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Social Security's Compassionate Allowances Program Means So Much To People In Their Time Of Need

by Dr. Len July 22, 2011

Sometimes-if you hang around long enough-you get the opportunity to see some good things happen.  The Compassionate Allowances Program from the Social Security Administration is one of those "good things," and last week I had the opportunity to participate in an event in Washington, DC marking the completion of adding the first 100 diseases to this program.


The basics of the program are fairly straight forward: patients who are diagnosed with one of 100 medical conditions-of which 31 are related to cancer-have their Social Security disability applications accelerated through the review process, meaning the delay in getting them their disability payments is considerably minimized.


That may not sound like much to you, but to people suddenly diagnosed with a life-threatening, life-ending or life-changing illness, it means they don't have to wait around for months and months and months while their disability application goes through the routine bureaucratic channels until they get their first disability checks, sometimes after they have passed on from this earth.


When you think about the bureaucracy of government, you begin to appreciate what a major accomplishment this represents. It was no easy task, so "hats off" to Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and his capable staff for making this happen.


Cancer is a devastating disease. Every year, almost 1.6 million people are diagnosed with invasive cancer in the United States, and almost 600,000 people die as a result of cancer. Despite the grim statistics, we have made considerable progress through our knowledge of what we can do to prevent cancer, find certain cancers early when they are more readily treated, and treat many cancers more effectively.  The result is that today we have almost 12 million people alive with cancer, a remarkable achievement that has occurred over the past several decades.


But there are still too many for whom we cannot offer lifesaving treatment or where the treatment-while potentially able to save lives--is particularly intense.  For too many among us when diagnosed with cancer, survival may be measured in months instead of years or the treatment is known to be so debilitating that any semblance of a normal lifestyle-let alone the ability to work and earn a living-is simply not possible.


With the development of the Compassionate Allowances program, we can at least offer many of those cancer patients a hope that there is some help available that may make their cancer journey just a bit easier and less difficult.  As a nation, we can offer those who find themselves faced with a circumstance that no one chooses to face a hope that we recognize what is happening to them, and that we can take a step to lessen their burden.


When I first testified before the Commissioner in 2008 in support of developing the Compassionate Allowances Program, I commented about how difficult the situation was for my patients to get Social Security disability when diagnosed with cancer, and how especially forbidding the application and review process was for patients who had obvious terminal conditions. That was back when I started my oncology practice in the mid-1970's. I implored the Commissioner to move forward with his commitment to simplify the process for these patients, that the time had certainly come for us to do right by those who faced not only the distress of a life-threatening or life-ending illness but also the distress of being financially ruined by the disease.


The Compassionate Allowances Program cannot solve all of the financial issues facing cancer patients in these circumstances, but it can go a long way towards making their lives a bit less difficult. In the same way that we have addressed access to affordable health care, the Compassionate Allowances Program helps address the serious financial problems faced by cancer patients. It certainly will ease the way for many who find themselves in a circumstance they didn't-and couldn't-plan for, at a time when they will know that someone cared to do the right thing.


No one would voluntarily get an illness in order to participate in this program. For cancer patients, the program does not cover all instances where a cancer is diagnosed and treated. It is limited to those diagnoses where it is reasonably obvious to all that the condition is either going to have a limited prognosis, or require very intensive treatment, or both, such as pancreatic cancer.


The program is not limited to patients with cancer. Many conditions including neurologic and cardiac diseases among others are covered.


Harry Johns, who is the chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Association (and a former executive here at the American Cancer Society) eloquently told the story at the event of how patients with Alzheimer's Disease regularly contacted the Association soon after they were diagnosed, complaining about the length of time it took to get disability benefits. Now, he recounted, they call in amazement and gratitude that the process has been so efficient and effective at getting them their benefits so quickly.


Those are remarkable stories, all the remarkable because these are folks who are truly in need at a desperate time in their lives. The success (and the commitment) of the staff at Social Security are to be congratulated on their efforts to make a difference where it counts the most.


For an estimated 150,000 people in the United States this year alone who will benefit from this program, Compassionate Allowances means compassion in the truest sense of the word.


To the Commissioner and his staff, our congratulations and appreciation for addressing a serious problem that had been so obvious to so many for so long. We are grateful for your success



Filed Under:

Access to care


2/24/2012 8:13:20 AM #

CJ Ferdinandsen

I have a sister in San Francisco with a grade 4 glioblastoma who has been wading through theburacracy since October trying to get SSI and is overwhelmed by the insistently unhelpful agents. She has reams of paper communication from them for months, and just 2 days ago she was told there is no evidence she's filed an application. So how do you get through using this Compassionate Allowance application?

CJ Ferdinandsen

5/10/2013 8:06:34 AM #

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About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.