Officials in Massachusetts and New York and spokesmen for the disabled charged yesterday that new Social Security disability regulations would subvert a 1984 law intended to make it harder to remove people from the disability rolls.
"In my opinion, the situation remains disastrous," New York Attorney General Robert Abrams told the House Ways and Means subcommittee on social security and its new chairman, James R. Jones (D-Okla.).
Philip W. Johnston, representing Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), said, "Sadly, we are now faced with a set of proposals that threaten again to terminate truly disabled people from the Social Security rolls."
Protests also came from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); former health, education and welfare secretary Arthur S. Flemming, representing the Save Our Security Coalition; Eileen Sweeney, on behalf of the Alliance for Social Security Disability Recipients, and several others.
However, acting Social Security commissioner Martha A. McSteen said she thought that the regulations were an honest attempt to carry out the law and promised to consider the specifics of the criticism before making them final.
One provision of the law permits removal from the disability rolls only if medical improvement in a person's condition can be shown. By requiring reviewers to determine whether a person is eligible under current disability standards before checking whether there has been medical improvement since the person got on the rolls. The Witnesses contended that the regulations would undermine this requirement: By defining exemptions too broadly. critics said an examiner who concluded that a person might be able to work under current disability standards, even if not under the standards of the time he or she went on the rolls, probably would be prejudiced by that finding and illegally ignore the requirement that medical improvement be shown. By defining medical improvement not in medical terms but as an increase in functional capacity to work. On this point, McSteen's deputy, Pat Owens, was able to mollify the critics by explaining that the language is intended to mean that even where medical improvement is shown, it would not be sufficient to remove a person from the rolls unless functional capacity to work also has improved.
Also criticized was the Social Security Administration's recent decision to apply federal circuit court rulings on any Social Security case to not only the individuals involved in a specific ruling, but to any similar case in the circuit if it is appealed to an administrative law judge. Witnesses said a real policy of compliance with court rulings would apply to all the related cases, not just those in which an appeal was made.
The 1984 law was passed after reviews of the cases of 1.2 million disability recipients between 1981 and 1984 to determine whether they were still eligible. The reviews brought charges of unfairness and procedural bias, and ended with 491,307 people being removed, 291,000 of whom were restored to the rolls on appeal. Removal of people from the rolls, suspended a year ago to await passage of the law and drafting of the regulations, is expected to resume next month.