OLYMPIA — A Washington lawmaker has been drawing thousands of dollars in disability payments each year while leading efforts to eliminate benefits the state provides to others.
Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli gets $601 a month from the federal government, indicating that he is considered 40 percent disabled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under public records law. He has been receiving the tax-free stipend for years.
Zarelli said the disability payments he gets are far different than the benefits provided in the state programs he’s targeting for cuts, in part because he suffered his injury on the job. He said the people in the state system were making poor lifestyle choices — such as drug and alcohol addiction — and argued that lawmakers should be focused more on identifying ways to fix their problems.
“What I do know from those types of so-called disabilities is that aiding and abetting them does not make them better,” Zarelli said in an interview. “If you enable people to participate in that type of a lifestyle — you support it and make it more comfortable for them — all you are doing is aiding in their demise.”
Those programs provide medical care to thousands of residents, along with temporary housing and other non-cash assistance, such as toiletries and bus passes.
About 60 percent of participants in the Medical Care Services program are primarily incapacitated due to a mental issue, while 40 percent have primarily physical problems, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services. About 40 percent are homeless. The program is designed for people who are unable to work due to their incapacity.
Zarelli’s own disability benefits as a veteran act a lot like workers’ compensation, providing income to veterans who incurred ailments from their active-duty service. The benefits can last a lifetime even if the veteran holds a full-time job.
The cash payments stem from seven years Zarelli spent in the U.S. Navy during the 1980s, when he had some peacetime deployments.
Zarelli said he injured his back while on a ship and that the pain is now chronic, though he is still able to golf, hike and fish.