By Amy Foster, Arizona Attorney
Applying for Social Security disability can be a long, frustrating process where you may not hear anything about your case for months at a time. From start to finish, the Social Security disability waiting period can take upwards of two or more years to get disability benefits. What should you do in the meantime?
First and foremost, keep on top of your Social Security case. When Social Security sends you forms, you usually have ten days to fill them out. If you don’t complete their forms, you may be denied solely for lack of cooperation. If you don't hear from Social Security for a while, call to check the status of your case.
Be sure to attend any doctor’s appointments Social Security sets for you. These appointments (called consultative exams) are important, and mandatory. If you cannot go to an appointment, call Social Security and have them reschedule it.
Because of the financial hardships involved when someone becomes disabled, disability applicants tend to move around. Make sure Social Security has your current address and phone number.
Don’t assume that because you changed your driver’s license or forwarded your mail that Social Security received your address change. Send your address change to the local field office, and depending on where your case is, to Disability Determination Services or the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Be sure to keep a copy of your letter sending your address change.
Equally important is to continue your medical care. Social Security and its Administrative Law Judges have to rely on what is in your medical record, and it doesn't look good if you stop going to the doctor after you apply for benefits. It doesn’t matter how bad you say your pain is if you haven’t been to a doctor in a year and a half.
True, insurance is a huge problem for many people waiting for Social Security. If you have to, go to free clinics or the emergency room. Also, see if you qualify for insurance through your state.
Make sure you take your medications as directed and try to be compliant with your doctor’s recommendations. Failing to take medication as prescribed can make you ineligible for benefits.
Keep a complete record of your medical records. Social Security subpoenas your medical records but almost never has a complete set. You can and should submit your records to Social Security at every point in the process. And if you choose to hire an attorney, your attorney will be much better prepared to handle your case if there is a complete set of medical records to look at, rather than trying to chase down records the week before your hearing.
If and when you receive a denial on your claim, you will see what records Social Security used to decide your case. You can then submit any records that are missing when you appeal.
Keep a journal of your activities and pain levels. I find these convenient when trying to prove that a client was disabled during a certain time period. The Administrative Law Judges often focus on time periods shortly after you stopped working. Remember, it’s easy to testify about how you felt last week. It’s more difficult to remember exactly what you were capable of doing two and years ago. If you can refer to a journal of your activities during that time period, the Administrative Law Judge is going to take your testimony more seriously. You don’t need anything elaborate, just write up a page at least once a month of what you can do, what you can’t do, and how many "bad days" you had per month.
Keep involved in support groups. Because of your physical and/or mental limitations, the newly disabled tend not to have much interaction with others. But if you can, find an online or community support group so you can hear what others in your situation are doing and feel less alone.
Finally, manage your expectations and be patient. Getting approved for Social Security benefits takes time. Most people are denied on the initial application and their first appeal. It’s disappointing when you’re denied, but don’t take it personally and don’t panic. Plan on the process taking at least two and a half years. The best thing you can do is to keep going -- keep appealing your case, seeing your doctors, and being patient.