Applying for Social Security disability benefits is a complex process that combines frustration and stress with the physical challenges of a disability that led to the application. While understanding the difficulties inherent in the process does little to alleviate the stress, knowledge can be power if you take the proper steps.
Initial applications are often rejected, a discouraging time for applicants forced to take further steps in a lengthy process. Pushing forward means appealing the decision within 60 days of the denial. Initially, your case will need a recommendation from the same entity that reviewed the initial application. However, a different examiner and medical team provide a new perspective on evidence and documented medical treatments and exams.
Rejections can lead to reconsiderations
Yet, like an initial application, most of these reconsiderations are often rejected, creating another 60-day window to request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). This new process requires even more steps and is notorious for being anything but efficient.
According to Social Security Administration data, as of October of this year, the average time to appear before an ALJ is anywhere from five to 16 months from the filing date. More exact times are determined by any of the 168 regional offices handling their respective cases.
Hearing requests number in the hundreds of thousands nationally. A total of nearly 1,400 judges must review entire case files before a hearing commences. A recent federal Government Accountability Report noted that they are expected to end the year with at least 500 rulings. Some offices have more than others, requiring a balancing act to distribute the workload evenly.
In reality, the SSA currently has a smaller backlog and shorter waiting periods than in previous years. More funding and IT improvements have helped. Last year saw more than 400,000 pending cases, still a sizeable amount. However, the number was down more than one million four years prior.
In the end, only fifty percent of SSDI claims are approved at hearings. From there, cases can move to the Appeals Council responsible for reviewing the ALJ’s ruling. Applicants who have endured the process only to lack the money for medicine, food, and shelter have the option of “dire need” letters with attached eviction notices and medical bills to expedite the process.
While legal representation is not mandatory, an attorney can help navigate through the complex and highly bureaucratic process.