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Panel Urges Tighter Eligibility Requirements for Disability Aid

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Washington

The bipartisan National Commission on Childhood Disability issued a report last week that recommends tightening eligibility requirements for the part of the Supplemental Security Income program that serves disabled children, but criticizes pending legislation that would virtually dismantle it.

The $4.5 billion program, which provides cash and other benefits to 900,000 disabled children and their families, has been the target of widely publicized charges of fraud and abuse. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

Former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., the chairman of the Congressionally mandated commission, said in an interview last week that a small number of problem cases should not be allowed to jeopardize a program that fills a critical need.

"If the House version was ultimately passed, it would end benefits to tens of thousands of families," said Mr. Slattery, who hopes the 43-page report will serve as a blueprint for retooling S.S.I.

In its sweeping welfare-reform bill, which passed in March, the House proposed eliminating cash benefits for all but those S.S.I. recipients who would otherwise require institutionalization. The House bill would also tighten eligibility requirements for children participating in the S.S.I. program by changing the way in which disability claims filed on behalf of children are evaluated.

The Senate Finance Committee's welfare-reform bill, which passed in May, did not include the same strict limits on cash payments to children, but it would impose similar restrictions on eligibility. (See Education Week, 5/31/95.)

While members of the bipartisan commission--which includes academics, childrens' advocates, and politicians--were divided on precisely how to alter the current procedure, they agreed that eligibility standards must be made tighter and more specific, so as to insure that only children with severe disabilities would qualify for benefits.

In particular, the commission said, the rules should be changed to keep children with behavioral problems off the S.S.I. rolls.

Children with moderate disabilities should be eligible only for Medicaid, the federal health-insurance for the poor, the report suggested.

Eligibility the Key

If such changes were made, the panel argued, there would be no need to eliminate cash benefits, and the report strongly recommends retaining them.

The commission even suggested that S.S.I. recipients could benefit from a modest boost in funding. Currently, the family of a disabled child can receive up to $458 per month.

The report also recommends that new rules:

Increase the amount of money that siblings of disabled children can earn without disqualifying the family for benefits.
Require periodic evaluations of children's medical status, especially in cases where improvement is likely.
Require families to spend S.S.I. funds only on meeting the disabled child's needs.
Reduce benefits paid to families with multiple children who receive S.S.I. payments.

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