The Disability Showdown: How those with IBD in the US can get the benefits they need

This article is sponsored by Atticus. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Navigating federal disability like Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can be complicated and overwhelming. Those with chronic illness in the United States face roadblocks when it comes to being on the receiving end of benefits. Did you know 80% of people are denied the first time they apply for federal disability benefits and an astounding 90% are denied during the next stage of appeal?!

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from Sarah Ashmore, an attorney at Atticus who has Crohn’s disease. The firm’s core mission is to “tear down barriers between people in crisis and the aid they need.” The social safety nets that exist are quite difficult to access. Atticus strives to help people in the IBD community and beyond get the assistance they deserve.

Juggling a flare and disability benefits 

Since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, luckily, I’ve only needed to utilize short term disability through my former employer after my small bowel resection. In the moment, surgery recovery and dealing with Human Resources unexpectedly from my hospital bed was stressful. I went from speaking at an all-employee event to blacking out from abdominal pain in the bathroom and going to the hospital. When I left my work office in July 2015, little did I know I would not be healthy enough to return for more than two months. 

At the time, I was completely naïve to short term and long-term disability benefits and how to get the support I needed to fully recover from surgery and maintain my position at work, while receiving a portion of my salary. I was like a fish out of water, learning as I went. I received my benefits and didn’t have issues, but that’s often not the case. Luckily, I’ve never needed to explore this further, so I did not need to utilize Atticus’ services.

Sarah’s experience

Sarah was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2019 after dealing with symptoms for a year that left her feeling weak and powerless.

At the end of that year, my symptoms were so severe that I had to take short-term leave from my job and move in with my family to help take care of me: I was so sick that I couldn’t wash my dishes,” she said.

Sarah applied for short-term disability while awaiting her official diagnosis. Thankfully, once she received her IBD diagnosis and was put on medication, she was able to return to her old lifestyle and work.

“I think one of the biggest roadblocks is that applying for benefits requires organization, persistence, and patience and trying to access them on your own while dealing with the types of symptoms from an illness or injury that make it difficult for you to work can be extremely hard. I needed that support from my family and friends while I was applying for short-term disability and, for many people, applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a harder and longer process.”

What makes someone eligible for disability? 

There are multiple options and they get confusing fast! You may wonder Which Benefits Do I Qualify For? Both short-term and long-term disability are often private insurance policies, while SSDI and SSI are provided by the government. 

Short-term disability, like what Sarah and I accessed, is generally private disability insurance that you purchased or was provided by your employer before you became disabled. It normally lasts 3-6 months and pays a percentage of your salary. There are also five states that offer short-term disability separately from private short-term disability. Long-term disability is very similar to private short-term disability, but it often pays a smaller percentage of your salary and, of course, lasts longer than private short-term disability. 

Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Income are both federal programs and, really, where Atticus can help. 

“Both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Social Security Income (SSI) are federal programs designed for people with a diagnosed medical condition that will prevent them from working for at least 12 months. The technical eligibility (such as how much money you make or your age) is different for each program, as is what a beneficiary gets. The medical eligibility for both programs is the same: you must have a diagnosed medical condition that will keep you from working (although you can do some limited work) for at least a year,” explained Sarah.

The rules around eligibility are quite intricate and there are exceptions, if you are struggling to work due to your chronic condition or disability, make sure to talk to a lawyer about your specific situation to see if you’re eligible for coverage.

For SSDI a person should generally be making less than $1,350.00/month at a job, be younger than 66, and have worked about five of the last ten years. If you are awarded benefits, you get Medicare and up to $3,300.00/month depending on your work history. 

For SSI, a person should generally be receiving less than $841.00/month from any source of income and have less than $2,000.00 in assets (not counting things like your home) if you are single. The income and asset limits are a bit higher for married couples. If a person is granted SSI, they get Medicaid and up to $841.00/month depending on your sources of income. 

You can apply for both programs at the same time, and, in some cases, a beneficiary can be on both programs at the same time. 

“While there are general rules for eligibility, the evaluation is involved and there are exceptions to the rules, so please reach out to us at Atticus to determine your eligibility because we can offer individualized advice based on the specifics of your situation,” Sarah said.

Dealing with the disability denial and when to seek counsel

Getting an initial denial does not mean that you won’t get benefits or that you have a bad disability case. Don’t let this stop you from going through the process. If you get a denial, Sarah tells me you should request reconsideration within 60 days. This is when it’s optimal to get legal counsel involved. The lawyers at Atticus can walk you through the next steps in detail and get you connected with someone who can help you.

 “Ideally, legal counsel would not be necessary for getting disability benefits but, unfortunately, many people do need it. Although having a lawyer can be helpful at any stage of the process, if you are at the hearing stage, you are three times more likely to get benefits if you have an attorney or legal representative with you. Good lawyers will have the experience to understand what the Social Security Administration is looking for when determining whether to grant benefits: they should understand what documents you will need and what questions you will need to answer to help your application,” she said. 

Why Atticus is completely free to clients

All SSDI and SSI attorneys and legal representatives get paid on contingency, so they only get paid if they win their client’s case. If they don’t win, the attorneys (and Atticus) get nothing. The federal government actually sets how much an SSDI/SSI attorney can get paid so it is the same across the board: 25% of only the first check that someone gets from the Social Security Administration should they win their case, capped at $7,200.
 
“Atticus gets paid by the attorneys that we refer a case to the same way the attorneys get paid by the Social Security Administration. If the attorney or legal representative wins, we get 25% of whatever the attorney got from SSA. That is never passed on to the client (so the amount of money taken out of the client’s first check is always the same). Getting paid this way allows us to provide free advice and resources to folks we speak with whether or not they are eligible, want an attorney, or end up using our services,” Sarah explained.

Click here to connect directly with an attorney at Atticus.

Coming to grips with the emotional struggle of realizing you need help

The stress of life and career can make this entire ordeal feel endless. As we all know it can be humbling to have to express how sick you are to those who often don’t understand the severity and complexity of IBD. There’s no need to suffer. There’s no need to be a martyr. Recognize when you need to wave the white flag and realize needing disability, whether SSDI, SSI, or short term does not make you less than your co-workers or peers.

Much like myself, Sarah and I don’t consider our Crohn’s a “disability” per se, but we did know that we could not work or live the way we were when we needed support. 

“It’s a common theme we hear a lot from our clients. Especially if they don’t identify with the term ‘disability;’ or if someone feels like they are taking a government hand out after spending years working hard to make it on their own. SSDI is forced insurance designed for people who can’t work due to an injury or illness. Most workers have been paying into it every time they get FICA taxes taken out of their paycheck. It is designed to be there when you need it. If you would feel comfortable using private insurance, you should feel comfortable using SSDI. Asking for help can be hard but doing it can be so good for you in the long run,” she said.

Demystify the process of applying for disability benefits

Atticus’ goal is to get as many eligible people connected with federal disability benefits (SSDI and SSI) as they can. 

“We function as the equivalent of a patient navigator for anyone in the disability application process. We are like a primary care physician, but for legal issues: someone will often come to us and say something like “I have this medical condition or had this injury; I can’t work anymore, and I am not sure what to do next,” Sarah said. 

When someone calls Atticus for assistance, they will speak with an intake specialist who can help determine what benefits they are eligible for and recommend next steps.

If you want to continue the application process on your own, Atticus can provide resources and input on next steps for applying (for example, letting folks know they should get specialist care and then call back or apply).

“We give out our Guide to Applying for SSI to folks doing their initial SSI application. If they are not eligible, we can often point them in the right direction for other resources they may be looking for (for example, help with housing or signing up with Medicaid).”

If you are eligible and want legal help for the process, Atticus connects you with a legal representative or attorney who they think would be a good fit based on the specifics of their case, such as: location, case stage, medical condition, etc. 

“We only work with attorneys that we have hand-picked and vetted. Those attorneys and legal representatives don’t pay to join our network or sign up for a membership with us; we thoroughly vet every lawyer and representative we work with and form relationships with only those we trust and respect,” Sarah explained.

Testimonials from IBD warriors

Jeremiah: “I have been dealing with IBD for 13 months. Atticus was able to help me with my legal issues while I was too sick to fight for my own rights. I was able to receive the best representation while becoming healthy again. They fought for me and today I am receiving SSI and disability for my condition. These programs are dedicated to people like us, who are suffering. Now I do not have to fear the future or what I will do when I flare again. I’m able to focus on my health and live my life. I urge anyone to ask for help, it’s out there. Atticus is one phone call or e-mail away.”

Joni: “I was diagnosed with Crohn’s almost 2 years ago, but lived with IBD for years not knowing what it was. Treatment is not 100% as I still tend to get flare ups that usually put me in a hospital, missing work. With that and other health issues, I decided to apply for SSD, being denied twice, I reached out to Atticus to get legal help/representation. I emailed them and within an hour they reached out. By the end of the day, I had an attorney representing me. They’ve been a great and fast help! Very professional!”

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