Scores of Los Angeles County's poor and the homeless have been unfairly denied welfare benefits after being ordered into work programs that they cannot complete because physical disabilities make the work painful or impossible, advocates for the indigent say.
The advocates have been complaining since last year about the situation, which they blame on the county Department of Public Social Services and the Watts Health Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that does medical screenings of people who apply for the monthly $312 subsistence payments known as general relief.
Workers at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Homeless Assistance Project and the Inner City Law Center said they have received more than 500 complaints from poor people about the Watts Health Foundation.
The advocates say the Watts foundation, under contract to the county, has frequently overlooked severe disabilities and chronic illnesses and given the indigent medical clearances that force them into workfare.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 8, 1991 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless assistance--The Times reported Tuesday that the Homeless Assistance Project is one of three advocacy groups for the poor criticizing health screenings of welfare applicants. The project is run by Public Counsel, a public-interest law office. The Homeless Assistance Project Inc., a downtown advocacy and counseling organization, is a separate entity that is not involved in protests against the health screenings.
Under workfare, the poor earn welfare payments by cleaning roads and public buildings and performing other duties. If they do not work, they can be dropped from the welfare rolls for two months.
"People get put on work projects and then they physically can't do the work, so they get put on 60-day suspensions," said Brad Stevens, a paralegal for the Legal Aid Foundation. "If they don't have any other resources, they can be forced (to live) on the street."
The social workers charge that the health screenings are designed to reduce the welfare rolls, the most recent in a series of complaints against the county. Legal Aid and other groups are already representing the poor in two lawsuits that seek to increase the $312 payments and reduce penalties that disqualify the poor from benefits.
Officials at the Watts Health Foundation defended the health screenings, conducted throughout the county in mobile trailers that park near welfare offices. Fewer than 1% of those examined appeal the findings to the Department of Public Social Services, said Dr. Clyde Oden, director of the Watts Health Foundation.
"We object to any notion that our program is inadvertently causing disadvantage to anyone who is seeking aid," Oden said.
County officials also deny that they are improperly trying to reduce the welfare rolls.
Eddy S. Tanaka, director of the county Department of Public Social Services, said Watts was hired in July, 1989, to provide the health checks because of a backlog at the county's medical clinics. Welfare applicants sometimes had to wait a month or more for county health facilities to schedule their examinations, Tanaka said.
In the 20 months ending in February, the Watts Health Foundation mobile units have screened 47,948 welfare applicants who said they were too ill to work. The organization provides a variety of other health services at its headquarters on South Compton Avenue.
Watts doctors have found that 28% of those screened were fit for work, compared to 16% who were cleared for work in a typical month when the county Department of Health Services handled the screenings, county statistics show.
Advocates such as Stevens say many of the additional poor people being placed on workfare are not fit to be there.
But county officials noted that in recent months Watts has made fewer welfare recipients eligible for work. Only 12% of those who said they could not work in February were ruled medically able, county records show. That is down from early months of screenings by Watts, when more than half of those screened were cleared to work.
Poor people complain that Watts still rushes them through inadequate, cursory examinations in its mobile trailers.
Watts' contract with the county calls for "routine laboratory and X-ray procedures when required to obtain a decisive evaluation." But in nearly 50,000 examinations of welfare applicants over nearly two years, Watts has performed X-rays twice and lab work once, according to reports filed with the county.
In fact, the organization has X-ray equipment only at its headquarters, not in the trailers where most of the screenings are conducted.
Watts executives said they have not needed the tests because many of the welfare applicants bring medical records from other doctors. Others are sent to county clinics and other facilities for the tests.
The organization counts on medical histories and physical examinations as the "keys" to accurate evaluations, said Dr. Fred Thomas, mobile unit medical director.
Lisa Mead, directing attorney of the Homeless Assistance Project, said her agency has seen some dramatic cases.
"Last summer we had a client limping visibly from a stab wound and with stitches across his hand that were infected and swollen," said Mead. "They had given him a work project and he couldn't do it."
The cases are often reversed on appeal, and welfare benefits restored, Mead said. But she said the wrangling over medical evaluations has created additional trauma for people whose lives are already at a low ebb.