Social Security Advocates Shrug At Budget Deal

Disability rights groups are finding things to like about the agreement.

WASHINGTON -- Advocates for senior citizens said they're neither happy nor unhappy with a congressional budget deal that makes changes to Social Security and Medicare.

The last-minute agreement spares 11 million Social Security disability beneficiaries from a 20 percent benefits cut by at the end of 2016 by transferring revenue from the more flush retirement and survivors insurance trust fund. It prevents Medicare Part B premiums from rising 52 percent for many beneficiaries. And it averts a government shutdown and lifts the debt ceiling until March 2017.

For major advocacy groups, those benefits were enough for them to reluctantly accept the deal, even though they weren't shy about criticizing it. The bill comes with a host of provisions that tweak disability insurance, and it eliminates a program that allowed 20 states to award disability benefits to some applicants without an independent medical evaluation.

“When hostage takers release their hostages, we are, of course, relieved that the hostages are no longer in harm’s way, but this is nothing to celebrate,” Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, said in a statement. “That the ransom isn’t steeper is also not something to celebrate.”

The Social Security provisions, which take up more than a third of the bill's text, save about $4 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (For some perspective, disability benefits are expected to cost the federal government roughly $144 billion this year.) Congressional aides said the estimated savings come from the medical evaluation requirement that slightly delays new benefits for some people.

"We're pleased we no longer have to worry about a big benefit cut at the end of next year," said Paul Van de Water, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an influential liberal think tank. "The package is a reasonable compromise given where everyone started out."

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), touted the Center on Budget's support for the agreement.

Earlier this year, Republicans railed against the possibility of reallocating payroll tax money from Social Security's flagship retirement insurance program, saying such a move would be a "raid" on Social Security. GOP representatives said they would only divert retirement funds in exchange for benefit cuts, but the changes unveiled this week are modest.

“Movement to prevent a default and avert a government shutdown is welcome news for all Americans, but the deal is not perfect,” Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said in a statement. “While it appears a crisis has been averted, we have not improved retirement security for our nation’s seniors by expanding their earned Social Security benefits.”

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network said it “tentatively” opposes a new measure requiring doctors to vet initial applications for Social Security disability benefits. The group said physician review is unnecessary and may be harmful to people with disabilities.

“Social Security officers right now reviewing the initial applications have training in how to evaluate them,” Samantha Crane, director of public policy for Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, told The Huffington Post. “Having a doctor review those applications would not necessarily be much of a value add, since all of them have several doctors’ opinions in the applications themselves. We worry that it would needlessly add to the wait period without improving the process.”

Disability benefits applicants who appeal an initial rejection of their claims already wait, on average, 470 days for a hearing due to a shortage of administrative law judges.

Groups representing people with disabilities were not outraged about the new budget deal.
Groups representing people with disabilities were not outraged about the new budget deal.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

But Crane said the group has no plans to fight the overall deal.

In fact, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network said another apparent concession to Republicans in the deal may help beneficiaries. The agreement creates a demonstration program allowing Social Security disability beneficiaries to earn more income through work without risking losing Social Security or Medicare benefits.

Crane said the organization is waiting for details before it weighs in definitively, but “there's a real need for this kind of program. Too many people with disabilities are discouraged from working or are forced to limit their hours and forego pay raises because they are worried about losing their disability benefits and Medicare.”

The pilot program, with voluntary participation, would reduce benefits by $1 for every $2 a person earns above the program’s limit during a given month. Crane argued that the status quo harms people with disabilities whose incomes rise above the threshold temporarily due to part-time or seasonal work.

“People with disabilities are absolutely seeking work opportunities when they can, but fear of having a paycheck that is too high is very common," Crane said.

Conservatives were mad at House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for striking a deal that they thought offered too much to Democrats.
Conservatives were mad at House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for striking a deal that they thought offered too much to Democrats.
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Resigned acceptance of the budget deal by advocates for seniors and disability rights organizations marks a difference in tone, given their vigilant disagreement with the Republican narrative about the 11-million-person Social Security program.

For months, disability rights advocates rarely passed up an opportunity to rebut Republican claims that an uptick in the number of Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries was due to people gaming the system. They noted that U.S. disability insurance system is one of the world's strictest and least-generous, and fraud is rare.

Growth in the program in recent years, the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has repeatedly shown, is the result of demographic changes, like the aging workforce.

Criticism of the new budget accord hasn't become outright opposition, however, because the deal ultimately spares beneficiaries the direct benefit cuts that Republicans threatened would be the price of transferring revenue to Social Security Disability Insurance.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said the new deal conceded too much to President Obama.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said the new deal conceded too much to President Obama.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

Indeed, as HuffPost’s Michael McAuliff and Laura Barron-Lopez reported, hard-line conservative Republican House members were furious about the agreement, arguing it made too many concessions to President Barack Obama. They also said it spares Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) from proving his conservative bona fides when he assumes the speakership in November.

"This essentially gives the president an open path all the way to the next president of the United States, and if I were Barack Obama, I would be giddy with glee," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

House Republicans also lamented that outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who they effectively ousted out of anger with his closed decision-making process, ended up getting the better of them in the twilight of his reign.

In that sense, hard-line House Republicans have something in common with Social Security advocates, whose biggest concern may be that the new deal sets a precedent of changing the country’s largest and most venerated social program in a backroom negotiation.

“Though some provisions are positive, Social Security legislation, as a matter of principle, should go through regular order, in the light of day,” Social Security Works’ Altman said in a statement.

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