October 8, 2013

Federal shutdown means closure of Winthrop Disability Determination Services office

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

WINTHROP — Many around town don’t know that the state’s clearinghouse for disability cases under Social Security is housed in a low-profile office here off U.S. Route 202.

click image to enlarge

This sign in the window announces that Department of Health and Human Services Disability Determination Services office is closed due to federal government shutdown.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

The parking lot in front of the closed Department of Health and Human Services Disability Determination Services office was empty on Tuesday in Winthrop.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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However, its closure under the federal government’s shutdown could mean delays for many in Maine struggling to get by as they seek disability benefits, a local attorney who handles those cases said Tuesday.

A news release from Gov. Paul LePage’s office on Monday said 52 employees of the state-run, federally funded Disability Determination Services were laid off temporarily because of the shutdown.

LePage called the closure of the office, which vets disability cases for the Social Security Administration, “one of the many difficult situations” the state faces under the shutdown.

The office is busy: In 2011, about 62,000 Mainers ages 18 to 64 received disability benefits. That made up 7.4 percent of the state’s population that year, fifth-most in the nation behind West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi.

To be eligible for disability, people must not be able to work because of physical or mental impairments that are either expected to last longer than 12 months or to result in death.

Steve O’Donnell, a lawyer who handles disability cases for his Augusta firm, Goodspeed & O’Donnell, said 50 of his cases are held up by the shutdown. Statewide, there could be 1,000, he estimated.

O’Donnell said when disability applications are completed, the nine local Social Security offices in Maine send cases to Winthrop, where officials examine them. Employees may look at records from doctors and counselors and arrange for evaluations of those looking for benefits, he said.

If the Disability Determination Services denies a claim, O’Donnell said claimants can ask for reconsideration, in which different staffers evaluate their situation. That means two levels of cases, initial and second-run, are held up under the shutdown.

“It’s going to be a hardship for a lot of people who are waiting to see if they’re going to get disability benefits and not working and have no income coming in,” O’Donnell said.

The building itself is hard to find. Jeffrey Woolston, Winthrop’s town manager, said he didn’t know where it was. He ended up pointing a reporter and photographer to the Carleton Mills Building off of U.S. Route 202, where he said it might be.

It’s there, between NotifyMD, a health care call center, and an office of TexTech Industries, a company that makes high-performance textiles.

A group of NotifyMD employees on a break outside the building said they didn’t know people who worked for the state there. The parking lot directly in front of the state’s portion of the building was empty.

“When our folks started coming in today, they’re like, ‘Where is everyone?’” said Karen Lucarelli, of Fayette, who works at NotifyMD.

The federal government shutdown began last week when Congress failed to pass a budget to keep all parts of the government running.

The House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, making the impasse difficult to break.

O’Donnell, the Augusta lawyer, said that makes it hard to give his clients waiting for decisions on disability benefits “any clear guidance about what’s going to happen.”

“I don’t think this impasse is near resolution,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@centralmaine.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

This sign in the window announces that Department of Health and Human Services Disability Determination Services office is closed due to federal government shutdown.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

 


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