Md. medical benefits suit ends in temporary reprieve SSA will re-examine cases of 842 recipients

March 12, 1997|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of Maryland residents targeted to lose their disability and medical assistance payments have won a temporary reprieve in federal court in Baltimore, where lawyers for the poor and the government have settled a class action lawsuit.

The settlement, reached late last week, requires the Social Security Administration to re-examine the cases of 842 Maryland residents that were scheduled to lose their benefits under a tough new federal law passed by Congress last year.

The settlement is not expected to have an impact on cases pending outside the state.

Under the law, benefits to nearly 200,000 people around the country were cut off effective Jan. 1 because their addictions to drugs and alcohol were considered to be "material" factors contributing to their disabilities.

But the law allowed those cut off to appeal. Their benefits would continue if they could show that other medical or mental problems, not just alcoholism or drug addiction, were responsible for their disabilities.

In Maryland, where 2,441 residents received cut-off notices, lawyers for the poor argued that the federal government was applying a double standard. They said the Social Security Administration was failing to consider the complete medical histories of many recipients, as required by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

On New Year's Eve, the lawyers filed a class action suit in Baltimore, claiming the federal government had violated the Maryland residents' constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.

After a court hearing in January, the two sides began settlement negotiations. Under the agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake on March 7, the government will reimburse benefits to 602 recipients while their cases are re-examined. The settlement also calls for the government to apply the complete medical records criteria when evaluating 240 other appeals that are pending.

Congress approved the law last year as part of the so-called Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996. The disability program was criticized for subsidizing the habits of drug addicts and alcoholics, and it was the focus of a series of articles published by The Sun in 1995.

Lawyers for the poor said yesterday that the settlement should help Maryland residents who were unfairly cut off from what remains of the disability program.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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