WASHINGTON — The crowd responded with an ovation as the University of Maine student glided down the aisle of Harold Alfond Sports Arena in Orono just like the rest of the Class of ’96, moving up the ramp and onto the dais to receive his diploma.
The commencement speaker, U.S. Sen. William Cohen, was left breathless. The student was paralyzed, but able to move by using an electronic wheelchair activated when he blew slightly into a tube.
That image stuck in Cohen’s mind as he listened Wednesday to Social Security experts explain that the government does very little to get disabled people into jobs.
The Maine Republican wondered aloud: If this one student could attend lectures, take tests and graduate from UMaine, why does only one out of 1,000 disabled people move off Social Security disability programs and into a job?
“Often, getting on disability means a lifetime of benefits, even for people who could, with some rehabilitation, retraining or assistive devices, return to work,” Cohen said at a hearing of the Special Aging Committee, which he chairs.
In the process, the government wastes millions — perhaps billions — of dollars in disability payments to people who could be working, he said.
Cohen’s hearing came as the Social Security and Medicare trustees announced the two federal health programs are headed for bankruptcy a year earlier than anticipated. Social Security is expected to go bankrupt in 2029, with its disability trust fund emptied in less than 20 years. Medicare will be broke in 2001.
Reforming disability programs could help extend Social Security’s lifeline, Cohen and a host of witnesses said.
Much of the day’s testimony was based on a report from the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm. The report found that if 1 percent of the 6.3 million disability beneficiaries of working age returned to work, the government could save $2.9 billion in payments.
Disability payments come in two forms: Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides payments to disabled workers who have paid into the Social Security system, and Supplemental Security Income program for the poor. Having grown 70 percent in the past decade, the two disability programs had to be bailed out in 1994 with $500 billion from the Social Security Trust Fund.
A survey by a disabled persons advocacy group showed between 15 and 30 percent of SSDI and SSI recipients are willing to return to work. GAO representative Jane Rose called the current system “frozen in time” by forcing disability recipients to foreit all payments and health care once they take a job, even if it isn’t full-time and doesn’t provide health insurance.
Susan Miller, a doctor at Washington’s National Rehabilitation Hospital, demonstrated a wide variety of devices that businesses and workers could purchase that would allow a disabled person to work in an office.
From a $12,000 electronic wheelchair that allows a paralyzed person to stand up, to an oversized keyboard costing a few hundred dollars, Miller showed the ease with which the devices could be used.
“For the cost of a few hundred dollars, we can be putting people back to work,” she said.