An alcoholic fights to keep Social Security disability Bill in Congress gains wide approval, but some critics worry

January 15, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Barely into his teens, too young to drive, Charles Graham started sampling drugs with his buddies at Gwynns Falls Junior High. That began an enthrallment with dope and booze that three decades later brought him Social Security disability checks for "chronic alcoholism."

Now Congress is threatening to take away his $844 monthly check.

"I would have to somehow find a job," he says. "Either that or I would be out on the street."

He says he has numerous physical and mental problems that make him unable to work, but at one point in a series of interviews he talked about getting a job "doing some delivery work -- as long as I didn't have to do any heavy lifting."

Mr. Graham and 200,000 other addicts and alcoholics may be swept from the rolls by the convergence of two powerful congressional impulses. One is the drive to allow retirees to earn more money without having their Social Security reduced. The second is a desire to stop giving monthly checks to alcoholics and addicts.

The result: A bill to raise gradually from $11,280 to $30,000 the amount a retiree may earn before losing Social Security benefits at the rate of $1 for every $3 of earnings over that limit.

The measure would cost $7 billion over seven years -- and 35 percent of the money would come from payments now being made to addicts and alcoholics.

Social Security pays more than $1 billion a year to 200,000 addicts and alcoholics. Nearly two-thirds of them get their checks from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a welfare program for the disabled and aged poor. SSI pays up to $470 a month, plus a state supplement in some states.

The other 65,000, including Mr. Graham, draw from Disability Insurance (DI), a program for workers who have paid Social Security taxes. Payments to addicts average $707 a month. The money to finance the earnings-limit increase would come solely from DI.

"They ought to give people on DI a little more consideration because we've paid into Social Security," argues Mr. Graham. "I paid Social Security taxes since 1964."

Until this legislation, alcoholics and addicts on the DI rolls were treated more gently than those on SSI as Congress over the years has imposed requirements aimed at getting them clean.

But no more. Under this bill, no one in either program would be awarded benefits for addiction or alcoholism. Those already on the rolls face loss of their checks on Jan. 1, 1997 -- unless they can convince caseworkers that they have another disabling condition.

"As a recovering alcoholic I can tell you that paying cash benefits to these people is not the kind of help that they need," Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican, told the House minutes before it adopted the bill, 411-4, on Dec. 5.

Mr. Graham agrees, to an extent. "I know some people who are stone alcoholics," he says. "They got on SSI, it must be 20 years ago. As soon as they get their checks, they go out and buy what they hope will be a month's supply of beer and wine. That is definitely wasted money."

On the other hand, he says, "There are some good people on this program that need some help. I would say the good people far outweigh the bad."

Dr. Sally Satel, a Yale University psychiatrist, has been a critic of giving cash to addicts and alcoholics and of programs that she derides as "drive-by therapy."

NB "These people need long-term residential care, and there's not

enough of it," says Dr. Satel. "It costs $18,000 to $20,000 a year. But if it's done well and the patients finish, the relapse rates are very small."

When the measure came up in the Senate Finance Committee, there was a single mention of the cutoff provision.

"As a matter of policy, I think that's a good idea," says Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat.

Others see it differently.

"There's going to be some major suffering out there," warns Anne C. Carney, who runs a West Baltimore methadone clinic that treats some recipients of disability checks among its patients.

One is Charles Graham.

Mr. Graham, 48, grew up in Southwest Baltimore. He says he was 13 or 14 when he started using drugs, and that he tried "everything from sniffing glue to LSD" before settling on heroin.

"I was addicted to it off and on over the years, and then I really went haywire when all my employment troubles started."

In 1990, after 20 years as a state maintenance worker, he was forced out because of severe tremors -- a "psychological reaction to the job," he says.

At that point, heroin wasn't his only problem. He was drinking 10 to 12 beers a night, according to his Social Security file, which he authorized a reporter to see.

He applied for disability payments, blaming Parkinson's disease and other physical problems.

A Social Security judge agreed that he couldn't work and awarded him benefits. The primary disability was listed as "chronic alcoholism," with "Parkinsonian tremor" as a secondary diagnosis. Mr. Graham disagreed with the diagnosis but accepted it anyway because he needed the money.

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