Down and Out in Miami-Dade County

Poor, unemployed, stricken with AIDS, and at the mercy of government bureaucrats. No wonder Vivian Rolon's life is hell.

After Marder wrote to Kupersmith in late December, the judge ordered Rolon to undergo a new medical evaluation, a "consultative exam." John Raffa, the Social Security spokesman, says his records show an exam scheduled for January 16 to which Rolon never went. In fact, Raffa adds, during the past three years, at least a dozen consultative exams were set up for Rolon, but she didn't make any of them. "It appears one of the problems is this Vivian Rolon moves a lot," Raffa says. "She just made it almost impossible for us to reach out to her. She outright missed consultative exams and/or would refuse to go to them. When they would find her, they'd send her registered letters with the dates [of the appointments]. And then she just wouldn't show up. We normally don't do registered letters, but they sent them to her because they had so much trouble finding her." Two of the three addresses Raffa has on file are for Rolon's residences prior to 1996, and another is her ex-husband's current address, where she has never lived. She insists she watched as Social Security personnel recorded her two most recent addresses, on 39th and 26th streets.

"The bad news is they shouldn't have kept [the file] open so long," Raffa says. "The good news is if they now approve her, she'll get all retroactive benefits from the date of the first filing, which was November 1994." (At up to $500 per month, the retroactive amount alone would be a fortune for Rolon, as much as $25,000.)

Finally in early March, Rolon got word from Marder's office that two more consultative exams (medical and psychiatric) had been set for later in the month, and this time she went. Physicians have three months to file reports to the judge, however, so Rolon is still marking time.

Raffa can think of many mistakes both the government and Rolon could have made that resulted in Social Security's failure to have her more recent addresses on file. He doesn't want to blame either party. But he is certain that inquiries from attorney Lilli Marder and New Times have finally prompted the government to move on Rolon's case. "She's on the right track, no question about it," Raffa concludes. "I do have to say, though, that none of this means she's going to get approved. Social Security disability means you're permanently unable to work." That would seem to describe Rolon; among her papers is a doctor's note hand-printed in large, underlined letters: "VIVIAN ROLON WILL NEVER RETURN TO WORK."

While Rolon waits for SSI, Marder continues to work on plenty of other cases that have been lingering too long. "It is not uncommon for a client to not know about a medical appointment," the attorney's office manager Ana Lueiro says, "and it is not uncommon for Social Security to lose contact with a client. In Dade County the whole process is a mess. In Broward it's not so bad."

Largely because of the AIDS epidemic, and because of repeated large influxes of immigrants, Raffa says, Miami-Dade has seen greater-than-usual increases in numbers of SSI applicants -- far greater than either Broward or Palm Beach counties. Miami has the fourth-highest incidence of AIDS of any municipality in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while U.S. Census figures show Miami-Dade to be the sixth poorest county with a population over 500,000. Raffa estimates that as many as 500 SSI appeals are pending in Miami-Dade County at any given time.

Because only eight judges are assigned to hear those appeals, the Social Security Administration routinely sends down visiting judges from southeastern states such as Kentucky and Alabama, which have smaller caseloads. The agency doesn't record the number of applicants turned down for disability payments, but in Miami-Dade County 111,545 people received SSI in 1998, compared with 24,000 in Broward. A combined total of $228 million per month in Miami-Dade goes to SSI and regular Social Security disability recipients.

For the time being Rolon doesn't have any of that money. She is standing in line at the nonprofit Food For Life. "How many other people are out there like me, losing T cells because of tension and stress caused by being ignored by the system?" Rolon muses as she waits at the Food For Life counter to pick up her weekly groceries. The organization's small front office at 4330 NE Second Ave. is crowded, mostly with young women of color. If they're in that line, they're probably very much like Rolon. "One of our biggest enemies is tension and stress," Rolon goes on, her frown duplicated on the forehead of the younger woman waiting behind her. "And here we are getting beaten down because we have stepped into a vortex and we can't get out."

In about an hour, six plastic bags of groceries are ready. Rolon gathers them up and walks to the bus stop two blocks away. In another hour she steps stiffly down to the pavement at Hialeah Boulevard and E. Fourth Avenue, six blocks from home. By the time she crosses under the mango and orange trees shading the scrubby patches of grass in the yard, she feels leaden and light-headed at the same time.

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