WASHINGTON -- A physician who oversees Social Security disability decisions in Arkansas said yesterday that many children are wrongly receiving benefits -- the result of pressure to increase the approval of applications in the early 1990s.
"There is no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of children that receive disability checks who are not really disabled at all," Dr. Bill Payne told a federal commission. "They misbehave in class. They have some problem like that. But they are not truly disabled."
Dr. Payne, chief medical official in the Little Rock office that decides on disability applications in Arkansas, appeared before a commission appointed by the Clinton administration to examine the children's portion of the Supplemental Security Income program run by the Social Security Administration. Enrollment has tripled in the past five years, to 900,000 children whose parents receive monthly checks of up to $458.
Concerned about the explosion in the rolls and about allegations that undeserving children are getting benefits, Congress -- then controlled by Democrats -- created the commission in August and gave it until Nov. 30 of this year to make recommendations for changing the program.
But the new Republican majority in the House has moved ahead, spurning pleas to await the panel's recommendations.
The House Ways and Means Committee's sweeping welfare proposal would end cash payments to all but the most severely disabled children, replacing them with goods and services designed to cope with the disability; overturn a 1990 Supreme Court decision that made it easier for children to win benefits; and kick off the rolls 225,000 children who won monthly checks as a result of that decision. The House is expected to vote on the bill by the end of the month; the Senate has just begun hearings on welfare.
Dr. Payne's testimony yesterday was a rare instance in which a knowledgeable official who works inside the SSI program has confirmed publicly that children without disabilities are getting monthly checks.
The commission also heard testimony from two Louisiana school officials who said the lure of SSI cash has prompted parents to "coach" their children to perform poorly and behave badly in school and in psychological testing so that they can receive the cash benefits.
Louisiana and Arkansas are two states where the explosion in the SSI rolls has prompted complaints that children with marginal conditions are getting benefits and that parents are coaching them to fake problems.
SSI payments are commonly referred to as "crazy checks" in those states.
Willie Lee Bell, principal of an elementary school in Lake Providence, La., said students were refusing to perform academically so that they could qualify for disability checks. His school, he noted, receives extra state money to improve its standardized test scores.
"I find it ironic that we are getting $24,000 from the state to pull our test scores up while the kids are getting $450 a month, the incentive to pull them down," Mr. Bell said.
Nestled against the Mississippi River in the northeast corner of Louisiana, Lake Providence is part of the state's poorest county, East Carroll Parish, where more than 10 percent of the residents collect SSI checks.
Mr. Bell acknowledged that poverty is a driving force behind applications for SSI, a program for the poor.
"We are a welfare community," he said. "There are no jobs. They are looking for ways to support themselves, and for a lot of them, this is the only income they have."
Mr. Bell told of a Lake Providence child who, prompted by a mother seeking SSI checks, fabricated a story of bizarre behavior so convincing that doctors committed him to a mental hospital, fearing that he was a threat to his family.
The mother then went to court to have her child freed and enlisted Mr. Bell's testimony to help convince the judge that the child's behavior was normal.
A psychologist in another Louisiana parish, Ray Owens, also said that parents were coaching children to do poorly, saying, "The children are being doomed to failure."
Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, told the commission, "We have found much less evidence of fraud than one would believe in reading the anecdotal material."
Dr. Payne, a pediatrician who has been making disability decisions in Arkansas for 10 years, said his agency's problems began with the Supreme Court's Zebley decision, one of two developments in 1990 that fueled the tripling of the children's rolls. The other was Social Security's broadening of its list of ailments and conditions that qualify for benefits.
The Zebley ruling held that children who didn't have conditions on Social Security's list of qualifying ailments be accorded further analysis, which critics say is too subjective.
Dr. Payne said his agency was getting little guidance from Social Security while being pressured to increase its approval rate for children.
He didn't identify the source of the pressure, and a Social Security official, Barry Eigen, denied that it came from his agency.
Social Security records show that 44 percent of the 18,730 Arkansas children collecting SSI got on the rolls through the Zebley decision. The rate is 46.6 percent in Louisiana, 28.3 percent nationally and 24.7 percent in Maryland.
Dr. Payne told the commission that the problems that prompted many of the suspect approvals in Arkansas have ended, and he warned the commission against overreacting to the problems.
Another Arkansas disability official told of hearing numerous complaints from teachers about SSI.