Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Social Security Disability process needs to be reformed

Over the past 4+ years I've learned a lot...definitely not all of it good.

For example, I paid Aflac a lot of money for a short term disability policy, only to find out when I needed it most that they're a company of scumbags and crooks, and that they would not honor the policy due to a loophole even they didn't understand--and hadn't "discovered" until promising me for two years that there was nothing to worry about.

Then there was the Social Security system, which I had never attempted to tap into before, having only paid...and paid...and paid into it over the years. In 2005, after already being unable to work for two years, I finally filed for SSDI (Social Security Disability Income), after accepting that I was not going to be going back to work any time soon. Although I had been told that it can be a long, slow process, I had no idea when I filed in April 2005 that it would end up taking just shy of three YEARS to finally get resolution.

My initial claim, filed in April 2005, was denied. Research since then showed me that something like 90% of all claims are denied on the first try, and the numbers are almost that high for claims denied at the first reconsideration--as mine was. After these two denials, I waited TWO YEARS for a hearing, which finally happened on January 10, 2008. After waiting such a long time for this day to come, I found that instead of being nervous I was remarkably calm. My attorney had forewarned me that our judge was "harsh...very harsh in his decisions," and that his friendly demeanor could backfire on an unsuspecting claimant, so I felt prepared as the hearing began.

What I found out was that since I had nothing to hide and was not trying to pull a fast one (i.e., claiming to be more disabled than I actually am), I didn't have to worry about letting my guard down. I was honest with the judge--who was very well prepared, having familiarized himself thoroughly with the reams of medical documentation in my case file--and I think he recognized that. At some point during the hearing I just knew that it had gone in my favor, and when it was over the last thing the judge said to me was that he would expedite this so I "wouldn't have to wait any longer."

True to his word, he made his decision and mailed it very quickly, one week after the hearing. Since I had already waited nearly three years--and gotten used to waiting!--I was stunned when the mail of January 18 included a letter of decision from the judge. I didn't think ANYTHING happened that quickly in the Social Security system! The judge's decision was "fully favorable" and backdated to 2004. At long last, my nightmare was almost over.

The mail that came on Valentine's Day brought my first check, for back benefits. A conversation with my attorney (from Binder & Binder, a firm I can now HIGHLY recommend) verified that I would immediately be covered under Medicare. Now it's starting to feel real. For the past 4+ years I've been spending around $650 each month on health insurance premiums (the only way I could get insured was through the high risk pool of the states I lived in--and these plans are EXPENSIVE). So now, finally, I have back benefits, Medicare coverage--meaning no more huge monthly premiums, and will start receiving monthly benefits any day now. For me, the long saga that started nearly three years ago--and included periods of depression so severe I just wanted to end it all--has finally ended...

But what this experience has done for me is made me realize just how badly the SSDI system needs to be reformed. The uncertainty, the endless waiting, the denials--baseless, unnecessary denials that occur in an apparent attempt to prolong the process, thereby saving money for as long as possible, the stress, the added expense of keeping private health insurance...all of it really takes a toll. I know that I am not alone. I understand that my experience is neither unique nor unusual...and that's the point. I believe it's a national disgrace that people like me, who've worked all their adult lives and paid into the Social Security system in good faith, should end up having their lives turned upside down by a painfully slow, drawn-out process that many people drop out of along the way because they're simply unable to deal with the stress. Surely SOMETHING can be done to speed up the process...

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