Hearings open here today on troubled SSI program


WASHINGTON -- Rushing to head off sweeping Republican changes in a troubled children's disability program, a national commission will come to Baltimore today for two days of hearings and meetings.

The National Commission on Childhood Disability, which will meet at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, will try to fashion its own recommendations to Congress.

Today the commission will hear from officials of the Social Security Administration, which runs the program, and from experts on children's disabilities. The hearing begins at 9 a.m. in the Pratt Room. Tomorrow, the commission will take testimony from the public.

Created by Congress last year and appointed in January by Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, the commission is conducting a wide-ranging review of the children's portion of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a welfare program for the blind, aged and disabled.

The commission decided to visit Baltimore because "we are trying to get outside the [Washington] Beltway as much as we can with the time we have," said chairman Jim Slattery, a former six-term Democratic congressman.

A series of articles in The Sun in January outlined problems in the $25 billion SSI program, which sends monthly checks of up to $458 -- plus a supplement in some states -- to 6.3 million people. All SSI recipients get Medicaid benefits, too.

With Congress and the courts expanding eligibility standards, the rolls of the $4.5 billion children's portion of SSI have tripled since 1989, to 900,000 and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will swell to 1.25 million in five years without changes in eligibility rules.

The explosion in the rolls has occurred amid charges that children with marginal mental or behavioral problems are receiving checks and that parents are coaching children to misbehave and perform poorly in school in order to win benefits.

Last summer, Democrats in Congress fended off Republican demands for changes in the program by creating the commission to examine its problems and report back by Nov. 30 this year.

The Republicans, who won control of the House in November, decided not to wait for the commission, instead forging ahead with major changes in their welfare reform bill.

The House decided to stiffen eligibility criteria by overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision, known as Zebley, and to drop from the rolls nearly a quarter-million children who had been declared disabled through a subjective analysis required by that ruling.

The House also decided to transform the program from a cash-assistance grant for parents to a program that focuses on the child's disability.

Under the GOP plan, most children added to the rolls in the

future would be denied cash payments but would receive Medicaid coverage. They would also receive from state governments goods and services geared to their disabilities -- if their states participated in the program.

States would be eligible for a federal grant to pay for the goods and services but would not be required to participate. The states would also have leeway to decide which goods and services to provide, as long as those they chose were approved by the Social Security Administration.

"It's my personal view that they've gone too far," said Mr. Slattery, who gave up his House seat last year to make an unsuccessful run for governor of Kansas.

"You are going to create real problems for families who have a disabled child that legitimately deserves and needs some assistance," he said. Last month he told the Senate Finance Committee that "the commission does not believe that the SSI program for children is now in a state of crisis, nor is it about to plummet out of control."

He acknowledged that there are problems and abuses, along with a "fundamental ambiguity" about the program's purpose. Children were slipped into SSI when Congress acted in 1972 to federalize 1,300 state and local disability programs for adults, and there was little discussion about the purpose of this step. He also said the lure of cash benefits may give parents incentives to have a child declared disabled and then, once successful, to refuse to get treatment for the child out of fear that the monthly checks will be lost if the child overcomes the disability.

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