Key Issues > Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs - High Risk Issue
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Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs - High Risk Issue

An estimated one in six working-age Americans reported that they had a disability in 2010; many of them rely on federal cash benefits if they cannot work, or may need help finding or keeping work. At the same time, disability programs across the federal government face significant challenges in addressing the needs of Americans with disabilities. 
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Modernizing federal disability programs is a high risk issue because the cash assistance programs may not be able to handle current and future workloads for processing claims, and the employment programs are not well-coordinated.

Of the 3 largest federal disability cash assistance programs, two -- Social Security Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income -- are managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and VA disability compensation is managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Together, they dispensed about $256 billion in cash benefits to over 20 million people in fiscal year 2015. These programs are struggling with large workloads and making timely decisions on who is eligible for cash benefits, especially when individuals appeal their benefit decisions. Workloads for these agencies are likely to remain a challenge as the population ages and large numbers of servicemembers are expected to transition out of the military in the next several years.

In addition, SSA and VA rely on outdated medical criteria to determine whether individuals qualify for benefits. While these agencies reported efforts underway to update their rules, they continue to emphasize individuals’ medical conditions without sufficiently considering whether they could work because of improvements in workplace accommodations and assistive technologies.

In addition to these 3 federal cash assistance programs, there are 45 programs managed by 9 different federal agencies that we identified in 2012, which provide a patchwork of employment supports to people with disabilities. Although programs that support employment can divert individuals from the disability rolls, they lack measurable, government-wide goals that provide a unified vision or strategy for supporting employment for people with disabilities. 

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2015 Update to GAO's High Risk ListWednesday, February 11, 2015
  • portrait of Elizabeth Curda
    • Elizabeth Curda
    • Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security
    • (202) 512-7215