By Mike McGraw
Do you ever feel like getting all your rent and utility and credit card and other bills paid on the right schedule is a full-time job on top of the full-time job you work to have the money to pay those bills?
Now imagine those amongst us with intellectual disabilities severe enough to impair their abilities to manage the modest funds that our society sees fit to send them in the form of Social Security benefits. It's for that reason that Congress in 1939 amended the 1935 Social Security Act to create the representative payee system. A payee is a person or entity who is entrusted to manage the beneficiaries’ resources and specifically their finances for them.
Payees and beneficiaries may live in your neighborhood; maybe you know that you know someone in such a relationship or maybe you don't realize; maybe you are someone who performs payee duties well.
When an organization called Consumer Protection Association closed its doors in Cleveland about a year ago, many disabled beneficiaries for whom it acted as a coordinator of payee services had their lives thrown into disarray. Advocates for disabled persons and those experiencing homelessness told me that they are familiar with many other cases where problems with payees' management of benefits caused beneficiaries to fall into situations as dire as homelessness. While some of these situations may rise to the level of criminality on the part of unscrupulous payees, it's also easy to image well-intentioned family members overwhelmed by their own lives struggling and falling short of doing what is needed for a related beneficiary, especially if the payee has to live far away, and so on.
Rutgers University law school professor Reid Weisbord published a law review article calling for the payee system to incorporate a reform allowing for a concerned family member of beneficiaries to adopt an advisory role with the ability to prod payees to provide basic necessities to the beneficiary without becoming the payee themselves. When I reached attorney Kristen Henry of Columbus-based Disability Rights Ohio by telephone in early November, she called Weisbord's ideas "a great idea for a lot of reasons", while allowing that it might be called "authorized representative" in order to expand its eligibility to concerned persons not related to the beneficiary. Henry said that a "model" for this kind of relationship already exists in other federal programs like Medicaid and she said it works well.
An advocate for those experiencing homelessness in encouraging me to research this article pushed further towards an idea of having the law actually compel the payees to set aside enough of a share of a person's benefits to allow for decent housing before doing anything else. This idea seems to tie into a concept of a human right to housing, and seems to be consistent with recent trends in the homelessness and addiction treatment communities to put "housing first" in all their matters.
When I tested this idea with Bill Denihan -- who as head of Cuyahoga County ADAMHS Board has far-reaching interaction with disabled beneficiaries and their payees – during an October interview at the ADAMHS offices, he called it a "broad-brush call" and was sensitive to the autonomy of beneficiaries in saying that "since we're talking about their money, it would have to be a movement that came from them, not from us."
Henry, while seeming favorable to the mandate concept in principle, said it would be "a little more difficult to operationalize", bringing in the valid point that it would be hard to generalize what share of various beneficiaries’ benefits would need to go to housing when different individuals would have different levels of access to programs like Section 8 subsidies, or perhaps some would and some wouldn't have relatives to live with -- not to mention, as I interjected, widely different levels of rent levels in different areas of the U.S. Henry did allow that without necessarily mandating dollar amounts, reform could “introduce rules about reporting about addressing these primary concerns first."
I wrapped up the interview with Henry by trying to get a sense of whether making any of the above reforms would require new legislation from Congress. She thought that it was possible that the family/authorized representative idea might be something that the Social Security Administration could enact through its own rule-making authority even without new legislation.
Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle March 2017 Issue 24#1