Even after the current COVID-19 pandemic is declared to be over, many people – possibly up to 10% or even 15% – of COVID-19 patients may continue to display symptoms of the virus beyond the couple weeks for which most people experience them. With 29 million Americans already contracting COVID-19, the number of people in the U.S. who may suffer from the virus for an elongated span of time is substantial. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article by Michael Hiltzik, the emergence of long-haul COVID-19 cases during this pandemic is likely to result in a drastic increase of long-term disability claims and a corresponding delay in the processing of those claims.
The Social Security disability program currently serves about 9.6 million people, including 8.1 million disabled workers and 1.5 million dependents of those workers. Given the volume of long-term COVID-19 cases which have and continue to present themselves in the U.S., if even a fraction of those affected by COVID-19 attempt to secure disability benefits through Social Security, the system may be utterly overwhelmed. Even at its most efficient, anyone who has applied for benefits will likely describe the process as slow, confusing and frustrating, at the very least. For the system to be inundated with possibly several times as many applicants as the system normally sees may be catastrophic for those with no alternative financial support.
Compounding the problem, access to the already-overburdened system is currently even more limited than it was prior to the pandemic due to the closing of Social Security field offices. While a portion of applicants are eligible to apply for benefits online, the vast majority are not so eligible; and even those eligible for online applications often require assistance to even attempt to navigate through the daunting, complex, labyrinth-like application process.
While the thought of facing the Social Security application process may drive away those who have other means of support, for many Americans, the disability benefits provided through Social Security will be vital to their ability to obtain even the most basic of human needs. Thus, the prospect of having an application take several months or longer to even begin to be reviewed will not dissuade those in dire need from submitting applications. When the field offices begin to re-open, the net result may very well be a backup of applications for which the system could not possibly be prepared, given the glacial pace of the machine on even its best day in non-pandemic circumstances.
Those able to have their applications reviewed will still face an uphill battle: the symptoms of long-haul COVID-19, which include chronic fatigue, nonspecific pain, headaches and “brain fog” are difficult to quantify and do not show up in medical tests, resulting in many denials of benefits based on a lack of tangible evidence regardless of the amount of pain or fatigue applicants actually experience.
While the Social Security Administration claims it evaluates applications based on function over diagnosis and that workers unable to work should receive benefits. It has also created a database of common symptoms of long-haul COVID-19, which will provide some guidance for judges ruling on appeals of benefit denials. But getting to a point where a worker’s appeal is reviewed by a judge can already take months or years, even without a massive back-up of applications.
Only time will tell how well the Social Security Administration handles the issues presented by long-haul COVID-19. If the current state of the system is an indicator, we anticipate long-haul COVID-19 workers applying for disability benefits to experience as much fatigue and headache from the application process as they do from the virus itself.
We believe this issue is not confined to the Social Security Administration. Along with Social Security applications will likely come a corresponding increase of claims for short-term disability and long-term disability benefits by workers through their respective insurance providers. Additionally, we believe that with such an increase in applications, both the Social Security Administration and insurance providers will be motivated to find any justification for denying workers benefits due to the impending surge in applications and the inevitable financial impact payment of so many claims could have for them. Accordingly, we recommend that if you have an individual disability policy or a group disability policy obtained through your employer, you should review your policy terms to determine what benefits, if any, may be available in the case you contract COVID-19 and have a resulting disability.
The experienced attorneys at McKennon Law Group PC have a long and successful track record of representing disability claimants in all aspects of the claim process, from appealing the initial denial of benefits and, if necessary, through each stage of litigation. If you have been denied benefits under an employee benefit plan, contact our office today for a free initial consultation.