WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration has agreed to expedite the disability claims of people with terminal illnesses following an embarrassing case in which an AIDS patient died before receiving his first check.
Under the new policy -- sent to all 1,300 Social Security field offices Jan. 31 but not announced publicly -- people claiming a terminal illness will be moved to the front of the line for hearings and appeals, Social Security spokesman Phil Gambino said yesterday.
The change in policy came after C. W. Johnson, a 49-year-old cook at a Washington restaurant who had acquired immune deficiency syndrome, waited 25 months for disability payments. His first check, for $747, arrived the week after his burial last May.
Mr. Johnson had wanted the money to pay for a bus ticket home to Florence, S.C., to visit his 86-year-old grandmother one last time before he died, according to his niece, Mary Johnson of Gaithersburg.
"The system is actually getting better. I'm just sorry it took my uncle to make the difference," she said.
The agency's handling of Mr. Johnson's case was "utterly shameful," said his lawyer, David Dwares.
Social Security has acknowledged making "every mistake that could be made" in the case, Mr. Gambino said, including inexplicably sending Mr. Johnson's paperwork to the Social Security office in Omaha, Neb.
According to Mr. Gambino, Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn S. King was so troubled by the case that she ordered the agency's procedures revamped in January.
"People who are coping with a terminal illness deserve an extra measure of compassion and expedited service," Ms. King said in an interview. "These new procedures will ensure that cases involving terminal illness receive accelerated handling."
Social Security will target terminal-illness cases for priority handling at all stages of the claims process, Mr. Gambino said.