A small amount of Social Security disability claimants are able to fast track the system due to specific medical conditions. But for most, applying for disability is a long and difficult process. Many people assume that applying during the COVID-19 pandemic might make things worse than normal. Based on our experience with Social Security disability applications and cases over the last few months, we’re happy to report that we’ve seen no effect or even a slightly positive effect on the Social Security Administration’s productivity during the pandemic.
Why Does A Disability Decision Take So Long?
There are two steps that can take a long time in the Social Security disability determination process: the initial review and the appeal hearing.
Most claims are denied at the initial stage and have to go to an appeal hearing to be approved which is why we’re discussing both.
Initial Review Delays
When you apply for Social Security disability, there is a very specific process of evaluation that your claim must follow before you can receive a disability decision. First, your disability claim travels from your local Social Security field office to the state disability agency for a medical determination. As part of this process, the agency gathers your medical records and reviews them for the Social Security Administration.
The state disability agency gathers all of your medical records from the medical sources (doctors and hospitals) you gave on your disability application. (OF note: if you’re working with a good disability lawyer, they will request, organize and submit medical records for you.) Waiting for the medical records can take several months. Your medical information should be current (within the past 90 days). Your medical records should also address your medical conditions thoroughly. If not, you may have to attend a consultative medical exam which is scheduled and paid for by the Social Security Administration.
Appeal Hearing Delays
Gathering updated medical records and evidence can lead to delays in the appeal process. But another reason it takes so long to get an appeal hearing is simply because there are more disability appeals going through the system than there are judges to hear the appeals.
The time is takes to get a hearing date scheduled is often about twelve months nationally. In North Carolina, total wait times average closer to 24 or even 36 months.
How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Disability Claim Waiting Times?
The Social Security Administration began announcing adjustments in their normal operating procedures in late February of this year. By March, they were requesting to move hearings from in-person to the telephone.
Historically speaking, we prefer to have judges hear our clients’ testimony and our line of questions in person whenever possible. So, we weren’t sure how the telephone hearings would go. But, we offered our clients the option since we didn’t want to extend their waiting times further.
Based on our experience to date and after the initial kinks were worked out, we’re happy to report that the telephone hearings in North Carolina have been proceeding largely ahead of schedule. We don’t believe they have negatively impacted approval rates.
The judges and their staff are generally well-prepared and in many instances, our clients have been scheduled for hearings well before the average timelines we’ve experienced in the past.
While we know our experience isn’t representative of every state’s experience, we are encouraged by the Social Security Administration’s ability to adjust as they go. We’ve been so happy to see some claims accelerated.
We will continue to observe conditions and report back any meaningful changes. In closing, we would remind you that now more than ever, working with a qualified disability lawyer will help you stay up-to-date on any changes that may occur and position your claim for its best chance of an approval.