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T.J. Geist: Coronavirus complicates an already daunting Social Security disability process

T.J. Geist: Coronavirus complicates an already daunting Social Security disability process

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Social Security disability application

Even as vaccines are starting to have an impact, the coronavirus continues to impact thousands of people in ways we didn’t see coming a year ago. Many people who contracted the virus early on have yet to completely recover from it, and these individuals have been suffering from issues such as chronic fatigue, lung damage and heart problems for months on end.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still in the early stages of tracking the long-term effects of the coronavirus, but a number of people have developed conditions that can be classified as invisible disabilities. These issues are preventing some from returning to work and, understandably, prompting them to apply for Social Security disability insurance.

People affected by the coronavirus, to the extent that they meet the Social Security Administration’s definition of disability and are unable to work, should know that applying for disability insurance is a logical next step. But be forewarned: Disability insurance applicants must jump through many hurdles to get the help they need.

The application and appeals process are complex even under ordinary circumstances, but the pandemic can make it an overwhelming experience.

The 1,230 Social Security Administration field offices and 164 hearing offices that were open to the public have closed, and the majority of the administration’s 60,000 employees are still working from home due to the pandemic. Overall Social Security Administration functionality has been reduced, causing an increase in application processing times by an extra 20 to 30 days.

Before the pandemic, the Social Security Administration was on track to reduce the wait for benefits approval, but a recent Office of the Inspector General report found that the backlog of disability applications has actually increased by 21%, with more than 763,000 claims awaiting review at the end of 2020.

The Social Security Administration reports that the average time it takes to receive an initial benefits determination is 125 days, followed by four to six months for a reconsideration of the claim. If applicants are denied at the reconsideration level, the average wait time increases to 386 days while they wait for a hearing. That’s an untenable situation for most people, especially those hit by the virus who were ill-prepared to spend more than a year without a job, without income and out of options for additional financial support. That’s where qualified representatives can ease the way.

There is currently no indication that the Social Security Administration will add a listing to classify an individual’s disability as one that stems from coronavirus-related complications. An important role for representatives is helping individuals with coronavirus complications to detail how their medical conditions fall within the existing Social Security disability insurance impairment listings, which include respiratory disorders and cardiovascular system impairments.

And since the Social Security Administration is only conducting hearings by phone or video, applicants with disabilities that aren’t visibly apparent must rely on the outside guidance and support to properly explain the severity of their disability to an administrative law judge.

In this uncertain time, ensuring that individuals with disabilities are aware of new challenges to the Social Security disability process and the benefits of using a representative to apply for disability insurance is critical. Large percentages of applicants awaiting help wind up depending on food stamps, while others experience a worsening of their primary illness. Many miss loan or credit card payments. Stresses on family life mount, and many are forced to drain their retirement or savings accounts.

With more Americans contracting the virus every day and the pandemic anniversary now at hand, we can expect to see more individuals with long-term effects from the virus prevented from being able to work. These Americans will apply for the disability benefits they need and deserve, but many will be stuck waiting for months on end.

Individuals with disabilities are already dealing with major health complications, and on top of that, many are struggling to get by without income in the middle of a pandemic. Making sure that these individuals are aware of the benefits of applying for disability insurance remains critical.

T.J. Geist is director of claims at Allsup, a nationwide provider of disability representation located in Belleville.

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