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SSI reform would cut 1 million from rolls

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Senate passage of welfare legislation this week virtually assures that eligibility in a Social Security program for the disabled poor will be tightened and that nearly 1 million recipients will be dropped.

Responding to complaints of abuse and lax administration in the burgeoning Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the House and Senate wrote sweeping revisions into their welfare bills.

Because most SSI provisions in the two bills are similar, the final legislation approved by House and Senate negotiators will likely include them, saving at least $27 billion over seven years. Half a million legal aliens, 130,000 drug addicts and up to a quarter-million children would be dropped from the rolls, though some are expected to regain benefits.

For the losers, that measure would end monthly checks of up to $458, plus full medical coverage through Medicaid and, in some cases, a supplemental state payment.

For the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, which runs the program, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the changes would mean $300 million more worth of work annually, according to Phil Gambino, a Social Security spokesman.

"We have paid far too little attention to how these benefits are being spent and taken far too little notice of how the disability programs are being abused," Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican, said this week.

A series in The Sun in January depicted serious problems in Social Security disability programs. It described addicts who squander monthly checks on alcohol and drugs; middlemen who fraudulently shepherd aliens onto the rolls; and a children's program that has tripled in enrollment in five years amid complaints that some children with marginal problems are receiving benefits.

The series reported on a Louisiana family of two adults and seven children that receives nine monthly checks, a tax-free income of $46,716 a year.

The series also recounted the history of the troubled SSI program and periodic congressional changes that, like a swinging pendulum, have at times expanded the rolls and at other times shrunk them -- triggering waves of legal challenges over the years.

The Republican bills risk more of these challenges. Advocates for the disabled have tested changes to the disability law with class action suits over the past 20 years.

Rep. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who heads the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, is preparing a measure that would require recipients of disability checks to requalify periodically for benefits, step up rehabilitation efforts for recipients and streamline how Social Security handles disability cases.

Social Security runs two disability programs that pay $66 billion a year to more than 10 million people. Disability Insurance (DI) is for people who have paid into the Social Security trust fund. SSI is for the disabled and aged poor who don't qualify for money from the trust fund.

In 10 years, enrollment has risen 61 percent. Costs have nearly tripled.

SSI costs the government far more than the $14 billion it spends on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main welfare program. The states put $12 billion more into AFDC, which provides cash to 14 million people, including 10 million children.

The much more generous SSI program, Senator Cohen said, is "a vivid example of a welfare program run amok."

But to Tom Joe, a Washington policy analyst who helped write the original SSI law in 1972 as a Nixon administration official, the welfare legislation is another conservative attack on the poor.

"The political agenda here is: 'We don't like poor folks to get money and therefore we're going to interfere with the definition of 'disability' " by limiting eligibility for benefits, he said.

The House and Senate welfare bills would:

* Drop drug addiction or alcoholism as a disability that qualifies for SSI benefits, while still allowing addicts to collect DI checks. The 130,000 addicts and alcoholics in SSI would lose their benefits, but could reapply if they have another disabling condition. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that nearly 100,000 would get back on the rolls.

* Make most legal aliens ineligible for welfare benefits, including SSI. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 500,000 of the 700,000 aliens on the rolls would be dropped.

* Stiffen eligibility rules for children and remove up to 250,000 of them from the rolls.

Children's enrollment tripled between 1989 and 1993, with much of the growth among children with mental problems. The growth was fueled largely by Social Security's expansion of the list of qualifying conditions, a congressionally mandated "outreach" program to find potential recipients and a 1990 Supreme Court decision that required use of a subjective evaluation of children who could not win benefits through the expanded list of conditions.

The two bills would end the subjective test and drop most of the nearly 250,000 children who qualified through that test. The exception would be children who qualify anew under the stricter criteria in the welfare legislation.

The major difference between the two bills involves cash payments. The House would deny cash to most new child enrollees. They would get cash only if they were in an institution or required personal assistance in basic activities and would otherwise have to be institutionalized.

Those who didn't qualify for cash would receive goods and services to cope with disabilities. These would be administered by the states, using federal grants. Currently, parents need not use the SSI money to cope with their child's disability.

"As long as you offer generous cash benefits, there is going to be abuse in this program," said Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican who wrote the provision. "I think the key to curbing abuse and yet maintaining delivery of needed benefits to disabled children requires doing away with the cash benefits for all but the most severely disabled children."

The Congressional Budget Office estimates, however, that only 30 percent of children added to the rolls in the future would be disabled enough to qualify for cash.

Defenders of the cash program say that parents are best able to decide how to handle their child's disability and that the McCrery proposal would create a cumbersome new bureaucratic maze for parents and state bureaucrats.

To Mr. Joe, the House restrictions on cash make no sense. "Take two equally disabled kids," he said. "One family wants to keep the child at home, and the other says, 'No, we'll send him to an institution.' You're going to give the cash to the parents who want to dump the kid or who can't cope with the kid. Isn't that perverse?"

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