Benefit cutoff sought for 200,000 children

January 28, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- The Republican "point man" on changing the Social Security disability program for children proposed yesterday to cut 200,000 of them from the rolls immediately.

Calling the Supplemental Security Income plan "a well-intended, but badly designed and abused federal welfare program," Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana said at the first of three House Ways and Means subcommittee hearings on disability aid that he wants to end cash payments to all but the most severely disabled of the 900,000 children who get $5 billion a year.

And, he said, he wants Congress to overturn the 1990 Supreme Court decision, Sullivan vs. Zebley, that required Social Security to do "individual functional assessments" of many children to see if they were behaving on a par with others their age -- and to drop 200,000 of them who have won benefits through such tests.

Witnesses testified yesterday that the tests are highly subjective and involve Social Security in hair-splitting decisions in some cases that result in marginally disabled or dysfunctional children getting cash benefits for behavioral or psychological problems.

The children's rolls have tripled since 1989 -- with a third of the growth attributable to the Zebley-ordered tests. The rest are the result of an expanded list of medical and mental problems.

In a series of articles earlier this week, The Sun examined the explosive growth in the disability rolls for children, aliens, drug addicts and alcoholics. After two decades of rule changes and lax administration by Social Security, SSI and the companion Disability Insurance plan are paying out $65 billion a year.

That figure is expected to reach $96 billion by 1999.

Meantime, with advocates for the program's recipients packing the hearing room and questioning Republican intentions, House Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted in an interview that SSI "needs to be completely rethought."

The House Republicans will change this program," he said. "It will happen."

But he and members of the panel promised that the severely disabled would not be affected.

To Karen Higginbotham, a Louisiana mother worried that her 6-year-old daughter would be institutionalized if she lost SSI checks, subcommittee chairman Rep. E. Clay Shaw of Florida said: "There's no way we are going to deprive you of the wonderful obligation you have undertaken."

Two-thirds of the children who get disability benefits receive them for mental impairments.

The Sun articles related the story of a family in Lake Providence, La., that gets nine SSI checks -- $3,893 -- every month. The family's seven children were put on the rolls for mental problems.

Congress has received complaints that parents are telling their children to behave badly and perform poorly in school to qualify for "crazy checks" -- SSI payments of up to $458 a month -- with no limit on the amount of money a single family can receive.

"If they were to cap maximum benefits to a family, I don't think any advocate would have a problem with that," said Joe Manes, a policy analyst at the Bazelon Center For Mental Health Law, in an interview. "But the fact is that there are families living in poor and tragic situations that do have four or five kids with disabilities. It happens. And it seems that fact is being ignored."

The head of a Louisiana state office in Shreveport that determines who is qualified for checks recited a list of examples of what he claimed were incidents of parents coaching children on how to act to win checks.

Wayne Parker, the Louisiana official, claimed that a preschooler "told a psychologist that he saw balloons coming out of the walls. When questioned about the statement, he said, 'Oh, I forgot mamma said say blood was coming out of the wall.' "

But, grilled by Rep. Harold E. Ford, a Tennessee Democrat, Mr. Parker admitted that he didn't know of any case of documented fraud.

"That's the problem," Jim Gardner, a Shreveport lawyer and children's advocate, said later. "They're getting ready to take drastic action based on all these anecdotal reports of abuse. But they haven't documented or quantified a damn thing."

Mr. McCrery, a five-term Republican, said he wants to replace SSI cash payments to parents with the goods and services that they need to cope with their child's disability. Cash would continue to go to children who "would otherwise require institutional care in the absence of a parent."

For children with marginal disabilities who have their checks cut off, he would give block grants to their home states to provide them with any services or materials they might need.

Advocates for the children vehemently resisted Mr. McCrery's approach in their testimony.

"We are absolutely opposed to the elimination of cash payments," said Mr. Gardner, the children's advocate, arguing that parents preoccupied with caring for a severely disabled child need the money to offset lost earnings.

Outside the hearing room, Mr. Gardner added: "Because of a few horror stories, we are now fighting for the lives of thousands of children to keep them from losing ground that took us two decades to gain."

Cash payments are shaping up as a lightning rod in the debate over the children's program. While children's advocates say the grants should continue, the movement to cut them off is gaining bipartisan support in Congress.

Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka, a Wisconsin Democrat, testified along with Mr. McCrery. He was not willing to have children thrown off the rolls, but recommended replacing all cash grants with goods and services.

SUN REPRINTS

Reprints of "The Disabling of America," a four-part series on the ,, Social Security Administration's disability programs published this week in The Sun, can be purchased from Sun on Demand by calling 1-800-829-8000 or (410) 332-6800. Copies are $2.50 each, plus 5 percent tax. When ordering, callers should ask for "the SSI series."

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