Help On Hold: Getting Disability - WSPA.com

Help On Hold: Getting Disability

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -

We all pay into it, just in case you need it one day. It’s a tax taken from your paycheck to help fund the federal government's disability program. Every year, millions of disabled Americans draw money from it.

The process to get there is so long, some people end up out of money or even homeless waiting for a decision.

The Social Security Administration has come under fire recently for the dramatic increase in disability rolls over the last decade and for overpayments made to disability recipients.

The people we hear from are the ones in desperate need of disability benefits. And many of them have been waiting years for answers.

Phyllis Hill is one of them. Her life can be summed up in boxes right now. They’re scattered around her temporary apartment she’s living in at the moment.

She's actually homeless and has been since 2009, all while waiting on her disability claim to process.

For shelter she bounces around to whatever housing is available through a local homeless coalition. Phyllis says drop foot, a spine disease and other health issues forced her to leave her job in 2006.

“It was very heart breaking because I knew I couldn't go back to work,” said Phyllis.

Sandra Penn has been waiting on her disability decision since 2010.

Stacks of medical records detail her chronic skin condition that has resulted in more than 70 surgeries.

“I couldn't understand why the disability board could not see that I'm having a surgery either every month or every other month,” said Sandra.

Like many claimants she hired a disability attorney, Tom Ervin, to help her through the process.

He says waiting years on a decision is the reality. The first time you apply, you will most likely be denied.

“Almost automatic,” said Ervin. “I've had quadriplegics denied at that initial determination. So it really makes no sense in terms of how it's decided.”

Ervin says in his experience, 80 to 95 percent of claimants are denied the first time they apply. Then you have 60 days to appeal.

Ervin says 80 to 95 percent are denied again, most often because the SSA thinks you're still able to work or you have incomplete medical records.

If you're denied twice, you set up a hearing with a judge. The total process can take up to two years.

“I've had clients die waiting for a hearing,” said Ervin. “I have two clients right now in homeless shelters who are waiting for hearings.”

Ervin says some people hurt their chances by not appealing, or most importantly, not staying in medical treatment.

“That's the number one rule because these cases are decided largely on the medical record,” said Ervin.

The Social Security Administration turned down our repeated requests for an on-camera interview. The National Organization of Social Security Disability Claimants’ Representatives, or NOSSCR, is a nonprofit that works closely with the SSA. NOSSCR says they've been pushing congress for more funding to hire more staff, to help process claims at the SSA quicker.

“Sufficient administrative funding for social security is what can reduce those kinds of wait times,” said Rebecca Vallas, NOSSCR Deputy Director for Government Affairs. “It's what brings in the bodies that they need to service people at field offices.”

The process is also meant to help weed out fraud, which Vallas says accounts for less than one percent of all disability cases. She says all the other cases are for those who desperately need the help.

“Most people who apply are denied. In fact the vast majority of people who apply, over 60 percent are denied after all stages of appeals,” said Vallas. “And the people who receive those benefits are people who've paid into the system and who really need those benefits as a vital lifeline.”

And it’s a vital lifeline for Sandra. We were there for her final hearing before a judge. It was held in her attorney's office with the judge on the phone. She said the judge didn’t want her in the courtroom with her condition.

And after years of waiting, she was approved.

Phyllis is hoping for the same outcome, so she can finally unpack for good.

“It's been hard, it's been challenging, but it's been a humbling experience,” said Phyllis through tears.

Her hearing date is scheduled for December.

Here's what you can do to move your case along:

File that appeal within the required 60 days.

Don't stop medical treatment. Even if you don't have health insurance, try to continue that care at a free clinic because the SSA bases its decision on your medical history.

Keep copies of your medical records.

Stay in touch with your SSA case worker. When you apply, you’ll be assigned a specific person that handles your claim. Call this person directly if you have questions or concerns.

You may also want to consider sending in your medical records directly to the SSA instead of waiting on them to get that information from your doctors.

And if you suspect fraud, call the SSA's fraud hotline: 1-800-269-0271

The Social Security Administration gives these four steps for claimants:

Step 1: Review the Adult Disability Checklist
Step 2: Complete the online Disability Benefit Application
Step 3: Complete the online Adult Disability Report or Child Disability Report
Step 4: Complete the Authorization to Disclose Information to the Social Security Administration (SSA Form-827).

You also can apply in person, or you can call:

1-800-772-1213, Monday through Friday to make an appointment
Or contact your local Social Security office

Additional information about applying for disability is available here.

If you suspect Social Security fraud, contact the Office of Inspector General:

Social Security OIG Hotline
P.O. Box 17785
Baltimore, Maryland 21235-7785.

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