Bill would amend Social Security program to encourage disabled who want to work Loss of benefit checks, medical coverage prevents some from even trying


WASHINGTON -- Every month, the federal government mails more than $3.6 billion in checks to 5.3 million working-age disabled Americans.

Most will get the checks for the rest of their lives even though, according to a national report, hundreds of thousands would like to work again.

Vatrice Rivera is one of them. A 30-year-old registered nurse, Rivera had to quit her job three years ago because of thyroid problems and complications from a debilitating infection in her spinal cord.

Rivera, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., dreams of working again, perhaps at a desk auditing medical bills, as she did before. But she's reluctant to try to find her way back into the work force because people on Social Security Disability Insurance lose their benefits once they earn $500 a month, even though, as she said, "they don't know if it'll work out."

A married mother of three who uses a wheelchair, Rivera receives about $1,600 a month in SSDI benefits. "It's very difficult for a person like me, who would like to be independent, who would like to be in the work force," she said.

New legislation -- which the House Ways and Means Committee approved and sent to the full House last week -- would partially remake the program to give disabled people more incentives to try to work. The measure could come up for a House vote before the end of the month.

Less than 1 percent of people drawing disability insurance ever leave the rolls for work, said Republican Rep. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who studied the issue for three years. Yet if 1 percent did leave the rolls, the government would save $3 billion over their lifetimes, according to the General Accounting Office.

"The disability program is like a big, black hole," Bunning said. "Once people fall into the program, they never seem to make their way out."

The program provides income to people unable to work because of injuries, severe physical or mental illnesses, and mental retardation. Most people who qualify for SSDI can't even attempt to work.

But those who do try often hit a brick wall, ending up in perpetual training through state programs that have poor track records in placing the disabled in new jobs. Others who could work again shy away from trying because they fear losing their benefits, including Medicare.

The new program would be voluntary for disabled people. The proposal would make changes including:

Allowing beneficiaries who return to work to keep Medicare health coverage for an extra two years, which means coverage for six years from the time they first try to return to work.

Setting up a pilot program to see about changing rules that cut off disability benefits once a person earns $500 a month.

Giving disabled people vouchers to choose a private provider of vocational rehabilitation, training and other support services.

All disability insurance recipients are now supposed to see state agencies for help.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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