Sen. Lankford and Sen. Manchin Ask For Continued Reform on the SSDI Program

Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) sent a letter Thursday to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) pushing for sustained momentum on addressing improvements to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program.

Despite the postponement of the SSDI trust fund’s exhaustion until 2022 by the payroll tax reallocation contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2015, more is needed to be done in order to achieve long-term program sustainability. Lankford and Manchin commended the BBA’s small SSDI reforms while urging the Finance Committee to continue working further on options that will improve the program’s solvency. Quoting the 2015 Social Security Trustees’ report, they note:

The 2015 Social Security Trustees report recommended “Any necessary resource reallocation that does occur should not be regarded as a substitute for action to sustain the finances of DI and Social Security as a whole, nor enacted in a manner that has the effect of further postponing those required corrections.” Although the Act temporarily extended the solvency of the SSDI program and included some small improvements to the program, it did little to improve the program’s long-term finances or to improve the structure of the SSDI program for beneficiaries and taxpayers. We hope you agree that more substantial reforms are needed.

Prior to the BBA’s passage, many groups and policymakers, including the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative, presented a number of ideas to reform and improve SSDI for both its finances and, more importantly, the many people with disabilities who rely on the program’s support. Both Lankford and Manchin (with Sen. Tom Cotton) have been particularly strong advocates for SSDI improvements, leading the effort to focus on SSDI prior to the reallocation. Although the SSDI trust fund’s reserves have been extended until 2022 (or 2021 according to the Congressional Budget Office), they emphasize that the program’s structural problems are far from solved. They explain:

A good faith effort needs to be undertaken to examine all of these proposals to address the problems facing the program in total: reform is needed for the SSDI application and adjudication process to ensure fair and more timely hearings; correction is needed where SSDI overlaps with other federal programs; continued fraud and overpayments to individuals who are no longer disabled must be addressed; and, ideas to intervene with applicants early and encourage a return to work must be examined to ensure applicants receive the support they need to either achieve benefits or re-enter the workforce.

The three areas for reform Lankford and Manchin refer to are also three of the four topics that the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative identified and presented proposals for improvements at the SSDI Solutions Conference in August: early intervention and work supports, structural reforms, program administration, and interaction with other programs. Those proposals, due to be published in the coming months, are available at the SSDI Solutions website.

We hope that Lankford and Manchin’s calls for SSDI reform are heeded and applaud them for their efforts. SSDI, and Social Security as a whole, remain on a fiscally unsustainable path that will need to be addressed before the reserves run out and force sudden, harmful cuts to beneficiaries.