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School and SSDI
Jul 8, 2012

I have just been accepted to a graduate school program and they offered a $10,000 teaching assistantship. I have been on SSDI and SSI (in NC) for over 15 years and don't want to get the school's insurance. Is it possible for me to stay on SSDI and SSI while in school?

Response from Ms. Douaihy

Dear Writer,

Congrats!

And you write with a very topical question. I have worked with many wonderful clients similarly situated: they are HIV positive, long time recipients of SSDI (Social Security Disability benefits), SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or both, and interested in pursuing employment for a variety of reasons.

The bureaucracy and rules governing SSDI/SSI are confusing (understatement!), however, the Social Security Administration offers some work incentive programs that may allow you to work and keep your benefits, including your insurance, for a period of time while working. It is essential for SSDI/SSI recipients to pay close attention to program rules and eligibility criterion when thinking about the return to work. My very best advice is to go right to the source by either walking into your local Social Security Office or visiting www.ssa.gov, for specific information and direction regarding your options.

The answer to your question depends mainly on what your monthly income would be. Indeed, the Social Security Administration offers some special rules to make it possible for those in receipt of SSD/I to work, still receive benefits and maybe even continued Medicaid/Medicare.

SSDI beneficiaries have the option of participating in a "Trial Work Period". The trial work period allows you to receive your full SSDI benefits for up to 9 months regardless of the amount of your earnings. Each month you earn above $720 (for calendar year 2012) counts as a "trial work period service month". Your trial work period ends with the ninth (9th) trial work period service month in a rolling 60-month period. After the trial work period ends, you have the ability to enter into an Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), continuing the incentive to stay working. This program starts the month after your trial work period ends and runs up to 36 months. During the EPE, you will be paid your SSDI benefits for any month you do not work over the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) amount. SGA is a certain monthly amount of income MINUS any documented "Impairment-Related Work Expenses" (IRWE). The SGA level in 2012 is $1,010.00 per month. So if you earn more than SGA ($1,010) a month, you may lose your SSDI benefits. It is important to note that any month that your earnings fall below the SGA limit during your 36-month re-entitlement period, Social Security can restart your benefits without a new application.

For SSI beneficiaries, Social Security does not consider SGA after a person becomes eligible for SSI but it does determine whether the person continues to meet "non-disability" requirements, such as income and resources. So in general if you are receiving SSDI and earned income (wages) above a nominal amount each month, you are probably no longer eligible for SSI payments.

Since you have been receiving both SSDI and SSI for over fifteen years, your health care coverage should include both Medicare (you became eligible after 24 months of receipt of SSDI) and Medicaid (you became automatically eligible once you started receiving SSI).

So if you are not eligible for SSI payments because your SSDI benefits and monthly earnings are too high, you may still be eligible for SSI and Medicaid While Working (Section 1619(b) of The Social Security Act) as long as your earnings remain under your state's threshold amount, you need the Medicaid coverage, and you continue to be eligible for SSI except for his earnings. In 2012, North Carolina's "threshold amount" is $34,318. When your earnings exceed the state threshold amount, your Medicaid will end. Notably, even if you no longer receive SSDI payments, Medicare coverage may continue for at least 93 months after your trial work period as long as you continue to have a disabling impairment that has not medically improved.

I know that this is enormously confusing. So I advise everyone to avail themselves of their local SSA office or the helpful materials online. Most important: you absolutely should notify SSA if you start working because the consequences may be severe including but not limited to an overpayment (which SSA will recoup from you) or a termination of benefits. Additionally, if your benefits stop because your earnings are substantial, you have a five-year period to reinstate your benefits immediately if you find yourself unable to continue working because of your condition.

Read more about these topics at ssa.gov

Good luck to you in this next chapter.


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