The Social Security Disability Process - a long and lengthy wait for most
This is a paraphrased version of an brief article I wrote for a site. It's really just a heads-up to those who are entering the disability system that a claim can take an exceedingly long time. Since most claimants know very little about the system when they begin (typically, this doesn't change throughout the process) and the article has a good bit of advice, or two, I thought I would repost it here:
You develop a crippling illness, become injured, or succumb to the effects of various medical conditions and then decide to file a disability application. All you have to do now is wait in the interim for your rightful benefits to start, right?
Unfortunately, the federal U.S. disability system isn't that quick, simple, or compassionate. Quite the opposite, it is a paperwork-processing machine that is geared for neither fairness nor empathy concerning your medical or financial needs.
To allow themselves the opportunity to make the best possible decisions later on, disability claimants should understand from the very beginning that if you are disabled and applying for either social security disability or ssi disability benefits, the process is not just long. In most cases, it is very, very long. In fact, if you are not approved for benefits when you first file an application for ssd or ssi--this is called the initial phase--then it is likely that you will have to go through the entire social security disability appeals process, up to the point where your claim is heard by an administrative law judge.
The social security disability and ssi process can literally take years to get through--and, typically in most states, especially those with large hearing office backlogs, the process can take as much as three years.
How long does each step in the ssd and ssi system take? The initial claim phase, or application phase, can take anywhere from a month (not likely) to a year (yes, an application can really take this long in some cases). The middle step, which is called the reconsideration stage and is really just a repeat of the application phase, can take just as long; meaning, in most instances, several months.
Most individuals are denied their disability benefits at the reconsideration level, but, nonetheless, are required to go through this stage if they want to maintain the opportunity for an eventual hearing before a judge. After the reconsideration stage comes the disability hearing stage. And for most claimants this is where the wait really begins.
After you've been denied at the reconsideration level, you request a disability hearing before a federal judge. How long is the wait this time? Well, depending on where you live (and which office of hearings and appeals you must deal with), it might take you a year or longer to get a hearing date established. There are, in fact, hearing offices for which the wait can equal or exceed 20 months (at the time of this writing, the Raleigh NC OHA is a good example of this unfortunate reality).
But the time required to get a hearing is not where the waiting ends. After a hearing has been conducted, a claimant will obviously be required to wait for a notice of decision. How long does this ordinarily take? Some judges will inform a claimant that a decision may be rendered in six weeks. But since administrative law judges are not the only individuals involved in the creation of decisional notices (the other significant party in this part of the process is a hearing office decision writer), the time involved in getting a decision notice out to a claimant can equal several months. And even after a claimant has a hearing, they may only have about a one out of two chance (according to national statistics--the win rates do vary by state) of being granted social security disability or ssi benefits.
So...if you are thinking of applying for ssa benefits, think about how long the process might take and, in accordance with that knowledge, get prepared to whatever extent you are possibly able. Certainly, the process may seem bleak, particularly after reading an article such as this, and, for most claimants, applying for disability benefits will seldom ever be an easy process. However, if you know in advance how long it can really take, you can potentially make better decisions (regarding your finances, housing situation, etc) and even possibly avoid a few mistakes along the way.
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