Get ready. Social Security is going paperless!

February 18, 2011

Social Security is in the process of shifting away from paper checks in favor of electronic benefits.  This means that with a few narrow exceptions, individuals receiving SSDI and SSI benefits will be required to get their benefits via direct deposit or on a prepaid debit card.   Many of our clients already receive their SSDI or SSI checks electronically deposited into their bank accounts.  But for others who still receive paper checks, this might be a big change.

What are the options to go paperless?
Recipients without a bank account  will have the option to receive their benefits on the Direct Express card.  The Direct Express card has the MasterCard logo and operates like any other prepaid debit card. Current recipients getting paper checks can sign for the Direct Express card at any time, by phone, in any SSA office, or online.

The Direct Express card offers significant advantages to beneficiaries over other prepaid debit cards:

  • It can be used without incurring fees;
  • Costs nothing upfront; and
  • Has no overdraft charges.

Many CLS clients have received marketing information about prepaid debit cards from companies such as NetSpend, Metabank, and others.  We advise CLS clients to enroll in Direct Express over these costly alternatives.

When will this change happen?
People who start getting SSDI or SSI after May 1, 2011 will be required to choose direct deposit or Direct Express.  Current recipients still getting a paper check will be required to switch by March 1, 2013.  Recipients currently receiving benefits via paper check can switch at any time.

Does this apply to all recipients of SSA benefits?
No.  Some people will not be required to give up their paper checks:

  • Recipients aged 90 years old or over;
  • Recipients with mental impairments who seek a hardship waiver; or
  • Recipients who live in remote areas (not applicable to Philadelphia).

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Disabled & Elderly Pennsylvanians File Motion for Summary Relief in SSI Lawsuit

February 17, 2011

In November 2010, low-income Pennsylvanians who were disabled, blind, or elderly filed a class action law suit against the Department of Public Welfare when their SSI payments were reduced unlawfully.   The case is called Naylor v. Department of Public Welfare.

Earlier this week, lawyers for the class members filed a motion for summary relief.  In the motion, the class members laid out their full argument in detail.  To read the motion for summary relief, click here.

It will still be several months (at a minimum) before a judge rules in this case.  But stay tuned for the latest development.

PECO’s low-income CAP rate program and the end of PECO electric rate caps

February 14, 2011

Many low-income clients of Community Legal Services receive reduced PECO rates through the CAP program.  Many have asked us what effect the expiration of PECO’s electric rate caps last month will have on the CAP program.   Here’s the latest:

Q. I heard that PECO’s electric rate caps are expiring in January 2011, does that mean that my low-income CAP Rate discount is expiring?
A. No!  PECO’s low-income CAP Rate program will continue to provide discounted bills for low-income customers who are enrolled in the CAP Rate program.

Q. What is the PECO CAP Rate discount and how can I get the discount?
A. The PECO CAP Rate discount is available to customers whose household income is within 150% of the federal poverty level.  See chart.  Household Size Monthly Income at 150% of Federal Poverty Level1 $1,354 or less2 $1,821 or less3 $2,289 or less4 $2,756 or lessEach Add’l Person Add $468 Call PECO at 1-800-774-7040, provide your monthly income information, and ask for a CAP Rate application.

Q. Can I switch to another electric supplier while enrolled in PECO’s CAP Rate discount?
A. No.  You must give up the CAP Rate discount if you switch to a non-PECO electric supplier.  The CAP Rate discount is now at least 25% off the first 650 kWh per month (average usage is about 750 kWh a month).  Right now, no alternate supplier can beat this discount.  Also, if you switch, any unforgiven balance from before you enrolled in the CAP Rate discount will become due immediately. So, if you have the CAP Rate discount, don’t switch.

Q. I am not eligible for PECO’s low-income CAP Rate discount program, but can a non-PECO supplier lower my electric bill?
A. Shopping guides and comparison charts are available for free from the PA Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA), 800-684-6560 or, and from  the PA Public Utility Commission (PUC), 800-692-7380 or

Q. How do I compare all the different offers?
A. In the same way you would compare cable and cell phone providers, ask: How often will the rates change? E.g., monthly, quarterly (every 3 months), yearly?  The “market” price of electricity can go up and down, in the same as gas prices.

Q. Is there an early cancellation fee?
The plans that lock in prices may have these fees.   Again, good websites for shopping guides are: and

Q. Are door-to-door sales allowed and how do I cancel a contract I was pressured to enter?
A. Door-to-door sales are allowed.  However, you have the right to cancel a contract within 3-days, if signed during a door-to-door sale.  You can also complain to the PUC about unfair sales practices, at 1-800-692-7380.

Q. Will I stop getting PECO bills when I switch?
A. No, PECO will continue to bill you “distribution” charges for delivering electricity, and the “generation” and “transmission” charges on the bill will be from your chosen supplier.

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CLS Urges Low-Income Philadelphians to Prepare for End of Winter Moratorium on Utility Shut-offs

February 11, 2011

It’s only early February and agencies such as Community Legal Service (CLS) are already concerned about low-income families who will lose utility service once shut-off season starts on April 1. Regulated utilities statewide can issue shut-off notices that inform low-income customers behind on bills that their utility service will be terminated between 10 and 60 days, with the earliest notices dated Feb. 1 to cover an April 1 or later termination.  CLS urges low-income utility customers with shut-off notices to apply for LIHEAP Crisis benefits to avoid termination of heat-related utility service.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Filling Gideon’s Empty Chair’ – Our nation’s promise of equal justice under law

February 10, 2011

Can a civil trial be fair if a person does not have access to a lawyer?  What if you are a person of little or no means and you are at risk of losing your child, home or income?

Filling Gideon’s Empty Chair,” an article by Michael J. Carroll, senior attorney at CLS, and Louis S. Rulli, Law Professor at University of Pennsylvania, explores whether our judicial system can be fair and equal when many people do not have access to the help of an attorney.

Click here to view the article.

Pennsylvania legislature should work for real solutions to address the uninsured crisis

February 8, 2011

Every day at Community Legal Services, uninsured Philadelphians come to our office seeking assistance.  Medical debt is driving them to bankruptcy.  They’re putting off preventive health care because they lack insurance.  They’re worrying about how they can continue to afford their escalating monthly premiums.  And now, they’re wondering what to do after their adultBasic insurance ends at the end of the month.

When the Pennsylvania House Health Committee approved HB 42 yesterday on a straight party-line vote, it missed a critical opportunity to address the needs of the 1.3 million uninsured people in Pennsylvania.  We opposed this bill for a number of reasons.

HB 42 is out of step with the health care community. The American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the AARP, among others, support the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  In Pennsylvania, an advisory committee consisting of all stakeholders including hospitals, doctors, insurers, businesses, and consumers recommended that Pennsylvania move forward with responsible implementation of the ACA.  Governor Corbett also has called for implementation without delay.

HB 42 would undermine Pennsylvanians’ obligation to take personal responsibility for their health care. The ACA requires people who can afford health insurance to have insurance.  This requirement makes sure that people do not “game the system” by waiting until they get sick to buy insurance, driving up health care costs for everyone.

HB 42 would deprive hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians of health insurance.  1.3 million Pennsylvanians are uninsured and more than half of a million people are on the waiting list for adultBasic.  Failure to implement the ACA would prevent these individuals from accessing affordable health insurance in 2014.

HB 42 is unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Legislature does not have the authority to direct the Governor or state officials not to follow federal law.  Pennsylvania should permit existing litigation to work its way through the federal courts.

Even lawmakers and advocates who disagree with the ACA recognize the need for careful planning and sound implementation.  State officials will be required to make thousands of decisions about how to adapt the ACA for Pennsylvania.  Even outspoken opponents like Governor Corbett recognize the need for continued implementation as long as the ACA is in effect, to keep Pennsylvania moving forward.

We urge our legislators to come together to find real solutions to help the 1.3 million Pennsylvanians without health insurance.

Key Suggestions to Corbett’s Transition Team on Unemployment Compensation

February 1, 2011

Sharon Dietrich, the Managing Attorney for Public Benefits and Employment at Community Legal Services, recently delivered a memo to governor-elect Corbett’s transition team on the state’s Unemployment Compensation (UC) program.   The memo takes a hard look at one of the most crucial safety net programs during a recession and makes suggestions on how to improve that program and ensure that it is stable and continues to provide a safety net for years to come.

The full text of the transition memo can be found here.  The transition memo references a number of supporting documents.  They can be found here.

The memo makes four primary recommendations to the Corbett transition team:

  1. The UC Trust Fund insolvency must be remedied by raising the taxable wage base, not by cutting UC benefits.
  2. $273 million in federal UC stimulus money must be accepted by August 2011 so that Pennsylvania does not lose the opportunity to provide hundreds of millions in federally paid benefits to unemployed Pennsylvanians and to reduce employer interest payments on the federal UC loan.
  3. Staffing levels in the UC system must be retained to help the state return to compliance with federal requirements for timely decisions.
  4. Overpayments can be reduced and the system can be made more equitable by requiring employer appeals to occur within 15 days of initial decisions to pay UC claims.

The effect of these recommendations would be a very important set of steps to shoring up a system that supports so many and is crucial to maintaining the Pennsylvania economy, yet  is reeling in red-ink.