Let’s Look At The Social Security Administration

We’ve all heard on the news about the long wait for disability payments, as experienced by many claimants.

Hell, yes, it’s bad – but I’m not disabled, so I’m not bothered. It can’t happen to me.

But it can happen, even to the most selfish of individuals, like me. The plain fact is, anyone of us can become disabled at any time, through sickness or accident. Then we may suffer like Robert Veneziali of New York state.

From the Times Herald-Record, March 28th, 2008:

“With some high-profile intervention, electrician Robert Veneziali is about to get the disability benefits he deserves.

Veneziali hated going on disability. He’s worked all his life and he’s proud of it. But the type of multiple sclerosis he suffers from is unpredictable. One day he was fine, the next, he had hardly enough strength to call for help.

So when he called for help to the agency designed to provide working people with exactly that, he was devastated when that agency decided he wasn’t sick enough to qualify for benefits.

Try back in another 18 months, they said. But he had a wife and three kids to support.

Veneziali’s mother, Elaine, who had seen her son consumed by the disease, was having none of it. Last January, she called Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains, who had seen a report alleging that a bureaucratic “culture of denial” permeated some Social Security Administration offices.

Hall paid a well-publicized visit to Elaine Veniziali’s home in February. He called her son’s treatment “unconscionable.” He threatened a federal inquiry.

Wednesday, Veneziali learned his appeal had been approved for disability benefits by an SSA review board. The benefits are retroactive to August, when he first applied for them. He’ll get about $1,300 a month, plus about $1,200 for the kids.

The payment of roughly $25,000 will allow Veneziali to do what he couldn’t do in December: give his kids a Christmas.

“It’s going to be a belated Christmas, but it’s gonna be a good one,” he said.”

Veneziali eventually got his entitlement, but how many disabled people are able to contact their political representative and achieve that sort of result? How many congressmen would be prepared to take the trouble on behalf of just one individual?

Would yours?

Suppose you were too sick to make the effort and had no-one to fight on your behalf? You could end up like LeeAnn Janke from Minnesota who waited two years for a disability check from Social Security:

From KaalTV, March 27th, 2008:

“One woman, barely able to dress herself, had to wait two years for just one disability check. Social Security says the reason is because its offices are backed up.

Earlier this month, Senator Norm Coleman added his name to the list of U.S. Senators pushing for a 2009 appropriations bill with more necessary money going to Social Security disability offices.

Fifty-four-year-old LeeAnn Janke finds it difficult to do daily tasks anymore.

“I have fibromyalgia, I have osteoarthritis, I have problems with my neck,” she says.

While waiting two years for money from the government, she had to rely on her husband’s paycheck and insurance for living expenses and the numerous medical bills.

“Each bill is like $2,000 or $3,000 at a time.”

This year, there were about 4,000 new disability cases in Minnesota.

But the one office in Minneapolis that deals with these cases is so backed up, more than 10,000 cases, like Janke’s, are pending……..

“People are dying while waiting to get a decision on their disability benefits and it’s just a horrible situation,” says Dan Allsup of Allsup Social Security Disability Representation.”

Some would consider LeeAnn Janke to be fortunate. At least she had her husband’s pay check to fall back on. Rick Shaglia didn’t. His only income was his disability check:

From Melanie Payne, News-Press, March 27th, 2008 (reproduced almost in its entirety):

“Rick Shagla can’t walk. The stiff fingers of his hands are splayed at odd angles, making his handwriting illegible.

He’s lost sensation in his extremities. If he can’t see his hands and feet, he loses where they are. Unless he’s paying attention, he could place his hand on the burner of a hot stove and he wouldn’t know it.

Shagla was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1987. He then had testicular cancer. He continued to develop neuro-muscular problems and needed a wheelchair.

In 2002, the Social Security Administration deemed Shagla permanently disabled, granting him full benefits and Medicare eligibility. By 2008, he was receiving $2,487 a month.

Then, in February, Shagla got a letter saying that his Social Security Disability payments had been miscalculated over the past six years. He’d been overpaid, on average, by $1,200 a month.

Not only would his payments be cut to $1,100 a month, he also owed the agency $83,252.

Sometimes when people call me, I can hear so much panic in their voices that it scares me. Shagla’s call was one of those.

This was a desperate man.

He’d been evicted. He couldn’t pay his Medicare supplemental health insurance.

“They just ripped my life apart,” the 47-year-old man said as he sat surrounded by moving boxes. “I’ll end up going to a nursing home.”

I called Social Security in Atlanta and spoke with Patti Patterson. After a week or so, she called me back.

“Good news,” Patterson said. “It was a mistake.”

Patterson said Shagla would get his money for March in a couple of weeks, and in April, he’d be reinstated to his previous level of benefits.

“This is rare,” Patterson said of the error made in Shagla’s benefit change. “We have told him we’re sorry.”

I got lost in Patterson’s explanation of how the mistake was made. But that’s OK. I don’t need to know how it happened.

I did wonder, however, how often it happens and how long it takes to fix if you don’t have The News-Press calling Social Security for a statement?

The answer: All the time and forever.”

Mistakes do occur all the time. Is it because the SSA staff are incompetent? Usually, no, but they are grossly overworked and stressed out. The reason is not complex, as some higher up the SSA management ladder would have us believe. It’s very, very, simple. In fact, there are two equally simple reasons that, in combination, explain why the system is broken. The first is a squeeze by Congress, over many years, on funding for the Administration.

“Get by on less”, has been the call from those who never, ever, have to get by on less, and willingly sanction billions for foreign wars, but never for the benefit of their own people.

The second reason stems from abominable leadership and management practices, from the top of the Social Security management ladder way down to the very bottom – those in charge of field offices.

While there are obviously some competent managers at field level, many are just sitting it out for their retirement (pensions are calculated on salary for the last three years of employment) with little regard for staff welfare, or the efficient running of their offices.

Further up the ladder, “statistics” is the name of the game. Never mind the humane aspect, all that matters is producing figures to make the next-level senior manager look good. Consequently, over-stretched field-office staff are forced to concentrate on meaningless paperwork while benefit claims sit idly by, untouched.

Rather than take on more staff, senior management now employ an ‘overtime regime’. Stressed out workers, dealing daily with angry members of the public who have no-one else on whom to vent their frustrations, once had the luxury of a weekend off to unwind. Now, they are expected to work ten hour days and turn in on Saturdays, not necessarily to catch up on benefit claims, but to bolster the statistics necessary to make senior management look good to those at the top, who determine SSA’s efficiency entirely by its statistics.

To add insult to injury, top grade workers with many years of vital experience in handling complex claims, are being forced to spend much of their valuable time on menial duties, once the job of minor clerks and receptionists no longer employed, and not being replaced, by SSA.

$50-an-hour experts doing the work of $12-an-hour employees!

Where, oh where, has the sanity gone?

Above, I published an excerpt from a Melanie Payne article in News-Press. I noted the article was “reproduced almost in its entirety”. I left out the ending. Here it is:

“According to Douglas Mohney, an attorney with the Avard Law Offices in Cape Coral, Social Security is, “an incredibly complex system and tens of thousands of people a year get hung up by not quite knowing the rules since no one gives a complete explanation.”

People receiving benefits can suddenly stop getting them…….and it takes years to have them reinstated.

Other people trying to qualify for benefits are repeatedly denied and have to wait for a hearing before an administrative law judge, Mohney said.

Getting a hearing can take years. One of Mohney’s clients applied for Social Security Disability in 2005. His hearing is scheduled for April 1.

“He’s on a cane, and he’s been homeless four or five times,” Mohney said.

Many of his clients die while waiting.

When I was talking to Mohney, he had on his desk the file of a woman who had been waiting three years for a hearing. She had a number of health problems, including depression.

Mohney had just received notice that her hearing had been scheduled for April.

But she won’t need it.

She committed suicide.”

This poor woman was anonymous. We’ll never know who it was. One day, it could be me, or maybe even, you.

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6 Replies to “Let’s Look At The Social Security Administration”

  1. I could tell you at least half a dozen other horror stories about the social insecurity administration just from personal experiences with people I’ve known. The “culture of denial” is so routine that attorneys and pro-bono volunteers who help individuals with the application and hearing process will warn them that their initial claim will be denied…does not matter if one is on death’s door or has no limbs at all, they will deny the initial claim.

    What is even more sickening to me is the fact that a huge percentage of Americans know full well that this is the case but simply do not care as long as it does not affect them directly. They only start caring when it hits them.

  2. **their initial claim will be denied…does not matter if one is on death’s door or has no limbs at all, they will deny the initial claim.**

    Though things in the UK are not anywhere near as bad as they appear to be in the US, I can assure everyone that the strict “first refusal” policy is ruthlessly applied here too. However, that’s always officially denied of course.

    I suppose the only real consolation is that some civil service “jobsworths” who unquestioningly help implement this appalling practice, will one day (by the law of averages), experience some of the sufferings caused by such a system themselves.

  3. NYM – SSA is now, finally…..finally, turning round and saying they will fastrack claims for those in dire need (read: dying). Whether that will prove the case, only time will tell.

    TOB – from my experience of British social security it is nowhere near as bad as in the US, though I agree the “first refusal” policy is fairly routine. I’m afraid those who set these policies are far too well off to ever be inconvenienced by claim denials. Anyway, with their connections they’d doubtless be rushed through the system as priority cases.

  4. This was wrenching, RJA. A “why don’t they all just FOAD” philosophy sweeping across the bureaucracy, and sure enough, it works. They do die if kept waiting long enough.

  5. WWW – I suppose that philosophy is one way to counteract the ‘baby-boomer’ bubble, that Congress expects to make a big hole in the Social Security fund. And as Bush has robbed borrowed most of it to fight his war, it makes sense to claw back as much as possible from those who are going to die soon anyway, and so don’t really need it. After all, what does it matter if they expire under some interstate bridge somewhere, due to eviction, rather than in their own homes? Dead is dead, isn’t it?

    And don’t anyone dare tell me there are no members of Congress who have that mindset.

  6. I myself was forced to go on disability a little over 2 years ago due to Kidney failure and heart problems. I was one of the fortunate ones in that I did not have to wait to get qualified for the reason that kidney failure is one of SSA automatic approvals.
    However, I would much rather have my kidneys and be able to work. The so called disability check might be enough to sustain a person in the 40’s and 50’s but, it is a joke nowadays. It comes in one day and by the same days end it is mostly gone just by paying bills. And not all bills get paid.
    Then to top it off if you die before your scheduled check payment then your spouse or someone has to send the check back. That sucks since you may be leaving a family behind. What are they to do?
    Beter stop for now before I get to riled up, I just dont have much for the SSA or the Government when they let their own people die and dang near starve the rest of us but can find over $346 BILLION to give to the immigrants every year. Why don’t they think as much of us when we have and are paying in the taxes that funds SS and “their” paychecks.

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