SAN FRANCISCO — Federal and state agencies systematically deny benefits to California’s homeless and disabled by failing to evaluate their claims fully, a group of attorneys from the San Francisco Bay area claim.
Lawyers from Berkeley’s Homeless Action Center and the San Francisco office of Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court Wednesday, saying that federal and state agencies do not make enough effort to consult medical records or to contact doctors who have treated applicants in the past.
Instead, the lawyers say, the Social Security Administration, its Center of Disability and Regional Offices and the state Department of Social Services lean too often on the opinions of their own contracted doctors to evaluate claims – which places applicants with inaccessible or absent medical records at a disadvantage for benefits.
“The case really aims at trying to be sure that the most disfavored group of Social Security applicants – poor people with mental disabilities – get fairly evaluated on their medical record,” said Robert Borton, partner in the litigation group at Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe.
The Social Security Administration contends that it follows all federal guidelines for collecting evidence, though a spokesman said the agency would not comment on the suit until it was reviewed.
“The best evidence always comes from an applicants’ own doctors, but there are times when that evidence is either not enough or it’s too old,” said Lowell Kepke, a spokesman with the San Francisco Regional Office of Social Security Administration
Blanca Barna, a DSS spokeswoman, said the agency knew of the suit but would not comment until it had been served.
Homeless applicants are often uninsured and are treated at county hospitals. That can make records and visits to doctors hard to track down, said Steven Weiss, staff attorney with the Homeless Action Center. But that’s no excuse, he added.
The state DSS gets about 80,000 new disability claims each year, and those applicants must meet stricter requirements to qualify for disability insurance or payments from the Social Security Administration, Kepke said. The case was brought on behalf of eight plaintiffs and a class of potentially thousands of Californians, the attorneys say.
The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, but say they are asking for a court order requiring the agencies to follow the law and to grant disabled people who were unlawfully denied benefits the chance to have their claims reviewed.
“Many people have their cases poorly developed by the state and then in three years their health is deteriorated, they’re uninsured. “People become homeless waiting for their claims to be approved, so there’s a lot of harm,” Weiss said.