Even in the best of times, applications for Social Security disability benefits move at a glacial pace, but baby boomers risk being frozen out as they flood the Social Security Administration, or SSA, with new requests.
Older workers with medical conditions may have lost their jobs, not been able to find new work and now are filing for disability as a last resort because of the economy, says Mark Hinkle, spokesman for the SSA.
In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, the SSA received more than 2.3 million applications for Social Security disability insurance, up about 117,000 from the previous year. But now the agency is being swamped with about 750,000 more disability insurance applications than expected, Hinkle says.
While in most cases there's no guaranteed way to speed the process along, following some simple steps may help avoid years-long delays.
Request a Hearing
The first thing to keep in mind is that some dire conditions, such as certain types of cancer, early onset Alzheimer's disease and dozens of others, receive almost immediate approval for Social Security disability benefits. The list of conditions that qualify for "Compassionate Allowances" can be found on the SSA website.
But for most cases, it's much more complicated to win approval. Jean Setzfand, director of financial security with the AARP in Washington, D.C., says about two-thirds of Social Security disability requests are initially rejected. If you're turned down, you can request that your case be reconsidered, but few decisions are reversed at that level. The next step is a hearing before an administrative law judge, and nearly two-thirds of applications are then approved.
In theory, appeals are decided within a year, but "that is an aspirational goal," says Gerald McIntyre, directing attorney with the nonprofit National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles. It's not unusual for cases to take two or three years.
For those jurisdictions with huge backlogs, more judges have been hired or video conferences are held using judges from other jurisdictions, says Karl Kazmierczak, a Social Security disability lawyer with Kazmierczak & Kazmierczak LLP in Oakland, N.J.
Have your documents in order
When you're first applying for disability benefits, Kazmierczak recommends describing your medical condition and your job in great detail. Be sure to include all your conditions, even if they seem irrelevant to the case. A back injury could also cause mental health issues, irritability or other conditions. By listing them all together, it may help to argue you are disabled, Kazmierczak says.
"Very frequently, people apply without sufficient medical documentation," says McIntyre, who recommends you collect all the relevant medical records from doctors and hospitals yourself if possible and submit them to the SSA.
While the SSA can request the records, it's often more efficient if you gather the documentation.
Kazmierczak also recommends obtaining a letter from your doctor that states he or she thinks you are disabled, which helps lend credence to your claim.
Hinkle says part of the issue is that each case is considered individually, and physical and mental pain are often subjective.
Don't Drag Your Feet
Once you file an application for Social Security disability benefits, there's no time to drag feet. If you're asked to submit more paperwork, do it as soon as possible. If you're asked by the SSA to have a consultation done with another physician, do so immediately, Hinkle says. "It helps us make a decision quicker."
Kazmierczak recommends that you also provide an in-depth description of your job. Managing a fast-food restaurant is likely to involve much more physical activity than managing an office. "How you describe (your work) could make a huge difference in the claim," he says.
If possible, you should seek legal help to fill out the application, but many attorneys are reluctant to get involved at that stage because their fees are based on a percentage of the retroactive benefits you receive.
The National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives and the National Association of Disability Representatives are two organizations that can help identify attorneys and advocates who can help you navigate the system, Setzfand says.
Those earning less than 125% of the poverty level can seek assistance from programs affiliated with the nonprofit Legal Services Corp.
Denied? Find an Attorney
Because the majority of applications are initially denied and seldom reversed during the reconsideration process, McIntyre recommends finding an attorney as soon as you receive a denial because you have only 60 days to appeal.
While you can file a Social Security disability application online, if you need to file an appeal, McIntyre recommends printing a copy and bringing it to the local Social Security office. Then get it dated and stamped, so you have a receipt.
If you're not getting the assistance you need from Social Security employees or are running into headaches with an appeal, Setzfand advises asking for a supervisor or contacting your local congressman or congresswoman because they have staff members who deal with Social Security issues.
Delays in the process aren't likely to get better anytime soon. More baby boomers are hitting retirement age and flooding the SSA with claims at a time when tight budgets are impacting staffing levels.
On top of that, Hinkle says Social Security disability is "really about the most complex we administer. It's not a cookie-cutter program." The best advice is to be prepared, have everything in order and be patient.