This article is for anyone who currently earns a living, but has no clue how your bills would be paid if you became disabled, whether you are a Migraineur or not. Most of us are oblivious to the basic disability protection laws, the intricacies of private disability insurance and the grueling process of applying for Social Security Disability. The problem is that we don’t think about it until it’s too late. Whether you have episodic or Chronic Migraines, or if you are perfectly healthy, preparing for a potential disability now can mean the difference between being able to focus on your health or being forced to work because you don’t have income.
The choices I made in the critical early months of Chronic Migraines, have given me income when I needed to leave work. I hope that sharing my financial journey can help you to think about preparations you should consider.
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
When the Migraines turned from episodic to chronic, I became familiar with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. This law protects your job.
- FMLA allows you to take 12-weeks of unpaid medical leave during a 12-month period. The 12-weeks allotted under FMLA do not have to be taken consecutively.
- FMLA requires that your group health insurance coverage be maintained during your absence.
- FMLA allows you to return to the same job or an equivalent job upon your return.
- FMLA does NOT provide income. Your employer may require you to use any available sick, personal or vacation time during your absence, but if you exceed your numbers of days off, you will not be paid under FMLA. This is why you need a short-term disability policy so that you can have income during an extended absence.
For more information on FMLA: http://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/fmla-faqs.htm
As part of your benefits package, many companies offer short-term (90 days) and/ or long-term disability benefits. My company did not offer its employees short-term disability, but partnered with an insurance company that provided a range of short-term policies at a discount. When my Migraines suddenly became chronic, I was concerned that I may need to take an extended period of time off of work. My Human Resources manager encouraged me to talk with an insurance representative to discuss my income options. Eventually, my doctor did recommend that I take 90 days off work to try new treatments and I was thankful that I had put a short-term policy in place.
- The short-term disability policy PAID me $100 a day for a maximum of 90 days. You can chose a policy with a different payout award and the cost will vary based on the coverage you chose. It can be very affordable. I think I paid $10 a month for mine and it was worth the extra cost when I needed the income.
- Typically the funds you receive from short-term disability can be used at your discretion for bills, groceries, medications, etc.
- Many policies have a waiting period. Mine would not pay out benefits for pre-existing conditions until after a 12-month waiting period. Therefore it can be very important to have a policy in place BEFORE you actually need it.
Long-Term Disability (LTD)
Long-term disability insurance kicks in after 90 days, when a short-term disability policy has stopped paying. Again, this is a benefit that many employers offer at little or no cost to you, so talk to HR about your options.
I had every intention of going back to work after my 3-months on short-term disability had ended. But my condition hadn’t improved and new medical issues arose. My doctor decided it was not time for me to return to work yet. Luckily, my employer DID offer LTD. I was able to file a claim under LTD when my short-term policy ran out.
- My policy pays me 60% of the salary I was making at the time I left my job on medical leave. Most policies cover between 50-70% of your salary.
- As long as I provide my case worker with medical records, updates and continue to see my doctor, this benefit will be paid to me indefinitely if my condition does not improve.
Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)
The short-term and long-term disability policies I mentioned above are often offered through your employer or are available for you to purchase as an individual. On the other hand, Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is a form of disability income offered by the Federal Government. Additionally, there are five states (CA, NY, NJ, RI, HI) that offer state funded disability insurance.
My LTD carrier required that I apply for SSDI in addition to receiving income from them. I started the process in February with the help of a consulting group that guides patients through the complicated SSDI maze. I’ve heard that doing it on your own can be very difficult and their help has eased a big burden. Also, they don’t get paid unless I am awarded benefits. They will also help me through the appeals process, which unfortunately is quite common.
Even though I have a private long-term disability policy, there are advantages to having SSDI:
- Typically a SSDI recipient is eligible for Medicare.
- At retirement age, your earnings from SSDI will count towards your lifetime earnings in regards to Social Security retirement income. Therefore the retirement income you receive will be greater than if you had just stopped working at a younger age and ceased paying into Social Security.
For more information on Social Security Disability Income: http://www.ssa.gov/disability/
What I failed to mention above was the astounding amount of paperwork needed in every single step of this process. Once you file a claim, the insurance company or Social Security has to approve that your illness warrants a benefit payout. Approvals do not happen overnight and there can be gaps of time when you are waiting for a decision and not receiving any income. Planning ahead and having savings to cover at least two to three months of expenses is a widely used rule of thumb, but I know that it not always easy.
Keeping up with the paperwork is a full-time job. Staying organized and keeping detailed records is vital in this process. But when you have a chronic illness there are days when you can’t make dinner, let alone stay on top of all the forms and deadlines. Consider using a patient advocate. These trained consultants can work on your behalf to file SSDI paperwork, to collect medical records, to talk to your disability case worker and help manage your financial future. The Patient Advocate Foundation can help you find an advocate to work with you: http://www.patientadvocate.org/index.php.
You Never Think You Need It…Until It Happens To You
I hope that nobody reading this will ever need to know about these disability income options. For many readers, their lives have already been changed drastically by a disability they didn’t plan for. Whether you’re healthy or you’re a full-time Migraineur, I encourage you to know what your options are and to plan for a day that we hope never happens to you.
Here are some other articles that may help you in your research: