A license to get drunk, or a helping hand through rehabilitation? Critics call program for addicts a 'free ride'

June 29, 1993|By Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Some addicts sell their blood for a bottle of potent wine or a rock of cocaine. Some cadge money from passers-by. Some steal the price of their high.

And some addicts, in growing numbers, are feeding their habit through a federal disability program that pays them up to $620 a month while they supposedly rehabilitate.

But since no one checks whether the addicts have recovered, critics say, the program can amount to a free ride.

"It gives them a license to continue to drink," said Dr. Ernie Proud, a Santa Ana clinical psychiatrist specializing in alcohol issues. "As long as you're an alcoholic you continue to receive the checks. Once you become abled, you no longer receive the money."

Dr. Proud and other critics say the Social Security program virtually guarantees that increasing numbers of alcoholics and drug addicts will sign up for lifetime spots on the government rolls -- with no push to get off.

And some counselors, lawmakers and police officials question whether many addicts -- whose problems are less than disabling -- are using the program to subsidize their habits with tax dollars.

Social Security Administration spokesman Phil Gambino said his agency is not doing a good job monitoring addicts to make sure they are getting treatment or weeding recovered addicts off the rolls.

But he said Social Security is trying to set up a better monitoring system.

Despite its problems, Mr. Gambino said, the program is serving its purpose of supporting hard-core addicts while they battle addictions.

"I don't think most people who are addicted want to stay on drugs," he said. "People would rather work than be on disability."

Hospital workers and counselors who work with addicts hobbled by debilitating side effects from their habits say the program often is the only support available to poor and uninsured addicts.

But a growing number of critics say the easy access addicts have to the program is a further example of the lack of accountability in the vast, unwieldy program known as Supplemental Security Income, the federal assistance program for the low-income blind, disabled and elderly.

Drug counselors and welfare-fraud investigators say word that addicts can get on the program is being passed on the streets like news of a dealer with an unending supply of cheap, pure-cut drugs. And addicts are schooling each other on what to say to get it.

Drug and alcohol addicts qualify for SSI if they can show that their addiction keeps them from functioning normally.

Social Security Administrative Law Judge Albert Tom said SSI regulations hamstring appeals judges into approving addicts for the program whom the judges do not believe are disabled. Judge Tom said he must approve applicants who have records to prove they are incorrigible addicts and that the addiction disables them.

"We can smell it," the San Diego judge said. "It's obviously fraudulent. All they have to do is go to some doctor or psychologist and say they are addicted. They don't even have to have needle marks. All they have to say is, 'I hear voices. I think someone's coming after me.'"

Judge Tom and other Social Security judges said they also worry that they're signing addicts' death certificates by signing them up for cash benefits.

"We're financing this guy's drug habit," Judge Tom said. "We might even be making him a dealer. We're paying his living expenses."

And the addicts "very seldom get taken off," he said. "The program's so vast. They're not even reviewing these cases.

It used to be a revolving door; now the door is propped open."

To receive benefits, drug and alcohol addicts are required to attend treatment programs, but Mr. Gambino said only half the states currently have monitoring agencies to ensure that addicts are complying.

The federal agency is accepting bids for monitoring agencies for every state and hopes to have them in place by October. A pilot program also is being planned for three states to find ways of making sure addicts on the program seek treatment, he said.

Floyd Brown, assistant director of the San Joaquin County Methadone Maintenance Program, said he has been battling the program since 1990. He said 200 of his 300 clients are on SSI.

"I can't treat people who are SSI," he said. "If they stop using and get gainful employment, their checks stop. . . . I have yet to see one person on SSI who has completed the program, got off drugs and got off SSI."

But at the Alano Club, a private Santa Ana club that hosts daily Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a recovering addict named Gary Ontiveros said SSI is giving him his first chance to make his way back to the real world.

Mr. Ontiveros, 30, said he found out about SSI after his drug addiction forced him into an Anaheim hospital for the second time last year. Now he lives in a Santa Ana group-recovery home where half of the 17 residents are on SSI. His monthly SSI allotment pays for his rent, food and treatment.

"It's pretty well known, especially in the hospitals," Mr. Ontiveros said of the SSI program. "I'm going to get it as long as I can."

Vic Penuelas, a California Department of Corrections parole unit supervisor in Anaheim, said a number of his clients are truly deserving of SSI.

"The Reagan administration let all the people out of the mental institutions," he said. "Now we have this generation of people in their 40s who are drug users who are mentally deficient."

Mr. Penuelas said the problems with the program are philosophical. "If they didn't have (SSI money), they'd probably steal it," he said.

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