How many Americans are suffering from so-called long COVID? According to a recent FAIR Health study, it is estimated that about one-quarter of symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus patients reported new health problems following their initial diagnosis, including high blood pressure, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and pain. Whether this is permanent or not is uncertain, but the current U.S. administration announced that they might be eligible for federal disability support programs and resources. Could this turn into another entitlement scheme, or will it be added to the cash-strapped and bloated system?
Long COVID Is a Disability
Long COVID can now be classified as a disability if it “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to new guidance published by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice. On July 27 at the White House Rose Garden, President Joe Biden announced that Americans enduring long-term health effects of the infectious respiratory illness would be eligible for the same government benefits as other disabled people.
“We’re bringing agencies together to make sure Americans with long COVID who have a disability have access to the rights and resources that are due under the disability law, which includes accommodations and services in the workplace and school, and our health care system, so they can live their lives in dignity.”
Under federal civil rights law, individuals who suffer from long-term symptoms of the coronavirus will be entitled to resources and protection from discrimination. Some of the perks include refueling assistance at a gas station, additional time for test-taking, and forcing businesses and local governments to make slight modifications to accommodate somebody with these symptoms. The U.S. government is also working to provide community-based resources and a new Labor Department web portal that will function as a resource for workers, including information on employee benefits. An individual assessment is required to accurately determine if someone with long COVID can receive these benefits.
So, could federal assistance also include disability payments in the future?
Long COVID Could Overwhelm the System
For many long-haulers, the persistent symptoms have forced them to either work part-time or even stay at home. As a result, they might need to turn to Social Security disability benefits for aid.
It is unclear how many Americans would need to apply for disability checks. If even one million long COVID patients submit applications, it could overwhelm a system that presently helps more than eight million disabled workers and nearly two million of their family members. Although the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are projected to remain in the black for two more decades, the entire Social Security Administration (SSA) is facing a fiscal black hole, forcing bureaucrats to start tightening their belts.
Experts warn the SSA should brace for an influx of new applications from individuals going through the torment of long COVID. Representative John Larson (D-CT) told TIME he anticipates Biden will start ensuring that long-haulers can qualify for SS benefits.
“I expect that with President Biden’s recent removal of former Commissioner Andrew Saul and appointment of Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, SSA will be rededicating itself to ensuring that people can access the Social Security benefits they have earned and are eligible for, including by properly evaluating the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the ability to work.”
Even if the president signed off on it today, disabled Americans still need to go through the laborious effort of paperwork, telephone calls, interviews, and a myriad of other tasks before receiving a check in the mail or a deposit in a checking account. For some, support payments can take as long as a year. Scientists are going through intensive research and coming up with medical treatments to mitigate the symptoms. For now, a significant portion of the population may be unable to wait that long.
Could Uncle Sam Afford More Beneficiaries?
The United States already spends $650 billion on disability services and income maintenance programs for at least ten million people. Could Washington afford it if suddenly 10% of the 35 million cases qualify for SSDI and SSI? Biden has signaled that no amount of spending is too much, so with enough advocacy, the White House and lawmakers may proffer a stamp of approval for giving deficit-financed money to millions of Americans. The COVID-19 public health crisis may have permanently decimated the nation’s finances, which could be the worst symptom of them all for generations to come.
Read more from Andrew Moran.