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Applying for Social Security Disability

December 4, 2012

A friend just wrote to me upset about being denied Social Security Disability benefits.  She has advanced congestive heart failure which is symptomatic to some extent most days.  She has an ICD (implanted cardiac defibrillator).  She had to leave her last job because she was missing a lot of time for doctor appointments and was having chest pain and severe fatigue daily.

You might think, who in their right mind would expect someone in this condition to work enough to support themselves?  Unfortunately it seems to be standard operating procedure for Social Security to deny applications the first time around.  I have met a couple of people whose claims were approved the first time around, but most I know who have applied for SSDI were denied.  Many people give up at this point thinking they don’t have any hope against this government bureaucracy.  That is a huge mistake.  Everybody has the right to appeal this decision.

There are multiple levels of appeal, the first of which is simply a review of the records by a different person at Social Security.  If denied at first appeal, the next step is requesting a hearing with a judge.  If denied at that stage, the decision can be appealed to Social Security’s Appeals Council.  Finally, a lawsuit can be filed in federal court.  Social Security has a publication explaining this process here.  In practice most cases stop at the hearing level and people either submit a new claim altogether or give up.  Every case is different and it is advisable to seek expert help in the process, although technically anyone can file their own appeals all the way through.

Denials and appeals in this process are so common that there are law practices which only handle Social Security cases.  There are plenty of disability lawyers that handle all kinds of disability claims, but the fact that there are a significant number specializing in only Social Security cases speaks to the difficulty in negotiating this bureaucracy.

Making the decision to apply for disability benefits is hard enough without this added burden.  On a practical level, this is a decision to live the rest of ones life at a fixed income that is somewhat lower than the amount made working.  In my case, I receive about one third of what I could make at a full time job in Social Security benefits.  By the time I decided I had to stop working, I had exhausted all my paid leave from my job and had taken quite a bit of time off without pay due to my illness.  During the time I was applying for Social Security and waiting out the 5 month period before my long term disability insurance would start paying, I exhausted my savings and sold most of my assets that had any significant value.  I’m lucky to have had the disability insurance.  Many in my situation don’t have that cushion.  I will only receive the insurance benefits for two years, then I will be limited to the Social Security payments alone unless my health improves enough that I can work a few hours a week.

Besides the financial hardship, there is the shame that comes with not being able to make ones own way.  American culture is rife with messages that people who do not work at a paid job do not carry the same worth as people who do.  This perception is not limited to the disabled who are unable to work.  Women (or men) who stay home to care for young children are viewed in our culture as not working, even though the tasks that fill their days may be much more exhausting that those of a spouse who goes to a job each day.  The same is true for people who stop working to care for a sick relative.  Sayings we commonly hear include “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and the less cultured “suck it up.”  People who miss work due to illness are viewed with suspicion by employers and sometimes co-workers.  I know some of the things I was told were said about me at work before I left were not charitable.  We all know how right wing politicians view the disabled, illustrated in lurid detail by the “47 percent” remarks made at a certain Republican fundraiser.

So, once we overcome the financial concerns and the worry about how we are seen by friends, family, and colleagues, we are subjected to the scrutiny of the US government.  The letter Social Security sends to inform people of the denial of their claims seems designed to shame you into going back to work, no matter the cost to your health and your family.  The wording usually goes something like this: “You have have said that you are unable to work due to physical (and/or emotional) problems.  We have determined that you retain the capacity to perform work activities that are not overly strenuous or demanding.”  In my case, I had about the easiest nursing job I could hope to get and still couldn’t manage.  It was much easier as far as physical effort than most jobs that require less skill and might be considered “less strenuous.”  In many cases it is the ability to work consistently that is at issue.  Even if you can show up and work several hours some days, if you can’t be counted on to show up as scheduled you won’t have a job long.

These issues are complex.  The bureaucracy is more so.  Most people need the help of an attorney to negotiate the maze.  I know I did.  I knew I couldn’t handle the stress of having to chase down medical records and worry about whether I had worded my application appropriately.  It generally not difficult to find a disability lawyer.  My advice is to find someone local, not one of the ones that advertises on cable TV all over the nation.  I googled “disability lawyer austin” to find someone in my area.  Initial consultations are generally free.  Lawyers take these cases on contingency, which means they don’t require payment until you win.  Fees are determined by the Social Security Administration (see federal code here) and paid from the first payment due to the disabled person.  The fee is generally 25% of the first payment due subject to some limitations (see code here).  In my case, the agreed upon fee was 25% or $6000, whichever was less.  Since my case was decided relatively quickly, my lawyer was paid about $750.  My husband’s case took far longer and his lawyer got around $5000.  I delayed finding a lawyer for my husband for maybe a year because I was worried about fees.  I wish I had understood how it worked back then.

The message here is don’t get discouraged.  It is a difficult and often demoralizing process, but not impossible.  I don’t know why anyone would think I would put myself through all this out of laziness and wanting to “live off the government.”  We are just doing what we have to do to survive.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2012 8:48 am

    I think it is important to mention the fact that you have a good chance of being approved for benefits at the hearing level. Over 60% of cases are approved nationally at the hearing level. The one downside is the fact that it can take up to 2 years in some states to have a hearing scheduled.

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