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Much-delayed disability benefits taking toll on people desperately needing Social Security

Disability applicants reduced to tears and unpaid bills while Social Security struggles to serve perople
Posted at 5:58 PM, Jan 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-05 19:53:02-05

CLEVELAND — This week people on Social Security got an 8.7% increase in payments. It’s a big boost when the system works the way it’s supposed to, but often it doesn’t. News 5 Investigators have been reporting on Social Security problems for years, even taking your complaints straight to Washington, D.C. during our Social Insecurity series. Now, new problems face the administration and people are suffering.

“It’s hard,” said Debra Fitch from Lorain as she wiped away tears. “I try to be patient.”

But the patience can only last so long for her.

“It’s like really aggravating…(I’m) angry. I had a lot of emotions,” Fitch told us.

She said she paid into the Social Security system her whole life.

“I’ve always worked until I got sick with my legs and my feet,” Fitch said.

She told us she was no longer able to work, and the home that she wasn’t really able to live in was falling apart.

“I had no water for like 2 years. The roofing was bad. The ceiling caved in in the kitchen,” said Fitch.

She applied for Social Security disability benefits to help her just get by.

“Every time they wanted something from me from Social Security, I was real prompt…sent it in, took it down there,” she explained.

However, when it was time to pay her, there always seemed to be issues with the Social Security Administration (SSA).

“I was never getting nowhere with Social Security, you know?” said Fitch. “They just kept putting roadblocks up.”

SHE IS NOT ALONE

Months went by, and no benefits came for Fitch. And she is not alone.

“It’s rough for a lot of people. I know some of them personally, you know?” she said, wiping away more tears.

“I have a bone disease, amongst other things, and my body just won’t let me work anymore,” said Elvin Spriggs from West Porthsmouth, Ohio, near the Kentucky border. He told us at one point he was living under the Green Lawn Avenue Bridge in Columbus for a while.

“You can’t sleep because you don’t know who’s coming around the next corner. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter,” he explained.

Thankfully, a friend took Spriggs in as he fought to get his approved Social Security benefits. The whole ordeal lasted nearly 4 years, he said.

“That’s the barrier between me and my own place,” said Spriggs. “I’m not trying to get rich. I just want what’s owed to me. I put in 35 years for Ohio and this is what I got,” he added.

DISABILITY ADVOCATES BATTLE SSA PROBLEMS

“Our taxpayers, our elderly, our disabled and the dependent children thereof are suffering,” said April Roberts, President of Princeton Disability Advocates in Olmsted Falls. She and her staff go to bat for people like Fitch and Spriggs, helping them through the Social Security proceedings. However, there are real problems at the Social Security offices.

“‘Send me this and this and this’… I’ve sent it 20 times to 20 different people!” said Roberts of the process.

She told us sometimes she can’t get through to Social Security call centers. Claims are just sitting there, and when she has conversations with local field offices, more problems are mentioned.

“‘April, we’re down 50% and we’re covering for some of our other field offices out there that are down in staff and are behind… and we can’t keep up with the influx of the applications,’” said Roberts about what she’s hearing from SSA employees.

The problems have been labeled by some media outlets as a “crisis” drawing “scrutiny.” News 5 asked SSA for an on-camera interview but were denied. We did confirm with the administration that some clients are waiting at least six months to get a decision about disability status and then more time to process the additional steps.

“(It’s) really unfair for you to have to go through that whole process,” Roberts said.

SSA LACKS EMPLOYEES, SEES CLAIM INCREASES

SSA also told us it’s lost 4,000 employees since the pandemic, including a 20% drop in the Columbus office that serves Ohio.

Plus, our research shows 30 years ago, nearly 4.9 million people were getting disability benefits. Last year, it was up to 9.2 million with a peak of nearly 11 million in 2013.

In addition, COVID had even more impacts on disability applicants.

“We have ongoing neurological, we have ongoing pulmonary issues that have, unfortunately, caused people to become disabled,” Roberts said.

SSA said it needs more money that would help with better recruiting, and increased hiring, training and retention.

For some, the excuses are wearing thin.

“I’ve had the same story for almost a year. (The SSA employee helping me) blows me off every time I go to his office,” said a frustrated Spriggs.

Meanwhile, Roberts is witnessing homeless veterans needing help.

“He’s covered in bites,” she said of one veteran, pointing to her neck. “You see somebody who has been choosing, literally choosing between food and medicine.”

For people like Fitch, it’s been a long, painful path.

“I’m grateful for having the patience, but I don’t think (the process is) right,” she told us.

Thankfully, between our interviews with Fitch and Spriggs, News 5 contacting SSA, and today, Fitch is now getting some benefits, and Spriggs finally got his $5,000.

SSA provided the following statement in lieu of an on-camera interview:

“The Social Security Administration (SSA) is taking a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to reduce the backlog of disability cases that developed during the pandemic. This strategy includes immediate action using specialized teams of current and recently retired SSA employees with disability experience to assist the state disability determination services (DDS) in processing cases, analyses to determine the drivers of the backlog and solutions, a hiring surge to address attrition among state disability examiners, and a comprehensive assessment of the disability process.”

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