Backtracking on benefit cuts

If any federal agency in Washington can be considered a likely place for high drama, it would have to be the US Social Security Administration. Not so long ago, you will recall, there was much concern about the financial solvency of social security. Finally, thanks to the work of a national commission and subsequent action by Congress earlier this year, legislation was enacted that ensured the system's financial stability for the next 75 years.

So, guess what's back in the news again? Social security. And the questions involved are as complicated as ever.

At issue is the extent to which the social security system should be making monthly payments to disabled Americans. Currently some 3.9 million persons receive disability benefits costing $16 billion annually. That outlay is expected to reach over $20 billion in another four years, with future payouts climbing annually.

Clouding the issue is the fact many of the persons getting benefits are reportedly able to work. A General Accounting Office study, released in early 1981, suggested that a whopping 20 percent of all persons on disability rolls should not be there in the first place.

Since initiating a review of claimants in mid-1981, social security officials have notified some 350,000 persons that they would lose benefits. Because of public and congressional outcry, as well as judicial intervention, many of those persons have had their benefits restored. Just this past week an appeals court directed the government to notify 78,000 people in the Western US that they can reapply for monthly disability checks.

Obviously what is needed is a policy that strikes a careful and fair balance to ensure that benefits are not cut off to persons who are qualified - yet are quickly ended for those individuals who abuse the disability program. Unfortunately there is evidence that in its haste to go after the cheaters, social security officials may have used a meat-ax approach and slashed checks for many persons actually deserving payments.

In June, Margaret Heckler, the new secretary of health and human services, announced policy changes that eased criteria used to determine disability claims. Although the changes did not go as far as some lawmakers had sought, they had the effect of restoring many of the policies that existed before the present administration took office. What they did not do was change policies under which disability claimants would be examined at least once every three years.

HHS and social security officials need to get their act together on the disability issue. That means ensuring that the department's administrative law judges are allowed to conduct inquiries free of department pressure. Some lawmakers have complained that department officials have ''leaned'' on administrative judges to ensure that decisions are favorable to the Social Security Administration.

Yes, go after the cheaters. But not at the expense of those persons who legitimately qualify for benefits.

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