ABLE Act Not Empowering People
By Mike Ervin
At first glance, the Achieving a Better
Life Experience Act seems too good to be true.
Its a serious attempt to address the
serious problem of people with disabilities being trapped in lifelong poverty
because of the asset limits that are part of the eligibility requirements for
programs such as Medicaid and Social Security. The ABLE Act sailed through the
House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law
by President Obama on Dec 19.
But the closer one examines the ABLE Act,
the more its many shortcomings become evident. It will indeed help some people
accumulate some assets while still remaining eligible for public programs. But
its so watered down that it will be of no benefit at all to millions of
people with disabilities (PWDs).
The legislation was pushed by more
affluent families of children with disabilities, and the final version mostly
serves that population. The segment it abandons the most are disabled adults
who are poor.
The final version was called the Stephen
J. Beck, Jr. ABLE Act, named after a man from Burke, Va., whose daughter was
born with Down syndrome. Beck is credited with conceiving the legislation,
pushing to get the bill introduced for the first time in 2006 and rallying
community support for its passage. The House passed the bill by a vote of
404-17on Dec 3. Five days later, Beck died unexpectedly.
The central feature of the ABLE Act is
that it allows PWDs or their families to create tax-exempt bank accounts in
which they can save up to $14,000 annually and $100,000 in total without having
that money count as an asset.
Anything that enables people with
disabilities to break free from the harsh and antiquated $2,000 asset cap for
recipients of SSDI and Medicaid is a big step forward. But only people who
become disabled before age 26 can create ABLE accounts. Kelly Buckland,
executive director of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), was
one of many disability leaders who objected vociferously when that provision
suddenly appeared in the bill just before the House vote.
The age 26 cutoff was simply
arbitrary, Buckland said. They used it to get the cost down, and
that was the only rationale. NCIL supported the ABLE Act for years. We worked
(Capitol) Hill to get it passed, then in the 11th hour Congress put in the age
restriction without talking with us.
This violated the nothing about us
without us mantra! The young person who gets in a car accident at age 26
or after, who just graduated college and started a career, trying to pay off
student loans, will not be eligible!
Buckland said that after the age
restriction was added, NCIL sent a letter to ABLE Act sponsors withdrawing its
Of the 17 representatives who voted
against the ABLE Act, 12 were Democrats and some were quite politically
progressive. Some said they objected to another last-minute provision that
slipped in a Medicare cut. The provision discontinued Medicare coverage of
vacuum erection systems until such time as Medicare covers erectile
dysfunction drugs under Medicare Part D. These devices, commonly known as penis
pumps, are used to help men with erectile dysfunction achieve erection.
Proponents of this provision estimated it will reduce Medicare spending by $444
million. Creating ABLE accounts would increase the deficit by $2.1 billion over
the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The American Association of Retired
Persons sent a letter to all House members that read in part,
establishing the ABLE program should not be achieved by tapping
into Medicare savings ... We urge you to remove MedIcare offsets from the ABLE
All this prompted Rep. Debbie Wasserman
Schultz, D-Fla., to reluctantly vote no. In a statement, she said, I am a
cosponsor of the ABLE Act, a laudable piece of legislation meant to help people
with disabilities set up tax-free savings accounts. However, I decided not to
vote for the bill once Republicans insisted on funding it by making permanent
cuts to Medicare. I cannot in good conscience support Medicare cuts that will
have a direct impact on the care that some seniors receive. At a time when we
are concerned about the long-term solvency of Medicare and looking for ways to
strengthen the program, cutting it is bad policy. I believe there were plenty
of other pay-for options the Congress could have considered to fund the ABLE
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said:
Mark my words, when it comes time to offer another tax break, my
colleagues on the other side will come after Medicare again. And the next time,
the cut will be deeper and easier because we did it today.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D- Calif., said in a
speech on the House floor: Using Medicare savings to offset non-health
related programs sets a dangerous precedent. While there are elements to this
bill that both sides can agree on, this bill takes one step forward and two
Its a laudable and worthy goal
to incentivize savings and ensure that families of individuals with
disabilities have access to the resources they need. But Congress has a
responsibility to ensure that limited resources benefit those who need the help
the most. Unfortunately, this bill is yet another example of an upside-down tax
code that provides the greatest benefits to those of greatest means, not to
middle class families living paycheck to paycheck.
Therein lies another deficiency of the
ABLE Act. Because it is savings-based, it most benefits people with
disabilities who can afford to save because they have high enough incomes or
family financial support. But for those with no savings who get by on a monthly
SSI check, it offers little, if any, hope.
Some believe incremental progress begets
systemic change. So maybe someday the success of the ABLE Act will pave the way
for legislation that will finish the job. But Buckland said he fears the
opposite reaction. He fears the celebrated passage might create the illusion
that the problem is solved and no further action or redress is needed.
Mike Ervin, who writes on disability topics, is a
frequent contributor to Independence Today.