LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Lakewood resident Renee Flores used to be a sheet metal worker. She also once operated forklifts and drove for a company.
"I love working. I miss it, I miss it so much," Flores said. "But now, I'm in constant pain."
Her medical records show a series of chronic health conditions — including degenerative disc disease, sciatica, stenosis of the spine, diabetes, neuropathy, arthritis — have made it increasingly difficult for her to keep working. So, Flores applied for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) in July 2021.
It took almost a year and a half to get an answer. That delay, Flores says, resulted in her becoming homeless.
"You think that when you turn your paperwork in that somebody's doing something for you," said Flores.
While she waited, Flores had no income to pay rent or housing costs.
"How are you supposed to live with no income? I was a worker. If I could work today, I would," she said.
Attorney Jennifer Morgan, who founded Impact Disability Law, specializes in helping people with disabilities apply for Social Security benefits.
"If you look at the numbers overall, Colorado is one of the states where it takes a lot longer just to get your claims moved through the process, but the Lakewood office is extreme," said Morgan.
Morgan says what has always been a long process now takes twice as long. Flores' case is an example of why.
"We had to re-fax the same paperwork six times over a period of about six months," the attorney explained. "But it's not just the faxing. It's calling, 'Did you receive the fax? No, we haven't received the fax,' Even my staff, when they call into the field office, they will wait on hold for sometimes an hour — if the call is even answered at all."
The Social Security Administration (SSA) declined an interview, but in a statement to Contact Denver7, Shayla Hagburg, the SSA regional communications director for the Denver and Seattle regions, wrote, “We acknowledge that wait times for an answer on a disability claim are far too long across the Social Security Administration."
While Hagburg did not directly address issues at the Lakewood field office, she addressed the nationwide delays, blaming:
- Insufficient funding
- Staffing shortages and changes
- Training requirements for new hires
- Technology challenges.
Hagburg's statement said the SSA is "laying the foundation for improved services by rebuilding our workforce after ending (fiscal year) 2022 at our lowest staffing level in over 25 years driven by years of funding levels below the President’s Budget. However, it will take time and resources for these new hires to become proficient. Service improvement will be a multi-year effort requiring sufficient, sustained funding to reduce wait times and backlogs, especially since each year we serve more beneficiaries."
In his fiscal year 2024 budget, President Joe Biden requested $14.8 billion for the SSA, an increase of $1.4 billion from last year to address claims backlogs.
Morgan said the entire process, including appeals, used to take 12 to 18 months. But now, she is warning clients in the Lakewood office that it could take three to four years, during which they must use other resources in the community to survive.
Flores said her initial case was eventually denied, and she is waiting again for an appeal.
"I have nowhere to lay my head," she said. "I want people to know we're not just numbers, and we're not just pieces of paper. We're actually human beings."
How to expedite your claim
The SSA does list medical conditions that qualify for expedited claims as part of its compassionate allowances list.
If you have a severe physical or mental impairment, the agency may find you have a presumptive disability and qualify for benefits earlier. Veterans designated by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as 100% impaired will also have priority. You can find more informationhere.
Social Security may also fast-track your application if you're in extreme financial straits. The agency considers a claimant a Dire Need Case if you are unable to get food, housing or medical care because of a lack of resources.
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