Multiple Sclerosis Ignites Dynamite Case for Disability
Camden, Arkansas-Dianna Godwin had come to accept her condition. For 22 years, she toiled at the job she loved. The traffic rate specialist shipped delicate chemicals and explosives as part of a Department of Defense contractor’s import-export operation.
Yet, though her mind was willing, her body had grown weak. For years, she fought the progressively debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. In 2005, at age 48, she missed work for six months during a particularly tough stretch. Symptoms came and went on a remitting and relapsing rollercoaster. Not surprisingly, she also started to see a therapist to treat resulting depression and anxiety.
“When I have a relapse,” she said, “I might limp on one side and then on the other side.” On good days, she thought clearly. On bad days, her mind drifted in a fog. That, mixed with hazardous materials, she admitted, produced a potentially lethal brew.
“Making a mistake shipping explosives and chemicals,” she said, “could not only cost you your life but others as well.”
She wanted to keep working, but her employer thought differently. As far back as her six-month break, her supervisor said she ought to apply for disability. Holding out hope, Ms. Godwin returned to work. By late 2007, she once more took short-term disability leave. By spring, as she was about to start long-term disability, she agreed at her employer’s urging to apply for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits.
The prospect of applying for SSDI dismayed Ms. Godwin almost as much as having MS. “Everyone I knew who tried to get on disability was turned down their first time,” she said. “The husband of one person at work hurt his back, and it took him three years to get approved.”
Her anecdotal conclusion was based on fact. Nationwide, the procession of SSDI applicants has grown to the hundreds of thousands. Dianna Godwin looked warily at joining the back of that line.
Fortunately, Ms. Godwin’s human resources staff recommended a business that specializes in getting people approved for SSDI: Allsup, the nation’s leading SSDI representation company.
Allsup CEO and founder Jim Allsup started his company in 1984, after working for the Social Security Administration, to help people just like Dianna Godwin collect SSDI benefits. A nationwide company with headquarters in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis, Allsup’s success rate is a staggering 97 percent. The company is so highly regarded that the Better Business Bureau has presented Allsup its Torch Award for excellence in customer service. Since 1984, the disability advocacy company has helped more than 100,000 people nationwide obtain more than $1.5 billion in SSDI and Medicare benefits.
The wait time just to process a case can be daunting. At the Little Rock office, a claimant will wait an average of 470 days for an initial decision (as of June 2008). Across the nation, the waiting lines are getting even longer.
A key reason for this growth is the shrinking Social Security Administration (SSA) field staff, largely due to retirement. SSA was 30 percent smaller in 2002 than 20 years before. From August 2005 to January 2007, about 2,000 field office employees left SSA without being replaced. Meanwhile, since 1990, the number of disabled workers drawing SSDI benefits has more than doubled, from 3 million to 6.8 million, as the aging baby boom generation begins to put far greater demands on the agency’s resources.
About 1.4 million disability claimants wait for their cases to be resolved. The benefit provides individuals who have severe physical and mental disabilities with living expenses when they are no longer able to work. Some wait more than two years for decisions in their cases.
In a report released Jan. 7, 2008, the Government Accountability Office said rising numbers of disability claims, staff losses and turnovers, and management weaknesses have contributed to the backlog and longer waits by claimants for resolution. An overall loss of experienced staff combined with increasing workloads and resource constraints can reduce the success of any initiative aimed at reducing backlogs, the report stated.
From the top down, SSA readily acknowledges the problem. “The past few years have been tough for field offices,” said Michael J. Astrue, SSA commissioner, in testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means in April 2008. “As overall agency employment dropped from 63,569 in 2003 to 60,206 at the end of 2007, field offices felt the effect of staffing losses more intensely because so many of our activities mandated by law are performed in our field offices.
“Our field offices do their best,” he said, “but simply cannot provide the level of service the public expects from the Social Security Administration at recent levels of funding.
“SSA is now at a critical juncture,” Mr. Astrue said. “Due to the aging of the baby boomers, SSA is facing an avalanche of retirement and disability claims at the same time that it must address large backlogs due to years of increasing workloads and limited resources. Over the last few years as SSA offices lost staff, waiting times increased, lines grew longer, and busy rates in our field offices deteriorated. Without sustained, adequate funding, this situation will only worsen. Furthermore, we must attack the disability backlogs, which have dramatically and unacceptably damaged many applicants’ lives.”
From his perspective, Mr. Allsup said government and the private sector have to work together to reach the solution.
“The disability backlog challenge is so immense that it will take an all-hands-on-deck approach to resolve,” Mr. Allsup said. “Government and industry must work together to meet the demands of the disabled today and in the future. We see the impact of the problem every day as we work with tens of thousands of disabled individuals and their families.
“There is no question the Social Security Administration needs more resources to meet this challenge,” the CEO said. “Companies like Allsup contribute by providing solutions in the marketplace-helping disabled Americans navigate-and reduce the time spent in-the SSDI process. It is important that citizens with disabilities know they have options available to assist them in their time of need.”
Having worked her last day Nov. 7, 2007, with the start of short-term disability benefits paid by her employer, Dianna Godwin put herself in Allsup’s hands on April 15, 2008. From the start, company representatives advised her that, even with Allsup’s help, SSDI applicants are typically turned down once if not twice. Cases are often favorably resolved when they move to a hearing before an administrative law judge. Knowing that, Ms. Godwin braced herself for a long haul with Allsup professionals doing the heavy lifting.
Julie Majzel was Ms. Godwin’s main point person at Allsup. “She spent a lot of time talking with me,” the claimant said. “After I completed and mailed the disability questionnaire back to Allsup, Julie called for a phone interview. We talked for a long time, going through the form to add details to my answers.”
Ms. Majzel faced a challenge. “People with MS usually get approved,” she said. “But age 51 is still young in the eyes of state employees in Disability Determination Units who decide which SSDI applications are initially accepted or declined. So, it’s a matter of getting the right documentation from the doctor.”
From the start of her relationship with Allsup, Ms. Godwin said, “Everyone I talked to was so professional and courteous. Sometimes I’m not clear, and they were very patient and kind. That meant a lot. For someone to take that kind of time to be professional and patient was a really good thing.”
Even better was an unexpected letter that arrived from SSA in mid-September. To her surprise, Ms. Godwin was approved for SSDI benefits on her first try; merely five months after Allsup accepted her case.
“It was really pretty quick,” said Ms. Majzel, pleased by the quick results. “I was very surprised it was that fast.”
Amazement gave way to relief for Ms. Godwin. “This is going to take a big load off of me,” she said. “Now I’m just trying to get through, taking life day to day without others having to take care of me.”
Whatever her future, she is grateful to Allsup for making it possible. “I keep coming back to how helpful they were,” she said. “I would recommend Allsup in a minute.”