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Joe Allen of Vermont said his disability claim was denied twice.
Joe Allen of Vermont said his disability claim was denied twice. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Reform talk passes disability program by

Page 2 of 3 -- The program has grown significantly as the baby boom population ages: About 7.5 million people receive the disability benefits, including 1.8 million dependents. The program's $71 billion per year cost is in addition to the $398 billion per year cost of retirement and survivor benefits.

While the White House says Bush is not yet focusing on the disability program, some in the disabled community worry that benefit cuts will be applied to both the retirement and disability programs as a way to save money. For example, if the retirement plan benefits are cut by tying payments from the current system of wage indexing to price indexing, as some have proposed, it is unclear whether the same cut would be applied to disability benefits.

In addition, Thomas Sutton, president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, worries that Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts could hurt people with disabilities. He gave the example of a person who is disabled at age 37 and cannot return to work. That person would receive disability benefits but under the Bush plan would not be contributing to a private account. Upon retirement, that person would not have nearly as much money in a private account as a nondisabled person.

''Those of us who are advocates for the disabled are very concerned about the impact of privatization on the disabled and the survivors of the deceased, who are about one third of the people who receive Social Security benefits," Sutton said.

If Bush is concerned about the retirement program being in crisis, he has cause to be even more alarmed about the disability system. The disability program is scheduled to start taking in less money than it pays out in 2008, compared to 2018 for the retirement program, officials said. The disability program will then start relying on its trust funds, which are slated to run out by 2029, and it might eventually draw on resources now spent on the retirement fund, potentially worsening the overall problem.

But the biggest problem with the disability system, according to critics, is that it seems designed to be inequitable. While the disability program is run by the federal government, much of the decision-making authority is handed over to state-employed workers. That may explain why only 36 percent of initial claims are approved in Connecticut, close to the national average, compared to 60 percent of those who apply in New Hampshire. Medical reviews are performed by state bureaucrats, often based on evaluations done by private consultants whose expertise varies widely.

A federal report said applicants are much more likely to get benefits in New England, which is overseen by the Boston office of the Social Security Administration, than in other parts of the country. ''The odds of being allowed benefits for claimants whose hearings took place in the Boston region were approximately two times higher than for claimants whose hearings took place in other regions," according to a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, a disparity that apparently has not received public notice until now.   Continued...

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