If you are about to file a first-time application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, you should know about the hearings backlog of disability claims that are currently pending decisions. These are claims that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has initially denied and are hung up within the appeals cycle to wait for a review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
There are just under 700,000 cases waiting for hearings at the time of this writing in 2010, which is actually at its lowest level since 2005. SSA is working to improve the hearings backlog by opening up more hearings offices across the country and hiring more judges. In fact, in 2009, SSA did shave off 72 days from the average waiting time to about 442 days. That may not sound very impressive, but it is a reduction of two and a half months, which could mean a lot to someone hoping to receive much-needed disability income.
Getting approved right away. If you can prove that your disability clearly meets the requirements one of the SSA’s medical impairment listings or Compassionte Allowance listings, you can be approved for benefits on your first try, and not need to wait for an appeal hearing. The SSA, through an initiative called Compassionate Allowances, speeds up the approval process for seere or terminal cases. But, if your condition is not so clearly defined, the application process can become much longer, much more complicated, and your claim could end up hanging in “backlog limbo.”
To have the best chance of being aproved in the intial application stage, you need to submit strong, supportive medical evidence from your doctor that explains why you have been unable to work. In fact, your medical history and your work history are the main determining factors for getting approved for disability benefits. The better you detail your documentation about your medical condition and the jobs you have had in the past, the stronger your case will be. While a doctor's opinion that you are disabled is nice, it's only helpful if the doctor also explains your limitations are. However, the SSA denies over 70% of first-time applications, many because of incomplete information.
Getting approved at the first appeal. If you are denied benefits but still have a strong case, you may be approved at the first stage of the appeal process (in most states): reconsideration. This is a review of your records -- no hearing is held yet -- to see if the claims examiner made a mistake in denying you benefits. Be sure to send any update medical records you have to the SSA. If you lose the reconsideration review, you need to request a hearing and begin the long wait for a hearing date.
Getting approved before the hearing. If you have a strong case, there are still two ways you might be able to get an approval before the actual hearing date, if you can get an on-the-record review. You can request an OTR review if you're sure the judge deciding your case wouldn't need further information than what's already in your file -- for instance, the judge wouldn't need to hear you or a vocational expert testify about your case. Similarly, you can request an attorney advisor opinion if you have new evidence that supports your claim or if there has been a recent change in law that will help your claim. If your request is granted, an SSA staff attorney will review your claim and may approve you for benefits without a hearing.
It may make sense for you to get the help of a disability representative who understands the Social Security disability application and appeal process; it's difficult to win a reconsideration, OTR review, or attorney advisor opinion without a lawyer.