Social security presses its review of payments to disabled workers. Compassion is aim, but some should be working, agency says

American society is being more kind than it was early in the decade to 3 million of its members: disabled workers receiving social security payments. Yet advocates for the disabled are wary. More remains to be done.

As in the past, the Social Security Administration continues to review the cases to determine whether people once disabled still are. But advocates for these disabled are no longer hurling brickbats at the review process, as they did early this decade. The agency was charged then with being insensitive for suspending benefits while cases were under review. Federal law now mandates that benefits continue during review.

``It's been a relative quiet period,'' says Eileen Sweeney, a lawyer with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, but ``not for the right reasons.''

Over the past two years, she says, the Social Security Administration has been reviewing the cases of disabled beneficiaries who are the most likely to have remained disabled.

Predictably, the agency has recommended that few be required to return to work. She says the agency has only recently begun reviewing the cases of people who could be expected to improve physically and return to work. ``We just don't have a track record'' to know how compassionately the agency will handle cases.

``We want people to have due process,'' insists Social Security Administrator Dorcas Hardy. But she notes diplomatically that ``the administrative part of the whole disability process is not the easiest.'' Others call the process too long and bureaucratic; they blame the laws for this, not Miss Hardy's agency, which administers them.

On Thursday the Administrative Conference of the United States, which is charged with improving government procedures, recommended that the review process be drastically simplified. It noted that seven levels of adjudication exist before a disability case is decided.

A principal recommendation would give more personal attention to individual cases right away. That should lead to more accuracy and confidence in the decision about retaining benefits.

In addition, social security's Disability Advisory Council has just completed a report, not yet public, with its own recommendations.

One past problem was how long social security payments should continue pending appeal for recipients who are judged well enough to take a job. In the early 1980s many people were cut off, only to be restored upon appeal. For the past five years federal law has decreed that the payments should continue through the second stage of the appeal process, by which time most cases are settled. But that law expires Dec. 31; if it is not renewed, payments must be cut off after three months. That isn't enough time, says Hardy. ``I can't guarantee'' completion.

She is therefore one of the backers of an effort to extend the law. One proposal has unanimously passed the Senate; a similar one passed the House, but as part of a different bill. Senate and House must approve the same bill, whichever one they choose. Most observers here think they will.

Laurel Beedon, a policy analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons, is not reassured. As a former social security employee, she is concerned that there will be ``too quick an analysis'' of disability cases.

She is concerned, too, about the impact of social security's drive to improve employee productivity. Most people report being compassionately treated by social security employees (although not by some physicians). But as staff cuts occur, Ms. Beedon says, ``I fear ... the poor staffers will be so pressed that they won't be able to do the [quality] of the job that social security has been known for.''

Hardy says compassion and careful treatment will continue. But she wants to return to work people whose disability no longer exists. She identifies their basic problems in obtaining work as: ``probably not getting the right training, assuming retraining is needed. A lack of incentive. As well as a problem of what is the right job.''

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