Social Security benefits end for alcohol, drug abusers
Many critics fear addicts will relapseJanuary 1, 1997
Web posted at: 9:00p.m. EST
From Reporter Joan Drummond
CHICAGO (CNN) -- The Social Security system is undergoing some changes as the new year begins. As of Wednesday, the federal government no longer will consider drug and alcohol addictions as disabilities.
The move is expected to save the government more than $8 billion over six years. Congress decided to remove alcoholics' eligibility after hearing horror stories about how some alcohol abusers use government checks to buy liquor.
As a result, people whose only disability is substance abuse are losing their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks, and some critics worry that people who need help to beat their addictions will relapse.
David Ellington leads a Chicago support group for people struggling to change their lives. Among them are many alcoholics and drug addicts. Unless they have filed appeals, this is the first week they will not receive their SSI check.
Next month, they lose their medical benefits.
"Without SSI, I don't know if I'm going to have a subsidized apartment or what is going to happen for the future," Ellington said. And yet, he considers himself lucky. He's already completed treatment, and is looking for a job.
Neil Blaney is not so lucky. The recovering heroin addict expects to be cut off from his methadone program shortly.
"I don't have anything at all, no income at all," he said. "They're probably going to start detoxing me in the next four, five weeks."
Social Security Administration officials say they are trying to direct people who are losing their benefits to services available in their communities.
Barbara Otto of the SSI Coalition for a Responsible Safety Net said the burden essentially is being shifted from the federal level to the states, and state-level assistance agencies are often hard-put to absorb people the federal government has turned away.
She gets 15 to 20 calls a day from drug abusers who are losing their federal support net. One woman her Chicago group is trying to help, Linda Weisz, is a recovering alcoholic and also has asthma, emphysema, back and heart ailments.
Weisz worries that her ailments are not serious enough to qualify her for the SSI disability benefits she received as an alcoholic.
"The concern is about surgery I will need," she said. "That will lay me up for a while. If I'm not able to pay my rent, then I have two problems, because I'm going to be sick and try to recuperate with nowhere to go."
As charities and food pantries prepare for an influx of clients, former SSI recipients like Weisz say they face a dual challenge: to find a new way to pay their bills, and stay clean and sober.
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