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With Covid Delays, You May Die Waiting for Disability Benefits

  February 16, 2021 | By Bobi Dempsey, In These Times

Jade Dunham was 15 when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Since then, she says, she has been on ​“almost every medication on the market for my condition.”

The disease is chronic and debilitating, and Dunham’s symptoms are wide-ranging. They affect nearly every routine task she attempts.

“My shoulders no longer have cartilage, and I have holes in the humeral head of both joints [at the shoulder], meaning I will require both to be replaced,” Dunham says. ​“I can no longer lift my arms above the elbows without severe pain. My left foot and ankle are bone-on-bone and become so painful to walk on, I have to crawl.”

“My hands are damaged, my knees are damaged, my neck cracks and pops to the point I get severe headaches,” Dunham adds.

Because of the severity of her rheumatoid arthritis, Dunham, now 28, is unable to work. Last fall, she and her husband were living in an old RV in southeast Minnesota, the only option they could find. But the RV had no heat, leaving them in a tough situation as the colder weather rolled in. Dunham’s husband has additional health issues, making his employment sporadic and unpredictable.

In July 2019, Dunham applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a federal program meant to provide basic financial support to people unable to work because of a disability. The program is managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

The process can seem to move at a snail’s pace — and the Covid-19 crisis has, by many accounts, made that worse.

Some people haven’t gotten through the initial application stage at all, hindered or discouraged by pandemic disruptions.

“Research shows that, when the Social Security Administration closes a single field office, disability applications from those who live nearby decrease,” says Stacy Braverman Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR). ​“Now, we are seeing the effect of closing every field office in the country, plus closing many libraries and social service organizations where people might access the internet or get help applying for benefits.”

But the need for disability benefits has not gone away. ​“In fact,” Cloyd says, ​“as we learn more about the health effects of Covid-19, we may see SSDI applications from those who survived it but have severe and long-lasting impairments as a result.”

Cloyd notes that advocates have heard from many individuals who have submitted an initial application but hit technical issues that halted their progress, or who needed in-person assistance that is no longer offered.

The pandemic has also led to slowdowns on the agency side.

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