By Jeffrey Freedman
President Trump’s order for a hiring freeze may seem like a good first step to smaller government – at first glance. The truth is, fewer government employees means fewer (and slower) government services. In particular, this hurts two of the most vulnerable segments of our population: disabled veterans and Social Security Disability (SSD) claimants who, because of an illness or injury, can no longer work.
Both agencies have significant backlogs of applicants waiting for decisions on benefits. There are 1.1 million claimants in the backlog for SSD, with processing times from application to receipt of the first check taking one year nationally, and 730 days in Western New York. The backlog of veterans disability claims rose to 101,000 in February. The typical wait for a veteran to get a decision on a claim is one year, with appeals taking three to five years.
Government officials explain these backlogs by saying the number of claims has increased significantly. There is some truth in that. The United States has an aging population. Employees, particularly those who do physical labor, are at increased risk of becoming ill or suffering injuries at ages 50 and above.
And although one might think the increase in disabled veterans is due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, aging Vietnam vets subjected to Agent Orange or other chemicals are just now experiencing illnesses caused by those compounds.
A hiring freeze that prohibits these agencies from adding employees or even replacing those lost by attrition means individuals and families who have little or no income will wait longer for benefits. In our offices we see people who, if they are lucky, are able to sleep on a friend’s couch while they wait. SSD applicants don’t have health insurance, so they forego essential treatments and their initial conditions worsen.
Veterans, who have put their lives on the line to serve our country, have access to health care, but VA hospitals are also stretched to their limits.
While the VA received increased funding from 2001 to 2014, according to the Office of Management and Budget, since 2010 the SSA has had budget cuts. The minimal increases proposed by the Trump budget (0.2 percent for SSA and 5.9 percent for the VA) won’t translate to staff increases, due to the hiring freeze.
The backlogs for veterans and Social Security Disability benefits are unacceptable and the president’s hiring freeze will only exacerbate these crises. The call for “smaller government” cannot be answered on the backs of people who have served our country, or who have worked and contributed to the economy for decades.
Congress needs to fight for funding for these agencies and the lifting of the hiring freeze.
Jeffrey Freedman is senior partner in the law firm of Jeffrey Freedman, which includes Social Security and veterans disabilities among its specialities.