(TNS) — While safety concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic have closed government offices across the United States, the Social Security Administration is putting people in danger by directing them to a small Buffalo, N.Y., clinic for medical evaluations, five Buffalo-area attorneys said Friday.
The Social Security Administration has continued to require applicants for disability benefits to be evaluated by doctors at the 699 Hertel Ave. clinic run by Industrial Medicine Associates, also known as IMA, the attorneys said.
“I’ve had clients who have been told to go to this clinic and told that if they didn’t go, their applications for benefits could be negatively impacted,” said Richard G. Abbott, a Kenmore attorney who represents applicants for Social Security disability insurance. “Our president, our governor and county executive are telling people with underlying health issues to stay home. Social Security tells them to go to a place where they may be exposed to people who are sick. It’s outrageous.”
A Lackawanna woman in her 50s who is seeking disability benefits said she had an appointment to be examined at the clinic next week, but she was able to convince the clinic staff to delay it for a month.
The woman said a clinic employee "told me they are doing social distancing. She said no more than 10 people will be allowed in the waiting room. She told me, ‘You’re not going to be coming into an office filled with the coronavirus.’ ”
“But how do they know that?” she asked.
Buffalo attorney Jeffrey Freedman, who has been handling Social Security cases for 42 years, said the Social Security Administration should suspend the clinic appointments until the Covid-19 risk drops.
“It really is a disgrace that Social Security requires claimants to go to these offices, especially now with the pandemic raging,” said Freedman. “Claimants are worried that, if they refuse to go to the appointments, their applications will be turned down, and if they go, their lives could be in danger. At the very least, the government should suspend these examinations immediately.”
Similar comments came from attorneys Christopher Pashler, James Ratchford and Kenneth Hiller. The attorneys said many of their clients suffer from lung diseases, heart problems, diabetes and other medical issues that put people at risk for catching the Covid-19 virus.
Social Security Administration officials told The Buffalo News they are looking into the safety concerns. In a statement issued Friday night, spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency will not require disability applicants to appear in person for examinations until the pandemic is over.
In response to questions raised by The News, Hinkle said the agency has instructed officials to "hold any case where the consultative exam, necessary for a disability decision, is cancelled and to reschedule it once the COVID 19 pandemic subsides."
On March 17, the Social Security Administration closed its offices in Buffalo and all over the United States. The government agency said it was concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic and the threat posed to “older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions.”
But the agency continued to direct applicants for disability benefits to go for medical evaluations at the IMA clinic.
The medical evaluations are part of the Social Security disability insurance application process for thousands of people who seek those benefits each year in Western New York.
More than 10 million Americans receive monthly Social Security disability insurance benefits, according to the federal government, with more than $145 billion in benefits paid out in 2019. The Social Security Administration says it hires doctors – such as those at IMA – to conduct evaluations to stop people from defrauding the system.
But attorneys who represent claimants say the amount of fraud is low.
Pashler said one of his clients, a woman in her late 50s with a “significant lung condition,” was told she must go to the clinic for a health evaluation but that she could wear a mask.
Social Security is one of many government agencies who work through a state agency called the Division of Disability Determinants to have medical evaluations done on people seeking government benefits.
The state office hires private medical companies such as IMA – which has clinics all over New York state and in parts of Pennsylvania – to do the work.
Officials with IMA declined to talk with The News. A manager in the Hertel Avenue office referred a reporter to company headquarters in Tarrytown. No one there responded to phone messages from The News.
According to an automated message left for people who call IMA, the company is taking stringent precautions to protect anyone who visits its clinics. A sign on the door of the Hertel location advises anyone with a cold, fever or other medical issues to call the office and reschedule their appointment.
A News reporter saw a woman and two men come out of the office after evaluations Thursday afternoon.
One of the men, who walked with a cane and said he is 54, told The News that Social Security officials sent him to be evaluated by IMA.
“There were only four people in the waiting room, we sat apart from each other, and I felt safe,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “The doctor who looked at me had a mask on and gloves. I did not wear a mask. There was a woman in the waiting room who kept sniffling. After she left, a lady came over with disinfectant and was cleaning up the whole area where she was sitting.”
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