A federal "reverse-mortgage" program that Congress had hoped would help many older people convert their home equity into cash has "gotten off to a very slow start," federal officials acknowledged last week.

So slow, in fact, that only a single reverse-mortgage loan has been made under the Federal Housing Administration's year-old program in the West and only about 300 have been originated nationwide.Some of the lenders who were originally selected to take part in the program have since backed out, blaming the plan's lack of early success on potential legal problems and what they say is a slow-moving government bureaucracy.

The FHA's reverse-mortgage program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We had a waiting list of more than 400 people hoping to get one of these loans, even though HUD said we could only make 50," said Verlee Gale of Beverly Hills Securities Co., one of two lenders originally authorized to make FHA-backed loans in Southern California.

"We were all set to make the 50, but the people at HUD just couldn't get their act together. We want to make reverse-mortgage loans, but this particular program has more bugs in it than it has promises."

Despite the slow start, HUD officials are confident that the reverse-mortgage program will ultimately be successful.

Reverse mortgages are specially designed for house-rich but cash-poor older homeowners. They're basically home loans that work backward.

Instead of a lender making a loan to a buyer who will repay the money in monthly installments, the lender typically pays the money out in increments.

The owner usually doesn't have to pay the money back until the term of the loan expires or the owner sells the home and moves. If the owner dies, the loan is repaid by the estate.