I’ve written a lot about the government programs that could help you survive while managing your disability, and about how very broken the entire system is. Today, I want to dig into an additional issue that is also a side effect of the broken system: simply being left in limbo for prolonged periods with no ability to find out what happened to your application.
If something like this happens, what can you do? This post digs into how to 1) decrease the chance that you will be left in that limbo, and 2) how to fight back and get an answer if it does happen.
Find out how long a wait you might have
Every government program has its own slightly different process, prerequisites, specific paperwork to file, and timeline between application and response.
While this can be very frustrating, it’s simply how this system works.
Not only are there variations between programs, but also different counties, cities, or states may have a slightly different process and/or waiting time.
At the moment, when you are applying, this isn’t something you can change.
What you can do, though, is ask when you should hear by – push for them to give you a date or at least a range.
Whatever program you apply for, be it LIHEAP(low income heat and energy assistance program), SNAP(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), SSI(supplemental security income), SSDI(social security disability insurance), or Medicaid, you deserve to know how long you need to wait for your application to be processed – how long before you either start getting the benefits or are notified of your application’s rejection.
For example, if you apply for SSI or SSDI, it’s the same application, so you should get an initial rejection within a few weeks of sending in your second set of paperwork, but it can take months to receive the more useful response.
That initial rejection is an explanation of which program you are eligible for. If you have earned enough work credits and have been employed recently, you are eligible for SSDI, and as that is better coverage, you are rejected for SSI.
If you do not have the work history, then you are rejected for SSDI, and your application proceeds to SSI for a means test – where they check to see if you are poor enough to possibly be eligible for SSI. Those rejections also can come within weeks, and if you are rejected based upon the means test, you can appeal that decision if appropriate.
The problem is that the next step, in either case, is to determine if you are ‘disabled enough’ to be eligible for coverage. That can be a very long process, with potentially months of waiting with no information from social security.
On the other hand, applying for LIHEAP, SNAP, or Medicaid should be a relatively short wait, no more than two months, usually around a month, since these programs are effectively income-based with some minor exceptions.
What you can do is try to get a deadline from whatever program you are applying for. If you talk to a person, ask how long it takes to process your application. If there are no people to talk to, look at your county or state’s website for an estimate of processing time.
It can be hard to get it tied down, but ask or search, so that you have a date or a week that you can expect to get a response by – which then gives you a point in time when the response is ‘late’.
By having that sense, you can feel more self-assured – if you don’t hear back from the program by this specific week or date, it’s time for you to push back and try to get answers and make sure that your application wasn’t lost in the shuffle.
If the response is late, ask that office or department what happened
So, calling in many of the government agencies is a pain.
I know I have waited on hold for over an hour to get through to somebody at Social Security’s main line, and I have had multiple times when I’ve called my local social security office to be put through to broken automated systems or to have their phone system be so overwhelmed that I can neither get through to a person nor leave a message.
It’s incredibly frustrating.
I know that there are times where there are similar issues with other government agencies as well, or that other times getting through to staff to ask about the status of your claim just gets a statement of ‘expect a letter from us’ or something equally useless.
I don’t recommend regularly calling these offices for information, it won’t help you. However, if you were told to expect a response by x day or so many weeks later, then calling after that time is passed is reasonable, and you should push back.
Call their office, and make a statement like ‘I applied for this program on x date and was told to wait 6-8 weeks, but it’s now been 9, could you please check on my application?’
It may be that they had a lot of applications and are generally running a week or so behind, or it may be that a person needed for a certain step was out sick, or other reasonable delays.
If that’s the case, they can give you a revised date for when you should get your information.
If that’s not the case though, they should be able to check on their computer system for your information and be able to tell you something useful.
Maybe it’s in the mail and you’ll get it tomorrow, or maybe they had a question for you but didn’t get through, etc.
If they can’t or won’t give you useful information though, it’s time to pull out the big guns.
The big guns: your government representatives
While government workers may fall into being gate-keepers rather than supportive personnel, and it may be hard to get the answers you need due to layers of bureaucracy or broken phone systems, the government still is expected to report back to its people through its elected representative.
This means that, for the most part, if an elected representative’s office gets interested in an individual person’s case, they get answers. And usually, they get those answers quickly.
How does this help you? You can ask your representative’s office to look into your case and get the answers you need!
The link above can help you find the name, title, and phone number for the appropriate representative for you – this page has links from federal down to municipal level(you most likely will be contacting county or state representatives, depending on what program you applied for), so you can find the right person or people to contact.
Party or voting record should not make a difference in this – you can ask for help even if you never voted, or if you support a different party from the elected individual.
It doesn’t matter and should never come up, for that matter.
They aren’t allowed to ask, and you don’t need to tell. The point is that they represent you as a resident of the area they represent and that they have a responsibility to protect your rights once they are aware that you have a problem.
Most officials have an employee(or several) whose official responsibility it is to look into issues like this – they may be referred to as a community liaison, or have a similar title – the point is that they are being paid specifically to help you and others like you get the information you need when you aren’t getting it through more traditional channels.
You aren’t being a pain or pushing something on somebody. You are standing up for yourself and making sure that your needs are being met, and are asking somebody whose responsibility it is to get the information you need.
If enough people make these calls, it’s possible that that may make the representative more aware of how broken certain parts of the system are. No matter what, though, it should help you get the answers you need when you need them!
So who do you contact?
You want to reach out to the representative on the same level of government as the agency you have a problem with.
For example, if you apply for SNAP, LIHEAP, or section 8, those decisions are usually made on the county level(large cities, like New York City may also run these programs). You’ll want to reach out to the person or people who represent you there. In my case, living in New Jersey, that would mean calling one of my County Freeholders for assistance. If they don’t seem to be useful, it’s time to reach out to state government- your Assemblyperson or Senator.
Whichever one I either feel a connection to, really. That may be reaching out to one who is female, like I am, or to somebody in the same party.
If I was active in politics, maybe I volunteered on somebody’s campaign, or maybe I have a social connection to one. If none of these options have somebody stick out – just pick somebody to get started.
Most likely any of them can be helpful, and your worst-case scenario is calling a different representative if you don’t get a helpful response.
If the program you apply for is managed on the state level, such as Medicaid, temporary disability, or housing assistance(it’s possible but unlikely that any of the above-mentioned ones may be managed by the state if your county government is small), reach out to your state representative – usually there’s a senate and some form of assembly – and again you select the person who represents your area and you feel may be most likely to help you for whatever reason(select randomly if nobody feels better).
Their office may also be able to ask about your SSI or SSDI application, but they may refer you to the Federal government, I haven’t had to ask about it so I’m not certain.
Be aware that having the matter looked into by a representative does not mean that you are going to get the answer you want, but simply that they are likely to get an answer for you.
If you aren’t eligible for a program, you aren’t eligible, and their asking isn’t going to change that.
However, sometimes, if you are rejected, they may be able to learn why(it may be something you could correct and then reapply), or help you find other helpful resources(maybe you are eligible for a different program that helps the same way).
In any case, if you can’t get the answers you need directly from the program you applied to, this is how you can learn what you need to know!
What do you need to tell them?
The most basic thing they need to know is what program(s) in what department(s) you applied for. Did you contact the Department of Labor for Temporary Disability? Did you reach out to Health and Human Services for Medicaid or SNAP? Each state may have slightly different names for their departments and programs, so when you apply, note these things down if you can(or revisit the website and gather the information before your call).
The next thing you want to tell them is what interactions you had with the program. When did you apply? How did you apply? Did they give you a date you’d hear by? Did their website give an estimate of how long processing takes?
Basically you want to let them know when your information went in, why you expect it out by now, and any conversations or problems that have occurred in between when you applied and when you are calling them.
If you applied by phone, for example, your information was definitely gathered the day of your call, while if you mailed in an application, there was likely at least a day or two between when you sent it and when they received it.
After you share this basic information, they likely will have additional questions for you.
There may have been a case number or an ID number that went with your application, or they may need your social security number or other identifying information to make sure that they are looking at your case, rather than somebody else’s.
You’ll also need to give them your contact information(such as your phone number) so they can call you back once they have learned the information you need.
If you don’t remember everything that happened, that’s okay – just gather up what you can, and share what you do know or remember. As long as you can give them the name of the program you applied for and your personal information to identify your application, they should be able to pull up the rest if necessary.
The easier it is for them to get your information, though, the more likely you are to get the answer and the more quickly you are likely to get it.
Why does it work?
There is actually an entire system set up within the government specifically to answer questions that legislators (such as your assemblyman or senator) ask.
Most, if not all, departments have a legislative liaison – a person whose responsibility it is to find answers to any questions anybody in the legislature asks. Why do I know this? My mother had this job in state government for years.
The department wants to look good, and to maintain a strong relationship with the legislator who contacted them.
The government representatives you reached out to will be making decisions on bills that these departments care about, which incentivizes them to quickly give the legislator the information they request.
Since legislators often are involved in creating and finalizing the state budget, each department wants to maintain and possibly increase their funding.
Doing this favor for your representative may help them be remembered more for their effectiveness than for the inefficiency that led to your request.
So, once you have a representative asking for your information, your case has been elevated to a high priority for that department.
They need to share and potentially justify their decision to a person who has the power to help or hurt their funding and bills they support.
That’s a lot of motivation, and is why you are highly likely to get an answer quickly!
My recent experiences with contacting representatives
In the past couple of years, I’ve helped a couple of family members with this process.
Al had to apply for Medicaid after his COBRA ran out, but after he applied, he got no response.
There was a website designed to keep him updated on his process, but for weeks it only showed as ‘pending’. As his COBRA end date approached I grew more concerned, so eventually, I called my state senator’s office.
I was put through to the community liaison, to whom I explained Al’s situation, my relationship to him(fiancee/significant other), and how we were hoping for some peace of mind that Al would have Medicaid coverage once his COBRA expired(we understood that it wouldn’t start until after the COBRA ended).
Within a week, she called back, confirming that Al would be covered, and a week or so before his COBRA ended, he received his Medicaid card in the mail.
It was a huge relief knowing that it was going through so that we wouldn’t need to scramble to figure anything else out.
Another family member had been put on temporary disability due to a car accident and tried to return to work before he’d healed enough.
When he reapplied for temporary disability, they kept sending him back his application forms to correct without any explanation of what was wrong.
I made the call on his behalf and within a week of making that connection, he got the several months of back pay he was owed!
I was also called by an employee of the department and given her direct line in case of further problems.
Again, his eligibility really wasn’t the question, but instead, he’d been put in a rejection loop by the department that he just couldn’t get out of.
I’ve made a call or two in the past for myself as well with similar results. If you are in a similar situation – waiting too long for information the department should have given you, or otherwise getting strange and unhelpful responses, please call your representative and see if they can help you solve the problem!
Conclusion: You deserve to know if you are getting the benefits you need!
The government is supposed to work for us, not against us. While government benefit programs often are less helpful than they would ideally be, they still help us survive when things go wrong in our lives.
That’s what they are supposed to do. And even if government employees act more like gatekeepers than the support staff they should be, these programs are still designed to help us.
This is a citizen’s right, not a privilege. Details may vary if you are a non-citizen, which I feel is unfortunate, but that’s where our country is at the moment.
The main point is that you need to take on the application process as your job until you get the end result you need.
Sadly, you need to assume that the people you contact are not reliable and may delay you or misplace your application. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is. Keep your own record of what you send, when you send it, and what they tell you.
This way, if they do fail to do their jobs appropriately, you have some proof that you did the right things, and that it’s past time for you to get an answer.
If you cannot get a firm answer from their department, or can’t get a response when you call, it’s time to reach out and call your state or county representative.
They have one or more people on staff whose job it is to check in if something goes wrong for you, a constituent.
Call their office and explain the situation, and let them do the necessary research and reaching out. They have contacts you don’t, and leverage you don’t, and can often get you the information you need, and help you get the support you deserve.
When you apply for government support, you deserve to get an answer in a reasonable time-frame(the definition of reasonable varies tremendously), and if you are rejected to know why. These are your rights. Please make sure that you protect them!