Social Security overpaid disability beneficiaries by nearly $17 billion over the past decade, a government watchdog said Friday, raising alarms about the massive program just as it approaches the brink of insolvency.
Many payments went to people who earned too much money to qualify for benefits, or to those no longer disabled. Payments also went to people who had died or were in prison.
In all, nearly half of the 9 million people receiving disability payments were overpaid, according to the results of a 10-year study by the Social Security Administration's inspector general.
Social Security was able to recoup about $8.1 billion, but it often took years to get the money back, the study said.
"Every dollar misallocated is a dollar lost for those who truly need it most," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Today's report shows the inability of the Social Security Administration to properly safeguard payments, which has no doubt contributed to speeding the fund toward exhaustion."
The trust fund that supports Social Security's disability program is projected to run out of money late next year, triggering automatic benefit cuts, unless Congress acts. The looming deadline has lawmakers feuding over a solution that may have to come in the heat of a presidential election.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment Friday. In a written response included in the study, the agency said it was required to pay some people who were no longer disabled while they appealed their cases.
The inspector general's office examined a randomly selected sample of 1,532 people who were receiving either Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income in October 2003. SSI is the disability program for the poor.
Auditors followed the group for 10 years, until February 2014. They determined that 45 percent of the beneficiaries were overpaid at some point during that period. The overpayments totaled $2.9 million, the study said.
They used the results to estimate that Social Security made a total of $16.8 billion in overpayments during the 10-year period.
The study concluded that "the agency could do more to prevent the most common overpayments."
Social Security's disability program has both short-term and long-term financial problems.
Unless Congress acts, the trust fund that supports the disability program will run dry sometime during the final three months of 2016, according to projections by the trustees who oversee Social Security. At that point, the program will collect only enough payroll taxes to pay 81 percent of benefits.
That would trigger an automatic 19 percent cut in benefit payments. The average monthly payment for a disabled worker is $1,165, or about $14,000 a year.
An easy fix is available. Congress could redirect payroll tax revenue from Social Security's much larger retirement program, as lawmakers have done before. But Republicans in Congress are balking, saying they want to address the program's long-term finances.
About 11 million disabled workers, children and spouses currently receive Social Security disability benefits. About 8.3 million people receive Supplemental Security Income, which is funded separately, through the government's general revenues.