It's illegal but they're doing it, court suit charges
Hard-pressed Governor David Patterson is looking to make up about $30 million in the coming year in a brazen grab of patients' Social Security Disability checks by state hospital directors. Courts have already ruled it's against the law for the heads of these hospitals to confiscate the patients' checks to pay their hospital charges instead of saving the money aside according to the patient's wishes.
“The patients could use this money when they get out—it's theirs,” said Cliff Zucker, lead attorney for Disability Advocates, Inc., the Albany law firm that has challenged this practice. The proposed law would let the hospital director collect the income from monthly SSD checks, amounting to thousands of dollars a year, as the patient's representative payee and use the money without regard for the patient's wishes.
“They can't do it—they have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the patient's interest and they're not doing it,” said Zucker. His firm followed up a 1990s lawsuit involving a Gowanda PC patient whose monthly benefits were taken by the hospital director,which violated the hospital's fiduciary duty. Zucker initiated a class action suit last year in Weaver v. State “alleging that the state Office of Mental Health has failed to comply with the ruling in the Gowanda case” known as Muller v. State of New York and with appeals court rulings upholding it.
Here's what's claimed in the lawsuit by Disability Advocates which now believes the state is retaliating against it. Zucker charges that “facility directors regularly seek appointment as patients' representative payees notwithstanding their conflict of interest; they fail to seek appointment of independent guardians to manage patient's funds which exceed $5,000; they receive funds in excess of $5,000; they use patients' Social Security income to pay hospital charges in breach of fiduciary duty; and they fail to use patients' Social Security benefits as required by state law.
“Apparently in response to the lawsuit, the proposed legislation would overrule the Muller decision and seeks to deprive hundreds or thousands of patients of the right to be reimbursed for Social Security funds unlawfully taken by OMH in the past seven years,” Zucker contends.
“The proposed law would perpetuate a great injustice. There is a desperate shortage of supported housing and community programs for persons with mental illness, including those leaving state hospitals.
“As a result, PC patients could greatly benefit from saving their Social Security benefits to use to obtain housing, food, clothing, transportation, education and other needs upon discharge. Moreover, the availability of funds for that purpose will greatly increase the likelihood of successful transition to community life.”
The money grab doesn't apply to SSI checks because they stop at the state hospital door. But the money that is being taken from Social Security Disability checks could be banked by the patient in a special needs fund and accumulate to quite a large amount, Zucker pointed out, a nest egg for when he leaves the hospital. (Roy Neville)