Concerns over the Covid-19 virus have prompted the Social Security Administration to temporarily postpone thousands of health examinations that applicants for disability benefits had to undergo in medical clinics in Buffalo and across the United States.
The agency took the action after The Buffalo News reported Saturday that a group of Buffalo attorneys raised concerns about the safety of their clients who had been directed to attend the medical evaluations at a clinic at 699 Hertel Ave.
A state office that coordinates health examinations statewide for the Social Security Administration and other government agencies has also temporarily halted those, according to a state official and several Buffalo lawyers.
“I was glad to hear that the Social Security Administration and the state have put a stop to this – not only for the safety of my clients, but the employees who work in these clinics,” said Richard G. Abbott, a Kenmore attorney who raised safety concerns. “We may have saved a few lives by raising these issues.”
The actions taken by Social Security administration could delay some disability claims for months, but public safety is more important at this point, said Jeffrey Freedman and Kenneth Hiller, two Buffalo attorneys active with the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.
“We’re talking about a large number of examinations, probably thousands a week throughout the country,” said Hiller.
He said about 500,000 people a year apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, and of those, about 95 percent are required by the government to go for health evaluations.
“Social Security has taken steps to protect the public we serve and our employees while continuing to provide critical services. We are not requiring applicants to appear in-person for consultative examinations during the national Covid-19 pandemic,” Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said in a statement sent to The News.
In Western New York, most of those exams are done by a company called Industrial Medicine Associates, or IMA, at 699 Hertel.
IMA officials have declined to talk with The News, but according to the company’s website, IMA has been told by the Social Security Administration that “all consultative examinations should be temporarily cancelled, effective immediately.”
The company, which is based in Tarrytown, sent The News a brief statement today, indicating that IMA “continues to provide essential services on behalf of those governmental agencies that have instructed us to do so.” The company declined to elaborate.
A Southtowns area woman in her 50s, who suffers from a lung disease and other health problems, told The News that she was “did not feel safe” when she recently went for an examination at the IMA office.
“There was a hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall, and I used it, but there was nobody in the office telling you that you had to use it,” the woman said. “I wore a mask in there, but other patients I saw did not wear masks. Nobody took my temperature. There were about 11 people in the waiting room, and some of them had their kids with them. The doctor who examined me, I could tell, was extremely nervous about the fact that I had a mask on. He kept asking me why I had a mask on. He was a nervous wreck, he didn’t want to get close to me and he rushed the whole thing along.”
The woman added that she has no symptoms of Covid-19 and said she wore a mask for her own protection.
On its website, IMA said it adheres to the strictest government guidelines for safety at all of its clinics, which are located throughout New York state and in parts of Pennsylvania.
Another disability applicant from Lackawanna, also in her 50s, told The News that it is frustrating to know that her application for disability insurance could be delayed because of the pandemic.
“I cannot work,” the woman said. “I need this money. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The state office of temporary and disability assistance, which coordinates the health evaluations statewide, has declined to comment on questions raised by The News.
But three Buffalo attorneys who deal with the state office said the office told their clients the health examinations are canceled until further notice because of the pandemic.