Social Security Act, which is the source of SSDI payments.
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March 16, 2017; Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. French Hill of the Arkansas congressional delegation have introduced a bill whose stated goal is to reduce the growth of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, chiefly by making it harder for beneficiaries to maintain the monthly subsistence payments for life, or grossly long term.

This fiscally conservative gesture is a rerun of Cotton’s effort last year, when he floated the exact same legislation. Under their proposed Return to Work Act of 2017, benefits will have more concrete term limits for people assessed as “able to recover and return to work” and would ostensibly provide vocational rehabilitation aid for recipients and expanded ability to earn income while maintaining the SSDI benefit for a prescribed period.

The Cotton-Hill bill is co-sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) and divides SSDI beneficiaries into four subjective categories:

  1. Medical improvement expected
  2. Medical improvement likely
  3. Medical improvement possible
  4. Medical improvement not expected

Where improvement is expected, benefits would automatically terminate in two years; for those whose improvement is deemed likely, SSDI benefits would end after five years. For the latter, less sanguine categories—improvement possible or not expected—benefits would have no automatic cutoff. Recipients with terminated benefits would still be able to reapply; they’ll need to reestablish medical proof of disability, though, and prior disability status would have no weight in these future determinations.

One note of interest is the bill’s authors’ lack of comments to the press on the SSDI appeals process, in which a large percentage of applicants initially denied the benefit are ultimately approved. This is a huge factor in the rampant growth of the program’s cost. According to one source, half of applicants who reach an administrative hearing on denial are granted SSDI benefits, and this rises to more than half when the applicants are represented by legal counsel. (Seventy percent of initial applications are denied.)

SSDI has quietly grown as an American albatross in Republican eyes, contributing to the deficit while not meeting its goal as a means for people with disabilities to either transition back to work if able, or survive if unable, and not to be a permanent boon to a growing number of recipients who can and do recover from certain impairments—that, at least, is the Republican mantra. Last Monday, March 13th, coauthor Sen. Cotton expressed his bill’s intended effect: restoring the SSDI program to its original goal when it was enacted in 1956, “where it should be focused, which is those people with severe disabilities who cannot possibly return to work.”

Cotton’s press release reports SSDI data that is fairly consistent with data published by reliable sources, noting that the number of beneficiaries has climbed from 1.4 million in 1970 to nearly 9 million presently and that the cost of the program has ballooned nearly sevenfold in constant 2012 dollars from $20 billion in 1970 to $137 billion today. Cotton also claims that the percentage of recipients who leave SSDI rolls and return to work is one-half of one percent, though the Center for Studying Disability in a 2010 report stated a longer-term look at the data shows a nearly three-percent figure, still very small. The sum total for all SSDI terminations dwarfs this figure—according to the Social Security Administration’s own published data current through 2016, last year 8.81 percent of SSDI recipients, or 830,044 out of 8,808,736 individuals were terminated from the SSDI rolls.

There is more activity brewing in Congress on the subject of helping individuals with disabilities return to work. Rep. Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat, introduced in February the similarly named Return to Work Awareness Act of 2017, whose stated purpose is to engage the U.S. Department of Labor in efforts to “assist survivors of stroke and such other debilitating health occurrences in returning to work.” There is no indication that Beatty and Cotton have coordinated their efforts in any way.

On its face, the Return to Work Act is a real-world solution to a real-world problem. If it becomes law, its success and benefit to individuals with disabilities, and to American society as a whole, will all depend on the details: what regulations are implemented for medical assessment and grading standards, as well as how rigorous and effective vocational rehabilitation (efforts to get persons with disabilities back to work) turn out to be.—Louis Altman

Correction: This article has been altered to correct the party affiliation of Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who is a Democrat. NPQ apologizes for the error.