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Report: Kentucky Disability Benefits Are Outpacing Population Growth

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

State officials say too many people are getting disability benefits in Kentucky, citing a new state report that showsdisability enrollment has far outpaced the state’s population growth over the last 35 years.

The report was prepared by Kentucky’s Disability Determination Services and echoes rhetoric used by Gov. Matt Bevin in his push to revamp the state’s Medicaid system. Bevin wants to require beneficiaries to pay small premiums and prove they’re working, volunteering or seeking a job.

“This work is offered as a labor of love on behalf of all Kentuckians,” said W. Bryan Hubbard, acting commissioner of the Department for Income Support in the report’s foreword. “We hope its legacy will contribute to a future wherein we all live together on our feet rather than survive on our knees.”

The study tied the increase of people receiving disability payments to a rise in prescriptions for controlled substances like opioids. It found that Kentucky’s per capita opioid prescriptions increased among disability recipients from 47.58 doses in 2000 to 147.29 doses in 2015.

“The explosive growth of benefit dependence over the past 35 years has been fueled by a multitude of factors which are completely unrelated to the mitigation or treatment of hardship borne of genuine disability,” said Hubbard.

According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Kentucky’s population grew by 21 percent between 1980 and 2015. Disability rolls grew 249 percent over the same time period, while childhood enrollment ballooned by 449 percent.

Vicki Yates Brown Glisson, the secretary of Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the report sheds light on “misuse and abuse” of the disability benefits program.

“The good news from grim findings is that we can re-assert control of our future and make it better for all Kentuckians,” Glisson said in a statement.

The report found Kentuckians in the eastern part of the state were the most likely to receive benefits — in 2015, the top counties were Wolfe, Owsley, Breathitt, Clay, Magoffin, Floyd, Lee, Leslie, Martin, Harlan, Perry and Bell.

In 2015, 11.2 percent of Kentuckians received some form of disability payment.

“Tragically, some individuals in Kentucky have never experienced life without public assistance,” the report states.

The study also criticizes the motives of the Social Security Administration, saying that the federal agency tries to boost enrollment for disability benefits to pad its budget.

“The SSA is motivated to protect and, if possible, expand the scope of its activities across the full horizon of its operational domain,” the report states.

“For the SSA, claims and beneficiaries equal budget. This simple equation drives the SSA’s internal culture thereby making it a significant obstacle to long-term change.”

The report lists several proposals to reform the disability payment system, including using “objective medical evidence” to determine if people are eligible for benefits, removing “non-severe conditions” from the list of eligible disabilities and changing the processes by which disability payments are reviewed for termination.

Read the full report here.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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