American Heart Month in February is an ideal time for women to take steps to close those gaps and improve their heart health and understanding of the Social Security Disability insurance (SSDI) process. Allsup, a nationwide provider of SSDI representation and WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, outline steps women can take to care for their hearts and finances before and after a heart disease diagnosis.
The gap in heart health
According to WomenHeart, too often women, as well as men and health care providers, associate heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues with men. Lack of awareness that heart disease is very much a woman's disease can delay an accurate diagnosis, hamper proper treatment, lead to unnecessary death, disability, and decreased quality of life for women. Since 1979, the death rate for heart disease in men has declined by more than 17 percent, but the death rate for women has declined by only 2.5 percent over this same period, according to the American Heart Association.
Steps to improve heart health
There are risk factors for heart disease that can be controlled and some that cannot. Controllable risk factors include blood pressure and cholesterol levels, exercise, smoking, diet , and maintaining an appropriate weight. Risk factors that can't be controlled include family history (the leading indicator for heart disease), age and sex. WomenHeart urges women to know their risk for heart disease and offers a free heart health action kit to help them get started at www.womenheart.org/kit.
The gap in SSDI and income
Women who can no longer work due to heart disease and other physical or mental health impairments face the additional burden of decreased income and increased medical costs. Research shows they receive SSDI awards at a significantly lower rate than men, even though men and women are equally likely to satisfy medical criteria for awards. In addition, the average monthly SSDI benefit for women is $920, compared to $1,188 for men, according to 2009 Social Security Administration data.
"It has been my experience that more women than men work sedentary, or predominantly sit-down types of jobs," said Paula Morgan, Allsup senior claims representative. "This makes demonstrating a disability particularly challenging, because we have to show that the individual's disability prevents all work even their past sedentary work."
Paula added that people have a tendency to downplay the physical elements of their past jobs. "They often forget to bring up all the standing and walking or lifting and carrying they performed," she explained. "One can very easily misrepresent their past work, which can make the difference between an award and a denial in a disability claim."
Paula encourages women with heart disease to express their ongoing symptoms, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, lower extremity edema (swelling) and leg pain, to their healthcare professionals. "Do not be afraid to express concerns to your healthcare professional," advised Paula.
Steps to improve financial health
File for SSDI right away if you can no longer work due to physical and/or mental impairments. A 1994 SSA report found that relative to their numbers among SSDI insured workers, women applied for benefits at a lower rate than men. Even if you are married or don't feel you "need the money," SSDI is an insurance benefit you have paid for through your FICA taxes. It provides more than just a monthly income.
Protected Retirement Benefits:
Social Security disability entitlement "freezes" Social Security earnings records during your period of disability. Because the years in which you collect SSDI benefits are not counted when computing future benefits, your Social Security retirement benefits may be higher than if your earnings were averaged over a greater number of years.
Regardless of your age, 24 months after your date of entitlement to SSDI benefits, you are eligible for Medicare, including Part A (hospital benefits) and Part B (medical benefits). A variety of Medicare Advantage plans are also available to you.
Prescription Drug Coverage:
Once you are entitled to Medicare, you are also eligible for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug plan.
If you receive SSDI benefits, the length of your COBRA benefits could be extended an additional 11 months.
Long-Term Disability (LTD) Benefits:
If you have private long-term disability insurance, your provider will often require you to seek SSDI benefits. Complying with this requirement could help protect your ability to receive LTD income.
If you receive SSDI benefits and you have a dependent under age 18, he or she may also be eligible for benefits.
Social Security will provide you opportunities to return to work while still paying you disability benefits.
Get help. Navigating the financial challenges of a sudden loss of income can be overwhelming, especially when you are also dealing with heart disease. But you can improve your financial circumstances with careful planning and by knowing about and using all of the potential resources available to you.
Professional SSDI representation:
There are two major types of paid SSDI representatives attorney and non-attorney. Finding the right qualified expert can help you get through the Social Security process faster and awarded benefits sooner.
This isn't just for the rich. It's important to have a plan to successfully survive on limited resources. Seek out organizations that specialize in helping individuals at your income level.
Explore your options:
There are many private and government programs and resources at the local, state and federal levels available to women, people with disabilities, people with heart disease, seniors and mothers of young children. If you don't know where to start, contact your local United Way information and referral center by dialing 2-1-1.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability for men and women. During American Heart Month, Allsup is offering free posters to support heart disease research and education. To request a poster, contact Karen Hercules-Doerr at (800) 854-1418, ext. 65770, or order online at AllsupCares.com