AARP has a report on current SSA procedures and standing. For those that think Social Security is wrong, so be it, but it is there and is promised.
Texans were already lining up to get help at the Social Security office in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston, at 8 a.m., an hour before the office opens. The glass-and-concrete building, which sits in a no-frills strip mall, is “known for its long waits,” says Angelica Obregón, who was leaning against her walker on this muggy September morning, eyeing a gray sky that threatened rain.
“People bring chairs, people bring umbrellas, people bring their breakfasts…because they have a long wait—a long wait,” says Obregón, 49, who has visited the office repeatedly about her Social Security disability case.
The Social Security Administration (SSA)—which touches the lives of virtually every American—was once touted as the preeminent can-do agency. But budget cuts, staff reductions and a growing list of new duties involving everything from Medicare to homeland security processing are taking a toll on the system that administers the nation’s retirement program, its 1,500 offices in neighborhoods across the country—and the people who rely on them.
“This is a train wreck unfolding right in front of us,” says Sylvester Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, an independent, bipartisan body whose members are appointed by the president and Congress to report on the agency.
“People will be alarmed,” Schieber says, “to learn this agency they think they’re going to depend on … doesn’t have the resources to deal with the cases coming its way.”
In small towns and big cities, delays and backlogs at the Social Security office can sometimes be the rule—whether it’s an hour wait to see a representative in Pasadena, Texas, or a 1,020-day wait for a judge to hear a Social Security disability insurance claim in Atlanta.
Calling a Social Security office can be as frustrating as lining up there. Today, an average of 51 percent of all calls to local offices get a busy signal, according to the SSA’s own study.
The Bloomington, Ind., office, for example, serves five counties and has one person answering the phones, says Vicki Ketchum, who was interviewed before she retired as the district manager last month. “People have told me they’ve called the office for two weeks and couldn’t get through,” she says, “so they packed up the car and drove up to two hours to get here. That’s not right.”
Most disturbing may be the backlog in claims for disability insurance. Largely driven by boomers in their 50s—the years when working men and women are most prone to develop illnesses and disabilities, according to the SSA—the number of workers who say they are too sick or disabled to continue to work has grown by a staggering 60 percent in the past few years. Today 750,000 of these vulnerable Americans are waiting an average of 520 days—and in some areas close to three years—for a hearing on their claims.
“The agency is struggling to balance its new responsibilities and its traditional work,” without added resources, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue told a congressional hearing in May.
In a more recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, Astrue said that he is “trying to be optimistic. We’re doing our best to stay as far ahead of the curve for as long as we can.”
“Right now,” he says, “in most parts of the country the level of service is quite high. But waiting times in some offices are more than what I or anyone else would like to see. And the disability backlog is simply unacceptable.”
Among the agency’s new responsibilities is determining the eligibility of applicants for Extra Help under Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. Since SSA started taking applications in July 2005, 6.7 million people have applied. In the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress assigned the SSA a whole raft of new homeland security regulations to enforce after 9/11, tightening or changing the rules for issuing or replacing Social Security cards.
In 2005, for example, offices were told women could not change their name on Social Security cards to a married name if they had only a foreign marriage certificate as proof, says Paul McGinley, a former operations supervisor in Knoxville, Tenn., who retired this year. “Fathers who had paid for big destination weddings for their daughters in Jamaica and places like that came down and gave us an earful. We fought that one almost every day for a year and a half until it was changed.”
Immigration-related legislation that Congress is considering would require employers to verify the employment eligibility of all new hires. That could significantly increase workloads at SSA, which already verifies huge numbers of Social Security numbers for employers—84 million in 2006.
As the workload has been increasing, the number of SSA employees has been shrinking. The agency has lost 4,000 workers in the last two years alone, and staffing is at its lowest level in 33 years.
“We’re not just treading water now, we’re sinking,” says Rick Warsinskey, who represents the agency’s managers and supervisors as president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations.
SSA officials say the agency doesn’t have the funds to add to its staff, or even to replace all the employees who leave. In the last 10 years, the agency’s budget requests have been reduced first by the administration, which cut them to maintenance level, then by Congress, which cut them even further, “to the tune of $1 billion,” Astrue says. The agency’s periodic reevaluations of people receiving disability payments—to ensure continued eligibility—return $10 in savings for every $1 spent, but even they have been drastically cut back.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says his staff “hears the phrases ‘completely outrageous’ and ‘entirely unacceptable’ repeatedly from North Dakotans frustrated by their experiences with local Social Security offices.” His committee recommended a Social Security appropriation of $430 million more than the president’s budget request for the agency for 2008.
The final bill is expected to allocate only $100 million to $125 million more. That might allow the agency to maintain current staffing levels, but not increase them.
And yet this month the first of 78 million boomers, three months shy of turning 62, can begin applying for early retirement benefits they are eligible to receive next year. Astrue says that he’s banking heavily on more boomers using the agency’s website for a wide range of services. But even if they do, experts say, SSA staffers must review and process the applications—using an antiquated computer system.
We seem to be seeing a pattern among agency service delivery systems. Is this part of infrastructure of services and systems for the commons, a broken promise, or lousy administration.
It does appear to be bi-partisan as the fear of being blamed for failure for Iraq is laid on the American people and immobilizes looking at other priorities and other services.