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Diane Braunstein, a Champion for Social Security Disability Applicants

She runs program that fast-tracks benefits process

Q. How did this idea get started?

A. In 1985, I was working with the now-SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue and watched him deal with the frustration of trying to get disability payments for his father, who had brain cancer. It was extremely difficult, and it inspired him to develop this program when he became the commissioner in 2007. He recruited me to run it. I was acutely aware that delays in disability payments can exacerbate what is already a difficult situation.

Q. Do you think about the impact of what you did and what it means for so many people?

A. There was a dedicated team of people across the agency and in the advocacy community that came together to make the program a reality. All of these people had a role. … As for myself, while I realize I helped to create something worthwhile, I also believe there is more that needs to be done. Public service is a lifelong commitment. There is always another challenge just around the corner.

Q. Did working with the Alzheimer's Association heighten your compassion for people in need?

A. At any point in time, we can be disabled, and as we age we are likely to become frail. These facts have motivated my entire career. … While it's not always possible to alleviate another person's distress … we have an obligation to provide our neighbors with the supports we can — as soon as possible. After all, the challenges our loved ones face today will be the same challenges we face tomorrow. I guess I would have to say that I am conscious of the distress caused by all of these conditions.

Q. What's the most touching moment you've experienced?

A. At each public hearing, parents of disabled children and adults who have applied for disability testified. Many of these witnesses had already received benefits. Some of the witnesses were quite disabled — others had experienced the loss of a child. I found their determination to help others particularly moving.

Q. Do people thank you for bringing this program to life?

A. It's not so much about being thanked. It's more about knowing you have done the right thing for people who really need help. The support we've received from individuals and health advocacy organizations has been very gratifying.

You may also like: Keep Social Security strong. >>

Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.

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