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Trump freeze seen worsening 526-day disability case backlog

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(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump’s federal hiring freeze may exacerbate a backlog of appeals for Social Security Disability Insurance that has grown so big that an average case takes more than a year to be heard.

“These are people who are desperate,” Judge Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges union, said. “There may be a hiring freeze on federal employment, but there’s no freeze on people getting older, people getting sicker, people having injuries and accidents, and people needing disability insurance.”

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Zahm is among around 1,650 judges tasked with considering claims from Americans whose initial requests for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits have been denied by state agencies.

As of May 2016, the average wait for an appeal to get processed was 526 days, according to the Social Security Administration’s inspector general. A total of 1.1 million people were waiting for a decision on their eligibility for benefits under the sixty-year-old program, which provides income support to people who paid into the system and due to disability will be unable for at least a year to work.

The ranks of beneficiaries in the program have grown substantially in recent years: Whereas fewer than 2.5 percent of working-age Americans got checks in 1990, more than 5 percent did in 2015.

Issuers of commercial disability insurance have a stake in the efficiency of the SSDI program, because many deduct a beneficiary’s SSDI benefits from what the private coverage will pay.

Last year the Social Security Administration announced that, along with efforts to streamline the process, it wanted to grow the ranks of judges to 1,900 by the end of fiscal year 2018.

Related: SSDI: Still on track to go broke in late 2016

That may be impossible now that Trump, in one of his first executive actions, has imposed a federal civilian employee hiring freeze. Trump’s order allows agencies to exempt staff needed for “national security or public safety responsibilities,” and authorizes the director of the Office of Personnel Management to grant exemptions. The order requires the Office of Management and Budget to develop a plan within 90 days for shrinking the workforce, and says the blanket freeze will expire once that plan is implemented. White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday that the order “ensures that the American taxpayers get effective and efficient government.”

But like the judges’ union, former Social Security commissioners from both parties expect the freeze will worsen the backlog of appeals cases.

“To better serve the American public, the Social Security Administration needs more budget and staff resources, not less,” said Kenneth Apfel, who led the agency under President Bill Clinton and now teaches at University of Maryland’s public policy school. “I think it’s going to be pretty devastating,” said Michael Astrue, a George W. Bush appointee who served in the same role.

Multiple culprits

Astrue blamed the backlog on multiple culprits, including what he said was a long-running failure by the personnel office to efficiently vet candidates and insufficient focus on the issue from his Obama-appointed successor. But he said freezing the agency’s hiring would only make the problem worse. “I don’t agree with the union on much, but I do agree with them on that.” Astrue said he hopes Social Security officials will seek an exemption for appeals judges and their clerks, and that Trump’s personnel department would grant it.

Officials at the Social Security Administration declined to discuss their plans. “At this time, we have no further information and are awaiting guidance,” spokeswoman Dorothy Clark said Wednesday. The Office of Personnel Management referred an inquiry to a budget office spokesperson, who did not respond.

Trump’s nominee to helm the budget office, South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney, did address the issue briefly during his Tuesday confirmation hearing. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, cited the backlog of claims, along with veterans’ benefits and drug approvals, as areas where a hiring freeze “could have the effect of even making it harder for citizens to get the services they need.”

“I don’t think you’re wrong to be concerned about it, Senator,” Mulvaney responded. “I don’t think it automatically follows that hiring more people will create more efficiency.”

Judge Zahm said many judges have been working extra uncompensated hours every day to try to get through the outstanding cases, some of which require reviewing 1,000 pages of medical records as well as experts’ assessments. “This is not a job where you should be doing slapdash work,” she said. “People’s lives, livelihoods, are at stake.”


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