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Long Waits And Long Odds For Those Who Need Social Security Disability

Stephenie Hashmi and her husband, Shawn, at home. She had to leave a demanding nursing job in Kansas City six years ago when her systemic lupus flared and left her unable to work. (Alex Smith/KCUR)

By the time Stephenie Hashmi was in her mid-20s, she had achieved a lifelong dream — she was the charge nurse of one of Kansas City’s largest intensive care units. But even as she cared for patients, she realized that something was off with her own health.

“I remember just feeling tired and feeling sick and hurting, and not knowing why my joints and body” hurt, she said.

“It is not easy to get disability benefits, and it’s a very complicated and difficult process,” Ekman said.

It may become even harder for people like Hashmi, whose disability is difficult to see or measure. This spring, the Social Security Administration introduced changes to fight fraud and streamline the application process, including a new rule that removes special consideration given to a person’s longtime doctor. Ekman said this is a mistake.

“Those changes would now put the evidence from a treating physician on the same weight as evidence from a medical consultant employed to do a one-time brief examination or a medical consultant they had do a review of the paper file and may have never examined the individual,” Ekman said.

She said this could lead to more denials for disabled people with complex conditions like lupus, multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia. These illnesses can affect patients in very different ways and may be hard for an unfamiliar doctor or nurse to evaluate. Ekman said more denials will lead to more appeals, which will increase the backlog.

That backlog started snowballing about 10 years ago, said Jason Fichtner; he’s now a senior research fellow in public policy at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, but was acting deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration back then. During the recession, he said, a lot of people who applied for benefits were disabled but not necessarily unable to work.

“They can work, but when the recession happens, those are the first people who tend to lose their jobs and then they apply for disability insurance,” he said.

There are now more than a million people across the country waiting for hearings, and, adding to the strain, the administration’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010.

Fichtner said the agency is obligated to weed out any and all fraud it can — including the rare cases in which a patient’s personal physician might be trying to tip the scale to get a patient benefits. Fichtner said the administration can still legitimately prioritize applicants if its investigation shows the patient’s disability, though not obvious, merits it.

“For patients that are really in dire condition and really have major disabilities, I don’t think they have to worry about these rule changes,” he said.

He acknowledges that the backlog needs attention and says the agency has safeguards to monitor whether the rule is working.

In Kansas City, Stephenie Hashmi is still struggling with lupus, and still struggling to get disability benefits. She’s increasingly pessimistic. After several rejections from the Social Security Administration, Hashmi’s appealing again. Her hearing is scheduled for November — of 2018.

This story is part of NPR’s reporting partnership with KCUR and Kaiser Health News.

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