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Panel would revamp aid to disabled children


WASHINGTON -- A controversial Social Security program that gives cash benefits to nearly 1 million disabled children -- some of them with marginal disabilities -- should be revamped to make it harder to win benefits, a Clinton administration commission has concluded.

The panel called for eligibility in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to be tightened, although panel members were divided over how to do it. At the least, they favored changes that would drop more than 100,000 children over five years.

Failure to act "leaves the program continually susceptible to attack for providing inconsistent [and easy] criteria for enrollment," according to seven of the 14 commissioners who advocated strong action.

Coming from supporters of the program, the report lends weight to widespread criticism at a time when Congress is debating changes in welfare, including SSI.

A January series in The Sun documented widespread problems in the $25 billion SSI program, which sends checks to more than 6 million aged, blind and disabled poor Americans.

Congress created SSI in 1972 to replace state and local disability programs. With virtually no discussion, it made children eligible for a program designed to provide income to adults unable to work. The program pays children up to $458 a month.

Enrollment in the $5 billion SSI program for children has tripled in five years amid allegations that youngsters with marginal problems are receiving benefits -- sometimes because their parents coach them to fake disabilities.

In the first half of 1995 alone, the rolls grew by 51,000, nearly 6 percent, according to Social Security.

Without changes in the program, the Woodlawn-based agency expects enrollment to reach 1.4 million children within five years.

In general, the commission's report steers clear of sweeping criticism. It recommends continuing the children's program, with some modifications.

"The huge majority of families obtaining assistance from the federal government under this program desperately need it," said Jim Slattery, the chairman.

The commission concluded that parental coaching is not widespread, echoing a Social Security study last year that nevertheless found "pockets of problems" around the country.

"On balance," said Mr. Slattery, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, "90-plus percent of the money spent on this program ends up in the hands of low-income families who have a child in need of special assistance."

But the commission said the program "does not distinguish between their needs as low-income children and their needs as children with disabilities."

Critics have complained that the size of the checks is unrelated to the child's disability and that parents are not required to use the money to cope with that disability.

The commission recommended that parents be required to obtain treatment for their child's disability in order to collect benefits.

It also called for Social Security to review each case every two years to determine whether children on the rolls still meet the eligibility criteria.

The program is financed from the government's general budget, not from the trust fund that sends Social Security checks to retirees.

Last year, Congress -- then controlled by Democrats -- created the commission to study the children's program after rejecting sweeping GOP proposals for changes.

The commission, appointed by Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, has been meeting since early this year.

Given a Nov. 30 deadline, the panel has tried to complete its work early in hopes of influencing the Senate debate on welfare reform, which includes SSI changes.

Last spring, the House adopted reforms that would end cash assistance to all but the most severely disabled children, toughen eligibility standards and require Social Security to drop from the rolls nearly a quarter million children who don't meet those standards.

The commission this week reviewed its staff's draft of the report and made minor changes. The report has not been widely circulated.

The panel called for retaining the program's most controversial feature: a system in which applicants who cannot meet Social Security criteria for a physical or mental disability are allowed to receive checks anyway if an evaluator rules that they are nevertheless impaired.

This subjective test -- a response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for children to be classified as disabled -- is considered one reason the children's rolls have more than tripled. The new rules allowed thousands who could not previously qualify to get checks.

The welfare bill adopted by the House would scrap the evaluation and remove 225,000 who got on the rolls through that process. Legislation drafted by Senate Republicans would also end the evaluation.

Commission members have criticized the Republican proposals, but their report acknowledged that "less stringent" eligibility criteria "need to be strengthened." Panel members considered changing the criteria for evaluating applicants but could not agree on the specifics.

One plan to raise the threshold of eligibility, supported by half the panel's 14 members, would cut enrollment by more than 100,000 over five years, saving nearly $3 billion.

A second proposal, backed by the seven other members, would cut enrollment by 260,000 and save nearly $6 billion.

The alternatives are similar to proposals by Democratic lawmakers. Legislation authored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York would reduce enrollment by about 239,000. A bill by Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota would drop about 100,000 children.

Acknowledging problems in the children's program, Phil Gambino, the Social Security spokesman, said: "We look forward to taking this report and working with Congress to legislate meaningful and responsible reforms."

While generally supporting the program, the commission faulted both its ambiguous nature and Social Security's administration of it. The commission condemned the House proposal to replace cash payments -- now averaging $421 a month -- with vouchers that could be used to obtain goods and services needed to cope with a disability.

But it sought to limit the money that a family can collect from SSI. It proposed a formula for calculating benefits that would reduce individual benefits as additional children were added to the rolls.

Currently, a husband and wife are eligible for no more than $687 a month -- 150 percent of the individual benefit -- on the theory that two can live more cheaply than one. But there is no limit to the number of children who can collect full SSI checks of up to $458 a month.

Last year, Social Security conducted a study that found that a few households collected $60,000 a year from SSI.

The Sun series reported on a Louisiana family of two adults and seven children who were all getting SSI benefits -- including $458 for each child -- that totaled $46,716 a year, tax-free.

The commission recommended a sliding scale that, in a family of seven children who receive SSI benefits, would reduce monthly checks to $256 per child.

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