Event Recap: McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Conference

On Tuesday, August 4, 2015, the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative hosted its SSDI Solutions Conference, presenting the 12 papers commissioned by the initiative as well as various discussions around improvements that can be made both to the program and to the larger role that government plays in supporting people with disabilities. The day-long conference, attended by nearly 200 people and watched via livestream by over 900, featured remarks from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) President Bob Greenstein, panel discussions with the authors and disability research experts, and a closing panel discussion with the Co-Chairs and Social Security experts. With the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust fund set to exhaust its reserves by the end of 2016, many experts have begun discussing long-term changes that could be paired with short-term funding options that alleviate the impending 19-percent across-the-board cut to benefits if nothing were to be done. The program for the event can be found here.

The event kicked off with opening remarks from Congressmen Jim McCrery (R-LA) and Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), co-chairs of the initiative, discussing the opportunity presented by the imminent legislative action needed on SSDI. Both stressed that no idea would be perfect nor would any idea alone solve the problems facing the program, but they envisioned these ideas as part of a broader discussion to improve SSDI both financially and effectively for the people who rely on it. While avoiding trust fund exhaustion may be the reason for the congressional action that will take place in the next year, the co-chairs reiterated their commitment to making the SSDI Solutions Initiative about helping people with disabilities.

In his remarks, Chairman Hatch shared his interest in soliciting ideas for reforms to SSDI that can help modernize the program while protecting the millions of beneficiaries from benefit cuts. He revealed that he would be introducing additional legislation later that day aimed at small improvements to SSDI that go along with previous legislation he introduced earlier in the session aimed at strengthening program integrity and helping denied applicants. Chairman Hatch spoke in favor of coupling the upcoming legislation for the short-term fiscal fix with bipartisan efforts to improve many aspects of the program ranging from the determination process to fighting fraud.

The first panel focused on early intervention and work support strategies for helping to keep people with disabilities employed. Author David Stapleton presented a proposal for a new employment gateway that would provide help to SSDI applicants before they completely exit the workforce. The proposal presented by Jennifer Christian for a community-focused work service would provide people with disabilities work supports in the timeframe that they are most likely to consider leaving work. The transitional jobs proposal presented by Julie Kerksick would subsidize employment for people with disabilities in hopes that they would ultimately receive permanent employment with participating employers. Disability community advocate Lisa Ekman shared her thoughts on each proposal, emphasizing that while she thought there were some good ideas presented, ultimately any changes need to go through pilot projects and be tested so that we have the necessary evidence to support their enactment.

The second morning panel discussed the structural reform options to largely modernize and reform SSDI. Kim Hildred presented a proposal that would use predictive technology to determine if an applicant's medical condition is expected to improve and time-limit benefits initially for those beneficiaries to reevaluate benefit eligibility at the end of their transitional period. Jason Fichtner shared another proposal for reforming the program by creating temporary and partial benefits to better address the spectrum of disability and help incentivize beneficiaries with work capacity to return to work. The final structural proposal, presented by Neil Jacobson, would revisit the definition of disability to remove the substantial gainful activity notion and instead examine whether the impairment precludes or limits work. Art Spencer, a former Social Security administrator, agreed that the proposals sounded reasonable and interesting but could encounter issues with their complexity.

At lunch, attendees heard from Bob Greenstein of CBPP. Greenstein spoke with caution on making large changes to the SSDI program, noting that it had already been fairly successful in its intended purpose as income replacement to those who had incurred disabilities that forced them to exit the workforce. He emphasized the need for any changes to be put in place as demonstration projects and pilots that could be tested and ultimately determined if they could be scaled nationally or not. However, he agreed that the temporary funding fix being discussed by Congress was indeed an opportunity for program integrity improvements and pilot programs.

The first afternoon panel focused on the determination and adjudication process. Author Jon Dubin's proposal would eliminate the reconsideration step in SSDI adjudication, arguing that this would improve the speed and efficiency of disability determination. Administrative Law Judge Dale Glendening presented ideas to streamline the determination process, including introducing a government representative to Administrative Law Judge hearings. Finally, Alex Constantin of the National Institutes of Health presented a proposal to improve the Continuing Disability Review process with data analytics. Margaret Malone, former staff director for the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB), discussed each proposal in the context of her experience with SSAB on recommending reforms.

The final panel featured presentations on how SSDI interacts with other programs. Mark Meyer presented an idea to allow employers to auto-enroll their employees in private disability insurance. Disability advocate Mark Perriello proposed creating a system of wrap-around insurance coverage for those who need more long-term services and supports in addition to a Medicaid Buy-In program and tax credits for people with disabilities similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit. Finally, John Burton used his experience with the Workers' Compensation (WC) program to propose how the two (SSDI and WC) could be better-coordinated for savings and improvements. Discussant David Wittenburg of Mathematica Policy Research believed that each idea had its merits and weaknesses, but ultimately they all indicate that there is a level of system fragmentation in the support system for people with disabilities that ought to be reformulated in a better way.

The conference ended with a closing panel discussion moderated by CQ Roll Call's Paul Krawzak with Co-Chairs McCrery and Pomeroy as well as Alan Cohen and Mark Warshawsky, current and former members of the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB), respectively. From their experience working on SSAB, Cohen and Warshawsky offered differing insights into how and when some of the suggested program reforms ought to be tested and implemented, but they ultimately agreed that the end goal is finding long-term solvency for Social Security as a whole.

Following the conference, the authors will continue to incorporate feedback and the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative will be publishing the papers as a larger book of proposals and principles for changes in the coming months.