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Timely Issues

Beware: SSA Phone Scam

There is a phone scam that has been going around for a few years but seems to be happening more and more. In fact, it just happened to OBL Partner Lindsay Osterhout the other day! Lindsay said the call says it’s from “United States” and tells you to “press one” and then has an automated message that says “This call is from the Department of Social Security Administration.  The reason you have received this phone call from our department is to inform you that we just suspended your SSN because we found some suspicious activity.  If you want to know about this case, press one”. Once you press one, they will likely ask for your social security number. Other calls may say they are calling from the “Inspector General” or they are calling from the Social Security Office and may threaten to suspend benefits if payment is not received. Most, if not all, of the scam calls are automated.

The Social Security Administration has released several warnings to the public about these calls and instructs citizens to stay vigilant. How do you know whether the call is really from SSA or not? SSA will never do any of the following:

  • Call you to demand an immediate payment;
  • Demand that you pay a debt without the ability to appeal the amount you owe;
  • Require a specific means of payment, such as requiring you to pay with a prepaid debit card;
  • Ask you for your personal information or credit or debit card numbers over the phone; or
  • Threaten you with arrest or deportation.

SSA instructs citizens who receive a suspicious call to hang up immediately and to report Social Security impersonations to the Office of Inspector General at https://oig.ssa.gov/report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cash Assistance Has Been Reinstated in Pennsylvania!

Not being able to work can be financially devastating and some applicants even become homeless while waiting on a disability hearing. The General Assistance program has been reinstated and we think it may be able to help some of our clients while they are waiting for disability benefits to be approved. The program offers $205 per month for one person and $316 per month for two people to help provide for basic needs. Pennsylvanians can qualify for General Assistance if they are in one of the following situations:

  • have a temporary or permanent disability;
  • are a child who is not living with a relative;
  • are caring for an unrelated child under the age of 13 or are caring for someone who is ill or disabled;
  • are victims of domestic violence (benefits are limited to 9 months in a lifetime); OR
  • are in a drug or alcohol treatment program that prevents them from working (benefits are limited to 9 months in a lifetime)

In addition, individuals must have less than $205 in income ($316 for two people) and less than $250 in countable assets, or $1,000 if there is more than one person applying. A house and one car do not count as assets.

Residents who believe they are eligible are encouraged to either apply online through the department of human services (DHS) website http://www.dhs.pa.gov/ or in-person at their local county assistance office. DHS helpline can be reached by calling toll-free 1-800-692-7462. For individuals with hearing impairments please call 1-800-451-5886.

House Bill 335 Would Eliminate Services and Negatively Impact the Health of 2.9 Million Pennsylvanians and Their Families

Recently, Lindsay Osterhout, OBL Managing Partner Administrative Division, met with case management staff at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services, Inc (SPHS) in Charleroi, PA. Among other local news, they discussed new proposed state legislation, HB 335, and the devastating effects it would have on our community.

HB 335, sponsored by Representative Seth M. Grove, would eliminate the current Behavioral HealthChoices (BHC) program thereby making it difficult for counties to provide coordinated and integrated human services and negatively impact the health of 2.9 million Pennsylvanians and their families. BHC is the statewide program through which every county delivers mental health and drug and alcohol services to vulnerable Pennsylvanians enrolled in the Medical Assistance program, and their families. The program, created 21 years ago, has allowed Pennsylvanians to receive needed mental health services.

We at Osterhout Berger Disability Law, frequently work with disability claimants who rely on these services to manage their care. If these programs are eliminated, it will be very difficult for our claimants to find affordable care to manage their symptoms. We are concerned that HB 335 passes, we will see tragic consequences. Several health and human services agencies have signed onto a letter opposing this legislation. Read the letter that was sent to Members of the House of Representatives HERE. Please consider contacting your state representatives and urge them to oppose this bill. Locate your legislator using this LINK.

We value our community partnership with SPHS and thank them for bringing this proposed legislation to our attention.

New Rule Makes it Easier for Military Spouses to Find and Keep Jobs in the Law

On January 29, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Board of Law Examiners adopted the Military Spouse Licensing Rule, which allows military spouse attorneys who accompany active duty service members to Pennsylvania to apply for a temporary license to practice law in the state. Historically, because service members are subject to frequent military-ordered relocations, attorney spouses were presented with the difficult choice of remaining in a jurisdiction where they were licensed to practice without their spouse or incurring the significant costs of obtaining a bar license in the relocation state. Osterhout Berger Disability Law is very excited to hear that Pennsylvania has joined the trend of issuing licensing accommodations for these attorneys. The new rule goes into effect in July 2019.

OBL is very fortunate to have several military spouses who are attorneys on our team. Hannalore Merritt, Managing Associate of our Appellate Department, who was a military spouse herself and knew the struggle of trying to maintain a career being married to an active service member, was familiar with a group called Military Spouse JD Network comprised of individuals in similar situations. Due to growth of the firm, when it came time to hire additional attorneys, she suggested that the firm look to this population. “I knew there was lots of talent out there but that it was hard to maintain a job when you were facing having to take a bar exam every few years with changes in orders and duty stations.” Merritt explained. “To be honest, until Hannalore brought it to my attention, I really hadn’t thought about this issue at all,” explained managing partner Karl Osterhout. “Since we have always had at least some attorneys in our Appellate Department who worked remotely, that part was a natural fit, and I like very much feeling like I am, and some small part, being helpful to these families who sacrifice so much for the defense of our Country,” said Osterhout.

The first active military spouse hire was Christine Huber, Senior Associate Attorney; she and Hannalore attended law school together in Seattle. Christine’s family is currently based at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, and they typically move every 2 years. She describes numerous difficulties to maintaining a career as a military spouse; “As an attorney, one of the biggest hurdles is obtaining a license to practice in every state. While many states have or will soon have the military spouse exemption, it still involves a lengthy process and high fees.” Another difficulty faced by many career spouses who also have children, is being the primary caregiver. “It is difficult to find an employer, especially in the legal field, who is willing to accommodate you being the sole person responsible when school calls for an unexpected pick up or when your child is home sick,” explained Huber. Finally, another difficulty is maintaining a resume that is attractive to employers. “Often with moving every few years, your resume begins to look quite choppy and most employers will pass right over it as it appears you would not have loyalty to their firm. While this is far from the truth, it often gets in the way of securing an interview,” said Huber.

Christine Huber, OBL Sr. Associate Attorney, and husband Mike

Christine describes the profound impact her employment at OBL has provided; “All of the difficulties mentioned previously disappeared with working at OBL. I can maintain my bar license and ability to practice, without having to retake a bar examination in every state we move to. I am able to have a resume which shows my loyalty and retention at a law firm. I have now worked at OBL over the course of 3 separate moves, something I had never thought was possible.  Further, being able to work remotely allows me to maintain my workload while also handling any issues that may arise for my family.  It has afforded us the ability to be present for the special moments in military life (i.e., homecomings, meetings, send offs, etc.) without having to put my professional career on hold or take time off or work. Perhaps most importantly, working at OBL and being exposed to various areas of law has allowed me to realize that my true passion is advocating for the rights of those who feel like they are being lost in the system, for those who can no longer work due to physical or mental impairments, and for those who were wrongly denied benefits.”

Since hiring Christine in 2015, OBL has hired two more associate attorneys who are military spouses, Amanda Whitt-Downs, found through MSJDN, and Meghan Lambert, found through a military spouse page. They are all attorneys in our Appellate Department, and work on researching and drafting briefs to Federal District Courts across the country for our clients who have been denied SS disability benefits by the Agency. Explains Osterhout, “It’s just been a privilege to get to know these women. I am particularly indebted to Christine, who really stepped up when I had an illness last year; she was an incredible help to Hannalore in making sure that we continued to meet our deadlines in the Appellate Department. She really, as they say, ‘went over that wall’ for me and I’ll never forget it.” Merritt states, “They are all highly versatile women who are driven and compassionate, not to mention able to balance a lot in addition to their careers. They also have excellent resumes – we are fortunate to have been able to set them up remotely because they are really talented and do great work.”

OBL applauds the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in adopting the Military Spouse Licensing Rule and the effort the Military Spouse JD Network put forth in advocating for these talented group of attorneys.

Read more about the Supreme Court adoption HERE

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” championed by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), is getting a hearing in Congress!

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” championed by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), which was the subject of another recent OBL News post, is getting a hearing in Congress!

Social Security 2100 proposes to shore up this benefit program for 62 million beneficiaries while ensuring the program’s financial stability. Among its proposals are that any increase in benefits under its provisions wouldn’t affect eligibility for other key federal programs, including Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

 

https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/427835-a-bill-to-boost-social-security-will-finally-get-a-full-and-fair-hearing

 

New proposed rule sets a “floor” for social security benefits at 25% above the poverty level, among other pro-claimant recommendations.

Congressman John Larson of Connecticut is again making the rounds with Social Security 2100, a set of proposals he has been making for a few years to both protect the Fund and to ensure the meaningfulness of the benefits for our lowest earning neighbors:

  • Immediate increase in Social Security benefits equal to about 2% of the average benefit amount.
  • Adoption of a new way to adjust for inflation for determining annual cost-of-living adjustments to benefit payments, based on the CPI-E, an inflation benchmark that incorporates goods and services that are more appropriate for the older and low income Americans.
  • A minimum benefit set at 25% above the federal poverty line to ensure that low-income workers avoid poverty in retirement.
  • Higher income thresholds for tax-free benefits, with the income levels at which a portion of Social Security can become included in taxable income rising from $25,000 to $50,000 for single filers and from $32,000 to $100,000 for joint filers.
  • Collection of Social Security payroll taxes on wages and self-employment above $400,000 ($132,900 currently).
    phase-in of higher payroll tax rates for Social Security, which would eventually take the current level of 6.2% up to 7.4% by 2042.

The bill would ensure that any increase in benefits under its provisions wouldn’t affect eligibility for other key federal programs, including Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

 

The Congressional Budget Office Recommends Cuts to Social Security Benefits

The Congressional Budget Office’s recommendation for reducing the deficit includes cuts to Social Security Disability, including eliminating Child’s SSI benefits altogether.

Among the CBO’s recommendations are six “mandatory spending” options, as well as a taxation option:

  • Eliminate Supplemental Security Income Benefits for Disabled Children
  • Link Initial Social Security Benefits to Average Prices Instead of Average Earnings
  • Make Social Security’s Benefit Structure More Progressive
  • Option 31 Raise the Full Retirement Age for Social Security
  • Require Social Security Disability Insurance Applicants to Have Worked More in Recent Years
  • Eliminate Eligibility for Starting Social Security Disability Benefits at Age 62 or Later
  • Tax Social Security and Railroad Retirement Benefits in the Same Way That Distributions From Defined Benefit Pensions Are Taxed.

The full CBO report can be viewed at https://www.cbo.gov/system/files?file=2018-12/54667-budgetoptions.pdf.