With recent cuts to the Social Security Administration's budget, plans that were in progress to open new Social Security Disability appeal sites were understandably put on hold. However, putting the construction of new sites on hold was not enough to address the financial issues that the Social Security budget cuts have caused. Some of the existing Social Security Disability hearing sites have had to be closed to help the SSA address its current financial crisis. One of the appeal sites being closed as a result of the recent budget cuts is the appeal site located in Great Falls, Montana. Senator Jon Tester, however, is anything but happy about this approach to the SSA's budget concerns and he is protesting the site's closure.
On June 1st, the remote hearing site that is located in Great Falls was closed and hearings will no longer be held there as of July. Senator Jon Tester feels that the closing of this site was a great injustice to the Social Security Disability applicants in the area. According to Tester, the Great Falls hearing site was the second-busiest hearing site in the State of Montana and its existence is crucial to the timely processing of claims for area Social Security Disability applicants.
The senator is urging the Social Security Administration to delay the closure of the hearing site, hoping that they will pursue other means of addressing the financial constraints. If the Great Falls hearing site is to remain closed, Social Security Disability applicants who would have been able to appeal their cases there will have to travel to Helena, Montana for their Social Security Disability hearings. The Helena site is located more than an hour away from the Great Falls hearing center.
While an hour-and-a-half drive may not seem like an unreasonable travel time to those who are mobile and able to drive themselves to their destination, the truth is that many Social Security Disability applicants find travel very difficult and some do not even own vehicles. The closure of the Great Falls hearing site places a significant burden on these individuals.
Tester feels that if the Great Falls site cannot be run as it has been in the past, complete closure of the site is unwarranted. For example, one option would be to allow Great Falls-area Social Security Disability applicants to have “video conference” hearings, rather than requiring these applicants to travel all the way to Helena to have their case heard before an administrative law judge. Making these applicants travel so far to have their cases heard is unwarranted and places undue burden on individuals who are already suffering from financial difficulties in addition to their disabling conditions.
While it is understandable that the Social Security Administration must address its budgetary concerns and make cuts where cuts are necessary, the closure of appeal hearing sites is most likely not the answer. With too few hearing sites already causing a significant backlog of disability cases waiting to be heard, closures such as the one in Great Falls will also make it more difficult for disabled workers to attend the hearings that they must undergo in order to obtain their Social Security Disability benefits. Perhaps the SSA will take into consideration the approach of cost-effective “video” hearings that would make these hearings more accessible to Social Security Disability applicants and more affordable to the Social Security Administration.