On Thursday March 18, 1999, Congress member Rick Lazio(R-NY) introduced H.R. 1180, the Work Incentives Improvement Act (WIIA), in the U.S. House of Representatives. Just prior to the bill’s introduction, a press conference was held in Washington, DC, called by Representatives Lazio, Diane Johnson (R-CT) and Jim Ramstad (R-MN). Congress member Ramstad personally invited 2 members of Minnesota’s disability community, Jeff Bangsberg, representing Courage Center, and Wendy Brower of The Disability Institute, to attend the press conference.
Ramstad spoke passionately about the need for this legislation. “When people with disabilities consider returning to work or even seek vocational rehabilitation, the risk of losing vital federal health benefits often becomes too threatening to their future financial stability and they are literally compelled not to work,” said Ramstad. “Given the sorry state of present law, that’s a reasonable and rational decision for too many people with disabilities.”
Bangsberg joined Ramstad and other Congressional representatives making statements. When stressing the significance of this Act, Bangsberg referenced the Americans With Disabilities Act(ADA). It is no exaggeration to say that this bill is just as important to people with severe disabilities as the ADA,” said Bangsberg. “Thanks to the ADA, many people with disabilities are being offered jobs, but they cannot take advantage of those jobs because barriers remain in their way.”
During the press conference, Congress member Bilirakis (R-FL), one of the bill’s 40 cosponsors, announced he would hold a hearing on the bill in the House Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on Health, which he chairs, on March 23rd. Because of the power of Bangsberg’s remarks, he was also invited to testify at the March 23rd Congressional hearing.
At the hearing, Bangsberg expanded on his statements to the press, including describing the situations of Minnesotans with disabilities who would benefit from this legislation. One is a man in his thirties who has had to turn down his employer’s offer of re-training following an accident that left him paralyzed. He can’t afford to take a job that would disqualify him for Medical Assistance (MA) because he would lose the personal care attendant services that MA pays for. Another is a woman who has turned down pay raises because when her income goes up, so does the amount she has to contribute to MA and to rent, which leaves her with less net income than before.
Bangsberg continued, “It is important to remember that most people with severe disabilities who want to return to work already receive Medicaid and Medicare, so these costs are already being incurred.”
The Senate version of the WIIA has 70 co-sponsors, and on March 25, the Senate adopted S. 331, an amendment to the federal budget resolution that provides funding for the WIIA. The House bill must now go through at least 3 more committees before it goes to the House floor. As we go to press, all of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation has agreed to sign on in support of this legislation, with the exception of Gil Gutneckt R-MN), who indicated interest in the legislation, but is waiting for information on how the bill will be funded before offering his support.
H.R. 1180 contains two key provisions. One, it gives states clear direction on interpreting Medical Assistance guidelines regarding people with disabilities who want to work. And second, it includes provisions for states to establish work incentives planning and assistance programs, or advocacy services for individuals seeking to work.