The Supreme Court recently saved the Affordable Care Act with its emphatic 6-3 ruling in King v. Burwell. One time bomb in American health policy was thus defused, but another has kept right on ticking. So far, it hasn’t received much public attention. That will change, since the bomb is primed to explode almost exactly on Election Day, 2016.
Next fall, the trust fund that finances the mammoth $140 billion Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program will run out of money. After that, SSDI tax revenues will only be sufficient to pay about three quarters of the benefits to which SSDI recipients are legally entitled.
The two parties disagree deeply about how to fix this problem. It’s possible that this fight will go down to the wire—maybe past the wire, as the debt ceiling fight almost did, and as various government shutdowns have actually done.
It’s possible that Congress will impose sweeping, punishing, and unwise changes to reduce SSDI spending. Ironically, the fight over these proposals unfolds just as information is coming to light regarding quiet but important operational changes within SSDI itself that may have already reduced the program’s long-term financial imbalance. SSDI has become a more stringent program during the Obama years, admitting fewer than expected new recipients onto program rolls. These changes have been largely masked by the momentum of an aging population, and by a national economic crisis that brought more people to the disability rolls. Yet it’s now becoming clear that these changes are real, though their long-term social and economic implications remain to be explored.