Handicapped by Social Security Agency ill-equipped to evaluate clients, get them back to work

October 22, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Mary Jane Owen is blind, partially deaf and uses a wheelchair. Robbed of the feeling in her fingers, she can't even read Braille. But she goes to work every day.

A writer, lecturer and administrator, she is one of the thousands of workers with conditions that would qualify them for Social Security disability checks if they quit their jobs.

Indeed, Ms. Owen was on the rolls until she concluded the agency was impeding her return to work. She told Social Security to keep the money, but the checks kept flowing anyway, piling up uncashed for nearly five years.

Though unusual, Ms. Owen's case illustrates a flaw in the $66 billion disability programs, which were created to replace income for people unable to work: Social Security offers little aid or encouragement to recipients to return to work, even when they want to.

What's more, the program's eligibility standards allow thousands who do work to receive benefits should they choose to give up their jobs and apply for disability. This suggests that the standards themselves may be out of date in light of medical advances.

These problems intensified in recent years as Social Security virtually stopped monitoring the condition of recipients to see if they qualified for benefits. Saddled with a cut of nearly 20 percent in its staff when applications were soaring toward 3 million annually, the agency has done little more than process applications.

Recently, under pressure from Congress, it has stepped up its reviews of recipients, along the way providing fresh evidence that many disability recipients are now able to work.

In the year that ended Sept. 30, the agency re-examined 240,440 recipients -- only 2.7 percent of the total. It found that 41,790 -- more than one in every six -- had improved and should be dropped from the rolls.

The programs date from the 1950s, when Congress created Disability Insurance (DI) to extend Social Security benefits to disabled workers not yet eligible for old-age pensions.

In 1972, it added Supplemental Security Income, a program for the disabled poor and elderly who were not eligible for DI. Originally intended for worn-out middle-aged manual laborers, the programs in recent years have awarded an increasing percentage of benefits to younger applicants with mental and emotional problems.

SSI pays an average of $390 a month to 4.9 million disabled recipients; DI pays an average of $665 a month to 4 million disabled workers. Most SSI and DI recipients also receive free government medical insurance through Medicaid or Medicare.

To be eligible for either disability program, a person must -- as the result of a medically verifiable physical or mental ailment -- be unable to engage in what the law calls "substantial gainful activity" for at least a year. It is, say the program's administrators and defenders, a strict standard.

They "have a limitation that's so severe that our definition says that we don't expect them to work," says Susan Daniels, who is in charge of disability policy at the Social Security Administration.

Yet she acknowledges that many who could qualify for benefits do work, because, in cases like Ms. Owen's, they have found a way to overcome their disabilities and find jobs.

In many cases, Social Security doesn't even evaluate whether an applicant can work. If the applicant's condition is on the agency's list of those considered disabling, then benefits are awarded.

No one even asks

They "are pretty severely impaired," says Jane L. Ross, the former Social Security research chief who now supervises the General Accounting Office's scrutiny of the agency. "But a severe impairment does not mean you can't work. If you meet the medical listing, no one even asks about your capacity to work."

The agency does evaluate some applicants to see if they can work -- but only those whose condition isn't on the list.

One problem, many experts agree, is that the programs are mired in the 1950s, outpaced by medical and technological advances that have opened the way to survival -- and to gainful employment -- for the disabled.

"In the 1950s, when the disability program was first designed," says Social Security's Ms. Daniels, "there was a common belief -- and it was reasonable -- that if you had a disability, you couldn't work."

Now, she says, "enormously good treatment also makes people functional with disabilities."

But such factors as poverty, education, motivation and one's employment before becoming disabled have muddled the picture -- so that, of two equally disabled people, one might work while the other doesn't.

Often, says Ms. Daniels, the incentives to stay on the rolls outweigh the advantages of leaving -- a certain, if meager, income and full health coverage for remaining on the rolls vs. the uncertain prospects of slim income and no health insurance for leaving.

For the poor in that situation, leaving the rolls "is not a rational choice," she says.

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