Guest: Brenda Starks
Topic: MHPC Benefits Advisement
Published: April 1, 2021
Host: Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we will be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds. We are delighted to have as our guest for today, Brenda Starks, Certified Benefits Advisor and Certified Peer Specialist with the Mental Health PEER Connection (MHPC). We are your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. Welcome to the program, Brenda.
Guest: Thank you.
Host: Helping your consumers explore the supports open to them or generally speaking, benefits advisement is a key part of your role at MHPC, and you've earned the Cornell University Benefits Advisement Certification. Why is it important to meet with a certified benefits advisor when planning to become employed?
Guest: Basically, a certified benefits advisor can help with explaining how working can and could not affect the individual Social Security benefits. So, it's very important discussing and helping them develop work incentives so the individual can be successfully employed. It helps with coordinating with different agencies where they can get paid training so they can receive the service assistance in returning to work.
Host: Awesome and can you tell us the difference between social security disability insurance, or SSDI and supplement security insurance SSI, and how can earned income and exclusions help someone apply?
Guest: SSDI is available to those who have paid into the system for taxable income, employment or self-employment. And SSI serves as a safety net for those who don't qualify for SSDI because they don't have enough work credits or have limited resources. The earned income inclusion, individuals can use this because it's a social security work incentive. So, what happens is social security reduces the countable income to make it easy for them to qualify for SSI while working. So social security excludes the first $65 in earnings, and one half of all their earnings over $65 in a month.
Host: Here's a question that probably doesn't come up all the time. Will an inheritance affect Social Security Disability Insurance benefits?
Guest: The only income that would affect SSDI benefits is earned income that exceeds $1,170 a month. Inheritances are unearned income, so any kind of inheritances received, it would not affect your Social Security disability.
Host: And why is income important in the SSI program and what income is not counted?
Guest: The more countable income you have, the less your SSI would be. if you're countable income is over allowable amount, an individual cannot receive SSI. So some of the income may not count as income towards the SSI program so the income that does not count towards SSI would be for example the first $20 of the most income received that month, the first $65 earned, and one half of the earnings over $65 a month. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the SNAP benefits, would not affect SSI.
Host: What is a Plan to Achieve Self Support, commonly called a Pass Plan, and how can it help consumers to achieve their work goals?
Guest: A Pass program is a written plan of action for getting a particular kind of job or starting a business. When creating a Pass Plan the individual identify: One, the job or the business goal. Two, the step they will take to get these things needed in order to achieve the goal. For example, education, training, transportation, childcare, assistive technology. Three, the money they would need to use to pay for things, any income, other than SSI, they cannot use their SSI payment towards the Pass plan. An individual can use the excess from Social Security Disability wages or statements, and they have to have a timetable for achieving the goal. So to help them to achieve the goal, Social security approves the plan, they will not count the money the individual spent towards the plan when determining their eligibility for SSI. This will increase their SSI payments, which will replace all the money they spent on creating the plan.
Host: And even without the closings of the past year I suspect that many of your consumers who are working maybe underemployed and making less than a livable wage. Are there still benefits for which this group is eligible? And looked at from the other direction, if consumers are getting SSI, can they get jobs without losing the benefits they have come to depend on?
Guest: There are benefits, they have the COVID Assistance program that’s helping individuals with their rent. They have a program at Salvation Army. Catholic Charities is helping individuals with food pantries, and lights, gas. They can work without losing the benefits but it's really important that they talk with a benefit advisor, to help them with their process.
Host: Whether or not anyone is currently receiving benefits from Social Security Administration, anyone can set up a free secure portal to the SSA, with a my social security.gov account, why is it important for your consumers to do this?
Guest: By creating a my social security.gov account the individual can apply for Social Security benefits online, they can change their contact information they can change their bank information, they can get a benefit verification letter online, they can get a proof of their income letter online, they can replace a social security card, if it’s lost or stolen.
Host: So, the special SSA rules that permit consumers to work, and yet retain some SSDI and SSI benefits, as well as Medicaid or Medicare are collectively called the Social Security work incentives. How do these work under each program?
Guest: Work incentives make it easier for people with disabilities to work and still receive their medical benefits, and in some cases cash benefits from Social Security. Work incentives can help them through the transition of work and financial independence. Some examples of the work incentives are the trial work period. The trial work period is where individuals receive social security disability which is called SSDI. The Trial Work Period allows the individual to test their abilities for nine months. The nine months does not have to be consecutive. They have 36 months which is five years to complete the trial work period, and still receive their full benefits. Then if the extended reinstatement, so if the individual goes to work and they can use up all the trial work period, then they stopped working. So what happens is they call Social Security, and say I'm no longer work and provide the medical documentation, and they can get their check started back up within 45 days, but the only thing is that while Social Security is reviewing it, they will get their check for six months until the review is completed. Then they have the protection for medical continuous disability review. Social Security does this every three to five years, so they'll send a letter and say well you know it's time for a review. As long as your disability remains the same, it won't affect your social security. But during that time, you have to put in a request for continual benefits because once they start the medical review, they will stop your benefits without you submitting the form. And it's very important you know someone going through any of these trials to contact a benefit advisor so they can help them along the way.
Host: Because of measures that were taken to deal with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many situations people have faced over the last year, that wouldn't have been part of a traditional benefits advisement discussion. Among the provisions to assist those harmed by the pandemic, or the restrictions, the American Rescue Plan or ARP boosted benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. Is this likely to help your consumers?
Guest: It helped a lot during the COVID pandemic. The extra food stamps help provide for the individuals that had kids at home that normally wouldn't be at home to get the extra food they needed. So, it was very, very instrumental in helping them be able to take care of their families.
Host: Are there are other provisions in the American Rescue Plan such as enhanced unemployment or other COVID-19 relief measures that could benefit your consumers?
Guest: The individual consumers that I currently have working, the benefits helped a lot because when we received $82 a month, you're not able to take care of your kids. So, having that boost, really helped them to be able to pay their rent and provide for their families.
Host: Over the last year, three Internal Revenue Service economic stimulus checks have gone out or are in the process of going out. Many who are not working and so did not file federal tax returns may not have received some or all of the checks that they should have. Can you help your consumers to file the necessary forms to get the money that they should have?
Guest: Yes, what I've been doing is referring them to tax preparers, because they can file that on their taxes, even though they don't file taxes yearly the tax preparer can help them get those benefits. So, I've been referring them to different tax agencies to help them with the benefits.
Host: So that's kind of like requesting a Social Security refund without having income to get the refund from.
Guest: Yes, they have a special form, it’s like doing your taxes. So, what happens is if you didn't receive the first two stimulus, and you're not looking to receive the third one. So, you would tell the taxpayer, she would do the 1044 form and submit it to the IRS and then they send a paper check out to the individual if they don't have a bank account. Because in December of 2020, the non-filers closed so social security, and IRS did not open that back up for individuals that don't file taxes. So that is the only way the individual can get their taxes so if they didn't get the 1200, the 600, the 1400, then it would be best to go to a taxpayers and say I didn't get it, they complete the form and they will either or receive a paper check, or if they have an account, it will go directly to their account.
Host: Awesome. If you've just joined our program, you're listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by WNYIL. Our guest is Brenda Starks, Certified Benefits Advisor and Certified Peer Specialist with MHPC. We'll continue exploring the exciting services offered by her agency.
There are probably many listening today who are not familiar with your agency MHPC. While they could make some good guesses based on its name, can you tell us who all does MHPC serve?
Guest: MHPC, we serve individuals that have a mental health diagnosis. If an individual comes and they don't have a diagnosis but they’re looking to get into counseling, we assist them with that as well.
Host: And does MHPC require that a potential consumer have a formal diagnosis or medical referral to obtain services?
Guest: It’s a requirement of mental health, our funding source that an individual have a mental health diagnosis. But if they don't have a diagnosis, we will still provide some services in the system or get them in to counseling. Because a lot of times individuals come in and haven’t been to the counselors, or they haven't seen a doctor in years, they have a mental health diagnosis, but they have no documentation for it. We assist them by helping them getting a referral for counseling to providers to help them get their diagnosis.
Host: We understand that MHPC has a key role in something which is one of the more unfortunate aspects of mental health care in our nation. America has a sad history of involuntarily placing individuals with serious mental health concerns in asylums or other institutions indefinitely. But then, when a new psychoactive medication is developed such as lithium carbonate, releasing substantial numbers of them without preparing adequate supports for living on the outside, leading to homelessness for many. Can you summarize some of these past events?
Guest: Some of the past events is individuals have become homeless they end up in the hospital or incarcerated. So, what happens is they get a referral to come to MHPC at WNYIL and they get assigned a life coach. So, the life coach assists them by using the resources in the homeless community to help them prevent the homelessness.
Host: Some community organizations have attempted to make some surveys of the homeless in the past. Was any understanding breached about the proportion of this population who have mental health concerns?
Guest: The survey basically is saying that they acknowledge that we have a homeless problem. But as far as addressing it. There's a need for more housing. So, the proportion of individuals that have mental health and that are homeless, is the list for getting an apartment is very long by the programs that we have here in Erie County. So, they are addressing it but it’s all about funding and having the different housing and services for individuals to prevent homelessness.
Host: We've mentioned that in the past, as new medications became available, there were waves of people being released almost willy-nilly from institutions, and without adequate preparation. But most of those happened a little while ago, additional people are still being institutionalized all the time. Would you say there's still many of this constituency who could be assisted to live successfully on the outside of institutions?
Guest: Yes, anyone that have the adequate services can live independently within the community. We at MHPC, our role as a peer is to share experience that help and assist individuals to live in the community on their own, independently with the supports from the community.
Host: And what efforts does MHPC engage in to promote de-institutionalization?
Guest: We have The Renewal Center that’s at 327 Elm Street. It’s open from 3:00 to 11:00, seven days a week. It provides transportation so if an individual is in crisis, they can call them they will pick up. They will take them back home, they will provide them the services that they need, they will listen and provide the peer support. That number is 716-245-4200.
Host: Glad you mentioned that. Even before the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic people with all kinds of disabilities had a significantly higher rate of unemployment than general population. Are you aware of any approximate percentage of those living outside with behavioral or mental health issues who are unemployed?
Guest: No, I cannot provide the percent for that.
Host: I think it's probably safe to say that, just like people with other disabilities the percentage that are unemployed is substantially more than those considered able bodied.
Guest: I would really think that it’s a 50-50, because even able-bodied right now are unemployed and before the pandemic they were so individual mental health, they're unemployed but they need the skills that help them get employed. So, it's like a 50-50, I would say. Don’t quote me.
Host: We understand that MHPC has programs that are specifically focused on preparing your consumers to seek employment, can you tell us about them?
Guest: We have the employment specialists; they work the Job Club. So basically what happens is an individual comes in to the Job Club, they get assigned to an employment specialist they help them develop a resume, they help them with interview skills, they help them do job searches, they help them with finding the adequate and proper clothing for the interview, and they help them get from point A to point B. From start looking for the job, doing the resume, submitting the resume and everything until from start to finish in employment.
Host: It's our understanding that, even with all available government programs and supports, living independently in the community costs the taxpayers substantially less than living full time in a psychiatric institution, could you compare some average costs of each?
Guest: I really cannot provide any average costs. From my understanding, to have a person institutionalized costs thousands and thousands of dollars where if an individual’s living independently in their own home, it would cost the government less money. To house into institution causes more than to the have them independently within their own community.
Host: If memory serves, I think I've heard figures mentioned that all supports together for living independently, could cost $60 to $70,000, but living in a high security institution, such as an asylum, could cost upwards of $120,000. Does that seem out of line?
Guest: That seems like a lot, but it seems about right. Because it costs more to be institutionalized than it does to be independent in the community.
Host: MHPC is part of the Western New York Independent Living family of agencies which includes other divisions such as Independence Express van transportation. Do you sometimes refer your consumers elsewhere in WNYIL for needed services?
Guest: I refer my consumers to independent living center, the home health, transportation, any services that they need, that’s going to help them, because the more support, the better individuals do. So, I do refer my consumers out.
Host: Since you've been responding to our questions, I suspect that we probably haven't thought to ask about certain other benefits that you could tell your consumers about. Are there other benefits we haven't explored that you would like to mention to our listeners?
Guest: The other benefits would be applying for social services. If they don't have any kind of income, I assist with that. I assist with filing for SNAP benefits Medicaid, Medicare anything that’s going to help improve them financially and keep them healthy. I do housing. I help individuals with finding the right housing program that best fit them to help them live independently within the community. So, I do a range of things. I do social security, I do social services, I do Medicaid, Medicare, I help individuals get linked with ACCES-VR so that that way, if they want to go back to school I will help them with that. And at the same time, it's called A Ticket to Work program so if they have a ticket to ACCES-VR then they don't have to worry about having a medical review. So, there's a lot of different programs out there that individuals don't know about, so I tell everyone, having a benefit advisor is like having someone to support you all the way around, 24-7.
Host: Kind of like a jack of all trades over there too.
Guest: Yes, I do housing. I do some of everything.
Host: Right. Is there anything else you would like to share about peer connection?
Guest: We’re a great group.
Host: You are, I will vouch for that.
I'm sure that there are some aspects to MHPC that we haven't managed to cover with the questions. Does anything come to mind that you'd like to highlight?
Guest: We have life coaches to help individuals, promote them to live independently within the community and help them meet their goals. We have the Addict 2 Addict program which is for individuals dealing with addiction. We have also if the individual gets institutionalized at the hospital, Erie County Medical Center, we have peers up there to help them, to advocate, and to support them with wrap around services. And the most important, for me is The Renewal Center, it’s a diversion from going to the hospital to help provide their support to individuals to keep them out of the hospital.
Host: It sounds like MHPC is quite a thorough going organization providing an awful lot of services, but I suspect that even after we've explored this many things, there are probably additional questions our listeners would have about the work of you and your agency. How can they contact you to learn more?
Guest: They can call 716-836-0822 extension 126 to speak to the intake, and they will refer them over to the director or the assistant director, so they can get assigned for here.
Host: Perfect. So, we and those listening are grateful for the services you and the agency offered to individuals with mental health concerns. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Guest: Thank you for having me.
Host: You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guest has been Brenda Starks, Certified Benefits Advisor, Certified Peer Specialist with MHPC.
This program features the song A Little Ditty on the Dance Floor by Jay Lang, available under Creative Commons Attribution non-commercial license.
We've been your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again a couple of days after the On Air broadcast, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS’s web page, nfradioreading.org on the Programming tab under Bonus Programs, and also on www.wnyil.org under Public Relations, Podcasts. Have a good week and be safe.