Senate turns up heat on
cuts in Social Security offices, services
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[June 20, 2014]
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Until
earlier this year, there was a Social Security field
office in Gadsden County, Florida, in the state’s
panhandle. It's the kind of place where seniors need to
get in-person help with their benefits rather than pick
up a phone or go online.
“Our poverty rate is nearly double the state average, and we trail
the state averages in education,” said Brenda Holt, a county
commissioner. “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let
alone reliable Internet access.”
Holt testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on
Aging, which is investigating the impact of budget cutting at the
Social Security Administration over the past five years. Sixty-four
field offices and more than 500 temporary mobile offices, known as
contact stations, have been closed. And the SSA is reducing or
eliminating a variety of in-person services that it once provided in
The SSA also has been developing a long-range strategy for
delivering services. A draft document states that it will rely on
the Internet and “self-service delivery” - and provide in-person
services in “very limited circumstances, such as for complex
transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.”
Gadsden County meets any criteria you could pick for vulnerability.
But the field office in Quincy, the county seat, was closed with
just a few weeks' notice in March, Holt said. The nearest office is
30 miles away in Tallahassee - reachable only by car or a crowded
shuttle bus that runs once a day in each direction.
The Senate committee’s investigation found SSA’s process for office
consolidation wanting for clear criteria, transparency and community
feedback. Only after persistent objections by local officials did
the SSA offer to set up a videoconferencing station in a local
library that connects seniors to representatives in its Tallahassee
“It’s deeply frustrated and angered our community,” said Holt. “Many
of our residents live in a financial environment where they make
choices between medications and food to feed their families.
Problems with Social Security benefits can have a catastrophic
effect on families.”
The SSA’s workload is rising as baby boomers retire; the number of
claims in fiscal 2013 was 27 percent higher than in 2007. Yet the
agency has 11,000 fewer workers than it did three years ago, and
hiring freezes have led to uneven staffing in offices.
The SSA has received less than its budget request in 14 of the last
16 years. In fiscal 2012, it operated with 88 percent of the amount
requested ($11.4 billion). The budget was restored somewhat in
fiscal 2014 to $11.7 billion. And President Barack Obama's 2015
budget request is $12 billion.
But service still suffers. The National Council of Social Security
Management Associations reports that field office wait time is 30
percent longer than in 2012, and wait times and busy rates on the
agency’s toll-free 800 number have doubled.
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The SSA’s plan to save $70 million a year by replacing annual paper
benefit statements with electronic access also has been a misstep,
at least in the short run. Paper statements were suspended in 2011,
but just 6 percent of all workers have signed up for online access,
in some cases because of a lack of computer access or literacy but
also because of sign-up difficulties related to the website’s
complex anti-fraud systems.
In April the agency backtracked, announcing it will resume mailings
of paper statements this September at five-year intervals to workers
who have not signed up to view their statements online. (You can
create an online account here: http://1.usa.gov/1dlp73l)
Wednesday's hearing shed much-needed light on the customer service
squeeze at SSA, though it would have been good to hear legislators
acknowledge that Congress had no business cutting the SSA budget in
the first place. The agency is funded by the same dedicated stream
(payroll taxes) that funds benefits, and its administrative costs
are low, 1.4 percent of all outlays. The SSA is funded by Americans'
tax dollars and exists to provide customer service to all Americans.
Nancy Berryhill, the SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, did
her best at the hearing to defend the agency’s efforts to cope.
“It’s my job to balance service across nation - these are difficult
Still, she conceded that there’s room for improvement. “We need to
get more input from the community,” she said, speaking about the
events in Gadsden County. “Adding the video service made a
difference after the fact, but we need to be more thoughtful in the
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist
For more from Mark Miller, see http://link.reuters.com/qyk97s
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance.
Editing by Douglas Royalty)
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