4. Surge in Disability Claims Called a 'Policy-Driven Epidemic' The cost of Social Security Disability Insurance has risen so sharply in recent years that its trust fund is now projected to be depleted in just three years. The Insider Report disclosed in June 2012 that nearly 11 million Americans were then receiving disability benefits, and the program cost taxpayers $132 billion the previous year — more than the combined annual budgets of the Departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, Commerce, Labor, Justice, and the Interior. But the cost has risen even more since then and is estimated to reach $144 billion this year — up from an inflation-adjusted $56 billion as recently as 2000, according to a report from the Cato Institute. The SSDI trust fund is expected to take in $111 billion this year, and the fund would therefore have a deficit of $33 billion. In 1970, there were less than 30 disability recipients per thousand U.S. workers; there are now nearly 75. The rising number of SSDI recipients is also increasing Medicare spending, because disabled workers can go on Medicare after a two-year waiting period, regardless of their age. Disability status also makes recipients eligible for food stamps and other benefits. Medicare benefits for SSDI recipients cost the government about 80 percent as much as the benefits themselves, which means that the disability program rings up another $100 billion in taxpayer costs. [F[/SIZE][/FONT]A major reason for the surge in disability claims is that "Congress has expanded benefit levels over the decades, and eligibility standards have been greatly liberalized," Cato observes. "The result is that people capable of working are instead opting for the disability rolls when confronted with employment challenges." The disability program formerly benefited people with debilitating conditions such as strokes and cancer. But Congress expanded the benefits pool to include such claimed ailments as depression, back pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome. And fewer than 1 percent of those who start collecting benefits return to work. The increase in disability claims has occurred even though the share of the U.S. working-age population reporting a severe disability has remained steady over the years. Cato cites economists David Autor and Mark Duggan, who wrote that "the rapid growth of Disability Insurance does not appear to be explained by a true rise in the incidence of disabling illness, but rather by policies that increased the subjectivity and permeability of the disability screening process." And economist Richard Burkhauser has called the surge in disability beneficiaries "a policy-driven epidemic." Cato concludes, "SSDI has become financially unsustainable and economically damaging, and policymakers should pursue major spending cuts to the program." Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has said Congress could curb spending on the program by demanding more aggressive screening of applicants and providing more incentives for beneficiaries to go back to work.