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I applied for disability. Why haven't I heard from the SSA?
This year, the SSA estimates that close to 60 million Americans will receive almost $863 billion in Social Security benefits. Although a large percentage of benefits are paid to retired workers and their dependents, some of the benefits are paid to disabled workers.
In addition to the millions of current disability recipients, there are also thousands of disability applicants who submit new Social Security disability applications each month to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for processing.
So why does it take so long for the SSA to review each SSDI and SSI application? There are a number of factors: insufficient work staff to process claims, delayed receipt of medical records, and thousands of cases waiting in the queue.
Unfortunately, you cannot overcome most of the delays. So what can you do to expedite your disability claim? Hiring a lawyer can increase the chance of approval at every stage in the process, but it will not expedite your case. In fact, the only thing you can do to ensure that your case is processed as quickly as possible is to understand the process, include all of the right information the first time you submit your case, and quickly respond to any SSA requests for more information.
Let’s take a closer look at the disability process and what you need to know to submit a successful case.
Disability Determination made by DDS
Assuming that you meet the basic non-medical requirements for SSDI benefits, your case will move from the local SSA office to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office in your state for disability processing. The DDS is also referred to as the Bureau of Disability Determination or the Disability Determination Division in some states.
At the DDS, your case will be assigned to a disability examiner who will review your medical records and your vocational work history. Using the SSA Five Step Sequential Evaluation Process, the DDS examiner will determine if your condition is severe and disabling.
To make this determination, they will review the SSA Listing of Impairments, formally titled the "Disability Evaluation under Social Security”. This listing identifies specific conditions and their corresponding symptoms, which the SSA has determined are automatically disabling.
If your condition does not “meet or equal” a listing, the DDS examiner will evaluate whether you have the mental and physical functional capacity to work. This can be done through what they term as a “medical vocational allowance”.
Delays at the DDS Office
It’s not unusual for disability applications to sit for months at DDS. Unfortunately, one of the biggest delays in SSDI application processing is waiting for the claimant’s treatment sources to send medical records for the disability examiner to review.
After the DDS examiner receives the medical records, they may decide that there is not sufficient medical evidence to make a disability determination. If this is the case, the DDS examiner will ask the claimant to go to a consultative examination for a medical evaluation. Unfortunately, this can be one more request that can delay your application.
SSDI Application and the Appeal
After the DDS examiner makes their disability determination, the SSA will send you an acceptance or denial letter. Assuming that your case is not a quick disability decision (QDD), on the Compassionate Allowance List, or a terminal condition, it can take anywhere from 90 to 120 days (and up to 6 months) for the SSA to make a disability determination.
If your case is denied, you will have 60 days from the date of the disability denial letter to file an appeal. If your case is approved, you will begin to receive benefits. Your acceptance letter will detail the estimated date of receipt and the estimated payout amount.
Factors that can Affect the Decision
So why are some cases approved immediately while others flounder within the SSA system for months or years? There are no simple answers.
Cases that can be immediately approved for benefits are those that are quick disability decisions, on the Compassionate Allowance List, or terminal conditions. Claimants who have a condition that meets or exceeds a condition on the SSA Listing of Impairments can also expect to have their claims immediately approved, assuming that they meet the non-medical requirements for SSDI or SSI benefits.
Improving your Chance for Approval
What do you do to improve your chances of having your case approved? First, review the SSA Listing of Impairments and find out if your condition is on the list or whether it is as severe as a listed condition. If it is, go to the doctor and make sure that you have sufficient medical records that clearly outline the symptoms of your disease or condition as well as your limitations to perform work.
Be specific. Have your doctor clearly state if you can only sit one hour and lift five pounds. They should also list any other limitations for bending, stooping, reaching, grasping, walking, lifting, or pulling. Mental limitations of concentration, persistence, pace, and getting along with co-workers is also useful.
Finally, contact the SSA if it has been more than 90 days after you have submitted your initial application and find out if there is anything they need to expedite your case.