A federal judge yesterday temporarily blocked the Social Security Administration from cutting off welfare benefits to people who refuse to turn over their income tax records.
In an effort to find ineligible recipients, the agency sent notices last month to approximately 4 million elderly, blind and disabled people who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits. The notices said recipients would have to sign a waiver of confidentiality of their Internal Revenue Service records or lose their benefits, which can run up to $265 a month.
Lawyers from the National Senior Citizens Law Center and other groups sued, arguing that the notices violated the recipients' rights to privacy and due process and that Health and Human Resources Secretary Richard S. Schweicker did not have the power to demand confidential IRS information.
Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, in a one-page temporary restraining order, said the agency could not obtain any information from the IRS, even from those recipients who signed the waivers, and could not suspend payments to anyone who failed to sign the authorization form.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mitchell R. Berger said the agency would notify its local offices of Gesell's ruling and that it would file a motion soon to dismiss the suit.
In a brief hearing Monday, Berger said the agency was required by law to verify whether recipients were eligible and added that the agency would give anyone who refused to sign the waiver 60 days' notice before cutting off their benefits.
The agency is trying to weed out about 88,000 recipients it believes are ineligible for the benefits, which, unlike Social Security payments, are determined on the basis of need. Those 88,000 persons received about $140 million in payments last year.