Abell Salutes: Homeless Persons Representation Project

July 1997 / Salutes / Health and Human Services

“We just wanted to make sure these people [at needle exchange sites and soup kitchens] got a fair shake.”

Through a successful class action lawsuit supported by a grant of $103,000 from The Abell Foundation, hundreds of Maryland residents will have their federal disability and medical assistance benefits reinstated. These benefits were terminated in January because they had been awarded to people with alcohol or drug-related disabilities. The lawsuit, filed by the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) was settled in U.S. District Court on January 7, 1997. The settlement orders the Social Security Administration to reexamine the cases of 850 disabled Marylanders.

Under the Contract With America Advancement Act of 1996, beneficiaries of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs were terminated from cash and medical assistance effective 1/1/97 if their addiction was a “contributing factor material to their disability.” The legislation, however, denied those cut off the opportunity to appeal, and to have their benefits continued if they showed the existence of other disabling conditions unrelated to their addiction.

Approximately 2,441 Marylanders received cutoff notices because of the legislative change, and 1,445 appealed. To date, claimants in Maryland have won almost 50% of their appeals. Over 100 of them have been
represented by HPRP, a non-profit legal services organization. In the lawsuit filed on 12/31/96, HPRP alleged that the Social Security Administration unlawfully implemented a Congressional directive to terminate benefits to persons with addictions, and that SSA’s illegal acts included failure to take into account prior medical histories when processing appeals of the cutoffs.

The class action settlement provides that 850 SSDI beneficiaries who failed in their appeal decision will have their cases reexamined. Those who filed their appeals by July 19, 1996—a Congressionally-set deadline for expedited processing—will have their benefits reinstated until the case re-examinations are completed. Back payments for January, February, and March will be included.

Through funding provided by The Abell Foundation, HPRP sent law students and attorneys to needle exchange sites and soup kitchens looking for clients. “The Congressional Budget Office predicted that 75% of these people had other disabling conditions that would keep them eligible,” said Project Director Peter Sabonis.

“We just wanted to make sure they got a fair shake. Neither Baltimore nor the state can afford to be saddled with the mistakes of government.”

In pursuing the appeals of over 100 individual claimants, HPRP discovered that SSA failed to apply a key U.S. Court of Appeals case which required review of past Social Security disability determinations in making eligibility re-determinations. Many of these old decisions, according to HPRP, contained evidence of other conditions that were disabling. SSA reviewed the old files in only 640 of the 1,445 cases for which an appeal was sought.

“The old decisions revealed conditions like low IQs, AIDS, and extensive psychiatric histories which on their own, or combined with current problems, made these folks disabled,” said Sowebo Center of Justice attorney David Walsh-Little, who also represented the plaintiffs. “We were appalled that Social Security had no interest in reviewing them.”

HPRP attorney Dianne Pasternak noted that the settlement will benefit all Marylanders, not just the plaintiffs. “At the trial, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services cited the direct relationship
between the number of complaints the City gets about homeless people from the business community and the level of assistance government provides. Abandoning these vulnerable Marylanders is in no one’s interest.”

The Abell Foundation salutes the Homeless Persons Representation Project for its compassion and its activism in taking up the burden of the poor and the disenfranchised.