Joan Bronson, of Chalmette Louisiana, will be treated for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on August 10, 2021 at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, USA.
Kathleen Flynn | Reuters
Persistent fatigue. Shortness of breath. Migraine headache.
These are some of the symptoms that long-term Covid-19 patients face.
For some, it can make it impossible to work, leading them to wonder: Am I eligible for disability insurance benefits?
“We have certainly seen an increase in claims due to Covid-related issues, including long-haul carriers,” said T.J. Geist, principal attorney at Allsup, a company that represents individuals with disability insurance.
Some claimants have received disability benefits based on Covid-19-related symptoms, Geist said. But most of those were people with ongoing complications from ventilators.
However, not many of those patients are classified as Covid-19 lung transporters.
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The reason: Social Security Disability is for people who suffer from mental or physical conditions that have lasted or are expected to last for at least 12 months.
“Many of those with long-term symptoms have not yet met that endurance requirement,” Geist said.
President Joe Biden recently moved to recognize long-term Covid-19 symptoms as a disability under federal law.
While there has been a delay in granting disability benefits for Covid-19 long-haul drivers, Geist said he expects this to increase over time.
Whether or not disability claims are successful, however, depends on how well claimants adhere to the rules.
‘Apply as early as possible’
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The first thing to realize when applying for disability benefits is that it is often a lengthy process, Geist said.
Once an initial application is filed with the Social Security Administration, it can take three months to five months to get a decision. If that initial application is denied, it could take four months to six months for the application to be reconsidered in an initial appeal, Geist said.
From there, if the application is to be reviewed during a hearing, it could take up to 12 months to be scheduled in front of a judge, Geist said.
“Apply as early as possible because it’s a long process,” Geist said.
A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that approximately 1.3% of applicants filed for bankruptcy while awaiting appeal, and 1.2% died before receiving a final decision.
“Many — especially those without legal representation — are unfairly denied on multiple occasions before finally being approved with the help of a lawyer,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “Untold numbers are spending their savings to keep afloat while waiting for a call to be heard — and countless others lose their homes in the process.”
According to the Social Security Administration, there are approximately 8.2 million disabled workers who receive benefits. Their average monthly benefit is $1,277.
Document your physical symptoms
Long-term Covid-19 can present a vague set of symptoms, not unlike other conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue that are also approved for Social Security disability benefits.
However, these types of conditions are more difficult to prove because they generally cannot be diagnosed with one medical test.
“Those don’t get assigned as quickly because you have to see it over a period of time,” Geist said. “You need a longitudinal history there, and those can be harder to document.”
The best way to record your symptoms is to share them with your doctor and have them document what’s going on.
For example, if you have migraines, how long do they last? What does your recovery process look like?
Keeping those details will help if your application needs to be reviewed by a judge, Geist said.
Pay attention to financial qualifications
While Social Security’s basic rule of disability defines a condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months, that doesn’t necessarily determine when you apply for benefits.
“If a person is not working and earning no income, they are allowed to apply now,” Geist said. “There is no set period of time in which they have to wait to apply.”
However, there are certain financial constraints that claimants must meet in order to be approved.
To begin with, you must have paid so-called FICA taxes in the system. In general, you must contribute for a minimum of 10 years to be eligible.
In addition, your condition must meet the Social Security definition of disability. It must be so bad that you can’t work anymore. It should also be expected to last at least a year or result in death.
In addition, your income must fall below a certain threshold known as substantial profitable activity. In 2021, that limit will be $1,310 per month for non-blind individuals.
Those who have not paid FICA taxes may instead qualify for Supplemental Security Income or SSI. However, these benefits are resource dependent and come with strict wealth limits of $2,000 per person, or $3,000 per married couple. (Some beneficiaries receive a combination of Social Security benefits and SSI benefits because they qualify for both.)
While some disabled workers may be tempted to take advantage of comprehensive pandemic unemployment benefits still available in some states, that could hurt your chances of getting approved for disability benefits, Geist said.
When you apply for Social Security disability, you say that you cannot do any kind of work. On the other hand, when you apply for unemployment insurance, you confirm that you are willing and able to work and looking for opportunities to do so.
“That can be seen as a contradiction,” Geist said.
Count on possible longer waiting times
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In March 2020, the Social Security Administration largely closed its personal services.
Today it still largely processes correspondence online and by post.
A recent survey by the Inspector General’s Social Security Office found that there have been significant delays for people waiting for application decisions.
Currently, it takes about 125 days for the agency to process an initial claim, Geist said. For applications that are being reconsidered, there will be an additional four months to six months, he said.
So if you’re planning to apply for benefits for a disabling condition, including Covid-19 and associated long-term problems, “the sooner the better,” Geist said.