September 28,2015

Press Contact:

Taylor Harvey: 202-224-4515

Wyden Statement on the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund

As Prepared for Delivery

I want to take a few minutes today to discuss the enormous importance of America’s most critical safety net program -- Social Security. In particular, I want to talk about the Social Security Disability Insurance program and introduce a proposal to secure the financing of Social Security. Of all the strands woven together in America’s safety net, disability insurance is one of the most successful at keeping vulnerable people in Oregon and across the country out of poverty. It is a vital lifeline for people who suffer from catastrophic illnesses or disabilities, including a million veterans. The time has come for Congress to take an expected but important step to preserve Social Security’s strength into the future.

The trust fund for the disability insurance portion of Social Security is set to be depleted in 2016.  This doesn’t mean the program will stop paying benefits but does mean that it will only have dedicated tax revenue to pay about 80 percent of benefits. This isn’t a late-breaking crisis -- this is something that Congress has anticipated for more than two decades. And it’s a simple issue to resolve.

For a defined-benefit system like Social Security, it is not unusual to adjust the dials of funding between the retirement program and the disability program as needed. That way, the entire program remains as strong as possible. Benefits go out in full and on time. Nobody in Oregon or elsewhere is stuck in limbo, worrying about suddenly being unable to make rent or pay the bills.

Congress has adjusted resources within Social Security 11 times and has shifted funding both to and from the Disability Insurance program. The last time it did, in 1994, it set the disability insurance program on strong footing for about 20 years.  That is the practical way to strengthen disability insurance for the future. I’m introducing legislation today along with 27 colleagues that would do just that, and Ways & Means Ranking Member Levin is introducing a similar measure in the House of Representatives.

This is a straightforward, common-sense proposal supported by a number of prominent advocates for Americans with disabilities, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force, Social Security Works, and the Strengthen Social Security Coalition.

Despite that, there are some members of Congress who are ringing false alarm bells and insisting on changes to the program that may be harmful to workers and beneficiaries. They make the misguided case that disability insurance is plagued by fraud or that it is a big giveaway.  That is not the case – as I will explain in a moment. 

The reason I’m introducing this legislation now is the House of Representatives has adopted a rule that prevents a clean reallocation of funding between the retirement and disability programs. I want to make sure that harmful changes to these programs are not included in end-of-year or other must-pass legislation.   

In my view, there are opportunities to further strengthen Social Security, and I believe the Congress should be open to policies that would not harm workers and beneficiaries. However, it is important that Congress not take any action that would reduce protections for those who desire to attempt work, add more complexity in benefits or administration, or rig up another trust fund depletion scenario. There have been some ideas thrown around that don’t pass those tests.

As Congress debates the future of disability insurance, it’s important to get the facts straight. First, the Social Security Administration makes stopping program fraud and abuse a top priority. Disability insurance payments are more than 99 percent accurate, due in no small part to the agency’s robust efforts to combat waste, fraud, and abuse.  

For example, the agency uses a highly-effective method of preventing improper payments called “continuing disability reviews,” which returns nine dollars in savings for every dollar invested. The agency has demonstrated that it can do this important work when we here in Congress provide it with sufficient resources.

In addition, let me be clear: nobody’s getting rich off of disability insurance. The benefits average just over $1,100 a month, which is slightly over the individual poverty level. If SSDI went away, half of the families receiving benefits would fall into poverty.

And it’s important to recognize that the qualifications for disability insurance are strict, which means only those who are so impaired they can’t perform substantial work receive benefits.  The program is not a giveaway. Workers earn coverage by paying into the program. Less than 40 percent of applications for disability insurance are approved, even after appeals. The people who qualify suffer from severe medical conditions that have derailed their lives and left them extremely vulnerable. In my view, it is deeply unfair to delay the simple changes that will keep the disability insurance program running for years to come.

One year ago, the Finance Committee heard testimony from a woman named Stephanie Dempsey who suffered from debilitating chronic illnesses and received disability insurance benefits. Stephanie’s long list of health problems began in her late 20s, when she was diagnosed with a hereditary heart disease. She had quadruple bypass surgery at age 30. Over the following years, she had 27 stents placed in her arteries over the course of several more operations. That enormous burden was compounded by Lupus, arthritis, and a seizure disorder. A mountain of prescription bottles was stacked on the witness table the day Stephanie came before the Finance Committee.

As Stephanie told us, she wanted to work, but her illnesses made it impossible. Rather than sliding backward into poverty or having to rely entirely on others to stay afloat, disability insurance benefits helped cover the bills.

I’m sorry to say that Stephanie passed away in December. But there are vulnerable people across the country who rely on disability insurance in the same way Stephanie did. On the Social Security Administration’s website is a page where many of these individuals have shared their stories.

Let me tell you about three other individuals who rely on disability insurance: Charlotte, Christine and Carrie.

Charlotte was working three jobs and pursuing her degree in social work when she suffered two strokes in 2007. After the strokes, Charlotte now has trouble getting around and climbing steps. She gets help from her niece with day-to-day chores. She says disability insurance keeps her from becoming homeless and helps her pay her bills, afford her medications, and keep food on the table.

Christine has a disorder of the nervous system that has left her in a wheelchair. Her disability insurance benefits give her independence. She said that without Social Security, she’d be stuck in a nursing home, but instead, she’s able to be a productive citizen.

Carrie is a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS). She worked in the insurance industry, and shrugged off the early symptoms of her MS. But the fatigue and forgetfulness grew, and she became unable to work. Carrie’s Social Security benefits help her family pay for food, clothes, and school supplies.

These individuals, and millions more across the country, have earned their benefits, and they are relying on Congress to keep both parts of Social Security running at full strength. So I urge my colleagues to work on a bipartisan basis to ensure that benefits continue in full and as promised, to guarantee that millions of vulnerable Americans remain protected.