It can take years to get a final decision on your application for Social Security disability benefits. You may be able to reduce some of the delay by doing things like accurately completing all the required paperwork, responding quickly to any Social Security requests for information, and getting your own medical records together and submitting them early in the process.
Much of the usual delay comes from waiting for an ALJ hearing. (If you are denied benefits after you submit your initial application, you'll probably have to request a Social Security hearing and hope that the judge will grant you benefits.) Waiting times for hearings vary from region to region. For instance, in 2016, the average wait from hearing request to hearing was 12 months in Boston, Massachusetts, while the average wait in Buffalo, New York was over two years.
Here are some more ways to speed up your disability application.
If you have submitted enough medical evidence to clearly show that you are disabled, you can request an “on the record” (OTR) review rather than waiting for an appeal hearing. An administrative law judge (ALJ) will make an OTR decision if your file contains enough evidence to show that you are disabled, and there is no need for testimony from you or from a vocational expert that might come in at a hearing. An OTR decision allows you to skip the ALJ hearing and the delay that comes with waiting for a hearing.
To request an OTR review, you contact the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) nearest you, but you need to wait until after you have appealed a denial and requested a hearing. OHO will review your request and will either grant it, deny it, or ask you or your attorney for more information. If OHO grants your request for an OTR decision, an ALJ will issue a written decision approving your disability application. If it denies your request, your application will proceed on to the ALJ hearing.
Note that unless you have a disability lawyer, you cannot negotiate with Social Security over your disability onset date, so if the judge wants to approve you for disability but move your onset date (so that you'll get less backpay), you'll need to wait for your hearing.
Another way to avoid the wait for an ALJ hearing is to get an earlier decision from an attorney employed by Social Security. Attorney advisor decisions are available for claimants who can show that Social Security made a mistake, who have new evidence to support their claims, or who can show that there has been a change in the law that will support their claims.
To request an attorney advisor decision, contact your local OHO office after you have requested a hearing. An attorney advisor may ask for more evidence or may schedule a conference with you to find out more.
If you are successful, you will get a written attorney advisor opinion that is "fully favorable"—that is, it will award you benefits back to the onset date that you claimed in your application. If the attorney advisor decides there is not enough evidence to approve your claim, your case will just proceed on to the ALJ hearing. If the attorney advisor thinks that you are disabled but disagrees about your onset date, then she can issue a partially favorable decision. You have the option of accepting the partially favorable decision (and less backpay) or going forward to the ALJ hearing.
If you have a very serious illness and you meet the other qualifications for SSI or SSDI, then you may be able to get benefits much more quickly. Social Security maintains a list of over 200 conditions in its “Compassionate Allowances List” (CAL). If you have medical evidence that you have one of the CAL illnesses, then Social Security will award benefits in a matter of days or weeks, instead of years. Examples of the types of conditions on the list are Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and Tay-Sachs Disease, plus many types of cancers.
Social Security is supposed to screen disability applications to see if they are eligible for the CAL program, but you should alert Social Security when you apply if you have a Compassionate Allowances condition. You can speed up the CAL process by submitting all of the medical evidence showing you have a CAL condition with your application.
If you have a terminal illness and meet all of the non-medical qualifications for SSI or SSDI, then you should be able to get your benefits quickly. Social Security has a program called TERI that allows the agency to expedite applications when the applicant has claimed a terminal illness or a condition that is usually terminal. If you have a terminal illness, make sure you submit your medical records with your initial application to speed up the process. If you are receiving hospice care (inpatient or in your home), make sure Social Security knows that, because it is one of the things that the agency looks for when screening for TERI cases. For more information, see Nolo's article on TERI disability claims.
Social Security maintains a list of conditions for which it will issue SSI benefits before it issues an official decision on a disability application. This program is called Presumptive Disability (PD). The conditions include ALS, spinal cord injury causing an inability to walk without assistance, end stage renal disease, low birth weight, mental retardation, Down Syndrome, and more. If you have one of the conditions on the list, then you can receive your SSI payments for up to six months while Social Security processes your case. If Social Security ends up denying your application, you will not have to pay back the PD benefits. For more information, see Nolo's article on presumptive disability.
You may be able to get your ALJ hearing scheduled sooner than is usual for your local Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) if you have a "dire need." Social Security defines a dire need as an immediate threat to health or safety, such as not enough money for food, shelter or medical care. If you are homeless or facing immediate eviction or foreclosure, if you cannot afford medical care that you need, or if you cannot afford food, then you should write a letter describing your situation to your OHO office and ask for your hearing to be scheduled quickly.
If you have a disability that began while you were on active duty, you can request that your claim be expedited. For more information, see our article on expediting disability claims for military service members or veterans.
If you have been waiting a long time for your ALJ hearing and you don't qualify for any of the options listed above, then you can try calling or writing your Senator and Congressman or Congresswoman. Your legislator's office staff can contact Social Security on your behalf to try to get your case heard sooner.