiration literally hit me. I decided to contact via e-mail and by phone (usually only leaving messages), of every advocate group that could help me, including all those "help" lines from various news shows...still nothing happened. I then went further, as I'm a rather determined, stubborn person who doesn't give up easily. I contacted via e-mail my local Congressman. The very next day, I got an e-mail back and was told to expect a call from a representative of the Congressman's office who handled SSI Disability issues. Well call she did, and she told me to write out a letter to give them the authorization to intervene in my behalf and to not only fax this letter over, but the letters from Social Security. I had to go out to fax this material, as I didn't have a fax machine myself. By the time, I got back, I called the representative to find out if she had gotten the material; not only had she, but she had also in the meantime called Social Security to find out the particulars of my case.
Only a few days later then, I received a phone call from the caseworker from my local Social Security office. I supposed having received a phone call from a Congressman's office revved and shook things up a bit, as I'm guessing that Social Security doesn't receive phone calls from government officials too often.

Well things weren't settled right away and even more time passed, it was now approaching the end of May and still nothing was happening. I still hadn't paid my rent or utilities for the month of May, and now I was literally panicking about how to also pay my bills for June. So, I made another call to the Congressman's office and the representative in turn called up Social Security again in my behalf. Then came June 1st...The phone rings, and it was the caseworker from Social Security to inform me that not only were my benefits to be re-instated, but that the overpayment of $4,910.00 was completely waived. Ecstatic wouldn't be the word to describe how I felt--more like just plain screaming for joy--I had done it, I had managed to cut through the bureaucratic red-tape of Social Security and its rules and regulations and the slowness of how they handle cases...not that it's their fault as they are so back-logged with cases and paperwork.

So as to the reason for my writing all this. I'm hoping that it may serve as a help to anyone else out there reading this, that if they are having "problems" with getting SSI Disability benefits whether one is just starting the application for benefits, or if like me, have had their benefits cut off, how to go about getting a little jump-start in getting them sooner...get in contact with some kind of local Congressional help, believe me, it helped me, otherwise, I STILL might be waiting for my benefits.

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