Advocates urge swift Senate vote on disability aid

Friday, November 28, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 48

WASHINGTON (AP) — Supporters of legislation that would allow Americans with disabilities to open tax-free savings accounts to pay for long-term expenses are urging a swift vote in the Senate after the House overwhelmingly passed the bill.

The Republican-led House voted 404-17 Wednesday to approve the most sweeping legislation to help the disabled in a quarter-century, paving the way for creation of the savings accounts next year. It was an unusual moment of bipartisanship in a Congress sharply divided over immigration, taxes and spending.

"Today is a tremendous day for people with disabilities," said William Daroff of the Jewish Federations of North America, which co-chairs the Jewish Disability Network. "We look forward to working with President Obama and the 74 senators co-sponsoring the ABLE Act, and we urge lawmakers to move forward with this bill."

With more than 85 percent of Congress listed as co-sponsors, the measure was expected to get final approval in the Senate. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the bill's main Senate sponsor, cheered the House passage as a significant step toward providing people with disabilities "the added security they need."

"The ABLE Act has never been closer to getting to the president's desk," he said, referring to the name of the legislation, called the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act.

It would be the first major legislation for the disabled since the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Dozens of the bill's supporters, including parents of children with Down syndrome, were in Washington this week as lawmakers prepared to cast their votes. Sara Hart Weir, interim president of the National Down Syndrome Society, called it "a monumental, landmark bill for people with Down syndrome and our families."

Modeled after tax-free college savings accounts, the bill would amend the federal tax code to allow states to establish the program. To qualify, a person would have to be diagnosed by age 26 with a disability that results in "marked and severe functional limitations"; those who are already receiving Social Security disability benefits would also qualify. Families then would be able to set up tax-free accounts at financial institutions, depositing up to $14,000 annually to pay for long-term needs such as education, transportation and health care.

The contributions would be in after-tax dollars but earnings would grow tax-free.

The ABLE accounts would be able to accrue up to $100,000 in savings without the person losing eligibility for government aid such as Social Security; currently, the asset limit is $2,000. Medicaid coverage would continue no matter how much money is deposited in the accounts.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, was joined on the House floor during the vote by her 7-year-old son, Cole, who has Down syndrome. She said Cole has made her committed to supporting government policies that help people with disabilities achieve "the freedom to live independently."

The bill hasn't been entirely free of controversy.

Many lawmakers insisted on cuts or revenue increases to offset the $2 billion price tag over 10 years; the bill's sponsors found the savings in part by increasing the amount of levies on property for tax-delinquent Medicare providers and suppliers; cutting Medicare funding for "vacuum erection systems," or penis pumps; and making technical adjustments to cap worker's compensation.

Some Democrats complained that set a bad precedent in which Medicare cuts are used to pay for programs.

The conservative Heritage Foundation also criticized the ABLE bill, saying current asset limits on government welfare benefits are needed to ensure taxpayer aid goes to "those Americans who need them the most." It worries that expanding aid eligibility could lead to additional potential for Social Security fraud and abuse, especially when it comes to mental disabilities, which sometimes can be difficult to diagnose.