Social Security Administration sets standards

December 2, 2008
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For Karen Starr, it’s been a natural move, to go from testifying as an expert witness before administrative law judges to advocating before them for people who have been denied Social Security disability benefits.

“I’ve just changed sides of the table, so now I’m actually representing individuals instead of the Social Security Administration,” said Starr, of Cannonsburg. “I can actually help people and they appreciate it. I feel like I was put on earth to help people.”

As a non-attorney disability representative, Starr represents people who have been denied Disability Insurance Benefits or Supplemental Security Income during the appeals process. SSI benefits are meant to provide a stipend for basic food, shelter and clothing for adults and children who are blind or disabled, or for adults age 65 and older who have little or no income. DIB applies to people who are unable to work due to a disability.

“There are a lot of reasons they get denied when they apply on their own: They don’t know how to properly fill out the paperwork, they leave things blank, they don’t answer the questions properly, they don’t turn paperwork in on time, they don’t file appeals on time,” she said, adding that some of her clients have mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from completing the process on their own.

“They don’t know how to navigate the system,” Starr added.

Those who are denied SSI or DIB benefits may appeal that decision. Michigan has five offices that hear those appeals, explained Annette E. Skinner, a Lansing lawyer who heads the Michigan Bar Association’s Social Security section.

Skinner said there are enough people who have been denied benefits to fuel plenty of business for both attorneys and non-attorney representatives. But with the advent of new SSA rules under a demonstration project, lawyers are more assured that non-attorney representatives who have been approved by the SSA for direct payments are qualified, she said.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Skinner said. “There are many well-qualified non-attorney representatives. On the other hand, if the person isn’t trying to get direct payment, there’s not necessarily any quality check on the preparation of that person.”

The Social Security Administration in 2005 launched a five-year demonstration project that allows non-attorney disability representatives to collect their fees directly from the SSA out of lump-sum funds awarded to their clients as past due benefits. That fee can be 25 percent, up to a maximum of $5,300. Starr said the system prevents clients involved in protracted proceedings from avoiding fees they owe for the help.

“If you were a non-direct fee, non-attorney representative, you can go through the process and they wouldn’t pay you, they would just disappear,” Starr said. “I never had that happen to me, but it is a risk.”

The SSA has requirements the representatives must meet: They must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience and training; pass an examination on relevant provisions of the Social Security Act; have professional liability, or equivalent, insurance; undergo a background check; take continuing education courses; and have experience as a representative in Social Security cases.

Starr was approved in August and has about 50 clients. She also continues to work on worker’s compensation cases for the family business, Starr and Associates, which provides rehabilitation management products and services for insurance carriers, third-party administrator and self-insured companies.

Even though the 2½ -hour test was the toughest she’s ever taken, Starr said she appreciates having the credential.

“It lets the (administrative) judge know you have a certain competency level. It’s also something I can tell my clients,” Starr said.

She said demand is strong as the SSA has a 24-month backlog of cases. Skinner said Michigan’s hearing offices are so overwhelmed, thanks in part to the state’s poor economy, that some cases are farmed out to offices in other states.

Starr started out hoping to become a child psychologist and took a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University. She then obtained a master’s degree in child and family ecology from Eastern Michigan University. But after a few years of working in various counseling jobs, she answered a newspaper advertisement for a vocational counselor and found it more rewarding.

“You got to see results,” she said. “People returned to school or returned to a job with the same employer or settled a claim. There was always an outcome, and I felt like I was actually helping.”

She worked for several insurance companies, then in 2001 got started on her own with medical and vocational case management. Along the way, she earned certifications, for example, as a vocational rehabilitation specialist and brain injury specialist, which allowed her to testify as an expert witness before SSA’s administrative law judges. The move to become a non-attorney representative was “just a progression,” Starr said.

Two national professional organizations are available: the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives and the National Association of Disability Representatives.

“It’s not a user-friendly system, and the waiting periods are just astronomical,” Skinner added. “I think that it’s really good to have a representative, whether it’s a lawyer or not.”

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