NU Online News Service, July 11, 7:05 p.m. – The Social Security Administration should do more to run its Disability Income program the way private insurers run properly designed disability insurance return-to-work programs, according to experts who testified today at a hearing of the U.S. House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

The Social Security Disability Income program provides $54 billion in cash benefits for 6.1 million disabled workers who have severe disabilities. The program is crucial to private disability insurers, because the private insurers count on SSDI to cover part of the cost of supporting severely disabled insureds.

“For people with disabilities who do not have a realistic or practical work option, long-term cash support would remain the best option,” Robert Robertson, a Social Security analyst at the U.S. General Accounting Officer, told lawmakers at the hearing, according to a written version of his remarks provided by the GAO.

But today, Robertson said, the “SSA’s eligibility assessment process encourages applicants to concentrate on their incapacities, and return-to-work assistance occurs, if at all, only after an often lengthy process of determining eligibility for benefits.”

When possible, the SSA should focus on medical treatments, assistive technologies, training programs and other tools that could help people capable of working go to work, Robertson said.

Robertson suggested that the SSA should consider making major changes, such as finding a way to help beneficiaries pay for treatments and technologies that could help them return to work.

Dr. Robert Anfield, a vice president at UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn., was the only executive from a private disability insurer that testified at the hearing.

Anfield echoed Robertson’s emphasis on the need to give SSDI recipients the resources they need to return to work.

Sixty percent of Americans with disabilities who are not working say they would like to work, if they had the opportunity, Anfield said.

UnumProvident has found that the best approach is to develop a personal return-to-work plan for each claimant, Anfield added.

But “the Social Security definition of disability–which requires total disability and the inability to work in any occupation in order to qualify for benefits–sends a message to the benefit recipient that he or she is totally and permanently disabled,” Anfield said. “It creates a mindset that discourages individuals from trying to return to work, with the result that claimants frequently continue to collect SSDI benefits indefinitely.”