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Chicago congressman urges SSA to focus on COVID long haulers

Eight months ago, we wrote in this space about COVID-19 long haulers – people who suffer sometimes debilitating symptoms for months after having been infected. In that post, we explained that for a person to meet the disability requirements of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), their severe medical condition that prevents them from working must be expected to persist at least a year or to result in death.

New research findings on long-term COVID-19 symptoms

Since January, medical professionals have had additional months of experience with the coronavirus and researchers have learned more about long COVID:

  • A major University College London study of long haulers found that over 91% of participating patients reported having “on average, 55.9 COVID-19 symptoms involving a mean of 9.1 organ systems for more than 35 weeks.” Most common after six months were fatigue, cognitive and memory issues, and malaise following exertion. Other problems at that stage included insomnia, heart arrhythmias, breathing problems, dizziness, and muscle and joint pain. Many relapsed after physical or mental activity, or stress. About one-quarter could not work, while almost half have had to reduce their hours.
  • Another recent study, this one out of the University of Birmingham, found that long haulers reported “lower quality of life, mental illness, and employment problems.” The researchers cautioned that these patients “require multidisciplinary care involving the long-term monitoring of symptoms, to identify potential complications, physical rehabilitation, mental health and social services support.”

From the standpoint of SSDI or SSI eligibility, the Birmingham researchers cautioned that long haulers may feel “abandoned and dismissed by healthcare providers” or may “suffer in silence.” People who have had COVID-19 for whom the description of long-term symptoms rings true should continue to seek medical assessment of this problem that is not yet fully understood, but that may be keeping them from working. Clearly, both the severity and the duration of this condition may meet the standards for SSDI or SSI eligibility.

Disability claimants like these must enlist their doctors as advocates and allies to support their SSDI and SSI applications. Treating physicians can carefully document symptoms and limitations from long-haul COVID so the Social Security Administration (SSA) can understand how they impact the ability – or inability – to work.

Federal developments

On July 26, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) along with the Department of Justice (DOJ) released guidance that found COVID long-haulers may meet the definition of disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal anti-discrimination laws. This opens the door for employer-required reasonable accommodation of job duties to help these employees perform their jobs despite difficult symptoms.

The SSA, which needs to actively study long-term COVID for disability benefit purposes, is another arm of DHS. On June 25, Chicago Congressman Danny Davis along with another representative sent a letter to the SSA commissioner about long-haul COVID and SSA’s disability programs. The legislators urged SSA to work closely with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to learn, among other things, how the virus impacts “survivors’ ability to work.”

Of note, the letter points out that the SSA must assess disability in light of multiple impairments and symptoms in patients when it is the combined impact that causes disability – clearly a potential issue in long haulers.

We will continue to monitor these important issues for the benefit of our Illinois readers and clients facing long-term COVID.