January 13, 2014

Medical Records and Being Prepared For Your Social Security Disability Hearing

In my practice as an Indianapolis Social Security disability attorney, I find that good communication is essential for me to provide the best possible representation for my clients.  My office takes pride in responding promptly and attentively to our clients’ calls, emails, and letters.  However, I am often surprised by clients who do not hold up their end of the deal!  My office mails several types of forms to our clients to help us collect the information we need to build a good case, and when clients do not return those forms promptly, it can really hurt our ability to prepare for their hearings.

One of my office’s most important jobs in preparing for your hearing is submitting medical records that show the nature and extent of your disabilities.  We strive to work quickly and efficiently to request, follow up, and submit your medical records, but we cannot do any of those things unless you tell us where you have been receiving treatment.  As soon as we know when your hearing is scheduled, we will ask you to provide a complete list of your medical providers.  It can take weeks – sometimes over a month – for medical offices to process our requests for records, so if you wait to give us this information until a few days before your hearing, we probably won’t have all of your records submitted before the hearing is held.

In my opinion, not having complete medical records available at your hearing will put you at a distinct disadvantage.  First, most of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who decide Social Security disability appeals review the claimant’s file before the hearing.  The ALJ wants to know if you have been receiving consistent treatment, if you have been hospitalized for your condition, and if you have had any surgeries or other invasive treatments.  In short, the ALJ wants to make sure that your medical records provide objective evidence to support your claim that you are unable to work.  The ALJ will probably get his first impression of you from the information in your medical records before he ever sees you in the hearing room.  In fact, the ALJ may already have an idea about the decision he wants to make in your case when he walks into the hearing. Records can always be submitted after the hearing, and the ALJ is required to review all evidence before making a decision, but by the time he gets a chance to look at those records he may have already heard dozens of other cases, making it hard for him to remember how those records relate to your testimony at the hearing.

Another situation in which it is crucial to have completed medical records available before the hearing date is when your ALJ is planning to call a medical expert to testify.  A medical expert will review the records in your file and then testify to the judge about your severe medical impairments and how they affect your ability to perform work-related activities.  The doctor will not examine you personally, and might not even get a chance to listen to your testimony before she gives the ALJ her opinion.  If she does not have all of your medical records available, she can only testify to the judge based on what she has seen in your records. Therefore, in order for the medical expert’s testimony to reflect the
full extent of your impairments, she must have all of your medical records available to review in advance of the hearing. I have attended hearings that were postponed by the ALJ because the record was not complete and therefore the medical expert was not able to provide a complete opinion about the claimant’s impairments; those claimants had to wait for months for their hearing to be rescheduled.

How can you avoid finding yourself at your hearing without a complete medical record?  There are a few relatively simple things to keep in mind when working with your attorney or representative:

  • Return paperwork promptly.
  • Provide complete and accurate information.  When your attorney asks for the names and addresses of your medical providers for the past five years, you may have to think for awhile to remember where you were five years ago, and you may have to dig through your files to find the contact information for your specialists.  Taking the time and effort to provide complete information the first time around will save a last-minute scramble to try to get records at the last minute.
  • Keep your attorney or representative updated about your address and telephone number.  The appeals process takes a long time, so it is important to make sure your attorney can still reach you when it is time to start preparing for your hearing.

Being disabled can make it difficult to keep up with extra responsibilities, and unexpected things happen all the time, but your Social Security disability hearing is often your best chance for a favorable decision on your claim. You typically only have that one chance to talk to the ALJ in person, and you want to make sure he has all the information he can to make a favorable decision regarding your claim.  

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