A Colostomy Bag Qualifies for Disability Benefits. Here’s How.
June 9, 2022 · 6 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.
Are you unable to work because of a colostomy bag? If so, there's a good chance you qualify for monthly payments and free health insurance from the U.S. government. We’ll help you figure out whether you qualify and what to do next.
Lots of patients with colostomy bags— rich and poor alike — get benefits from Social Security Disability. For patients and their families, this help can be life-changing. But not everyone with a colostomy bag is eligible, and government rules can make qualifying a nightmare. At Atticus, we help people cut through the red tape and get the benefits they need. We’ll explain clearly how this program work for people with colostomy bags, then tell you what to do if you want to qualify.
Skip the reading. See which benefits you qualify for in 2-minutes or less.
What is Social Security Disability?
Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) is a government program that supports Americans who are medically unable to work. When someone says they’re “on disability” for a long period, they usually mean that they’re getting payments from Social Security Disability.
The program is huge: About 10 million Americans receive SSDI today, and about 2% of every U.S. paycheck goes to fund the program via taxes.
Free health insurance through Medicare or Medicaid (sometimes after a waiting period)
They also get other benefits, including extra money for young kids, forgiveness of student loan debt, an easier time qualifying for other programs, and higher Social Security Retirement payments later in life. There's no downside to receiving benefits, and it’s free to apply.
Who is eligible?
In order to qualify for SSDI, six things usually have to be true:
Because of your medical condition, you can’t realistically hold a job
You're not currently working (or if you are, it's part-time and very low-paid)
You’re not expected to recover (or be able to work) within a year
Before getting sick, you worked and paid taxes for years*
* If you didn’t work previously, but you and your family have very little money, you can still qualify for a related program called Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and the rest of this article will still largely apply to you.
Qualifying is never easy: The government treats claims with suspicion, and rejects most applicants. But if you meet the criteria above, you can likely get benefits with the right help.
What is a colostomy bag?
A colostomy bag is a plastic bag that collects feces through an opening in your abdomen. You might need a colostomy bag if you aren’t able to have bowel movements on your own. This often happens because of an injury or disease to the lower intestinal tract. Sometimes, the bag is a temporary measure while you heal. Other times – especially if a portion of your intestines has been removed – you might need the bag for the rest of your life.
Many people can live healthy and normal lives with a colostomy bag, but some people find the bag interferes with their daily lives. This is especially true if:
You have to change it or adjust it often
You have problems with or are allergic to the adhesive that keeps it in place
Because of these symptoms, many people with colostomy bags lose their jobs and find themselves unable to earn a living.
Can a colostomy bag qualify for disability benefits?
Yes. As a general rule, if you have a colostomy bag that makes it difficult to work, you’ll qualify as disabled. If your colostomy bag is functioning well or if you expect to have it reversed within the year, you probably won't qualify.
Some quick background: Under government rules, some medical conditions – like needing a kidney transplant or losing both your legs – always qualify a patient as disabled. Others - like pregnancy - are never enough. A colostomy bag is somewhere in between: You can qualify due to a colostomy bag, but just having one isn't enough. Instead, it depends on how far along your illness has progressed and how your condition and treatment impact you.
A colostomy bag usually qualifies you for benefits if you expect to need it for at least a year, and any of the following are true:
You need a lot of breaks during the day to adjust it
It often leaks
You have a problem with the way it is attached to you such as infection or itchiness
Your colostomy bag is working well, but you have an underlying digestive disease that makes it hard to work.
I have a colostomy bag. Should I apply for disability benefits?
If you can’t work because of a colostomy bag and and it won't be reversed within a year, you should probably apply for benefits. It’s free and the help can be life-changing. But applying does take time and effort, and not everyone qualifies — so it’s only worthwhile if you have a chance of success. Here’s our advice:
Apply now if:
You are seeing a gastroenterologist (specialist in digestive disorders) or other specialist, AND
You will need a colostomy bag for at least a year, AND
Your colostomy bag makes it hard to work
Consider waiting and applying later if
You have a colostomy bag but your doctor hopes to reverse it soon, OR
You are having trouble with your colostomy bag but your doctor thinks they can fix your problem, OR
You haven’t yet stopped working (even if you worry you’ll need to soon)
Probably don't apply if:
You have a colostomy bag that will be reversed soon, OR
You will have a colostomy bag for a long time but it works well and doesn’t get in the way of your work, OR
You're working (earning more than about $1,400 per month) and don't plan to stop
Whether you decide to apply now or later, the best thing you can do in the meantime is to get as much medical care as possible. Build a good relationship with your gastroenterologist (doctor for digestive issues), try the treatment they recommend, and make sure your doctor understand the impact your condition has on your life. This will help build the paper trail you need to get benefits. And more importantly, it’s critical for your health.
Applying for disability takes preparation. You can win, but this system doesn’t make it easy. So it’s worth taking some time to understand how things work.
The first step is to make a choice: Do you want to (a) Apply on your own, or (b) Get a professional to handle the process for you? Most successful applicants hire a professional— and for patients with colostomy bags in particular, that’s generally the right call. But not everyone needs to, and not everyone who wants to can. We’ll explain both paths and help you decide.
How the process works
The government fears that people will exaggerate their medical problems in order to get free money. So it puts every applicant under a microscope. To win, you have to prove — beyond a doubt — that your medical condition is severe and disabling.
There are two major stages in the process, and most people will need to go through both:
Appeals: If you lose, you appeal your denial and eventually get a hearing with a judge. At the hearing, you get to submit additional evidence, speak to the judge directly, and cross-examine government experts. (Among people who make it to this stage, about 50% win. If you lose, there are several more stages of appeal.)
Unfortunately, the process takes time: 3-6 months to get an initial decision, and 1-2 years (or more) to get a hearing. Even a small mistake or omission (like a doctor failing to send in records, or bad answer on a form) can doom an application. The good news is that once you win – even if it takes a long time and several appeals – you get “back pay” (retroactive benefits) for the time you should have been getting benefits.
There are two big upsides to hiring a lawyer: (1) They do almost all the work for you and hold your hand through the process. (2) They increase your chance of winning. (Government studies show that at the appeal stage, people with a lawyer are three times as likely to qualify.)
The only downside is cost. Lawyers aren’t allowed to charge any up-front fee so it doesn’t matter if you can afford one right now. If they win your case, they get 25% of any back pay (retroactive benefits) that they win for you. This is worth it for almost everyone — you only pay if you win (if you lose, you pay nothing), you only pay once, and the cost pales in comparison to the amount you get.
Should I hire a professional?
Almost every applicant that applies because of a colostomy bag should hire a lawyer or other professional. (We don’t say this to everyone — see, for example, our articles on Huntington’s disease or pancreatic cancer.)
Why? This process can be particularly unfair for patients with colostomy bags. Since it’s hard to diagnose (there’s no official test for it) and isn’t usually disabling, the government treats patients with colostomy bags with suspicion and requires detailed proof. Having assistance from an expert can make all the difference.
If your digestive disorder is so severe that no one — not even the most skeptical judge — would believe you could hold a job:(This is the case if you’re seeing a gastroenterolgist regularly and taking medication, you still have severe symptoms like being unable to control your bowels regularly, and you haven’t worked in years.) If this is the case you can likely win on your own, as long as you feel comfortable with government paperwork (about the same as filing your taxes) and requesting medical records.
If you can’t convince a lawyer to take your case: Sadly, this can happen; if your case is quite hard to win, it can be difficult to find a lawyer to represent you. (Though we recommend trying our service before you give up!) In this case, you can apply on your own, and then try again to find a lawyer once you’ve been denied once — at which point it’s often easier. For more information, see our full article: How to apply for disability on your own.
How Atticus can help
Atticus is a new kind of law firm that helps you navigate the early stages of a disability claim. We help you choose the right approach, hire the right lawyer, and get on with your life. We won’t charge you a dime for our services, so there’s no cost to you. Get started, and learn what you qualify for, with our 2-minute intake quiz.
A colostomy bag qualifies for disability benefits. We can help you get approved.
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