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Not just a Number

In life, it seems that in almost everything we do we're identified by some sort of number. When we place an order at some restaurants, we're identified by our order numbers. When we're waiting for meetings we're sometimes asked to take a number and wait to be called. At work, we're assigned numbers to identify us for logging onto the network or to access any of our information. We're just known overall by numbers and not our names. Here in the US, our Social Security Number is treated almost like gold. In other parts of the world, it may be some sort of insurance number or some other kind of identification number. One way or another though, it's these numbers that almost seem to define us.

For the past few months, I've been taking phones for half the day here at work. After the initial greeting, one of the most common questions I ask of the callers is what the Social Security Number is on the case. Most times I'm talking with representatives, but every once in a while I talk directly with the claimant. When I first started here two years ago I always said that I was glad that I didn't have to deal with the public directly. My views on this have, in some ways, not changed. Every once in a while though, a call comes in that totally gets me thinking. Obviously, for confidentiality reasons, I can't go into a lot of detail, but in general, this is what happened.

A lot of the calls that I get are routine. A poorly-written letter that gets sent out automatically to anyone with an upcoming hearing is the most common reason for calls that I take because these poor people are concerned that they didn't respond to their hearing acknowledgement letter. It's a very quick and simple process to look at the documents in their files to confirm that they did acknowledge their hearings, so they hang up happy and relieved. In this case though, the letter the claimant received was a denial of an on-the-record request. An on-the-record request would mean that the judge would review the file, and could possibly make a decision on the evidence that's been submitted without having to hold a formal hearing. So, this person was turned down. Ironically, we'd just received an email about how to handle these calls this morning, so I was all set to refer this person back to his representative to file for another hearing because I didn't realize that the letter he was referring to was an OTR denial letter. I gave him the information about contacting his rep, and told him that there were also steps that he could follow in his denial cover letter.

Every once in a while, after hanging up from one of these calls, I look a little further just to see what kinds of remarks were put into the file and things. In this case, I realized that I'd made a bit of a mistake, and that the person still has his hearing scheduled for next month. I attempted to call the person back, but the number in the file was wrong. I really wanted to try to give this person at least a little bit of good news so I called his representative. I talked with him about this guy, and the rep gave me a correct phone number. When I called to talk with the claimant, I got his wife instead. I started to explain about the hearing next month, and that's when I got more of the situation this couple is in.

The guy has had at least two heart attacks, and the latest one required that he be shocked eleven times before he started breathing again. He's got six disks in his back that have blown, and all sorts of other issues going on. His wife is also dealing with some similar medical conditions, and she almost died on the operating table this past April. One more heart attack could kill this guy, and they have no money for the medications that could help him. They have no way to get around except for this guy's bike, and his wife can't walk without a walker. She says they're both prepared to die at this point. So, although next month seems like it's close, in this situation, next month could very well be too late.

This lady told me all this and she wasn't accusatory or blaming anyone. It was just fact, and apparently they've both accepted their situation without venting to me, someone who honestly can't do a thing to change the situation.

Here in the office, we deal with over 3000 claimants at any one time, and I don't even know how many people each day. We process hearings, and do what we can to make sure that cases are moved through as quickly as possible so that those who need benefits are able to get them. In so many ways, the only way we have to define these people is through their Social Security Number. It's calls like this that remind me that these people aren't just numbers on a piece of paper or on the computer screen. They're real people with lives just like me. As I schedule hearings I like looking at their names and trying to figure out when they were born by their name style, and I've kind of made it a game for myself, and I love seeing who has their birthdays when mine is. In the back of my mind I know these are real people, but I think every once in a while, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of a reality check to really truly remind me. These nine-digit numbers that I see every single week day aren't just numbers; they're people.