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Are there ways to speed up a disability claim?

Once you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the two Social Security–administered benefits for people with disabilities, it can take months for your claim to be approved or denied.

Wait times for an initial decision on disability claims have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, from an average of 122 days in the last quarter of 2019 to 169 days in the same period of 2021. That wait can be difficult, especially if you lack other household income or if your health problems are serious enough to potentially shorten your life expectancy.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) can expedite processing for disability applicants who have certain medical conditions, face especially trying personal circumstances or served in the U.S. military. Even if you don’t fit into one of these “critical case” categories, there are steps you can take to try to speed up your claim, like enlisting the help of an attorney, a professional disability advocate or your member of Congress.

Here are some of the ways you might get a quicker determination of whether you qualify for disability benefits.

Compassionate Allowances

Applicants who have certain medical conditions are entitled to expedited processing of their disability claims under the SSA’s Compassionate Allowances program. The list covers more than 250 types of illness and serious injury, including numerous cancers as well as neurological disorders such as Huntington’s disease and Lewy body dementia.

You should not have to ask to be considered for a Compassionate Allowance — Social Security uses text-scanning software to flag potentially eligible applications. But if you have a qualifying condition, disability experts say it doesn’t hurt to note that on your application form.

Terminal illness

If you have a terminal illness, or TERI — Social Security’s term for a condition that’s expected to result in death — you are automatically considered for faster processing and determination of your claim. Qualifying conditions and circumstances for the TERI program include (but aren’t limited to):

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • AIDS
  • malignant and stage IV cancers
  • receiving in-patient hospice care or home hospice care
  • awaiting a heart, lung, heart and lung, liver or bone marrow transplant

If your benefit application lists a qualifying condition, Social Security will flag the claim for TERI program consideration. You can also note on the form that you have an illness that’s expected to be fatal.

Dire financial need

If you don’t have food, medicine or a roof over your head, or you face imminent eviction or foreclosure, the SSA can expedite processing of your claim as a Dire Need Case, or DRND.  

People seeking this status should let Social Security know how desperate their situation is, either in a phone call or by submitting what’s called a “dire need” letter, detailing why they need help. Applicants who are in the appeals process also can seek an expedited hearing due to dire need.

Military service

Social Security expedites disability claims for veterans of the U.S. armed forces if they qualify as a “wounded warrior,” meaning they were disabled while in active service on or after Oct. 1, 2001, or have a compensation rating of 100 percent permanent and total (P&T) from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In the latter situation, be sure to identify yourself as “veteran rated 100 percent P&T” when you apply for benefits.

Professional help

A lawyer or non-attorney representative (also called a disability advocate)  can help you with the application process and make sure that you’ve put the right information on your form to get consideration for expedited processing (or not left out anything that could achieve that result). If it seems that your application is stuck, they also can help you figure out who to talk to at SSA or at the state office evaluating your claim,

Congressional help

Your representatives in Congress may also be able to help. Contact a senator’s or House member’s office to connect with a staffer who can inquire about the status of your claim and check to see whether it has been flagged for expedited processing.

Waive notice requirements

If your disability claim is in appeal and pending a hearing before an administrative law judge, Social Security is required to notify you of your scheduled hearing date at least 75 days in advance. You can opt to waive this notice period, and potentially get your hearing scheduled sooner, by filling out an SSA Form HA-510 (Waiver of Timely Written Notice of Hearing) and returning it to the hearing office handling your case.

Be aware that waiving the 75-day notice could mean less time to gather and submit evidence showing you are disabled. You must still submit your evidence, or inform the SSA in writing about the evidence you intend to submit, no later than five business days before your hearing date.

On-the-record request 

Another option to speed up the appeal process is to ask for an on-the-record (OTR) decision by an administrative law judge. An OTR request indicates that you believe the evidence in your file clearly supports your disability application, without the need for you or expert witnesses to make the case at a hearing.

To request an OTR decision, contact your nearest hearing office. You must have already filed an appeal and formally requested a hearing. A judge will review the case file and decide whether to issue a written ruling approving your claim or proceed to a hearing.

Keep in mind

  • Critical case designations can carry over into the appeals process, or they can be added during that process if your disability claim is initially denied, which means you can continue to get expedited reviews.
  • Social Security and the VA have different criteria for qualifying someone as disabled, so 100 percent P&T may not necessarily qualify a veteran for SSDI or SSI.

Published February 10, 2022