Debra Shifrin

Americans with disabilities face growing challenges in their efforts to gain disability benefits. According to the recently released trustees report, the Social Security Disability fund will be depleted in 2016. Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits is a lifeline for Americans who have spent years working but find they are now unable to provide for themselves and their families. This is because they are disabled either through an injury or health condition. We all have a stake in ensuring disabled persons get the assistance they need and have earned.

The taxes workers pay into Social Security for retirement also pay for a form of disability insurance. If a worker has worked five of the prior 10 years and becomes unable to work due to illness or injury, he or she may be entitled to receive disability insurance benefits. Most people who are on disability will tell you they would rather be working; they would rather be able to provide for themselves and their families instead of receiving a government check each month for less money than they could earn working.

Disability insurance is not easy to obtain. It can take months, sometimes even years for a claim to be successful. Imagine the frustration when people, who have paid into this system over the course of their work-life, cannot get those benefits because they have been improperly turned down. There are also significant societal costs when an individual is wrongly denied benefits, such as increased home foreclosures and evictions, homelessness, bankruptcies, an increase in welfare payments and limited medical treatment sources.

Contrary to popular myths, applying for disability insurance has not become easier nor have the eligibility requirements eased up during the economic downturn. In fact, it is harder than ever to receive disability benefits.

Undocumented pain, diabetes and obesity are no longer sole criteria for eligibility. Those individuals with developmental disabilities or HIV have a tougher time proving that they are unable to work. Persons applying for disability must present objective medical evidence of an illness or injury that prevents them from being able to work.

The process of applying for disability insurance benefits needs to be difficult so as to avoid fraud and waste. The problem, however, is that as the process has become more complicated, many people need to hire an attorney or other qualified professional to help them navigate a vast and complex bureaucracy.

While I am sure we would all prefer a system that is not so complex as to require professional assistance, the standards for determining eligibility should be high to discourage people who are just out to game the system from applying and to protect taxpayers from paying fraudulent claims.

The cases that make the news and spread rampantly through social media are about people trying to scam the system. Rarely do we hear about the heart transplant patient denied benefits until a hearing three years after he first applied. Or the parent who commits suicide while waiting for an answer, leaving his children with survivor benefits instead of a father who wondered whether Social Security would ever approve him for disability.

These are real people – they are not statistics and they are not names just typed on a case file. They are seeking the benefits they have earned by working and paying their taxes.

While it has been alleged that the high unemployment rate is resulting in more persons receiving disability, that is not the case. The baby boomers are reaching an age where they are developing disabilities; more women are in the work force so therefore, mathematically, more women are getting injured on the job. Also, advances in medical technology are saving the lives of people with serious medical conditions that used to be fatal.

If the Social Security trustees report is correct about the disability fund running out in 2016, that does not mean benefits will end. Rather, a larger share of the payroll taxes than the current formula allows will shift to paying disability benefits. There are reforms that could be made to strengthen the program and rid it of the limited instances of fraud and abuse. But let us not lose sight of its core mission: providing assistance to disabled and seriously ill individuals who can no longer work.

We cannot allow the disabled to become victims of misinformation. The improper denial of benefits to truly disabled individuals is an injustice that ripples through families and communities. Protecting Social Security Disability is about keeping a promise to working Americans. It is not a program to be used by the lazy or the unemployed. Rather, it is a vital lifeline for people who have become injured or too ill to work.

Shifrin, an attorney with offices in Akron, Cleveland and Toledo, is vice president/president-elect of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.