SEBRING - After three back surgeries, one neck surgery, having both hips replaced and four more surgeries, Karen finally hired a lawyer.
"The system is a mess," said Karen, a Sebring woman who agreed to use only her first name for this story. "I found out that Tampa is overloaded with applicants and the proper people are not reviewing like they should. You automatically get turned down the first time. And even though an attorney does receive a percentage, it's worth it."
Karen is one of 4,130 recipients in Highlands and Hardee counties of the Disability portion of Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance, paid out by the Social Security office.
The other side of the story comes from Richard Burkhauser, a policy analysis professor at Cornell University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank in Washington, D.C. His colleagues include Bush administration alums John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Lynne Cheney and Newt Gingrich, a former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate.
In May, Burkhauser noted that Social Security Disability Insurance recorded a record high recipients of 8.85 million in March 2013, an increase of 1.6 million since the start of the Great Recession in 2007.
That's a whopping 21 percent increase in six years. In Highlands and Hardee counties, the incline was even sharper. In 2003, 3,030 received disability, so that's a 36 percent increase.
"This recession-induced growth exacerbates the long-time trend," Burkhauser said. The U.S. is paying seven-fold more, from $18 billion in 1970 to $128 billion in 2010. Burkhauser suggested the program will be insolvent "as early as 2016."
After being injured on the job in 2002 at age 40, Karen said she went back to work in 2005. "Until the last back surgery in December 2009. I wasn't able to work after that," she said. Neck surgery followed in March 2010. Because of steroid shots for the back surgeries, her hips began to fail. The right hip was replaced in 2010, the left hip three months later.
"Since then, I've had four more revisions done to the hips. I know I am facing more back surgery due to a fracture where the fusion and implants are," Karen said.
And that's still not all. She now has problems with both knees, so a knee replacement looms in her future.
Every problem is not related to the back injury. "I have spinal stenosis," Karen said. The National Library of Medicine describes the condition as a "narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord, or narrowing of the openings where spinal nerves leave the spinal column."
Karen said she also has avascular necrosis, the death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply.
"That was what made my hip bones die," Karen said. "I finally got disability in 2012."
Congress is also concerned. U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, D-Oklahoma, is also an obstetrician.
"The flood of Social Security disability applications over the past few years has tested the agency's resources and personnel," Coburn said in September 2012.
Karen contends that's because of the backlogs.
"I was fortunate that Florida started sending backlogged applications to Baltimore," Karen said. "It took a year to finally get approved."
And when checks did arrive, Karen learned she would only be paid back to 2011, although she had been disabled since 2009.
Karen's daughter, who isn't yet 18, also qualifies for a check, she said. "It's one-third of what I receive. Due to the amount I receive, I did qualify for assistance to pay the monthly cost of the $109 premium to have Medicare. It's not easy making ends meet, especially when you are younger than 65 to get a supplement." She has no dental insurance.
Like Coburn and Burkhauser, Karen agrees that there are problems with the Social Security Disability system. "There are definitely areas that are broken that could be fixed."
"It is primarily the consequence of fundamental flaws in the SSDI program and its administration which have increasingly made it a long-term unemployment program rather than the last resort transfer program for those unable to work due to their health-based impairments that Congress intended it to be," Burkhauser said. "These flaws become most evident during severe during economic downturns, but will remain long after we recover from the Great Recession."