Category : Covid-19 Related

Social Security Shutters ‘Petri Dish’ Offices in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

To protect its workers and the public during the coronavirus pandemic, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has suspended face-to-face service to at its field offices and hearings offices nationwide until further notice. Payments to the nearly 70 million Social Security beneficiaries will not be affected.

While in-person appointments will still be made for certain critical services (see below), the SSA is encouraging beneficiaries to transact as much business as possible online using the agency’s website. (If you don’t have an online account yet, click here.)

Certain services also will continue to be available via the agency’s toll-free line, (800) 772-1213 or from local offices’ General Inquiry lines. (For the local office locator, click here.)

Why the Closure?

Budget cuts to Social Security over the years have led to crowded offices and long wait times.  With the advent of the coronavirus outbreak, this went from being an inconvenience to a public health threat.  The union representing the SSA’s 61,000 workers was deeply concerned about the health of the agency’s workforce as well as the danger to the public.

“The offices are petri dishes,” Richard Couture, a spokesman for the union, told The New York Times.  “People are sitting there for a long time, magnifying and multiplying the risk of infection for everyone there, and to people on the outside.”

How to Get in Touch During the Shutdown

Examples of tasks or inquiries that can be accomplished online include:

  • Applying for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits;
  • Checking the status of an application or appeal;
  • Requesting a replacement Social Security card (in most areas); or
  • Requesting a replacement Medicare card.

(For a complete list, click here.)

Phone services will also be available, although the SSA says it is “focusing on providing specific critical services to people in dire need.” Examples of how the SSA can help by phone include:

  • If you did not receive your monthly payment;
  • If you are currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; or
  • If your benefits were suspended and can now be reinstated.

Expect long wait times if calling, however.

In-Person Appointments

In-person help will still be available for a limited list of critical services, including:

  • Reinstatement of benefits in dire circumstances;
  • Assistance to people with severe disabilities, blindness or terminal illnesses; or
  • Help for those in urgent need of eligibility decisions for Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid eligibility related to work status.

If you require such services, you must call in advance; there are no walk-ins at the field offices.

What if you already had a standing appointment or disability hearing scheduled?  If this is the case, the SSA will call you to reschedule or to take care of the issue by phone. Unfortunately, this call may come from a private phone number rather than from a government phone because employees are working remotely and do not necessarily have government-issued phones. Identity theft phone scams where callers impersonate SSA workers were already on the rise, and this will likely only add to beneficiaries’ confusion. Be aware that agency employees will never inform you that your Social Security number has been suspended, demand payment, or seek credit card information.  (Scams taking advantage of the situation have already started.)

For full details on changes to SSA services brought on by the response to the coronavirus, go to the SSA’s Social Security & Coronavirus page, https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/

If you are enrolling in Medicare, you can get free counseling from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).  To find your state program, click here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

 

 

The Coronavirus Pandemic Presents Ample Reasons to Reevaluate Your Estate Plan

The coronavirus health emergency is a reminder that life is unpredictable, and it makes sense to be prepared. It may sound self-serving, but the threats to life and finances posed by the pandemic offer ample reason to reevaluate your estate plan — or create one if you haven’t already.

Experts recommend that you will need to revisit your plan after certain key life events, including changes in health, finances, or family status. Unfortunately, this global health crisis can affect all of those aspects of your life. You should make sure you have these essential documents in place to protect yourself and your family:

  • Medical Directives. A medical directive may encompass a number of different documents, including a health care proxy, a durable power of attorney for health care, a living will, and medical instructions. The exact document or documents will depend on your state’s laws and the choices you make. Both a health care proxy and a durable power of attorney for health care designate someone you choose to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. A living will instructs your health care provider to withdraw life support if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state. A broader medical directive may include the terms of a living will, but will also provide instructions if you are in a less serious state of health, but are still unable to direct your health care yourself.
  • Power of Attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” — to act in your place for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated. In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that she could implement immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.
  • Will. A will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. If you do not have a will, the state will determine how your property is distributed. A will also appoints a legal representative (called an executor or a personal representative) to carry out your wishes. A will is especially important if you have minor children because it allows you to name a guardian for the children. However, a will covers only probate property. Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly-owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate and aren’t covered under a will.
  • Trust. A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” Trusts have one set of beneficiaries during those beneficiaries’ lives and another set — often their children — who begin to benefit only after the first group has died. There are several different reasons for setting up a trust. The most common reason is to avoid probate. If you establish a revocable living trust that terminates when you die, any property in the trust passes immediately to the beneficiaries. This can save time and money for the beneficiaries. Provided they are well-drafted, another advantage of trusts is their continuing effectiveness even if the donor dies or becomes incapacitated.
  • Beneficiary Designations. Although not necessarily a part of your estate plan, at the same time you create an estate plan, you should make sure your retirement plan beneficiary designations are up to date. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the distribution of benefits may be controlled by state or federal law or according to your particular retirement plan. Some plans automatically distribute money to a spouse or children. Although others may leave it to the retirement plan holder’s estate, this could have negative tax consequences. The only way to control where the money goes is to name a beneficiary.

Contact your attorney to make sure your estate plan is complete. Many attorneys are set up to meet with clients remotely, and states are beginning to temporarily relax their rules regarding requirements that documents be notarized in person.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Medicare is Expanding Telehealth Services During Coronavirus Pandemic

As part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is broadly expanding coverage of Medicare telehealth services to beneficiaries and relaxing HIPAA enforcement. This will give doctors the ability to provide more services to patients remotely.

Medicare covers telehealth services that include office visits, psychotherapy, and consultations provided by an eligible provider who isn’t at your location using an interactive two-way telecommunications system (like real-time audio and video). Normally, these services are available only in rural areas, under certain conditions, and only if you’re located at one of these places:

  • A doctor’s office
  • A hospital
  • A critical access hospital (CAH)
  • A rural health clinic
  • A federally qualified health center
  • A hospital-based dialysis facility
  • A skilled nursing facility
  • A community mental health center

Under the new expansion, Medicare will now pay for office, hospital, and other visits provided via telehealth in the patient’s home. Doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers will all be able to offer a variety of telehealth services to their patients, including evaluation and management visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings. In addition, relaxed HIPAA enforcement (the law governing patient privacy) means doctors may use technologies like Skype and Facetime to talk to patients as well as using the phone.

In addition to Medicare’s expansion, states are also allowing doctors to provide telehealth services to Medicaid beneficiaries. For example, New York will now cover telephone-based evaluations when an in-person visit is not medically recommended. Many other states are following suit.

This expansion of telehealth services will allow older adults who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 to stay home and still get medical advice. If you need to see a medical provider during this health emergency, check to see whether they are employing telehealth services. To use telehealth services, you need to verbally consent and your doctor must document that consent in your medical record. For information from AARP on what you might expect during a virtual doctor’s visit, click here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Medicare and Medicaid Will Cover Coronavirus Testing

With coronavirus dominating news coverage and creating alarm, it is important to know that Medicare and Medicaid will cover tests for the virus.

The department of Health and Human Services has designated the test for the new strain of coronavirus (officially called COVID-19) an essential health benefit. This designation means that Medicare and Medicaid will cover testing of beneficiaries who are suspected of having the virus. In order to be covered, a doctor or other health care provider must order the test. All tests on or after February 4, 2020 are covered, although your provider will need to wait until after April 1, 2020, to be able to submit a claim to Medicare for the test.

Congress has also passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help federal agencies respond to the outbreak. The funding will provide federal agencies with money to develop tests and treatment options as well as help local governments deal with outbreaks.

As always, to prevent the spread of this illness or other illnesses, including the flu, take the following precautions:
•    Wash your hands often with soap and water
•    Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
•    Stay home when you’re sick
•    See your doctor if you think you’re ill

For Medicare’s notice about coverage for the coronavirus, click here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.