SSI reform would cut 1 million from rolls

September 22, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senate passage of welfare legislation this week virtually assures that eligibility in a Social Security program for the disabled poor will be tightened and that nearly 1 million recipients will be dropped.

Responding to complaints of abuse and lax administration in the burgeoning Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the House and Senate wrote sweeping revisions into their welfare bills.

Because most SSI provisions in the two bills are similar, the final legislation approved by House and Senate negotiators will likely include them, saving at least $27 billion over seven years. Half a million legal aliens, 130,000 drug addicts and up to a quarter-million children would be dropped from the rolls, though some are expected to regain benefits.

For the losers, that measure would end monthly checks of up to $458, plus full medical coverage through Medicaid and, in some cases, a supplemental state payment.

For the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, which runs the program, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the changes would mean $300 million more worth of work annually, according to Phil Gambino, a Social Security spokesman.

"We have paid far too little attention to how these benefits are being spent and taken far too little notice of how the disability programs are being abused," Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican, said this week.

A series in The Sun in January depicted serious problems in Social Security disability programs. It described addicts who squander monthly checks on alcohol and drugs; middlemen who fraudulently shepherd aliens onto the rolls; and a children's program that has tripled in enrollment in five years amid complaints that some children with marginal problems are receiving benefits.

The series reported on a Louisiana family of two adults and seven children that receives nine monthly checks, a tax-free income of $46,716 a year.

The series also recounted the history of the troubled SSI program and periodic congressional changes that, like a swinging pendulum, have at times expanded the rolls and at other times shrunk them -- triggering waves of legal challenges over the years.

The Republican bills risk more of these challenges. Advocates for the disabled have tested changes to the disability law with class action suits over the past 20 years.

Rep. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who heads the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, is preparing a measure that would require recipients of disability checks to requalify periodically for benefits, step up rehabilitation efforts for recipients and streamline how Social Security handles disability cases.

Social Security runs two disability programs that pay $66 billion a year to more than 10 million people. Disability Insurance (DI) is for people who have paid into the Social Security trust fund. SSI is for the disabled and aged poor who don't qualify for money from the trust fund.

In 10 years, enrollment has risen 61 percent. Costs have nearly tripled.

SSI costs the government far more than the $14 billion it spends on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main welfare program. The states put $12 billion more into AFDC, which provides cash to 14 million people, including 10 million children.

The much more generous SSI program, Senator Cohen said, is "a vivid example of a welfare program run amok."

But to Tom Joe, a Washington policy analyst who helped write the original SSI law in 1972 as a Nixon administration official, the welfare legislation is another conservative attack on the poor.

"The political agenda here is: 'We don't like poor folks to get money and therefore we're going to interfere with the definition of 'disability' " by limiting eligibility for benefits, he said.

The House and Senate welfare bills would:

* Drop drug addiction or alcoholism as a disability that qualifies for SSI benefits, while still allowing addicts to collect DI checks. The 130,000 addicts and alcoholics in SSI would lose their benefits, but could reapply if they have another disabling condition. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that nearly 100,000 would get back on the rolls.

* Make most legal aliens ineligible for welfare benefits, including SSI. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 500,000 of the 700,000 aliens on the rolls would be dropped.

* Stiffen eligibility rules for children and remove up to 250,000 of them from the rolls.

Children's enrollment tripled between 1989 and 1993, with much of the growth among children with mental problems. The growth was fueled largely by Social Security's expansion of the list of qualifying conditions, a congressionally mandated "outreach" program to find potential recipients and a 1990 Supreme Court decision that required use of a subjective evaluation of children who could not win benefits through the expanded list of conditions.

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