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5 Disability Bills In Congress To Watch

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 24, 2021

It’s usually easier to advocate for disability rights and justice when the issue at hand is close and personal. It’s harder to maintain the same optimism, commitment, and focus when it comes to large-scale disability policy and legislation.

It seems like Congress should be the ideal place to bring about real, substantial change affecting the whole American disability community. Something is always happening on disability issues in Washington. But it’s surprisingly hard for most people with disabilities to keep up with it all, much less maintain a clear set of workable priorities.

No list of disability legislation can ever be complete. And the disability community almost never agrees on which issues at any given time are most important, or which bills have the best chance of passing. Still, it can help to at least try drafting a list, or series of lists, of disability bills in Congress. Here are five to start with as we move into the Fall of 2021:

1. Better Care Better Jobs Act (S. 2210 / H. 4131)

“To amend title XIX of the Social Security Act to expand access to home and community-based services (HCBS) under Medicaid, and for other purposes.“

Millions of elderly disabled, and disabled people of all ages, need some amount of regular help with ordinary tasks of daily living. Some need occasional help with a few specific tasks they can’t do, like shopping, house cleaning, or taking out the garbage. Some need help every day with bathing, grooming, dressing, and cooking. And some need as much as 10 to 24 hours a day of help, or close to it.

A lot of people who need basic help like this get it by living in a nursing home or other congregate care. Some choose to do this, but many are there mainly because they can’t get the care they need approved and paid for any other way, or because they don’t really know any other option.

Congregate care is expensive. And keeping it safe, clean, and humane is a constant and almost inherently impossible struggle. Most elder and disabled people, if asked, would prefer to get the help they need to live in their own home, not in a facility. But while home care is a lot more available now than decades ago, the amount and quality of funded home care varies a great deal from state to state. Everywhere it’s getting harder to find and properly pay for enough home care staff. And thousands of qualified disabled Americans have been on waiting lists for years to get any services at all.

Disabled people, families, and other advocates for home and community based services hope to make an historic dent in this most fundamental problem with a $400 billion federal investment proposed by the Biden Administration. The bill to implement this would:

  • Increase the federal funding match to states for home and community services by 10%, plus additional funds to improving service delivery systems. This would make these services much more widely available and help eliminate those long-standing waiting lists.
  • Add funding to states for other improvements, including programs to increase care workers’ pay and benefits, and require establishment of state ombudsman programs specifically to monitor home and community service quality.
  • Permanently protect married couples from the need to impoverish themselves to qualify for Medicaid-funded services.
  • Make the successful “Money Follows The Person” program permanent –– which would continue to help people actually leave congregate care and return to more independent living in their own homes.

See more details from the Senate Committee on Aging.

The Better Care Better Jobs Act was originally part of the Biden Administration’s infrastructure proposal. But it was moved out of the infrastructure plan during negotiations and is now part of a separate proposed spending package that it is hoped will pass the Senate, most likely with only Democratic votes through “reconciliation.”

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

2. Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (H.R. 2373)

“To assist employers providing employment under special certificates issued under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in transforming their business and program models to models that support individuals with disabilities through competitive integrated employment, to phase out the use of such special certificates, and for other purposes.“

Since the 1930s, federal labor law has allowed some employers to pay certain disabled employees less than the Minimum Wage, under what have come to be called “14(c) certificates.” While the practice is gradually fading out, thousands of disabled people are still paid wages that no other worker would tolerate, on the premise that their work is inherently substandard, and that without sub-minimum wage, no other employers would hire them. But other employment models, like “supported employment,” have shown that most disabled people currently being paid sub-minimum wage and in sheltered settings can work in more mainstream, integrated workplaces, at or above the standard Minimum Wage.

This bill is the latest effort to end the practice in a steady but orderly and responsible way. If passed, the “TIME Act” would: 

  • Stop granting new 14(c) certificates right away, and phase out the use of existing 14(c) certificates over 5 years.
  • Create competitive grant programs for states and individual agencies to transition completely away from use of 14(c) certificate programs, into employment approaches focused on competitive, integrated jobs.
  • States that successfully participate in transition grant programs would get a 25% increase in funding for supported employment.
  • Establish state committees of stakeholders –– including agencies, disability employment experts, employers, families, and people with disabilities –– to plan and oversee the details of the transition away from 14(c) programs.
  • Establish a technical assistance center available to all on transitioning to competitive, integrated employment.
  • Require reporting and evaluation throughout the transition process.

See more details from the House Committee on Education and Labor.

A House bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

3. Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act (S. 2065 / H.R. 3763)

“To amend title XVI of the Social Security Act to update eligibility for the supplemental security income program, and for other purposes.“

Supplemental Security Income benefits, (SSI), which are meant to keep disabled people out of poverty, have been well below poverty level for decades. The maximum asset and earnings rules that determine SSI eligibility and amounts are similarly out of date. This traps disabled people on SSI in poverty, and powerfully discourages people with disabilities SSI on from working and saving to improve their financial stability.

The SSI Restoration Act is an ambitious and long overdue attempt to address these longstanding problems. It would:

  • Increase the current maximum monthly SSI benefit from $794 per month up to at least 100% of poverty level.
  • Increase the amount of assets SSI recipients can have and remain eligible for the benefit, from the current $2,000 up to to $10,000 for individuals, and from $3,000 up to $20,000 for married couples.
  • Increase the amount of income SSI recipients can earn and remain eligible for the benefit, up to $399 per month from working and $123 per month from other income sources.
  • Eliminate the SSI marriage penalty and increase benefits for married couples.
  • Eliminate benefit reductions that are currently triggered by in-kind help from friends or family.

See more details from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

This bill doesn’t address all of the many reforms disability advocates would like to see in both SSI and Social Security Disability. But these are some of the changes most likely to pass in the current political environment and with the present makeup of the House and Senate.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

4. Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act of 2021 (S. 2481 H.R. 4049)

“To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to expand the credit for expenditures to provide access to disabled individuals, and for other purposes.“

It’s hard to significantly increase the rate of employment of people with disabilities. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act made disability discrimination in hiring, benefits, and promotion illegal. Vocational Rehabilitation in every state can help disabled people prepare for gainful, secure jobs and rewarding careers. The federal government can to some degree mandate quotas for disabled people in federal employment. But these measures haven’t significantly moved the needle on the big-picture rate of employment for working-age disabled people, which in 2020 was just short of 18 percent. What else is there to do that’s within the power of Congress?

There are actually two bills addressing part of this problem in similar ways. The Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act would:

  • Increase the maximum Disabled Access Credit available to small businesses for accessibility improvements from the current limit of $5,000 up to $10,125.
  • Broaden the definition of “small business” for this credit from the current criteria of $1 million gross receipts or less up to $2.5 million or less per year.
  • Appropriate an additional $1 million to the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Mediation Program, to help resolve ADA complaints before they become lawsuits.
  • Require the Justice Department to report annually on the kinds of inquiries they receive on its ADA information hotline.

See more details from Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI).

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, along with several other relevant committees.

A similar bill along these lines is also under consideration:

5. Disability Employment Incentive Act (S. 630 / H.R. 3765)

“To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to include individuals receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits under the work opportunity credit, increase the work opportunity credit for vocational rehabilitation referrals, qualified SSI recipients, and qualified SSDI recipients, expand the disabled access credit, and enhance the deduction for expenditures to remove architectural and transportation barriers to the handicapped and elderly.”

The Disability Employment Incentive Act would:

  • Raise the maximum available Work Opportunity Tax Credit for hiring a disabled worker, from the current limit of $2,400 up to $5,000 –– and add a tax credit of up to $2,500 for employers that retain a disabled worker for a second year after hiring.
  • Raise the maximum Disability Access Expenditures Tax Credit available to small businesses, on expenses for improving accessibility, from the current limit of $5,000 up to $10,000.
  • Raise the maximum Architectural and Transportation Barrier Tax Credit available to all businesses for accessibility improvements from $15,000 to $30,000.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Josh Harder (D-CA) and referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

See more details from Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA).

The prospects for these bills vary, and their likely timelines are probably vastly different as well. Some could pass this year, while others may be only beginning a negotiation process that will take years. Whether or not you agree with everything in these bills, every member of Congress should hear about them from their disabled constituents, and from their families, friends, and allies.

Look for a second list of five more disability bills in Congress sometime next month here at Forbes.com.

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