Trimming the disability roster

PERHAPS it is because the announcement comes now -- at a season of the year when attention turns to the needs of the destitute and the unfortunate -- that the federal government's decision to begin a new review of persons receiving federal disability benefits may seem somewhat churlish. Indeed, criticism is already being expressed by lawyers and interest groups representing the 2.6 million people on United States social security disability rolls. Surely Washington -- and that means primarily the Reagan administration, although Congress is also involved -- should avoid a repetition of the abuses associated with its most recent review of disability rosters, between 1981 and 1984. That review came to a halt in 1984 after strong public condemnation, including a score of successful court challenges brought against the government.

The criticisms that were made of the earlier review were amply justified. Evidence was widespread that many decisions to drop individuals from receiving disability payments were based on careless analysis and capricious reasoning. Moreover, the review reflected an insensitivity that little becomes a nation which, historically, has sought to provide for those who are momentarily unable to join in the nation's larger drive toward economic or social progress. Of the 491,000 people told that they would not receive disability payments during the earlier review process (out of a total of 1.2 million cases reviewed), 291,000 were eventually restored to payment rolls after an appeal.

Some 200,000 were dropped from the disability rolls; of these, many would have come off the rolls in due course, and the cases of others are still pending.

What needs to be kept in careful focus now by the White House and the Social Security Administration, as a review begins again in January, is that nothing should stand in the way of an orderly and fair legal process. What is involved here is primarily a public-policy issue. In the earlier inquiry, unfortunately, a considerable amount of ideological fervor became embedded in the discussion -- a view that support programs are filled with the undeserving.

Washington has a responsibility to ensure that no one abuses the disability program. That was why Congress, back in 1980 during the Carter administration, first called for a review of the disability rosters. And it is why a continuing review, under careful legal safeguards, seems appropriate now.

But such a review should be undertaken with the tact, fairness, and genuine regard for the concerns of the individuals involved -- the overwhelming number of whom would work if they could find the opportunity to so. As the federal budget outcome the past year or so has shown, the American public, for all its proper regard for economy and prudent management in government, also cares deeply about maintaining the integrity of safety net programs designed to help fellow citizens in genuine need.

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