Column from August 17, 1999
SSA Still Punishes People with Disabilities Who Work - and Their Advocates
Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey
While I was getting my award from President Clinton in early June, because I advocated for improvements in the Social Security PASS program, Debbie Dase was being hounded and harassed for the very same reason.
Like me, Debbie is a disabled woman, and a disability-rights advocate. Like me, she started her own business using a Plan to Achieve Self-Support, a PASS -- and in the process endured intrusive questions, irrational and/or inconsistent decisions, and obvious suspicion from Social Security Administration employees. Like me, she helped organize the PASS Participants Rights Campaign to demand respect and accountability from SSA.
But unlike me, Debbie didn't get an award. Instead, she got notices that she had earned too much money, and would have to repay her benefits. She got subjected to review after review, having to produce the same information multiple times. She got outrageous accusations of criminal misconduct. SSA did its best to discredit and intimidate her.
Debbie lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her small business provided an important service: She helped other disabled people write and submit PASS plans so that they, too, could become employed or start businesses. She helped them understand the complex rules involved in getting a PASS approved. And, inevitably, she found it necessary to advocate for her clients when they encountered resistance from SSA. In doing so, she proved to be tenacious and aggressive, never willing to back down when her clients' rights were at stake. She objected to the unnecessary roadblocks which SSA placed in their way; and she bristled with fury when these obstacles were accompanied by personal insults. When this happened, Debbie wasn't afraid to make complaints, and name names of the offending SSA workers.
Debbie followed the PASS program rules to the letter; and she expected SSA technicians to do the same. When they didn't, she raised hell: She gathered together groups of friends, fellow advocates, and angry PASS participants, and she led noisy demonstrations to protest SSA's violations. She also accompanied her clients to meetings with SSA, thus tipping the usual balance of power. Social Security likes it best when recipients come in alone and afraid.
Unfortunately, Debbie Dase is paying a heavy price for her advocacy. SSA has threatened her with criminal charges. Now SSA is demanding that Debbie pay back thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits that she received over ten years ago. Even more outrageous, SSA initiated a criminal investigation, insinuating that Debbie was setting up dummy businesses, and collecting the income from them herself. Anyone with a basic understanding of PASS, and an ounce of common sense, should realize that such fraud just isn't feasible. One of the investigators from SSA's Office of the Inspector General told Debbie he found no evidence of wrongdoing. But SSA refuses to let the issue die. "My reputation has been tainted," Debbie told me. "There are a lot of people who know that this was a bunch of bull. But there are a lot of people who don't know me personally who think that I am now a criminal."
Debbie knows she's done everything legally, carefully following PASS program rules. She believes that both the repayment demands, and the criminal investigation, are SSA's attempt to punish her for her assaults on their unjust bureaucracy.
I can't help wondering: What's the difference between Debbie Dase and me? Why is she rewarded with harassment and threats, while I get accolades in Washington D.C.?
Maybe Social Security workers in Ohio are more vindictive (if no more competent) than those in Colorado. Maybe my writing gives me a higher profile, deterring blatant attempts to intimidate me. Maybe my award was a token, designed to prove that the Clinton Administration really cares about people with disabilities' employment potential; while Debbie's experiences reveal the President's basic indifference, his willingness to allow SSA's obstacles and abuses to go on unchecked.
Debbie Dase isn't alone in receiving an overpayment notice. Almost every Social Security Disability recipient I know lives with this same dilemma, this same fear - that any work activity will result in sudden termination of crucial benefits. And not only will future payments end, but past payments must be repaid. That's why so-called "work-incentive" laws have been passed, to allow recipients to enter the workforce gradually while retaining eligibility for some benefits. But SSA continues to punish people who work, regardless of the laws. You can follow the rules meticulously, and still find yourself stuck with an overpayment notice.
I received an overpayment notice a couple of months ago. It claimed that I had received too much SSI money during 1994! I grasped the problem immediately: The SSA worker who'd sent the notice didn't know that I had been on a PASS plan during that time period. She could have checked my record, but obviously she hadn't bothered. When I wrote her a letter pointing this out (with copies to my congresswoman and to top SSA officials), I soon received an embarrassed letter of apology. The SSA worker explained that my overpayment notice had been generated by a "special unit" of SSA employees whose sole assignment is to send out such notices to anyone whose record indicates earned income. She admitted that this "special unit" does not have access to information about recipients' involvement in the PASS program. Therefore, any PASS user is likely to be targeted for harassment by the "special unit." So are Disability recipients, including part-time workers. No wonder the work-incentive programs don't work.
Judging from the personpower and resources that SSA devotes to this overpayment project, you'd think there were vast numbers of people scheming to defraud the government by participating in work-incentive programs. But Disability benefits aren't so lucrative - and people who pursue legitimate employment goals, while following the rules, are actually saving taxpayers' money, even if they continue getting some benefits. They reduce their dependence on benefits; they pay taxes; they save money; they buy more consumer goods.
Still, SSA keeps on cranking out those overpayment notices, determined to prove that people with disabilities are a bunch of liars, cheaters, and freeloaders.
Overpayment notices are always annoying. They are usually frightening, because they threaten financial ruin. They are often confusing. They are frequently erroneous.
And sometimes, they are fatal. After last week's Crip Commentary, a friend and advocacy colleague wrote to me:
"A co-worker of my sister killed himself last week. He had been working part-time, while receiving disability benefits due to his visual impairment. He had gotten a letter from Social Security saying he should never have gotten disability benefits and that he would need to pay back all that he had received."
Although I didn't know this man, I grieve his death. And I am sad and outraged that he spent his last days terrified of losing what little he had.
That man's death is on SSA's hands.
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