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I Want to Work....or Do I?:
All About the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives


By Linda Mastandrea



photo of Cheryl Bates-Harris
Cheryl Bates-Harris responds to questions from the audience during the Ticket-to-Work and Work Incentives Workshop

Background of Ticket to Work

Less than ½ of 1% of Social Security Disability recipients ever leave the rolls and return to work, according to Cheryl Bates-Harris, a longtime disability advocate and current Senior Disability Advocacy Specialist for the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS). Bates-Harris understands all too well some of the reasons for this dismal figure. She became disabled after sustaining injuries in a motorcycle accident, spending four and a half months in the hospital and the next eighteen months in and out of hospitals. During that time, she lost her job with a state agency when, after holding it open for her for a year, they terminated her when she couldn't return.

The Ticket-to-Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act legislation, according to Bates-Harris, came to pass as a result of more than four years of advocacy to create legislation that would help remove the disincentives to work under the current structure of the Social Security program. Goals of the program are modest, she says, with the Social Security Administration (SSA) defining success if they can double the number of people coming off the benefits rolls to a full 1%.

Bates-Harris characterizes the Ticket-to-Work as one of the "most misunderstood pieces of legislation." The original intent was to remove the disincentives to work for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients by providing options like the expanded availability of health care benefits, allowing for benefits recipients who return to work to keep their Medicaid by purchasing the coverage at reasonable rates. Additionally, the "expedited reinstatement" provision was put in place to allow people with disabilities to try work without fear of totally losing their benefits. Creating an environment for people with disabilities to feel comfortable thinking about and exploring possibilities of work is critical given the importance of work to our culture.

"What do you do?" is often the first question people ask upon striking up a conversation with someone new. Bates-Harris says this reflects the understanding that we derive much of our quality of life from our work. Lack of expectation, however, means that people with disabilities often don't experience this same benefit.

Bates-Harris says that schools often have lower expectations for students with disabilities, steering them away from college preparatory course work or career track studies. Parents and families often have lowered expectations for a family member with a disability as well, not even putting employment on the radar screen. This can set up a long-term dependence on public assistance benefits such as Social Security, when these low expectations influence a person with a disability to think they cannot work at all.

Will I Lose My Benefits if I Go to Work?

Even for those who think they can work, however, the fear of losing benefits is a great detractor. Bates-Harris described some of the most common fears and myths surrounding work and benefits. "I can't work or I'll lose my benefits" she said, is the most common, and the most untrue. That's why one of the most popular incentives incorporated into the legislation was a provision allowing people to keep their Medicare or Medicaid or to buy into their state's Medicaid program. The changes allow individuals on Medicare to keep their eligibility for 4 ½ years longer than previously, and to keep Medicaid whether or not they continue to receive an SSI check.

"I can't work or I'll have to pay money back to SSA" is another common fear, said Bates-Harris. But overpayments, she said, are a fact of life with SSA. Almost everyone who returns to work will have an overpayment. She herself found out she owed several thousand dollars back to SSA when she returned to work. Careful planning, she said, and putting those checks aside rather than cashing them when you have gone back to work, can help you avoid an overpayment or lessen its sting if you do have one.

Bates-Harris also talked about a little-used but important program called a PASS, or Plan for Achieving Self-Sufficiency, which allows benefits recipients to set money aside toward a specific vocational goal, so they can go higher than the asset limits currently allowed under the program and still retain benefits. The PASS might be used to purchase a vehicle, fund a start-up company, purchase medical equipment or other products or services related to achieving a vocational goal.

The Ticket to Work Advisory Panel and Other Resources

An important component of the Ticket-to-Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, said Bates-Harris, was the creation of the Advisory Panel. The Advisory Panel is charged with providing counsel to the President, the Commissioner of Social Security, Congress and other agencies on issues relating to work incentive programs, planning and assistance for people with disabilities and the Ticket-to-Work program itself. The panel will retire in 2007, when its mission of providing counsel regarding implementation of the Ticket-to-Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act will end.

The Advisory Panel meetings, said Bates-Harris, were one place to get good information on the Ticket program and how it was going to work. Thus, Bates-Harris became a self-described "Ticket panel groupie," attending the meetings purely on her own. She was ultimately rewarded for her tenacity, however, with her own appointment to the Panel. Meetings, she said, span the nation, with two held each year in Washington, DC and two in different cities around the nation. For those who prefer to call in, a toll-free number is available for each meeting.

Bates-Harris said that in addition to the Advisory Panel, the Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security programs provide advocacy and advice nationwide, helping people with disabilities evaluate their options regarding the Ticket and determining what will happen to their benefits if they return to work. Benefits planners around the country can help consumers individually analyze their financial situations so they can come away with an exact picture of what will happen to all their benefits if they return to work, not just their Social Security check.

In spite of the promise of the program, Bates-Harris recognizes that the Ticket-to-Work is not a panacea. "It is not going to work for everyone," she says. In fact, though 98,000 tickets have been assigned nationwide to date, this is a small fraction of the 10 million that have been mailed out. Though the Ticket program is well intentioned, Bates-Harris believes it is flawed in some respects. The voluntary nature of the program is one is one of the most significant problems, she says. Employment networks are not required to serve anyone--they can pick and choose; therefore, they often engage in what is called "creaming" or picking the people easiest to place. This leaves the more significantly disabled individuals with the state vocational rehabilitation agencies as virtually their only real "choice."

This fall: Ticket-to-Work Expos

Taking aim at that problem, SSA created the Ticket-to-Work Employment Expos which will be happening around the country from now through the fall. These employment fairs will take place in ten cities nationwide, including Chicago, Kansas City, Biloxi, Billings, Montana and San Francisco. The expos, sponsored by SSA and Monster.com will be attended by vocational rehabilitation agencies, employment networks, people with disabilities, and employers.

For more information on the Ticket to Work or the Ticket Advisory Panel, contact Cheryl Bates Harris at 202-358-6430. Web resources include www.yourtickettowork.com and http://www.ssa.gov/work/Ticket/ticket_info.html.

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