No more trips for hearings about benefits

Bennet visits Durango to thank disabled residents for help

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett visits the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority administration building to hear people talk about the hardship caused by having to travel to Colorado Springs to contest the decisions of the Social Security Administration to pay them disability benefits. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett visits the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority administration building to hear people talk about the hardship caused by having to travel to Colorado Springs to contest the decisions of the Social Security Administration to pay them disability benefits.

Social Security is celebrating its 77th anniversary this week since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the landmark welfare act into law Aug. 14, 1935.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., thanked some disabled residents for helping bring Social Security into the age of Skype because benefit hearings by video conference are scheduled to begin at the Social Security Administration building in Bodo Park this October.

Video conferencing will spare Southwest Coloradans from having to travel to Colorado Springs and possibly expedite the benefit process.

“We live in an age where people can use technology to (bring) the action (to them), rather than having everybody come to Washington or, in this case, Colorado Springs,” Bennet said in an interview. “It’s really going to be transformational.”

Bennet asked the Social Security Administration to start video conferencing in Durango after the agency was forced to close a hearing site here for budgetary reasons in 2011, which then required locals to travel to Colorado Springs to make their case for disability benefits before an administrative law judge.

In the winter, claimants had to brave the weather and mountain passes, but they also had to go through the everyday hassles of pulling kids out of school or having their spouse take time off from work.

A normal six-hour trip could turn into a two-day journey for some disabled residents who are not able to sit in a car for longer than 45 minutes at a time, advocates told Bennet on Wednesday during an informal meeting at a Durango Fire & Rescue Authority building, conveniently located near the office for the Social Security Administration.

The travel prolonged an already lengthy process for establishing benefits, advocates said. Because claimants typically are unemployed, the delays can be stressful.

“Can anyone, no matter how much money they have saved, survive for two years ... with no income coming in? It just boggles my mind that anyone can,” said Gail Harriss, a Durango lawyer.

Nationwide, there are about 820,000 claims for Social Security benefits pending, but the average wait time has gone from 532 days in 2008 to 350 days in 2012 as video conferencing has become more common, according to the Social Security Administration.

Bennet hopes video conferencing in Durango will become a model for the state.

“Maybe it will make people’s lives a little bit easier,” he said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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