People with Disabilities Allowed to Pick ABLE Programs from Any State

hand20dropping20money20into20a20piggy20bankThanks to a tax law passed last month, consumers eligible to open an ABLE account will be free to select a plan sponsored by any state, rather than being restricted to their home state’s plan. The change will make it possible for people across the country to start an ABLE account as soon as the first state program begins. Experts expect there to be competition among states to attract out-of-state residents to their ABLE programs, which could result in lower fees and better investment options for consumers.

About 35 states have passed legislation to sponsor ABLE programs and it is thought that many programs will begin later this year. Officials in Nebraska, Virginia, and Florida say they plan to make ABLE accounts available in 2016.

Now that these programs can attract contributions from other states’ residents, experts say it is unclear whether all states that passed legislation will set up their own plans. Some may put their programs on hold and reassess once the initial ABLE plans are operating to see whether the market is big enough for additional players. Other states may opt to subcontract with another state or join a multi-state consortium to achieve economies of scale to reduce investment costs and account fees.

Some experts say families who want to maximize their contributions to these accounts should set one up in 2016, even if there are relatively few plans to choose from. This is because annual contributions are limited to $14,000 a year per beneficiary.

Families may want to wait until the end of 2016 to open an account so they have more options to choose from. They should keep an eye on the offerings from other states that enter the market. If they find a plan with lower fees or better investment options, they can initiate a tax-free rollover of their assets from one state plan to another.

While out of state plans may offer some benefits, it is thought that many states may offer a state tax break for using a home-state plan. States that currently offer one include Oregon, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, and Wisconsin.

If maintaining SSI benefits, which are suspended once a person’s assets reach $100,000, isn’t a concern, a family may want to shop for a state plan that allows them to set aside the most money possible. On average, ABLE programs cap the balance at $300,000 per person, but some states are planning to cap the balance as high as $480,000.

Braille Smartwatch Coming in December of 2016

braille smartwatchA South Korean startup company has created Dot, the first braille smartwatch, complete with shifting cells of dots. For some time, people who are blind have needed to have messages read to them, but this innovative technology allows the person to read it for themselves.

On its face, it has four cells each with six active dots, which can raise or lower to make four braille letters at a time. It links up with Bluetooth to convert texts from apps like iMessage into their braille letter equivalents with the user’s voice commands. The device’s battery can last up for five days before needing to be charged.

The watch can be used to access various text data including messages, tweets, e-mails, and more. It also functions as a watch and alarm. This can help people who are blind/have low vision to access messages and content in a whole new way.

One benefit of the Dot wearable is the cost. Unlike braille e-readers, which can cost thousands of dollars, the device is slated to cost less than $300 when it hits U.S. markets in December. The watch will be compatible for both Android and IOS devices.

IRS Eases Rules for New ABLE Accounts

irsbuilding1In October, the IRS had requested feedback on their proposed rules for the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE Act). After a lot of pushback from disability advocates and state officials, the IRS will be easing up on the rules for these new accounts.

The IRS said they plan to issue final regulations with less stringent reporting requirements. Specifically, individuals opening ABLE accounts will not need to submit medical documentation, but will have to certify under penalty of perjury that they have a qualifying diagnosis.

The IRS also indicated that ABLE programs will not be required to request taxpayer identification numbers from contributors to ABLE accounts except in limited circumstances and program administrators will not have to categorize what money in the accounts is for.

Despite federal passage of the ABLE Act last year, each state must establish regulations of their own in order to made the accounts available. So far, 34 states have approved legislation, including North Dakota.

These states are still working out the details and need to know the IRS rules before moving forward. ABLE accounts are expected to start becoming available next year, but the timetable for each state will vary.

With these new accounts, people with disabilities will be able to accrue up to $100,000 without losing access to Social Security and other government benefits. Medicaid coverage will remain intact no matter how much money is in the individual’s ABLE account.

These accounts were modeled after the 529 college savings plans and funds in the account can be used to pay for education, health care, transportation, housing, and other expenses. Interest that is earned on these accounts will be tax-free. Individuals with disabilities acquired before the age of 26 will be eligible for the new accounts.

Help Stop the Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (also known as the Murphy Bill or H.R. 2646) passed through the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee. This bill could be dangerous and has been gaining public support.

Provisions in this bill strip away many of the civil and human rights of people with psychiatric disabilities under the guise of violence prevention. This bill is based on incorrect assumptions about people labeled with psychiatric disabilities, and it perpetuates stereotypes and misinformation.

Here are a few ways the bill would be harmful to people with disabilities:

  • Change the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration which could threaten effective programs such as peer support.
  • Promote involuntary treatment (called “Assisted Outpatient Treatment”), limited federal aid for community mental health services to states that fail to have laws conforming to new standards.
  • Increase institutionalization by modifying the Institutions for Mental Diseases exclusion, which would allow Medicaid payment for nursing homes and hospitals.
  • Limit the work in which Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness is permitted to engage.
  • Create lower standards of privacy for people with psychiatric diagnoses due to changes in HIPAA regulations.

This discriminatory bill can be stopped. It is currently in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. North Dakota is represented on this committee by Representative Kevin Cramer. Send him a letter and tell him not support the Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 (also known as the Murphy Bill or H.R. 2646).

Amazon to Provide Captioning on All Videos by 2016

amazon_logo_rgbBy 2016, Amazon has agreed to provide captioning on nearly all of its videos for rent or sale as part of a deal with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). NAD announced that Amazon will caption 100% of movies and television shows that have been watched at least 10 times in a 3 month period.

Since the beginning of the year, Amazon has provided subtitles on all shows and movies on its streaming service through Amazon Prime. However, only 85% of its cache of videos for rent and sale outside of Prime has captions.

In recent years, NAD has pressured online video companies to provide subtitles for people who are deaf. In 2012, NAD took Netflix to court where a settlement to caption all of their video content was reached. The Ninth circuit of Appeals reached a separate decision in April that because Netflix’s services are not connected to any “actual physical place,” they are therefore not subject to the disabilities law.

Unlike with Netflix, the deal with Amazon was made without litigation. Howard Rosenblum, the chief executive of NAD said, “The NAD is thrilled by Amazon’s decision to make its online entertainment experience more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”


November is National Family Caregivers Month

November is National Family Caregivers Month. The theme for 2015 is “Respite: Care for Caregivers.” This theme is set as a reminder that caregivers need to also care for themselves.

The Caregiver Action Network has written out ways for caregivers to find respite:

R is for Rest and Relaxation

E as in Energize (or reenergize)

S as in Sleep

P is for Programs that can help you (finding support)

I as in Imagination (let your mind run free; read a book or see a movie)

T as in Take Five (take a few minutes for yourself)

E is for Exhale (taking a few deep breaths can give you more energy, reduce stress and lift your mood)

More than 65 million people, 29% of the U.S. population, provide care for people with chronic illnesses, disabilities, or aging family members during any given year and spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for their loved one. About 13% of family caregivers provide 40 hours of care a week or more. A majority of family caregivers, about 73%, also have a part-time or full-time job.

Family caregivers are under extreme stress which has been show to age them prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life. This could be in part due to the fact that nearly 72% of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should and 55% say they skip doctor appointments for themselves.

Research has also shown that caregiving for a person with dementia can impact a person’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends which increases their chances of developing a chronic illness. About 23% of family caregivers caring for loved ones for 5 years or more report their health is fair or poor.

Research has shown that 20% of employed female caregivers over age 50 report symptoms of depression while only 8% of their non-caregiving peers report symptoms of depression. Between 40% and 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately a quarter to half of these caregivers meets the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

All of these facts lead to the need for respite. So if you know someone who is a caregiver, encourage them to rest and relax, reenergize, sleep, find support,  let their mind run free, take a break, and take a breath.

Social Security Benefits to Remain the Same

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has come out saying there will be no automatic cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for 2016. SSA has said the reason there will be no change is because inflation is too low to warrant an automatic benefit hike.

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that Social Security benefits adjust upward annually to account for increase in inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. There have been only two other years (2010 and 2011) without a COLA.

Without an adjustment, the maximum federal Supplemental Security Income benefits for individuals will remain at $733 per month.  Couples can receive $1,100 per month. Across the nation, over 59 million people receive Social Security benefits and 8 million rely solely on SSI.