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Immediate Action Now Can Affect Outcome in Congress


July 1994

1. Drug Treatment

Congress May Restrict Welfare and Disability for Addicts to 36-Month Limit

Both Houses of Congress have voted to limit to 36 months the period of time a person can receive disability payments from Social Security if their disability is based on alcoholism or drug addiction. (Spencer Rich, "Congress Planning Cutoff for Addicts on Disability Rolls," Washington Post, 6/20/94, A1). The new legislation, contained in the Social Security Administrative Reform Act of 1994, is currently in House-Senate conference where the final version will be decided on.

Under current law, addicts and alcoholics can receive benefits if their addiction is so severe that they are incapable of employment for at least a year or if their addiction could result in their death.

The authors of the new legislation, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) and Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D- WI) were motivated by sensational reports that thousands of addicts and alcoholics - nobody is sure how many - use the money to purchase alcohol and drugs and are not seeking treatment while on disability rolls. The Clinton administration supports the plan and proposes using any savings to help fund its new welfare plan for mothers and children.

The plan, however, is misguided. "It is a challenge to the notion that alcoholism and drug dependence are disabilities," said Susan Galbraith of the Legal Action Center, a public interest law group. "An arbitrary time limit doesn't fix the problems" of alcoholics and drug addicts, she told the Washington Post.

Joe Manes of the Bazelon Mental Health Law Center called the automatic cutoff "quite vindictive" and said it signals "that if you can't get cured in three years, we've lost interest in you."

Critics of the legislation don't object to plans to place all recipients in treatment programs and to make sure that those disabled from substance abuse take treatment seriously. They are opposed to the plan because it will cut off benefits to addicts after 36 months, even if no treatment was available. This can be changed in conference. Advocates and the Administration are proposing that the 36 month time limit would begin when an individual enters treatment.

"The unconditional cutoff does not make a great deal of sense," said psychiatrist Roger Emil Meyer, executive dean and vice president for medical affairs of George Washington University Medical Center. "You're talking about disorders that are chronic relapsing disorders" that often require treatment for longer than three years before they can be brought under control, he said. Critics also attack the cutoff for cutting off treatment, even if the individual is making progress.

Cohen's aides say experts have told them that three years of treatment should be enough time to rehabilitate addicts. Kleczka said that a time limit for benefits might help people focus on rehabilitation by eliminating the chance to abuse the system indefinitely.

One issue that remains unaddressed is what will happen to addicts who can't find employment. Some might be able to be readmitted to the rolls of the disabled under another diagnosis, such as mental illness, but others will return to the streets penniless.

[Editor's Note -- The Senate and House are currently in conference on the Social Security Administrative Reform Act of 1994. If you wish to encourage the conferees to continue to treat drug abuse and alcoholism as disabilities, and to cutoff disability payments only after treatment, you should consider writing or calling the conferees and your own representatives in Congress.

The Senate Conferees are Senator Moynihan (D-NY), Baucus (D-MT), Breaux (D-LA), Packwood (R- OR), and Dole (R-KS) -- U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510 (Tel 202-224-3121).

The House conferees are Representatives Gibbons (D-FL), Rostenkowski (D-IL), Pickle (D-TX), Ford (D-TN), Jacobs (D-IN), Archer (R-TX), Bunning (R-KY), and Santorum (R-PA) -- U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515 (Tel 202-225-3121).]

2. Crime Bill

Retroactive "Safety Valve" for Mandatory Minimum Sentences Included in House Version of the Crime Bill

Both the Senate and the House have created provisions in the Crime Bill to allow Judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. However, only the House voted to make the new rules retroactive, which could result in the release of between 1,600 and 4,000 inmates. Senate-House conferees will decide what provision will be included in the final legislation.

An editorial in The New York Times urged passage of the retroactive "safety valve" observing that many minor offenders occupy prison space needed for more dangerous criminal offenders. Prison overcrowding forces new prison construction, taking away dollars for police and crime prevention. By releasing some low-level offenders some of the needless prison overcrowding will be alleviated, says The Times. Notable among the supporters of retroactivity are the very conservative Representatives Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Attorney General Janet Reno initially supported retroactivity, however, she has not remained vocal on the issue. (Editorial, "Smarter and Fairer About Drug Crime," New York Times 6/26/94)."

[Editor's Note -- If you wish to comment on the importance of the retroactivity of the mandatory minimum "safety valve" in the final crime bill, contact:

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