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National Disability Institute's Washington Insider is a monthly newsletter highlighting key federal policy news that impacts the financial futures and economic empowerment of all people with disabilities. The Washington Insider tracks legislative and policy initiatives gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, specifically in the areas of taxation, asset building and economic development.

 

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November/December 2013 | Vol. 5, Issue 9
CONTENTS
ABLE Act Update
CFPB Disability Symposium
Funding Innovations: Expanding the Availability and Affordability of Assistive Technology
Quality Trust Symposium on Supported Decision-Making
NDI and the IRS Highlight Collaboration and Outcomes for Taxpayers with Disabilities at National Press Conference
House Subcommittee Hearing on the Companionship Rule
New Congressional Caucus: the Income Protection Caucus
October Employment Profile


 
ABLE Act Update

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act (S 313/H.R. 647) has reached an unprecedented number of Congressional co-sponsors: 316 in the House of Representatives and 51 in the Senate. With more than half of the U.S. Congress supporting the bill, Congressman Ander Crenshaw (R- FL) and Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) and a bipartisan, bicameral group of bill co-sponsors and supporters called on Congress to pass the ABLE Act and provide an improved quality of life for individuals with disabilities through tax-free savings accounts.

Sara Weir, National Down Syndrome Society Vice President of Advocacy & Affiliate Relations, stated, “There is no other bill in the U.S. Congress that has as much bipartisan, bicameral support as the ABLE Act. People with disabilities can’t wait any longer for the passage of the ABLE Act. Passing this landmark legislation will go a long way to help people with Down syndrome and other disabilities realize and achieve their own hopes, dreams and aspirations.” The bill is backed by more than 50 local, state, and national disability advocacy groups, including the National Disability Institute, National Down Syndrome Society, Autism Speaks and The Arc.

The legislation would amend Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code of 1986 to create tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities. The bill, first introduced in 2006, would ease financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities by making tax-free savings accounts available to cover qualified expenses such as education, housing, medical and transportation expenses. The bill would supplement, but not supplant, benefits provided through private insurance, the Medicaid program, the beneficiary’s employment and other sources.

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CFPB Disability Forum

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) held a Disability Forum on November 13 entitled: “Opportunities and Obstacles in Achieving Financial Capability for Individuals with Disabilities.” The purpose of the Forum was twofold: to hear from participants about key financial issues that impact people with disabilities and to engage in an active dialogue between participants and CFPB staff on how the CFPB can best address strategies to build financial capability for individuals with disabilities. The forum highlighted current financial tools and resources as well as encouraged discussion on future opportunities for innovation.

Participants had an opportunity to have an open dialogue with CFPB Director Richard Cordray as well as a discussion about experiences with helping customers with disabilities achieve economic security. The conversation centered on how the CFPB can better integrate financial capability skill building into social and human service programs, particularly those that are disability specific: Vocational Rehabilitation and Special Education, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), as well as generic programs such as Workforce Development and Medicaid.

The CFPB is in the process of developing a long-term strategy that will allow the agency to better connect with disability organizations serving low-income consumers and is interested in being a catalyst to improve the financial capability of individuals with disabilities. The various offices at CFPB discussed innovative programs and partnerships that integrated financial capability and service-delivery systems.

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Funding Innovations: Expanding the Availability and Affordability of Assistive Technology

On November 14, an inaugural meeting was convened in Washington, DC, to explore funding innovations for assistive technology. The meeting brought together interested stakeholders including representatives of assistive technology (AT) manufacturers and vehicle and home modification vendors, alternative finance programs (AFPs) from more than eight states, the U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitative Services Administration (RSA), private lenders (National Cooperative Bank, National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, and the Community Reinvestment Fund), the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The meeting was facilitated by National Disability Institute and Wall Street without Walls with assistance from the RESNA Catalyst Project, the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) and the Washington Access Fund (WAF).

Despite expectations of growing demand, the challenges of reaching and meeting the needs of the end user are multidimensional. Pam Owens, Vice President of Programs at the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions shared with the group their lack of success with helping underwrite the risk of assistive technology loans being offered by member credit unions nationwide. With Predatory Relief and Intervention Deposits (PRIDE), the Federation was willing to assume the risk on 25 percent of the loan principal. Unfortunately, the interest in this program among credit unions was very small as they lacked the understanding and capacity to market the program to people with disabilities in need of AT financing.

The current challenges to greater affordability and availability of assistive technology loans identified by meeting participants include:

  • Cost of small loans
  • Access to capital
  • Credit scores and history of potential borrowers
  • Lack of standardized documentation across alternative financing programs
  • Banks fears of negative publicity if borrower defaults and technology is repossessed
  • Inability to move beyond state boundaries and expand lending to new markets
  • Limited operations funding
  • Marketing and outreach to make potential borrowers aware of loan products and other services (credit repair, links to Individual Development Accounts, financial education)
  • Sufficient loan volume (50 million dollars) to be bundled and securitized for sale to impact investors.

The working group agreed to focus on six specific areas that will lead to financial innovations and efficiencies in the marketplace, including: marketing and outreach, understanding market size, technology to improve alternative finance programs efficiencies and effectiveness, access to capital, policy development and the development of a cooperative of alternate financing programs to lower costs and identify system inefficiencies.

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Quality Trust Symposium on Supported Decision-Making

The rights of people with intellectual disabilities to make their own decisions through a process that has come to be known as “supported decision making” is the focus of growing attention due in part to a recent Virginia state court decision granting a woman with Down Syndrome, Margaret “Jenny” Hatch, the freedom to make her own decisions, based on evidence that she was capable of making good decisions when given appropriate support.

Hatch’s case has generated an effort by the Quality Trust for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, called the Jenny Hatch Justice Project (JHJP), a research and outreach center dedicated to advancing the rights of people disabilities to make their own choices and determine their own path and direction in life. Hatch was forced to live against her will for years in a group home. She was freed in August this year after a landmark decision that pitted Hatch against her father and stepmother, who sought unsuccessfully to be appointed her guardians.

The Hatch case and the issue of supported decision making generally were also the focus of a recent symposium at the American University Washington College of Law (WCL), convened by Quality Trust and WCL’s Disability Rights Clinic. The symposium including a session on legal practice questions, led by Hatch’s attorney Jonathan Martinis, as well as sessions on family support questions, research issuesand policy.

Supported decision making also finds support in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD), which states that all people have legal capacity, and that governments shall take appropriate measures to provide people with disabilities access to the support they may require in exercising their legal capacity.

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NDI and the IRS Highlight Collaboration and Outcomes for Taxpayers with Disabilities at National Press Conference

A nine year collaboration between National Disability Institute (NDI) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to provide accessible, free volunteer income tax assistance to people with disabilities has helped more than 1.9 million Americans receive more than $1.8 billion in tax refunds and move toward financial stability, representatives from the organization and agency announced.

Created in 2004, the partnership is one of a number of initiatives begun by NDI with various government agencies as part its Real Economic Impact Network designed to embrace and promote access to the economic mainstream for Americans with disabilities and address the income disparity that has led to nearly one third of Americans with disabilities living in poverty, nearly double the national poverty rate, the highest for any underserved population, noted Michael Morris, NDI’s Executive Director.

This partnership is making a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities by providing access to important tax preparation tools, services, and education, commented Peggy Bogadi, the commissioner of the IRS Wage and Investment division.

In addition to highlighting NDI and IRS work together and NDI’s work with tax coalitions nationwide to build greater outreach to and engagement of taxpayers with disabilities, representatives from the MyFreeTaxes partnership – which includes NDI, Goodwill Industries International and United Way and is funded by the Walmart Foundation – discussed how MyFreeTaxes provided access to free federal and state tax preparation services both online and in person in 2013.  The MyFreeTaxes partnership saw the amount of tax refunds received by participants during the 2013 tax season increase by more than 12 percent from the prior year, to $2.1 billion in tax refunds, saving taxpayers more than $340 million in tax preparer fees. The program this year also instituted a new free taxpayer helpline, the group stated.

In addition to saving preparer fees, MyFreeTaxes offers a number of other opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their families to gain information on and access to a number of anti-poverty programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  In addition, NDI offers a Virtual Toolkit and a free online disability awareness training e-learning course for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, tax coalitions and other groups. Since the program began, the number of persons with disabilities accessing VITA and in many cases qualifying for the EITC has grown to 13 percent from 6 percent.

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House Subcommittee Hearing on the Companionship Rule

The U.S. Department of Labor’s regulation that would eliminate a long-standing exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) for some home care workers was the subject of a recent hearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

The Rule was implemented by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in early October to eliminate “out-of-date regulations” that excluded workers from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections. It removes the exemption for direct care workers employed by third-party employers, such as home care agencies, and applies the fair labor law protections to them. The DOL explained that there would continue to be some exceptions and that workers employed solely by a family or individual “may be covered if they are performing medically-related duties or are providing more than a limited amount of care in addition to fellowship and protection.”  

Subcommittee chairman Congressman Tim Walberg (R-MI) criticized the change, asserting that the regulation “will create more hardship for some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” and arguing that “the intent of Congress was to protect a vulnerable group of Americans …is being discarded” by the administration.  The exception to FSLA was created nearly 40 years ago. All four hearing witnesses, which included officials from various home care and elder care organizations, registered opposition to regulation and highlighted what they said would be problems caused by the regulation, including additional costs.

Although the Committee did not include testimony by Administration witnesses or supporters of the law, the DOL previously explained how it responded to numerous comments before the rule was finalized and added ways to meet consumer needs by taking a more flexible approach to defining the category of care that a direct care worker that will continue to exempt many from the minimum wage and overtime requirements. “In accordance with Congress’ initial intent, individual workers who are employed only by the person receiving services or that person’s family or household and engaged primarily in fellowship and protection (providing company, visiting or engaging in hobbies) and care incidental to such activities, will still be considered exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections,” the DOL stated.

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New Congressional Caucus: the Income Protection Caucus

A new bipartisan caucus in Congress is intended to focus attention on and serve as a clearinghouse for information on the financial risks of becoming disabled from illness or injury during employment.

The Income Protection Caucus, formed by Sens. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), with Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Stephen Fincher (R-TN), is designed to help raise the awareness of the importance of disability income protection, and to assist private, non-profit and public sectors to work more closely to ensure that more Americans have disability insurance.

According to statistics from the Social Security Administration, 25 percent of all 20 year olds today, will become disabled and unable to work before they reach the age of 67. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one-third of workers have access to disability income protection benefits at work, but more than 75 million workers do not have access to this coverage, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

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October Employment Profile

Disability Scoop reported that for the second month in a row, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities fell. Government statistics show that the jobless rate hit 12.9 percent in October, down from 13.5 percent the previous month.

At the same time, the economy added 171,000 jobs in October, a higher than expected number, as unemployment for the general population remained relatively unchanged at 7.9 percent.

Data on people with disabilities covers those over the age of 16 who do not live in institutions. The first employment report specific to this population was made available in February 2009 and are now released monthly.

U.S. Disability Employment Profile
Statistic
With Disability
Without Disability
 
Oct
2012
Oct
2013
Oct
2012
Oct
2013
Percent of Population in the Labor Force
21.5
20.0
69.5
68.5
Employment-Population Ratio
18.7
17.5
64.4
63.9
Unemployment Rate
12.9
12.8
7.3
6.7
As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-6

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