Rehabilitation agency chief testifies before House
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
"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
But an agency spokesman said it is too early to come up
with any plans to reform the Texas disability application
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
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
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
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
The average monthly payment for disability benefits is
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.
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