What is the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act?
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
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On December 17, 1999 the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act was enacted to assist individuals with disabilities in returning to the work force. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is finalizing the terms of the Act and seeking out providers to render services under the Act. Once these are in place, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSD) beneficiaries will be offered a "ticket" which can be used to obtain employment services, vocational rehabilitation services, and other support services necessary to obtain employment.

The program is meant to provide an opportunity for those individuals who want to become less dependent upon disability benefits to obtain employment training and supports. It is not a mandatory program. SSI and SSD beneficiaries will not be penalized or terminated from benefits if they do not use a ticket.

The ticket will be available to beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 64. The ticket provides that the Social Security Administration agrees to pay the employment network for the services. Beneficiaries can use the ticket to obtain the above services from a certified employment network of the beneficiary's choice. It is not yet clear who will be providing services as employment networks in New York City. SSA recently issued a request for proposal for agencies interested in becoming employment networks.

Contractors serving as employment networks will be responsible for providing appropriate employment services, vocational rehabilitation services or other support services to help beneficiaries achieve their employment goals. Employment networks will be responsible for developing and implementing individual work plans for each beneficiary, including statements of

the beneficiary's goals for vocation, earnings and job advancement;
the services and supports necessary to achieve those goals;
terms or conditions that attach to the provision of those services; and
the beneficiary's rights under the program.
Services include, among others, career planning, vocational assessment, job training, job placement, and follow-up services. Contractors who are successful in helping an individual become gainfully employed will receive financial incentives from SSA.
The period of using a ticket begins when the ticket is first assigned to an employment network. Thereafter, complicated rules, beyond the scope of this article, govern at what point ticket benefits end. One example of an event that triggers the invalidation of a ticket is when the beneficiary is no longer making "timely progress" toward employment. (SSA has published guidelines to determine "timely progress.") There are many other triggering events of which a ticket holder must be aware.

The terms of using the ticket, what must be accomplished to ensure continued activation of the ticket, and goals that must be reached to trigger payment to the employment network are also very complicated, as are dispute resolution procedures. If you plan to avail yourself of a ticket, you are well advised to spend time with an advocate to learn the rules of the game.

As always, the issue of most concern to SSI and SSD beneficiaries who attempt to work is how their SSI and SSD benefits are affected, and what happens to their medical benefits while using a ticket. While a beneficiary is using a ticket, the individual will not be subjected to a continuing disability review as a result of engaging in substantial gainful activity, namely, earning $740 or more per month for an extended period of time. Likewise, an individual's work activity will not be used as evidence that the individual is no longer disabled, unless earnings exceed the level of substantial gainful activity for an extended period of time. All other work rules apply.

With respect to medical benefits, the Ticket to Work Act makes welcome changes in existing law. Currently, an SSD recipient is entitled to continued Medicare coverage during a nine-month trial work period and for an additional 39 consecutive months following the trial work period. The Act extends Medicare eligibility for SSD beneficiaries for an additional 54 months. This applies to all SSD beneficiaries, even those not using a ticket.

For individuals covered by Medicaid, the Act allows states to provide an option for individuals with disabilities to buy into Medicaid if their earnings fall over 250% of the federal poverty level, and for individuals with a "medically improved disability." New York State has not yet enacted legislation to further this goal, but negotiations with mental health advocates are ongoing.

The provisions of the ticket provide positive incentives and supports to encourage disabled individuals to attempt to work. Individuals interested in invoking the opportunities presented by the ticket are encouraged to do so but, as with any activity which affects SSI or SSD benefits, keep records! As I have stated time and again, Social Security is a huge bureaucracy that processes enormous amounts of information. Errors are inadvertently made. So be prepared to be your own advocate by keeping clear and accurate records of every activity in which you engaged pursuant to your ticket.
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