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Myths about Mental Illness and Social Security Disability Insurance Debunked

In order to justify its $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the Trump administration and its allies have had to propagate several myths.  The most insidious one is that many SSDI recipients are not truly worthy of benefits.  They have suggested that mental illness is among the more dubious qualifications for SSDI.  Senator Rand Paul famously remarked that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.” Former Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling sums it up quite succinctly in The Atlantic:

 

The Administration is already deploying selective—and often deceptive—facts to stigmatize and caricature both the Social Security Disability Insurance program and its recipients. This sort of framing justifies using Social Security as a piggy bank to raid in order to help offset tax cuts for top-earning Americans. – Gene Sperling, 5/23/17

 

These convenient myths can be effective in undermining public support for SSDI, but they are dangerous for the millions of Americans with mental disorders who depend on federal disability benefits to prevent them from sinking into abject poverty.  Here are the facts: 

 

Nearly 25% of the nation’s 8 million SSDI recipients have a mental impairment as their primary diagnosis – or qualification – for benefits. They may suffer from a variety of disorders, including severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and intellectual impairment, which make it impossible for them to work or hold a job.  Many of those deemed eligible for SSDI benefits because of mental disorders also suffer from related physical disabilities.  The majority of these beneficiaries are over 50 years of age.  These are some of the vulnerable people the Trump administration is targeting with budget cuts – beneficiaries who struggle to make ends meet on an average $1172 per month from SSDI, just above the federal poverty line.  As Think Progress reports, for eight in ten beneficiaries, SSDI is their main or sole source of income. 

 

Why don’t these SSDI recipients simply work for a living, as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and other administration apologists insinuate that they should?  Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Director of Government Affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), explains why it’s so difficult for people with severe mental impairments to hold a job:  

 

“The symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult to concentrate on tasks, to routinely interact with customers and put on a friendly face, or handle changes in the workplace.  Like people with physical disabilities, those struggling with mental disorders may need to miss an excessive amount of work for doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, or because of side effects from medications.”  - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Stacy recalls two clients from a previous job assisting SSDI claimants whose stories starkly illustrate why it’s so difficult for the mentally impaired to sustain paying work.  One was a woman who suffered from PTSD due to domestic abuse.  After her husband tried to burn down their house, she experienced debilitating flashbacks and panic attacks that resembled seizures, and could barely leave home.  No longer to able to work, she had to discontinue her job in the fast food industry and applied for SSDI.  “She was awarded benefits at the time she needed them, which enabled her to keep a roof over head and food on the table while seeking treatment,” Cloyd explains.

 

The second client was a man in his 60s who had an intellectual impairment (formerly known as “mental retardation”) who for several years worked as a custodian through a special employment program and paid into Social Security.  He was later forced to give up the custodial work due to a variety of ailments.  Unable to find alternate employment because of his intellectual impairment, he applied for – and received – SSDI benefits.  It’s hard to imagine this older man being able to meet his basic living expenses without a job and without SSDI. 

 

While some fiscal conservatives and others perpetuate the myth that people on SSDI are simply lazy and scamming the system in order to avoid working, Cloyd insists that the opposite is true.

 

“If given a choice between dealing with the pain they suffer – mentally or physically – and collecting SSDI benefits… or being free of this pain and working for a living, I can tell you that they all would choose to work.” - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Of course, having a severe mental or physical impairment is no guarantee of receiving SSDI benefits. The United States has one of the strictest federal disability standards in the world (only South Korea is more stringent).  Only one in four SSDI applicants is actually approved for benefits.  Wait times for approvals and appeals can be anywhere from months to years. In case anyone doubts the severity of beneficiaries’ conditions, one in six men on SSDI die within 5 years of approval for benefits; for women, the figure is one in seven.

 

Unfortunately, the cold facts do not deter the administration’s propagandists from insisting that many SSDI beneficiaries are somehow undeserving of help – even though they must have worked and paid into Social Security for five of the past ten years before applying.  The ARC advocacy organization estimates that 946,000 beneficiaries could be booted off SSDI if the Trump budget cuts are enacted:  that’s nearly one million mentally and physically impaired Americans deprived of minimal benefits to “keep a roof above their heads and food on the table” in order to give the wealthy and big corporations a massive tax cut. Capitol Hill watchers say the President’s budget is simply a “messaging document” with little chance of passage, in which case we say it is a cruel and frightening message to send some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.  

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For more on mental impairments and Social Security Disability Insurance, watch this week's "Behind The Headlines" on Facebook Live. 

CBO Confirms: GOP Healthcare Bill is a Huge Setback for Older Americans

Twenty-three million people will lose health insurance in the next decade under the GOP's American Health Care Act (AHCA) according to the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.  The CBO analysis concludes that the House Republican plan benefits the young and healthy at the expense of older and sicker Americans. The report indicates that “near seniors” (aged 50-64) will be hit particularly hard by the GOP healthcare bill, as we discussed this morning on our Facebook Live broadcast from Capitol Hill.  

 

“The CBO report was no surprise to those of us who are looking out for the best interests of older Americans. The GOP leadership was so focused on passing repeal and replace legislation that they failed their due diligence by ignoring an ominous flaw; their bill will drive up seniors’ out-of-pocket costs by repealing subsidies that help defray the cost of premiums,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.  

 

According to the CBO, near seniors could see their net premiums rise by as much as 700-800 percent if the AHCA becomes law.  A 64 year-old with an income of $26,500 per year who paid $1,700 annually for an Obamacare policy would now pay a whopping $13,600 under the Republican plan.

 

The report also confirms that the House bill will only compound the problems faced by near seniors with pre-existing conditions. While an amendment by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) adds $8 billion over five years to fund high-risk pools for patients with pre-existing conditions, that will not be nearly enough to offset the extra costs to seniors. 

 

“People who are less healthy (including those with pre-existing or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive non-group health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all,” the CBO says

 

Seniors who rely on Medicaid will suffer under the American Health Care Act.  The CBO report calculates that the AHCA slashes Medicaid spending by $834 billion. Medicaid currently helps pay for long term care for millions of seniors nationwide. The CBO estimates that some 14 million Medicaid recipients would lose coverage under the AHCA – or not be able to attain it in the first place – within the next 10 years.  In fact, more than half of the increase in uninsured Americans under the AHCA would come from this vulnerable population.

 

The GOP healthcare bill also weakens Medicare by repealing a tax on high wage earners, which would decrease the solvency of the Medicare Part A Trust Fund by three years.  The CBO had earlier estimated that the Part A Trust fund would forgo $177.3 billion over ten years if the ACA Medicare payroll tax is repealed, opening the door for those who want to privatize (or "voucherize") Medicare. 

 

The amended American Health Care Act is an assault on the health care of all seniors,” says Richtman.  “We can only hope that the Senate will take the CBO’s new figures into consideration – and reverse the provisions that are so demonstrably harmful to our nation’s seniors.” 


 

 

Oh, yes: the Trump Budget Definitely Does Cut Meals on Wheels

 

Would the Trump administration and its acolytes please stop saying that the President's budget does not cut funding for Meals on Wheels?

Just today, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made that very claim at a House hearing on the new budget: 

"Let's talk about Meals on Wheels, because we don't reduce it.” – Mick Mulvaney, Trump Budget Director, 5/24/17

Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers hot meals to more than 2.4 million needy seniors across the country every year. Volunteers not only deliver sustenance; they check in on isolated seniors and provided a much needed human connection.


Anyone looking at the actual numbers can plainly see that the Trump budget does, in fact, slash funding for Meals on Wheels. In addition to cutting Older Americans Act home-delivered meals by $1.5 million, the President’s budget eliminates the Community Services, Community Development and Social Services Block Grants, upon which some Meals on Wheels programs rely for funding.

Because of previous budget cuts, Older Americans Act nutrition programs are already serving 23 million fewer meals than in 2005.  The loss of Community Services Block Grants ($715 million), Community Development Block Grants ($3 billion) and Social Service Block Grants ($1.7 billion) funding for home delivered meals would increase the number of seniors threatened by hunger.

According to Feeding America, 5.7 million Americans over the age of 60 were food insecure as of 2014. That means 9% of all seniors in the wealthiest nation in the world are at risk of going hungry.  Worse yet, the number of food insecure seniors is projected to increase by 50% when the youngest of the Baby Boom Generation reaches age 60 in 2025. There are waiting lists in every state for seniors who need food assistance. Cutting Meals on Wheels funding at a time of growing need is outrageous and dangerous.

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on March 20th, National Committee President Max Richtman recounted his days as staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Aging.  He tells the story of a Republican Senator who changed his mind about the program after riding along with a Meals on Wheels van:

“He (the GOP Senator) was impressed by not only the sustenance of the food, but also the seniors’ human connection to the volunteers, and became an enthusiastic advocate for the program.” – Max Richtman, Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post

At the end of the letter to the editor, Max suggested that a certain occupant of the White House follow the Senator’s lead. 

Perhaps Mr. Trump should ride with a Meals on Wheels van and witness the profound benefits to our nation’s most vulnerable seniors.

That suggestion seems even more appropriate today, given that the President obviously has no problem defunding Meals on Wheels in his new budget.  Perhaps Mick Mulvaney should ride along with him.

Trump Budget Shatters President's Promise on Social Security, Medicaid

The President’s promise not to touch Social Security was officially revealed to be a sham today.  Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  Some media outlets have let the President off the hook by saying the budget does not cut Social Security benefits.  This headline from Fox Business News is typical, even in the mainstream media:

Trump’s Budget Slashes Spending, Leaves Social Security & Medicare Untouched – Fox Business News, 5/22/17


A CNN Money correspondent just perpetuated the administration’s misleading spin, telling Wolf Blitzer this afternoon that Trump’s budget “doesn’t touch Social Security.”   

Other media outlets are hedging by saying the Trump budget doesn’t cut “core” Social Security benefits – whatever that means.  Social Security Disability Insurance is a crucial and inseparable part of Social Security. Period.  No amount of parsing can cleave the two.  When you cut a program, you hurt people – whether the cuts affect “core” benefits or not.

In this case, the millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on SSDI for basic income security are the ones who stand to be hurt.  Though SSDI helps younger Americans, too, most of its beneficiaries are 55 or over – meaning any cuts to the program will hit older Americans particularly hard.   The human consequences do not seem to disturb the President’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, as is obvious from this exchange with a reporter in the White House press room:


Reporter:  Will any of those individuals who receive SSDI receive less from this budget?

Mulvaney:  I hope so.

Mulvaney clarified that he thought the program has been enrolling too many people and called for cuts in the number of enrollees, even though that number has been shrinking.  Earlier this year, the Budget Director wondered aloud on television why SSDI is considered part of Social Security, despite the fact that it unequivocally is – and has been – since 1956.  SSDI is funded by workers’ Social Security payroll tax contributions – just like retirement benefits.   Qualifying disability beneficiaries must meet certain work history requirements, same as they do for retirement benefits.  When SSDI recipients reach retirement age, they transition seamlessly into the Social Security retirement program.  In no way is SSDI separable from Social Security.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that the Trump budget contains $72 billion in cuts to federal disability programs — primarily Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provides income assistance to poor seniors and people with disabilities.  The budget does not contain hard details of exactly how SSDI will be cut, but CBPP offers this insight:

$48 billion would come from a vague proposal to “test new approaches to increase labor force participation.”  But the Social Security Administration has undertaken many demonstration projects over the years to test new ways to encourage beneficiaries to return to work, and they have consistently shown limited results or proved not cost-effective. The budget also contains other proposals that would cut Social Security benefits for disabled workers and SSI benefits for households with more than one disabled family member.  – Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Cutting benefits for Americans with disabilities fits right in with the cruel theme running through the President’s entire budget, which decimates programs for society’s most vulnerable citizens in order to give the rich and big corporations a massive tax cut.  In addition to SSDI, the Trump budget guts Medicaid, and cuts funding for other programs benefitting seniors including Meals on Wheels, home heating assistance, and community service employment.  

Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly vowed not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The drastic cuts to SSDI and Medicaid – along with the weakening of Medicare’s solvency in the Republicans’ healthcare legislation – makes the President zero for three on these promises.   Knowing that he cannot be trusted to protect seniors, advocates and everyday Americans must work to defeat the Trump budget in Congress – and make sure it never reaches his desk.

Paul Ryan's Medicare Privatization Scheme Edging Closer to Reality

Paul Ryan’s dystopian dream of privatizing Medicare may soon come true.  At least he seems to think so.  In an interview with right-wing Wisconsin radio host Vicki McKenna, the House Speaker said that Medicare “reform” is coming to the Capitol this Spring.  “I’m pretty sure the budget committee in the House will pass that on in the House Republican budget,” Ryan said.  In fact, House Budget Committee Chair Diane Black (R-TN) has already promised to include Medicare privatization in the budget resolution next month.  This is scary news for millions of current and future retirees.

To justify his Scrooge-like assault on Medicare, Ryan continues to perpetuate the myth that Medicare is an “entitlement.”  In fact, it is a remarkably efficient social insurance program.  Having paid into it their entire working lives, Americans are counting on having affordable health care coverage to protect them upon retirement.  Why does Paul Ryan want to take that away, effectively reneging on the nation's commitment to current and future retirees? 

In the past, President Obama stood as an impenetrable barrier between Ryan and his privatization scheme.  Though candidate Trump promised “not to touch” Medicare, the President has already broken that pledge by supporting the GOP healthcare plan, which shortens the solvency of the program.   Despite Trump’s campaign promises, his budget director refused to publicly discourage Congress from privatizing Medicare.  In fact, Speaker Ryan said in his radio interview that he and the Trump administration are having “an ongoing conversation” about it. Current and future retirees clearly cannot trust this White House to protect their Medicare benefits, which they have paid for during their entire working lives.

As we discussed on our "Behind the Headlines" Facebook Live broadcast Thursday, here is what Ryan’s insidious “reform” would do:  Instead of receiving guaranteed benefits, all Medicare participants would be given vouchers to help pay premiums for traditional Medicare or private health insurance.   In either case, the vouchers would not be able to keep up with rising health care costs, leaving seniors to cover the difference out of their own pockets.  That’s why we call the voucher program “coupon care.” 

Ryan's plan would likely drive healthier, younger and wealthier seniors toward private insurance. Poorer and sicker seniors would remain in traditional Medicare, driving up costs until the program collapsed under its own weight.  But that’s not all.  Ryan also wants to hike the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.  This in itself is a massive benefit cut, as 65 and 66 year olds would have to buy private insurance on their own dime. Those who couldn’t afford it might go without health insurance entirely. In a recent National Committee poll, 65% of likely voters opposed raising the eligibility age.  Among younger voters, the opposition was even stronger.

As Ryan predicts, Medicare privatization will likely pass the House as part of the Republican budget resolution.  Its future in the Senate is less certain, but too close for comfort.  Senate Republican leaders need only 50 votes to wreck Medicare.  The National Committee is building a “firewall” of moderate GOP Senators who we believe can be convinced to protect Medicare.  With an unpredictable President in the White House, that is the best way – along with vocal grassroots activism – to defend current and future retirees against the destruction of a program that has worked effectively for more than 50 years, and enjoys enduring public support.

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