TAMPA — Todd Cohen was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1994 when he was 19. The cancer led to the amputation of his right leg.
Since then, Cohen has learned to walk with a prosthesis. He got an education, but he has never held a steady job.
He's gotten by with Medicaid and monthly Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, checks that have ranged from $271 to $650.
But the government says those days are over.
In October, Cohen received a letter from the Social Security Administration. It said it had reviewed his case and decided that his benefits would be eliminated.
The reason: His condition has improved, the letter states.
Cohen was baffled by the reasoning cited by the government.
"My leg didn't grow back," he says.
How can a man with one leg not be considered disabled, Cohen wonders. And how is a 30-something with no work experience supposed to find work in this economy?
"At 33, people expect you to have a job history," Cohen said. "I can't put on a job application, 'Oh, I had cancer, please hire me.' "
Cohen is fighting back. On Wednesday, he will plead his case before Social Security officials.
"I could understand if I was claiming disability if I was just overweight or a smoker," Cohen said. "But I'm missing a limb."
Cohen doesn't have a lawyer helping him in his appeal. But Clearwater attorney John Tucker, who specializes in Social Security claims, said the burden of proof lies with the government.
"The government has to prove that (the person) has substantially improved," Tucker said. "Amputations usually don't improve."
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Fifteen years ago, Cohen believed the worst thing that could ever happen to him was not having enough rent money. Then came the cancer in his right thigh. That was followed by three years of chemotherapy. Finally, they had to take off his leg.
It was a dark time for Cohen, then a high school dropout whose only real-world experience was as a cook at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach.
But somehow, Cohen made it through.
In 1996, he was featured in a St. Petersburg Times article when his artwork was used as the cover of a calendar produced for an American Cancer Society fundraiser.
Cohen was on a high, believing things would be okay. He enrolled at Tampa Tech, now called Remington College.
"When I was in school, my spirits were in the sky," Cohen said. "I thought I was going to graduate, get a job … that was the highest point in my life."
But shortly after he got his associate graphic arts degree in 2003, Cohen started suffering other medical issues stemming from his above-the-knee amputation. And when no companies responded to his job applications, he slid into depression.
In recent months, he's gotten a staph infection and blisters near his amputation site. He's on medication for anxiety and memory loss and sees a doctor every other week for pain management related to his back, hips, arms and legs.
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Patti Patterson, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration, could not comment specifically on Cohen's case.
But she said that case reviews are required by law and that the agency considers many factors when it makes its decisions.
"We look at the cases on an individual basis," she said. "The condition must be severe in order to meet our qualifications."
The agency ruled him disabled and qualified to receive SSI in 1995, according to Cohen's records. SSI is a program funded by general tax revenue for disabled individuals who have limited income and resources.
In the October letter, which Cohen provided to the Times, the agency says that Cohen's health is better than it was in the 1990s, that he can get around independently with his prosthetic and that he can communicate and follow instructions.
"Based on the medical evidence, we have concluded that you now have the ability to work … " the letter states.
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The situation has taken a toll on Cohen, who insists that if he could work, he would.
But he says he can't commit to a job with his fluctuating health issues.
"I would love to work. I would love to make money," he said. "But I can't even deliver pizzas."
Greg Bauer, president of Westcoast Brace & Limb, said his patient is caught in a hard spot.
"Just to be an amputee, you're using 110 percent more energy than the normal person," said Bauer, who's handled Cohen's prosthetic care for the past few years. "To find employment that covers your insurance right off the bat is pretty hard."
Cohen, who continues to get his benefits during the appeal process, worries what will happen if the agency decides to purge him from its rolls.
As it is, his monthly SSI checks are only a few hundred dollars, but the medical coverage is what's most valuable.
If he loses, Cohen also could be on the hook for some or all of the money he's received during the appeal process.
Angela Wines, Cohen's longtime girlfriend, said she plans to go looking for a second job soon.
The couple went through foreclosure last year, Wines said, and spent months living in a hotel before finding a one-bedroom apartment in January.
"It just sucks. All the hard times we've had," said Wines, who is a caregiver for an 86-year-old woman. "But at least we have each other."
Tucker, the attorney, said people often get exhausted by the process of trying to get or keep benefits.
"The mental and emotional side of it is sometimes more disabling than the physical side," he said. "Imagine how devastated you'd be if the only sort of income you had was taken away."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.