Fraud-Busters Cut Benefits for Disabled Children Raising Standards and Reviewing Cases Trims Rolls, but It Leaves Some in Lurch
Linda Feldmann, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
In a little-noticed - but highly contentious - corner of welfare reform, tens of thousands of children are losing their federal disability benefits.
The cutbacks result from Congress's decision last year to tighten the standards by which low-income children could be declared "disabled," and thus receive federal checks.
Congressional conservatives claim the old standards were so loose that the system was rife with abuse. They cite media reports of children faking behavior problems to get "crazy checks." Liberal activists say stories of fraud were isolated anecdotes and that under new, stricter rules, children whose families truly need help are losing Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. They also allege the cuts were budget-driven. The government plan is to save $5 billion over five years, a projected removal of 135,000 children from the rolls, out of a total of 1 million. Tougher scrutiny The Clinton administration is caught in the middle. And in an effort to defuse the strong emotions, the new commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), Kenneth Apfel, began on Sept. 29 a 30-day top-to-bottom review of the program. His report is due out in the next 10 days. "The children we're taking off the rolls have real limitations but no longer meet the standard in the language of the law: 'marked and severe functional limita- tions,' " says Susan Daniels, head of SSA's disability programs. "They will need community support, special education, state services," she says, adding that these children will still be eligible for public health insurance under Medicaid. "We don't want anyone to characterize these children as fakers or malingerers." Ms. Daniels notes that four separate studies found no evidence of "widespread abuse" in the children's SSI program. The average monthly payment per child is $410. The purpose of the payments is to help low-income families cope with the costs of having a disabled child, such as a parent's missed work time or special equipment. One aspect of the cutbacks that disturbs children's advocates is that cutoff rates vary widely from state to state. Of the total national caseload, about one-quarter were slated for possible cutoff, and most assessments are completed. Mississippi has the highest cutoff rate - 82 percent of reviewed cases. The lowest rate is in Washington, D.C., at 36 percent. The national average is nearly 60 percent. As of Oct. 4, the date for which the most recent data are available, 135,841 children had been removed from SSI. According to SSA, between 70 and 80 percent were receiving SSI for "mental disorders," such as retardation, psychotic disorders, learning disabilities, and attention-deficit disorder. Many have already appealed, and more than half of those have been reinstated - again, at widely varying rates. …