HEALTH AND HUMAN Services Secretary Margaret Heckler has acknowledged that the administration's fast-paced review of Social Security disability cases has resulted in "hardships and heartbreaks" for deserving people who had their benefits interrupted during the last two years. That may provide satisfaction to the victims, or at least to those whose benefits were restored. But the new procedures Mrs. Heckler now proposes for reviewing cases are not likely to head off congressional critics who want more substantial reforms. And they don't address the larger question of whether the law sets too harsh a standard of disability.
The administration plans to exempt from review people over age 55 with circulatory or lung disorders, people with a very low IQ as well as a physical disorder and, temporarily, those with severe psychotic disorders. The fact that people in these conditions were previously being suspended from the rolls suggests the harshness of the review procedures.
Other improvements include granting people a brief face-to-face meeting with administrators before their benefits are cut off, and reviewing state decisions to deny benefits (now only benefit continuations are reviewed). But the department is not ready to assume responsibility for proving that a person's disability has diminished before ending benefits, and it wants to end the current requirement that benefits be continued during appeals. Nor does it want public review of its internal guidelines for determining disability in borderline cases.
Bills being sponsored by Sens. John Heinz, Carl Levin and William S. Cohen would force HHS to adopt these further procedural reforms. But even these measures skirt the question of how tough the standard of disability should be. The current law is very strict--people aren't supposed to qualify if they could conceivably perform any job in the economy, whether or not the job is likely to be offered to them.
Congress wrote the law strictly because experience with private insurance and other disability plans showed that it was hard to keep such programs under control. Even so, disability rolls swelled in the early 1970s, prompting Congress to tighten eligibility further. No one knows what part of this expansion was caused by laxer administration, changed attitudes among the disabled or fewer work opportunities for people with impairments. No one knows now whether loosening the rules would set off another explosion in the rolls. Congress needs to study these questions in deciding just how the nation meets its obligations to the physically and mentally disabled.