Social Security disability benefits are a lifeline for millions of Americans who aren’t able to work due to medical issues. Getting benefits, however, is rarely easy. And it’s only gotten harder in recent years.

The Social Security Administration has long labored beneath the weight of a mountainous caseload, insufficient staff and a dwindling budget. The backlog of pending claims has ballooned in recent years. Currently, more than a million claims are awaiting decision by a scarce 1,600 administrative judges – an imbalance that makes it unlikely things will turn around anytime soon.

A big backlog means long wait times

The average wait time for a disability claim used to be just shy of 365 days in 2012. As of last summer, the average wait was more than a year and a half. And in particularly overburdened areas like Miami and Long Island, applicants typically have to wait more than two years for a decision.

Meanwhile, applicants eagerly awaiting outcomes continue struggling just to make ends meet. Some don’t even survive long enough to get benefits. Since 2015, more than 18,000 disability applicants have died before their claims were resolved.

To make matters worse, many applicants will face this long, hard road only to get stuck with a denial at the end of the day. The approval rate nationwide has plummeted from 73% in 2008 to only 55% last year.

How to help speed your case along

If you’re considering applying for benefits – whether SSD or SSI – you can’t jump the line, but you can take these steps to reduce delays:

  • Submit a thorough application. Include documentation for every aspect of your claim – medical records, work history, educational background, skillset – and anything else that can help paint a clearer picture of your situation.
  • If your initial application gets denied, meet with an attorney as soon as possible. You have the right to appeal, but strict deadlines apply.
  • Don’t face the appeal hearing alone. This is a critical opportunity to turn your case around. The sooner you get a lawyer on your side, the more time they’ll have to help you prepare.

Not sure whether you qualify for benefits? The SSA website has useful information on eligibility requirements as well as details on how to apply.