By Ellyn Hefner
The City Sentinel series on the OK STABLE program
First published in December of 2020.
It does not take a marketing or business degree to understand that there is both cost and value in getting a message to a market. In this article, I want to examine why people with disabilities are at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing about necessary programs and supports. Arguably, our society often fails people with disabilities, beginning with the failure to make this “market” intentionally informed.
For profit companies spend large marketing budgets to ensure the market knows their product exists and how their product will improve the consumer’s life. It is simple, without being informed, people do not know of the choice they have to take advantage of an opportunity. For people with disabilities, knowing what programs exist and may offer value to them is a challenging task, especially when you consider the often-complex rules that govern necessary benefits and supports. Therefore, it is all the more important to consider how people with disabilities and their families receive information.
Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts have existed since the first beneficiary created an account on June 1, 2016 with the first ABLE program in America, STABLE Account. ABLE is federal legislation that allows eligible individuals with disabilities the opportunity to save money without impacting public benefits like SSI and Medicaid. For these eligible individuals, ABLE created — for the first time — the opportunity to save money and keep necessary supports such as direct support staff, medical coverage, transportation, and much more. An estimated 8 million Americans qualify for an ABLE account. Nonetheless, after more than 4 years of being available, only approximately 75,000 people have enrolled. “Our first barrier to enrollment is getting people the information they need.”, said Doug Jackson, Deputy Director of STABLE Account. Jackson continued, “Once we can get to the people, then we must provide education on, new rules [ABLE regulations], gain trust (that we are sharing accurate information) so that we may be able to encourage people to move forward to open an ABLE account and use it to its full advantage in their life.”
Providing all of what Jackson describes takes an intentional effort. The best ABLE program ‘setting on a shelf’, cannot help the person that doesn’t know it exists. Jackson tells us that in just over four years, the STABLE Account outreach team has provided over 1,200 outreach events, including in-person and virtual events. In addition, hardcopy information has been distributed and advertising has been shared. “This is all part of an ‘intentional effort’” Jackson claims.
The results of outreach are very conclusive. For example, Oklahoma is one of the twelve states participating in the STABLE Account coalition. Oklahoma’s ABLE program is called OK STABLE. One year ago, in December 2019, OK STABLE “ambassadors” (parents of individuals with disabilities that saw the need for OK STABLE to be shared in this market and have voluntarily helped in doing so) contacted STABLE Account’s Deputy Director and, together, laid out a plan to increase public awareness. The Oklahoma state Treasurer’s office, which oversees the in-state OK STABLE program, was supportive of these volunteer efforts. These “volunteers” have full-time jobs and care for their child who has a disability while providing outreach as a volunteer to provide education about OKSTABLE.
The OKSTABLE Ambassadors began intentional outreach and informing families and providers starting in December of 2019. Immediately, enrollment increased. In the 8 months that followed, the number of people enrolled in OK STABLE climbed from 259 to 574, a 121.6 percent increase.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is a basic principle understood by for-profit and social service industries alike. If you want people to know about programs that can help them, you have to put the effort into telling them. ABLE accounts (529A accounts) are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in very similar ways to 529 College Savings Accounts.
According to Paul Curley at ISS Market Intelligence 11.9 percent as of 2Q 2020 (June 2020), of people that could be saving for college are doing so. Compare this to the 0.89 percent as 0f 2Q 2020 (June 2020), of people that could be saving money in an ABLE account out of the 8 million that qualify. What is the differentiator between effective usage of these two similar programs… the resources used to ensure the “market” is INTENTIONALLY INFORMED.
So, if you have never heard about ABLE accounts, it may be time for you to advocate for administrators of these programs to invest in resources, including staff and marketing, to help people with disabilities gain the information they need.
Thanks to the volunteer OKSTABLE Ambassadors, Oklahomans with disabilities are being intentionally informed. The Ambassadors’ each have a full time job in addition to volunteering their time to provide outreach to help inform others about the benefits of ABLE accounts.
Also, each ambassador has a parent-perspective gained from having a child with a disability that they support. The group’s ongoing work, coupled with the strong support of STABLE program staff and State Treasurer Randy McDaniel, is helping tremendously, but much more needs to be done. To provide even more help, Treasurer McDaniel is planning to assign a full-time staff member early next year to conduct direct outreach to help spread the word about OKSTABLE. Only by continuing to spread the word and adding more voices can we succeed in making all of those qualified know about the tremendous advantages offered by OKSTABLE.
Find out, if there is a dedicated staff in your state that can educate and answer questions regarding your state’s ABLE program. If the answer is “no”, then it may be time to request a change. People with disabilities deserve to be intentionally informed about ABLE accounts.