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The Social Security Disability Insurance Application Process

Below, a Social Security lawyer in Virginia answers questions about the Social Security disability insurance application process.

What are the first steps an individual should take when looking to obtain SSDI?

The first step, as a threshold matter, is to figure out if you’re eligible by counting up your work credits, and the Social Security Administration has some materials on the website that are pretty self-explanatory. I would recommend anybody go to the Social Security Administration’s website, as a starting point, because the easiest way for the Social Security Administration to deny your claim is if you haven’t been working long enough. While there are other benefits available and other public assistance programs, if you can’t meet that threshold, they’re not even going to reach whether or not you have a medically-determinable impairment.

The first step is to make sure you have enough work credits, and then the next step would be to determine whether you have medical evidence. The Social Security Administration will request medical records on your behalf. I always ask if someone has had a doctor tell them they can’t work, and that doesn’t mean light-duty or that you can only work some of the time; it means that they cannot be working. It can depend on how old somebody is, what their educational background is, what transferable skills they might have, and whether or not they ultimately will be found to be disabled.

There are people who have been told by their doctors that they cannot keep working in the job that they currently have, but that’s not enough to get to a finding of disability under the Social Security rules. That can depend on how old you are and what your skill set is and your education and some other factors, but just because a doctor said you can’t work at the job you have right now, you shouldn’t think that that means you’re set and you’re guaranteed to get a rubberstamp, because that’s not how it works.

What is the application process like for people who are looking to obtain SSDI benefits?

[The process] can be daunting because there’s a lot that goes into it, but they are making it easier. The Social Security Administration lets you file your applications online now, and that walks you through the process. If you try to hit “submit” and you’ve forgotten to fill something out, it will let you know, which saves countless time. Instead of having someone submit an entire paper application and then have there be one error that hangs it all up so that they can’t be coded into the system, those kinds of errors can be avoided.

I would definitely encourage people to apply online, if they’re applying on their own, at the initial level, but it is a long process. It’s going to be months, not weeks, and more likely years, not months, depending on how many levels of review you need to go through, so it’s not like some other government assistance programs. With Medicaid, for instance, you can get signed up pretty quickly. This is not the same sort of deal. You have to be dedicated, but you can expect engagement from the Social Security Administration at every step of the way.

In my experience, everyone is very eager to help, and, they understand the system and they’ll reach out to you to help you figure out what needs to be done, to an extent. They’re not going to advocate on your behalf, but they do collect medical records and, if necessary, they’ll send you out to one of their disability determination services doctors.

It is definitely a long process, and I think that’s the biggest issue for a lot of claimants. They get discouraged because the process has been going on for a while. They feel like they are not making any progress, and a lot of people just give up, but, if you have some resiliency and some perseverance, it is something that can be conquered. Especially with the help of an experienced attorney, it’s something that can be a huge benefit to people who aren’t able to work anymore.

What are the most common mistakes that you see individuals make when applying for SSDI?

One huge mistake that people make pretty frequently is they decide, “Well, I know my body. I know I’m disabled, so I’m not going to seek that medical opinion.” These cases are not quite the same as a medical malpractice case, where it’s got to be in the record or else you don’t have a case, but it is pretty close. I can’t understate how important it is to have medical documentation. If you haven’t seen a doctor in eight years, and you claim that you have an injury that [onset] three years ago, that is difficult to substantiate. Doctors are experienced and they will try to look objectively and see if they can pinpoint a time for an onset date of the disability. Unfortunately, it is very common that if someone does not have insurance or the co-pay is too high, then it is cost-prohibitive to seek care. Not having any medical documentation to support the claim makes it a much more uphill battle.

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