Improving return-to-work strategies in the United States disability programs, with analysis of program practices in Germany and Sweden

Soc Secur Bull. 1999;62(3):41-50.


The General Accounting Office (GAO) has made recommendations for improving the disability programs by citing practices that have been successful in Germany, Sweden, and the private sector. This issue is important in the United States because the number of disability beneficiaries is growing rapidly, program costs are increasing proportionately, and few disability recipients are leaving the disability rolls to resume work activity. GAO points out that the estimated lifetime savings for removing an additional 1 percent of the disabled beneficiaries from the rolls of the Disability Insurance (DI) and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs each year will ultimately reach $3.0 billion. GAO cites three specific practices as showing the most promise for returning the disabled to work. They are (1) intervening as soon as possible after a disabling event to promote and facilitate return to work, (2) identifying and providing necessary return-to-work assistance and managing cases to achieve return-to-work goals, and (3) structuring cash and health benefits to encourage people with disabilities to return to work. This article examines these suggestions to improve the rate of rehabilitation of disabled workers using research by experts on return-to-work practices in Germany, Sweden, and the United States. Experts caution that any consideration of borrowing practices from other countries needs to take into account the unique economic, social, and political elements in each country. Although other countries appear to be very successful in their rehabilitation programs, practices that are successful in one country may not necessarily work well in another. Countries have different definitions of disability and payment structures. The existence of temporary and partial awards in Germany and Sweden may ensure a number of easily rehabilitated individuals, while the U.S. vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies have been mandated to focus on only the most severely disabled individuals. Public expenditures for vocational rehabilitation, work for the disabled, and disability benefits are much higher as a percentage of gross domestic product in Germany and Sweden than they are in the United States. Compared with the United States, Germany spent twice as much for VR, and Sweden spent 2.6 times more. Impediments to GAO's suggestions include divergent goals of the Social Security program and VR agencies, lack of availability of VR services, the timing of VR referral (which is significantly later than the onset of the disability), and little incentive for return to work built into the payment structure. The Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 is currently being considered by a Congressional conference committee. The bill would establish a Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency program and would require or authorize the Social Security Administration to demonstrate and evaluate different ways of encouraging return to work. In designing these demonstrations, early intervention after a potentially disabling illness or injury is an approach that merits serious attention.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Disabled Persons / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Disabled Persons / rehabilitation*
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data*
  • Forecasting
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Organizational Innovation
  • Program Evaluation
  • Rehabilitation, Vocational / methods
  • Rehabilitation, Vocational / standards*
  • Rehabilitation, Vocational / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Security / organization & administration*
  • Sweden
  • Total Quality Management / organization & administration*
  • United States