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Portman Disability Proposal: Correcting the Record

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) has seriously mischaracterized his proposal to curtail the joint receipt of Social Security disability insurance (DI) and unemployment insurance (UI).  He says that it would merely “[end] double-dipping between unemployment and disability benefits,” but it would actually go far beyond that.  He also incorrectly says that it’s “in the President’s budget.”

Under the Portman proposal, as we have previously explained, any month that a person receives UI benefits would be considered a month in which he or she is engaged in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA).  That would not only prevent people from receiving both UI and DI benefits simultaneously — what Portman calls “double-dipping” — but would also delay the eligibility for both DI and Medicare for some people with serious disabilities and hasten the loss of benefits for others.

To receive DI benefits, an applicant must have a severe impairment that has prevented him or her from engaging in SGA, defined as earning more than $1,070 a month, for at least five months.  Medicare coverage begins only after an additional two-year wait.  Counting receipt of UI as a month of SGA, as Sen. Portman proposes, would therefore bar many disabled applicants from receiving DI until they endure a five-month wait without receiving benefits from either program.

The proposal in President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget is quite different from Portman’s — and far preferable.  It would eliminate “double-dipping” by reducing DI benefits dollar-for-dollar by the amount that a person receives in UI benefits.  In effect, a person who was legitimately eligible for both DI and UI benefits could receive the higher of the two — but not both.

The Congressional Budget Office cost estimates illustrate the sharp difference between the proposals.  CBO estimates that the Obama proposal would cut spending by $1.2 billion over ten years, whereas the Portman proposal would cut over four times that amount.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has included the Obama proposal in his bill to extend federal UI benefits.  The Senate should not replace the Obama/Reid proposal with Sen. Portman’s much harsher alternative.