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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



By Ms. MURKOWSKI (for herself and Mr. Stevens):

S. 2570. A bill to amend title II of the Social Security Act to authorize waivers by the Commissioner of Social Security of the 5-month waiting period for entitlement to benefits based on disability in cases in which the Commissioner determines that such waiting period would cause undue hardship to terminally ill beneficiaries; to the Committee on Finance.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Alaska is recognized.

Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to discuss legislation that I have introduced that will fix an inequity in the Social Security disability insurance system. This inequity rises from Federal law that places an arbitrary 5-month waiting period on when an individual who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness is eligible for disability compensation provided through Social Security benefits.

Currently, under title II of the Social Security Act, Federal law requires a 5-month waiting period from when the patient is diagnosed until the disability benefits begin. Monthly cash benefits, about $980 on average, will be provided to the disabled individual to help offset medical or any other expenses and will also help diminish the financial hardships that are faced by those workers.

The monthly cash benefits that are available to the individuals can help not only offset the medical or other expenses, but they can really help to diminish financial hardships that are faced by the workers, by the families, who really may have very little or oftentimes no resources to fall back upon during the early months of a disability.

This legislation came about as a result of a telephone call received in my Anchorage office to the head of my constituent services. She received a call from a constituent in Alaska by the name of Robert James. He indicated he had been diagnosed in November with stage 4 lung cancer, and he was given, at that time, 3 to 6 months to live. He called my office asking for help.

He wanted to know how, as someone who had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, he might be eligible for disability compensation provided through Social Security benefits.

And so my constituent service director, after listening to his story, went through everything to try to figure out a way to help this individual, only to learn that the process, the law as it sets out now, provides for a 5-month waiting period.

Although Mr. James has insurance coverage through his employer, he is unable to work because of his disability. He is going to incur thousands of dollars, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills because of this arbitrary 5-month waiting period.

If he had only been given the opportunity to demonstrate his case for financial hardship to the Social Security Commissioner, he and his family may have qualified for this cash benefit offset. What my legislation would do is give the Social Security Commissioner the ability to waive the 5-month waiting period on a case-by-case basis for terminally ill individuals who would have to demonstrate the financial hardship.

In Mr. James's case, as I indicated, he is employed, works for the cargo department of a major airline in Alaska, but he would have to demonstrate there is financial hardship as a consequence of this terminal diagnosis.

It makes you wonder why this 5-month period. The capriciousness of a 5-month waiting period is evidenced by looking at the legislative history. In 1972, the House Ways and Means Committee report sought to reduce the waiting period from at that time 6 months to 5 months. At the time the Senate Finance Committee was pushing for a shorter period. They were pushing for a 4-month period.

So back in 1972, you had a 6-month period. Some wanted it to go to 4 months. Eventually they agreed upon a 5-month waiting period. But it begs the question: Should it be 4 months, 5 months? Should it only be 1 month?

My legislation would give the Social Security Commissioner the discretion to waive the waiting period if the terminally ill individual can demonstrate a financial hardship. This will alleviate the financial burden or help to offset the financial burden of a terminal illness on the disabled individuals and their families and will also provide for a financial offset for paying medical bills after he or she is deceased.

I would ask that in honor of my constituent, Mr. Jones, my colleagues support this bill because there are people who become disabled. We know they are unable to work. They need that monthly support to help offset the costs of their terminal illness.

For this reason, it is imperative that the Social Security Commissioner have that ability on a case-by-case basis to make a determination for disability benefits. Mr. James's chemotherapy costs, we understand, are about between $10,000 and $15,000 per monthly session, and this does not include the other medical bills he is facing.

I ask my colleagues to join me in supporting this legislation so that Robert James and Americans like Mr. James have the ability to qualify for disability benefits to offset these costly expenses without having to complete an arbitrary 5-month waiting period.

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