Program helps Alaskans receiving disability benefits get back to work

Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2003

For the longest time, those receiving disability benefits were relegated to an either-or scenario: having to choose between governmental health care subsidy or working.

No longer is this the case.

In November, Alaska was among 20 states and the District of Columbia to join a national program offering those receiving disability benefits a chance to go to work. The Ticket to Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 makes it possible.

"Only about 1 percent of the people who get Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits leave the rolls each year to go to work," said Jo Anne Barnhart, commissioner for Social Security. "We can do better, and we must do better. ... Ticket to Work gets us there."

Beginning in November, about 13,000 Alaska disability aid recipients received a ticket that could be used to obtain vocational rehabilitation, job training and other support services for free. Any working-aged (18 to 64) adult receiving Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits is eligible, and the mail-outs were staggered according to Social Security numbers.

Alaska is part of the second wave of states to participate in the Ticket program, which is expected to be in operation nationwide by 2004.

How does it work?

Ticket recipients give their tickets to an employment network. Together the network and ticket holder work to design an individual employment plan outlining the services to be provided to assist the recipient in reaching his or her employment goal.

Most Social Security disability beneficiaries are protected by Medicare for at least eight years after they go to work. Medicare coverage continues even if the individual no longer receives a monetary benefit from Social Security.

The program is designed to provide more choices and help people with disabilities go to work. The Social Security Administration will pay employment networks for successfully helping a beneficiary go to work.

The employment networks can either be paid based solely on helping the individual reach self-sufficiency, or it may choose to receive payments when beneficiaries achieve different milestones during their attempt to go to work.

Michelle Morehouse, program director with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Devel-opment's division of vocational rehabilitation, said private companies also can sign on as employment networks. She said doing so helps build the community.

"The Social Security Admini-stration recognized that people working also cost less money because they are paying out less benefits and people are contributing to the community," Morehouse said.

The Peninsula Job Center in Kenai and Job Ready in Homer are two Alaska employment networks on the Kenai Peninsula, but there are others.

Loretta Spalding works at the Peninsula Job Center training people who have disabilities.

"There's been research into the fact that people with disabilities would like to work," said Spalding, a resource specialist at the center. "About 67 percent of people with disabilities in Alaska would like to work, and about 70 percent nationwide."

But response has been sparse in the central peninsula area, she said. The program is voluntary, so those who may have received a ticket are not required to work. Spalding said only about five people have contacted her about receiving aid since the program was launched.

"It's been kind of slow," she said.

To request a Ticket to Work, to sign up to be an employment network or for more information, call (866) 968-7842 or visit TDD/TTY users should call (866) 833-2967.

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