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Diane Braunstein, a Champion for Social Security Disability Applicants

She runs program that fast-tracks benefits process

Editor's note: On Sept. 15, Diane Braunstein was named the winner in the Citizen Services category for a Service to America Medal.

You may not know her name, but Diane Braunstein is helping to make the lives of thousands of people who are very ill a little bit easier.

Touched by the stories of Social Security disability applicants who languished in a bureaucratic nightmare without receiving benefits before they died, Braunstein was determined to make a difference both for those who are suffering and for their families who needed help from the Social Security Administration.

See also: Three things critics get wrong about Social Security.

Diane Braunstein helps with Social Security disability benefits.

Diane Braunstein is a finalist for a Service to America Medal. — Sam Kittner/

She has done just that as director of SSA's Compassionate Allowances, a program that quickly identifies rare and fatal diseases and other medical conditions that clearly qualify someone for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. It allows the agency to electronically target and make speedy decisions for the most obviously disabled individuals who were previously tangled in unnecessary red tape.

With the support of the SSA leadership, Braunstein has made it possible for people with one or more of 88 specifically designated medical conditions to be approved for disability payments in as little as 14 days, a major accomplishment for a system plagued by delays sometimes lasting years and a backlog of some 700,000 cases.

Braunstein's work for SSA is part of a lifetime commitment to help the aging and those with disabilities. She has worked for the Alzheimer's Association, handled aging policy for the National Governors Association, and has served as director of aging for the state of Michigan, director of research and policy for the White House Conference on Aging, and deputy staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. She's currently SSA's associate director for international programs.

Braunstein's recent efforts at SSA are being noticed. She's a finalist in the Citizen Services category for a Service to America Medal, a prestigious honor awarded each year by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The winner will be announced in September.

We spoke with Braunstein about her work and its impact:

Q. How many people has the Compassionate Allowances program helped?

A. Forty-five thousand people were fast-tracked in 2010, and we expect 65,000 in 2011. We expect it to grow.

Next: How did this program to help the disabled get started? >>

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