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Benefits Counseling - Complicated, But Worth It

Benefits Counseling - Complicated, But Worth It
By Steve Suroviec, President and CEO

This past week, the Pennsylvania Employment First Oversight Commission (EFOC)* held its second meeting of 2022. The EFOC spent a lot of time during its meeting discussing Benefits Counseling. This service helps a person with a disability (or their family) understand whether or to what extent having a job and earning money might adversely impact their eligibility for government benefits.

Let’s face it, there’s dignity in work, and so it’s vitally important that people with disabilities be encouraged (not discouraged) to seek employment and earn money. At the same time, it’s a real fear and legitimate concern amongst that same population that working might result in the loss of government benefits. Like me, I’m sure you know people who scoff at the idea that government benefits should mean more to a person than getting a job, but put yourself in the shoes of a person with a disability. Medicaid-funded home and community-based supports are literally enabling you to live in your own home instead of an institutional setting, like a nursing home or state center. And depending on your disability and medical condition, having consistent and quality health care via Medicaid or Medicare can literally be the difference between living and dying.

That’s why Benefits Counseling is so important. The service provides people with disabilities who want to work with accurate information and detailed analysis about whether or to what extent having a job and earning money will adversely impact those government benefits on which they so heavily depend.

Of course, it seems nothing about accessing Benefits Counseling is easy. The federal government will provide free “Worker Incentive Planning Assistance,” or WIPA to people with disabilities, but only to its “priority” populations – i.e., people who have a job, a job offer, or a job interview. Another WIPA priority population consists of young people with a disability ages 14 through 25 (irrespective of their job or interview status). So, the good news is that if you are in one of those priority categories and you want professional benefits counseling, you can simply contact your regional WIPA program and there’s no waiting list to get help.

The not-so-good news is that if you’re not in one of those priority groups then you have to go elsewhere. That means contacting the PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) – OVR will arrange Benefits Counseling for people with a disability who are OVR eligible. Just call one of OVR’s district offices and tell them you’d like Benefits Counseling. If it ends up that you’re not eligible for OVR services, then there’s still another option – both the PA Office of Development Programs (ODP) and the PA Community HealthChoices (CHC) program pay for professional Benefits Counseling. The only caveat is that, assuming you’re enrolled in CHC or an ODP waiver, you’ll be required to try WIPA or OVR first. But again, if you’re not eligible for either of those, then you’re entitled to Benefits Counseling through ODP or CHC. Just tell your Service Coordinator you’d like Benefits Counseling and they’ll have to arrange it.

Finally, if none of those programs will help or you still have questions, don’t give up! The Achieva Family Trust offers Benefits Counseling. Just click here for more information.

* The EFOC was created with the enactment of Act 36 of 2018, which establishes “Employment First” as the official policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Employment First means that helping a person with a disability to get and keep a job that’s in a typical business where most employees don’t have a disability and pays at least minimum wage or higher should be the “first consideration and preferred outcome” of public programs, like education, home and community-based services, etc.

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