Social Security Administration awards $27.7M contract to VCU center that trains benefit counselors

A desktop calendar with "Job Interview" circled on a specific date.
VCU's National Training and Data Center promotes the employment and economic self-sufficiency of Social Security disability beneficiaries by training benefit counselors who support individuals in their efforts to achieve their employment and self-sufficiency goals. (Getty Images)

The U.S. Social Security Administration has awarded a new five-year $27.7 million contract to the Virginia Commonwealth University National Training and Data Center, part of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center in the School of Education. The award is the largest in the school’s 52-year history.

The mission of the National Training and Data Center is to promote the employment and economic self-sufficiency of Social Security disability beneficiaries.

“The vision of the VCU School of Education is to be the leader in responsive, needs-driven and research-based educational practices that transform lives,” said Andrew Daire, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education. “This SSA award is a prime example of how our faculty and centers truly lean into this vision.”

More than an estimated 3 million disability beneficiaries who receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance are currently working or plan to seek employment in the near future. To support them, the Social Security Administration has implemented multiple programs that enable beneficiaries with disabilities to receive accurate information about their benefits, and use that information to make a successful transition to work.

Key to these programs is a group of trained “benefit counselors” who provide in-depth counseling to individuals about benefits and support their efforts to achieve their employment and self-sufficiency goals. 

Since 2007, the National Training and Data Center at VCU has been a national leader in providing training and certification, technical assistance and professional development activities for professional benefit counselors across the country.

The center operates the only certification program approved and funded by the Social Security Administration. The program has trained thousands of benefit counselors in all 50 states and U.S. territories who assist disability beneficiaries to expand their employment opportunities and reduce their dependence on federal disability benefits.

It operates a large number of on-site and distance-based training classes, a rigorous testing and certification program, web courses, live webinars, on-demand learning modules, an ongoing continuing education program, and extensive individualized technical assistance available through the National Training and Data Center website. All the center’s services are provided free of charge.

The new award arrives at a critical time, said Susan O’Mara, National Training and Data Center project director and co-principal investigator on the contract with John Kregel, Ed.D., professor of special education and associate director of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at VCU.

“Social Security disability beneficiaries have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” O’Mara said. “The recent job losses experienced by disability beneficiaries have forced many individuals further into poverty. In addition, these beneficiaries very often have chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe illness from COVID-19, making continued access to health care essential. We are supporting benefit counselors in community agencies across the country to assist beneficiaries negatively affected by the pandemic.”

The new award, she said, will enable the National Training and Data Center to expand its training and technical assistance services to more than 2,000 professionals in local communities each year.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in 233 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Twenty-two of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and MCV Physicians. The clinical enterprise includes a collaboration with Sheltering Arms Institute for physical rehabilitation services. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.