By Gina Macris
A new Rhode Island ABLE savings account program for disability-related expenses, which quietly began accepting applications a few weeks ago, is expected to have a significant impact on the quality of life for individuals who receive Social Security and Medicaid-funded services.
At a State House press conference Thursday, Jan. 12, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts formally launched Rhode Island’s version of the savings program, authorized by Congress nationwide in 2014 through the Achieving Better Life Experience Act. The General Assembly passed its own enabling legislation in 2015.
Until now, adults with developmental disabilities have not been able to accrue more than $2,000 in savings without risking Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits, living in what Magaziner termed a “perpetual state of vulnerability.”
“People with disabilities live in poverty,” said Joseph Ferreira, a member of Magaziner’s staff who has cerebral palsy.
“It’s a terrible thing to have the greatest nation in the world and yet live in poverty,“ Ferreira said, calling the ABLE Act “a great opportunity.” He has worked in the Treasurer’s office for 15 years, he said.
The ABLE program, similar to 529 College Savings Plan programs, will allow individuals and families to save up to $14,000 a year, or a maximum of $100,000, without affecting government disability supports, Magaziner said.
Roberts said the ABLE account “does a remarkable job in removing obstacles” from the lives of people who have been hamstrung in any effort to gain greater financial independence - even as a federal consent decree in Rhode Island is encouraging them to work.
M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, president of the Rhode Island Senate, said the law is aptly named, because it is a “real program that will help real people” have better lives.
She said families, who often struggle to support children with disabilities once they get out of school, will now be able to save for them in the same way they set money aside for college-bound youngsters.
Magaziner said that in a “soft launch” of the program about a month ago, a woman with disabilities used her ABLE account in conjunction with a “gofundme” campaign online to raise money for a vehicle modified so she could drive it.
The campaign was set up so that donors’ contributions would go directly into the woman’s new ABLE account, he said. “That’s something I never would have thought of,” he said.
ABLE accounts, managed by Ascensus College Savings, offer savings and investment options, and withdrawals for disability-related expenses are tax-free, according to a brochure distributed at the press conference.
Disability-related expenses may go for education, health and wellness, housing, transportation, legal fees, financial management, employment training and support, assistive technology, personal support services, and other categories.
There is a $40 annual maintenance fee, as well as investment fees of less than four tenths of a percent of the total value of the account, according to a spokesman for Magaziner. A debit card option will be introduced in March.
To keep fees low and maximize investment options, Magaziner said, Rhode Island has joined a dozen states in the national ABLE Alliance, all working with Ascensus as the program manager.
He said he is pleased that Asensus has an office in Warwick. Ascensus’ President and CEO, Jeff Howkins, attended the press conference in the State House Library.
Magaziner said the program would not have been possible without state legislation enacted in 2015 under the sponsorship of Sen. Adam Satchell (D-West Warwick) and Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry.)
Applications are accepted online at ri.savewithable.com or by phone at 1-888-609-8915, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Paper applications will be available at the end of February, according to spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH). She said employees of several human service agencies are being trained to help applicants fill out the forms.
In addition, the Treasurer's office stands ready to train any organizations interested in helping individuals file applications, she said.
Rhode Island’s ABLE program also has an advisory committee that includes community partners advocating for enrollment.