The government's own rules are blocking people from getting off of disability

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Washington, May 26, 2017 | comments


The Social Security Disability Insurance program provides benefits to nearly 8.8 million who can no longer work due to illness or injury. This program is an important lifeline for them. But for those whose conditions improve, the program makes returning to work too complicated.

According to the most recent survey of disability insurance beneficiaries, 40 percent want to return to work. However, in any given year, less than .5 percent successfully re-enter the workforce. That's largely because Social Security's complicated rules stand in the way, and that's not right.

Fortunately, President Donald Trump is taking steps to improve the program. In his annual budget request released this week, the president called for helping disability insurance beneficiaries and applicants who want to return to work.

This is exactly what we are focused on in the House Ways and Means Committee, where I serve as the Social Security Subcommittee chairman. We've held several hearings on this issue to better understand why those who want to return to work aren't successful in doing so. Time and time again, we hear that Social Security's complex rules and the fear of owing tens of thousands of dollars in overpayments get in the way.

The good news is the administration already has some things it can do right now to help folks return to work. For example, the Social Security Administration has the authority to test new ideas to give Congress important information about what changes could help the most people. It can also provide information about employment support services to applicants who are denied disability benefits. Furthermore, the SSA can improve the availability of information for disability insurance beneficiaries who want to return to work.

Some solutions do require legislation, however, and Congress has already made some commonsense changes that should make returning to work easier. We simplified how the SSA counts a person's earnings and made sure that the agency gets more up-to-date earnings information. We also required the SSA to provide beneficiaries with 21st century options for reporting their earnings — there is no reason there can't be an app for that.

But there is still more to do. That's why I introduced a bill this year to address an unintended consequence of the way Social Security's work incentives interact with Tricare, the Department of Defense's health insurance program.

Disability beneficiaries who return to work and lose their cash benefits have the option to keep Medicare coverage for an additional 8.5 years or decline this coverage. However, that same option is not available for wounded veterans who return to work after receiving disability insurance. These heroes must keep their extended Medicare in order to keep access to Tricare benefits, which include specialized programs for their injuries, such as severe burns and lost limbs.

This nonsensical practice is downright unfair. My bill would give wounded veterans who return to work the choice to decline their extended Medicare coverage and still retain access Tricare.

Finally, the SSA needs strong leadership. The president must nominate a commissioner who is serious about helping disability insurance beneficiaries return to work. The SSA has had an acting commissioner since 2013, and that's far too long for an agency that touches the lives of all Americans.

Disability insurance is an important safety net, but it shouldn't be a trap. If someone is able to return to work the program shouldn't stand in the way. This is too important not to get right.

Sam Johnson is a Republican member of Congress representing Collin County. Website:

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