Society problems

Seniors don’t have to manage public benefits alone

  • Allison Jones is an attorney in the Nashville office of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.

Seniors are among the most vulnerable members of our communities. Some of the unavoidable tasks of everyday life can become overwhelming, especially for people with limited mobility or who don’t have family members nearby.

In recent years, the gradual shift to online services has made it even more difficult for older people to manage essential benefits.

As an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, I frequently work with seniors who experience issues accessing public benefits like TennCare, SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and social security.

We want older members of our community to know that we are here to help them get the help they need.

Effects of the pandemic about customer service

It was sometimes difficult, even before 2020, to connect with government agencies like TennCare, the Social Security Administration, and the Tennessee Department of Human Services. One consequence of the pandemic is that many staff at these agencies are now working remotely or on hybrid schedules.

Although some offices have reopened to the public, agencies have increasingly encouraged people to interact with representatives online rather than in person. But this new way of doing things can be very difficult for older people who are unfamiliar with the Internet, who lack the vision and dexterity to navigate an agency’s website, or who do not have access to the Internet to begin with.

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Along the same lines, increasingly common security features, such as two-step verification, often require cellphones, which are less commonly used by older people. Even for agency offices that have resumed in-person assistance, it may be difficult for some seniors to get to the office and wait in line to be seen. Also, it might not be medically possible for them to wait for hours.

cutting through paperwork

One of the ways Legal Aid Society can help is by advocating directly with state or federal agencies, when office or internet access presents a barrier for a senior.

The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands received a $78,862 technology initiative grant from the Legal Services Corporation.

We understand how frustrating it can be to have benefits cut or reduced, sometimes without a clear explanation. Often, seniors who try to solve a problem on their own find themselves giving up because the process is too complicated or confusing.

We are often able to cut through the red tape and get to the heart of a problem, resolving it much faster than customers could on their own. We are also able to help clients ensure they are getting the maximum amount of benefits for which they are eligible.

If a person has unpaid medical bills, for example, we can use them to increase their SNAP benefit. We are happy to help you gather the necessary information and submit it on behalf of a client if they are unable to do so.

Allison Jones

Depending on a client’s situation, we may do much of our work over the phone. However, if necessary, we can also visit a client in their home, as we understand how difficult it can be to have physical limitations.

For seniors who are able, we encourage them to try calling the agency in question first, although wait times can be long and there are some limits to what can be managed by telephone. The more information a client can provide us with from the agency, the better advice and assistance we can provide.

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Housing and eviction issues

Many seniors rely solely on Social Security income to cover their living expenses, which means there can be dire consequences if their benefits are cut off. Often elderly clients come to us because their payments have stopped or been reduced, leaving them with no money to pay essential monthly expenses like rent.

In cases that involve both benefits and housing, we have a very productive partnership with our housing unit at Legal Aid Society.

In a recent example, a 79-year-old client lost all of her income when her husband died. His bank account was closed and his Social Security payments, which had been deposited into that account, were returned to the US Treasury Department.

She had been trying to resolve the issue for a few months without success before contacting us, at which point she was about to be evicted. We were able to get the eviction postponed by getting assistance through the Metro Action HOPE program, which was created to provide rent relief during the pandemic.

We were then able to restore our client’s social security payments, including the retroactive payments she had lost.

Where to start

If you need help accessing the benefits to which you are entitled or if you are having trouble resolving a problem with existing benefits, please contact us at Legal Aid Society.

Allison Jones is an attorney with the Nashville office of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, practicing in the areas of health, public benefits, and special education. Learn more at www.las.org or by following the firm on Facebook.