There’s this idea that the so-called social safety nets are just hanging out, waiting for us to jump into them whenever we feel like it. To listen to the politicians speak, these safety nets are easily gotten, easily abused, taken for granted, and a huge waste of money. If you don’t live in the U.S. and/or don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the links for explanations.
I can’t speak about every type of “safety net” because I haven’t tried them all. And I can’t speak to all of the politicians’ points. But I can definitely say that these services are not so easy to get!
In this fight for services, I have a lot going for me: I’m intelligent, I am well educated, I have unlimited internet access and my own private computer, I am well organized, and I used to deal with red tape and bureaucracy on a regular basis at a previous job. So even while other people struggle, this should be really easy for me, right? Yeah, right.
A couple weeks ago I made it very clear how I feel about Medicaid. And I was thankful that at least in my state, I’m eligible to apply for Medicaid, called MassHealth here. Of course, there’s a downside: I followed all the rules and it’s still not working out well. When my former employer’s benefits office told me I was losing my health insurance in just two short months, they told me that it would take 3 weeks for my MassHealth application to be processed, so I should wait to apply. If I applied too soon, my current insurance could get in the way, so I should time it to get MassHealth just as my insurance ran out. I called MassHealth’s customer service line several times and spoke to three separate people. Each person told me the application would take 3 weeks to process. The automated system said that the current processing time is 15 business days. Ok, so it’s 3 weeks; that’s not so bad. But it turns out, it’s 3 weeks to process the initial application! After that application, it takes 90 days to process the supplemental disability application! The supplemental disability application states that this time can be speeded up by including medical records, so I included all of mine back to January 2011, even though they really only needed the 12 months.. Today I spoke to the office that handles those applications. It was explained that they are still required to contact my doctors and to give them 30 days to respond with my medical records. Yes, these will just be duplicates of the records that I already provided. So what was the point of including those records? None. I did not save time, I just spent more on postage and wasted paper. Fantastic. So now I will have a 2-month gap between when my insurance ends and when I could even potentially be approved for MassHealth. Of course, they could still deny my application. And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Well, I can stop seeing doctors and taking medications, but that’s not entirely an option. There’s one medication that I can’t stop without doing serious harm, and another that would do moderate harm. I can either pay for these out of pocket myself, or I can spend $550 per month for COBRA. Great options. But I guess it’s my own fault – I followed the rules.
Services like housing vouchers and food stamps are shrouded in mystery. Even though these are state and federal programs, they are handled at local levels. It takes a few phone calls to find the right office. This office will not provide information by phone and there’s nothing helpful online. They do not make appointments. They simply say that I should show up with my paperwork, then they’ll tell me which services I’m eligible for. I don’t even know which services they handle! So the only way to find out what I might be eligible for is to show up at this office, but of course showing up can be hard for people with health problems. And I’m slowly learning about others offices that might be able to help with this kind of thing, but only by asking for advice from other people who have gone through this process. As far as I can tell, there is no one central calling center or web site to provide information on what services exist for people with no income and an inability to work due to health problems.
And then there’s Social Security Disability. Should I even discuss this? I’ve found different statistics for how many people are denied the first time they apply, but the lowest number I found is 50%. If these numbers are right, that means that more than half, possibly much more than half, of applicants are denied the first time they apply. And quite a few are denied on appeal, too. The application is long and arduous. It feels nothing like a safety net and everything like a test. Filling out the application is a test, waiting to hear back is a test, going through the appeals process is a test. And if you pass? You get enough money each month to pay your rent. Maybe. If you’re lucky. Of course, there won’t be much money left over for frivolous things like food, but that’s what food stamps are for… if you can figure out how to apply for them.