Commissioner of SSA Speaks

On August 1st, the Social Security Administration (SSA) held a forum in Chicago for Region

V (Region V is comprised of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin). The forum was entitled “Federal Policy-State Opportunities: Models and Strategies for an Inclusive Workforce.” The purpose of the meeting was to provide public education on improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

During the forum I had the opportunity to interview Commissioner Apfel, the head of SSA. Our conversation focused on the recently passed Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act (TWWIIA). Under the new legislation, SSA will pick states to be demonstration projects. SSA will study these states for three to four years before implementing TWWIIA nationally. Minnesota is vying to be a demonstration project.

Currently people who are on Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) cannot earn more than $700 per month, if they go over this limit, they lose their SSDI. The demonstration will allow people on SSDI to earn more than $700: for every $2 they earn over the $700, their SSDI will be reduced by $1.

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AP: I understand that under the new legislation SSA is going to do some demonstration projects. What are the criteria for the demonstration projects? When they may be picked?

Apfel: I don’t have the timeline on when they’re going to be picked. Our goal is to develop 2-for-1 demonstrations. What we need to be able to show is that the $700 cliff does create a significant disincentive to work.

The Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has a bridge of sorts and the SSDI program does not. Clearly the goal here is to be able to show what the implications of a 2-for-1 program would be in terms of work activity and to be able to start building the case to be able to do something about the cliff at whatever the Substantially Gainful Activity (SGA) level is. We have new regulations that’ll be going into effect to index the SGA. I would like to see today that we have a law change to move towards a phase down so that there isn’t a hard number limit. If you look at the history here for retirees–retirement earnings tests, years and years ago, used to be an absolute dollar amount. And then over time became a threshold-where basically you lose x dollars for every x dollars of payments. It does not make sense to eliminate an earnings test for basic disability because eligiblity for benefits should not be based on disability alone with work being irrelevant to that. Instead, I would like to be thinking about the disability benefit, the cash benefit as we did with the retirement earnings test where the more one earns, the less they receive over time. The way to start building that is through the demonstrations and also through the ticket and new regulatory changes all built in towards a framework towards work. It would seem to me that this is a few years off to document such a program, but that is the way we’re moving. That would be my hope in the long term.

How many states are you planning to do a demo in?

You’re going to have to get that from Jane.

AP: Another issue that is happening in Minnesota, and we’re not sure why, but, in MN, the western side of the state is service through Denver and then the other side of the state is serviced through Chicago. What’s happening is that Denver’s people are giving answers that differ from the answers of the Chicago people. The work incentive connection that’s working with both and also the people in Western MN that are served by a couple centers for independent living are getting different answers for the same questions.

Apfel: What we will do, what I’ll do today is bring the Denver people and the Chicago people together to hash through all of the issues and if there are some problems with communication that’s exactly the current that we need to clear up. So, what we should do is bring this back as an action-item to Denver and to Chicago and set something up to get them formed together and on the same page with both regional people in Western and Eastern Minnesota.

[On the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, President Clinton proposed three new changes to the Social Security system:

1) Make automatic adjustments each year to the substantial gainful activity level (currently $700) for individuals with impairments other than blindness, based on any increases in the national average wage index.

2) Increase the maximum amount from $200 to $530 that an SSDI beneficiary may make in a month during the nine-month Trial Work Period. This would allow people to ease into employment without using up their Trial Work months until they are really ready to go to work on a regular basis. The new amount would be increased each year, based on Social Security’s national average wage index.

3) Increase the maximum monthly (from $400 to $1,290) and yearly (from $1,620 to $5,200) Student Earned Income. Exclusion amounts we use in determining Supplemental Security Income eligibility and payments, and automatically adjust the monthly and yearly exclusion amounts each year thereafter based on any increases in the cost of living index.]

AP: How quickly are the recent proposals that Pres. Clinton announced going to go into effect?

Apfel: They will go into effect on Jan. 1. The regulations come out this week in proposed form. There will be comments of course. And then the final regulations are probably 90 days away. For an effective date of Jan. 1. I don’t envision any significant changes to the proposals. I anticipate the comments are all going to be very favorable. This is part of our changing of the mindset away from cash eligibility, eligibility determination and more towards incentives for work. I think all three of them are pretty important steps. On all three of them, the most important thing is to establish index as a principle that what we’ve seen over time, and, you’ve known this for years, is that basically there’s an ad hoc increase for a period of time that can be years and years and years. Now, it will take, after this regulation takes effect it will take some action by a future commissioner to de-index a program, which I think will cause quite a bit of commotion. So I think once established, we changed the boundaries and dynamics very significantly for all three. The one that will effect the least number of people is the student program. I think the effect of this one in the long-term might be understated. This could create an incentive for people with disabilities to go back to school because it could be another income source that can come from being on the SSI benefit. To be able to have up to $50-100 a year of added income so that could create an added incentive to go back to school. And the other one is also, as you know, so many people, even with complete degrees, aren’t working. The unemployment rate is still really high for persons with disabilities with bachelor’s degrees. So creating the opportunity to be able to test the workforce during school, I think, is one of the important things to be able to do. All of these things I think are not just additive. I’m hoping that all of these things become multiplicative.

AP: So that each person can pick the different options they need.

Apfel: And also between higher amounts, extended health care coverage, that we’re changing the dynamics so individuals will risk work. I think that right now for years it’s a risky proposition -potential for losing health care, for losing benefits. Once you lose benefits, how do you get back on the system? Is there a change in condition or a change in working circumstances? We’ve got to change that overall dynamic. And I have all of these things arranged both the ticket, the health care extensions, the medicaid expansions, the changes in regulations, the major increase of SGA. A year ago now the indexing. Are all aimed in trying to create a dynamic for change, with much more of a focus on work.

AP: I’ve been disabled for 33 years now. One of the things that I find is that people want to go to work, they really do. Whether it’s a part time job at a k-mart or wal-mart. For myself and many of my friends, Vocational Rehab paid our education, graduated from college, and we ran into the barriers to work which were always the medicaid, healthcare and social security rules. This is really an exciting time for everyone and its real evident with our medicaid buy-in in Minnesota. All the people that are rushing into work, and I think it’s great that social security is looking to changing all of these programs, but, to be honest it’s one of those things where we want it now. We want the 2-for-1, we want to show that we do want to go to work and you’re right it is a risk, when the demonstration goes into effect, how long will those demonstrations be?’ And we’ve heard that there may only be 200 people eligible for a demonstration. That seems really odd to us.

Apfel: I don’t want to think about the size or the scope. The one thing that I’ll say about that and I’ll probably say more about that in here is that big institutional change takes time and it really does. Legislation takes time and implementation takes time. It’s not just an on – off switch and look at the job training network that you’re hearing about now for the first time. Really this is not an era where they have not served persons with disabilities historically. And now there’s a new system to really offer the opportunity for a really significant increase in their service space. It’s going to take some years for them to start to learn how to do that right and to provide the right opportunities and, as much as I would love to provide the right opportunities right away, the only thing I’ve learned in my years of advocacy and in governs is it takes time. It takes absolute shoulder-to-the-wheel hard work and perseverence, but what I’m excited about is that I see us starting to significantly move in the right direction in terms of those changes. I’d like it all now, too. But, when I think back to years and years ago, we’ve come an awful long way

AP: There’s no doubt that it really is exciting that all these that it’s in process and it will change, and I know everybody’s been looking forward to it, but I know when our office got flooded with calls after the signing of the TWIIA bill. People wanted to know “OK can I go to work now?” The answer was “No. Just wait.” All of the regulations have to be drawn out.

Apfel: I’m going to give a quote in here from Pres. Clinton about the fact that “people with disabilities should not have to wait one more day.” You know I think that’s true, but what you had to tell people is that it’s not today. That there are some opportunities Health Care is triggering I think it’s October 1, which is good. SGA is now in effect, which is a big bump up, it helps. The new one indexing would be next January 1. The ticket will be starting in the first dozen states or so in January. I don’t know if MN is going ot be one or if it’s WI or IL. Once that decision gets made, there will only be some states at first as it starts to move forward towards a three-year implementation. It’s going to take time. As far as I’m concerned the faster the better.

AP: We join in with you there. Well, thank you very much.

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