Closure of appeal site draws criticism

Great Falls Tribune

by Richard Ecke

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., fired off a letter to a federal official Tuesday protesting the June 1 closure of a Social Security Administration remote hearing site in Great Falls.

“The Great Falls hearing site is one of the busiest in Montana,” Tester wrote to Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. He said attorneys representing clients believe the site is the second busiest in the state, behind one in Billings.

Tester urged Astrue to delay the closure and explore “less drastic options that will not cut critical services to my constituents.” Gina Ramer, regional communications director for the administration office in Denver, could not be reached Wednesday for comment on why the agency closed the site.

Cameron Ferguson, a Great Falls attorney whose practice concentrates on Social Security disability cases and workers’ compensation matters, said he hopes the federal agency will reverse the decision to close the Great Falls hearing location.

“Having to travel to Helena for hearings places an undue burden on claimants and doesn’t save any money,” Ferguson said. “Many people don’t even have cars.”

The remote hearing site in a rented Great Falls building provided a location for a traveling judge from Billings to hear appeals of denials of benefits from people requesting Social Security disability benefits, Supplemental Security Income or other Social Security benefits.

Ferguson said he represents clients seeking benefits from two separate programs, Social Security disability and SSI. A judge usually came from Billings and spent the week in Great Falls, handling up to about two-dozen cases during each visit, Ferguson said.

The Social Security Administration “skipped June” for hearings involving Great Falls-area people, meaning the closure won’t result in people having to go to other hearing sites until July, Ferguson said. He added that he is hopeful the Great Falls site could be revived in August.

Marie Walsh, paralegal at the People’s Law Center in Great Falls, said the nonprofit agency has notified clients of the change. She said options include going to a hearing in Helena or Kalispell, or having a video hearing.

“We just feel that it’s not fair to our clients,” Walsh said. “Most of them would have to stay overnight.”

Most of her clients have little money available to spend for transportation to a hearing, even if they would get reimbursed a few months later, she added.

In his letter, Tester said a number of alternatives to closing the Great Falls site are available, such as holding video hearings through a private vendor in Great Falls.

“I have received word that a workable solution was to locate a hearing site at the Great Falls Social Security field office, but that proposal was rejected by the regional administrator,” Tester wrote. “I hope you’ll revisit that solution as it seems like a common- sense solution to this problem.”

Ferguson said he supports Tester’s efforts.