Ky. must confront soaring disability rolls

An explosion over the past 35 years in the number of Kentuckians receiving government-funded disability benefits should alarm liberals and conservatives alike.

A report issued this week by Kentucky’s Disability Determination Services, part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, shows that disability enrollment grew an astonishing 249 percent from 1980 to 2015, during which Kentucky’s overall population grew just 21 percent. Childhood enrollment in disability benefits jumped an even more staggering 449 percent.

Two possibilities come to mind, and we expect both are to blame for the alarming numbers:

. The system is being abused by adults who are fully capable of working but choose instead to sit home and draw a disability check (or two or three, if they are successful in getting benefits for their children).

. Poor people in Kentucky are getting sicker, in many cases from poor lifestyle choices such as smoking and overeating, and getting addicted to drugs — prescription or illicit — to cope.

Regardless of the reasons, Kentucky must treat the burgeoning disability rolls as a crisis, lest the problem gut the state’s workforce and render our commonwealth uncompetitive economically. We’re already teetering on that ledge. Some 11.2 percent of Kentuckians were receiving some form of disability benefit payment in 2015 — the second-highest percentage in the country. In impoverished Eastern Kentucky, roughly 1 out of 5 people is on disability.

According to the report, per capita opioid prescriptions for SSI/Medicaid adult recipients increased from 47.58 doses in 2000 to 147.29 doses in 2015, a 210 percent increase. Per capita psychotropic prescriptions for SSI/Medicaid children increased from 272.61 doses in 2000 to 456.87 doses in 2015, an increase of 168 percent.

“The explosive growth of benefit dependence over the past 35 years has been fueled by a multitude of factors which are completely unrelated to the mitigation or treatment of hardship borne of genuine disability,” said Bryan Hubbard, acting commissioner of the Department for Income Support, which oversees DDS. “Armed with the grim statistical reality of the past 35 years, we can seek better outcomes over the next 35 as we work to fix a broken system that must be preserved for individuals who can neither care nor provide for themselves.”

The Bevin administration believes major reforms are needed in the way disability applications are considered and approved. The report lays out specific recommendations, including much more strenuous testing for medical and psychological problems before benefits are granted.

The truly disabled — of whom there are many — should have nothing to fear from more rigorous screening. Weeding out the bogus claims will keep disability assistance viable for those who legitimately need it.

The State Journal, Frankfort