Social Security Disability Woes

March 21, 1994

A humane society takes care of its disabled citizens, but a wise government sees to it that this support does not make their plight worse.

In recent years, the Social Security Administration has been reaching out to Americans disabled by drugs or alcohol, adding so many addicts and alcoholics to the rolls that it has put itself in an administrative crunch with a backlog of applications. The intention is to help sustain these people -- and also to help them overcome their problems. But the reality falls far short of that lofty goal.

Earlier this month, Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, succeeded in pushing through legislation requiring more oversight of payments to addicts and alcoholics through the Social Security Administration's two disabilities programs. Attached to a larger bill that would make the SSA an independent agency, the provision addresses abuses documented by the General Accounting Office and by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Among other things, investigators found that few of these people actually get the treatment which is required by law. Worse, the investigations found cases in which government payments financed drug peddling and even binges that proved fatal.

Senator Cohen's amendment would make disability payments to addicts and alcoholics contingent on their receiving treatment. It would also put stricter controls on arrangements in which checks are sent to third parties in order to ensure that the payments are used for necessities, not for drugs or alcohol. Investigators found appalling abuses of this system, including instances in which the third-party payee was the neighborhood bartender.

These abuses would seem to put SSA into enough hot water, but recent congressional testimony brought to light another scandal -- the agency's failure to make full use of an extra $200 million appropriated by Congress last year to help the agency get up to speed in monitoring the disability rolls. As it stands, many people who qualify for disability payments later recover enough to support themselves again -- but those benefits just keep rolling in because nobody from SSA properly reviews the case.

That administrative glitch could cost the government as much as $1.4 billion over the next several years. That's serious money -- and it spells a serious challenge for the leadership at SSA's Woodlawn headquarters.

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