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Governor seeks fee for help with SSI Md. would be first state to charge poor to get on federal rolls


WASHINGTON -- The Glendening administration has proposed making Maryland the first state to charge the poor for assistance in moving from state welfare programs to federal disability rolls -- even though the shift saves the state millions of dollars a year.

The fee could amount to hundreds of dollars, depending on how long it takes to win benefits.

Over the last seven years, the state has saved $59 million by helping 16,000 aid recipients win federal disability payments from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. The saving is over and above the $21 million the state spent to run the program.

The cost of helping recipients apply for SSI "can no longer be absorbed by Maryland's taxpayers," Katherine L. Cook, the head of policy administration at the state Department of Human Resources, told the Social Security Administration in a November letter.

Ms. Cook said the state "wishes to charge a service fee" of 10 percent to 15 percent of the initial SSI check -- and to have Social Security deduct the fee from that check and send it to the state.

"We have not made a decision," said Phil Gambino, the Social Security spokesman, who said that at the moment no state collects a fee for its shepherding efforts.

Maryland is one of a number of states that aggressively try to shift recipients of various welfare programs to SSI, which is run by the Social Security Administration. SSI pays a maximum of $470 a month, far more than the state programs.

Once they move to SSI, recipients cannot collect from state programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Maryland's $100-a-month Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program.

At the end of December, 82,494 Marylanders were receiving SSI payments that averaged about $375 a month.

The state program helped 4,704 people join the SSI rolls last year, according to Health Management Associates Inc. of Baltimore, a private firm that runs the program under a $2.8 million contract with the state.

Although it takes months -- sometimes as much as two years -- to win SSI benefits, payments are retroactive to the date of application. As a result, the first SSI check -- the one from which the state is asking permission to collect a fee -- is always a substantial payment covering the intervening months.

Recipients who move from Maryland welfare programs to the federal SSI rolls are required to pay back the state money they received after the date of application. Social Security deducts that money from the first check and sends it to the state.

Yesterday, Ms. Cook appeared to back away from her November letter, saying that "we have not even made a decision" to assess fees. "We are looking at what revenue options are available to us in this shrinking fiscal environment," she said.

"I'm surprised," said Jeff Singer, a staffer at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, which also seeks to get the disabled poor on the SSI rolls. "I see this as a problem, given that the level of SSI payments is so low and that Maryland has never supplemented" the federal payment, as have other states.

Attorneys and others who help applicants obtain SSI payments are now permitted to collect a fee from the initial check, as long as the recipient agrees in writing to the arrangement in advance. They can collect up to 25 percent of the initial check or $4,000, whichever is less -- or even more if they document their expenses.

The Social Security Administration does not act as collection agent in SSI cases -- as Maryland wants it to do if it decides to

charge fees.

Maryland could charge individual recipients now, Mr. Gambino said, if it were willing to negotiate a separate fee agreement with each applicant and collect the money itself.

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