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Disabled Couple Walk Down Aisle and Forfeit Most of Their Benefits

May 25, 1989|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Albert Quintanar and Bernadette Robinson met in high school, began dating in college and culminated their relationship with a large wedding at a Catholic church in Claremont last September.

The Quintanars are typical of many young couples, except that both are disabled. Albert has had cerebral palsy since birth, while Bernadette has polio and is confined to a wheelchair. Their first months of married life have been filled with frustrations unimaginable to most other couples.

The problem is not their disabilities, but the federal regulations over the disability benefits on which they depend. Shortly after they returned from their honeymoon, the Quintanars learned that their marriage had cost Albert his eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicare.

"Someone said it was a wedding present from (the government)," said Bernadette, 29, sitting in the couple's federally subsidized apartment in Claremont. "We're angry, very angry. (We feel) kind of a disbelief that they would do that just because we exchanged marriage vows."

Government regulations stipulate that recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance forfeit most of their benefits when they marry, presumably because they have someone to provide for them. The only exception is for marriages between disability insurance recipients.

Formulas Are Complicated

Under the complicated formulas that determine eligibility for disability insurance, Albert qualified but Bernadette did not. Therefore, under this program's regulations, Bernadette was not considered to be disabled even though she requires a full-time assistant and depends on Supplemental Social Security Income. Social Security law makes no allowances for marriages between recipients of the two programs.

"You're dealing with two offices within the same agency that have conflicts with each other in so many ways," said Albert, 28. "One is considered insurance and the other is considered welfare. That is the glitch in the law."

That "glitch" caused the couple's combined monthly income of $1,170 to be reduced by $104.

"When you're already living below the poverty level and you lose 10% of your income, it's very hard," Albert said. "We've managed to make ends meet, but just barely. . . . But the damage really came when they took away our Medicare."

The loss of medical coverage for the medication Albert requires was more than the couple could accept. They decided to fight back. The two started with local case workers, but their hands were tied by regulations.

"They told us the only way we could retain (the benefits) was to get an annulment," Bernadette said. "It's unbelievable to penalize the marriage."

Efforts Pay Off

Over the next seven months, the Quintanars met with advocates for the disabled, sought legal counsel and wrote letters to their congressional representatives. Recently those efforts began to pay off.

Pasadena attorney Bertram Potter agreed to represent them free of charge and filed for an expedited hearing on the couple's benefits. Potter contends that the Quintanars' constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law have been violated.

"I think this is clearly a mistake in the regulations," Potter said, although he acknowledged that it may take up to a year for the couple's appeal to be heard. "It's so damned unfair."

After learning of the Quintanars' plight, Rep. David Dreier (R-Covina) introduced a bill to amend the Social Security Act to preserve disability benefits for beneficiaries who marry recipients of Supplemental Security Income.

"Let us stop discouraging marriage," Dreier, a bachelor, told his fellow members of Congress in introducing HR 2080, which is being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee.

'An Oversight'

Dreier said that he believes the regulation that penalized the Quintanars for marrying is "an oversight" in the existing regulation.

"My first reaction was 'Wow, how can this exist?' It was unbelievable," Dreier said by telephone from his Capitol office. He added that he expects Congress to pass the bill later this session. "Sept. 3 is their first anniversary. It would be nice if we could make it by then."

The Quintanars said they were surprised by the response to their pleas. "With all the bureaucracy, the individual sort of feels small," Bernadette said. "It's encouraging to know people are listening."

Dreier's bill is one of two key pieces of legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill that the Quintanars hope will remove some of the legal obstacles preventing disabled people from leading otherwise normal lives.

Neither Had Worked

The other bill, HR 8, would enable recipients of disability insurance to work without losing their Medicare coverage. Although both Albert and Bernadette Quintanar have college degrees, neither of them worked until recently because they could not afford to lose their federal benefits.

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