Review Ordered on Cutoff of Disability Aid to Children
By Barbara Vobejda
In announcing the decision, Social Security Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel said he had found that some state officials had erred in implementing a controversial provision of the 1996 welfare law, a process that has cut off benefits to 135,000 children. Families of those children and advocacy groups have complained bitterly that government agencies have unfairly denied assistance to many of these children, whose parents depend on the funds to help pay for care.
Apfel said his agency would review the cases of 45,000 disabled children to determine if their benefits should be restored, regardless of whether their families have chosen to appeal the loss of aid.
He also said the government would notify at least 75,000 families whose children had lost benefits that they could challenge those decisions even if their 60-day appeal period had expired.
At the end of these reviews, Apfel predicted, the number of children expected to lose disability benefits is likely to be about 100,000, a third lower than the 135,000 figure the agency has been citing since February.
"Our review found that overall, the Social Security Administration and the states did a good job in the implementation of the childhood disability provisions of the law," Apfel said. "But we did find problems with the manner in which certain redeterminations were made."
As a result of those problems, Apfel said, the agency would on its own initiative review all the cases of children diagnosed as mentally retarded who had lost benefits. He has also instructed officials to review cases in states where spot checks have shown high rates of error in the decision-making process.
The matter stems from congressional action last year to tighten eligibility to the Supplemental Security Income program for disabled children, which has provided a monthly cash benefit to the families of about 1 million children. The benefit, which averages $436 a month, can be used to help pay for medical care, equipment, therapy or to allow a parent to stay home and care for the child.
The program was tightened after some members of Congress argued it had grown too fast and was providing aid to some children with minor problems.
Advocates for the disabled praised Apfel's decision yesterday.
"He has taken serious and important steps to remedy the problems" said Marty Ford, assistant director for governmental affairs at The Arc, a national advocacy organization focusing on mental retardation.
Jerome J. Shestack, president of the American Bar Association, called Apfel's decision a "significant step toward justice and due process." The ABA has organized a network of thousands of pro bono lawyers to help families with appeals.
Apfel said yesterday his agency will inform families of the availability of that legal assistance.
But Apfel's announcement does not close the book on the bitter controversy over whether so many disabled children should be losing federal aid.
Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who chairs the Finance subcommittee on Social Security and family policy, said he will hold hearings on the matter next year. "I still firmly believe the SSA went too far, too fast, with their regulations and has terminated many more children than Congress ever originally intended," Chafee said in a statement.
Advocacy groups also repeated their complaint that the Clinton administration was using an overly strict interpretation of the law and said they would continue to push Apfel to revise those regulations.
The result of the law has been to push off the rolls primarily children suffering from learning disabilities and emotional problems. But Apfel said he was also concerned about whether mentally retarded children were being denied assistance unfairly. Of the 80,000 mentally retarded children whose cases were reviewed over the past year, about half lost benefits.
Apfel said state officials will receive more training on how to determine which children should be allowed to retain SSI benefits.
The agency review found that the District of Columbia had a higher rate of error than any state, at nearly 19 percent of the cases reviewed by federal officials. And Maryland, at about 11 percent, was fifth highest among the states. Virginia's error rate, at about 5 percent, ranked about midway among the states. The reviews will begin in February and continue through next summer, Apfel said.
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