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updated: 1/13/2018 5:16 PM

Constable: 2½ years after applying for Social Security disability, finally a hearing

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By Burt Constable

Once whimsical, the "Golfers Welcome" sign hanging near Cheryl Watson's front door in Hainesville now mocks her.

"I miss it so bad," says Watson, 56, who can't even remember when she grudgingly added golfing to the heartbreaking list of things she's given up because of the chronic aliments and constant pain that forced her into the lengthy process of applying for Social Security disability benefits. "There's a whole lot cut out of my life."

Growing up in Wauconda and Round Lake Beach, Watson played softball, volleyball and basketball and ran track during her years at Grayslake High School. She got an associate degree in physical education and recreation in 1982 from the College of Lake County. As an adult, she was a shortstop and outfielder in softball tournaments and paid the price physically "until my husband took my softball equipment away," Watson says.

Even a game where the most famous player was called "Minnesota Fats" became too physical for her. "I used to shoot competitive pool," Watson says. "After my second or third back fusion, I couldn't bend over and lean to make the shots."

The pool table in her basement now serves as a makeshift shelf for boxes housing dozens of braces and brackets, compression sleeves and stabilizers, pillows and padded seats. Her refrigerator and freezer are filled with gel packs.

She can't sit for more than a few minutes without pain.

"I've had 25 orthopedic surgeries since 1990," says Watson, who thumbs through mounds of paperwork on her kitchen table that detail her six lumbar operations, two knee replacements, two hip replacements, deep-vein thrombosis, a pulmonary embolism, degenerative disc disease, bone spurs in her neck and nerve damage, as well as prescriptions for narcotics, antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. "I've got more drugs than Walgreens. You don't have enough paper to write down my ailments. It consumes my whole life, my marriage, my family, everything."

Watson's story is typical, says Mike Stein, assistant vice president of Allsup, a national disability claim company headquartered in downstate Belleville. The average disability applicant has worked for 20 years -- and made 20 years of payments into the SSDI system through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act deductions in his or her paycheck -- before seeking benefits, Stein says.

Disability benefits are not a handout, but examples of workers saying, "I could really use some of that insurance benefit I've been paying into," Stein says.

Watson's original application, shortly after she was laid off at the end of July 2015, was denied. Her appeal was denied in September 2016. In October 2016, she requested a hearing, and 16 months later, in February, "for the first time, a decision-maker will see her face-to-face," Stein says.

Her case will be heard at the Evanston Hearing Office, which has 6,899 pending cases and 12 administrative law judges, says Doug Nguyen, regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

"For several years in a row, the agency received a record number of hearing requests, due primarily to the aging of the Baby Boomers as they entered their disability-prone years. We also received an increase in applications during the economic recession and its aftermath," Nguyen says. "During this time, our resources to address disability claims did not keep pace with the increase in applications and backlogs grew."

The Social Security Administration proposed hiring 250 administrative law judges and corresponding staff each year in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but a federal hiring freeze has limited those hiring plans to 396 new judges, Nguyen says.

About two-thirds of initial SSDI applications are denied, although about half are approved during the appeal stage and Allsup claims a 70 percent success rate, Stein says.

"In many cases, the appeals process uncovers more detailed and complete medical evidence and sometimes individuals' medical conditions deteriorate, which can lead to successful applications upon appeal," Nguyen says.

But delays also cause problems.

"When people aren't working and short on money, their disability tends to get worse," Stein says. "We see the results -- everything from people dying to severe financial hardship."

A Washington Post story revealed that 10,002 applicants nationwide died last year while waiting for their appeals to be heard. The Social Security office lists the delays on its website, and a message from Acting Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill says, "Our goal is to reduce hearings wait times from over 580 days today to 270 days" by 2022.

Watson expected the process to take time. Her husband, Tom, 62, a union carpenter for 30 years, receives disability payments, but he doesn't receive enough to support them both in their two-bedroom house.

"The only reason we've been able to keep our house and car is because we declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy a while back," Watson says. "It's always, 'Who do I not pay this month?' We go day-to-day just trying to survive. I can't even afford to go to the doctor … the bills just keep adding up."

About 1.1 million people nationwide are on the waiting list to see a Social Security Administrative law judge. Studies show that more than one in four of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67.

"It hurt when I was forced to apply for SSDI. I was embarrassed. I've been in the workforce for my entire adult life," Watson says. "I've been waiting for 2½ years now. I know there are a lot of people in the same boat that I am, but it's just been so long and aggravating."