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He suffered a heart attack at work but was denied Social Security disability. Then CBS 6 stepped in.

Posted at 5:30 PM, Jul 09, 2024

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — Ed Heavener used to work as a truck driver and frequently went camping with his wife Machelle Heavener, but in March of 2022 his life changed forever.

"I was doing a route up in Harrisonburg and I loaded my truck up to leave and got on the road and called my dispatcher, and I said man I’m not feeling right," Heavener said.

The eastern Henrico man did not realize it at the time, but he was having a heart attack.

“It has changed everything about him,” Machelle Heavener said.

Ed had open heart surgery. He now lives attached to an oxygen machine 24 hours a day.

The fight for his life and his recovery have not been easy, but Ed said it was another fight that nearly broke him.

“At times this had me so messed up I was ready to commit suicide. I will not hide that fact,” Ed said.

Ed has not been able to work since his heart attack and desperately needed income.

So he filed with the Social Security Administration (SSA) for disability on December 27, 2022.

Month after month, he called to get a status update.

"They gave me the song and dance due to a staffing shortage we are unable to process your claim,” Ed said.

After 10 months of waiting for a decision, the SSA eventually denied his claim.

Ed’s attorney did not believe it when he learned the outcome.

"I said there is a mistake. There is a technical thing that we are going to get wrapped up quickly for you because there is no way that they denied you and you’re on 24 hour oxygen. Not at 58 with past work as a truck driver they didn’t,” attorney Horace Hunter, with Hunter Everage, said.

Hunter helped Ed file an appeal.

"This is social security disability, this isn’t a hand out," Hunter said. "When you pay into the system every time they take something out of your check, part of that is in the event you become disabled, that’s your insurance."

Another long wait for a decision followed.

“I called so many times that people knew me when they answered the phone,” Ed said.

Hunter said the more he dug into the case, the more mistakes he found on the part of the SSA.

"They were missing entire segments of this medical record and were not really enthusiastic about getting it,” Hunter said. “It was surprising what we had to go through, and the number of mistakes that were made at the local office.”

Finally, in mid-May 2024, Ed and Machelle reached their limit.

"We had already gotten a pay or quit notice from our landlord as well. We were about to get thrown out,” Ed said.

Desperate for help, the couple emailed CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit.

Hipolit contacted the SSA on behalf of Ed to ask about the delay in processing his appeal and to try to learn more about why he had been denied in the first place.

"Finally I got a call shortly after you sent your several emails,” Ed said. “Within a week I had my money. Within a week of you sending all these emails I had my money.”

One-and-a-half years after he first applied, Ed got his money.

"It was a tremendous release to open up that email and look and see I’m getting X amount of dollars deposited into my account,” Ed said.

"They knew with the denial they had given Heavener based on his medical record that’s embarrassing. That’s a black eye on the SSA, and that’s a black eye on the local office, and whoever was in charge knew it once they realized the media had gotten a hold of this,” Hunter said.

Hunter said the amount of time it takes to process an initial disability claim and then an appeal is far too long.

“Even when everything goes well, Melissa, we’re telling people now it’s eight to 10 months for an initial application to be decided. Can you imagine not having income for eight to 10 months? And that’s the initial application which is often times denied,” Hunter said.

On its website, the SSA talks about wanting to improve its customer service, but one of the problems it faces is the widening gap between staffing levels and the growing number of customers. They said one of their key goals it to lower processing times for disability appeals to 270 days.

Hunter said he can empathize with the staffing problems, but in Ed’s case he said he believes incompetence played a role.

"You just know how hard it is to get employees anywhere in any industry now, Social Security is no different, and it’s such a massive bureaucracy such a massive agency that give them a little slack, we’re coming out of COVID there is a lot going on. But there are some things, gosh, Heavener’s case, losing things, umm…get on them Melissa,” Hunter said.

While thankful to have his money now, Ed is advocating for changes at the SSA because he doesn’t want others to go through what he had to.

"I know I am not the only one they are doing this to. Something needs to be done about it because it’s not fair,” Ed said. “If it had not been for an understanding landlord we would have been living in a cardboard box underneath a bridge somewhere.”

CBS 6 asked a spokesperson with the Social Security Administration why it took so long to resolve Ed’s case and if the administration felt like his case was handled properly.

The spokesperson did not answer those questions related to Ed and, instead, referred us to the SSA’s website in response to some more general questions we asked about the amount of time it takes to process disability claims.

Click here to share your Social Security story with the CBS 6 Newsroom.

Watch Melissa Hipolit's reporting on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com. Have something for Melissa to investigate? Email her.

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