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Applying for disability.

July 12, 2012

There comes a time for many of us who deal with chronic illness when we are no longer able to work enough to support ourselves.  Applying for disability benefits is difficult and not a decision made lightly.  It is a tremendous adjustment emotionally and financially.  It can take months of struggling to keep up at work to make the decision, as it did for me.  But for some, this time comes suddenly, after a catastrophic health event.  Either way, it is a loss.  We lose part of our identity that is tied up in work and career.  We may lose financial security.  We lose the respect of some, but gain the respect of others.

The process of making a disability claim is grueling, whether one is applying for Social Security disability, long term disability insurance, disability under worker’s comp, or through the Veteran’s Administration.  Getting your doctors to support your claim may be easy, or may turn into a degrading debacle.  Sometimes the doctor says he or she will support you, but then inexplicably change their mind.  Sometimes just getting the office to send your medical records turns into a (seemingly) never ending battle.  Then there’s the humiliation.  Having to prove you are sick, having to go for the physical exam and possibly even a mental status exam requested by the disability provider with their doctors.  Wondering if you really are that sick, knowing there are other people who are sicker.  Having people you thought would be supportive react negatively with comments about taking government handouts.

In my case, I applied for both long term disability insurance and Social Security.  I paid into both of these coverages for many years.  The LTD policy I had held for the 6 years I’d been working at my last job.  And of course, most people who work pay into Social Security.  I’d been paying them since I was 16 years old.  So to anyone grumbling about “handouts,” I remind you that this is Social Security Disability Insurance that people pay for throughout their working life.  For both of these policies, I was required to be disabled for 5 months before payments would begin.  Unfortunately, I had already exhausted all my paid leave at my job.  That meant 5 months with no income.  Of course I had little to no savings with all the medical expenses my husband and I had over the last few years, just my 401k and another small retirement account from a previous job.  My husband had been disabled for some time so I had been the only wage earner in our household.

So, the next step was applying for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), what used to be called food stamps.  More grumbling from the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” set.  This program was invaluable for us during that first 6 months before I began receiving payments from my LTD policy.  Next was liquidating any available assets for rent and utility money.  We sold a few things we didn’t need.  I withdrew the funds from the former employer retirement account.  I took a loan from my 401k.   We got help from family.  We managed.  The stress of this was immense.

Meanwhile, my cardiologist first agreed to support my claim then shot me down, having his nurse tell me I had “no cardiac limitations.”  For someone suffering from daily chest pain and unexplained crippling fatigue, this came as quite a shock.  My primary care doctor did not feel comfortable certifying my disability if the cardiologist said I was “fine.”  In the end, only my psychiatrist was willing to help me.  That’s enough to make you crazy even if you weren’t to begin with.  Her support and two subsequent hospitalizations for cardiac issues were enough to convince the LTD company, at least for a few months.

Social Security was much less stressful for me.  Partly this was because I was already familiar with the process from assisting my husband to apply for SSDI.  I knew my claim would be denied at first so that didn’t worry me.  I knew the process could take up to 2 years, but as long as I had my LTD payments, we would be ok.  I hired an attorney to represent me.  I knew I could not handle the additional stress of dealing with Social Security and making sure they got all my medical records.

Attorneys who handle SSDI claims generally work on contingency.  This means they only collect a fee if you win.  The amount charged varies by state.  Here in Texas, they charge 25% of your first payment from Social Security with a cap of $6000.  I believe that is set by law, but don’t know the specifics.  According to my attorney, Social Security puts more time into evaluating claims when the person has representation.  I’ve heard from several sources that most people need an attorney for a successful claim.  I have met people who had fairly clearly defined disease states with objectively measurable clinical signs who made successful applications on their own.  This would be something like CHF with an ejection fraction less than 15% or end stage renal disease requiring dialysis.  In my case, things were not nearly so clear cut, so I never considered applying on my own.

In the end, my LTD claim was approved after 6 months.  My Social Security claim was approved on my first appeal 5 months after I applied.  I still feel the loss and grieve my inability to work as a nurse.  These feelings of grief come at unexpected moments: walking the hallways of a hospital to get to a clinic appointment, upon finding out my SSDI claim was approved, deciding to cut apart my scrub hats to use the fabric for quilting projects.  The grief will continue to come and go, probably for years.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012 12:08 pm

    Good morning–
    Reading your post this morning, I’m reminded of that awful time of my life, just a couple of years ago, when I was in application for Social Security Disability. In addition to struggling through the application, which was made very much better with the assistance of my attorney, I was struggling with my heart condition and multilple hospitalizations at the same time,
    and my husband was sturggling with re-employment. We had friends who lent and gave us money to keep groceries on the table and the house payment from going under water. Still,
    the sense of failure, loss and uncertainty nearly did us in.

    My husband and I still suffer PTSD from the physical heart condition stuff, sudden losses and change of life, as well as the trauma of going through the application process and becoming medically indigent. It has changed our lives.

    Strangely, my life seems to be honed down to the most important stuff now. In this life of relative poverty and simplicity, I’m finding peace. So much less to worry about, so much more to pursue on a “real” level. I keep finding things I want to do that don’t cost a cent, which gives me a sense of hope. It turns out that money is not necessary to attain my dreams. I’ve got all I need in any given moment. At least, that’s how I’m feeling right now.
    The dark looming medical costs and needs do rear their ugly heads from time to time, but we’ve become expert at dealing with that stuff by now.

    I look forward to a society in which humanistic values begin to replace material drive, where compassion outpaces competition. This blog is one place where sanity reigns. Thank you for making it so!

    Love,
    Melissa

  2. sweetpea2200 permalink
    July 12, 2012 12:44 pm

    Thank you for sharing

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