GAO assails Social Security bid to put disabled to work Program poorly run, investigators say

February 29, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A small but growing Social Security Administration effort to encourage recipients of one of its disability programs to go to work is poorly run and subject to abuse, according to congressional investigators.

The agency "has done a poor job of implementing and managing" the program, which costs $30 million a year, and has given its staff few criteria and little training for running it, said the General Accounting Office in a report delivered to Congress yesterday.

The GAO also said the program lacked clear goals and sufficient information to monitor its effectiveness. The "program lacks even ZTC minimal controls to provide reasonable assurance that funds are being spent appropriately and to safeguard against fraud and abuse," the report said.

"We agree that historically the program has not been managed well," said Phil Gambino, the Social Security spokesman, claiming the agency has been moving in the last year to make improvements.

Shirley S. Chater, the agency chief, said she is shifting administration of the program from the 1,300 field offices to headquarters in Woodlawn, instituting a training program and beginning a review of each individual in the program.

Adopted by Congress in 1972 to encourage Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients to work, the program allows them to receive more income than they otherwise would be allowed to earn without losing any of their disability benefits.

SSI, a $25 billion program for the disabled and elderly poor, pays up to $470 a month -- plus a supplement in many states -- to recipients, who also are eligible for Medicaid and food stamps. SSI recipients are permitted to earn up to $65 a month. Beyond that, their benefits are gradually reduced as income increases.

Under the work-incentive program, called Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS), an SSI recipient is allowed to exclude from the income that reduces SSI benefits the costs of work or job-training, thus increasing the monthly disability check. Expenses that can be excluded, the GAO said, include the costs of buying and operating a car, business attire and cellular telephones.

To get into the program, each SSI recipient must submit a plan for work or job training to one of the Social Security's 1,300 field offices. With little guidance from Woodlawn, criteria for approving the plans vary from office to office -- and sometimes within individual offices, said the GAO.

For example, it said, guidelines set no limit on the amount that can be approved to buy a car, cautioning only that sports and luxury cars would "rarely" be appropriate. That leaves wide discretion to each Social Security caseworker. The GAO said one worker would not approve a $22,000 car "because she herself could not afford a car that expensive, even with a job, so 'why should someone receiving federal assistance be allowed to buy one?' "

Job goals in the PASS plans examined by the GAO included clerk, janitor, hunting dog trainer, journalist and lawyer.

Only 10,300 SSI recipients -- three-tenths of 1 percent of the possible participants -- had PASS plans in December 1994, said the GAO. Nevertheless, that represented an increase of more than 500 percent over the 1,500 who were involved in March 1990.

The GAO concluded that "the large potential for future growth merits attention now to serious management and internal control weaknesses."

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