WORKING DISABLED: Jobs Await as Bill Removes ‘The Cliff’
The disabled community, for years living in fear of "the cliff" - - the point at which their earnings exceed eligibility requirements for Medicare and Medicaid -- may soon be relieved of that burden, after the House approved the Work Incentives Improvement Act last week, the Wall Street Journal reports. The measure, now headed toward a joint House and Senate committee, will allow people with disabilities to resume working while retaining their government benefits. Both the disabled community and employers are eager for the president to sign the bill, which he may do before Christmas. With the unemployment rate at its lowest point in nearly 30 years -- 4.2% -- employers are "eager to tap the ranks of the nation's estimated 15 million severely disabled people, nearly three-quarters of whom don't work." While the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only 35,000 disabled adults will join the workforce as a result of the new legislation, disability advocates argue that estimate is too conservative. Paul Spooner, president of the National Council on Independent Living, which represents 250 disability centers, has been "busily notifying" clients about the new legislation and estimates that almost half of those with severe disabilities could join the workforce over the next decade.
History of Change
Vermont is one of six states that has already been working on programs to establish the Medicaid buy-in measure, which would allow those with disabilities to pay a monthly fee for Medicaid coverage. Peter Baird, director of the state's new Work Incentives Initiative Project, said, "States know that the cost of providing this ongoing Medicaid coverage will be more than offset by the savings in food stamps, housing assistance, fuel assistance, cash assistance. That's why we jumped on board." Baird hopes to have the state's buy-in program up and running in January. Baird has been working on improving employment opportunities for the disabled since 1996, when he lobbied Sen. James Jeffords (R-VT) about the need for changes to the current system. In addition to Baird's efforts, that same year advocacy groups for the disabled started to lobby for a Medicaid buy-in program. Advocates argued that the "federally mandated salary cliff" was the main obstacle for the disabled who wanted to reenter the workforce. At the National Council on Disability's annual conference in February 1997, "Removing Barriers to Employment for the 105th Congress and Beyond" was drafted and that document served as the "blueprint" for Jeffords' new work incentives bill.
Final Obstacle: Money
The final hurdle for the bill will be the wrangling over ways to offset its cost, estimated to be nearly $750 million over the next five years. The House version of the bill would cap buy-in at an annual salary of $35,000, while the Senate bill offers no cap. Rep. Rick Lazio (R-NY), who sponsored the House version, said, "The issue is much more about financing than it is philosophy." However Senate Finance Committee Chair William Roth (R-DE) countered that the House version would "gut " the bill, adding that the buy-in cap would result in the same "fall off ... cliff we are trying to eliminate" (Harris Prager, 10/22).