WASHINGTON -- House Republicans caught the Social Security Administration in a cross-fire yesterday, criticizing lengthy delays in the handling of disability claims while voicing concern that the agency will hand out too many benefits as it tries to reduce the backlog.
In their first examination of the troubled disability program since taking over Congress in January, GOP members of the Social Security subcommittee criticized the Woodlawn agency for failing to review recipients already on the rolls to see if they are still disabled.
And they marveled that two-thirds of the applicants who appeal denials to an agency judge are awarded benefits. This occurs even though the bureaucrats who initially deny the benefits are rated by Social Security 97 percent accurate in their decisions.
"Taken to extreme, one way to eliminate backlogs would be to simply pay more cases from the beginning," said Rep. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who heads the subcommittee.
About 10 million people collect some $65 billion a year from two programs: Disability Insurance, which is financed by Social Security taxes, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is funded by general revenues.
With disability applications approaching 3 million a year, Social Security has more than 1 million cases pending -- half of them before the 1,000 administrative law judges who hear appeals from initial agency decisions.
In addition to the backlog of applications, Mr. Bunning said, 2 million cases on the rolls are overdue for review.
Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, acknowledged that few have been reviewed in recent years but said that the agency hopes to check more than 400,000 cases next year.
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., an Indiana Democrat, said the agency's backlog began to build after the Reagan and Bush administrations cut some 20,000 agency employees in a failed effort to automate the system.
Social Security now has 65,000 workers and relies on another 14,000 employees of state agencies around the country to make the initial decisions on whether applicants are disabled. The agency has been told by the Clinton administration to cut another 5,000 workers in the next five years.
It now takes Social Security about three months to process a disability application at the initial level, where nearly 31 percent of applicants prevail. An appeal that goes to a judge takes another 13 months.
"These long waits can cause substantial hardships for applicants, many of whom have limited income and little or no medical insurance," said Jane Ross, an official of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Ms. Ross said there were nearly 500 cases in the agency's Philadelphia region in March involving applicants who were terminally ill, homeless, about to lose a home or without money to buy food and medicine for children.
Mr. Bunning, the subcommittee chairman, said that some of his constituents had waited up to 13 months after a hearing to receive notice of a decision.
Ms. Chater, the commissioner, told Mr. Bunning that 45,000 applicants are awaiting a written decision, having already had their hearings.
"It is simply unacceptable for the American people to have to wait so long for a disability decision," she said.
Despite their concern about delays, panel members also expressed concern that efforts to cut the backlog will mean cash awards to applicants who should be turned down.
Judges have been criticized for awarding benefits in two-thirds of the cases that reach them. In response, the judges say they must follow court precedent closely, that they see claimants face-to-face, while the initial decision-makers do not, and that they usually have additional evidence to consider.