No person should have to live on the streets, go hungry, or end up in jail because they have a disability that prevents then from earning an income that supports their basic needs.

Conditioning access to basic needs on earning an income is one way our society deprives people with disabilities of the opportunity to live their healthiest, most fulfilling lives possible.

Allison Neswood

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are federal programs that help people with disabilities meet their needs by providing them with monthly income support.

The programs help people with disabilities obtain housing, get enough food to eat, and maintain the stable circumstances they need to experience recovery.

Unfortunately, for many severely disabled individuals, the federal relief is either long-delayed or simply unobtainable.

The problem is the complex application process, which requires detailed documentation of deeply personal mental and physical health issues on up to 14 different forms that require specialized knowledge to complete adequately.

The cumbersome process also requires applicants to record up to 15 years of work history and at least two years of medical treatment history. Furthermore, applicants are required to stay in contact with the Social Security Administration (SSA) — which is difficult for clients that don’t have a phone or a home.

Failure to communicate, attend an appointment, or provide sufficient information will often result in a denial of benefits regardless of the individual’s actual level of impairment.

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The process is challenging for anyone who is not trained to complete it successfully; for those with serious mental illness and people who are homeless, it is hard to even know where to begin.

It is no wonder that less than 30% of initial SSI/SSDI applications submitted without navigation assistance are successful.

And for homeless applicants that number is only 10 to 15%. While over half of the cases are denied at the initial level are approved on appeal, many applicants simply give up.

When an application is denied many applicants simply give up. If they choose to proceed, the appeal process can take more than a year to resolve. In fiscal year 2016, 8,699 Americans died waiting for their disability case to be resolved. In fiscal year 2017, that number rose to 10,002.

Sponsored by Rep. Dafna Michaelson, Rep. Colin Larson and Sen. Faith Winter, House Bill 1223 invests in an obvious and proven solution to this problem: SSI and SSDI application assistance.

As a result of the bill, client advocates that know and understand SSA’s criteria for disability will be available to help SSI and SSDI applicants navigate the application process and develop strong SSI/SSDI applications.

The client advocates will help applicants understand the process, gather the necessary documentation, and keep track of necessary appointments. They will also be able to serve as client representatives, providing a consistent point of contact for the SSA when that is needed.

The bill targets those with the greatest need by providing application assistance to recipients of Aid to the Needy Disabled (AND). AND uses primarily state and some county funds to provide just $217 a month to people with severe physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from working.

With only $217 per month in income many AND clients are homeless, many do not have access to reliable transportation, and most do not have the stable circumstances they need to attend to their significant health challenges.

House Bill 1223 would increase access to application assistance in Colorado and thereby increase the income support for Coloradans with severe disabilities by over three times from $217 per month from state and local revenue to at least $771 per month from federal dollars.

People need these resources to help them pay for basic needs like housing, food, and transportation, and with the resources, many are able to experience significant health improvement. A handful of nonprofits, such as Easter Seals and Bayaud Enterprises, provide similar assistance but their reach and resources are limited.

The things we pay for with taxes reflect the values we hold as a society. We should support access to basic needs for our neighbors with severe disabilities because it is the just thing to do. But, as is often the case, investing in the well-being of our neighbors also happens to be the most financially responsible thing to do too.  

Allison Neswood is a health care attorney at Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve the health and economic security of all Coloradans.

Allison Neswood

Special to The Colorado Sun