Her husband filed for disability after a 3rd heart attack. He died waiting for an answer.

FORT WORTH – Eileen Gabaldon read about John Tovar’s struggles to get an answer on his Social Security disability claim, and her heart ached. He is still waiting, but at least, she thought, he is still alive.

Her husband Larry isn’t. He died waiting for a ruling on his disability claim.

Gabaldon and many others in Fort Worth and from across the country called and emailed the Star-Telegram to share their horror stories of long waits to get to a disability benefits hearing before an administrative law judge, the third step in a lengthy process.

More than 1 million Americans are awaiting a hearing with an average wait of two years. The average wait time in Fort Worth is 483 days, or nearly two years, remarkably one of the faster rates in the country, according to statistics provided by the Social Security Administration.

The system is broken and backlogged to the point that some people who can no longer work because of physical disability or debilitating illness are losing their homes and life savings.

In Richmond, Va., Katie Pegram, a former nurse, lives in dire pain because of nerve damage. She made a desperate call for help to the Star-Telegram regarding three denials for benefits. She lost her home and dignity.

The average wait time for a hearing in Richmond is 652 days. Living with her brother a few days each week and then a friend for the other days, Pegram, 51, waited three years to learn she did not qualify for benefits.

“I just went to pieces and I’m really trying to keep it together,” said Pegram, whose husband died from lung cancer in 2012, the same year she applied for disability benefits. “I was a nurse, a good nurse. I made good money and I can’t even take care of myself now. I received a letter that said I can appeal again, but it can take eight to 19 months.

“I’m breaking down. I am not going to survive another eight to 19 months. I know I’m not.”

Last year, 7,400 people on wait lists had died, according to a report by Social Security’s inspector general.

Initially Gabaldon, and others who contacted the Star-Telegram, said they were hesitant to air their grievances publicly for fear it would be detrimental to their cases.

Those fears are unfounded, said prominent disability attorney Charles Hall of Raleigh, N.C. He believes the Social Security Administration follows press reports and “perhaps usually speeds up the process when a case gets reported.”

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