Outrage follows report on crackdown costs

October 14, 1994|By John O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John O'Donnell and Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writers

Outraged congressmen and advocates for the mentally ill said yesterday that a crackdown on 180,000 addicts and alcoholics drawing checks from a Social Security aid program for the disabled probably would not have been approved if Congress knew how much it would cost.

The reaction came in the wake of an article yesterday in The Sun detailing a confidential internal report that said Social Security gave Congress grossly underestimated cost figures when it voted last summer to hire contractors to supervise the addicts.

According to the report, the actual cost in the first year to push the addicts into treatment, screen them for drugs and kick them off the rolls if they abuse their checks could be almost three times higher than the agency's original estimate of $148 million in 1995 -- and could reach $4 billion over five years.

"If anybody had ever run numbers like that by me, there's no way I would have gone for it," said Rep. Rick Santorum, a Pittsburgh Republican who spearheaded the new law's passage. "In fact, I would have fought against it."

Meanwhile, agency officials continued to play down the internal report by its own program managers after a meeting with Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater yesterday afternoon.

"There was agreement and consensus from the entire group that the agency can meet the letter and spirit of the law within our existing budget of $148 million," said a spokesman, Phil Gambino.

But the internal draft report by the team of program managers that has to carry out the crackdown says the actual cost could reach $487 million in the first year -- and will continue to soar with increasing applications from addicts for the $446 monthly checks.

"Those are our numbers, yes," said a senior program manager, Bob Cross. "But they are subject to change because that was a draft report."

The report includes a detailed 22-page list of tasks mandated by Congress, complete with calculations on how many minutes it would take the contractors to perform each function and how much per person it would cost.

The bottom line: an "absolute minimum" of $279 million would be required in 1995 -- nearly twice the agency's earlier estimate -- and costs would continue to mount as an expected 451,000 addicts pour into the program by 1999.

"That would be an astronomical amount of money to spend on such a small population," said Joe Manes, a mental health lobbyist who spent the summer holding back a campaign to gut the program in the face of reports that some addicts were spending their checks on drugs and liquor.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat who helped draft the law, confirmed that assessment, saying it is doubtful that Congress would have passed the bill.

"We might have been more draconian," he said.

Most disturbing to members of Congress, he said, is that it authorized the agency to draw about a fourth of the money from the trust fund on which millions of retired Americans rely. And the draft report indicates that could reach $1 billion by 1999.

"We are very concerned when a drain on the trust fund could jeopardize the ability of people who need . . . income to get it," Mr. Cardin said.

The agency's earlier estimates were so low, records show, because budget officials based their cost calculations on current contracts with private firms that do little more than track the addicts.

But the new law will require contractors to monitor them much more closely, perform urine screens, generate more reports and do more detailed assessments of the addicts in the program.

"It would be absurd for anyone to think you could implement this much more cumbersome law for the same amount of money it cost to perform the basic functions of the past," said Susan Galbreath of the Legal Action Center, another advocacy group that opposed efforts to kill aid.

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