Politics & Government

House and Senate approve limits on disability support

Out-of-work Washingtonians with temporary disabilities would see aid from the state dry up after two years under a deal that won final approval Monday from the House and the Senate.

More than 17,000 people, including 2,226 in Pierce County, receive medical help from the General Assistance Unemployable program. Even more receive monthly cash payments of up to $339.

Though the checks and treatment are supposed to be a temporary bridge to either permanent federal benefits or a return to work, they have no expiration date.

Calls for reform to keep people from becoming permanently dependent on the state have grown louder this year with a budget deficit looming. Gov. Chris Gregoire sought first to eliminate the program, then to reduce cash grants and to cap benefits at six months.

“The governor felt strongly that we need to emphasize that this is a temporary program,” said Robin Arnold-Williams, director of Gregoire’s Executive Policy Office.

Legislative Democrats negotiated a deal with Gregoire that scales back her proposed changes, but still would save the state an estimated $29 million next year by knocking a potential 4,700 people off the state rolls.

House Bill 2782 would also give the program a new name: Disability Lifeline.

Recipients could get no more than 24 months of benefits every five years and would face new restrictions on their use.

Republicans, who want more aggressive time limits, opposed the bill. The reforms move in the right direction but are “modest at best,” said Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup.

The program is mostly for single people with no children, a group that finds it hard to get other government help. Many are homeless. They suffer from either a physical condition or disability, a mental illness, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The bill would:

 • Cut off benefits for people who refuse needed drug or alcohol treatment.

 • Move toward the use of housing vouchers in lieu of cash payments for new recipients who are homeless.

 • Establish a pilot project in Pierce, King and Spokane counties to move people more quickly into permanent, federal Supplemental Security Income. It now takes as long as two years to access the federal aid, said Tony Lee, advocacy director for King County social-services group Solid Ground.