Social Security Disability:

Participation in the Ticket to Work Program Has Increased, but More Oversight Needed

GAO-11-828T: Published: Sep 23, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2011.

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Daniel Bertoni
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This testimony discusses the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program (Ticket program). Created by law in 1999, the Ticket program was intended to assist disability beneficiaries in obtaining and retaining employment, and potentially bring about significant savings to the Disability Insurance Trust Fund by reducing or eliminating their benefits. Under the program, SSA provides each eligible beneficiary (ticket holder) with a ticket to obtain services from SSA-approved public or private providers, referred to as employment networks (EN), or from traditional state vocational rehabilitation agencies (VR). When the Ticket program was created, it was estimated that it had the potential to provide significant savings to the Social Security Trust Funds and Treasury. However, our prior work and the work of SSA's Office of the Inspector General and others has questioned the viability of the program due to low participation and costs that are not offset by beneficiaries returning to work and reducing dependency on benefits. In an effort to address these concerns, SSA revised its regulations in 2008 to attract more ticket holders and ENs. This testimony summarizes our report issued in May and focuses on (1) how participation of ticket holders and employment networks in the Ticket program has changed over time, (2) what is known about the range of service approaches used by employment networks, and (3) the policies and processes SSA has to evaluate employment networks and ticket holders to ensure program integrity and effectiveness.

In summary, we found that more ticket holders and ENs are participating in the Ticket program since SSA revised its regulations in 2008, but the overall participation rate remains low. SSA has not yet studied whether the 2008 changes have enabled more ticket holders to obtain employment and exit the benefit rolls. The number of ENs approved to serve ticket holders has increased; however, many ENs are not actively participating, and ticket payments have remained concentrated with only 20 ENs. These ENs provide a range of services, including assistance with job search and retention. But since the 2008 changes in regulations, an increasing number have used service approaches targeting ticket holders who are already working or ready to work, including simply passing back a portion of the payment from SSA. Finally, we found SSA lacks adequate management tools for evaluating ENs and ticket holders to ensure program integrity and effectiveness. For instance, SSA has not developed performance measures for contracted ENs to assess their success in helping assigned ticket holders obtain and retain employment and reduce dependence on disability benefits. Without such measures, we found multiple ENs communicating to ticket holders how to work part time and keep full disability benefits indefinitely, despite the fact that the ultimate goal of the program is to reduce dependence on benefits. In addition, ticket holders who show timely progress toward self-supporting employment are generally exempt from medical continuing disability reviews (CDRs) conducted to determine continued eligibility for benefits. However, SSA has not consistently monitored or enforced the requirements for timely progress and, therefore, ticket holders in the program have been exempt from CDRs for years regardless of whether they show progress in the program. Lack of systematic monitoring of timely progress has both program integrity and cost implications, such as the potential for ineligible beneficiaries to continue receiving benefits. In our May report, we made four recommendations to address these issues and enhance program oversight. SSA has already implemented one of these recommendations, developing performance measures for ENs, and has reported it is moving forward to implement another to track EN service approaches and assess their consistency with program goals. We will continue to monitor the agency's implementation of the other recommendations.

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