PRESIDENT REAGAN has reacted with characteristic sympathy to the news that a veteran awarded the Medal of Honor by him two years ago has been ordered off the Social Security disability rolls. Equally characteristic was the White House denial of any culpability in the matter. "It's not our fault," protested White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, noting that Congress ordered a review of disability rolls at the end of the Carter administration.
It is true that Congress, moved by reports and studies showing substantial malingering on the disability rolls, ordered a thorough review of continuing cases in 1980. But the Reagan administration, which has also proposed changing the disability law to tighten eligibility standards, has conducted the review with extraordinary vigor since it began in March 1981.
The review has brought a chorus of complaints from beneficiaries, claims reviewers and administrative law judges who argue that the administration has forced reviewers to process claims too quickly to permit thorough examination of cases, and has put pressure on reviewers to deny benefits in most cases. The administration denies that its procedures are faulty, but the fact that a third of those dropped from the rolls in the first year had their benefits reinstated on appeal suggests that the review process needs revision.
Stories of the hardships--including several suicides--produced by the abrupt termination of benefits led Congress last year to change the law. Now recipients can continue receiving benefits while their cases are being appealed, although the extra benefits must be repaid if the appeal is subsequently denied. The Vietnam War hero, Roy P. Benavidez, says that he has filed an appeal, but the outcome in his case is still uncertain.
That's because the Social Security law has very strict rules about what constitutes a disability sufficient to warrant continuing benefits. To qualify, people must have disabilities so severe as to bar them from taking work of any kind for which they would be reasonably qualified, even if no jobs of that type are available. Those are very tight rules, especially for middle-aged claimants cast into a job market in which there are already 11 million able- bodied job-seekers.
On the other hand, experience during the early 1970s demonstrated that if the rules are more lightly enforced with respect to likelihood of reemployment, the disability claims--which have declined in recent years--will again start growing very rapidly. That's something that the administration clearly doesn't want.
The White House is obviously anxious to do something to help Mr. Benavidez. That's commendable. But it should remember that whatever action it decides to take should be applied equally to all the many other people who now find themselves in the same predicament.