Last year, David Richards was at his job as a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken when he got a call from his doctor's office. After routine blood work, Richards was told to go to the hospital. There was a serious problem with his test results.
"I needed a blood transfusion," he says. "Between June 13th and probably around June 16th, I had around eight of them."
Further testing showed that Richards, who was just 40 years old, had Stage 3 colon cancer.
He started chemotherapy. Then radiation. Then a second round of chemo. He hasn't worked in over a year.
Someone at the welfare office told him about Social Security disability income.
When someone gets sick or disabled and can no longer work, they can turn to Social Security and ask for disability benefits. For Richards, it would pay him about $1,000 a month.
A Long Wait
But it can take a year or more to go through the complicated hearing process and get the benefits. By then, some applicants have already lost their homes, or even died.
Now efforts by Social Security and Congress to reduce the backlog are threatened by a new problem — the poor economy.
When Richards applied for benefits a year ago, he was denied. When he appealed, he was denied again. "Everything was over the phone," he says. "I just filed the paperwork and mailed it back to them. I never once [saw] anybody in person."
Richards hired a lawyer, who asked for the next step: A hearing in front of a judge. Attorney John Bednarz says it can take more than a year to get a hearing where they live in Pennsylvania.
A chart from the Social Security Administration shows that it takes about 437 days for a hearing to be scheduled at the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., office. That's not bad, by comparison to other offices, Bednarz says.
"There are some offices that I have seen that are in excess of 800 days," he says.
Baby Boomers, Economy Weigh Down Program
The Social Security Administration has struggled with growing waiting lists of people seeking disability benefits. As the baby boom generation got older, more people got sick and disabled — and applied for benefits.
Social Security Deputy Commissioner David Foster says there are even more requests in a bad economy. "We expect those numbers will go up very much in the next few years because of the recession," he says. "There's usually a correlation between the unemployment rate and then the amount of disability claims that we have."
One reason may be that people with disabilities and illness often try to keep working as long as they can. And when they lose a job, they have difficulty finding a new one.
Social Security's rules are strict: To get disability benefits, applicants must prove that they can't do any work of any kind. That's one reason getting benefits is complicated and, for most people, takes multiple appeals.
One and a half million Americans are now waiting for a decision. The backlog hit a peak late last year — and then started to drop. Social Security has used teleconferences and other innovations to speed things up. And Congress came through with money to hire 7,000 employees.
But there's another problem that Social Security can't control. Ethel Zelenske of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, a group of attorneys and advocates who represent people seeking benefits, notes that Social Security pays for employees in state governments to handle the first applications for benefits.
"In the states, because of their own budget crises, they're either furloughing or laying off or there's a hiring freeze on all state employees," she says, "including those state agency workers that make the disability determinations for SSA, and that is really a big concern right now."
That makes the wait longer for people like Richards. Without disability benefits, he survives on $400 a month in welfare and food stamps. He's months behind his rent.
"My blood pressure goes sky high," he says. "I'm on blood pressure pills now because of it all. You get down sometimes with it, it just gets to you — worrying about the bills, paying the rent and stuff."
Richards says he worries more about paying his bills than he worries about his cancer. "The cancer right now, they're taking care of it. So I feel like that's pretty well under control. It's the other stuff, the bills and stuff, I worry about more."
The Social Security office where Richards lives recently hired five new judges. The other day, Richards heard that he'd finally get his hearing with one of the new judges on Oct. 1. That's 15 months after he stopped working.