The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we work to the way we purchase our food.
At the time of this writing, more than 660,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19 and at least 41 million people have contracted the virus.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a particularly significant impact on some of the country's most vulnerable people.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at how COVID-19 impacts people applying for Social Security disability insurance benefits. We’ll also address some common Social Security myths.
COVID-19 is fueling a surge in Social Security disability claims
The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers a program that pays disability benefits to people who can’t work because they have a medical condition that’s expected to last at least 1 year or result in death. The program is called Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and it’s funded through payroll taxes.
How do I qualify for SSDI benefits?
In order to qualify for SSDI, you must:
- Have a medical condition that meets the SSA’s definition of a “disability.” The SSA considers you “disabled” if: (1) you can’t perform the work you performed prior to the condition at issue; (2) you can’t adjust to other work because of your medical condition (i.e., there’s no other work you can perform); and (3) your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least 1 year or result in death.
- Have worked long enough. As you work, you acquire “work credits” based on your total yearly wages. For example, in 2020, you earn 1 credit for each $1,410 in wages (with a maximum of 4 credits per year). In order to qualify for SSDI, you must have accumulated enough work credits. The number of work credits you must acquire depends on your age and when you became disabled.
COVID-19 can cause a number of serious health problems. According to Yale Medicine, COVID-19 can severely impair lung function to the point that some patients die or need to be put on a ventilator. A ventilator is a device that pumps air into a patient’s airway when they’re unable to breathe adequately on their own. Unfortunately, ventilators can cause long-term physical and cognitive problems.
“It’s not natural to have positive pressure forcing air into your lungs,” said pulmonary and critical care specialist Dr. Lauren Ferrante. “The three domains we worry about are impairments in physical function, cognitive function, and mental health.”
What’s more, there is growing evidence that even mild COVID-19 infections can result in long-term symptoms (commonly referred to as “long COVID” or “long-haul COVID”). These long-term symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Cognitive dysfunction (“brain fog”)
- Chest pain
- Trouble speaking
- Muscle aches
- Loss of smell
- Loss of taste
As a result of the long-term consequences of COVID-19, more and more people are applying for SSDI benefits. There were increased filings in the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. The number of applicants is likely to increase in light of President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that some people with long COVID may qualify as disabled and need accommodations.
"Many Americans who seemingly recovered from the virus still face lingering challenges, like breathing problems, brain fog, chronic pain, and fatigue," President Joe Biden said. "These conditions can sometimes rise to the level of disability."
COVID-19 has changed the way people apply for SSDI
The COVID-19 pandemic should not affect how or when you receive SSDI payments. However, if you’re applying for SSDI benefits, your experience may be different from the experience of applicants in previous years.
Like many government agencies, the SSA closed its field offices to all walk-in traffic in March 2020. Several months later, the SSA began allowing scheduled in-person meetings in very limited situations.
For most SSDI applicants, you’ll need to apply online or by telephone. To do so, you visit the SSA website or call the SSA’s national field office at 800-772-1213.
Keep in mind that wait times to speak to a representative may be longer than usual.
Once you submit your application, it will be reviewed by Disability Determination Services (DDS) to determine whether you meet the SSA’s definition of disabled. In some cases, DDS might schedule a medical examination for you to get more information about your conditions.
Unfortunately, it is taking DDS much longer than usual to make decisions. It may take 12 months or more to receive a decision on your claim.
If your request is denied, you’ll have 60 days to appeal the decision. In most cases, the appeal will involve a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. However, as a result of COVID-19, hearings will be conducted by phone or video (rather than in-person).
Common SSDI myths
Making matters more difficult, there is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 and SSDI. Let’s dispel 3 of the most common myths:
MYTH #1: You have plenty of time to apply for SSDI benefits
Although there’s technically no “time limit” to file an SSDI claim, it’s wise to do so sooner than later.
Once an application is filed, it can take several months to receive an initial decision. If that initial application is denied, it can take several more months for the application to be reconsidered on a first appeal. If the application needs to be reviewed at a hearing, it can take 12 months just to schedule a hearing.
The backlog of pending disability applications has increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic. There were over one million (1,010,764) initial and reconsideration level cases pending at DDS offices at the end of February 2022.
This wait time has significant consequences for applicants, from missed mortgage payments to increased rates of depression.
MYTH #2: SSDI benefits are only monetary
Most people understand that SSDI benefits include direct financial payments. However, there are additional benefits that range from potential medical coverage to a “disability freeze” that protects your Social Security retirement benefits.
MYTH #3: You don’t need to hire a lawyer
It’s true that you’re not required to hire an attorney to apply for SSDI benefits. However, the SSDI application may be the most important application you’ll ever complete. An attorney can help gather the information you need and guide you through the process.
What’s more, Social Security disability attorneys have experience reviewing denials, determining what information is needed to strengthen your case, and presenting the information during your hearing in an effective and convincing manner.
Social Security data shows represented claimants are more likely to receive favorable ALJ decisions and less likely to have their cases dismissed. (https://www.ssa.gov/foia/resources/proactivedisclosure/2020/FY2010%20-%20FY2018%20Hearing%20Statistics%20with%20&%20without%20Representation.xlsx).