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Social Security Administration Acts to Protect U.S. Holocaust Survivors

(Aug. 11, 2014 – Los Angeles, CA) Bet Tzedek, a legal aid firm advocating for U.S. Holocaust survivors since 1974, lauded the Social Security Administration (SSA) for steps the agency is taking to protect Holocaust survivors whose need-based federal benefits are threatened as a result of their receipt of Holocaust reparations. A recent policy instruction update,1 national training for SSA staff, and forthcoming changes to SSA’s Procedural Operations Manual System (POMS) will help ensure that the benefits survivors rely on to pay for basic necessities are truly protected.

“On behalf of the estimated 125,000 Holocaust survivors in the U.S. today, Bet Tzedek would like to extend our appreciation to Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin and her staff at SSA in addressing this critical issue,” offered Elissa D. Barrett, vice president and general counsel.

Despite the protections of the Victims of Nazi Persecution Act of 1994, survivors have continued to experience the erroneous termination or reduction of their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and may be mistakenly charged with SSI overpayments. Outgoing Bet Tzedek President and CEO Sandor E. Samuels testified before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging regarding these and other special needs of U.S. Holocaust survivors.

Even a temporary disruption of needed benefits and services can result in terrible difficulties for survivors, creating unnecessary financial hardship as well as confusion, fear, depression, and anxiety. SSA’s announced actions will help prevent such disruptions.

The announced actions are particularly timely in light of the August 1 expansion of the German “Ghetto Pension” (ZRBG) program. Survivors who currently receive such pensions may, upon request, have their pensions reassessed by the German government and may receive a retroactive, lump sum payment. SSA’s policy instruction confirms that under federal law, payments under the ZRBG program should not be counted in determining eligibility for need-based benefits.

In January 2014 the Obama Administration appointed Aviva Sufian to be the Administration’s first “Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services.” The Special Envoy reached out to Bet Tzedek to offer assistance in addressing the issues facing the nation’s most vulnerable Holocaust survivors.

Through Ms. Sufian’s efforts, Bet Tzedek was afforded the opportunity to recommend steps to augment SSA’s existing protections for Holocaust survivors’ benefits. The legal aid firm identified the need for more robust guidance in SSA’s Program Operations Manual System regarding the Holocaust reparations payments that qualify for exclusion from eligibility determinations as well as the need for more training for eligibility workers. At the Commissioner’s request, Bet Tzedek proposed improvements and supplements to the Program Operations Manual System.

“By adopting these recommendations and providing national training for SSA workers, Acting Commissioner Colvin has taken proactive steps to ensure survivors are spared the emotionally and financially difficult process of losing needed benefits, providing survivors with increased comfort and dignity as they age,” said Nicholas Levenhagen, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Bet Tzedek.

About Bet Tzedek
Founded in 1974, Bet Tzedek pursues equal justice for all by providing high-quality, free legal services to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds. One of the nation’s premier public interest law firms, Bet Tzedek uses direct legal service, impact litigation, community outreach and legislative advocacy in the areas of consumer rights, employment rights, elder justice/caregiver law, Holocaust reparations, housing, human trafficking, public benefits and real estate to serve more than 23,000 people every year.

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For more information or to schedule an interview with Elissa Barrett or Nicholas Levenhagen, please call Kirsty Burkhart at (323) 549-5802 or email her at kburkhart@bettzedek.org.