If you are diagnosed with lung cancer and you are still working, one of your first questions will be “Are my working days over?” Everyone with advanced disease must face this, and even people with early stage disease can find themselves contending with permanent debilitating side effects from treatment.
The question is especially difficult for people who are relatively young, and not near retirement age. You may love your job, and wish to continue doing satisfying work, or you may need to keep working due to financial concerns such as keeping your health insurance or simply paying your bills.
Even if you think that you must continue to work, my advice is to schedule an appointment with your local Social Security office to learn what your options are. Social Security administers two important safety net programs that have benefitted many patients with lung cancer: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). I was “lucky” - diagnosed at age 62 with a vested fixed benefit pension, it was easy for me to decide to retire. When I met with Social Security to set up my retirement benefit, they told me that because I was younger than full retirement age, I should reapply for SSDI as soon as I quit working. Approval meant a few hundred dollars more in my monthly payment, and turned out to have a couple of other benefits as well.
This post is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to Social Security disability benefits, but to give you a few tidbits of information to get you started if you are thinking you should look into SSDI. Again, make an appointment with your local Social Security office as soon as possible! The people who work there are professional, know the ins and outs, and in my experience want to help you.
Tidbit #1: You cannot apply for SSDI until you are no longer working. That does not mean, however, that you have to be unemployed. If you are receiving employment-based disability insurance payments or if you are on an extended sick leave from work, you are not working. If you work for a company that has a generous sick leave policy, you may be able to receive your part or all of your regular wages during the waiting period for SSDI benefit payments to start.
Tidbit #2: Advanced stage lung cancer is on a list of medical conditions that pretty much guarantees expedited processing and approval - but the earlier you apply after diagnosis, the smoother this process (called Compassionate Allowances) works. If you continue to work, it may slow the approval process when you do need to go on disability, and may cause you to have to meet a higher standard of proof than someone who applies soon after diagnosis. Ask about your options. Could you take a leave of absence, get your SSDI benefit approved, and then return to work while you are able? Once approved, if you go back to work and make too much money to continue to receive a benefit payment, you have a five-year period when you can restart benefits, no questions asked, if you can no longer work.
Tidbit #3: There is no way to get around the waiting period for payments to start, which works out to be about 6 months after the date your disability began. You may find yourself with no income for an uncomfortably long time. I have heard of people whose doctors have been able to make a case for an earlier disability date than the official diagnosis date, which resulted in expedited payments.
Tidbit #4: Do you have outstanding federal student loans? If so, once approved for SSDI, you are automatically eligible to have your loans discharged. This is a case where the lunch is not completely free, however. After a three-year monitoring period has elapsed, you will have to include the unpaid balance of the loans as taxable income on your income tax return. I did this and I’m currently in the monitoring period, and gradually saving money towards that tax bill. When I crunched the numbers, I (or my estate) will pay about 25% of the value of the discharged loans in income tax - not a bad deal!
Tidbit #5: A possible source of bridge income while waiting for SSDI payments to start could be Supplemental Security Income. SSI is strictly a needs-based program, and recipients are very restricted in what they can own, but there is no waiting period if you qualify. You may have to cash out assets to qualify.
Tidbit #6: You will automatically go on Medicare after two years of SSDI benefits. There are no programs out there to give you health insurance in the interim, other than options like COBRA, Medicaid, or purchasing insurance. This is probably one of the major reasons why people continue to work after diagnosis with lung cancer.
Are there any words of wisdom from members of our community about disability income options for patients with lung cancer?
Important links where you can learn more:
The official Social Security Disability website: ssa.gov/disability/
Information on Compassionate Allowances: ssa.gov/compassionateallowa...
Information on disability discharge of federal student loans: nelnet.com/additional-loan-...
Public domain image by 401kcalculator.org