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"Failing The Disabled"

This is the second part in a CBS News investigative series about federal disability program.

Two years ago 52-year-old Sherry Farner was a manager at a Denny's restaurant. But heart problems, strokes, kidney failure put an end to her employment.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever been through," Farner told CBS News chief investigative reporter Armen Keteyian. "And I wouldn't wish this on nobody."

When Farner filed a claim against a lifetime of paying into federal Social Security disability, she was turned down, twice. Even though a rejection letter acknowledged she was severely disabled. But not disabled enough: Unable to perform work of any kind.

"It's a very tough standard," said Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration. "And you can argue whether that should be the standard or not, but I'm stuck with that."

A two-month CBS News Investigation uncovered a system whose own standards have been called into question - a federal agency reeling from budget cuts and high staff turnover. Doctors making decisions outside their specialties, and inexperienced examiners under pressure to keep costs down.

"We're failing the disabled on a very large scale," said Trisha Cardillo, who worked inside the system for years, reviewing 200 federal disability cases a month in Ohio.

She now fights for those seeking disability benefits.

"There were a lot of times when I was fighting with management because I wanted to approve a claim," she said. "And I had to go through so many steps and - jump through so many hurdles to do that, it just seemed ridiculous."

All part, says Cardillo, of a culture built on denial. Examiners warned by their superiors that approving claims today could cost the government millions tomorrow.

"So are you saying, in essence, there was a quota system?" Keteyian asked.

"Every state had different numbers," she said. "They know that a certain percentage of people, once denied, will never file an appeal."

CBS News has learned that two-thirds of all applicants denied last year - nearly a million people - simply gave up after being turned down the first time.

Given how many claims are ultimately approved, that could mean hundreds of thousands of Americans are not getting the benefits they paid for - and deserve.

Read Part I of the series: Disabled And Waiting
FYI: Resources about disability benefits
Keteyian asked Astrue: "One of the state examiners we spoke to, told us that people were singled out, talked to, if they approved too many clients."

"You can approve too many, and you can approve too few. And they're both wrong," Astrue said.

That's not what the examiner told CBS News. She said that in her state there were quotas, quotas to be kept at a certain level.

"It's not the way the system works," Astrue said.

Keteyian said: "That's the way it worked in her office."

"You can always find a disgruntled person," Astrue said.

But we found nearly three dozen former examiners from 14 states who told us about a system-wide "culture to deny." And a review of 50 cases across the country reveals patients diagnosed with strokes, heart attacks, even brain cancer, rejected for disability payments.

"Nobody cares if a case is denied. If you approve it, it will be subjected to intense scrutiny," Cardillo said.

No surprise to Sherry Farner, whose case was finally approved by a judge a few weeks ago - after a two-year wait. But not before losing her car, her life savings, and nearly her home.

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