Posts in:February, 2021

When Does COVID-19 Become a Disability? “Long Haulers” Push for Answers, and Benefits

Posted February 26, 2021 by Premier Disability Services, LLC®

When COVID-19 first arrived in the U.S., Jodee Pineau-Chaisson was working as the director of social services for a nursing home in western Massachusetts called Center for Extended Care in Amherst. By the middle of April, residents were getting sick.

In early May, Pineau-Chaisson was tapped for a particular duty: “I was asked to go on to the COVID-19 units to do FaceTime calls, so they could say goodbye to their family members,” she recalls. “I was very scared.”

She was worried about contracting the virus, but also felt like she owed it to her residents. So, at 55 years old and with no pre-existing conditions, Pineau-Chaisson put on an N95 mask, a white jumpsuit, and she entered the units to help. Three days later, she had COVID-19.

She says she’s certain she was exposed at the nursing home since, at the time, she wasn’t seeing anyone outside of work or shopping in stores, and she’d even moved out of her house and into an apartment to avoid bringing the virus home to her wife. Thinking back, Pineau-Chaisson wonders if she was sweating too much, which made it harder for her mask to work well. Or, perhaps, she got too close while trying to facilitate the FaceTime calls.

It’s now been almost ten months since Pineau-Chaisson got sick, yet she is still dealing with a series of devastating ailments. She says she has memory problems, body pain, heart palpitations, depression and chronic fatigue.

“Sometimes it can even be hard to walk up the stairs to my bedroom,” she says.

Pineau-Chaisson’s wife has become her primary caregiver. She said her wife has always been supportive and encouraging, even when she needed help getting in and out of the shower.

“She’s a nurse, so I lucked out,” Pineau-Chaisson says.

Pineau-Chaisson is a so-called long-hauler. These are people who survive COVID-19 but have symptoms – sometimes debilitating symptoms – many months later. As scientists scramble to explain what is going on and figure out how to help, disability advocates are also scrambling: They are trying to figure out whether long-haulers will qualify for disability benefits.

Disability advocates and lawmakers are calling on the Social Security Administration or SSA to study the issue, update their policies and offer guidance for applicants.

“If we end up with a million people with ongoing symptoms that are debilitating, that is a tremendous burden for each of those individuals, but also for our healthcare system and our society,” says Dr. Steven Martin, a physician and professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School.

“We know what’s coming. So, we have to make sure that we’re on top of this,” says U.S. Rep John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, who joined with another member of Congress to write a letter asking the SSA to work with scientists to understand what support long-haulers might need.

Contact our office today if you or anyone you know would like to learn more about qualifying for Social Security Disability benefits.

By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®

Full NPR article:

Special Rules for the Blind

Posted February 19, 2021 by Premier Disability Services, LLC®

If you are partially, legally, or totally blind, you may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) details how significant your vision loss must be for it to qualify as a disability. Your vision loss must be quite significant, and if you have good vision in one eye, you may not qualify for disability benefits.

To meet Social Security’s listing for loss of visual acuity (Listing 2.02), the vision in your better eye, with correction, must be 20/200 or worse. This is called legal blindness, or statutory blindness, even though it’s only partial blindness. Total blindness (the absence of light perception in both eyes) qualifies automatically for disability benefits. If you have one eye with vision worse then 20/200 and one eye with better vision than 20/200, you won’t qualify under this listing.

If you have poor peripheral vision in addition to poor visual acuity, you might be able to qualify under the SSA’s listing for loss of visual efficiency (Listing 2.04). Your percentage of visual efficiency combines your central visual acuity and peripheral vision capabilities.

If you don’t qualify for disability benefits under Social Security’s requirements for poor visual acuity, decrease in visual fields (peripheral vision), or a combination of the two, as the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your vision loss (and any other symptoms) on your capacity to perform daily activities and your regular work. If you can’t do your regular job, the SSA will determine whether there is any other kind of work you can be expected to do considering your prior job experience, your age, and your education.

The SSA has several rules that apply to legally or totally blind applicants but don’t apply to nonblind disabled applicants. For instance:

  • In some states, legally blind applicants receive a higher state supplement to their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment than nonblind disabled people.
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claimants who are legally blind can work and receive up to $2,190 per month (in 2021) and still receive disability benefits without the work being considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) by the SSA (this is higher than the limit of $1,310 per month that applies to nonblind disabled workers). Also, the SGA limit of $2,190 doesn’t apply to SSI claimants (they do have an SSI income limit, however, like all SSI claimants).
  • The SSA grants immediate SSI benefits to those with severe disabilities who are likely to be found eligible for benefits. If you suffer from total blindness (that is, no light perception in both eyes), you may qualify for six months of “presumptive blindness” benefits while you are waiting for your decision.
  • If your income declined as your vision deteriorated, you can exclude the more recent quarters of earnings from your Social Security record. In essence, your earnings record will be “frozen” before your disability began, which is why this is called a “disability freeze.”

Contact our office today if you or anyone you know would like to learn more about qualifying for Social Security Disability benefits.

By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®

Disabled Americans Are Losing a Lifeline – Biden Can Help

Posted February 12, 2021 by Premier Disability Services, LLC®

At a time when the pandemic has hit the disabled and elderly the hardest, they also face the erosion of a critical income lifeline, Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The program has collapsed during the pandemic: From July to November 2020, the Social Security Administration awarded benefits to about 100,000 fewer individuals compared with the same period in 2019. In July 2020 the agency distributed just 38,318 new awards — the fewest in 20 years of available data.

At this rate, more than 230,000 low-income disabled and elderly Americans will miss out on vital cash benefits and access to health care (via Medicaid, which SSI recipients generally qualify for) in one year.

President Biden has proposed a number of policies to improve the lives of the impoverished and disabled. Notably, he would raise, for the first time in the half-century of the program, its payments to meet the poverty level in the United States. But he won’t be able to successfully implement them without addressing challenges that the pandemic and the Social Security Administration’s recent policy priorities have presented in recent months.

The immediate cause of this ongoing crisis is the closure of Social Security’s network of 1,200 field offices during the Covid-19 pandemic. Generally, the agency does not take online applications for SSI benefits, leaving these disabled and elderly people with one primary service option: calling its overburdened general phone line. Further, the field offices were a source of information and assistance for millions of Americans, many challenged by cognitive, learning, language and poverty-related issues. More than 43 million individuals visited field offices in 2019. In short, it is now much more difficult for eligible disabled and elderly people to get the assistance they need to obtain SSI payments, which average around $560 a month.

More generally, longstanding systemic obstacles to SSI access, exacerbated by Social Security’s recent actions, have chipped away at the administration of these awards. The agency, whose core — and almost only — mission is to pay benefits on a timely basis, has made a policy priority of reviewing the cases of disabled people receiving SSI or Social Security, as well as changing disability work test rules, making it more likely that older and less educated people would be denied benefits.

Even before this crisis, two-thirds of those who completed the initial 23-page application for the program failed to qualify under the current burdensome disability and means tests. In the days after November’s elections, the agency requested approval from the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget for a regulatory proposal that would allow Social Security to conduct an additional 2.6 million disability reviews targeting older disabled adults and disabled children.

Similarly, after the elections, the agency requested approval from the Office of Management and Budget for regressive proposals that would make it much harder for older and less educated disabled workers to qualify for benefits on the basis of a longstanding work test. That test acknowledges that these workers may have trouble finding new employment when a severe disability displaces them from their current employment. Failing to take age and education into account would threaten 500,000 people with the loss of benefits.

The Biden administration can take two immediate measures to address these issues. First, the major decline in SSI awards needs to be addressed by building out service options, including third-party advocacy assistance and conducting effective outreach about benefit eligibility to low-income Americans.

Second, there should be a rescission of proposals to undermine the disability work test and increase the frequency of continuing disability reviews. In addition, currently scheduled reviews should be suspended until Social Security can safely reopen field offices and disabled individuals can access agency assistance and the medical records needed to establish continuing disability.

Earlier actions by the Trump administration should also be rolled back, including changes that disadvantage disabled applicants who cannot communicate in English. The agency needs to record racial and ethnic demographic data, as it did in the past, to be able to discern discriminatory policies and practices. And with Congress, the new administration will need to press ahead to simplify the SSI means test, stop penalizing those with small amounts of earned income and savings, drop arbitrary eligibility limits for disabled and elderly refugees, and fund advocacy efforts for SSI claimants and beneficiaries.

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