WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration, facing a backlog of 1 million applications for disability payments by next year, was accused yesterday of proposing to limit the number of new beneficiaries as part of its effort to streamline the processing of claims.
At a Capitol Hill hearing, the Woodlawn agency got generally high marks for its effort to speed the handling of disability claims. But committee members, advocates for the disabled and representatives of federal workers who handle claims questioned parts of the proposal.
The Social Security Administration lost 20 percent of its personnel during largely unsuccessful automation efforts in the 1980s. Now, swamped by disability applications, the agency is spending $2.5 billion a year to handle the claims -- more than half its administrative budget. Trying to cope with new applications, the agency has virtually abandoned periodic reviews of recipients to determine whether they are still eligible.
The agency's problem, said Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, is that a system designed 40 years ago cannot cope with nearly 3 million disability applications arriving annually.
Two weeks ago, the agency unveiled a task force proposal to reduce substantially the time it takes to handle disability claims. The agency is seeking comments until June 1 and expects to have a final plan and cost estimates ready a month later, Ms. Chater told the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee.
Calling the proposal "a bold step," Rep. J. J. Pickle, a Texas Democrat who is often critical of the agency, told Ms. Chater that this was the first time in a decade "I've seen Social Security move on this." And the General Accounting Office, another critic, said the proposal was "the first valid attempt" to cope with the disability workload.
But "the proposed changes in the disability decision methodology constitute a fundamental change in the basic definition of disability," said Martha E. Ford, co-chairwoman of a Social Security task force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.
This is "an apparent effort to redefine what it means to be disabled by ratcheting up the standard claimants must meet to qualify for benefits," said Thomas D. Sutton, a Philadelphia legal services lawyer who handles disability claims. The proposal to -- simplify the complex regulations, he said, would "result in favorable decisions for fewer claimants."
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., an Indiana Democrat who is the subcommittee chairman, added: "This . . . appears to establish a much higher threshold than the one currently used by the agency, one which could make it more difficult for badly disabled taxpayers to qualify for benefits."
Thousands of cases would be affected, said Matthew Diller, a Fordham University law school professor.
A Social Security Administration spokesman, Phil Gambino, said later, "This was not the intent [of the proposal], and we don't expect that to happen."
Disability applicants wait more than five months for an initial decision and more than two years if all avenues of appeal are used. Rep. Bill Brewster, an Oklahoma Democrat, echoing a complaint of other members, said he had "had numerous constituents die before they were ever told if they were disabled."
The proposed changes would reduce the entire processing time to five months.
Mr. Jacobs complained that applicants now are denied benefits without having a face-to-face meeting with the Social Security staff, a situation that the proposed changes would remedy. He cited the case of an Indianapolis man who was denied benefits because the agency said "that he was able to work." The denial letter arrived the day the man died of AIDS, Mr. Jacobs said.
"It is clear that if SSA had met with him prior to the original decision to deny him benefits, he would have been approved," he added.