When doctors diagnosed Mitchell Berman with terminal brain cancer two years ago, his wife thought Social Security Disability benefits would help defray the cost of caring for the dying man.
Then they received the startling news: the Bermans would have to wait at least five months to begin collecting those benefits -- even though doctors estimated the Columbia resident would live just two to three months after the July 1992 diagnosis.
"There was no income, except what we had saved," said his wife, Marjorie Berman. "It was a nightmare."
Mr. Berman, 58, has survived to collect benefits. But the initial scare left his wife determined to fight a federal policy that she says is unfair to the terminally ill.
With a flurry of letters and telephone calls, she has taken her case to Congress as an example of why the five-month waiting period for Social Security Disability benefits should be eliminated for terminally ill patients.
"I've promised Mitchell that I would see this through and that it would be brought before Congress in his name," Mrs. Berman said. "He paid into this system since he was 19 years old. He deserves this."
She's fighting a battle often waged in Congress -- and often lost, because of the costs associated with eliminating the waiting period.
Nearly 4 million people are paid Social Security Disability benefits each year, amounting to about $2.5 billion in payments each month.
And Mr. Berman's case, Social Security Administration officials say, is a perfect example of why the five-month waiting period should remain in place.
The disability benefit is designed for people with long-term disabilities, they say. The waiting period is simply a way of making sure that only those with long-term disabilities collect the money.
The policy is fiscally responsible as well, they argue, saving the administration $3 billion a year in payments to those with long-term disabilities.
Eliminating the waiting period for terminally ill patients alone would cost the administration $500 million a year.
"As part of our public information efforts, we're always telling people it is up to you to take care of yourself during the first six months," said Tom Margenau, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. "It's been this way since 1957. Almost everybody who files for Social Security benefits just doesn't like to wait."
But Mrs. Berman argues that the waiting period strains a family's finances and makes it more difficult to pay the high costs of medical and nursing care.
Even with Social Security benefits, many families have to struggle with the expense of a major illness. For example, Mr. Berman gets $1,151 from Social Security each month. But that covers only part of the $800-a-week bill at Lorien Nursing &
Rehabilitation Center in Columbia.
His health insurance plan covers medical bills, but not his nursing home expenses.
As a result, the Bermans have had to draw on the $43,000 principal in the former pharmacist's pension fund and on the $31,000 in his Individual Retirement Accounts -- a nest egg that is about six months from being depleted. Mrs. Berman also has sold one of the two family cars, her husband's computers and some of her jewelry.
Mrs. Berman says she expects her husband eventually to qualify for Supplemental Security Income, which is available only to those with no more than $2,000 in assets.
"Essentially, we're living on what we hoped he could retire on," said Mrs. Berman, whose husband lost his last full-time job in 1989 when the now-defunct Dart Drug went bankrupt. "If I have to sell my house, I will. . . . A lot of people better realize it can happen to them, too."
The family's trauma began in July 1992 when Mr. Berman, then working as a part-time pharmacist, began suffering migraine headaches. When doctors examined him, they discovered he had glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal form of brain cancer.
Mrs. Berman, who depended on her husband's income, said she immediately delivered signed applications for Social Security Disability benefits to Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office at the World Trade Center in Baltimore.
Then she learned that her husband would have to undergo a five-month waiting period.
"We helped her get payments she was owed under the law," said Rachel Kunzler, an aide to Senator Mikulski, whose office helped speed the paperwork but could do nothing about the waiting period. "We understand Mrs. Berman's frustration, but we have to go by what the regulations are."
But Mrs. Berman didn't give up. Last month, she began mailing letters to President Clinton and to members of Congress, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats; Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican; and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
In his return letter, Mr. Cardin promised to raise the waiting period issue with the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security and of which he is a member.
Congress has long rejected attempts to eliminate the waiting period, mainly because of the multibillion-dollar cost associated with such a move. The most recent attempt failed in 1993, in a bill introduced by Rep. Al Swift, a Washington Democrat, -- his eighth attempt to have such legislation passed.
Even some of those who favor elimination of the waiting period concede that practical problems are involved -- foremost among them, the cost.
"Many people agreed with it, but when it came down to how to pay for it, nobody could come up with a method," said Sean Pickard, legislative assistant for Mr. Swift.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Berman insists that she'll continue to fight for the change.
Her resolve is strengthened when she visits her husband, who is confined to bed, unable to move, suffering memory lapses from the debilitating disease.
"Even though I'm a David against a Goliath, I'm still going to fight," Mrs. Berman said.