It used to be that some people with serious disabilities would
die before the Social Security Administration finally got around to
reviewing their applications for disability benefits. Today,
applicants with one of 225 of the severest medical conditions can
win approval within 15 days.
The government's "compassionate allowances" program provides
fast-track review of applicants who can prove that they have one of
the medical conditions on the list, which includes various cancers,
heart disease, and immune system and neurological disorders. (For
the list, go to
Nearly 95% of compassionate allowances applications are
approved. The other 5% are placed on an expedited appeals process.
The average monthly benefit was $1,146 in December 2013. As with
all applications for Social Security disability benefits,
compassionate allowances applicants must be unable to work.
The program was a godsend for Robert C., 55, a Milwaukee, Wis.,
businessman who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January
2013. Robert, who did not want his last name used, applied in March
2013 and started receiving $2,400 a month in April--the full
retirement benefit he would have received at age 66. "It's helped
us retain our home and helped us get back on our feet," he
The program began in 2008 to help the most severely ill cut
through the huge backlog of applications for disability benefits.
Before then, Social Security employees had no way to distinguish
between the most urgent applications from tens of thousands of
other disability claims received each year. With a lengthy backlog
and a time-consuming appeals process, many qualified applicants
died before getting payments.
Diseases and conditions are added to the list each year. There
is no backlog for compassionate allowances applications, even
though the application rolls grow as new diseases are approved.
About 200,000 people have received benefits through the program
since it started.
Benefit Decisions Within Days Instead of Years
The program is one of Social Security's "best kept secrets,"
says Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocate for the
National Disability Rights Organization. "In the past, disability
decisions were made by Social Security personnel who weren't
medical professionals, and they were unaware of unusual diseases
and their outcomes. The compassionate allowances program makes it
easier for people to get benefits without having to wait two, three
or five years," she says.
Here's how it works: Once an individual claims a compassionate
allowances condition during the initial application, special
software alerts the Social Security Administration that the case
needs to be fast-tracked. Applicants must provide medical evidence,
including medical records and recent test results.
After an applicant provides authorization, Social Security
adjudicators will ask the applicant's doctors for information if
all medical records aren't supplied. When the condition is
confirmed, disability payments start flowing. You don't need a
lawyer or advocate to help as long as you have a diagnosis that
falls within the category. "There are diagnoses, like pancreatic
cancer, where the outcome is dire. If you can prove you have the
disease from your medical record, we will fast-forward your
application," says Art Spencer, who recently retired as Social
Security's associate commissioner for the office of disability
For the quickest results, Bates-Harris suggests applying
immediately after a diagnosis. Also, make sure every one of your
doctors sends medical records quickly.
If your disability is not on the list, expect a lengthy wait.
The average processing time for an initial disability claim under
the normal procedures is 86 days, plus more than 450 additional
days for a rejected applicant to complete the appeals process.
You can apply at
, by phone at 800-772-1213 or at your local Social Security office.
You'll need information about your health care providers and
medications, laboratory results, and any medical records you