The House and Senate have approved legislation, H.R. 83, to fund most of the federal government through Sept. 30, 2015. President Obama is expected to sign the bill this week. The legislation funds 11 of 12 appropriations titles for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015, and includes a continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 27, 2015. The bill provides overall funding decreases for many key federal agencies, including the Department of Education and the Department of Labor; the bill provides overall level funding for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. For the Department of Housing and Urban Development, reductions in revenues will offset an increased appropriation, resulting in an overall net cut for affordable housing programs run by the agency. Most disability-specific programs received level funding or adjustments at or below inflation; for instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) State Grants increased by 0.2% and the Vocational Rehabilitation State Grant increased by 1%. A few small programs received increases, notably the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (7% increase), and the Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (13% increase).
On December 3, the House of Representatives passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act (H.R. 647) as a free-standing bill by a vote of 404 to 17 (with 13 Members not voting). On the same day, the House also passed the ABLE Act as Division B of H.R. 5771, commonly referred to as the “tax extenders” package (Division A, the Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014, provides for tax extenders). A vote in the Senate on H.R. 5771, inclusive of the ABLE Act, is expected this week.
The ABLE Act aims to change the tax code to allow for tax advantaged savings accounts for individuals with disabilities for certain expenses, like education, housing, and transportation. Similar to existing “Section 529” education savings accounts, ABLE accounts would let individuals and families save for disability-related expenses to supplement, but not replace, benefits provided through Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the beneficiary’s employment, and other sources. If properly managed, funds in the ABLE accounts would not jeopardize eligibility for critical federal benefits. With a full understanding of its features, individuals and families could use the ABLE accounts as another tool in planning for the lifetime needs of an individual with long term disabilities. The version of the bill that passed the House includes age limitations and a cap on contributions, added in July by the Committee on Ways and Means to reduce the costs of the bill. If the ABLE Act becomes law, The Arc will issue a fact sheet reflecting the details of the bill as it has changed through the legislative process. Further details must come through the regulatory process.
Last week, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to begin allocating funds to the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF). Congress created the NHTF in 2008 to fund affordable housing for people with the lowest incomes, a group that includes many people with disabilities. However, until now the NHTF has remained unfunded. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 authorized FHFA to temporarily suspend allocations from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the NHTF, which FHFA did on November 13, 2008. Last week, FHFA ended the suspension, meaning that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will now begin setting aside and directing funds to the NHTF. The NHTF will be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which issued a statement noting that HUD will “soon issue regulations” to implement the NHTF. The Arc strongly supports funding the NHTF to help meet the urgent needs of people with disabilities for affordable, accessible community housing.
Last week, the Senate Committee on Finance held a hearing on “Social Security: Is a Key Foundation of Economic Security Working for Women?” Witnesses were: Barbara Perrin of Eugene, OR; Catherine J. Dodd, Ph.D, RN, Chair of the Board of Directors, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; Sita Nataraj Slavov, Ph.D, Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, and Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute; and Janet M. Barr, MAAA, ASA, EA, American Academy of Actuaries. Visit the Committee web site to view opening statements, testimony, and archived video.
Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health, Chaired by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), held a hearing on “Setting Fiscal Priorities” to hear testimony related to key policy decisions the Committee may face in the 114th Congress related to health care spending by Medicaid and Medicare. Visit the Committee’s web site to view testimony and archived video of the hearing.
Last week the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on “The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States.” In his opening statement, departing Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) played a video homage to individuals who had been killed during police interaction, including Ethan Saylor, the 26 year old man with Down syndrome who died during an altercation in a Maryland movie theater. This was Sen. Durbin’s last hearing as Subcommittee Chair as he will be handing over the gavel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for the 114th Congress. Visit the Committee’s web site to view testimony and archived video of the hearing.
The Office of Personnel Management has released its Fiscal Year 2013 report on “Employment of People with Disabilities in the Federal Executive Branch.” In Fiscal Year 2013, the federal government hired 1,389 people with targeted disabilities – a category that includes many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) – representing 1.32 percent of new hires overall. Report statistics on targeted disabilities, however, are presented in the aggregate and do not specify numbers related to the hiring of people with I/DD. In a recent press release, Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc, stated, “While the last few years have seen some modest increases in the numbers of people with disabilities employed by the federal government, The Arc remains deeply concerned that many people with the most significant disabilities, including jobseekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, are being left behind.”
As the January 1, 2015 deadline approaches for implementation of the final rule on “Application of the Fair Labor Standards Act to Domestic Service” (also referred to as the home care or companionship rule), the Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division released additional resources related to shared living programs. For additional information on the Rule, visit the DOL’s dedicated web site for fact sheets, FAQs, and contact information as well as a series of webinars.
Last week, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), Chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, announced 8 new and 14 returning Republican Members who will be serving on the Committee for the 114th Congress. The Committee has jurisdiction over programs and policies important to The Arc and its members including: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Head Start, the Higher Education Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, equal opportunity and civil rights in employment including under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The Arc mourns the death of Steve Beck on December 8, just days after House passage of the ABLE Act. Steve was a tireless advocate for people with disabilities and a founder and leader of the efforts behind the ABLE Act (see article above). As the parent of two young daughters, one with Down syndrome, Steve was an integral part of the leadership team on the bill for the last eight years. Steve was a natural collaborator and coalition builder and his work was critical in moving the bill forward, even while he held a full-time job in an unrelated field. Those who worked with Steve admired him and his steady commitment and positive outlook. We will miss him.