Social Security claimants to tell of snags

March 22, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Last April, Vivian Walch, a former token clerk for the New York subway system, applied for Social Security disability payments, saying a bad back had forced her to retire early.

Seven months later -- after being turned down and asking for reconsideration of the decision -- Ms. Walch received a letter that included someone else's Social Security number and denied her benefits. Apparently referring to another person, the letter concluded that a "breathing problem" should not prevent Ms. Walch from doing her job as a "nursing supervisor."

Ms. Walch, 60, will tell her story to Congress today. Still hoping for a hearing on her year-old application for disability payments, she will be one of the witnesses testifying on problems with the 240 million notifications and forms that the Social Security Administration sends annually to recipients and applicants.

Today's hearing comes as the Woodlawn-based agency is under fire for its handling of the disability programs -- including a backlog of initial claims and appeals approaching 1 million; payment of benefits to alcoholics and drug addicts who use the money to feed their habits; and a failure to conduct periodic reviews of beneficiaries to see if they still qualify for payments.

Reeling from a cut of 25 percent of its personnel during the 1980s and facing a substantial increase in its workload, the agency is "re-engineering" the disability program to streamline the handling of claims.

At today's hearing, the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee also will hear about:

* A Wisconsin man who received two notices the same day -- one that told him Social Security had overpaid him $74.86 in disability benefits and would deduct the overpayment from future checks and a second one that said it had not paid him enough and would send him a check for $39.26.

* A Massachusetts man who got a notice that was mostly gibberish. One line said: "r habb qf te _nthtex hsih zrq _ieh hsa jaltcal insurance benefits beginning June 1992:"

* A California man who appealed a decision received a letter that said: "We call to your attention that while this agency is very concerned with protecting the appeals rights of applicants, we do not encourage the filing of frivolous appeals. Be that as it may, a careful review of the evidence was made. We final the actions taken on this claim are correct under the law."

June Gibbs Brown, inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, says in testimony prepared for the hearing that a survey of 1,300 people found that only 65 percent think Social Security mail is "easy or very easy" to understand, a drop from a 75 percent satisfaction rate in the late 1980s. She says the agency has made improvements but has more to do, an assessment with which Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, agrees in her testimony.

Ms. Chater's prepared testimony says Social Security began 10 years ago to try to improve the situation: "The agency recognized that some of its notices were convoluted and/or confusing, while others were simply difficult to read because of format or small print."

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