Nearly 11 million Americans rely on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a program intended to provide a safety net to workers who develop a serious, long-term disability.
Most American workers pay into SSDI through their payroll taxes, but payments to beneficiaries have exceeded these taxes in recent years. Indeed, since 2009, SSDI has paid out $155 billion more than it has taken in.
According to the 2015 annual report from the Social Security system’s trustees, the SSDI trust fund will run out in late 2016. Unless Congress acts, every one of those 11 million people will see a 19 percent cut in benefits. This will mean the average beneficiary will receive $230 less per month -- moving from barely above to below the poverty line.
SSDI was established as an insurance program for the “totally and permanently disabled.” In 1980, SSDI cost about $25 billion per year, but today, annual program costs have skyrocketed to more than $140 billion.
We aneed to shift SSDI from a one-size-fits-all mindset to a smarter approach that differentiates between the permanently disabled and those who, with medical treatment and rehabilitation services, can recover.
The growth of the program has been driven by a number of factors, including population growth and demographic changes, but also by changes that Congress made in 1984 to make it easier to qualify for the program.
Today, nearly 300,000 Arkansans and West Virginians rely on SSDI. In some of our counties, nearly 20% of working-age people receive SSDI benefits.
Many of these individuals are permanently disabled, and we’re committed to protecting this vulnerable population. But we must also dramatically improve the program for the temporarily disabled to help them recover and return to work.
We are not currently accomplishing this goal.
Last year, the Social Security Administration helped fewer than 600 Arkansans and West Virginians on SSDI return to work, or about 1 in 500 of the people on the program. Nationwide, the program helps less than 1 in 200 return to work each year.
Helping those who can work get back to work will not only help those people reach their full potential through dignity of work, it will also improve the solvency of the program.
How can we accomplish this goal?
We must intervene early. On average, applicants wait more than a year before getting an SSDI eligibility decision. We can use this time to help applicants who are disabled, but have the potential for work activity stay connected to the workforce by providing support services. This can be done through vocational training, supportive employment, health services, incentives for employers, and more. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has already begun to experiment to discover the best approach to help these beneficiaries. Congress should support and strengthen these efforts.
We also need to shift SSDI from a one-size-fits-all mindset to a smarter approach that differentiates between the permanently disabled and those who, with medical treatment and rehabilitation services, can recover.
While SSA categorizes beneficiaries based on likelihood of medical improvement, there’s no requirement to pursue rehabilitation or medical services to prepare for a return to work. We need to help individuals with temporary disabilities gain access to rehabilitation and recovery services and offer a timeline to re-enter the workforce.
Similarly, we must ensure that the Social Security Administration is regularly reviewing the health and rehabilitation status of SSDI beneficiaries. This will ensure that SSDI benefits continue for those who need them while those who have recovered can transition back to the workforce. For these individuals SSDI can be a temporary program and a way to recover – not a permanent status.
These are just a few ideas for protecting the integrity of this important program. We’re committed to working with our colleagues in the Congress, the Social Security Administration, and beneficiaries to ensure the long-term solvency of the program.
Our goal should be to help the temporarily disabled return to work and preserve SSDI benefits for our most vulnerable citizens.
Republican Tom Cotton represents Arkansas in the United States Senate.
Democrat Joe Manchin represents West Virginia in the United States Senate.