En español | When Steven Robeson, 64, applied for Social Security disability benefits after congestive heart failure forced him to retire in 2006, he felt lucky that it only took six weeks to be approved. Had it taken much longer, Robeson and his wife, Karla, 55, feared they would have to sell their Libertytown, Md., home.
Today, however, people who find themselves in Robeson's shoes don't have to wait anywhere near as long to find out whether they'll get disability benefits.
In July, the Social Security Administration added 12 new conditions to its "compassionate allowances list," including a number of severe heart ailments like the one plaguing Robeson. Those additions brought the list to 100 conditions.
Thursday Michael J. Astrue, commissioner of Social Security, announced 13 new conditions involving the immune system and neurological disorders.
Applicants who have any of the 113 conditions now on the list are fast-tracked and can have a decision in as little as two weeks. For many other people, the length of the disability process may be measured in months — or even years.
"When you have a catastrophic experience and you lose 50 percent of your income, it can mean that you're selling your house, that you may not be able to support yourself. That's so depressing for the patient," says Karla Robeson. She believes that her husband's health was positively affected when he received benefits and no longer had to worry about finances.
Social Security is still seeking out new conditions to add to the compassionate allowances list, though they're getting harder to find, says Astrue.
Simplifying the process
They're also looking for ways to make the process simpler for applicants. Just recently a new feature was added to the online disability benefits application so that when one of the conditions on the compassionate allowances list is noted, applicants are asked fewer questions.
The initiative has special meaning for Astrue, who made its creation one of his top priorities.
Back in 1985, Astrue helped his father apply for disability benefits after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The process, Astrue says, was excessive.
"It's really not necessary in a case like his, where we knew very early on that there was no hope for him," says Astrue. "If there's a claim where medically there ought not to be a dispute, we want to take it out of the queue and award benefits."
Between conditions on the compassionate allowances list and another program called quick disability determination — which applies to conditions like certain kinds of cancer — Social Security officials say they expect to expedite nearly 5 percent of disability claims this year.
Astrue hopes to see that number rise to somewhere between 6 and 9 percent in the next couple of years.
Making a big difference
The changes have the potential for real improvement, say people who have been through the non-expedited process.
For Marilyn Beiser, 59, it took five months to receive approval for disability benefits after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009. The condition was added to the compassionate allowances list just a short time later in 2010.
The long wait for benefits created a mountain of stress for Beiser, who had struggled for years to keep jobs as symptoms slowly crippled her ability to function in a workplace. The result: Beiser could no longer work, but desperately needed income to pay her bills.
So perilous was Beiser's financial situation that she moved in with her daughter's family in Hatboro, Pa., while she waited for Social Security.
"My stomach was always in knots," says Beiser, who worried that she wouldn't be approved at all.
But finally receiving Social Security benefits made all the difference.
"I was able to breathe again," she says. "If I want to stop at McDonald's for an ice cream cone, I can."
Michelle Diament is a freelance writer based in Memphis.
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