Effective June 1, 2011, the office in Great Falls, MT which has been used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) for hearings has been closed. The closure means that people in the area who have filed an appeal for a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) case will now have to travel to other locations.
The hardship created by this closure has drawn the attention of Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, who quickly wrote a letter to SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue asking that he reconsider the decision. Tester asserts that the closure of what is considered by many to be the second busiest site in the state will result “cut critical services to my constituents”, and requested that other, less drastic options be explored.
Cameron Ferguson, a Great Falls lawyer who specializes in Social Security Disability and workers’ compensation cases, expresses concern that the closure will adversely impact his clients. “Many people don’t even have cars”, he says. Indeed, as a result of the closure claimants would have to travel to Helena (a distance of over 90 miles from Great Falls) or to Kalispell (over 220 miles from Great Falls).
The office which has been closed is in a rented building in Great Falls. A visiting judge would travel to Great Falls from Billings and spend the week in town, hearing up to two dozen or so cases over the course of the week. Typically, these cases would be divided among disability, SSI, or other Social Security cases.
With the closure of the Great Falls site, June’s hearings were simply passed over so that none had to be rescheduled. Those in the Great Falls area who are in need of a disability hearing will not have to go to an alternate site until July. This scheduling situation has left some with at least a glimmer of hope that the SSA and Commissioner Astrue have not completely closed the door on the Great Falls site.
Marie Walsh, a paralegal with the non-profit People’s Law Center, also raised concerns about the adverse impact the closing would have on her clients. In addition to the fact that many may not be able to withstand the additional travel time, she says that “Many of them would have to stay overnight”, resulting in additional expenses which their already-limited budgets would be unable to absorb. “We just feel that it’s not fair to our clients”, she adds.
In his letter to commissioner Astrue, Sen. Tester raised the possibility of several alternatives to closing the office. Among these were to use the Great Falls Social Security field office as a remote location, a suggestion which has apparently already been nixed by a regional administrator for the SSA.
Another seemingly workable solution would be to take advantage of existing technology and hold hearings via two-way video feed, much the same way business meetings and court arraignments are conducted. The result would not only be reduced costs for travel and lodging, but also greater efficiency in scheduling.