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More Fast Tracks to Disability Benefits

With some 750,000 Americans waiting an average of more than 500 days for hearings on their applications for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration today announced a new program to fast-track benefits for those whose medical conditions are so severe that their cases would obviously be approved.

The Compassionate Allowances program will permit people who have one of 50 highly serious conditions—25 rare diseases and 25 types of cancer—to receive decisions on their applications for Social Security disability benefits in a matter of days, not months or years, Michael J. Astrue, commissioner of Social Security, said in a press release. More diseases and conditions are expected to be added.

“Getting benefits quickly to people with the most severe medical conditions is both the right and the compassionate thing to do,” Astrue said in the statement.

The program will allow the agency to quickly target the most obviously disabled individuals for benefits. These are people with illnesses so serious that just the confirmation of a diagnosis is sufficient to substantiate that they are too sick to work and need disability benefits.

For the past two years the national media have reported stories of Americans with critical, even terminal illnesses who have applied for Social Security benefits only to become homeless and broke—or even die—while waiting for their cases to come before an administrative law judge.

The Compassionate Allowances program is the second of a two-part overhaul that in a few years could result in 6 to 9 percent of disability claims for severe medical conditions being decided in an average of six to eight days, the agency said. The first part of the new process, already in use across the country, looks at all new disability applications and marks the most obvious cases for Quick Disability Determinations, including cases involving some cancers and end-stage renal disease. The new list will expand the cases marked for quick determinations.

To prepare the Compassionate Allowances program, the agency held public hearings, where experts testified on rare diseases and cancers. It also sought advice from the National Institutes of Health.

The president of the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Peter Saltonstall, calls the new program “an outstanding achievement,” but says it is “just a start.”

Even with the speedier process, beneficiaries must, by law, still wait five months before they receive their first payment.

Barbara Basler is a senior editor on AARP Bulletin staff.

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