WASHINGTON -- Top officials of the Social Security Administration are predicting that sharply increasing caseloads and expected budgetary restrictions will force them to cut services significantly this year.
Officials say their top priority will be getting the monthly Social Security checks out on time to the 42 million people who already are receiving benefits of one kind or another.
Budget stringency will present "a real challenge to all managers and employees" at the agency, Social Security commissioner Gwendolyn King said.
"We will keep the priority on benefits -- people are entitled to get their checks in a timely way," she said. "Other things will take longer."
Everything else will take longer, from delays in changing a recipient's address to adjusting the check of a retired person who works part time or handling the application of a blind person who lost his job in the recession and qualifies for a special welfare program.
Internal agency documents predict that processing time for disability claims will increase from three months to six months. Backlogs already have risen for retirement claims, and for a special welfare program covering poor or blind senior citizens.
The warnings about cutbacks in services are contained in internal documents that the agency has prepared to argue its case before the Office of Management and Budget, which is pressing officials to hold down spending.
The agency says it expects to encounter serious problems even if it receives the full 9 percent increase recommended in the fiscal 1992 budget that was submitted by President Bush Feb. 4.
But it may receive a far smaller increase because the Social Security Administration will be in direct competition with all other domestic programs under the spending cap contained in last year's budget agreement between the White House and Congress.
White House officials contend the Social Security Administration has more than enough money to do its job. Over the past 2 1/2 years, it has received a hefty boost in its administrative budget, which has increased from $3.7 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion for the new fiscal year.
"Their appetite is insatiable," an official said.
The documents forecast a sharply increasing caseload:
* Pending claims for retirement and survivors benefits rose to 81,470 at the end of December, up from 70,588 a year earlier.
* Pending disability claims jumped to 253,240, an 18 percent rise.
* Supplemental security income, a special program for senior citizens who are poor, blind or disabled, had 306,000 claims pending in field offices, an increase of 34 percent.