TORONTO - Ontario does a poor job of determining who is eligible for welfare and disability supports and, as a result, overpayments are on the rise with the government doing little to reclaim that money, the auditor general said Monday.

Overpayments to both the Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works have increased dramatically since those programs were last audited, for a cumulative total of $1.2 billion wrongly going out the door, Jim McCarter said.

"I don't think enough attention is being paid to make sure that we're only giving money to people who are eligible to get money," the auditor general said after releasing his annual report.

"Public funds are often not being spent with enough due diligence and oversight."

The government said there was already $1.1 billion in overpayments when the Liberals came to power in 2003, but admitted the situation has grown since then.

The disability program paid out $3 billion last year to about 250,000 people. The total amount of overpayments since the auditor last examined the program in 2004 increased 37 per cent to $663 million, McCarter said.

"We have a situation where some people who may be ineligible are being approved to receive benefits anyway because the government hasn't followed its own screening procedures," he said.

Periodic medical reassessments required by law to ensure continuing eligibility for disability support payments haven't been done since 2002.

The Ministry of Community and Social Services failed to follow up on tips from the public about people abusing the system, ignoring five complaints about one family that was found to have received more than $100,000 in overpayments.

"Quite frankly, these are the sort of things that should be followed up very promptly," said McCarter.

At the $1.9 billion Ontario Works program, which used to be called welfare, the auditor found unrecovered overpayments to 350,000 people increased by 45 per cent since 2002 to $600 million.

"When you see the exorbitant funds that have gone in overpayments on welfare or disability benefits, it tells me the government has lost sight of the ball," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

Ontario Works assistance is supposed to be temporary, but the auditor found one-third of recipients in three municipalities he checked were on it longer than two years, and 13 per cent were on welfare longer than five years.

The auditor also questioned special dietary allowances under Ontario Works, which increased from $5 million in 2002 to more than $67 million last year. He found several instances where every member of a family was diagnosed with identical, multiple medical conditions.

"They were diagnosing them all with nine different conditions so every single one of them would qualify for the $250 maximum, so with that and the other benefits you'd find families getting about $50,000 tax free," said McCarter.

"We said to the ministry, 'clearly you've got to investigate this."'

Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said she has referred 2,300 cases from disability supports, Ontario Works and the dietary supplements to the police for investigation.

"We hope this will send a message out there," Meilleur said.

The auditor also questioned the government's policy of excluding the $11-billion, unfunded liability at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board from its own financial accounts, noting the $24.7-billion provincial deficit would be much higher if it did.

The auditor also found most of the 2,000 bridges under provincial jurisdiction are not being adequately inspected, and safety ratings on some increased even though no work has been done to improve them.

There are another 12,000 bridges that are the responsibility of local municipalities, but "the province doesn't have the authority to inquire into the adequacy of municipal bridge inspection and maintenance processes."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that's a worrying public safety issue.

"The auditor pointed to a picture of a government that can't assure the safety of every day Ontarians going about their daily business," said Horwath.

"I would describe the attitude toward public safety as sloppy at best."

Ontario motorists are hit with a so-called convenience fee when they renew their licence or vehicle plates at an electronic kiosk, even though government policy is to offer discounts for services delivered electronically.

In other findings, the auditor reported the Ministry of Health spent $347 million to buy devices like scooters and home oxygen systems, but too often pays "excessively high" prices.

"People who need these devices often have to pay part of the cost themselves," noted McCarter, "so if the government is paying too much, so are they."

One company that sells hearing aids claimed more than $10 million since 2000, and one physician prescribed most of the claims coming from the vendor's many locations.

The ministry called the Ontario Provincial Police in 2004 and again in 2009 to look into the apparent conflict of interest involving the hearing aids, but the ministry told the auditor it cannot terminate its agreements with the vendor while the matter is being investigated by police.

The auditor said governments have to treat taxpayers' money like it was their own and politicians must set the example for civil servants.

The Opposition said the auditor's report is proof the Liberal government is not doing a good job of managing taxpayers' money.

"The report was filled with examples of mismanagement and waste, a culture of government that seems to believe that taxpayer dollars are their own to spend as they see fit," said Hudak.

"The McGuinty government's crisis of accountability requires more than simply a change of rules or a change in guidelines; it requires a wholesale change in the government."