Rosetti's posthumous victory gives relief to many

July 25, 1994|By H.B. Johnson

EVERY PERSON with AIDS in America should thank Peter Rosetti Jr. of Philadelphia for standing up for us.

Who? Peter Rosetti, an electrician from Philadelphia who sued the Social Security Administration for its treatment of people with AIDS.

Though he didn't live to see it, on July 5 -- ironically just after we had celebrated our liberty on July 4 -- a federal court ordered the Social Security Administration to review cases where benefits may have been improperly denied to people with AIDS. That decision made me heave a sigh of relief for those people.

Earlier this year, I was among the estimated several thousand people with AIDS nationwide who had been rejected by Social Security. That rejection -- and my subsequent successful appeal -- was just one battle in the war I've fought with federal and state agencies to obtain benefits in the past eight months.

My difficult road through the social services system began with my release from the Maryland State Penitentiary in November 1993. I How was I to live without government help?

got the disease from a contaminated needle while in prison. I was officially diagnosed with it in 1988.

Upon leaving prison, after serving nine years for armed robbery and attempted murder, I was so weakened by the disease that I could barely walk. At times I struggled to just breath. My doctor told me I was disabled and would never work again. How was I to live? How was I to eat? My only alternative was government assistance.

First I applied to the state Social Services office for welfare and food stamps. After a month's wait -- I relied on the kindness of friends and family during that time -- the state provided me $157 in cash and $112 in food stamps per month. I also received medical assistance and a pharmacy card to get prescription medication at a discount. My rent, at that time, was $250 a month, so how could I live on $157 a month? Friends and my doctor suggested that I apply to Social Security, which I did immediately.

Despite the terrible cold weather -- and the risk that in my weakened state I could develop a fatal form of pneumonia -- I trudged to the different offices for help. I tried not to worry about my health as I was bounced from one bureaucratic desk to the next, shot up one hall and down another. I spent hours and hours just sitting and waiting at government offices.

I was relieved when the workers at the Social Security office in West Baltimore told me that I qualified for benefits of $446 a month, beginning in January of this year.

Subsequently, the state halted my welfare benefits and cut my food stamp allotment to $45 a month. I wasn't happy with the cut in food stamps, but I figured I would muddle through somehow.

But my situation changed drastically in March when after receiving Social Security benefits for three months, Social Security notified me Social Security decided that I wasn't sick.

that I had been terminated. It seems that some supervisors looked over my records and decided that I wasn't disabled after all. The letter they sent me said that I had two years of college, was 47 years old with legs and feet, so I could still work.

No mention was made of my lack of energy, my attacks of severe pain that left me incapacitated for days at a time, the days when blood would drip from my pores nonstop. I was back on the red-tape treadmill, trying to convince these government workers that I was gravely ill and in need of assistance.

I appealed the Social Security administration's decision though I didn't feel like it -- no more than I feel like writing this article -- but I hope it helps somebody else. I did what I had to do and -- with the help of some good folks including my doctor and my lawyer both of whom helped me without charge. I was reinstated by Social Security as of June 1.

Social Security ruled that I am permanently disabled. I will receive benefits for the rest of my life. I also am now enrolled in the Medicare program, so most of my medical bills are covered. And I still get $45 in food stamps each month, which isn't enough, but I get by.

I thank Peter Rosetti Jr., who died seven weeks before the ruling, for his class-action lawsuit that spoke for the thousands of AIDS sufferers who until now may not have appealed Social Security ** decisions that unfairly denied them benefits. Moreover, there are probably scores of others who will now apply for benefits as a result of the ruling.

H.B. Johnson writes about living with AIDS from Baltimore.

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