Richard Kage had to die to prove to the Social Security Administration that he was realy sick.
Two doctors, who had treated him for years for a variety of ailments, had certified his disability, but Social Security cut off his benefits after a 15-minute examination by a staff ophthamologist, who said Kage was not "a total cripple."
Kage's widow, a round, mild, low-voiced woman named Ethel, came from Reed City, Mich., to tell her husband's story to a Senate subcommittee Tuesday. Kage was a casualty of a 1980 law that requires review of disability cases.
Congress recommended a two-year delay in starting the sweep, but budget director David A. Stockman counseled immediate action for quick savings. Fifth percent of those questioned appealed their cases, and 67 percent of them won. The benefits to the budget are not known. Ethel Kage recounted the human cost.
If the grisly weeding process continues, about 250,000 Americans will be put through the wringer that Richard Kage did not survive. While under review, their payments will be withheld. They are more or less assumed to be cheats until they can prove otherwise. It is part of the continuing assault on Social Security and one of the most anguishing, although not always fatal, ways of making Social Security recipients one of the most insecure elements in our society.
Said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.): "None of us want folks on the rolls who do not belong there. But we want people on the rolls who do belong there with equal passion."
The panel of Social Security officials who testified ahead of Mrs. Kage exhibited no passion, except for saying nothing that was clear, humane or sensible. They never see the people who suffer their judgments. They are numbers. Only records are consulted.
The Kages never met anybody from Social Security face to face. They met brutal indifference, inefficiency and lies.
In April, 1981, Richard Kage, who had been receiving $459.80 in monthly disability payments since 1974, received a continuing disability investigation notice and, some weeks later, notice of an appointment with a Social Security staff doctor.
After a 15-minute examination, the doctor reported that while the patient was "blind for all practical purposes . . . the presence of central vision in his right eye gives him some reprieve from being a total cripple."
Kage had been a diabetic from the age of 12, his widow told the subcommittee. He suffered eye hemorrhages. A stroke had left him with tunnel vision. He wanted to work, Mrs. Kage said, but he couldn't even walk without someone supporting him on either side.
But on May 14 last year, Kage was informed of "pending cessation of benefits" and told that the decision was based on reports from his own doctors.
Actually, both of his doctors had written letters to Social Security attesting that he was "in no condition for employment." On July 30, the Kages were notified that his benefits were terminated "effective that date."
In August, Ethel Kage wrote asking for reconsideration. In October, she called the regional office to find out the status of her appeal. The voice on the telephone said she would call back, but never did. Three weeks later, Ethel Kage called again, and the voice said her husband's records had not come from Baltimore where they were "tied up in the computer."
"All this time, we had been without any income," she said stoically.
She went to work as a secretary at the local high school. Her husband, having been officially notified that he was able-bodied, found a job of sorts as a caretaker in the cemetery. He developed gangrene in a toe and was hospitalized.
On Nov. 5, Ethel Kage sent an SOS to Levin.
Levin has in his files a copy of an internal Social Security memo dated Oct. 1, written by a disability examiner at Baltimore headquarters and saying of Kage, "Initial cessation appears shaky to me."
Levin's intervention resulted in another notice of "disability determination" and a new appointment with the doctor who had found Kage "not a total cripple."
On Nov. 27, Kage had a heart attack and died.
"I called the district office," Ethel Kage told the senators in a remarkably steady voice, "to say that Dick would not keep his appointment, that he had died. The woman didn't say anything."
Apparently, the death meant that another file could be closed.
Richard Kage's doctor of 18 years, Keats V. Vining of Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote a letter that should be framed and hung on the walls of the Disability Determination Section:
"This is probably the greatest example of a miscarraige of a disability determination, by a bureaucracy that can't possibly function in an honest and ethical fashion . . . This service is a disastrous failure."