Monday, October 29, 2012

Dead SSI Claimant is Told that He Can Work

Harley Christopher Andrews, a young man from the Orlando Metropolitan Area, died on September 2nd from an agressive form of cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme.  In addition to having to fight cancer for the last three years of his life, he also had to fight the Social Security Adminstration which denied him disability benefits. 
"He was having seizures, and his whole left side was going paralized" as a result of the brain tumor.  "He could not work", his mother Wendy told the Orlando Sentinel.
Twelve months after her son's death, she received a letter from the Social Security Administration.  The letter which was addressed to her son stated:  We're writing to let you know that we have made a disability hearing decision on your case.  Our decision: we find that your condition has improved and you are capable of working". 
This letter is just one of several "form letters" sent to Social Security claimants throught the nation.  I constantly receive angry calls and emails from claimants in Connecticut and Massachussets who are frustrated when they receive a decision from the SSA such as the one sent to the decesased claimant in Orlando. 
The tragic nature of the story of Harley Chrisopher Andrews shows how little effort the SSA makes to investigate cases and make well informed disability determinations. 
Glioblastoma brain tumors have one of the worst progmosis of any central nervous system cancers.  Prognosis is very poor with a median survival time of approximately 12-14 months and is almost invariably fatal. 
It is totally inexcusable why the Social Security Adminstration failed to award benefits to this claimant.  The tragedy endured by this young cancer victim and his family should serve as a wake up call to those who have failed to acknowlege the plight of thousands of other claimants are who routinely denied disability benefits without a valid basis.
Social Security Claimants: don't give up when you get a discouraging letter from the Social Security Adminstration such as the one received by Harley Christopher Andrews' mom.  Fight for your benefits.  Consider hiring a lawyer.  Most Social Security Disability Lawyers like me, don't charge any legal fees unless we are able to win benefits for you.     

Monday, October 22, 2012

Serving Latinos Over 50: An Essential Part of Our Mission

      I just got back from a Social Security Disability Law conference in Seattle, Washington.  During my stay in the Pacific Northwest, I had the opportunity to share my experiences as a disability attorney with other colleagues and continue to learn about the ever more complex SSI and SSDI process.  I came back thoroughly convinced of how important the Social Security Disability Programs are for our Latino Community, particularly those over 50.
        Never before in history has the U.S. contained so many older people.  Today, one out of every 9 Americans is "old"—another former youth turns 50 every 8 seconds.  January 2011 ushered in the first of approximately 77 million Baby Boomers, born from 1946 through 1964 and surging toward the gates of retirement.  Latinos, in particular, make up the fastest segment of this aging population.  An article published by the Washington State University concluded that: “Elderly Hispanics now represent the fastest-growing population currently at or near retirement.”  By 2050, Hispanics will make up 20 percent of the elderly population, up from 7 percent in 2010, according to Census data.
     As we age, our chances of becoming disabled and unable to work increase.  For example, a fifty year old person is twice more likely to become disabled than a 40 year old.  The chances become even greater in persons who have performed physical labor throughout their life --the type of work most commonly found by our forefathers when they came to this country. Given these figures, it is easy to understand why so many Latino(a)s who are between the ages of 50 and 65 need the safety net provided by the Social Security Disability programs (SSI / SSDI). 
     As I enjoyed the great apples from Yakima Valley and sipped the wonderful wines of Walla Walla County, I was reminded of the many Latino(a) workers who have thrown their backs and busted their knees working in farms in Washington State and  across the U.S.  Now, it is our moral obligation to support those who can no longer work as a result of a medical condition or injury. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Get Your Doctor to Support Your Social Security Disability Case

Having a doctor on a claimant's side makes a world of difference in a Social Security Disability case.  Unfortunately, many of the persons who are considering filing for disability seem to be unaware of this important fact.  The opinion of the doctor or doctors who treat a claimant can make or break a disability claim.  For this reason, I would like to provide some helpful hints on how to enlist your doctor's help in your SSDI or SSI case and how to make the best use of his or her medical opinion regarding your physical or mental limitations.  In addition, I would like to provide some suggestions on what to do in circumstances when a doctor refuses to cooperate with the case. 
  • YOUR DOCTOR NEEDS TO KNOW YOU AS A PATIENT:   In order to make the best use of the opinion of a doctor in a Social Security case, a lawyer needs to establish that the doctor has been treating the patient long enough to be able to form a credible opinion.  Simply stated, the more the doctor knows you, the more weight Social Security is required to give to his or her opinion.  Your doctor's opinion has to be given controlling weight, unless the judge can cite specific reasons why it should be disregarded.  One of the reasons most commonly cited by judges for giving little weight to a medical opinion is that the doctor did not treat the claimant long enough to be able to form a credible opinion.  Likewise, many doctors feel uncomfortable issuing opinions or helping patients that they have just begun to treat.  For this reason, I often recommend to clients not to bring up the issue of disability with a doctor that they have just begun seeing.  I believe that doctors are often irked when a patient brings up the issue of his or her social security disability case during their first or second visit.  Therefore, whenever possible, a claimant must give his or her doctor reasonable time to form an opinion with respect to his or her limitations.
  • TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE FILING YOUR CASE:  Before a Social Security disability claim is filed, it is a good idea to ask the treating physician whether he or she will support the claim.  Moreover, the claimant should specifically ask whether the doctor would be willing to complete a questionnaire stating his patient's limitations.  However, I think that before posing the question, the patient should engage in a dialogue with the doctor regarding problems performing specific work related tasks.  Ideally, this dialogue should take place over the course of several office visits.  I believe that a doctor is more likely to support a claim when he has had a chance to openly discuss the case with his patient beforehand.  I believe that doctors are reluctant to help patients with their disability claims when they are unexpectedly asked to support a disability claim.          
  • REMEMBER THAT YOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH YOUR DOCTOR ARE OFTEN RECORDED IN THE MEDICAL RECORD:  Many of my clients are unaware of the fact that doctors often transcribe in the medical record the content of their conversations with their patients.  In fact, doctors are known to record specific statements made by their clients that pertain to their disability claim.  Unfortunately, I have found several instances where my clients' statements have ruined their chances of getting their claim approved.  Disability claimants should be very careful with what they tell their doctors when they ask for a medical opinion.  Don't joke around with the doctor on how desperately you need the money from Social Security or how you have to look really bad in order to win disability.  Keep in mind that your comments could be misconstrued very easily and remember, it is never a good idea to suggest to a doctor to exaggerate the severity of  a condition or an illness, or to ask the doctor to be dishonest in any way.
  • GIVE YOUR DOCTOR A BRIEF QUESTIONNAIRE THAT GOES TO THE HEART OF YOUR CLAIM: Social Security Disability Lawyers often prepare questionnaires for their client's doctors.  These questionnaires ask the treating physicians to state the extent and the nature of their patients physical and mental limitations.  When preparing these questionnaires it is important to keep in mind that doctors don't have a lot of time in their hands and that they dislike having to spend time completing forms.  For this reason, I like to keep my questionnaires brief and to the point.  Moreover, the questionnaire should go right to the legal issues that are most relevant to the case.  For example, the questionnaire should specifically ask questions that could help a judge decide whether the claimant's case falls within a specific Social Security rule or guideline.  I believe that the best way to obtain a good opinion from a doctor is by giving him or her one of these questionnaires.  (In my office we call these questionnaires: "medical source statements".)  Instead of questionnaires, some doctors prefer to write a letter in support of their patient's disability claim.  I often find that these letters are not very effective because, in many instances, they fail to address the specific legal issues being decided by the adjudicators in the case.
  • OFFER TO COMPENSATE YOUR DOCTOR FOR HIS OR HER TIME:  Whenever possible, it is a good idea to offer to compensate the doctor for the time spent completing the questionnaire.  Most of the time, the amount paid is just a nominal sum.  However, I believe that doctors often appreciate the gesture and spend additional time and effort when their patient offers to remunerate them for their valuable time.
  • IF YOUR DOCTOR IS UNCOOPERATIVE, CONSIDER FINDING A NEW ONE:  Let's face it.  Some doctors don't want to help their disabled patients get benefits.  Its probably not worth your time trying to convince them to complete a medical source statement for your case.  Under those circumstances, its probably a good idea to consider changing doctors.  I know that this type of decision can be very difficult.  However, I have found that in many instances a claimant can get a new doctor that is more cooperative with their case without having to sacrifice the quality of their care.  Naturally, claimants should not wait until the last minute to get a new doctor.  The earlier they get on the right track, the better. 
  • DOCTORS WHO ARE NOT SPECIALISTS IN YOUR MEDICAL CONDITION CAN ALSO HELP YOUR CASE:  An alternative to finding a new doctor is asking one of your treating physicians who is not a specialist in your particular condition to help with your case.  I have found that primary care physicians can often issue very credible opinions which are well supported by the medical evidence in the record.  In many circumstances these opinions can be extremely helpful.   Don't be discouraged if your specialist does not help you.  The Social Security Administration knows that highly paid specialists such as neurosurgeons often refuse to complete medical source statements.  I believe that you can still win, even when your neurosurgeon refuses to complete a medical source statement.  I recently won a case in which the neurosurgeon refused to help his client.  Fortunately, prior to filing for disability, my client had seen a neurologist on several occasions for some problems related to his spinal cord condition. My client went back to the neurologist and was able to obtain a very well reasoned medical opinion.  The opinion from the neurologist, combined with a questionnaire completed by his primary care doctor, was enough to win him disability benefits.