Sharp cuts in disability proposed $15 billion in savings over 5 years seen in Clinton, GOP plans

March 22, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Heightening the prospects that the government's burgeoning disability programs will be scaled back, President Clinton has proposed changes that would slow their growth and reduce the rolls by hundreds of thousands of people.

The federal government could save up to $15 billion over five years under proposals Mr. Clinton has made and under Republican proposals that he is considered likely to accept.

If adopted, the proposals would bring about the sharpest cuts in the history of the two disability programs run by the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration.

The programs send $67 billion a year to 7.5 million people. Without changes, the Social Security Administration projects that benefits will more than double, to $135 billion, in 10 years. Some members of Congress say these and other "entitlement" programs must be reined in soon or they will exceed the government's ability to pay.

Administration officials say Mr. Clinton offered some of his proposals in the failed budget talks with Republicans months ago and then restated them in the budget he sent to Capitol Hill this week. The administration and Republican leaders are near agreement on some of the ideas.

The president supports ending disability benefits for many drug addicts and alcoholics, limiting eligibility for legal aliens for monthly checks, tightening eligibility for children and stepping up efforts to rid the rolls of recipients who can Advocates for the disabled have expressed the fear that such cutbacks would leave thousands of genuinely disabled people without the financial support they need.

"This country is going to hell in a handbasket if this is where we're headed because it's good politics," said Tom Joe, who runs a Washington think tank, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, referring to the proposals involving drug addicts and alcoholics.

"These are poor folks" who came off the welfare rolls and will return to them after losing disability benefits, said Mr. Joe, who helped write disability legislation as a Nixon administration official.

Social Security officials estimate that 80 percent of addicts and alcoholics have other physical or mental problems that would requalify them for benefits.

Serious problems

A series in The Sun in January 1995 described serious problems in the disability programs addicts who squander their 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 many children with marginal problems were getting benefits.

Social Security runs two programs for the disabled: Disability Insurance (DI) for those who have paid Social Security taxes, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the elderly and disabled poor who lack the work history to be eligible for DI.

Mr. Clinton's proposals include:

Tightening eligibility standards for SSI payments to children, whose disability rolls have more than tripled in the past six years, soaring over 900,000, with much of the growth among children with mental problems.

The growth followed the expansion of eligibility criteria, the initiation of a $33 million "outreach" program to find more recipients and a 1990 Supreme Court decision that required a subjective evaluation of children who could not qualify for benefits through Social Security's list of disabling conditions, a stricter standard.

Mr. Clinton's proposal, like the Republican welfare bill he vetoed in January, would end the subjective test. And it would eliminate children who qualified for benefits through that test unless they can requalify under the stricter standard.

The president, like the Republicans, would also limit the weight that caseworkers may give to a child's "maladaptive behavior" in deciding whether benefits may be awarded.

Social Security officials say that about 325,000 children would be affected by these changes and estimate that half of them would lose their monthly checks as much as $470 in 1998.

Dropping from the SSI rolls 135,000 people who receive benefits because they are drug addicts or alcoholics. A measure Congress is expected to adopt soon would do this and also drop 65,000 more addicts from DI.

Limiting the access of legal aliens, one of the fastest-growing groups of SSI recipients, to benefits by requiring most of them to rely on sponsors for financial support until they become citizens and by making sponsorship agreements enforceable. The sponsorship provision is limited to five years. After that, aliens may apply for SSI.

Increasing the number of reviews of DI recipients to determine whether they still qualify for benefits.

Funds sought for cutbacks

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