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Social security is great if you can get it

The folks who say they hate government and constantly whine about how government needs to operate more like a business may be happy to learn that at least one government entity seems to be following in the footsteps of its private sector equivalent. I’m talking about the Social Security Administration.

In general, I’d have to say that Social Security is an overwhelming success story. For decades, it has performed as it was designed to perform, providing an essential safety net for older Americans, a bulwark against the abject poverty that awaited so many older Americans in the pre-Social Security era. Yeah, I know, the program needs some tweaking if it is to remain solvent in the decades ahead, but by any objective standard, Social Security is an out of the park home run. And the same is true for its sister program Medicare. Both of these hugely popular programs are largely ignored or sidestepped by the government haters and full-time Washington bashers, those who don’t like to admit that the “social” in Social Security sounds suspiciously like a pinko commie plot.

On one score, though, Social Security has real problems. Two thirds of al the Americans who apply for disability benefits are initially denied, sort of the same way that private insurance companies handle people who get really sick and need expensive medical care. It is no wonder that in Las Vegas and many other cities, law firms have been created to specifically handle rejected disability claims.

An example of how bad it sometimes gets came to my attention recently when I heard from an old pal, John “Moogie” Martinez. Moogie served honorably in the military, is a registered voter, and has lived and worked in Las Vegas for 36 years. He’s one of an exclusive cadre of bartender-philosophers, a most noble profession, seasoned mixologists employed at neighborhood watering holes (as opposed to overpriced hipster disco joints.)

Like the other sages of his bartending brotherhood, Moogie went to work every day, enjoyed conversing with the loyal customers, and never asked for anything from his government. But all those years of standing on his feet took a toll on Moogie’s back. His spine deteriorated to the point where he could barely stand up, let alone walk across a room. His doctor at the VA said Moogie’s back was the worst he had ever seen, and he could not understand how Moogie could walk, let alone work.

In September 201, Moogie (who is 58) applied to Social Security for disability benefits. Like most American workers, he has been paying into the SS system all these years and was merely asking to begin drawing his benefits earlier than he planned. As mentioned, nearly everyone who applies for disability benefits gets denied. Over the next two years, Moogie saw more doctors and received more denials. His VA docs could not understand how SS could do this to someone who obviously qualified for disability status.

While fighting for his benefits, Moogie lost his house to foreclosure. He has been in danger of losing his rental apartment, and I have a feeling he may have even considered taking an even more drastic and irreversible step. It seemed as if Social Security wanted him to die rather than pay out the benefits.

I realize this will seem like a partisan love letter, but I am going to tell the story anyway. As a last resort, Moogie contacted Rep. Shelley Berkley’s office. The fact that he is a veteran probably helped get the attention of Berkley’s staff because they started peppering SS with calls and letters, asking why Moogie had been denied. In response, SS initially got snooty and told Moogie his case had been reconsidered and was now “in limbo” which meant it might be a year, or two, before he could get a hearing before an administrative judge. Friends knew that Moogie would not last another year. He’d be dead.

Berkley’s staff did not quit. They once again pressed the case with Social Security, but it looked hopeless. Moogie had already packed a few boxes, anticipating that he would lose his apartment. Although he’d been burned and ignored by the first lawyer he contacted, Moogie decided to make a last ditch attempt to get outside help. He contacted one of the premier law firms in town specializing in disability issues (Greenman Goldberg Raby and Martinez) and they agreed to do what they could.

One day before he was to meet with the lawyers (and 10 days before he had to move out) he got a letter from Social Security, informing him that they had reconsidered his case and realized that he was completely disabled.

Maybe they experienced a religious epiphany or a bout of conscience. The true reason for the reversal may never be known, but it sure looks as if Shelley Berkley and her staff pulled this off. They were careful not to cross a line but made the case to SS in forceful terms that this was an unfair situation and needed too be fixed. The SSA finally came to the same conclusion, and I think Berkley’s office deserves the credit for not only righting a wrong, but for saving a man’s life.

You can be as cynical as you want. You can bitch about Congress and gripe about government and pray for the day when the beast gets bled dry. Or you can moan about this being a partisan ad. I don’t care. And neither does Moogie, who sends a big wet kiss to Berkley and her staff.

Seen and Heard

Local TV production company “CoverEdge” is generating some buzz with its pitch for a new reality series based on a mixed martial arts competition. Some big names have already expressed an interest in participating, and the producers seem to have thought of a way to sidestep the UFC, governing body for the sport’s reigning supers. She put the “die” in diorama. Veteran Las Vegas print reporter Abby Goldman has opened a grisly (and new frontier in the local art scene, and along the way, may have launched a lucrative new career as well. A few weeks ago, Abby’s husband Stephen Jackson decided to let the rest of the world know about Ms. Goldman’s artistic pastime. She creates hilariously morbid diorama scenes consisting of tiny human figurines in various predicaments involving mayhem and gore. Grisly murder scenes are one of her staples. Axes. Butcher knives. Pools of red juxtaposed against tiny fields of faux green grass. A few days after Jackson posted photos of his wife’s handiwork online, all hell broke loose. Several online sites wrote glowing articles about Abby’s art. Suddenly, orders for the bloody little masterpieces began pouring in, to the point where it was impossible for Abby to keep up. Abby is currently working feverishly to produce a second series of what she calls “Little Lives” in time for a gallery showing in Las Vegas. The Die-o-Rama spectacular will be on display at Trifecta Gallery downtown and opens on July 5th, the night before First Friday. Better get there early if you expect to walk away with one of her pieces. (And yes, I have already suggested that, for Series Three, she should branch out to include various alien scenes, maybe a recreation of cattle mutilations or the Roswell crash with mangled ET bodies strewn across the desert.)

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at