When Diabetes Steals Your Livelihood

Too often our preconceptions of work-limiting disabilities are confined to suddenly devastating conditions, such as spinal cord injury or stroke. We rarely consider how diseases such as diabetes can be just as debilitating and just as costly to a family. With November being recognized as National Diabetes Awareness Month, we should remember the people who are unable to work due to the complications of diabetes and who need the benefits to which they are entitled under Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

That was the case with Theresa Edwards, an Odenton, Md., resident whose diabetes medications made her unable to focus on work. She lost her job as a customer service representative because she couldn’t function while on the medications she needed to be taking. For Theresa, it was a choice between working and surviving.

Theresa was let go in March 2005 and was forced to rely on her daughter for support. Theresa’s struggle was made even worse by a tragic lack of understanding about the SSDI application process. SSDI is a federally mandated insurance fund that every taxpaying worker contributes toward to provide them with insurance if they experience a severe, long-term disability.

Theresa had been told that she shouldn’t apply for disability benefits because she would be rejected. It’s true that diabetes is one of the most frequently denied conditions. Statistics show that 81 percent of applicants with diabetes are denied benefits when they first apply.

The complexity of diabetes-including its causes, effects, and treatments-can add to the difficulty in successfully navigating the SSDI application and review process. But dealing with a multi-layered bureaucracy is only part of the problem. Applicants also must contend with lengthy wait times that have become inherent in dealing with the Social Security Administration. What results is a recipe for frustration and, in many cases, serious financial strain.

Applicants may wait up to six months on average for an initial determination on their claim, and another six months for reconsideration if they are denied, depending on where they live. After the initial application and first appeal, applicants who appeal a second time are added to the waiting list for an administrative law judge to hear their case. At that level, they are likely to wait more than a year for a decision on their claim. The national average wait for a hearing is now 415 days. Hundreds more days could be added to the wait for benefits if a claim is still denied after the hearing.

All told, the process could take more than two-and-a-half years for those unfortunate enough to have to wade through the first four steps. Imagine nearly three years with little or no steady income, a family to support, and mounting medical bills for treatment of your disability.

Knowing the odds were against her, in April 2008 Theresa took the bold step of getting help. Less than two years later, she was awarded the benefits she needed and deserved. Theresa gave me permission to use her real name and situation because she knows what the struggle is like, and she wants the hundreds of thousands of Americans in similar circumstances to know they are not alone.

Folks who are struggling with a misunderstood disease often feel more hopeless in the face of an overwhelming and unpromising claims process. But they need to know there is hope. They can get the help they need and the benefits that they’ve already paid for in FICA tax dollars. That’s why SSDI exists.

Jim Allsup is the founder, president, and chief executive offer of Allsup Inc., a nationwide provider of Social Security Disability Insurance representation and Medicare plan selection services.

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