Financial Plan of Attack
Patients recovering from catastrophic injuries or illnesses know the frustration of having their rehabilitation efforts interrupted or slowed by forces beyond their control. Relapses can occur. Stress, emotional issues and family situations can conspire to disrupt progress.
All too often there is another culprit – financial uncertainty.
With the potential costs of hospital stays, therapy, lost work and long-term living adjustments, patients may worry more about financial difficulties than physical recovery.
That’s why creating a personalized financial plan is so crucial, says Lee Baker, a Certified Financial Planner™ with Apex Financial Services in Atlanta.
“If left unattended, bad financial decisions and circumstances can [slow] your physical rehabilitation,” Baker says. “At a time when making adjustments and overcoming life-altering injuries should receive patients’ full attention, calls from creditors and poor or non-existent budgeting skills could derail someone’s physical rehabilitation.”
Baker volunteers to help military service members and veterans with financial planning. Those he helps include some patients receiving care in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, which provides rehabilitation care for service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What should a recently injured person consider when it comes to making a new financial plan?
“One of the first things to consider is understanding who is on your team,” Baker says. “Getting things in order physically needs to be the focal point of the patients, so having a support system that the patient can trust is extremely valuable to getting things in order fiscally.”
In planning, Baker says he always starts with two steps: “The first thing is taking a look at your credit report. The second thing is sitting down and doing a very detailed cash-flow analysis.”
Former SHARE Military Initiative patient Clarence Parker, right, receives financial counseling from volunteer Lee Baker, who is a certified financial planner.
Patients undergoing rehabilitation often receive new income from multiple sources, including worker’s compensation and Social Security disability benefits. (See below for more information on applying for disability benefits.)
Patients often have many new expenses, as well.
Baker developed an online calendar for one patient to use in tracking cash flow. The calendar noted when certain income should be expected and included hyperlinks to vendors’ websites on the dates when their bills were due.
“This was even more useful for this soldier because the next phase of his treatment had him in different states for several months,” Baker says.
Jim Peniston is the executive director of the Foundation for Financial Planning, a nonprofit organization that connects the financial planning community with people in need. That includes some Shepherd Center patients, particularly military service members adapting to life with traumatic brain injuries.
“Not everyone needs a financial planner, but everyone does need a financial plan,” Peniston says. “The need for unbiased, professional assistance is even greater when the individual may be suffering from a brain injury.”
If hiring a professional to assist with your financial plan, “You need to be comfortable with the financial planner you work with,” Peniston says. “It is not ‘one size fits all.’ You should interview and evaluate several financial planners to find the one that’s right for you.
During interviews, ask what qualifies them to offer financial planning advice. Ask the financial planners what organizations regulate them, and contact those groups to conduct a background check on their disciplinary work history. Peniston recommends reading the “How to Choose a Planner” primer supplied by the Certified Financial Planner™ Board of Standards Inc. at: www.cfp.net/learn/howtochoose.asp.
Whether or not you hire a professional, The Foundation for Financial Planning emphasizes that financial planning isn’t a product or service: It’s a process. And patients starting life anew after a major injury or illness have the power to start that process on their own, or with their family’s help.
The foundation details six steps anyone can take to begin the financial planning process.
- Gather information. This includes earning statements, bills and credit reports. Gather everything that has to do with your income.
- Determine your goals. Be specific. Write down your life goals for the short term and the long term.
- Assess the situation. Examine the information you’ve gathered. How does income compare to spending? How much debt do you have? How much are you saving?
- Create an action plan. Compare your assessment to your goals. Is there a path to reach those goals? Can you create a plan with better spending and savings habits?
- Execute the plan. A plan that isn’t executed is useless. Draw up a realistic timetable and commit to following through. Can someone help keep you accountable?
- Monitor the plan. Circumstances change in life; make adjustments as needed. Remain honest with yourself and your financial habits.
Accessing Disability Benefits
As Shepherd Center’s disability specialist, Robert Antonisse guides patients and their families through the process of applying for disability benefits – such as Social Security Disability Security Income (SSI) through Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare – that can help cover medical costs, loss of work and long-term expenses.
One of the first staff members that patients’ families meet, Antonisse answers questions and helps gather the paperwork and medical records needed to apply for benefits.
Below are a few facts to know when applying for disability benefits:
- Patients are eligible for Social Security disability benefits the month they apply. “So if you get hurt in March and don’t apply until April or May,” says Antonisse, “you’ve missed a couple months’ support. If people have no insurance, it’s really critical to do this as early as possible – especially for a young person who hasn’t worked enough to be eligible for work-based benefits and is relying on need alone.”
- If accepted, Social Security disability benefits can include Medicaid coverage and an additional monthly payment beginning the following month: $698 is the current monthly maximum. Patients’ children may also receive benefits.
- Disability benefits are available to patients who are unable to go back to work or are disabled for at least 12 months. Earning more than $1,000 annually is considered gainful employment. Though if you do go back to work after collecting SSDI, that doesn’t mean you automatically lose all benefits. “Call Social Security when you go back to work so they can place you in their Ticket to Work program,” Antonisse says. You may still be eligible for nine to 11 more months of SSDI benefits in addition to your salary. And if you relapse or lose your job in the next three years, you can automatically renew your disability benefits the very next month.
- For patients not at Shepherd Center, Antonisse advises visiting http://ssa/gov – the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration.
- What is the most important thing anybody can do long before a potentially life-changing injury or illness can occur? “If you’re eligible for long- and short-term disability coverage through your job, make sure you have it!” Antonisse says.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.