Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung condition that can lead to breathing difficulties. In the United States, people with severe cases of COPD may be eligible for disability benefits.

COPD is a common condition that ranges in severity. COPD does not cause any symptoms in some people, whereas it can lead to respiratory failure in others. The condition causes limitations to airflow and damage to tissues in the lungs.

COPD is a progressive disease that worsens over time. Quitting smoking can help slow the progression. However, even with appropriate therapy, COPD still progresses in severity and is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in the U.S.

This article discusses whether COPD qualifies as a disability, when it becomes disabling, how to qualify for benefits, and more.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities as a disability. This includes different types of conditions, such as respiratory disorders.

When COPD is severe, symptoms of the condition can affect a person’s ability to complete certain activities they need to get by in daily life. These include activities that fall under the ADA’s criteria, such as walking, performing manual tasks, and breathing.

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) has established criteria to group COPD into four stages. These range from early to advanced stages:

Early COPD causes mild symptoms and is not a cause for immediate concern. However, diagnosis and treatment are still important, as the handling of stage 1 can determine how the condition progresses.

Moderate COPD, or stage 2, also falls under the category of an early stage. Diagnosis and treatment are necessary to limit the condition from worsening, but the tissues of the lungs are still largely intact.

Stages 3 and 4 are where COPD can become disabling. By stage 3, there is severe obstruction in a person’s airways, and the lungs are hyperinflated. This causes shortness of breath, among other symptoms, which can limit a person’s ability to lead their day-to-day life.

Learn more about worsening COPD here.

If having COPD affects a person’s ability to work and live in the U.S., they may be eligible to receive disability benefits from the U.S. government.

There are two types of benefits a person with COPD can receive. These are Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

To qualify for COPD disability, a person must undergo disability evaluation and meet certain criteria. The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires evidence to show that the benefits are necessary.

Disability evaluation criteria

A disability evaluation considers the following factors:

  • the severity of the medical condition
  • age
  • education
  • work skills
  • past work experience

Disability evaluation falls under different categories depending on which body area they affect. COPD falls under section 3.0 of the Blue Book, which outlines the medical criteria used to assess eligibility.

Medical evidence

A person needs to provide medical evidence to show the severity of their condition and how it impacts their ability to work and live their day-to-day life. Medical evidence is still necessary to qualify for disability benefits, even if a person is using supplementary oxygen.

Medical evidence should include the following:

  • medical history, including COPD diagnosis
  • results from physical examination
  • results from medical imaging showing evidence of COPD
  • results from pulmonary function tests
  • any medications being taken for COPD

Pulmonary function tests can include:

With COPD, spirometry test results may not be significant, so it is good to support the results with a DLCO test.

How to apply

There are different methods people can choose from to apply. People can apply for disability benefits either:

  • in person
  • over the telephone
  • online
  • through mail

To apply online:

  1. Use the SSA disability checklist to gather all the necessary documentation.
  2. Complete the disability benefits application process.
  3. Fill out the medical release form.

More details of eligibility requirements are available in the Blue Book.

The Blue Book outlines the SSA’s medical criteria for different conditions and which types of medical evidence should go in an application for SSDI.

Medical professionals and Social Security use the criteria in the Blue Book to evaluate a person’s condition and eligibility for SSDI.

Section 3.0 of the Blue Book is the overall category for respiratory disorders. COPD falls under section 3.02, which refers to chronic respiratory disorders.

A person should check whether they meet the criteria in the Blue Book and gather the evidence required before applying for disability benefits.

According to Disability Benefits Help, it typically takes between 3–5 months for the SSA to respond after a person submits their initial application.

If the SSA approves the application, payments will typically begin within a few months. However, they can take up to a year. If payments take more than 5 months to begin, a person will receive some backdated payments on top of their monthly allowance.

If the SSA denies an application, a person can review their submission and check to see if they have missed any important details. The SSA keeps hold of files in case an applicant chooses to appeal.

Applying for benefits can seem like a lengthy process, but it is generally quicker if a person can accurately present all the evidence needed.

All the necessary medical evidence must be ready and in order before applying. A person should provide as much evidence as possible to give the SSA a clear picture of how COPD impacts their life.

This will reduce the chances of having the request denied. An individual should check that they meet all the criteria outlined in the Blue Book.

Additionally, it may be helpful to use a Social Security lawyer or advocate. They are more likely to notice areas where information may be missing or where sections need improving.

COPD is a condition that affects the lungs and can also affect other organs in the body. The condition is progressive, starting with mild symptoms in the early stages and more severe in the advanced stages. These severe symptoms can affect a person’s quality of life and ability to work.

When COPD affects a person’s ability to work, they may be eligible for disability benefits in the U.S. They will need to submit an application to the SSA for approval.

If the application gains approval, a person will receive monthly disability benefit payments. If the SSA denies an application, a person can choose to reassess their application and appeal.

Although the process can seem lengthy, receiving Social Security support can benefit a person with severe COPD by helping to ease the financial pressures of having a disabling medical condition.