GAO Cites Overpayments

On Disability Benefits

The Social Security Administration doled out nearly $1 billion too much in disability payments last year, frequently sending checks to people who had returned to work, congressional investigators said.

The overpayments grew by 15 percent since 1999, contributing to mounting debt of nearly $3 billion in 2003, Congress's Government Accountability Office said.

In some cases, the payments have continued for years because Social Security uses outdated earnings information to verify that recipients remain eligible to collect disability, GAO said.

Even armed with figures to question eligibility, Social Security moves slowly to cut off payments, GAO said. Investigators found one person who collected $105,000 in excess payments stretching nearly seven years, and Social Security officials could not explain why, GAO said.

Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart agreed that her agency needs to cut down on overpayments. "We agree that the agency needs to explore new tools and data sources that can be used to more effectively detect and prevent earnings-related overpayments," Barnhart said.

The government paid $70 billion to 7.5 million disabled workers and their spouses and dependents in the 2003 spending year, the GAO report said. The average monthly benefit was about $723. People who work and earn more than $810 a month lose their eligibility.

GAO found that overpayments increased from $772 million in 1999 to $990 million in 2003 and that Social Security's efforts to improve collections did not keep pace.

Bush Approves Funding

For Homeland Security

President Bush signed legislation that gives the Department of Homeland Security about $33 billion to shore up the nation's borders, inspect incoming cargo, protect potential terrorist targets and train first responders.

Bush signed the bill before leaving the White House to campaign in New Jersey. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and members of Congress were among those looking on for the brief signing ceremony.

Later, speaking in Marlton, N.J., Bush said the law will improve national security by funding port security, Coast Guard patrols, the federal air marshal program, anti-missile technology for aircraft, foreign visitor inspections, and security at chemical facilities, nuclear plants, water-treatment plants, bridges, subways and tunnels.

The $33 billion measure, almost $900 million more than Bush had proposed, finances the Department of Homeland Security for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

It cuts spending for police and emergency responders from last year's levels by about $500 million, to $3.6 billion for police and other emergency responders. The measure also provides $5.1 billion for the Transportation Security Administration, which is required to triple the amount of cargo inspected on passenger airliners in the next year .

-- Associated Press