N.Y.C. disabilty claim denied

August 7, 2009 3:17:58 PM PDT
A Bronx man who suffered massive heart failure after working as a city custodian for 20 years has now been told he's not entitled to disability benefits. That's in spite of the fact that the federal government says he's disabled. And the question you're probably asking: How often is the city denying disability claims We're still trying to get that information, but this much we know, you can be found disabled by the federal social security system and receive SSI payments but the city can say you're not disabled and deny you retirement benefits even if multiple doctors say you're too sick to work.

"I get exhausted right away and my legs give up," said Jose Figueroa. He never imagined that at 51 he'd move like an old man,every step an effort.

"I'm so frustrated, " he said.

Up until two years ago, Figueroa looked to be the picture of health-often working 7 days a week as a janitor for the New York city housing authority at this Manhattan development---21 years on the job and then, emergency open-heart surgery.

"I had heart failure and I didn't know it," said Jose.

Jose Figueroa says he desperately wanted to go back to work here, but when he couldn't within a year, the housing authority had no choice but to terminate him and his medical benefits. What's so ironic is that he was let go because he was too sick to work, but a city medical board has repeatedly ruled he is not sick enough to qualify for disability.

"It's like I worked all those years for nothing. It's like I got kicked to the curb," said Jose.

The twist here, in February, the Social Security Administration ruled in Figueroa's favor -granting him full federal disability benefits. There are also letters from Figueroa's doctors saying he "remains permanently disabled," and "unable to perform any work-related activities." And yet, three times, the medical board for the city's retirement system. NYCERS, has decided, "the documentary and clinical evidence fail to substantiate that Jose Figueroa is disabled."

"The doctor says it's indefinite, he cannot work, but the medical board is playing god at this point," said Alisa Figueroa.

The strain on Jose's wife is intense-she's also a city employee and now-the only one with medical benefits- he takes a daily arsenal of prescription drugs-not all of them fully covered. There's little money left.

"We use the credit cards to, not even pay off bills, to buy food," said Alisa. "It's really overwhelming."

"They just want you to give up," asked Sarah Wallace.

"They want you to give up," said Alisa.

The Figueroa's are now appealing the city's third denial.

"You were a good worker," asked Sarah Wallace.

"I was a good worker I was proud," said Jose. "When you are sick, they don't want to help?they don't want to help you when you're sick?it's not right."

We asked for the figures on how many disability applicants are denied versus approved by the NYSERS medical board?.we still haven't gotten those numbers. But a spokesperson says the decisions are completely independent of Social Security, so yes, one government agency can find you disabled and another can say you're not.

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