Published Online: January 22, 1997

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Plan To Cut Disability Benefits in the Works

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Washington

The Social Security Administration is writing a plan to cut benefits to thousands of disabled children as observers wait to see what the changes, mandated by the new federal welfare law, will mean.

The agency's plan, which President Clinton must approve, is required to describe how the government will lower the number of disabled children eligible to receive the cash payments known as Supplemental Security Income.

But Social Security officials are tight-lipped on exactly what the new eligibility rules will mean.

Reports have indicated that options range from cutting only children with mild disabilities to dropping all except the most severely disabled.

The rules, already two months overdue, will be released in the next few weeks, officials said, but they declined to comment on any details of what the agency is considering.

"We're just trying to do the right thing," said Barry Eigen, a deputy director in agency's office of disability.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that between 100,000 and 200,000 disabled children--a substantial slice of the nearly 1 million who get monthly checks averaging more than $400--would lose the benefits.

The welfare-reform law passed by Congress last year states that a child must suffer "a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations," to qualify. A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling had allowed children whose disabilities did not fit into the agency's list to qualify if individual assessments showed they were unable to perform age-appropriate activities.

To qualify for benefits, a family cannot earn more than $30,000 a year.

Congress ordered the Clinton administration to write a new interpretation of disability and to require re-evaluations of some 300,000 disabled children who qualified through the individualized screenings.

During the congressional hearings on the law, some critics charged that parents were coaching their children to fake mental illnesses to collect benefits. ("Benefits for Families of Disabled Children Retooled," March 29, 1995.)

Medicaid Reimbursements

Although they may lose cash benefits, many of the children who are cut from the SSI rolls will still qualify for Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, because of their families' low incomes, said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

No benefits will be cut until July 1. But groups representing children with disabilities warn that families may not be able to afford day-to-day expenses related to their children's disabilities.

In a letter to President Clinton last year, the National Easter Seal Society urged the administration to ensure that children with significant disabilities remain eligible so their families can continue to care for them.

"These families are comprised of honorable, honest, hard-working people with extremely limited resources who are struggling to keep their child with a significant disability at home," wrote Randall L. Rutta, the group's vice president for government affairs.

School officials will probably see only a second-hand impact from the new SSI rules, said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools. "There will be some indirect effects for education due to the circumstances the children are living under," he said.

But schools may see a loss in Medicaid reimbursements for some special education services if the disabled students also lose their health benefits, he added.

Schools are now allowed to bill Medicaid for some medically related services ordered in students' individualized education plans. Schools would still be required to provide those services.

The Department of Education will send out information explaining the new law to schools, families, and caregivers, an aide said.

But the department will not know the law's full effect on educating disabled children until the Social Security agency's final rules are released.

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