You might have heard that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been working to combat a years-long case backlog; benefits that should only take months to approve now frequently take years. One of the strategies that SSA has employed to try to shorten wait times is to start allowing claimants for disability benefits to have their hearings in front of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) via video teleconference (VTC).
Many people wonder what the differences are between regular, in-person hearings and the video hearings. Although the purpose of both hearings is the same (arguing your case that you are entitled to disability benefits in the presence of an ALJ) as well as the format, the truth is that the two of them differ in some keys ways that you may want to take into account before you agree to a VTC.
At a video teleconference hearing, you and your legal representative will appear at a designated location, and the ALJ hearing your case will appear remotely. The location you go to is often your local SSA field office, but it can also be your attorney’s office or your local Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). VTCs are frequently used for claimants who live far away from an SSA field office, and they are always used for cases that are transferred to a National Hearing Center (NHC).
There are definitely benefits to video teleconference disability hearings. They increase efficiency, they are more conveniently located for all parties, they lower travel expenses, and they usually allow for hearing dates to be scheduled faster. That is because SSA has access to more locations and more ALJs if they can schedule you for a VTC.
Also, some studies suggest that appearing for a VTC might induce less anxiety than for an in-person hearing because you are not in the same room as an ALJ. And VTCs are extremely helpful for those whose disabilities or conditions make it uncomfortable or impossible to travel long distances.
There are, however, some distinct disadvantages to appearing at video teleconference hearings in your effort to obtain disability benefits. Government statistics show that claimants whose hearings were held in-person have a 3% better chance of being approved that those who have a VTC. A VTC will also likely feel less personal because all parties involved are not in the same room together. The ALJ will not see you enter the room, and there will be fewer off-the-record conversations that could allow the ALJ to get to know you better. It is also far easier to deny someone benefits when you’re not in the same room.
One of the reasons most claimants are approved for disability benefits at the hearing stage is because it is easier to determine credibility by talking to a claimant and observing his or her body language than just reading an application and medical records. It can be difficult to assess credibility when an ALJ cannot look you in the eye.
In theory, the ALJ should be able to see you clearly and observe your behavior by zooming in and out, but that assumes nothing goes wrong with the technology during your hearing. Technical difficulties are almost inevitable when any system relies on video teleconferences to complete an essential part of the disability benefits process. A technician should be available to make sure the VTC equipment is connected and working properly.
If you have been scheduled for a VTC, speak with your attorney about whether he or she thinks it’s right for you and your case. If it is, prepare for it the same way you would for an in-person hearing. While you are under oath, tell the truth, describe your daily activities adequately, do not exaggerate your level of pain or the symptoms you experience, and dress appropriately.
If you have been scheduled for a VTC, but you do not think it is the best forum for you and your attorney to advocate for your disability benefits, do not despair. Although refusing to attend a video teleconference hearing will almost certainly delay your eventual in-person hearing date, you do have the right to object. You must object, however, within thirty days of receiving the letter from SSA that provides your hearing information. Social Security will send you this notice at least seventy-five days before your scheduled hearing date, and they will reimburse your travel expenses if you live more than seventy-five miles from the nearest hearing office.
Regardless of the forum, your disability benefits determination will be based on the merits of your case, not on whether you attended your hearing in-person. Work closely with your attorney to come up with the best strategy, and go into your hearing with confidence.