In a rare display of Capitol Hill bipartisanship, the Senate yesterday approved without dissent a bill to help disabled Americans join the work force by allowing them to keep their government-financed health benefits when they take jobs.
"We are taking the final great step" to ensure that those who want to work despite disabilities can "reach the dream of a fuller life," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy described it as "landmark legislation to open the workplace doors for disabled people."
There are about 7.5 million adults receiving disability assistance who could work, according to congressional estimates. But less than one-half of 1 percent ever do so, mainly because they would lose their Medicaid or Medicare benefits, the bill's advocates argue. Disability groups have estimated that about 2 million of them will forgo their disability aid and take jobs shortly after the bill is passed, a Kennedy aide said.
Despite broad Senate support for the measure, underscored by the 99 to 0 vote, the measure had been delayed for weeks in a dispute over how to pay for it -- a problem that could also complicate action in the House.
Jeffords and Kennedy had proposed to raise the bill's cost of $800 million over five years by eliminating a tax break for overseas corporate operations. But Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) objected to paying for an entitlement program with a tax increase and blocked the bill's passage until the tax provision was dropped.
As passed by the Senate, the legislation would be financed by spending cuts to be identified later, either by the House or in a House-Senate conference.
A similar bill has been approved by the House Commerce Committee, but the Ways and Means Committee, which must also pass on the measure, is still struggling with how to pay for it.
The Senate bill would permit, but not force, states to allow those who take relatively low-paid jobs to keep their Medicaid benefits and permit higher-paid people to buy into the program, with their premiums rising as their pay rises. A time-limited demonstration project would allow Medicaid payments to people who have a disability that is not advanced enough to qualify for benefits -- but would become so without health care. That includes persons infected with the AIDS virus.
Medicare coverage would be continued for workers during a six-year trial period. And disability payments would be phased out gradually rather than cut off abruptly, as happens now when recipients go to work.
The bill was strongly backed by President Clinton, who put in a personal appeal for its passage Tuesday after attending a ceremony on Capitol Hill, describing it as a "profoundly important piece of legislation."
CAPTION: President Clinton talks with Sen. James M. Jeffords as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy addresses Capitol Hill audience Tuesday about helping the disabled to work.