597 days. And still waiting.

Webster County, Miss. — On the 597th day, the day he hoped everything would change, Joe Stewart woke early. He took 15 pills in a single swallow. He shaved his head. And then he got down to the business of the day, which was the business of every day, and that was waiting. He looked outside, and saw his mother there in a green sedan, engine running. So many months he had waited for this moment, and now it was here. Time for his Social Security disability hearing. Time to go.

Stewart, 55, set out on crutches, tottering out of his mobile home and down a metal ramp he’d laid when stairs became too much. “I’m sweating my ass off,” he said, getting into his mother’s car, his long-sleeved dress shirt hanging open. He tilted the passenger seat all the way down, placed a pillow at the small of his back and, groaning and wincing, settled in as best he could.

“Did they say long-sleeved?” asked his mother, Jean Bingham, 73.

“It was the only decent shirt I had!” he said.

He knew only what he’d been told by his lawyer, who wanted to see him again before the hearing, and that was not to wear a T-shirt and to bring along a list of medications he uses to treat the pains that are all he has to show for a lifetime spent installing vinyl siding throughout Webster County. Neurontin for nerve pain. Baclofen for muscle spasms. Trazodone for depression. Hydroxyzine and Buspirone for anxiety, a condition that seemed to worsen each day his wait stretched into the next.

Stewart had first applied for federal disability benefits on May 21, 2015. The application was denied, and so was his appeal. When he appealed the second rejection, he went to the back of one of the federal government’s biggest backlogs, where 1.1 million disability claimants wait for one of some 1,600 Social Security administrative law judges to decide whether they deserve a monthly payment and Medicare or Medicaid. “A death sentence” is how Stewart, who has no health insurance, has come to think of another denial.

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