CLEVELAND, Ohio–Applying for Social Security disability benefits is not easy or quick for most people. The process can be particularly daunting given that in Ohio, only 34 percent of initial cases are approved and when denied, the appeal process can stretch on for months–and sometimes years.
Applicants are out of work and facing a disabling medical condition, dwindling funds and a potentially long wait. Most know little about the records they’ll need to provide to prove they’re disabled, or even how to get them: incomplete applications are one of the most common reasons for an initial denial, according to lawyers who represent people filing for disability.
What’s the best way to get your application into the “yes” pile? Here are tips from disability advocates to help increase your odds of success early on:
When to file? Advice on this varies. Some advocates say it’s best to file immediately when it’s no longer possible to work, others say to file when it’s clear you will be unemployed for at least a year. Still others suggest a specific timeframe–three to four months after unemployment. Regardless, they say, be prepared for a long wait. The initial application process can take three to six months. Appeals take much longer.
Practice makes perfect. If you plan to apply online (which advocates say is the quickest route), consider printing and filling out the application by hand first, says disability lawyer Andrew November. It’s an opportunity to get familiar with the questions you’ll be asked, compile all the information you might not have at your fingertips, and make the online application smoother. You can download printable versions of the applications (SSA-16 and SSA-3368) here:
ssa.gov/forms/ or request copies, along with instructions, by calling 1-800-772-1213.
Get a (free) copy of your medical records. One of the most important pieces of a successful disability application is a complete medical record, advocates say. When you first apply, you’ll answer questions to determine your eligibility for disability benefits. Then you’ll be asked to supply your medical records or to sign a release so that Social Security can request them for you.
It can speed the process up if you get the records yourself, says James Mitchell Brown, a local disability lawyer. Ohioans can receive a free copy of their medical records when applying for disability. It’s a good thing, because fees for copying these records, which can be thousands of pages long, can be hundreds of dollars, says Brown. Ohio is one of only a handful of states in which these records are provided without fees to anyone making an initial disability application. To get records for free, applicants only need to provide documentation from the Social Security Administration establishing that an application has been filed.
If you’re applying outside Ohio, check your state laws on copying fees to find the maximum amount you can be charged for your records. Many states set limits, especially for those who are struggling financially.
To see a list of state laws on medical record fees, check here:
For more on Ohio law on copying medical records, look here:
If you have to request medical records from a doctor outside Ohio, November suggests making use of a provision in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which provides individuals with a right to obtain their medical records in an electronic format for no more than the labor cost of fulfilling the request.
Make sure your doctor is on board. At the very least, says Cleveland disability attorney Marcia Margolius, it’s best to have the support of doctors who will be part of the application process. While it’s not necessary to receive benefits, November believes it’s very helpful to put an opinion from a treating doctor in applications.
“A medical opinion that states that someone is unable to work or disabled is not helpful,” he says. “Rather, it is important for the [doctor] to outline the functional restrictions, meaning the reasons that someone is unable to work eight hours a day, five days a week.”
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