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GAO Finds Social Security’s Management of Return to Work Program Ineffective

June 13, 2011

Washington, DC – In a report requested by Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that was released last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that participation in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) return to work program, known as Ticket to Work, while improved, remains low and that the SSA has not managed the program effectively.
“This report shows the Ticket to Work program doesn’t work,” said Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Chairman Johnson. “The program is supposed to be providing services to help people get back to work, but increasingly Social Security is simply paying service providers to keep people on the disability rolls.  It is wrong and I intend to hold Social Security accountable.”

“This program is supposed to help people get jobs and reduce their reliance on federal benefits,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Grassley.  “Instead, the program isn’t accomplishing much because the Social Security Administration isn’t paying attention. That needs to change so the program works as intended and taxpayer money isn’t wasted.”
The Ticket to Work program was established by Congress in 1999 to assist Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries in obtaining and retaining employment, ultimately leading to greater self-sufficiency and a reduced need for federal benefits.  In 2008, the SSA revised regulations to enhance program participation.  
Even after these changes, while more ticket holders and service providers, known as Employment Networks (ENs), are participating in the Ticket to Work program, GAO found the participation rate remains low, with less than 1 percent of eligible beneficiaries using their ticket to obtain services.
Key Findings from the Report

Payments to ENs increased from $3.8 million in FY 2007 to $13 million in FY 2010, however fewer than two percent of ENs (20 out of 1603) were receiving the majority of payments.  The 2008 regulation change also allowed ENs to pay ticket holders directly, and ENs using this approach are receiving a greater share of payments.  These ENs target ticket holders who are already working or who are ready to work.
GAO found three ENs who received a total of $4 million in payments (nearly one-third of all payments) while providing limited or no other services.  Two of these ENs gave the ticket holder 75 percent of the benefit payment while they kept 25 percent.  The SSA has not collected information determine how widespread these trends are.  GAO investigators also found ENs promoting and placing beneficiaries in positions that purposely do not earn enough income that would lead to a reduction in benefits.  In addition, the report finds that the SSA lacks the tools to evaluate Ticket to Work program participation and whether ticket holders are reducing their dependence on benefits.