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Congressman asks hearings on SSI benefits for youth

‘I think that the story calls attention to what . . . may be an overuse of medication.’ ‘I think that the story calls attention to what . . . may be an overuse of medication.’
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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US Representative Richard E. Neal called yesterday for a congressional hearing on whether low-income children are being overprescribed drugs so that their families can qualify for federal disability payments.

Neal, a Springfield Democrat, said his concern was raised by a three-part Globe series this week showing how the Supplemental Security Income program has changed from a federal initiative conceived to help poor children with severe physical disabilities to one that pays families of children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The Globe found that the program has created an incentive for poor families to seek prescription drugs to prove the severity of the child’s behavioral or mental condition. The series also showed that teenagers on SSI had little incentive to work, because doing so could jeopardize their benefits. Qualifying families receive up to $700 a month, money that may be used to meet a range of household expenses.

Neal serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Social Security. He said he would send his request for a hearing to the committee’s incoming Republican chairman, Dave Camp of Michigan, who assumes power in the next session of Congress.

“I don’t want to substitute my judgment for that of the medical community,’’ Neal said in an interview. “But, at the same time, I think that the story calls attention to what conceivably may be an overuse of medication, with the incentive being the maintenance of public assistance.’’

Neal’s district in Springfield is among those with the highest concentrations of children on SSI. He said teachers in his district have related anecdotes over the years suggesting that they had similar suspicions about the program.

He said that his mind remains open on the subject, but that he believes the issue is worth examining, given the potential harm to children through the overuse of medication and the stigma of being labeled disabled.

“If there’s a legitimate medical interest that’s been prescribed by a physician, based on hard evidence, I certainly have no interest in interfering,’’ Neal said.

Senator Chrisopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs a Senate subcommittee on children and families, said he agrees that the issues raised in the Globe series need to be addressed.

Dodd, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of this month, said he supports Neal’s call for hearings next year as part of an overall look at the issues facing vulnerable children.

“As the Globe series and my own examination into the state of the American child have shown, our children are in crisis,’’ he said in a statement sent by e-mail. “It is critical that we take action now and put a targeted effort on improving the well-being of America’s children.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.