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Social Security Says Neediest Disabled Children Not Cut

Benefits: List shows that although rolls have been pared by 120,000, severest cases havent been denied aid in the course of welfare reform, agency tells critics.

September 18, 1997|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration sought Wednesday to assure Congress and a growing chorus of critics that one of the most controversial elements of last year's landmark welfare reform bill has not denied benefits to severely disabled children.

Having pared more than 120,000 children from the disability rolls in recent months, the Social Security Administration has sent Congress a compendium of case studies designed to show that although many marginal cases have been dropped, the neediest children have not been cut off. The report provides thumbnail sketches of 40 randomly chosen cases in which a child--identified by first name only--has been denied further payments, along with 40 cases in which the children's payments will be continued.

The unusual presentation of detailed case studies comes in response to calls from advocates for the disabled for a review of the process by which cash grants to disabled children have been cut off. Last week, the Clinton administration's newly nominated director of the Social Security Administration, Kenneth S. Apfel, promised a "top-to-bottom" assessment of that process.

On Wednesday, two Republicans who drafted the hotly debated provision of welfare reform released the Social Security Administration's report. At the same time, Reps. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and Jim McCrery (R-La.) released another report, this one by the General Accounting Office--Congress' investigative arm--that concluded the mandate to deny supplemental security income, or SSI payments, to certain disabled children has been well and fairly administered in line with Congress' intent.

Pointing to the Social Security Administration's compendium of cases, McCrery told reporters Wednesday: "This is the norm. The examples cited [by advocates of the poor and disabled] have been the exceptions, not the rule."

The summaries of "randomly selected redetermination cases" provided by the Social Security Administration appear to show consistently that payments were stopped for children whose physical and social functioning is fairly normal, often with the help of medication and special classes or therapy. Among those whose payments were continued, children typically were found to be mentally retarded and/or to suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that was not greatly relieved with medication.

But advocates for the disabled and poor have flooded offices of lawmakers and news organizations with examples of children whose benefits were cut in spite of their apparently severe disabilities, which significantly impeded their functioning.

Last week, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) cited several closed cases that have come to his attention, including that of an 8-year-old North Carolina boy with an I.Q. of 45 who uses a wheelchair and cannot speak, and a delusional New York teen who is suicidal and has recently been hospitalized for psychiatric disorders.

The Kennedy Foundation, a group advocating expanded rights for the disabled and mentally handicapped, called the SSA report released Wednesday a "compilation of sanitized, incomplete summaries" that leaves the misleading impression that needy children have been protected in the process.

Using older Social Security Administration statistics, the group noted that benefits for many children with IQs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, who normally would be classified as mentally retarded or at the borderline, have been terminated in recent months. Yet the agency compilation did not include a single case of mental retardation among the 40 cases of discontinued benefits.

Similarly, the group suggested that the cases highlighted by the SSA report could not have been random, since half of those closed were for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. But the agency's own data show that such children make up no more than 8% of children receiving benefits.

Shaw and McCrery both acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the hasty review of about 200,000 cases over roughly six months. Shaw said that the lengthy appeals process allowed for in the bill is intended to catch cases where severely disabled children are denied benefits.

But David Egnor of the Kennedy Foundation asserted that the outcome of the appeals process itself could be used to counter Shaw's claim. According to the Social Security Administration's own statistics, roughly two in three cases in which benefits were to be cut during the late spring and early summer of 1997 were overturned on appeal.

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