My Disabled Government

March 10, 2010

I am on pins and needles at the moment. And it’s not an Indian fakir’s trick, either. Just a fact of my existence for the past 11 months.

I have a couple of disorders, you see. A well-controlled seizure disorder, and a profound hearing loss. Both have affected me greatly in life, limiting my choices and stunting many opportunities for me early on. I kind of pat myself on the back that I got as far as I did; many with significant life-limiting problems never do.

It all came crashing down for me in January, 2009, though. I had just taken a job with Garner EMS and Rescue, and I was on top of the world. New job, great pay, great place to work, nice employers. Then, after many years of being seizure-free, the condition reared its ugly head at work and sent me to the hospital on one of the very ambulances I worked on.

Long story short, I lost my job shortly afterward. My doc greatly increased my medications (up from the dosages I’d taken for many years) and I became a walking zombie.

With my hearing so bad, and my seizures back in the picture, and not being able to or cleared for work, I realized my only option at the time was to apply for disability.

Thus began my nightmare. I entered the tunnel.

I think that’s an apt description. A life formerly characterized by the normal brightness of human existence is reduced to trudging through the dim halls of government bureaucracies.  It begins by going to the Social Security Administration and applying. Believe me, they want to know everything about you. I also had to address my new lack of health insurance. I also applied for Medicaid, believing like most folks it is for folks who are in destitute situations who cannot afford regular health insurance. COBRA is a joke. Yes, I could elect to continue my nice Blue Cross health insurance, but how does one afford the $500 plus premiums when one does not have a job?

So, armed with my information, I went to the county satellite office to apply for Medicaid.  That wasn’t easy. But I have a life-threatening condition, and it must be treated with medication. So, as much as I hated the thought of being on the public dole, what choice did I have? No job, I wasn’t allowed to drive, no insurance, and no clearance to work.

The caseworker was rather obnoxious. She smiled politely and said, “Your application for Medicaid is denied. You must be disabled to receive Medicaid, and they have not approved you for disability yet.”

“Okay. But if they approve it, then I’m eligible for Medicaid?”

“Yes, then you can collect Medicaid. However in your case, if you apply again, we will issue another denial at that time.”


“Yes, you see, under Medicaid guidelines, you will make too much money on disability to be eligible for Medicaid.”

“But you just said I had to be on disability to get Medicaid.”

“Yes, but you will earn more than the maximum allowed. So at that point we will deny you and close your file.”

Riiiighhhht. I walked out of there totally befuzzled. I have worked hard all my life. I have worked well over 30 years, putting myself through school and holding full-time jobs since I graduated. One period of unemployment in 1991, for six months. Then hard work ever since. I have paid into the system for many years. And yet I’m penalized for doing the right thing. As my lawyer told me later, those who work less, spend more time on welfare and generally spend their lives as guests of the system seem to get all the benefits.

Back to my case. I applied for disability and began the waiting process. I got a letter in late summer. My application for disability was denied. I can think, reason and communicate, they said.

Did they even read my application? That was my whole application basis. No, I can’t think, reason and communicate like I used to. That has all been stripped away. My mind only functions well a few hours a day; the rest I’m more or less in a sedated funk. By then, I’d heard enough about the system to realize I needed a lawyer.

Among the things various people told me: they deny everyone outright. They will not approve unless you have a lawyer. They are trying to discourage people from applying by making it hard on them. And so on. I hired Mr. Michael Duncan, a very experienced lawyer who used to be a Social Security Disability examiner. Mr. Duncan and his wife, Mel, helped me understand the process better. They don’t always “read” your application. They are just looking for keywords and phrases in the documents. In other words, you can write a book on me, but it won’t fly. Just type: profoundly hearing-impaired, seizure disorder, significant sedation from medication, and nothing else, and your chances go way up. They work with doctors and others to get the wording just right before it’s sent to Social Security.

We appealed the decision. I waited again. And waited. And waited. In November, 2009, I get the letter. Denied again. Mel Duncan called to ask me what to do. “Do you want us to file the next appeal?”

“Yeah, why not? Go ahead,” I said. A week later, she called, and said it had been filed. “This is your best chance to be approved. Many, many cases are denied on the first application and appeal. But when it goes to administrative review, a judge will review your case and decide if they were wrong. And if so, you will win. Most of our cases are won there.” Great, so how long will it take, I asked her.

“Your case will probably come up in eighteen to twenty-months, give or take.”

I hung up the phone shaking my head. No damn way could I wait that long. I have bills to pay and my creditors are starting to get itchy about it. There was no choice in the matter. I had to find some kind of work.

Or start robbing banks. Preferring the legitimate route, I did manage to find a part time job in late January.

Then, I got a letter from the Social Security folks. My administrative review was coming up March 8, 2010. What??

I fired off a quick email to Mr. Duncan, wondering what kind of magic he had performed to get it moved up. He emailed back and asked me to come in. We met a few days later and we reviewed the case. He told me he was as surprised as I was, but he believed that it was moved up because the SSA is under significant pressure from Washington to do something about the backlog of cases on the dockets. Whatever the case, we were now at the top of the list.

The hearing was yesterday. A short, simple process. We entered a tiny courtroom and I was sworn in. The judge made a few opening remarks and asked me to identify myself for the record, and he then made a few comments, and asked my lawyer to present the case. Following that, he asked my lawyer to ask some questions, standard questions they ask in each case. I answered them, and then the judge asked if I had anything I wished to say. I just reiterated my key points… “Being severely hearing impaired is very tiring. You have to be highly focused all day long, reading body language, reading lips, looking for context clues, then trying to focus on the sounds to understand what is said to you. It means constantly multi-tasking and that is very tiring and exhausting, but that is normal for hearing impaired folks. If you add to that mix significant doses of medication which impair your mental faculties, you lose that ability to focus for any length of time, and meaningful communication is impossible.”

My lawyer jumped in and said, “That is a key point of our case, Your Honor, and that is something I had never realized in all the years I’ve done this, but it makes perfect sense, if you’ve lost your hearing you must have pretty good concentration to be able to compensate for the loss of auditory hearing, and that’s been disrupted for him. And too, he is right on the line of what we consider disabled with his hearing, anyway. Just slightly more and it would be automatic for him.”

The judge nodded and said, “I have enough information at this time to make my decision. My decision will be in writing and will be mailed to you both within thirty days. Court is adjourned. ”

Mr. Duncan pulled me out and into a conference room. “Do you remember when we met I said to watch for him to cut it short?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, that’s just what happened. He never called on the vocational expert and we never got to Step Five of the hearing, he cut it off after Step Three. That is usually a very good sign.”

“So you think we won?”

“I can’t say. But I would say your chances are better than 50-50 at this point.”

Ahh.  So after a year, I perhaps, could-be, just possibly maybe, am seeing light at the end of this tunnel.  And so–again–I wait. I don’t want to believe. I can’t hope. Yeah, it would be nice to know I’ve won. But I won’t believe it until I see it.  So many questions linger, though.

Why is this process so crazy? There is nothing to catch folks like me who can’t work (and no, in the months following the seizure I was in no shape to be doing anything for a while, mainly because of the heavy sedation from the medications). If you lose your home, tough. If your car is repossessed, tough. If you can’t pay for medications and treatments, tough. And of course, if you have a job, that is proof positive you aren’t disabled. That last part, I’ll buy.  If you have a full-time job then you can’t really say you’re disabled. But once you’re out of work due to a medical issue, then it would seem that some kind of short-term disability would be helpful in enabling people to stay afloat. Or at least lessen the severity of the impact when you do fall flat on your financial face. But there isn’t anything for that.

Another issue. Medicaid isn’t a great program, but it does help a number of people. So why am I not able to collect it when so many others, who paid far less into the system than I did, do collect? The more you pay in, the less you qualify for Medicaid. The less you pay, the more you qualify.  On disability, your income is based on how much you paid into Social Security over the years. So someone who barely worked and only made minimum wage at that, gets Medicaid. I did the right things, and held good jobs, and I’m penalized at crunch time for that. Can I cry “foul!” here?

The process is too long, too cumbersome, and weighted on the wrong end of need. I have seen a good number of disability recipients who don’t really have disabilities. They have “mood swings.” Or they have a bad back. One guy on disability for a bad back came to buy a car from me. He didn’t have any trouble moving around, you could say. I wonder, how do they make these decisions?

I don’t know. Mr. Duncan told me my education will count against me. I have a master’s degree. What in the world does that have to do with my current health status? Nothing as far as I can tell. I get that they might assume that someone with education might be more likely to find a different job.

Not if you are truly disabled.

Again, the less you’ve worked, if you are a chronic addict, if you have less than a high school education, then your chances of getting disability will quadruple. Why is this?

A key point: this is not welfare. This is about life-limiting ailments and losses of function that prevent full-time employment, and this is what all Americans pay for in our social security taxes. I just happened to have two major conditions (plus a third, depression). I can’t see being back at a full-time job in this sedated, deaf condition. So, I am asking the government to help me out. It’s what I’ve paid for all these years.

I myself had given up. I didn’t expect to ever see the judge. As hard as it was, I had just found a small part-time job (didn’t really pan out, but it was a start).  Problem was, as far as full-time work, I just couldn’t find anything I could do.

But my case came up much, much faster than the norm, and I was heard. And once again, I wait, hoping that this time, my government won’t act as disabled and unfocused as I am, and will do the right thing.


2 Responses to “My Disabled Government”

  1. Christy Williams Says:

    Morris, I had a similar experience with Medicaid. After my Diabetic DKA, I went to apply, a truly humiliating experience, I was told if I had a child I would qualify. I asked her did it look like I should be having children right now and she stated that was the only way I would qualify. Our system is totally screwed up.
    Good Luck with your case!

  2. ResueMo Says:

    Yeah, even a partial coverage would be a big help, for instance if one has life-threatening conditions, like you and I do, then having coverage for only those conditions (limited to only those without other forms of health-insurance) would be big help. Wouldn’t help if I got cancer, for example, but would help me get meds until I got my own insurance. But they typically approach things with an all or nothing mentality, as you well know!

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