WASHINGTON -- A sharp increase in the number of people applying for disability benefits under Social Security has led to a record backlog of 800,000 cases and waiting periods of up to three months.
With a sluggish economy and an aging population pushing up the number of applicants, the Bush administration projects that the backlog could grow to 1.4 million cases by 1993, with waiting periods of up to seven months.
"We are now reaching a point where people are literally going to die waiting to find out whether they get their benefits," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif.
Don't expect to get help quickly by calling Social Security's national toll-free hot line. Social Security statistics show that the number was busy 4 times out of 5 during peak days at in January, traditionally the agency's busiest month.
To qualify for disability, workers must be so severely impaired mentally or physically that they cannot perform substantial, gainful work. Their impairment must be expected to last at least a year.
Congressional Democrats are worried that the bottleneck on disability benefits and the jammed toll-free number are signs of a more serious problem of administrative overload at the Social Security Administration.
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the retirement and disability program, said that many local Social Security offices don't answer telephone calls from the public and that others take up to five weeks to grant appointments. Local offices are also failing to monitor disability claims for fraud, he said.
Mr. Panetta, chairman of the Budget Committee, confronted Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan with the dismal statistics during a hearing yesterday.
"This is an important program," Mr. Panetta said. "It ought to be run efficiently."
Said Mr. Sullivan: "Clearly, we do have a problem meeting all the demands on the system."
Funding for administrative services has risen under President Bush, and his 1993 budget asks for a $259 million increase. But congressional Democrats say $500 million more than that is needed.
"If the system is so clogged that people are not able to get through, [it's] undercutting the credibility of government," Mr. Panetta said.
About 4.5 million disabled workers and their families receive benefits through Social Security. Because disabled workers tend be older, there is concern in Congress that the jump in applications may be permanent, a result of the aging of the Baby Boom generation.