Disability Pensions at the AFM-EPF
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Recently we saw some inflammatory headlines: “Trustees Target the Most Vulnerable Musicians” and “Trump Administration is Kinder to Disabled Musicians Than Our Trustees.”
The US Department of Labor (DOL) did release some new regulations recently. Let’s take a closer look. Someone who is making a claim for a disability pension (a claimant) is now better protected from conflicts of interest in terms of hiring, firing or promotions. Claimants also have easier access to documentation a fund is using if denying a claim and there are new rules about culturally and linguistically appropriate notices of a claims denial and the guidelines the fund is using. The claimant now has more access to evidence being used by the fund while an appeals process is underway.
What has likely given funds pause are the stricter rules on “exhaustion of claims and appeals process” which clears the way sooner for a claimant to sue the fund if the fund denies the claim or there is a rescission or retroactive denial.
“Under the final rule, a rescission of disability coverage triggers an adverse benefit denial. ‘Recission’ is defined as a retroactive coverage cancellation or discontinuance of disability benefits (in whole or in part), except to the extent it is attributable to a failure to timely pay required premiums or contributions towards the cost of coverage. It appears that the DOL is likely to consider a recission to have occurred (and a claim triggered), even if a claimant commits fraud or makes an intentional misrepresentation of material fact” (emphasis added).
Because funds are now more exposed to litigation even in the event of claimant fraud, many of them re-examined their eligibility rules. The simplest way to go is to require qualification for social security disability in order to receive a disability pension. But qualifying for a social security disability benefit requires the individual to be unable to do any work at all, not just the specialized work covered by a pension. The Equity-League and the IATSE National Pension funds tie disability eligibility to social security disability. The SAG and AFTRA funds use an even more stringent standard than social security and the Motion Picture Industry (MPI) fund ties eligibility to social security but makes an exception if the claimant is terminally ill with a life expectancy of less than two years.
The AFM-EPF makes a different choice. It considers a claimant disabled if the condition makes covered work (work as a musician, not any work at all) impossible. It has narrowed eligibility since the new rules came out, to musicians under the age of 55 and thus ineligible for an early pension. A disability pension has to be examined every year to be sure the claimant isn’t doing covered work, creating an additional burden on the fund and the claimant. While the new rules take away the possibility for a person over 55 to make a disability claim, it retains the possibility that a younger person, further from regular retirement can make a claim if the disability prevents the pursuit of a career as a musician rather than as a non-specialized worker. “Trustees Target the Most Vulnerable Musicians” in this context seems nothing short of a title deliberately designed to inflame musicians.
The analysis in “Trump Administration is Kinder to Disabled Musicians Than Our Trustees.” fails to consider the current administration would like to weaken unions, and one effective way to weaken unions is to weaken their benefit funds. The claim that these rules were imposed because they passed muster in the Trump Administration which claims to be reducing regulatory burdens stunningly ignores a much broader goal of the current administration.