Charlie Solender couldn't work. He could barely get up each day without great pain, thanks to pancreatitis.

But when the registered nurse applied for Social Security disability benefits in the spring of 2006, he was denied. It took another application, another denial, continuous appeals and the intercession of a company that handles such cases to get Solender his benefits more than a year after he could no longer work full time.

"I couldn't believe they denied me," he said. "I thought they were crazy. The pain is worse than cancer pain. It saps all your energy."

Solender appears to be one of the lucky ones. The average wait for a disability appeals hearing at the Minneapolis office for the Social Security Administration now is more than 570 days -- more than a year and a half, and an increase of 40 days since the spring.

Federal officials say the overburdened system -- with a shortage of employees and administrative law judges and a growing caseload of ill and injured baby boomers -- is trying to attack the problem and has added staff. But one expert believes the backlog of people waiting for benefits is a sign of bigger troubles to come. More than 2.5 million Americans file disability claims every year, double the number of a decade ago.

Yet, half of the claims in Minnesota are initially denied and must go through the backlogged appeals process.

"We're in the very early stages of the problem," said Jim Allsup, who runs Allsup Inc., an Illinois-based company that helps people file applications and work through appeals for benefits. "The system is totally broken, out of date, antiquated. The whole thing has to change, top to bottom."

The issue is simple, said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. Over the past decade, Social Security has received $1.1 billion less than it requested to keep up with its increasing responsibilities. In addition to the disability claims filed each year, Hinkle said, workers at the nation's 1,400 field offices must also help process Medicare Part D paperwork, verify Social Security numbers for employers and process Social Security retirement applications.

"This backlog didn't happen overnight," Hinkle said. "It took years to get to this level and it's going to take awhile to get out of it."

Ann Quincy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis who has helped people navigate disability claims for nearly 20 years, said the true waiting time can be closer to three years, from the first application to finally going before a judge on appeal.

"It's much worse than the backlogs have ever been before," she said.

A painful process

Solender knew of none of this when he first started feeling excruciating pain in late 2003 and found it harder and harder to go to his job as an RN at Methodist Hospital. After more than a year of doctor visits, pancreatitis was diagnosed in late 2005, and he eventually had his pancreas removed.

After a year of paid leave, Solender applied for Social Security Disability Insurance. He was denied.

"It was a bad time, very bad," said Linda Solender, Charlie's wife. She is also a nurse and had to return to full-time work to help them make ends meet.

Others are forced to exhaust their savings while waiting for disability benefits, Quincy said. Those who are very poor can qualify for general assistance -- $203 a month. Even after people win benefits, they can wait another year to collect back pay for the time they waited.

Solender tried to speed up the process. He did some research online and found Allsup, who reapplied for Solender's benefits. Again, he was denied. But Allsup worked through the appeals process. In May 2007, an administrative law judge awarded Solender benefits.

"Frankly, I think the government just doesn't want to pay," said Solender, who recently returned to work part time.

Allsup, whose company analyzes Social Security statistics, said most of the denials are for simple reasons: Paperwork wasn't filled out properly, files are missing. Of those cases that are initially denied, more than 60 percent eventually win benefits through appeal. For the region that includes Minnesota, Quincy said, 51 percent of disability applicants are initially denied. Another 20 percent win benefits on their first appeal and 65 percent of those who go before a judge eventually win benefits.

But the wait can be painful.

"Through all of this, you have to remember, that people get worse and worse and worse," Quincy said. "While I am waiting two years for my case to wend its way through, I have been to the hospital, or I have been in a car accident, or my mental health is worse."

Canary in coal mine?

Allsup said the disability backlog may be the canary in the coal mine for the larger Social Security system, as baby boomers retire in ever greater numbers. At the same time more people are filing for Social Security, more workers at Social Security are retiring. And they are not being replaced in the same numbers.

"The crisis has already hit," Allsup said. "It's just hit the disability program first."

Hinkle said there is no correlation between the disability backlog and what might be coming down the road for the average retiree.

"You can't really compare disability and retirement," he said. "That's like comparing apples to mayonnaise."

Many retirement applications can be done online, he said. "That's more of a straightforward process. Are you old enough? Have you worked long enough? That's about it."

Even in the backlogged area of disability, Hinkle said, improvements have been made. This year, he said Congress appropriated $150 million more to Social Security than President Bush requested. That's allowed the agency to hire 190 administrative law judges, who hear most of the appeals, and more than 500 support staff.

Social Security has cleared the number of disability cases that are more than 1,000 days old -- there were 63,000 of those at the end of 2006 -- and is now cutting the number of cases more than 900 days old, Hinkle said.

Despite the appeals backlog, Hinkle said, the average time for making an initial determination has stayed around 90 days.

"We're taking positive steps," he said. "But it's going to take awhile to dig out of this."

One way out, Allsup said, is for Social Security to tell disability applicants about companies such as his.

"It's not rocket science," he said of the work, which he equates to having H&R Block complete your tax return. "But what people don't realize is that the average disability claim is a lot more complicated than the average tax return. All we're suggesting is to tell people they have a choice."

Social Security provides information about using representatives to help file claims, Hinkle said. "But we certainly wouldn't make any kind of endorsement" regarding which service to use, he said.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428