Rick Shagla can't walk. The stiff fingers of his hands are splayed at odd angles, making his handwriting illegible.
He's lost sensation in his extremities. If he can't see his hands and feet, he loses where they are. Unless he's paying attention, he could place his hand on the burner of a hot stove and he wouldn't know it.
Shagla was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1987. He then had testicular cancer. He continued to develop neuro-muscular problems and needed a wheelchair.
In 2002, the Social Security Administration deemed Shagla permanently disabled, granting him full benefits and Medicare eligibility. By 2008, he was receiving $2,487 a month.
Then, in February, Shagla got a letter saying that his Social Security Disability payments had been miscalculated over the past six years. He'd been overpaid, on average, by $1,200 a month.
Not only would his payments be cut to $1,100 a month, he also owed the agency $83,252.
Sometimes when people call me, I can hear so much panic in their voices that it scares me. Shagla's call was one of those.
This was a desperate man.
He'd been evicted. He couldn't pay his Medicare supplemental health insurance.
"They just ripped my life apart," the 47-year-old man said as he sat surrounded by moving boxes. "I'll end up going to a nursing home."
I called Social Security in Atlanta and spoke with Patti Patterson. After a week or so, she called me back.
"Good news," Patterson said. "It was a mistake."
Patterson said Shagla would get his money for March in a couple of weeks, and in April, he'd be reinstated to his previous level of benefits.
"This is rare," Patterson said of the error made in Shagla's benefit change. "We have told him we're sorry."
I got lost in Patterson's explanation of how the mistake was made. But that's OK. I don't need to know how it happened.
I did wonder, however, how often it happens and how long it takes to fix if you don't have The News-Press calling Social Security for a statement?
The answer: All the time and forever.
According to Douglas Mohney, an attorney with the Avard Law Offices in Cape Coral, Social Security is, "an incredibly complex system and tens of thousands of people a year get hung up by not quite knowing the rules since no one gives a complete explanation."
People receiving benefits can suddenly stop getting them, like Shagla, and it takes years to have them reinstated.
Other people trying to qualify for benefits are repeatedly denied and have to wait for a hearing before an administrative law judge, Mohney said.
Getting a hearing can take years. One of Mohney's clients applied for Social Security Disability in 2005. His hearing is scheduled for April 1.
"He's on a cane, and he's been homeless four or five times," Mohney said.
Many of his clients die while waiting.
When I was talking to Mohney, he had on his desk the file of a woman who had been waiting three years for a hearing. She had a number of health problems, including depression.
Mohney had just received notice that her hearing had been scheduled for April.
But she won't need it.
She committed suicide.