Cancer patients should research their disability options.
Cancer and its treatment can interfere with the ability to work, and some patients may need to utilize long- or short-term disability benefits. However, options may be limited for some patients.
Josie Doresis of Woodbridge, Va., found out too late that she wasn’t eligible for long-term disability coverage from her employer. After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, she applied for short-term disability during her treatment. But after six months, she was still unable to return to work and needed to take advantage of her employer’s long-term disability benefit.
“But I didn’t realize that it had a ‘no preexisting condition’ clause,” she says.
Many employers offer short-term disability benefits to replace lost income during treatment, but only a handful of states (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) offer short-term disability programs.
But patients who do not reside in those states or who do not have any type of disability insurance or benefits face a more difficult situation. At the federal level, Social Security provides disability benefits in two ways: through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
But Social Security does not provide for shortterm disability, and eligibility criteria are strict, says Kathleen Walsh, a lawyer based in Virginia who specializes in disability law. “To qualify for SSDI, you have to prove that you will be disabled for 12 months.”
Even if patients don’t know whether they will be disabled for 12 months, they should apply anyway, she says. “You can always withdraw the application and there’s no harm done by applying.”
“If you don’t get approved during the first round of reviews, then you have to appeal,” she says. “And patients should appeal if they feel they are eligible, because by the time they get to the level of the administrative law judge, approximately 62 percent of the cases are approved.”
After 24 months of SSDI benefits, patients become eligible for Medicare. Walsh also points out that receiving disability benefits doesn’t mean that a patient can’t work at all. “You are able to work limited hours, you just can’t be able to return to work full-time,” she says. “So, the extra income is helpful.”
Doresis applied for SSDI but was denied. Before appealing the decision, she went to a Social Security office and spoke with a representative. “I was told to be honest and not to try to sugar-coat the treatment,” she says. “I was told to explain everything.”
Despite supplying all of the information, Doresis’ disability application was still denied. At this point, she retained an attorney who helped her receive approval. For some reason, she says, the Social Security Administration had not received all of the necessary documentation, resulting in the denials.
Although Doresis is happy that she finally received approval, she admits it was an exhausting process. “It really doesn’t seem right to make people who are fighting for the lives jump through so many hoops,” she says. “I also went through all of my resources and had to pay an attorney.”
Patients who haven’t worked or who have health insurance may still receive benefits under the SSI program. To be eligible, patients must have limited assets and income. “They can’t have assets above $2,000 to qualify for that program,” Walsh says. “So, if their spouse is working, they don’t qualify most of the time."