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Mon, Nov. 11

Program helps disabled people return to work

PRESCOTT - One of the biggest misconceptions of people receiving Social Security disability benefits is that if they want to return to work they will lose their benefits and health insurance.

The best way to debunk the myths and misconceptions surrounding disability benefits is to talk to a Community Work Incentive Coordinator at New Horizons Independent Living Center.

Certified by the Social Security Administration, Dan Kelsey and Gail Kenny are experts in the Work Incentive Planning and Advisement program.

"WIPA is a program to help SS disability beneficiaries who want to go back to work understand the earning limits," Kelsey said.

Kenny said, "Our job is to take away the mystery of what may or may not happen to a person's benefits. We tell them how to stay out of trouble."

Whether a person chooses to subsidize their income or go back to work full-time is up to them.

One thing Kelsey and Kenny do not do is help people with SS appeals.

To participate in WIPA, a person must be receiving SS disability benefits.

New Horizons provides services to clients in Mohave, Coconino, Navajo, Apache and Yavapai counties.

"There are a lot of people we haven't reached; a lot of people we could help," Kenny said. "People still don't know that the rumors of losing their benefits are false. Our goal is to put people's fears to rest so there are no surprises."

The main challenge for people receiving SS disability benefits is the economy; the amount of benefits is not increasing. People realize they need extra cash and money. When they learn about the incentives available to them, they are more at ease trying to return to work.

"My main personal goal and passion is to help people avoid the pitfalls and merry-go-round I went through while on Social Security," said Kelsey.

Kenny said that when she first started training she was "blown away by (2003) statistics that indicate less than 1 percent of every 500 people on benefits return to work."

Sometimes it is a challenge for people to find a job that meets their disability. Since not all disabilities are apparent to the naked eye, part of the counselors' job is to educate people and employers.

Employers often worry about accommodations. Kenny said most accommodations cost nothing - they are either free or require allowing extra time. Sometimes an accommodation is as simple as rearranging office furniture.

WIPA participants begin with a benefit analysis. Kelsey and Kenny then help people create a plan. The final step is advisement.

"We help them through the process. We are looking for a long-term relationship. If we are updated step-by-step, it helps us help our clients," Kelsey said.

The counselors at New Horizons also make sure their clients have the proper support and services for success. New Horizons provides some resources, such as transportation, training and life-skills.

People are afraid they will lose their healthcare if they return to work. However, Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) has one of the "best guarded secrets," Kenny said.

AHCCCS Health Insurance, Freedom to Work, offers affordable healthcare for working Arizonans with disabilities.

Arizona officials created AHCCCS Freedom to Work in 2001 to take advantage of the federal "Ticket to Work & Work Incentives Improvement Act" of 1999.

To be eligible for the program, people must be a resident of Arizona, have a Social Security number, be a U.S. citizen or a qualified non-citizen, be employed and paying SS and Medicare taxes, be between the ages of 16 and 65, be disabled, have countable monthly income less than $2,128 per month, is not covered by health insurance or eligible for other AHCCCS programs and be willing to pay a monthly premium ranging from $0 to $35 depending on the amount of countable earned income.

The AHCCCS Freedom to Work program is just part of the information Kelsey and Kenny provide.

"There is a lot of information people will never know about unless they come in and see us," Kenny said.

Kelsey said, "We hear a lot of sad stories. We advocate to get people out of the victim mode. A disability is not what you are, it is a part of who you are."

Anyone interested in more information about the WIPA program should contact Kelsey or Kenny at 772-1266. New Horizons is located at 8085 E. Manley Drive in Prescott Valley.

Contact the reporter at prhoden@prescottaz.com

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