|11-03-2002, 10:35 PM||#1|
Making a Human Connection
Making a Human Connection
October 18, 2002
Four years and one month ago, I wrote a story about Vinny Carfora, 51, of Patchogue, whose struggles with his Social Security disability insurance threatened to frustrate him to death, this at a time when his wife, Ann, was undergoing surgery for cancer.
A former English and drama teacher at what once was Holy Family High School (now St. Anthony's) in Huntington, Carfora had collapsed one morning in 1980 and wound up paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors called it "transverse myelitis" and eventually concluded that an unknown virus had attacked his spinal cord and destroyed all the motor nerves.
He has been a quadriplegic since then, eligible for Medicare and for disability assistance from Social Security. Every now and then, the Social Security Administration would write to Carfora and tell him of a mistake they had made in years past, paying him too much or too little in benefits, and that they were correcting the errors forthwith. Sometimes it made sense. Sometimes it didn't. The question in Carfora's mind eventually became, "Am I doing something to trigger this?" The Administration would not - will not - discuss any of this, because they have a policy against invading the privacy of clients. But - clearly - the bureaucracy can be like a coiled snake. If you move, it may strike. It just won't violate your right to privacy.
Four years ago, Carfora received a notification that, "We have recomputed the benefits due to you and your family and have determined that our previous computation was incorrect. Corrective action has now been taken and your benefits have been reduced . . . beginning April, 1981 to correct your benefit amount ...[blah, blah, blah]," ultimately meaning that Carfora owed Social Security four months' worth of benefits and would not be getting any checks until the debt was cleared.
Bad luck begat worse: Carfora's Medicare payments were deducted from his Social Security disability payments. Medicare now had been notified by Social Security that Carfora would not be receiving any Social Security disability payments. So, Medicare notified Carfora that he would have to pay (immediately), himself, the amount that would have been deducted for Medicare out of his disability checks, or his eligibility for Medicare would be discontinued. [When you're down, we kick, especially quads.]
With the disability payments discontinued, and Ann temporarily out of commission (at her job, if you're out sick, you're off the payroll), and the Medicare debt looming, the quadriplegic ex-teacher was facing some serious stress.
Somehow, not long after a newspaper story appeared describing Carfora's situation, Carfora's disability benefits were restored, though at a lower rate than before. At the time, Dennis Flanagan, of the Administration's Patchogue office, said that while he would never discuss a specific case, it sounded like a computer glitch might have triggered Carfora's notification. After the restoration of the reduced benefits, Carfora wrote the Administration asking for a full restoration, but nobody ever answered his letter.
Last Friday, four years later, while Ann prepares to undergo more cancer surgery and worries herself sick about losing a week's pay this time, Carfora received another notification from the Social Security Office of Central Operations, in Baltimore. Dated Oct. 4, it reads: "Below is the new repayment withholding schedule we will use to pay the Social Security benefits paid in error." Under, "Balance you owe," it reads, "$3,863.50." Under, "What We Will Pay and When," it reads: "You will receive $161.50 for March 2003 in April. After that you will receive your full regular monthly payment."
That was it; no explanation. From November to March, you're on your own.
The notice had arrived in Friday's mail at 4:15 p.m. Carfora kept it from Ann and began calling the Social Security Administration. What fun. By 4:50, he'd been on hold 20 minutes already and knew he would not talk to anybody until Tuesday, after the holiday. He satisfied himself that he had some time: his October payment already had been direct deposited into his new bank account.
"Oops," he thought.
Suddenly, Carfora remembered that, dissatisfied with his bank, he had asked Social Security to switch his direct deposit disability payments to another one. The Social Security clerk he spoke to had said, "No problem." Knowing that his October payment would be deposited in the old bank by Oct. 3, he had waited until Oct. 4 to request the switch. The notification of his six-month disenfranchisement was dated Oct. 4.
Wednesday, via e-mail, he said this: "They have now patched me through to the Patchogue office. A very nice lady came on. I explained to her what happened. Her name is Ms. Figueroa, like the ex-baseball player. She was kind and understanding. When I told her how it began last time, with Social Security wanting my earning records from 20 years ago, she laughed, not in a mean-spirited way, but an understanding way. She could not believe they made me fill out forms and send them to IRS to get earnings from 20 years ago. She said everyone knows they destroy them after three years. Yeah, I know that too. She is going to give it to the people who handled it four years ago, [Dennis Flanagan and a Mr. Padilla], but they will not be in until Friday. I thanked her profusely because she was the first one to treat me as a human being from beginning to end. She said not to thank her yet, to wait until Mr. Flanagan or Mr. Padilla contacted me. But she listened and understood. I told her I appreciated her treating me like a human being. I'm hoping this will all be straightened out on Friday."
... to be continued, probably.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.
"Those who seek to predict the future... might first look to the past. The past is a mirror -- and those who ignore its sometimes dark reflection, are doomed to repeat it... Will it be those seeking redemption who shall decide the future... or will those driven only by greed and envy shape our destiny? Even a hundred years later, the outcome is still very much in doubt. .." Outer Limits(Heart's Desire)