Social Security Administration "Ticket to Work" program costs tripled from 2007 to 2010

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 Updated:

Job fair in Cincinnati.

Al Behrman/AP

The Social Security Administration started its Ticket to Work program in 1999 to provide job assistance to people on disability insurance or supplemental income. Beneficiaries receive a “ticket” for services at registered employment networks, such as finding a job, getting training and ultimately reducing dependence on benefits. These public and private agencies receive payments from the government once beneficiary’s earnings exceed a certain threshold. But the program has been fraught with low participation rates and conflicts of interests at some of the employment networks.

Beneficiaries enrolled with employment networks for Ticket to Work increased from about 22,000 in 2007 to more than 49,000 in 2010. SSA has not studied whether more ticket holders have obtained employment and exited the benefit rolls. Employment network approval has increased from 1,514 to 1,603, and SSA’s ticket payments to networks increased from $3.8 million to $13 million from 2007 to 2010. However, less than 2 percent of those participating receive a majority of the services.

According to the Government Accountability Office, SSA lacks adequate management tools to evaluate the success of the Ticket to Work program. SSA has not consistently monitored or enforced ticket holders’ progress towards becoming fully employed, or developed performance measures for employment networks. Some networks are deterring full-time employment so beneficiaries keep full disability benefits, despite the ultimate goal of reducing dependence on government benefits. Ticket holders who show progress are exempt from medical reviews to determine their eligibility for benefits.

Social Security’s inspector general found that the number of beneficiaries who earned enough money to end benefits had remained unchanged since the program started and the estimated cost savings never materialized. An analysis by independent auditor found the impact on participants’ employment, earnings, or benefits was not large enough to offset the program’s operating costs.

It was initially estimated that if an additional half-percent of disability beneficiaries went back to work full-time, Social Security would save $3.5 billion over a lifetime. The number of beneficiaries assigned to a network is only two-fifths of 1 percent of the 12.1 million eligible ticket holders, up from one-fifth of 1 percent in 2007 but still lagging far behind initial estimates.

GAO found that an increasing number of employment networks targeting beneficiaries who were already working, allowing the employment network to claim ticket payments while providing no direct services because the ticket holder is already working or able to find a job without assistance. GAO found one employment network that looked for ticket holders with a high school education, computer skills, relevant work experience and screens out those with psychiatric or cognitive impairments. But people lacking these skills and with these impairments are those who are in need of the program’s assistance the most.

SSA officials said the historically low number of contracted employment networks made it difficult to hold them accountable to performance standards.

 “At this time, the agency still lacks critical management and oversight mechanisms to assess whether the program is achieving its original purpose, and ultimately, whether the program is viable,” the GAO said. “Inadequate monitoring of ticket holders’ progress raises program integrity concerns and could result in benefit payments to beneficiaries who may no longer be eligible.”

FAST FACT: In 2010, SSA paid $165 billion for 13.5 million people with disabilities through its Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs. As the U.S. population ages, disability insurance costs are expected to increase.

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