What is a Half-Fare Metrocard & how can I get one?
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
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Last summer, a law was passed that requires the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Transit Authority to establish and implement a half fare rate program for persons with serious mental illness who are eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. This law, called the Half Fare Fairness Law, was the result of a fifteen-year-long fight by mental health consumers and their advocates to gain this valuable benefit that is offered to people with physical disabilities and to those who receive Medicare.

Getting the law passed was an intense struggle as the MTA resisted mightily. And now, even after they have been required to provide the half fare to mental health consumers who receive SSI, the MTA is continuing the struggle by making it difficult for consumers to actually obtain these Metrocards. However, the MTA is required to provide this half fare benefit, and all mental health consumers who receive SSI are entitled to the reduced rate. This article will provide a brief history behind the Half Fair Fairness Law, a report on the current situation, and an explanation of how mental health consumers can access this benefit.


History

For many years prior to 2000, the MTA has offered half-fare rates to anyone who has a Medicare card and to others who have certain physical disabilities or mental retardation. Therefore, those individuals with serious mental illnesses who received Social Security Disability and Medicare benefits have been able to ride the subways, buses and commuter railroads for a reduced rate. But, those individuals with serious mental illnesses who receive SSI and Medicaid were not eligible for the reduced rates and had to pay the full fare.

Because paying the full fare for transportation results in a severe hardship for those living on the limited income of SSI, mental health advocates lobbied for many years to have the MTA expand its half fare program. Advocates argued that paying half fare would certainly ease the financial burden of SSI recipients who have to travel often to doctors, day programs, clubhouses, therapy sessions, and to see family. They also argued that it wasn't fair for those receiving SSD to get half fare benefits to the exclusion of those on SSI.

Finally, in 1999, legislation introducing the half fare program for SSI recipients with serious mental illness was passed and then signed into law by Governor Pataki. But, that was not the end of the story. The MTA then claimed that due to a "technical mistake" in the law, it was only required to implement the half fare program on the LIRR and Metro North but not on the New York City subways and buses. Since the legislative intent behind this law clearly was to provide the half fare program on the subways and buses too, advocates and government officials were stunned by the MTA's brazen position.

Just as lawyers with the Mental Health Law Project at MFY Legal Services were getting ready to file a lawsuit against the MTA for its failure to implement the half fare program on the NYC subways and buses, the State Legislature passed a bill that corrected the technical mistake in the original law. The new and improved Half Fare Fairness Law was signed by Governor Pataki on April 17, 2000, and it became effective as of July 16, 2000.


Current Situation

Not surprisingly, it took the MTA a couple of months to revise their applications to include a section for mental health consumers receiving SSI. When the application finally came out in the Fall of 2000, consumers and advocates received yet another blow from the MTA, which seems determined to make it more difficult for people with psychiatric disabilities to obtain a half fare MetroCard than for people with physical disabilities.

Specifically, the application requires people with physical disabilities to simply have their doctors certify that they are in fact blind or hearing impaired or without both hands or that they have a diagnosed ambulatory disability or mental retardation. However, mental health consumers must have their doctors specify their exact psychiatric diagnosis and certify that they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity and that their disability is expected to last more than 12 months.

Essentially, the MTA is requiring these doctors to make an entirely new determination of serious mental illness for people who have already been certified by Social Security as eligible to receive SSI benefits. In addition, the application requires the mental health consumers to sign a release that authorizes the MTA to review their SSI files.

Besides making the application itself more invasive and burdensome for mental health consumers, the MTA seems to be adding another layer of difficulty onto the process. Many mental health consumers have complained to us that after submitting their completed half fare applications, which already include their doctors' certifications, the MTA is denying them and requiring that their doctors write a separate letter to the MTA on the doctors' letterhead, again detailing the mental illness. So, mental health consumers have to ask their doctors to write up again what they already provided, and then they have to re-submit their application packages.

Although many consumers have jumped through all of the MTA's hoops and have obtained their half fare benefits, it has been a very difficult, stressful, and tiresome undertaking for many individuals. We believe that all of the added requirements the MTA is imposing upon people with psychiatric disabilities may in fact be illegal, and we have written letters to the MTA informing them of our position.

We have also written letters to the MTA on behalf of specific individuals who have sought our legal assistance, and have demanded that they approve the completed applications. In all of those cases the MTA has responded favorably. Whether a lawsuit will be necessary in order to stop the MTA from engaging in these apparently discriminatory practices and procedures, remains to be seen.


How to Apply for a Half Fare MetroCard

In order to receive a Half Fare MetroCard, you must complete the application and file it with the MTA. To get a copy of the application, you can either:

call the MTA Reduced-fare telephone line at (718) 243-4999, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, [for hearing impaired persons with TTY, call (718) 596-8273] and ask them to send you the application for an "MTA Reduced-Fare MetroCard for People with Disabilities," or
go in person to 370 Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn, or
download the form from the MTA Website at www.mta.nyc.ny.us/nyct/fare. To download the forms, you need a printer, and you also need to have the free Adobe Acrobat Reader program on your computer; this can be downloaded from the Adobe website.
In addition to completing the application form itself and having your doctor complete the Physician's Section, you must also submit:
an original letter from Social Security confirming your receipt of SSI benefits; as well as
a 2"x1" (passport size) photograph of yourself. You must print your name on the back of the picture and your doctor must sign the back of your photograph.
Also, you must have your signatures on the application notarized by a Notary Public. Once you have your application packet completed, you can send it by mail or take everything in person to the MTA Reduced-Fare office at 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn.

If your application is denied and you would like legal assistance, please call the Mental Health Law Project at (212) 417-3830.
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