Judge orders SSA to protect clients of Oregon decertified payee

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A federal court issued an order March 26 requiring the Social Security Administration to take steps to ensure that an estimated 700 former clients of Safety Net of Oregon, a payee which previously assisted them with managing their public benefits, continue to receive services.

“This case has nationwide importance in terms of the numbers of people affected by a representative payee’s shutdown and demonstrates a constructive solution,” said Anna Rich of the National Senior Citizens Law Center in a news release. “It represents an enormous victory.”

The people at the center of the case have disabilities that prevent them from being able to manage their benefits independently. They rely on monthly Supplemental Security Income or Old Age, Survivor & Disability Insurance benefits to cover the basic necessities that allow them to continue living in their homes.

Previously, the SSA contracted with Safety Net of Oregon, who was responsible for handling, managing and distributing the benefits of more than 1,000 people in the Portland area. In early March, the SSA decertified Safety of Net of Oregon as a representative payee, due to findings of mismanagement of these funds.

During the next couple of weeks, about 300 of these individuals were able to find another payee. However, approximately 700 had not, prompting a class-action lawsuit against the SSA, filed March 21 by Disability Rights Oregon, the Oregon Law Center and the National Senior Citizens Law Center.

In the lawsuit, the advocacy groups said the SSA violated the recipients’ due process rights by failing to notify many of the recipients that they were at risk of no longer having a representative payee at the end of March, when the Safety Net of Oregon’s contract terminated.

Moreover, the lawsuit alleged, the notices sent out by the SSA lacked any information on how to appeal if their benefits were suspended. In addition, the advocacy groups accused the SSA of not following its own own procedural guidelines by failing to assign clients to other payees, contact other social service organizations, or take other steps to ensure benefits would not be interrupted.

“Many clients are not capable of going to the Social Security Office to request a new payee, or have barriers as a result of their disability that make them unable to navigate the system and sign up with a new payee,” the lawsuit stated. “They will therefore be without benefits on April 1, 2014, unable to pay rent, get money for food, get a bus pass, have their medical expenses paid (including prescription medications), and will face eviction, loss of needed medication and in some cases severe emotional harm.”

The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon responded by issuing a temporary restraining order, requiring the SSA to ensure these recipients continue to receive their benefits.

On March 28, SSA confirmed it will comply with the order.

“Disabled, low-income Oregonians who were facing a threat to their survival have had their voices heard at the highest levels of government,” Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center said in the news release.

Disability Rights Oregon is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network, NDRN.