Government, Health Care, and Nonprofits

Campaign aims to raise awareness for savings program

Michigan’s MiABLE was created in 2016 to help people with disabilities save for expenses.

June 14, 2019
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A coalition of disability rights groups in West Michigan is joining forces as part of a marketing campaign for a state savings program.

The growing coalition is part of the statewide “I Will Never Lose” enrollment campaign that kicked off June 10 and will last the rest of 2019, encouraging children and adults with disabilities and their families to open a MiABLE account.

The state’s MiABLE savings program was created in 2016 to help people with disabilities save for expenses without jeopardizing eligibility for government benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income.

The federal asset limit for people with disabilities who receive government benefits is $2,000, but the MiABLE program allows those people to save up to $15,000 to use for needs related to their disabilities, which could include rent, tuition, vehicles, health care, personal needs and long-term care.

“MiABLE gives roughly 300,000 people with disabilities in Michigan something they’ve never had before: the right to save money for the future. That includes about 70,000 folks in West Michigan alone,” said R. Scott de Varona, MiABLE program director.

He said many people who use the program put funds toward expensive purchases, such as new wheelchairs, so those people can save the $2,000 in regular bank accounts for other personal expenses, de Varona said.

Michigan’s plan comes from the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2014, passed to help relieve the uphill financial burden challenging millions of families and people with disabilities nationally.

“Compared with their peers, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty, they are less likely to be employed and they are more likely to be underemployed,” said state Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.

Michigan was among the first handful of states to begin a disability savings program in 2016. There now are 42 states offering the accounts.

Yet, largely because of lack of awareness, only 2,600 disabled Michiganders — less than 1% of those who qualify — are enrolled. The goal of the campaign is to reach out to disabled individuals and their families who haven’t yet taken advantage of the program.

MiABLE has created a statewide coalition of leaders in government, business, philanthropy and disability rights, such as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Autism Alliance of Michigan, Michigan Dyslexia Institute and Michigan Rehabilitation Services.

The group of organizations in West Michigan — including Disability Advocates of Kent County, the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, United Way of the Lakeshore, The Arc Kent County, Kent County Essential Needs Task Force and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired — and throughout the state will share information about the program with their clients.

Enrollment in nearby states is far higher than in Michigan, prompting the state’s move to launch an awareness campaign.

In Ohio, for example, about 10,000 people have opened this type of account since its launch in 2016, spurred largely by an education campaign supported by a television public service announcement featuring former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer.

Bonnie and Greg Miller plan to open an account for their daughter, Michele Donahue, a 41-year-old Kentwood woman with Down syndrome. They have feared their daughter would inadvertently exceed the $2,000 federal asset limit and lose Medicaid benefits.

“Michele wanted to save on her own for a trip to Disney World, for instance, but we couldn’t let her because of the asset limit,” Bonnie Miller said. “We took her there ourselves in April, and it was great. But once again, she missed the learning opportunity to set a financial goal and work toward it.”

As family support services project manager at Disability Advocates of Kent County, Miller said the asset limit is a major concern for many families with disabled loved ones.

“The biggest financial challenge I hear about is the $2,000 limit. That’s because individuals like Michele need Medicaid not only for medical coverage but also for the services they require as they become more independent,” she said.

Miller said she’s anxious to learn more about MiABLE for her daughter and to share the information with clients.

By opening an account, eligible individuals and their families can save up to $15,000 annually in various MiABLE investment options. The accounts are available to individuals who became disabled before age 26, regardless if the disability is physical, developmental or mental.

Employed account holders may be able to contribute an additional $12,140 from income, increasing the total yearly contribution limit to $27,140.

Earnings in MiABLE accounts aren’t subject to federal income tax and contributions are tax-deductible. Dollars placed in MiABLE accounts can be added and withdrawn at any time. Anyone can contribute to a MiABLE account — family, friends and the account holder.

The public is invited to a MiABLE informational session 2-4 p.m. June 18 at Disability Advocates of Kent County, at 3600 Camelot Drive SE in Grand Rapids.

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