Cotton and Manchin Advocate for Bipartisan Action on SSDI

Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) wrote an op-ed that appeared on Fox News Tuesday advocating for measures to help those who do or could receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits return to work. Warning of the upcoming exhaustion of the SSDI trust fund (one of the Fiscal Speed Bumps the 114th Congress will need to address before the end of 2016), the senators would like to make SSDI more effective for those who are temporarily disabled to ensure its long-term sustainability for workers with permanent disabilities. 

Cotton and Manchin state their goal: to help those who are temporarily disabled to return to work and preserve the funds for those who have serious, long-term disabilities. They note that almost 11 million Americans depend on SSDI, but the program has been paying out more than it has been receiving in recent years – $155 billion more since 2009.

Cotton and Manchin note:

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.

The program’s increasing costs have come mostly as a result of population growth and demographic changes in addition to a variety of other factors. Cotton and Manchin particularly stress that SSDI’s cost has increased significantly over the past few decades, from $25 billion per year in 1980 to over $140 billion today.

They highlight the lack of success that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has had in returning people to work. They add that nationwide, SSA helped less than 1 in 200 return to work last year. They believe the way to improve the solvency of the program is to help those who have the ability to return to work do so with a variety of different services and supports.

Cotton and Manchin propose the following:

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.

Cotton and Manchin also suggest that SSDI differentiate between the permanently disabled and short-term disabled that need medical treatment and rehabilitation services. They pointed out how SSA already differentiates between those who will likely medically improve, but it does not require rehabilitation or medical services efforts for those likely to return to the workplace. Both senators believe the temporarily disabled should have access to rehabilitation and recovery services as well as be given a timeline for going back to work.

Cotton and Manchin's comments join the growing conversation about possible improvements to the SSDI program, including those being presented by the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative. The initiative held a conference in August to present 12 proposals from various authors for improving the program in a variety of areas; you can read more about it and watch the conference here.