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Long Island

State cracks down on free park passes for disabled

The state is taking away disability passes from thousands of people who got free park admissions and rounds of golf even though some were apparently healthy.

The move follows years of complaints that the system was being abused by people who weren't really disabled.

The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation says making it harder to get the Access Pass will bring in more than $1 million in new revenue per year.

About two thirds of the people who get the passes now won't qualify for them. About 34,000 individuals statewide now have a pass, including about 4,000 on Long Island.

The department plans to revert to the criteria spelled out in state legislation that established the program in the early 1970s, which requires applicants to be blind, deaf, an amputee, nonambulatory, mentally disabled or a disabled veteran. The criteria were broadened in 1978 to include semi-ambulatory individuals and individuals receiving Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income. Those people would not now qualify for the passes. One example: Someone with a joint replacement who doesn't require a wheelchair.

It would also cut off about 250 former Long Island Rail Road workers with disability certification from the federal Railroad Retirement Board. Elected officials have criticized the board for employing lax standards.

The pass holders have avoided paying as much as $60 for a round of golf at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, as well as routine entrance fees, such as $8 for beach admission.

"The program has grown dramatically in categories that are not authorized in the law," said Andy Beers, executive deputy parks commissioner. "It is our conclusion that that level of expansion was not intended in the original state law."

He said the passes have cost the department millions in lost revenue. "In this fiscal climate, we can no longer afford" that, he said. The additional revenue the department expects from the change is included in the proposed $155 million operating budget that calls for closing as many as 91 parks statewide.

Department spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said "we anticipate being able to rebook at full price much of the golf rounds, particularly at Bethpage, and the camping."

"There have been complaints from the public" about people abusing the program, Beers said. "We don't have any way of knowing" if those who apply for the passes are actually disabled. Beers said the agency doesn't receive any specific information about the pass-holders' disabilities - only a general letter from a doctor or an agency that the person qualifies for the pass.

The change was welcomed by park users who say the pass system has been abused. "I'm ecstatic over it," said Jim Galaun of Great Neck, who plays golf at Bethpage State Park about four times a week. He said many of the best early tee times are taken by players with an Access Pass who don't seem at all disabled.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the tourism and parks committee, said "I support tightening the criteria so that those who are truly needy and deserving are the ones given the access."

The Long Island Rail Road and several of its union chairmen declined to comment.

Larrabee said the agency can make the change administratively without legislative approval. The agency's Web site will accept comment through May 3.

 

Who is eligible to keep Access Pass

 

To remain eligible for an Access Pass, a person must be certified by a doctor to have:

 

  • Lost a part of an arm or leg.

 

 

  • Central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with corrective lenses.

 

 

  • Hearing loss in excess of 80 decibels (ISO) in the better ear.

 

 

  • Use of a wheelchair for mobility or require special transportation or physical assistance from another person at all times to move.

 

 

  • A leg brace, crutches, walker, cane or other prosthetic devices to achieve mobility or otherwise be certified as handicapped by another government agency.

 

 

  • Been certified to be eligible to receive services from a program licensed, operated, certified or funded by the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities or the Office of Mental Health.

 

 

  • Been a veteran with a 40-percent or greater disability certified by the Veterans Administration.

 

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