- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

A major welfare program for disabled and elderly persons has been removed from a federal "high risk" list for fraud and abuse, a watchdog agency said yesterday.

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is no longer designated as high risk, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said yesterday, citing efforts by federal managers to improve the program's financial integrity.

However, the Social Security Administration, which runs SSI, "must completely implement the reforms it has undertaken … to simplify the program's complex policies," the GAO said in its report, which was one of several performance reports on federal programs released yesterday.

Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, said getting SSI off the high-risk list "marks an important day for taxpayers and those who depend" on the program.

In 2001, the federal SSI program had 6.8 million recipients at a cost of $33 billion. The program pays monthly checks of $552 to individuals and $829 to couples who are poor, disabled and/or elderly. SSI recipients also receive Medicaid and food stamps.

Members of Congress became alarmed about SSI in the mid-1990s when they learned that the program was exploding in growth, primarily because of enrollment by immigrants.

In addition, alcoholics and drug addicts were receiving SSI checks because their addictions were considered disabilities, prisoners were receiving SSI checks because there was no mechanism to stop them, and, in rare cases, children were being coached to mimic mental or behavioral disorders so they could get so-called "crazy checks" from SSI.

In the 1996 welfare-reform law, Congress changed SSI eligibility rules to exclude immigrants from the program, exclude addiction as an SSI-eligible category by itself and require children to meet stricter definitions of disability. A program was also set up to prevent prisoners and fugitive felons from collecting SSI.

The GAO designated SSI as a high-risk program in 1997.

Since then, SSA has worked to implement anti-fraud policies. Already $500 million a year is being saved by not sending SSI to prisoners, a SSA official told Mr. Herger's committee in July.

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