The employment picture for people with disabilities has never been better.
A flush economy (well, still pretty flush), changing attitudes and changes in both federal and state legislation have opened employment prospects for the disabled in ways that were unimaginable 10 or even three years ago.
That said, the statistics remain awful. Some experts say nearly 70 per cent of the disabled remain out of the workforce. Even President Clinton has said that more must be done before the disabled share in the general prosperity.
In the past year, the feds and the state enacted reform legislation to help in the effort. This laundry list of new laws and regulations may make it easier for disabled people to put some cash in their pockets, and even retain their benefits while they work.
If you need more information about how these changes affect you and your benefits, and you live in Los Angeles, you can attend AIDS Project Los Angeles' Work Services "Work It!" series. These monthly workshops cover the benefits, insurance and legal landscape, as well as the opportunities for financial aid if you need to go back to school or train for a new field.
APLA's Work Services also conducts a monthly Vocational Rehabilitation (Voc Rehab) workshop. It gives you the chance to run a re-training or re-education plan by a Voc Rehab counselor, before you sign on the dotted line.
Mark Your Calendar
Many of the changes affecting people with disabilities are already in place, but some, described below, are due to take effect January 1, 2001.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): Social Security is about to change the amounts people on SSDI can earn, with less or no risk to benefits. Previously, gross monthly earnings over $200 counted as months in SSDI's nine-month Trial Work Period.
According to changes proposed in the Federal Register, that amount should go up to $530 as of January 1, 2001. The amount will be indexed and presumably increased yearly, based on the national wage index.That means people on SSDI can work part-time, earn up to $530 a month, without using up trial work months.
Substantial Gainful Activity: Previously, people on SSDI who worked and earned more than $700 a month could lose their benefits. Social Security calls the $700 level "substantial gainful activity" and considers it an indication that a disabled person is no longer disabled.
As of January 1, 2001, the substantial gainful activity amount will increase to $740 a month in gross wages, and will be indexed annually according to the national wage index. Now, someone on SSDI can earn up to $740 a month, with no risk to benefits.
Medicare: Under new federal legislation, if you get Medicare through SSDI and go back to work, your health insurance remains in place for a minimum of eight and a half years.
Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) is free and stays free. Medicare Part B (or doctors' insurance) will cost $50 a month in 2001. The amount is usually deducted directly from checks, or paid by Medi-Cal (if you have both Medicare and Medi-Cal and you pay the premium, contact APLA's Benefits Department (or your local AIDS organization); something is wrong).
If you earn enough -- more than $740 a month -- to lose your SSDI dollars, you will have to work out a premium payment plan with Social Security, unless Medi-Cal continues paying the premium.
Medi-Cal: Disabled people and seniors on Medi-Cal can now have income, both from benefits and earnings up to $926 (for a single person) before they incur monthly share of cost.
Previously, all income above $620 contributed to share of cost, except for people on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) who have no share of cost.
The change means a person on SSDI at $750 a month now has no share of cost. Before the change, share of cost would have been over a hundred bucks.
If your SSDI is $926 a month or less, but you also have wages, you will have to calculate whether your income falls into the right category.
For example, Medi-Cal adds to share of cost for wages by exempting the first $65 a month you earn, then adding half of the remaining gross monthly wages. For a part-time income of $465 a month, the share of cost would go up by $200. If you had SSDI income at $850, and wages of $465, your monthly countable income would be $1,050, and you would be over the limit for this program. Call APLA's Work Services or Benefits Department (or the largest AIDS organization in your area) for more information.
Medi-Cal Buy In for the Working Disabled: Medi-Cal now offers a Buy-In program so disabled people can work and keep their health insurance without getting slammed by increased share of cost. You can buy into Medi-Cal for $20 to $250 per month, under this program, and be earning upwards of $40,000 a year.
Continuing Disability Reviews: In legislation passed this year, Congress told Social Security not to target people who work with disability reviews, just because they are working.
Also, the same legislation gives people who lose their SSDI because of work more time to file for reinstatement, without a new application. That period used to be four years, minimum. Now it is nine years. However, if you lose your SSDI because of work, and need to go back on your claim, Social Security will put you through a medical review to make sure you are still disabled.
Vocational Rehabilitation: Vocational rehabilitation remains a major source of funding for return to work activities, including money for school and training. During the past year, Voc Rehab has been easier to access and easier to qualify for, than during any other time in the past three years.
People on disability who are working, looking for work, or just thinking about it need to know about these new regulations and opportunities, and changes that for 2001.
For more information, or to reserve space at the January workshops in Los Angeles, contact AIDS Project Los Angeles' Work Services at (323) 993-1659 or (323) 993-1616.
Phil Curtis manages AIDS Project Los Angeles' Work Services Program. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.