Navigating disability benefits

December 26, 2017
The decision to step away from work while undergoing cancer treatment can be daunting. Most employers are required to follow disability laws. However, that doesn’t always offer the level of flexibility everyone needs to continue working while undergoing treatment. If you have reached the point where you want to stop working, but are scared about what that will mean, it is important to know what resources can help you.

Where to start

If you are considering going on disability, you should contact human resources or speak with your manager at your place of employment. Some people are surprised to learn that they have short and/or long-term disability benefits through their employer. It is important to know that having one policy does not necessarily mean you have the other, since they are two different insurance options. You should also talk to your doctor about the difference between having a tough time with chemotherapy and meeting criteria for disability.

Private benefits: short and long-term

Short-term disability benefits vary by policy, but generally you will receive a percentage of your income anywhere between a few weeks to a few months. These polices usually have a waiting period of around a couple weeks. Also, you are often required to use up any sick days you have before you can access your short-term disability.

After the expiration of a short-term policy, if you have coverage, long-term disability will kick in. If you are transitioning from a short to long-term policy there may be a waiting period in between. You will also be responsible for the gap in coverage. Like any kind of insurance policy, it is always important to read the fine print. Certain things to look for in your policy include: tax implications, waiting periods, percentage of income and length of policy (which could range from years to decades). You will also want to look into overlap with public benefits. This is important because if you also begin to receive Social Security disability payments, your monthly income from your long-term disability plan may decrease.

Government benefits: short and long-term

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA): If you find out you do not have short-term disability benefits through an employer, you may still be eligible for 12 work weeks of unpaid medical leave during a 12-month time period through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Although it is unpaid, the benefit of FMLA is that your job or a very similar one will be available upon your return. Also, you are able to keep your employer-sponsored health insurance benefits. Not every employee is eligible for FMLA and not every employer provides it. Ask your human resources department or supervisor about this option and how to apply.

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS): Depending on your financial need and disability status, you may qualify for cash, food or medical assistance through the state. For more information about those programs, visit the DSHS website. If you would like to check your eligibility or apply online, you can do so at the Washington Connection website. You can also contact the Swedish Cancer Institute to speak with a patient financial advocate.

Social Security Administration: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) income and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are the two main long-term federal disability programs. They sound similar but there are a few key differences to be aware of. To qualify for SSDI, you must have worked and contributed to the program for a certain amount of time. SSDI also has a mandatory waiting period before you begin receiving benefits. There may be a wait of five or six months before you get your first check. Additionally, SSDI payments are generally higher than SSI payments. Unlike SSDI, eligibility for SSI is based on your income and assets, not your work history. With SSI there is no required waiting period for payments to begin.

The Social Security Administration ultimately decides if and which program you are eligible for; it might even be both. Visit their website to learn more about requirements and how to apply.

Here to help

The first two things you should do if you are considering going on disability are:
  1. Speak with your doctor about your decision.
  2. Contact human resources or talk to your supervisor at your place of employment.

With the different options it can seem like an overwhelming experience. If you need support through this process, contact the oncology social work team at the Swedish Cancer Institute.

Additional information and resources

Social Security, Disability Planner: How to Apply

Swedish Insurance and Financial Resources 

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

United States Department of Labor

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services

Washington Connection

To speak with a Swedish Cancer Institute oncology social worker, please call 206-386-3228.
This article is from Life to the Fullest, the newsletter from the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) dedicated to those with cancer, cancer survivors, and their family members and caregivers.

Topics: Cancer, Services