Challenge is what to cut, what to keep

January 22, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

With Congress vowing to attack fraud and waste in Social Security's disability program, millions of Americans with serious ailments -- including children in wheelchairs, middle-aged heart disease patients and people with AIDs -- face more uncertainty.

But Republicans promise their benefits will be spared -- even as they assail Supplemental Security Income as an out-of-control welfare program.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised "dramatic changes," but acknowledged in an interview that aid goes to people "with substantial disabilities that require significant assistance."

"We are actively going to try to increase funding to those people," he said. "Our goal is going to be to overhaul that entire program but ensure that those people who are born with very significant challenges get the ... maximum."

But he criticized rules that he said let children with minor psychological or behavioral problems get checks.

"We now accept behavior disorders at levels that would have been called being a spoiled brat," he said. "And we now accept scoring badly on a test at levels that used to mean 'do your homework.'"

Rep. Blanche Lambert, an Arkansas Democrat, agreed there are problems, but said, "There are many children that need SSI disability."

Conni Guyer of Dayton, Ohio, says her son is one of them.

Nathan Guyer, 13, was awarded benefits in 1993 for "Attention Deficit Disorder," a condition characterized by impulsiveness, inattentiveness, restlessness and easy distractibility.

Mrs. Guyer said the monthly $458 checks have given her son a chance to lead a fuller life. She uses the money to pay Nathan's tuition at a private school for children with learning disabilities, where he has become a self-described "reading machine."

Last year, Social Security sent the family a $23,000 retroactive check after the Supreme Court required the agency to review thousands of children previously denied benefits.

Mrs. Guyer says she used the money for Nathan's summer camp, karate lessons, computer, fish tank, stereo and television -- and a 5-year-old family car for his transportation.

While permitted by Social Security rules, they are the kinds of purchases critics say represent a frivolous waste of taxpayers' money.

But Mrs. Guyer recalls the days when Nathan was falling behind in school, dejected, barely able to read. She marvels at his progress.

"SSI money saved his life," she says.

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