Addicts in state to lose benefits Federal disability, medical assistance set to end Wednesday; 'It doesn't make sense'; 600 Md. residents could be affected now by the new law


Hundreds of Maryland residents are set to lose federal disability and medical assistance benefits Wednesday because they are alcohol- or drug-addicted, a cutoff state officials fear will almost certainly increase the number of homeless and strain local programs for the poor.

Under legislation approved by Congress this year, people will no longer be able to claim an addiction as a disability to qualify for Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), which carries with it Medicaid benefits.

An estimated 2,338 residents of Maryland fall into that category.

While many have successfully reapplied for SSI benefits because they are afflicted with some other physical or mental disability besides their addiction, at least 600 are expected to lose benefits immediately -- an average $400 monthly.

Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Martin P. Wasserman said the move represented a "breach of the federal safety net" and questioned the government's intent.

"There is just so much the state's safety net can support," said Wasserman. "It's difficult for us to continue to back up the federal government."

The shake-up affects 200,000 people nationwide. An estimated 120,000 have appealed their cutoffs.

Of those, 45,000 have been judged to possess some other qualifying disability. About 35,000 have not, and the remaining appeals have not been determined, said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

Ultimately, nearly half of the addicts on the SSI rolls are expected to lose benefits, Gambino said.

State advocates for the poor said the loss of SSI benefits would turn out more people onto the streets of Baltimore, leave them in poorer health, discourage from enrolling in treatment programs and increase crime.

"We're looking at a very substantial number of very sick people," said Ann T. Ciekot, deputy director of Action for the Homeless, a Baltimore advocacy group. "These are people who are too sick to work and now they're losing their income and medical assistance. It doesn't make sense."

Sarah L. Szanton, an official with Baltimore's Health Care for the Homeless, said state programs won't make up for the loss. The state's backup benefit program for the disabled, Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance, provides $100 monthly and limited health care for up to a year.

"People's lives are going to be bleak," she said. "They won't have money to pay rent, and they won't have enough health care to treat their disability."

Advocates said the loss of SSI benefits will be similar to what happened last year when Gov. Parris N. Glendening cut the state's Disability Assistance and Loan Program, which benefited the mentally or physically impaired: more homeless on the streets and more crowded soup kitchens.

Nevertheless, cutting off alcoholics and drug abusers is expected to save the federal government about $300 million annually.

Wasserman said he believes state programs will adequately provide for the health of former SSI recipients. But state officials conceded that addicts who lose their benefits could have a difficult time finding shelter.

"This will add to the homeless population," said Lynda G. Fox, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "It's a legitimate concern."

Some addiction experts had criticized the SSI program in the past for giving cash assistance to people who would spend the money on drugs or alcohol. But advocates said that was relatively low percentage of recipients.

"The general public doesn't have much compassion for drug addicts," said Gary Sweeney, a senior counselor at the Man Alive methadone program in South Charles Village.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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