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Disability demand leads to delays, Ky. near top of list

by Joe Arnold

WHAS11.com

Posted on February 24, 2014 at 11:10 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 24 at 11:38 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- After 16 years working as a custodian at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, Jane Mason simply could not do her job any longer.

"My whole right side kept on getting numb," Mason recalled.  "I couldn't pick up my leg. I couldn't pick up my feet.  I had to keep on getting in and out of the hospital."

Now, two years later, and despite an inability to return to work, Mason has yet to be approved for federal disability benefits.  She has been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, a herniated disc on a nerve, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease and hepatitis.

"They send you a paper saying, 'Well, you're denied,'" Mason explained outside the Gene Snyder Federal Courthouse in downtown Louisville.  "And then they did it again.  I had to come up with some more stuff wrong with me."

Mason's attorney, Nathan Haney, said Mason's experience is typical of Social Security Disability claimants.

"You've got an initial decision.  You've got a reconsideration decision. You have a hearing decision," Haney said.  "You might have an appeal after that. You might have a federal court decision after that."

In Kentucky, 72 percent of initial disability applications are denied.

90 percent of reconsideration requests are denied.

In the next step - appeals before a judge - about 52 percent of those claims are awarded.

Yet that takes a while, anywhere from 6 to 17 months to get a hearing, according to figures updated online by the Social Security Administration.

In Louisville, the average wait for a disability hearing is 12 months.


"There are problems," said U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), "and I think if you look at the system, the system has become overburdened."

Overburdened as disability claims in the United States have tripled in the last thirty years - now nearly nine million recipients. 

Plus, as the unemployment rate increases, so do disability numbers.

"The economy is not what it once was," said Michael Sullivan of the Sullivan Law Office. "You have the aging baby boomers."

Founded by Sullivan's father in 1970, the law practice specializes in disability claims.  Sullivan said attorneys fees are regulated by the government, generally 25 percent of the back pay received by a disability client.  The fee is capped at $6,000.

According to federal records, about 210,000 Kentuckians currently receive disability benefits.

There are three zip codes in Kentucky with more than 2,000 recipients apiece, one in Bowling Green, one in Owensboro and in Louisville zip code 40216, the city of Shively area - with 2,200 disabled workers.

"It's giving away money and health benefits," Sullivan said.  "So it should come as no surprise you're going to have a lot of takers."

In Kentucky, the average monthly benefits are $805 for a single person and $1,200 for a disabled worker who is married and has 1 or 2 children.

As a percentage of population, Kentucky is tied with Alabama for the third highest rate of adults collecting disability benefits.  8.1 percent of Kentuckians between 18 and 64 are on disability.

West Virginia has the highest disability rate at 9 percent, while 8.2 percent of Arkansas residents between 18-64 collect disability.

"I think there are truly needy people out there but I think sometimes some able bodied people are soaking up some of the money that could go to more deserving people," Paul told WHAS11.  Paul has practiced ophthalmology in Bowling Green, Kentucky since 1993.

Paul suggested that disability recipients be required to undergo an exam by an independent doctor to weed out those who aren't "truly needy."

"Right now, actually, to get disability there's no pro-active exam required," Paul said.  "You have to show medical records, but you don't actually have to go to a doctor who specializes in disability and get an exam."

Yet, Sullivan suggested the grueling application process fleshes out cases without much merit.

"You have a certain class of people who are very legitimate and very deserving," Sullivan said.  "And you have some people who literally try to scam the system.  So the program does a lot of vetting or screening."

"The program works very hard to determine the cases with merit, get those paid and flesh out the ones that don't have as much merit," Sullivan continued.  "It takes time to do that and do that right.  And, by and large, I think the agency does a decent job with it but they take a lot of heat because it does take so long and people are just losing everything."

Sullivan said some of his clients are homeless.

Mason said she has relied on the kindness of family, "my family, sister, my son," and strangers as she awaits the approval of her benefits. 

"Make sure you keep yourself in good health," Mason said.  "Because it will be a long road if you don't."

The United States is paying out twice as much in disability claims today compared with just ten years ago.

Though some government watchdogs warn the Social Security trust fund is on pace to be exhausted by 2016, Sullivan warned about "crying wolf."

"The agency is not insolvent," Sullivan said.  "the trust funds are not going broke."
 

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