Category Archives: Blog

Dennis Teachout’s Blog about Social Security Disability

Why You Should Avoid Pension “Cash Out” Agreements if You’re a Disabled Vet

Soldiers who have been left permanently disabled as a result of injuries they sustained during their service to our nation are often entitled to veterans disability benefits; however, these payments may not be enough for many to make ends meet—especially in the San Francisco area where the costs of living are some of the highest in the nation.

These financial struggles may force many disabled veterans to consider using a service that would allow them to “cash out” their pensions or other disability payments. It’s important for veterans to know this may not be wise though, as the contracts that are used to bind these agreements are often not designed in favor of the veteran.

According to an article from the Sacramento Bee, the contracts may contain stipulations that require veterans to pay multiple fees and commissions that, in the end, result in a disabled individual receiving far less money than their pension or payments were worth.

If you’re a disabled veteran and have found yourself struggling financially,Disability Professionals LLC wants you to know that there are other options available. Some of the resources you may have in your area include nonprofit organizations that can offer work or financial assistance. You may qualify for grants and other benefits, such as Social Security Disability benefits or Supplemental Security Income as well.

We hope these tips help to get you the financial assistance you deserve.

What Are the Common Causes of a Traumatic Brain Injury?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.7 million Americans will suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI) this year. Of those individuals, 1.3 million will seek medical attention, while 275,000 will be hospitalized and another 52,000 will lose their lives. So what are the most common causes of brain injuries today? A new study shows the answer to that question changes with age.

According to an article from NPR News, the most common causes of brain injuries are different depending on how old you are. For children younger than age 12, falls from elevation are listed as the cause of a majority of brain-related injuries. As children grow and become teenagers though, assault becomes the leading cause for a TBI. Such injuries accounted for almost one-quarter of all TBIs sustained by teens between the ages of 13 and 17.

Sports related injuries and car accidents were also listed as a common cause of brain injuries.

So what should you do if you or a loved one has sustained a head injury? Disability Professionals LLC say the first step that should be taken is to seek the medical attention you need. Only then should you attempt to document the case by getting information from witnesses and taking pictures. Finally, discuss your legal options with a qualified legal representative.

Mental illnesses come with unique challenges, including for Social Security

Millions of people suffer from a mental illness of some type. If left untreated, serious mental health conditions are life-threatening and can affect whole families.

For the last 65 years, May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. As the month comes to a close, many psychologists, social workers and people suffering from a mental illness can celebrate the strides in treatment and social awareness regarding mental illness. Still, there is a long way to go.

Too often people with mental illness feel as though their condition is a personal or moral failing, rather than an illness with an underlying physical cause. People with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder too often feel as though they need to “tough it out” or are bad or lazy people. The Mayo Clinic recently issued several recommendations for people suffering from mental illness that may help overcome these feelings. The Mayo suggests:

· Getting help. Treatment can reduce symptoms and identify the underlying issues.

· Not feeling shame. Illnesses of all type can strike at anyone. Acknowledging a mental health condition can help overcome low self-esteem and destructive thinking.

· Not isolating. Speaking to trusted friends and relatives can help. People with mental illness often feel alone. They are not.

· Remembering that an illness can improve. While mental illnesses can feel overwhelming, a person is more than a mental illness, and things can improve.

Mental illness and SSDI

Social Security Disability insurance is a federal program that helps people who are unable to work because of a disabling condition. The Social Security Administration recognizes several mental illnesses as disabling. However, in practice it can be more difficult to obtain SSDI because of a disabling mental condition than other medical conditions. The symptoms of a mental illness are not always readily apparent. Nonetheless, the SSA recognizes the following mental conditions, among others, as potentially qualifying for SSDI:

· Schizophrenia

· Autism

· Depression

· Anxiety

· Bipolar disorder

· Alzheimer’s and dementia

· Substance abuse disorders

In order to qualify for SSDI, an applicant must prove that he or she is unable to work beyond the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level for one year or more. The amount of earnings the SSA considers “substantial” depends on the disability.

The SSA will also require evidence of a mental illness. For depression, for example, a person must demonstrate severe symptoms, such as delusions or “marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning.” For substance abuse, the addiction must have physically impaired a person’s health or caused brain damage to the extent that working is impossible.

Not all people with severe mental illness exhibit obvious signs, however. A person with bipolar disorder may feel and act fine for days, then experience several days in a row where it is nearly impossible to get out of bed. For such conditions, thorough and organized medical documentation is necessary in order to get approved for SSDI benefits.

The first priority for people suffering from a mental illness is to get medical help immediately. People who have a mental illness and who are unable to work should also contact an experienced Social Security Disability to discuss their legal options and help with daily living expenses.

New bill attempts SSDI reform for the terminally ill

Facing a terminal illness is among the most difficult experiences a person may have to confront. The emotional and physical pain following such a diagnosis can render a person incapable of day-to-day activities, let alone the ability to work. In addition, priorities shift, and a terminally ill person is more interested in spending time with family, friends or finishing up with good works done in the past than dealing with finances, insurance or other now mundane matters.

Still, those financial and insurance burdens still exist and must be dealt with. And for individuals who have paid into Social Security but can no longer work, Social Security Disability benefits may provide for help with day-to-day living and medical expenses.

Under existing law, there is a five-month waiting period before an individual can receive SSDI benefits, which provides money for basic costs for disabled people. For terminally ill individuals with a short life expectancy, however, that five-month waiting period can render this benefit irrelevant.

With that in mind, three U.S. Senators, John Barrasso (R-WY), Mike Enzi (R-WY, and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill that is meant to help terminally ill individuals receive the help they need sooner. The “Expedited Disability Insurance Payments for Terminally Ill Individuals Act of 2013″ would allow people whose medical condition results in a life expectancy of six months or less to receive:

· Half of SSDI benefits within the first month of diagnosis

· Three-quarters of monthly benefits for the second month

· Full benefits for the third and all following months up to one year

There are qualifiers in the proposed legislation. Should an individual beat the odds and live longer than one year after a terminal diagnosis, a portion of the benefits received during the first five months will be deducted from following payments. Terminally ill patients who live three years or longer after their diagnosis will receive 95 percent of benefits. In addition, in order to avoid abuse of the legislation, should it pass, two separate doctors must diagnose the terminal illness, and those doctors must not be in the same physician group.

The bill also includes provisions that would have the Social Security Administration commissioner submit yearly reports to Congress noting how many terminally ill people received early benefits and how many of those people lived beyond six months and how many lived past one year. The report also would show how much was spent and would include recommendations on preventing fraud, waste and abuse.

For terminally ill people, the earlier the benefits, the better

Social Security Disability Insurance can provide a lifeline for those people facing end-of-life decisions. For terminally ill patients, however, SSDI benefits can be a day late and a dollar short.

The proposed bill is still in committee, although it will have until 2015 to pass. While this legislation is a good attempted step towards helping people who desperately need it, a disabled individual may not be able to navigate what can be a complicated and convoluted process. Disabled individuals and people facing a serious or terminal illness should contact an experienced SSDI attorney to guide them through the process and fight for their deserved benefits.

New Rules for Student Loan Debt Discharge for Workers with Disabilities

Sustaining a disability later in life can have widespread consequences that affect the individual not only physically, but also emotionally and financially. Many disability diagnoses are accompanied by exorbitant medical bills. In addition, some people newly diagnosed with disabilities may find themselves unable to perform their current job responsibilities. In such situations, options exist to assist the individual in adjusting to his or her new way of life.

Social Security disability benefits are one avenue of support for workers who are no longer able to perform their job duties. In addition to Social Security disability benefits, workers who have completed some type of higher education and have outstanding student loans may be able to have their debt forgiven.

Workers with unpaid federal student loans may be eligible for “Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) discharge” of their debt if they are “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” The impairment must either “be expected to result in death,” or last for a “continuous period of not less than 60 months,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

New rules, recently proposed by the Education Department, seek to improve the student loan forgiveness program, as many have complained it is inefficient and ineffective. In fact, a February 2011 investigation by ProPublica found that many individuals with disabilities continued to be held responsible for their student loan debts due to deficiencies in the system. Some even had their Social Security disability benefits garnished to pay off their student loan debt.

New Proposed Rules for Student Loan Forgiveness

The Education Department’s proposals are intended to eliminate redundant steps in the loan forgiveness process and to provide increased transparency when an application is rejected.

Most notably, those with student loan debt will now be required to submit just one application to the Education Department to discharge their debt. In the past, applicants were obligated to submit to an initial review by the loan holders. Not only did that requirement complicate the process, but it also prevented many otherwise eligible borrowers from presenting their applications to the Education Department, as the loan holders had the ability to reject applications without government review.

In addition, the Education Department will take steps to increase its communication with applicants. The Department will now have to provide a “detailed explanation” when an applicant is denied, and must communicate with a representative retained by the applicant, such as an attorney. According to the ProPublica report, in the past, the Education Department often failed to identify a reason for rejecting a discharge application.

The investigation found that of 106 complaints, 36 percent of the applications had been rejected because the applicant’s doctor had not sufficiently answered requests from the department for more information. Rather than informing applicants of the deficiency, though, the Education Department sent letters merely stating the application was denied due to a “medical review failure.” Despite the issues perceived by the Education Department, 23 percent of those applicants had already been determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration.

Should the Education Department Rely More Heavily on SSD Decisions?

While past critics of the loan forgiveness process for borrowers with disabilities applaud these reforms, many argue that the most obvious change, with the greatest potential to streamline the process, has been ignored. They contend that the most efficient method would have been to eliminate the Education Department’s disability review altogether, and rely on the findings of the Social Security Administration.

Since 2008, the definition of disability used by these two departments has been similar, both requiring that the individual be unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity.” The Education Department has argued, though, that the legal standard is different, since Social Security disability benefits can be stopped if a recipient is able to return to work. By contrast, once a student loan is discharged, the obligation to pay back the debt is gone forever.

The process for applying for Social Security disability benefits can be complex. An experienced California Social Security disability attorney can ensure the rights of individuals with disabilities are protected.

Poor customer service from the SSA?

If you have become disabled and you believe you may qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, you may think it would be a good idea to visit their office and obtain some help and advice on filing out the application.

You may have heard or read that the SSDI application is somewhat long and involved, and that it would be helpful to sit down with a live person, so you can ask questions and seek clarification when you are unsure about a topic.

According to one woman, that may not work out so well. She relates her experience of visiting a local Social Security Administration office and what she thought of their customer service. Turns out, not a great deal. She explains that the SSA violated “at least four cardinal rules of customer service.”

She found the local SSA office “depressing.” Her experience deteriorated after she entered the building, noting that the “metal chairs” were not designed to be sat in for 30 minutes, let alone the multiple hour waits that seem standard.

Customer service should put the customer first in an attractive setting. Does this fail to occur at SSA offices because no one in the office one cares? Probably not, remember, the employees of the SSA have to be there 40 hours or more a week.

The offices and the customer service offered often are lacking because the system has seen substantial growth, without a commensurate increase in funding for facilities and staff.

This means it is more important than ever when you apply for SSDI benefits to see to it that your application is complete and is not missing any important medical records or other documentation.

The process can already be uncomfortably slow, so the fewer mistakes and missing documents, the more likely your application is to receive faster treatment.

Source: The Huffington Post, “Social Security Administration’s Cautionary Tale of Customer Service,” Liz Wainger, February 5, 2014

SSDI is not being inundated with unemployed workers

After the collapse of the financial markets caused by the reckless use of mortgage-backed securities and the concomitant collapse of the real estate markets, workers every where were severely affected. From the loss of value in their homes to the loss of their jobs, the great recession left many workers in desperate financial positions.

Many, after a job loss, were forced to use unemployment insurance as they looked for new jobs. Against this backdrop, the Social Security Administration saw increases in applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. This increase has been ongoing over the last few decades, but some critics of the SSDI program used these two occurrences as an excuse to attack SSDI.

They claimed the program is full of fraud, and that millions of unemployed workers were flooding the program with applications for SSDI benefits after their unemployment insurance had run out.

A study by a team of university researchers from Columbia and Berkeley has found that there is no significant statistical connection between worker’s expiration of the unemployment benefits and the increase in SSDI applications.

The lead author of the study said, “[T]here is no convincing evidence that workers whose unemployment benefits have expired apply for disability insurance on a large scale.”

We have always thought it highly unlikely that workers who had exhausted their unemployment insurance could successfully apply for SSDI benefits, since a great majority of them would not have the necessary medical impairment that would allow them to qualify for SSDI.

The study found that less than 2 percent of workers who had exhausted their unemployment insurance even applied for SSDI.

Source: Sacramento Bee, “Study Reveals New Insight About Social Security Disability Benefits Amid Agency’s Influx Of Problems,” PRNewswire, February 10, 2014

Social Security to update job descriptions

The Social Security Administration (SSA) and its disability program have been under attack on many fronts in the last few years. The program is underfunded. Congress has expanded the qualifying medical conditions and broadened the eligibility for the program, but failed to provide the extra sources of funding for the program.

As a result, the trust fund that supports Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is practically exhausted and benefits could be cut if Congress fails to act. The program has also been accused of being too generous with its interpretations of what qualifies for disability benefits.

In reaction to some of these problems, the SSA is updating various aspect of how SSDI is administered. One important change for many applicants is revision being made to the “dictionary” of job listings.

To speed processing of applications for benefits, the SSA uses a reference document that identifies potential jobs and their qualifications.

Because the disability determination requires that the SSA look to see if your training or education would allow you to find other employment, it is important for the job listings to accurately reflect the job market as it exists today.

The listing has not been updated for 23 years, and includes jobs like “blacksmith” but does not cover many new tech related jobs that exist. This may mean that some people who would qualify as disabled under the old listing may no longer qualify when the list is revised.

We won’t know the full extent of the changes for a few years, as the listing contains 10,000 jobs that will need to be reviewed.

The real problem with SSDI? Congress

We expect the critics of the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) program will be coming out of the woodwork over the revelations of a “fraud bust” involving more than 100 people last week. The Wall Street Journal notes that Congress is pressuring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to “rework the system” for determining how beneficiaries are awarded.

The justification for that pressure, however, is often suspect. While the most recent fraud case is rather ostentatious, in the big picture of the SSDI program’s total payout, which in 2012 approached $140 billion, this incident is hardly the reason the program is facing a shortfall of money in the near future.

Congress, which contains many of the programs harshest critics, carries virtually all of the responsibility for that shortfall. They increased eligibility for the program, and rightfully so, over the last two decades.

The SSDI program provides a very necessary benefit for many disabled workers, and for many is far from generous. Nevertheless, the growth of the number of beneficiaries is a necessary outcome of such expansions.

While the administrative law judges are often blamed for being too lax in restricting SSDI benefits, again Congress bears much of the culpability. As the program grew, the SSA had difficulty handling the volume, and because of many hiring freezes and other congressionally imposed budget limits, ALJs saw their workloads grow until some were unmanageable.

Certainly, some ALJs probably approved some cases with minimal review. They may not have had much choice, as they were pressured to push through as many decisions as possible to reduce the backlog.

Given the current climate in Congress, we fear this latest incident will merely provoke more outcries for cuts to SSDI; adequately funding the agency would be the best means of reducing fraud.

Disabled veterans SSDI claims to receive faster review

Many veterans make a significant sacrifice during their service. They risk their life and limb while serving their country, and when they return, it is right and fitting that we provide support for those who have been injured in that service. From obvious physical injuries, like lost limbs from IEDs and gunshot wounds, to the less obvious, but equally debilitating psychological impairments, they are left unable to return to their prior jobs or obtain new ones.

Too often, upon returning, they would receive a disability rating from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). One would think this would allow them to easily apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. This, however, is not the case.

One problem is the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) backlog in claims processing. The rising number of applications for SSDI has meant a nearly constant backlog for the last decade or more, and while SSA has been able to reduce it at time, it is still averages more than three months in most parts of the country.

If you need to appeal a denial, the time can increase to a year or more. With this as a backdrop, the SSA has announced new plans to move veterans’ claims to the high-priority list that receives an expedited review.

Of course, this does not lower the eligibility requirements for veterans, meaning it is just as important as ever to obtain assistance when assembling your SSDI application. The change will mean your claim will be looked a more quickly, but it will still be denied if it is missing documentation or other necessary information.