An Interview with Catherine Strode
For the past two years, Attorney Allison Neswood has campaigned for individuals with disabilities to have greater access to benefits provided by Colorado’s Aid to the Needy Disabled program (AND.) The program provides cash assistance to people with disabilities who are in the process of applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI.) She, along with a group of community advocates, fought for a rule change that will make applying for the cash assistance easier. The State Board of Human Services approved the change unanimously last month, impacting the lives of people with disabilities statewide.
Why was a rule change necessary for better access to disability benefits?
These programs are extremely difficult to qualify or apply for because of what they ask of applicants. The applicant has to collect medical records from every provider. They have to provide extensive documentation of their job history (if they have one.) They are navigating this complex, burdensome process while also contending with disability and mental, or physical or health issues. It’s very hard for people to get through the process. In most cases, the first application is denied. It can take a year or more for people to be enrolled in the (SSI) program for basic income that helps with housing, health maintenance, and food. That is where Aid to the Needy Disabled (AND) comes in. AND is a state funded program that provides some resources to people while they’re waiting for SSI enrollment. In order to be eligible for AND funding you have to have a severe disability that prevents you from working. It provides about $200 a month. Despite how small this benefit is, it’s desperately needed cash for people while they make doctor appointments to collect medical records to submit for SSI eligibility. The funding helps people pay for food and meet their transportation or personal hygiene needs. There were significant barriers in the application process for AND funds that we have been working to address.
I believe attorneys have an important role to play as guardians of justice. While we are not the only player in that fight, I think legal skills bring a very important aspect of the fight for justice and the fight for rights. I am very grateful…that I get to use my skills in that way.
What were the barriers?
In order to be determined eligible for the program, people have to have a doctor or health care provider certify they have a disability that prevents them from working. The rules gave people 10 days to submit this. It’s all but impossible for people with physical and/or mental disabilities who are often homeless, who don’t have access to reliable transportation, to gather information within the given timeline. It was impractical. Another rule required people to apply for and then verify their application for SSI. The rule gave people 10 days to prove to their county they completed it. It takes an average of 45 days for people to complete and submit an SSI application. Even then, it’s not necessarily enough time to complete a quality application. There was also a burdensome and not well-designed matrix that county workers were required to use to score the person’s functional capacity to work. There were also problems with the scoring of the matrix. If you graduated from high school, it was almost impossible to obtain a score that confirms you are eligible. People diagnosed with late onset of a serious mental illness like schizophrenia do not qualify because the diagnosis came after graduation from high school. There are people with disabilities who should have qualified for the program, but because of this matrix, they don’t qualify. Such barriers in which people have to jump through hoops, which inadvertently exclude people with disabilities, are counter to a program that is supposed to serve people with disabilities.
What are the rule changes?
It will increase two timelines. People will have more time to verify their disability. The 10-day timeline to verify disability with a provider is increasing to 30 days. They will also have more time to apply for SSI. It shifted from 10 days to 60 days to apply, and verify they have applied for SSI. They will also be able to receive AND benefits while they are applying for SSI. Before the rule change, people had to apply for SSI first. They couldn’t start receiving benefits until they had completed the SSI application process. This rule change allows them to receive benefits on a provisional basis and take advantage of the longer timeline to apply for SSI. In addition, they are eliminating the matrix assessment by the county workers. Instead, medical providers will be completing an assessment that evaluates functional capacity. They are also adding providers that can verify disabilities for the program. Specifically, licensed clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors will be added. This is great for people because they are way more accessible.
What will be introduced this session to increase access to benefits?
We are going to push a bill that will assist people on the AND program with the application for SSI. We want the people that receive the $200 a month AND benefit to obtain much more meaningful income on SSI. We are going to be working with legislators this session to draft a bill that will provide state funding to support navigators across the state that can help people on the AND program apply for SSI. There’s a lot of research and support for these kinds of programs. There is a Colorado pilot that passed in 2014 which provided this resource to people in three Colorado counties. It decreased the amount of time it took on average for people to receive SSI. For AND applicants, the average is 12 months. With the assistance of a navigator, the time decreased to six months.
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.