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When someone gets sick or disabled and they can no longer work, they can turn to Social Security and ask for disability benefits. But it can take a year or more to get those benefits. And by then, some people have lost their homes or even died. Now efforts to reduce the backlog are threatened by a new problem, the poor economy.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Last year David Richards(ph) was at his job as a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken when he got the call from his doctor's office. There was a serious problem with his test results.

Mr. DAVID RICHARDS: Well, it started on June 13th last year. I went for blood work - routine blood work. 'Was at work and I got a call from my doctor saying I go to the hospital, I need a blood transfusion - which between June 13th and probably around June 16th I had eight of them.

SHAPIRO: Further testing showed that Richards, who was just 40 years old, had stage III colon cancer. He started chemotherapy, then radiation, then a second round of chemo. He hasn't worked in over a year.

It was someone at the welfare office who told him about Social Security disability income. It would pay him about $1,000 a month if he could no longer work. But when he applied a year ago, he was denied. When he appealed, he was denied again.

Mr. RICHARDS: Everything was over the phone. I just filed the paperwork and mailed it back to them. I never once seen anybody in person.

SHAPIRO: Richards hired a lawyer, who asked for the next step: a hearing in front of a judge. Attorney John Bendarn(ph) says it can take more than a year to get a hearing where they live in Pennsylvania.

Mr. JOHN BENDARN (Attorney): There is a chart that comes out from the Social Security Administration for the entire country, and at this point, the Lewisberry office is actually in a pretty good placement. There are about 437 or so days from request for hearing until a hearing being scheduled. There are some offices that I have seen that are in excess of 800 days.

SHAPIRO: 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. One-and-a-half million Americans are now waiting for a decision.

Social Security Deputy Commissioner David Foster says there are even more requests in a bad economy.

Deputy Commissioner DAVID FOSTER (Social Security Administration): We expect those numbers will go up very much in the next few years because of the recession. There's usually a correlation between the unemployment rate and then the amount of disability claims that we have.

SHAPIRO: One reason maybe 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, an applicant has to prove that they can't do work of any kind, and that's one reason getting benefits is complicated, and, for most people, takes multiple appeals.

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 new employees. But there's another problem that Social Security can't control.

Ethel Zelenske is at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives. Those are the attorneys who represent people seeking benefits. She notes that Social Security pays for employees and state governments to handle the first applications for benefits.

Ms. ETHEL ZELENSKE (National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives): 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, including those state agency workers that make the disability determinations for SSA. And that is really a big concern right now.

SHAPIRO: That makes the wait longer for people like David Richards. Without disability benefits, he survives on $400 a month in welfare and food stamps. He's months behind on the rent he owes his landlady.

Mr. RICHARDS: My blood pressure goes sky high. I'm out of blood pressure pills now because of it. You get down sometimes with it. It just gets to you. Worrying about the bills, paying the rent and stuff.

SHAPIRO: Are you worried about that more than you're worried about the cancer?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah. The cancer right now, they're taking care of it. So, I figure, like, that's pretty well, you know, under control. It's the other stuff, the bills and stuff, I worry about more.

SHAPIRO: 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 October 1st. That's 15 months after he stopped working.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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