"I have photos of her face all bruised up because she got up in the middle of the night, had a seizure and fell into the dresser," said her daughter
Three seizures forced Sales, 53, a former
"She's not normal, that's all there is to it," said her uncle,
Despite these difficulties, one question has for four years consumed the thoughts of this college-educated woman who worked full time for 25 years while raising her daughter as a divorced, single mom.
Why is it taking the government so long to decide whether she is eligible to receive
"This is not right," Sales said, coming to tears. "This is not what we pay into
Sales' situation goes to the heart of problems that have plagued the
"The situation is really bad for the claimants right now. ... The bottom line is inadequate funding of
"Eight thousand people died during fiscal year 2016 who were waiting for a (disability) hearing," Ekman said. "That's 23 people a day, almost one an hour to get a hearing. ... We see people who lose their homes. We see people who are evicted. We see people who can't afford to pay for medications, who become very debilitated while they wait. It creates people who are homeless."
Some good news came this month when union officials representing federal workers were told that despite a federal hiring freeze, the
"One hundred new hires nationally won't make a huge dent, but it is certainly better than nothing," said
Numbers, experts say, tell part of the story.
The somewhat larger program is SSDI, or
Some 10.5 million people currently draw a monthly SSDI check averaging about
The problem: An overwhelming number of applications for disability -- about 2.3 million in 2016, up from 1.7 million in 2002 but down from a peak in 2010 -- flow into a system in which 77 percent of initial claims have, over the last decade, been denied. Moreover, the backlog of decisions on first-time claims is massive.
2.3 million people across the
23 percent of applicants win approval with their initial filing
1.1 million cases were backlogged in 2016, waiting to be heard by a judge
513 days, on average, to get a decision from a judge at the
When fiscal 2017 began in October, the number of first-time claims that had not been processed from the year before stood at more than 560,000, according to the
The backlog of cases being reconsidered, waiting to be heard by an administrative law judge, ballooned from 700,000 in 2010 to more than 1.1 million cases at the end of
In that same period, the average processing time it takes to see and get a decision from a judge has stretched from 426 days to more than 530 days. (At 513 days,
Even then, for those who persist, the odds of being approved by a judge are worse than a coin toss -- 44 percent nationally. In
"It's always been the case that's it not easy to get benefits," said
The reasons are many, he said, having to do with politics and personalities, policies as well as perceptions, including one on fraud that, fair or not, is long lasting.
"People have always complained," Berkowitz said, "about how hard it is for worthy people to get benefits, but how easy it seems for malingerers to get benefits."
The highest obstacle to receiving benefits, experts said, is meeting
"The definition of disability under
In determining eligibility, Colbert said,
If someone is working now and making more than about
It's a process, Berkowitz said, that is highly subjective. A manual laborer with an eighth-grade education and a serious muscular back injury, he said, is more likely to be approved than a worker, say, with an advanced degree who could be trained to do something else.
Younger workers, he said, are more likely to be turned down than workers ages 50 and up. Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act has transformed workplaces, it's also transformed attitudes about what individuals with disabilities can achieve.
"Who is to say that someone with an impairment is disabled?" Berkowitz said. "The classic example is someone gets infantile paralysis and (as
While judges can be tougher or more lenient in awarding disability, politicians can be the same as priorities and agendas change.
"The government really cracked down when
"The whole process stinks," she said recently. "And I'm putting it mildly."
The way Sales sees it, she paid into a system for more than 25 years -- longer if she counts high school.
"I worked from the time I was 15," she said.
A graduate with a bachelor of science degree from
They included stints at
"Growing up, my mom was really independent," said Sales' daughter, who now lives in
Sales said that if she could work, she would. But a rare hereditary disease has complicated matters.
Its primary hallmark: tumors and cysts in tissues and organ systems all over the body. Most of the time, they are not cancerous, but occasionally they can be, especially in the kidneys. Even when they're not cancerous, the masses can wreak havoc, as they have with Sales.
In the brain and spinal cord, they can cause headaches, vomiting, loss of muscle control, persistent dizziness and seizures. In the eyes (Sales estimates she's had more than two dozen eye surgeries) they can cause blindness.
"Some people will have their eyes removed," said
The masses can grow inside the pancreas, in the genital tract and in adrenal glands, where they can prompt surges in blood pressure, heart attacks or strokes.
That the disease can be a killer is undeniable. For Sales, the knowledge is intimate.
The disease killed her sister,
It killed her aunt
After 2010, Sales started a temporary job that she hoped might turn permanent. But then she suffered three seizures, including one while shopping at Wal-Mart.
"I didn't get hired," she said.
Her salary and savings dried up. She lost her
Sales said she used to bring in about
"I live on
Sales' initial application for disability was passed over in 2012 and denied by a judge in 2013. Some two years passed before she tried again and, again, she was denied by a judge in
The hearing was reset. In late April, with a new attorney, she is set to go before a judge in
Sales is hoping for the best. Her attorney gets paid (25 percent of the amount she is awarded, up to
Between now and then, Sales has another worry: Doctors recently found a fast-growing cyst on her right kidney with cells that may be cancerous. Her surgery is scheduled at
"I just have never wanted to be seen as a pity party," Sales said. "I never thought I'd be getting food stamps or
Her ankles are so swollen with fluid she has a hard time standing and walking.
Her short-term memory has withered. Her uncle thinks there are signs now of some early dementia.
Sales doesn't know what will happen at her disability hearing. Her uncle is convinced that his niece not only is incapable of working, but also, given her problems with memory and seizures, that no one would hire her.
"I wouldn't hire her," McVey said.
But if she is ultimately told by a judge that she's not too disabled to work, Sales said her response will be direct.
"Doing what?" she said. "Tell me. What do you think I can do?"
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