By – Elizabeth Lawrence
On June 16, 2015, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security held a hearing entitled, “The Financial Risk of Returning to Work,” that addressed the difficulties that many Americans face when trying to return to work once they have become beneficiaries of Social Security Disability (SSDI). In his opening remarks, Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) emphasized the need to reform the SSDI program to provide incentives that encourage people to return to work. David Weaver from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Daniel Bertoni of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave testimonies explaining the problems that have ensued because of the program’s complexities.
During the hearing, Chairman Johnson and Ranking Member Xavier Becerra (D-CA) focused their attention on the problem of overpayments, as well as the ways in which SSA discourages beneficiaries from returning to work. These problems are both due in part to the complexities of SSDI. Beneficiaries are required to self-report their earnings when they return to work so that their benefits can be properly adjusted. However, reporting earnings must be done in person at an SSA office and then can take many months to process. Overpayments, which a beneficiary is required to pay back to SSA, are the frequent result of SSA backlog when it comes to SSDI.
The challenges and penalties imposed by the DI program often feel like a punishment to disabled Americans who are trying to re-enter the workforce. These complications spread discouragement like wildfire among Americans and ultimately preempt many beneficiaries from returning to work out of fear that they might one day owe the government thousands of dollars in overpaid benefits. Last year, SSA paid out $1.3 billion in overpayments – recovering $900 billion from beneficiaries in the end. As Chairman Sam Johnson mentioned in his opening statement, Social Security currently sends the message to beneficiaries that “if you go back to work, you may get hit with a major overpayment bill from Social Security through no fault of your own. That’s wrong. We need to put an end to that.”
In his testimony, David Weaver highlighted the steps that SSA has taken to ease the burden of returning to work for DI beneficiaries. SSA has implemented a trial work period that allows beneficiaries to test their skills and ability to work without losing benefits, as well as an “extended period of eligibility” that extends benefits for 36 months after the trial work period has ended for those who continue to earn and work below the substantial gainful activity level. While these tools may be intended to help beneficiaries, the end result is a complicated process that beneficiaries can’t make sense of. Because of the complex process to qualify for benefits, many beneficiaries are reluctant to return to work for fear of losing their benefits.
In addition to a complex wage reporting system, the SSA’s lack of timeliness attributes to overpayments in the SSDI program. Daniel Bertoni shared in his testimony that every year, 250,000 Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) are filed to asses a beneficiary’s eligibility for benefits. These reviews are often required because of an error by the SSA in properly adjusting an individual’s benefits when they initially report a change in work activity. While there is a concern regarding the potential for fraud in SSDI, most overpayments still occur because of work-related error on the part of SSA. These overpayments are crippling the integrity of the disability program as well as its financial stability.
Throughout the hearing, there was unified bipartisan agreement that SSDI needs to be reformed in a way that helps Americans who have the desire and ability to return to work to find jobs and rejoin the workforce. While SSDI may serve as a safety net for truly disabled Americans, it should not exist to sustain able-bodied individuals who are capable of seeking gainful employment. In addition, commonsense structural changes must be implemented to prevent overpayments and the waste of taxpayer dollars. These wasteful overpayments prevent benefits from going to individuals who truly need SSDI for income support and health coverage. AMAC commends the Subcommittee’s commitment to helping beneficiaries return to work and is eager to support future legislation that takes these necessary steps forward to strengthen the program.
AMAC’s letter addressing “The Financial Risk of Returning to Work” was entered into the Congressional Record and can be accessed here.
My husband was on disability for 5 years because he was on dialysis, waiting for a new kidney. He was told when he applied, that he couldn’t work at all in order to receive benefits, so he didn’t. A year later, when he FINALLY received his first check (they lost his file in Washington, DC – he was already a double kidney transplant, one of the first in the country and the FIRST recipient to receive a pregnant woman’s kidney) he found out that he could have worked that entire year. He had already been on dialysis for 2 years before he got his first check. Then after being on dialysis for 5 years, he finally got his kidney. It took 3 months for him to even be able to do normal things because of medical complications. When he finally started working again, he told SS to STOP sending the checks. They DIDN’T!!! He tried to give back the money, they couldn’t take it. Three years later (after we had already paid taxes on the money he had received), then they sent us a bill. We fought and fought with them to get it straightened out, for years. The large turnover and lack of diligence by the SS workers, was never a solution for us. He should have received his SSI payments much sooner than he did. But they still want their money (after 20+ years) and then they added another $20K+ to the total without giving us any breakdown. My husband died last year from Liver cancer caused by Hepatitis C which he contracted either on dialysis or while receiving blood before the 90’s. SS still will not answer my phone calls or talk to me….. PLEASE FIX THIS SYSTEM! IT IS SO WRONG!!!! Use a Six Sigma approach and you might actually be able to correct this horrendous problem!!! He WANTED to work, and ended up working for the same company for 18 years AFTER his transplant, up until 2 months before he died. I cannot begin to tell you the stress and heartache caused by this insane program.
SSDI needs to stream line there process so the person receiving the Benifits can go online to enter their earnings and have the system reset there benifits. Then they should have a way to enter their progress at working.