WASHINGTON -- Despite criticism by congressional investigators that the situation is "out of control," the Social Security commissioner said yesterday that the number of drug addicts and alcoholics collecting disability benefits will grow as her agency continues its efforts to get them on the rolls.
Testifying at a House subcommittee hearing, Shirley Sears Chater defended the idea of providing government payments to people unable to work because of drug or alcohol addiction. But she admitted that the agency had done a poor job of monitoring addicts who are supposed to be in treatment programs. And she said it needs to do more to assure that the money they receive is not used to feed their addictions.
She said the agency, headquartered in Woodlawn, was taking steps to improve the situation.
Yesterday's hearing followed two congressional investigations, which found that few of the addicts collecting disability benefits -- usually $446 a month -- are undergoing treatment as required by law. Many are using their payments to buy drugs and liquor, and some are dealing drugs, investigators charged.
They found frequent abuse of the system, in which a trustworthy third party is supposed to receive the addict's monthly check to assure that the funds were used only for food, shelter and other necessities.
While yesterday's hearing was under way, the Senate adopted legislation to bar drug dealers and other criminals from collecting Social Security disability benefits at the urging of Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, who ordered one of the congressional probes. It was unclear yesterday whether similar legislation will be passed in the House.
Jane L. Ross, a General Accounting Office official, said an estimated 250,000 addicts are collecting $1.4 billion a year. Half of them are on the rolls solely because of their addiction, while addiction is only a secondary element for the other half. Five years ago, she said, fewer than 100,000 addicts were on the rolls.
Ms. Chater and several witnesses representing private agencies said the growth was due in part to efforts of those agencies and Social Security to find eligible people and get them onto the rolls.
The program is growing, as is the entire disability program, which had 6 million people on its rolls last month, an increase of more than 22 percent in the last three years. Applicants routinely wait months for a decision as Social Security tries to cope with a backlog of applications that now stands at more than one-half million.
For the first time since taking over the 65,000-employee agency, Ms. Chater encountered tough questioning from congressional Republicans. Pressed by Rep. Jim Bunning of Kentucky to say whether she agreed with the GAO assessment that the situation is "out of control," Ms. Chater said: "I don't think we have enough information."
Earlier, however, she had admitted that the agency can "document few, if any, recoveries" from addiction.
Several Republicans pressed the idea that addicts be required to pass periodic drug tests in order to remain on the rolls. Ms. Chater told the committee that the agency was now signing contracts with organizations in various states that would get the beneficiaries into treatment.