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.