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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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 September 2012 | Vol. 4, Issue 8
CONTENTS
ABLE Act Update - Push to Sign on Cosponsors before November Election
Update on Mandatory Direct Express Master Card for Federal Benefits
The Affordable Care Act's Impact on Citizens with Disabilities
SSDI Program Careening Toward Bankruptcy
NDI Makes Asset Development Recommendations in Response to Senator Harkin's Disability Employment Report
Looming Discretionary Spending Cuts (Sequestration) Threaten Disability Programs
Second Anniversary of Dodd-Frank: A Work in Progress
July Employment Numbers
 

ABLE Act Update - Push to Sign on Cosponsors before November Election

The ABLE Act of 2011 continues to gain bi-partisan support in Congress, with 29 total Senate cosponsors and 190 in the House. The ABLE Act would allow people with disabilities and their families to set aside funds in tax-advantaged savings accounts, similar to 529 plans, that could be withdrawn to cover allowable costs for every day activities and promote community participation such as healthcare, employment support, housing, transportation, lifelong education and the purchase of assistive technology.  Between now and the November election, the focus of the ABLE Act strategy is to amass as many cosponsors as possible in support of this bill. Find out if your Members of Congress have cosponsored the ABLE Act (House Sponsors   |   Senate Sponsors); if they have not signed-on, please continue to make calls encouraging them to cosponsor the ABLE Act of 2011.

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Update on Mandatory Direct Express Master Card for Federal Benefits

Last month, National Disability Institute (NDI) began building its investigation and recommendations to change mandatory usage of the Direct Express Master Card, which in March 2013 will become the sole means to receive federal benefits for more than 2.5 million people who receive payments from Social Security, SSDI, VA, SSI, the Railroad Retirement Board, Department of Labor (Black Lung), or OPM benefit checks related to the debit card. In addition to continuing its survey to investigate the use of the card, NDI has held meetings with staff in Senator Harkin’s office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), as well as with Bob Williams, Associate Commissioner for the Office of Employment Support Programs (OESP) at SSA about the challenges the debit card is currently posing and will continue to pose for millions of individuals on SSI and SSDI who are unbanked. All three parties are doing further investigation into the matter.

You can still participate in the survey by visiting NDI’s Federal Benefits and Debit Cards Survey or you can email your comments to NDI at info@ndi-inc.org. Please pass this information on to any interested parties as well through your communications and social media channels.

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The Affordable Care Act's Impact on Citizens with Disabilities

Disability rights activists celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision eliminating the constitutional challenges to the landmark Affordable Care Act health care law. The law, which makes health care more accessible and affordable for millions of Americans, has a particularly significant impact on Americans with disabilities as a result of a number of provisions of the law, including the elimination of barriers to providing coverage for preexisting conditions, expanded access to medical equipment and services, and increased options for where individuals can receive services, including in their homes. Other benefits of the law, as outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services, include an expanded Medicaid program, greater access to preventive services and the ability of individuals to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, thereby making it easier for people with disabilities or chronic conditions to get insurance.

Furthermore, as ADAPT noted in a release following the decision, the law “furthers the promise of the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead decision, which gives people with disabilities the right to receive long-term care supports in the most integrated setting in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” One potential downside of the decision is that the ruling eliminated the federal government’s authority to penalize states for choosing not to expand Medicaid, including provisions encouraging states to provide community services as an alternative to institutional services. Governors of several states, for both political and financial reasons, have already indicated they will not expand their programs to increase coverage as the law allows. As one ADAPT official explained, it is important to put pressure on states to take advantage of these opportunities and not bend to the potential fiscal pressures. “This is one of the great civil rights fights of our time: to ultimately see all people with disabilities live integrated in the community, not locked away in segregated settings." The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released an analysis of the impact of health care reform on individual state budgets, which includes talking points for advocacy efforts to encourage states to embrace the opportunity.

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SSDI Program Careening Toward Bankruptcy

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study examining the growing costs of the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program and considering various options to bring these costs under control. The DI program, which last year provided cash benefits to 8.3 million disabled workers and 2 million dependent spouses and children of those workers, provides assistance to adults under age 66 who have worked in the past but because of a disability are now unable to perform "substantial" work, the program also provides benefits to many beneficiaries of dependents.

The CBO report states that the number of disabled workers who received benefits in 2011 was six times the amount that received benefits in 1970. Outlays for the DI program over the past 40 years, after adjustment for inflation, increased nearly nine-fold, while the average benefit received by disabled workers during that period nearly doubled, to about $1,050 per year. Moreover, since 2009 the program has paid out more each year in benefits than it received in dedicated revenues, a trend the report notes is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

To return the program to sound fiscal footing, the report suggested that a number of changes will be required in the program’s structure that could include: increasing program revenue; changing the formula for who receives benefits; changing how benefits grow over time; changing eligibility rules for benefits; or changing the waiting period for benefits. The report included a graphic summarizing these options as well as the current statistics, the application process for DI, the number of beneficiaries and benefits paid under the program, and policies regarding individuals with disabilities in other countries. A separate report by the GAO addressing a number of the same issues, suggested narrowing the eligibility standards.

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NDI Makes Asset Development Recommendations in Response to Senator Harkin's Disability Employment Report

As reported in last month’s Washington Insider, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin released an important report discussing the state of employment for adults with disabilities; the report offered a number of policy recommendations to increase participation of individuals with disabilities in the labor force.

Senator Harkin’s report offered plans to introduce several pieces of legislation that would improve outcomes in competitive, integrated employment for youth and young adults who are transitioning from school to higher education and work, increase contracting opportunities for disability-owned businesses, create incentives for States to develop and test innovative initiatives that can lay the foundation for modernizing the largest programs providing income support, health care, and long-term services and supports to our citizens with disabilities, and encourage savings and wage support that will help people with disabilities leave poverty and enter the middle class.

In response to the fourth tenet in Senator Harkin’s approach to develop legislation to increase the employment of people with disabilities by encouraging savings and asset development, NDI’s Executive Director Michael Morris met with Senate HELP committee staff to provide recommendations that would significantly help achieve such an important objective for youth and working-age adults with disabilities.

Key among those recommendations includes raising the asset limit and indexing the asset limit for SSI to inflation. Because the last asset limit increase was in 1989, the level of assets that an individual who receives benefits can maintain is artificially low. The low level of asset limits impedes the ability of a worker with a disability to plan and save for a financial future. Additionally, a recommendation was made to exempt certain categories of assets such as tax-preferred retirement accounts, which not only promote financial stability but also serve to decrease financial need in retirement.  

Other key recommendations include:

  • Add to IEP and IPE Requirements: Individual plans under the Workforce Investment (WIA) and the Rehabilitation Act as well as IEPs under IDEA transition plans would consider the need for asset-building services to advance financial capability and a better economic future for youth and young adults with disabilities.
  • Encourage Long-Term Savings: By allowing SSI and SSDI beneficiaries to set aside earnings into a Self-Sufficiency Savings Account (maximum of $10,000 annually) which would be excluded from counting as income or resources under all means-tested or needs-based benefits programs.
  • Expand PASS Plan Purposes and Simplify Approval.
  • Create an Interagency Council on Economic Empowerment.
  • Expand Access to Financial Education and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.

View the complete list of NDI's recommendations.

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Looming Discretionary Spending Cuts (Sequestration) Threaten Disability Programs

As Congress continues to flounder in its efforts to reach a comprehensive or coherent budget agreement, the potential looms ever larger for sequestration, the automatic and arbitrary cuts in spending to non-defense related discretionary programs. These cuts, which could be as high as 10 percent (and even greater in subsequent years) would have a devastating effect on critical domestic programs affecting individuals with disabilities.  As a letter sent to members of Congress from more than 3,000 national, state and local organizations explained, these programs are “core functions” provided by governments for the benefit of all individuals, and “represent a small and shrinking share of the federal budget and our overall economy.” Both the letter and a fact sheet developed by the coalition explain how such haphazard and indiscriminate cuts threaten bipartisan, national priorities and urge their rejection and replacement with a more balanced approach to deficit reduction.

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Second Anniversary of Dodd-Frank: A Work in Progress

Two years after passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Protection Act, the law has already had a significant impact on our society, but it continues to be a work in progress, with many of its regulations still to be implemented. While the financial reforms have been at the center of the debate and the public focus, one of the most important pieces of the law for individuals with disabilities is Section 342, concerning employment-related initiatives in the financial services industry and specifically mandating diversity initiatives for hiring. The regulations include creation of an equal opportunity program to promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities and businesses owned by people with disabilities, as well as outreach programs for various groups, including individuals with disabilities and businesses owned by people with disabilities in contracting opportunities.

Earlier this month, the CFPB issued an interim final rule on the Enforcement of Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Programs and Activities Conducted by the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The rule provides for the enforcement of
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities conducted by the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. It sets forth standards for what constitutes discrimination on the basis of mental or physical disability, provides a definition for ``individual with a disability'' and ``qualified individual with a disability,'' and establishes a complaint mechanism for resolving allegations of discrimination. To get a better sense of the progress made by the enactment of Dodd-Frank, read the recent U.S. Department of Treasury bulletin on the second anniversary of Dodd-Frank.

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July Disability Employment Numbers

U.S. Disability Employment Profile
Statistic
With Disability
Without Disability
 
July 2011
July 2012
July 2011
July 2012
Percent of Population in the Labor Force
21.2
20.7
70.2
70.0
Employment-Population Ratio
17.6
17.9
63.8
64.1
Unemployment Rate
16.8
13.6
9.0
8.4

The July Employment Profile shows a three-point drop in the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities, from 16.8 percent in July of 2011 to 13.6 last month. However, the percentage of Americans with disabilities in the labor force has remained nearly stable at 20.7 percent (down slightly from a rate of 21.2 in 2011). The employment picture for all Americans is stagnant as well.

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