Craig Hams wanted to work, despite a double-organ transplant.

He was an apprentice heavy equipment operator in 2007, but the demands of the job got to be more than his body could handle.

Diabetic since age 19, Hams underwent a kidney and pancreas transplant in 1998 and needed thousands of dollars of medicine each month to stay alive. He had received Social Security disability payments after his transplant but returned to work several years after his surgery to "pay some of it back."

"I would have liked to work until I was 65," the 50-year-old said. "I'm too weak. I can't even hardly walk up the steps anymore."

Hams applied for disability and - like most applicants - was denied. When his appeal was also denied, he took the next step: he applied for a hearing.

For two years, he waited.

Unable to work and without a steady income, he was homeless, living in La Crosse, "wherever I could hang my hat - friends, the Salvation Army."

It's not an unusual story for disabled workers caught in a Social Security bureaucracy plagued by delays.

"It's a terrible thing for people," said David Russell, the attorney who represented Hams in his appeal. "They're kind of at the mercy of friends or relatives. Unfortunately, it's all too common."

The average wait for a claims hearing in Wisconsin is 657 days - one of the longest in the nation, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin State Journal. At the Madison office, which handles La Crosse cases, it's just short of two years.

Attorney Maureen Kinney said she has one client whose claim is close to three years old.

Even Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue calls the waits "inexcusable," saying efforts to address them are being complicated by the national economic downturn and the medical problems of baby boomers that have led more people to the program.

And plans by Gov. Jim Doyle's administration to furlough federally funded workers who are part of the system could make the problem worse, Astrue said, while failing to save a dime for state taxpayers.

Astrue, in an interview with the State Journal, said his agency was underfunded in past years and didn't provide enough resources in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where the downturn in manufacturing has added to the number of claimants. He also said the Milwaukee office and its satellite in Madison aren't productive enough.

Solutions: More judges, technologyAs part of a plan to eliminate the hearing backlog by 2013, Social Security is hiring more administrative law judges.

But in spite of those hires, Wisconsin has only 14 judges to handle nearly 4,500 cases a year.

To alleviate the shortage, the SSA recently created three offices that conduct remote video hearings across the country.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind sent a letter in July urging Astrue to put teleconferencing equipment in La Crosse to help claimants who wait years to see the one judge who travels to the satellite office. The La Crosse Democrat announced last week that video equipment would be installed.

Teleconferencing allows judges to spend more time hearing cases and less time on the road, SSA spokesman Doug Nguyen said, while making life easier for the people making the claims. It also allows judges from other parts of the country to help out.

High threshold

Social Security by its own admission has high standards for disability benefits, which average $1,062 a month, along with eventual health coverage, and are given to millions of Americans.

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Unlike recipients of unemployment insurance, those on disability are not required to look for work.

Claimants must prove their condition prevents them from working any job for at least 12 months. Initial claims are reviewed by a panel in Madison.

There's a false perception that all claims are rejected on the first try, said Karyl Richson, an SSA spokeswoman who spent years working with disability claims.

But attorneys who represent disabled workers say the vast majority are turned down initially and on appeal.

"To collect on the disability is a very tough burden," Russell said.

Russell, who handles about 40 to 50 claims a year, said he represented four men who lost their dominant arms, and all were denied at the first two steps.

Nearly three out of five who go before a judge in the Midwest region win their cases, according to SSA data.

Richson said many claims initially are denied due to incomplete medical records or other technicalities. Still, she defends the need for strict guidelines.

"Yes, it takes more time, but it's probably a good thing we've got this system."

2 years for 15 minutes

Though teleconferencing is expected to shorten waits and save travel both for judges and claimants in the La Crosse area, attorney Kinney said it's less than ideal.

She thinks judges get a better sense of her client's hardships when they see them in person.

With video, "you can't see the person come in, limping, not doing very well," she said. "I think the clients would rather see their judge."

A typical hour-long hearing is "a pretty short period of time to tell this stranger what your life is really like," Russell said. "All the pain, what you can do and what you can't do."

Hams finally got a hearing last month.

Using a video teleconferencing system from a satellite office in Wausau, he presented his medical history to a judge, a medical expert and a vocational expert in California.

His hearing took about 15 minutes.

The judge told him he had won and he could expect a written decision in about a month. Once that arrives, Hams - now staying with his parents in Wonewoc while commuting to Madison for treatment - can expect to get about $1,000 a month, as well as back pay for the time while his appeal was pending.

Though he isn't bitter about the wait, Hams wonders why a judge was able to rule so quickly in his favor on a twice-denied claim.

"It seems like they could have saved themselves a lot of time and paperwork."

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Jason Stein

contributed to this story.

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