Rehabilitation agency chief testifies before House panel
By Alan Bernstein
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
The Texas Rehabilitation Commission’s chief told state lawmakers Wednesday that he is working to change the state’s status as the least likely place in the nation for sick and injured people to be approved for Social Security disability insurance payments.
“We are hoping to move up to the national average,” said Vernon M. “Max” Arrell, commissioner of the agency, which makes the initial decision on whether the benefits should be paid.
But an agency spokesman said it is too early to come up with any plans to reform the Texas disability application process.
Arrell spoke to the Texas House Appropriations Committee, which favors state Rep. Garnet Coleman’s amendment that requires the commission to report every three months about its disability approval rates and how they compare with rates in other states and the nation.
Coleman, D-Houston, said he added the reporting requirement in response to a Houston Chronicle series of articles about obstacles facing the 7,000 people every year in Southeast Texas who seek the benefits. He had already filed an amendment that would require such reporting in a similar program for low-income Texans.
In the year period that ended in September, Texas granted 31 percent of applications for disability benefits, lowest in the nation and well below the national average of 45 percent, according to the Social Security Advisory Board. People who appeal their decision after being denied by the state agency get a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge. The 15 judges in the Houston area grant appeals less often than their counterparts across the state and the nation, the Chronicle reported.
The advisory board, created by Congress to monitor the Social Security Administration, said there is no single explanation for why the national program is interpreted so differently across the country.
Arrell presented slightly different figures Wednesday about the rate at which his agency approves the initial applications.
He said the Rehabilitation Commission granted 29 percent of the applications as of September, and that figure has risen to 34.1 percent, virtually even with the 33.9 percent rate in the five-state region.
He said he is consulting with the Social Security Administration and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, a member of the House Subcommittee on Social Security, about ways to raise the rate.
Rehabilitation Commission spokesman Glenn Neal said any changes must wait until the agency finds the reasons for its low national rank.
“We don’t have an answer just yet,” he said.
Coleman said the answer may lie in how the agency decides whether people are disabled.
In states where the approval rates are high, he pointed out, most of the decisions are based on whether people can perform the jobs for which they are trained. But in Texas and other nearby states, he said, more than half the decisions are based on whether people are generally disabled by their medical conditions. The difference between the “vocational test” and the “medical test” may explain the gap between state approval rates, he said.
“The trend (in other states) has been … looking at the whole person” and not just their medical records, Coleman added.
Dave Ward, deputy commissioner of the Rehabilitation Commission, told Coleman the agency tries to take both factors into account.
The Social Security Administration has said Texas has a low approval rate because it has a high number of people in injury-prone, blue-collar jobs who are unfamiliar with disability rules.
Coleman expressed doubts about the explanation.
“I think it requires a little more looking into,” he said.
He also emphasized that disability insurance benefits are not a welfare program because people apply based on how much they paid into the Social Security system through payroll taxes.
The average monthly payment for disability benefits is $755.
Four U.S. House members say they will press the Social Security Administration to explain the state approval rates and the relatively low odds and delays faced by Houston-area residents who appeal.
Local residents wait more than a month longer than the national average for a hearing in a local system that grants appeals below the state and national rate.