In 1999, the U.S. Congress passed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act (TTW). The program was designed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to encourage and assist individuals who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in returning to work or, in some cases, to go to work for the first time.
The Social Security Administration wanted to increase beneficiaries’ choices for rehabilitation and vocational services, and to enable beneficiaries to return to work without losing their Medicare or Medicaid health insurance. Under the program, SSA provides disability beneficiaries with a “Ticket” they may use to obtain the services and jobs they need from Employment Networks.
Prior to Ticket, state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies provided the majority of employment related services. Employment Networks were created to broaden choices of employment services for people with disabilities. Although VR agencies are Employment Networks, the concept was expanded to include an array of other providers, such as agencies that contract with VR to provide specific services, Workforce Centers, and private or public employers. Ticket holders have the option of giving their Ticket to Vocational Rehabilitation or to another Employment Network that agrees to provide the services the Ticket holder requires. If individuals are dissatisfied with the services they are getting from a particular Employment Network, they can reassign their Ticket to another.
Ticket to Work has not resulted in the number of Employment Networks envisioned by SSA and, more importantly, those networks that do exist have not been taking the number of Tickets that SSA had hoped. Therefore, in July 2008, new regulations went into effect that SSA believes will improve the Ticket program both for Social Security beneficiaries and for Employment Networks.
Ticket Holders Exempt from Continuing Disability Reviews
One rule change that SSA believes will provide an incentive for individuals to use their Tickets is an exemption from medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR). A CDR is used to determine if an individual still has a disability and is still eligible for benefits. While medical CDRs do not usually result in individuals being determined ineligible for disability benefits, many individuals do not even try to return to work out of fear that a medical CDR might render them ineligible for benefits.
More People Eligible for Tickets
The Ticket program is expanding the number of beneficiaries who are eligible for a Ticket. Previously, individuals who were receiving benefits, but who were expected to improve medically, were not eligible for a Ticket until after their first Continuing Disability Review (CDR). These individuals are now eligible for a Ticket as soon as they begin receiving benefits.
New Definition of “Timely Progress”
In order for beneficiaries to maintain protection from a medical CDR, they have to show timely progress. Timely progress means that participants are progressing toward their employment goals on the timeline established by Social Security. Timely progress has always been a part of the Ticket program, but previously people could show they were making timely progress by having an Individual Plan for Employment with a state VR agency or an Individual Work Plan with an Employment Network for their first 24 months of Ticket use. Under the new rules, timely progress is defined as:
- During the first year, participants must show that they have worked for three months or more at the Trial Work Level or have completed 60 percent of a full time course load in a post-secondary academic setting, or a combination of both.
- In the second year of Ticket use, participants must work for six months over the Trial Work Level or complete 75 percent of a fulltime academic course load.
The Trial Work Level for the year 2008 is $670 per month and will increase each year. So, the individual has to earn at least $670 for three months in the first year and six months in the second year. To show timely progress in the third and fourth years, participants in the Ticket program must work for nine months. Moreover, that work must be Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) rather than the Trial Work Level of the first two years. This means they must earn at least $940 per month or, for individuals who are blind, $1570 per month. These figures will also increase annually. People in school must complete 100 percent of a full-time academic year or have a combination of work and school that adds up to 100 percent.
The addition of academics as an indicator of timely progress is significant. In the past, because timely progress could only be demonstrated by working, it was difficult for an individual to attend college or a technical or vocational training school for longer than the initial period of 24 months. Now an individual can attend school for a four-year degree program, but must complete the degree in six years. This can be a problem for individuals with severe disabilities who find that six years is not sufficient time to complete the educational program.
Social Security tells Ticket participants what they need to do to show timely progress. Failure to show timely progress means they will no longer be exempt from a medical Continuing Disability Review. Again, while most disability reviews do not result in individuals being found ineligible for benefits, that is a possible result.
Finally, another change to the Ticket rules may be especially helpful for individuals who need long-term employment support services. The new rules allow an individual to first be served by the state VR agency and, when VR has closed his or her case, the Ticket can be given to an Employment Network. The Employment Network can then provide longer term support, such as job coaching.