In recent posts, we've explained some of the various legal issues that can arise in a Social Security disability benefits claim as well as an appeal of a denial of a Social Security Disability claim. However, for many applicants, there is a long, tough road to hoe before even getting to these issues.
In a recent article, the St. Augustine Record's Jennifer Edwards tells the story of Kim Paul Carter, a 54-year-old carpenter currently undergoing a second bout of cancer, which, thus far, has cost him his job and his home. The SSA denied Carter's initial application for disability benefits and he is currently awaiting an appeal hearing. Meanwhile, he undergoes radiation treatment three times a week, but can't afford the stem cell transplant that doctors say could help treat the condition.
According to Edwards, Carter is one of a growing number of Social Security disability benefits applicants coping with being (at least temporarily) shut out of the system. "The annual number of applications for the program has increased more than 28 percent over five years, going from about 2.5 million to about 3.2 million," she reports. Paralleling the jump in applications is a drop in the number of those that are actually approved. The SSA approval rate dipped from 35 percent to 33 percent from 2005 to 2010. Moreover, the number of claims pending a decision continues to grow. Applicants whose claims are initially rejected can be expected to wait almost a year or more for an appellate hearing (which, based on our experience representing thousands of applicants, is the best opportunity to prove a claim).
The process may be about to get slower. The National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals, the union that represents SSA employees, predicts that if the agency's 2012 budget remains at 2011 levels, the SSA would review 400,000 fewer disability claims, raising the agency's backlog of claims to 1.2 million and extending the time for an average claim to be reviewed and decided on to more than four months. If the budget were actually reduced, it could lead to a further slow down.
If eventually approved for benefits, Carter will be eligible for retroactive payments covering the current waiting period. For now, he's living in a trailer parked behind his foreclosed home.
A person seeking Social Security disability benefits must submit an application or claim, which can be done by telephone, mail or online. In addition to other background information, the applicant is asked to describe the impairment and any treatment of it. This is the most difficult and confusing part of the process and the point at which a Social Security disability attorney's help can be invaluable. An experienced lawyer knows what information must be included in the initial application, and an excellent lawyer - not a "claim advocate" - will not only guide his or her client through the process but file the application for the client as well. Furthermore, the SSA has implemented a number of programs aimed at fast tracking certain claims and the lawyer can assist the client in efforts to speed up the decision process. Finally, a disability lawyer can also represent the applicant before SSA and federal judges on appeal, if necessary.
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