HASTINGS, Minn. - More than a million Americans are waiting – often more than a year – for rulings from the federal government about whether they qualify for disability benefits.
Records reviewed by KARE 11 Investigates reveal that Minnesota residents trying to appeal Social Security Disability denials wait longer than people in many other parts of the country to get a hearing.
The case of a Hastings man shows how people claiming disability benefits are often trapped in a bureaucratic catch-22.
Lyle Ryman says he started noticing it while driving up I-35W.
“Little bit, by littIe bit, I was losing vision. It was greying out,” he recalled.
An infection had targeted Lyle Ryman’s eyes. Doctors couldn’t stop it until the damage had already been done.
A letter from Midwest Eye Consultants says he’s legally blind.
To help demonstrate what he sees now, Lyle took a pair of glasses and grayed out everything in his left eye, and his peripheral vision in his right.
“You take this eye away and your outside vision. This is kind of where you’re at,” he explained.
Since he was a professional truck driver, he says he can’t do his job.
“I’d be a danger to myself and others if I did work,” he told KARE 11.
Lyle thought he would qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. That’s the government insurance program that automatically takes money from our paychecks.
The money would help him keep his small family farm, a home for rescue horses.
But he got a letter rejecting his claim. And when he appealed, more bad news. Lyle was told there’s a backlog to hear appeals.
“They said this could take up to 18 months,” he said.
Minnesota attorney Andrew Kline says people nationwide are facing similar delays.
“It means severe hardship,” Kline says.
Kline isn’t involved in Lyle Ryman’s appeal, but he specializes in disability cases. He says long appeal delays too often leave people in a crippling financial Catch-22.
“They can’t apply for unemployment because to apply for unemployment they have to certify to the State of Minnesota that they’re ready, able and willing to work,” Kline explained. “And then if they apply for Social Security Disability, they’re telling the government they can’t work.”
“That is obviously inconsistent,” he said.
Government data reviewed by KARE 11 Investigates reveals a big increase in appeal delays. In 2013, the nationwide average was 382 days.
This year it has soared to than 590 days. That’s more than 19 months.
In Minneapolis, it’s even worse. There’s a 22-month delay, according to the latest statistics.
Kline says about half of his clients who were originally denied ultimately win their appeals. But some don’t live that long.
“I have a client right now who passed away while waiting for a hearing,” he said.
Without a paycheck, Lyle Ryman told us the appeal delay means his family could lose their farm.
“The system is flawed,” he said, while slipping on the glasses he made to help explain what his vision is like now.
“I’d say slip these on. Okay, go about your business. Good luck.”
Social Security reversal
After KARE 11 interviewed Ryman – and after Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken got involved in his case – Social Security did a sudden about-face.
Lyle Ryman just got word that his claim has been approved without a full hearing. He says he’s been told he’ll get monthly disability checks starting immediately.
But that still leaves thousands of other people in limbo because the government says it doesn’t have enough judges to handle all the appeals.