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ABLE Act Not Empowering People

By Mike Ervin

At first glance, the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act seems too good to be true.

It’s 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 it’s 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 support.

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 Act.”

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 Act.”

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 steps back.

“It’s 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.

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