With Congress about to consider even tougher action against them, 172,000 drug addicts and alcoholics are being notified this week that they face the loss of federal disability checks beginning in three years.
In a letter to each recipient, the Social Security Administration is outlining the terms of a nationwide crackdown that lawmakers ordered after congressional investigators said many addicts and alcoholics use monthly checks to support their habits. The investigators also faulted Social Security for doing a poor job of monitoring addicts and getting them into treatment.
Even as the letters are being mailed, a House subcommittee is preparing to write welfare legislation next week that may include even tougher sanctions. Some members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- advocate an end to cash payments for addicts and alcoholics.
"We ought to cut that off," Rep. E. Clay Shaw, the subcommittee chairman, said in a recent interview. "I don't have any problem paying for treatment for them," the Florida Republican said. "But giving them money to kill themselves is crazy."
In a separate interview, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said: "It is nutty for us to say, 'Since you're now an addict, let us send you money so you can go buy the alcohol and drugs you are addicted to.' "
The people to whom Social Security is sending letters this week collect $1 billion a year solely because they are addicted. According to congressional investigators, thousands more addicts also get disability checks, but they have serious mental or physical problems that would qualify them for the money even if they weren't addicted.
Congress ordered the crackdown last summer, making it effective with March checks. The new law stiffens treatment requirements and requires suspension of monthly checks for failure to comply. It also limits cash benefits to 36 monthly payments and requires all of them to have an intermediary receive their checks and oversee expenditures.
For 120,000 addicts who draw checks from the $25 billion Supplemental Security Income program, the law ends checks after 36 months even if they never get into treatment. For 52,000 workers who draw checks from the $40 billion Disability Insurance program, the law is less harsh. Their 36-month clock doesn't start running until they get into treatment.
Critics of the law have complained that there are not enough publicly financed treatment slots in the country and that some people will lose benefits without having a chance to get into a program.
Dr. Herbert Kleber, a former official of the Bush administration's anti-drug effort, told Mr. Shaw's Ways and Means subcommittee last week that there are 3 million drug addicts and 15 million to 18 million alcoholics in need of help.
"It is important to note that while this is a problem that frustrates you and frustrates your constituents, the taxpayers, these people are your fathers, your brothers, your families," Dr. Kleber, now at Columbia University, told lawmakers. "And if we continue to leave them untreated, they will have a much greater impact on our federal, state and local budgets."
Each dollar spent on treatment saves $3 to $7 in expenses for law enforcement and medical care, he said. Other estimates put the saving at $14 for each dollar spent on treatment.
The addicts and alcoholics receiving letters this week are being told that they can have Social Security review their cases if they think some other physical or mental problem disables them. Some Social Security officials believe many of them will requalify for benefits in that way, while others say that relatively few will be able to preserve their checks on another basis.
"The public has the right to expect that drug addicts and alcoholics will do everything they can to cure themselves of their addiction and become self-supporting," Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, said in a statement.