For Disabled Poor, WeCARE Doesn't

When the Bloomberg administration wants to show that it takes a more businesslike approach to poor people than its predecessor, one of its favorite examples is WeCARE. The Wellness Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation, and Employment program, inaugurated two years ago, is supposed to be everything that Rudy Giuliani's work-or-else regime wasn't: an individualized system for evaluating the "biopsychosocial" needs of those applying for public assistance, and then providing solutions on a case-by-case basis.

Those who've been through the WeCARE system have long disputed the city's claims, saying the program is more hindrance than help when it comes to getting assistance; last year, a court agreed, forcing the city to dismantle its three WeCARE "hub centers" after it was found to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act to force a disabled person to travel from, say, Staten Island to Manhattan just to prove they were disabled. Now comes "Failure to Comply," a report released today by the public-assistance-recipients group Community Voices Heard that paints an even more devastating picture: a $200 million boondoggle that utterly fails to do the very thing it was set up to do.

Just about everyone agrees that the ideas behind WeCARE are laudable: provide medical and employment experts to evaluate welfare recipients to determine if they have any mental or health problems that make them unable to work—or, as they're known in modern welfare-reform lingo, "barriers to employment." WeCARE's mission includes individualized assessments, specialized services—even home visits as a last-ditch effort to reach out to families before they risk losing their benefits.

None of this, according to the CVH report, is actually happening. Rather, interviews with more than 700 WeCARE survivors revealed stories of a nightmare bureaucracy run amuck: WeCARE doctors ignoring letters from patients' personal physicians in favor of five-minute diagnoses. So little help for those needing to apply for federal disability benefits that only one in 10 of those considered "unemployable" by WeCARE itself receive SSI. And no sign of the promised "escalating outreach" such as home visits and aid in attending appointments—not a single person interviewed said they had been offered a home visit when they had trouble getting to a WeCARE appointment.

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As for specialized job programs, meanwhile, "we've heard from hundreds of people that these services are a one-size-fits-all approach," said CVH chief researcher Alexa Kasdan at today's briefing. She later described "job search" programs where 50 people are piled into a room with one instructor, then handed word-search puzzles where they must circle words like "merger" and "shareholder."

Judith Schraemli, a mother of three teenagers, told of how her family went on welfare when her husband lost his job, only to enter an Alice in Wonderland world where she was ordered to attend WeCARE appointments that conflicted with both her 20-hour-a-week job and her longstanding therapy sessions to treat depression. "When I told WeCARE about this conflict, they did nothing to reschedule my appointments," she said. "Instead, I received a 'failure to comply' notice."

CVH presented a laundry list of recommended remedies for WeCARE's woes, ranging from allowing patients to be evaluated by their own doctors to ending the "auto-posting" system whereby a computer automatically cuts off a person's benefits if they miss a single appointment (or if a city staffer fails to punch in attendance correctly). As it stands now, though, WeCARE "is a waste of the taxpayers' money," said Terrance McSween, a CVH member who had his benefits cut off after he missed a WeCARE exam to go to his physical therapy appointment. "It could be better spent to improve access to the benefits and services that we need so we can become self-sufficient."


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