What the Heck is Taking So Long??

calendarWe get this question all the time from clients wanting to know why they haven’t heard anything in months about their Social Security Disability claim.

The answer? Backlog. Not in our office, but in hearing offices across the country that are inundated with claimants appealing denials and requesting hearings.

The SSA web site, ssa.gov, publishes a report, updated monthly, on the length of time it takes Offices of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODARs) to schedule a hearing from the time they receive the request. As of October 2015, the shortest wait time was reported by Fort Smith, Ark., (7.5 months). The longest: Columbia, S.C., at 21 months. Local wait times in months (as of October 2015) are as follows: Chicago, 15.5; Grand Rapids, 13; Oak Brook, 16; Orland Park, 14; and Valparaiso, 16.

Add to this the fact that in most states (including Indiana and Illinois), claimants are denied twice before requesting a hearing, and that means many claimants wait two years from the date of their disability application until the time of their hearing.

The wait is frustrating, especially when people are facing serious health and financial issues. Two years is a long time to go without income. Many people, incorrectly, assume that their attorney or rep isn’t doing what’s necessary to move their case along (especially when they find out someone else was awarded benefits at an earlier stage) but most of the time, that simply isn’t the problem.

Once a Request for Hearing is filed, there usually isn’t anything to do but wait. In rare cases, clients may qualify for “dire need,” based on their financial circumstances. The criteria for this, however, is very strict  and even when a claimant fits this category, it usually speeds the process up by only a few months. Sometimes a claimant’s medical issues are deemed severe enough by Social Security that they push up the timeline for a hearing or approve benefits without waiting for a hearing. Again, these criteria are very specific and most claimants don’t meet them.

Rest assured that we are well aware of these avenues and explore them whenever we are confident they may apply to our clients. Most claimants, though, can expect to wait well more than a year for a hearing date. Some people see applying for disability as a quick solution to their financial woes but in fact, it’s best not to count on that help short-term.

While clients wait for a hearing, many ask why we haven’t requested their medical records from their doctors. It’s simply not in their best interests to do that too early, unless we suspect a client qualifies for one of the above categories. Most physicians charge us for supplying medical records, and that is a cost we must pass on to clients. If we request documentation too early in the process, we’ll have to request updated records when it gets closer to the hearing, because we need the most recent information when making our case before an Administrative Law Judge. Records from two years ago won’t prove the client is disabled now.

While we know this isn’t welcome news, we feel it’s best for people to know what they’re facing. Our clients can count on us for honest evaluations of their claims and straightforward answers. If that’s what you’re looking for, give us a call!

 

 

Think You Can’t Afford an Attorney? Think Again!

Some people seeking help with disability claims are hesitant to contact an attorney because they think they can’t afford one. If that’s holding you back, relax! Unlike other areas of law where attorneys charge $200 per hour, those handling Social Security Disability cases don’t charge AT ALL until a client is awarded benefits.

It may seem too good to be true that you can talk to an attorney for free, but that’s the rules. Lawyers dealing in Social Security matters are hired on a contingency basis. It doesn’t matter if you are applying for SSDI benefits (which are based on your work history) or SSI (based on financial resources). No fee unless you win your claim — no matter how long it takes. Attorney fees come out of any back benefits that you are awarded.wallet

If you hire us to represent you, one of the documents you sign is a Retainer Agreement. The amount we are able to charge is set by law. Currently, fees are limited to 25 percent of back pay or $6,000, whichever is less. This agreement also applies to anyone else awarded benefits under the claim, such as minor children (who are awarded benefits if a parent is found disabled).

However, medical record fees are not included in that amount. This means we do pass on the charges imposed by doctors and their offices for providing us with medical documentation necessary to win your case. Obviously, we can’t absorb all the costs associated with obtaining medical records for all our clients. Those fees must be paid by clients whether the claim is approved or denied. And we send you notification of these as we request records along the way, so you aren’t surprised by the charges all at once when you claim is settled.

Once benefits are awarded and the Social Security Administration has approved the attorney fees, they generally withhold that money out of theback benefits and pay it directly to the attorney. Once in awhile, mistakes happen, and the fee is not withheld. In that case, clients are responsible for paying the fee out of benefits they received.

In the event a disability case requires more than one hearing, or hearings at a higher level such as the Appeals Council or in federal court, an attorney is permitted to request payment in excess of the $6,000 limit. In those instances, the attorney files something called a Fee Petition with SSA, which decides whether to approve the higher charge.

Occasionally, people who have hired attorneys or disability firms to represent them no longer want their services and want to switch. This happens for various reasons. But some are afraid to make the change because they were told by the previous rep that it will cost them double and they will need to pay both. This is absolutely false! If the previous attorney or rep won’t waive their fee for the case, it is up to SSA to decide how the fees are allotted between the two. The maximum, total amount remains the lesser of 25 percent or $6,000.

Don’t let a tight budget keep you from contacting us. Call or e-mail us and set up an appointment. You’ve got nothing to lose — and possibly much to gain.

 

 

 

 

Alcoholism and Disability: Falsehoods vs. Facts

broken bottleOne of the things we frequently hear from clients frustrated by the Social Security Disability system is that alcoholics are so easily awarded benefits based solely on their drinking problem. In fact, this has not been true for years.

The criteria related to alcoholism changed in 1996, after Congress required SSA to remove alcoholism (along with drug addiction) as a basis for disability. That resulted in many people who had been granted benefits under the old rule having their benefits revoked. This does not mean, however, that alcoholics can’t receive disability — only that they must have other ailments separate from their addiction to alcohol.

This is not to say that alcohol disorders should not be taken seriously. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol kills 3.3 million people worldwide annually, with consumption of alcohol increasing. If you count drunken driving, violence involving alcohol and other alcohol-related medical issues, alcohol gets the blame for 1 death every 10 seconds, a staggering statistic. It has connections to more than 200 health conditions: cirrhosis, hepatitis, cancer, TB, HIV, pneumonia, heart disease and diabetes.

If your condition(s) relate to alcohol, it’s necessary to prove that the medical issues would continue even if you were no longer drinking. Another hurdle exists for those with a history of alcohol abuse but who say they have given up drinking — they need to prove they have, in fact, stopped. A person can get benefits even if alcohol originally caused the ailment, provided they won’t get any better even without drinking. Woe to those who don’t quit, however, if SSA finds that drinking makes their health problems worse — they will NOT be awarded benefits. Also, if you are awarded benefits but SSA believes drinking would impair your ability to handle finances, they will require you to have a representative payee.

If you have a health problem related to alcohol but have been denied disability, we can help determine if you have grounds  for an appeal. But keep in mind that medical records are key to any Social Security disability case, so there will be no hiding alcohol use or the fact that it might be material to your condition. Honesty is the best policy!