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Service cuts threaten public support for SSA

Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:02PM   |  
By WITOLD SKWIERCZYNSKI   |   Comments

While President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney skirt around the issues of Social Security program solvency and the impact of Social Security benefits on the overall budget deficit, actions are being taken in Congress and by the Social Security Administration that severely undermine the program.

Budget cuts were enacted in fiscal 2011 and 2012 that resulted in the loss of 6,500 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs).

Obama’s budget for 2013 includes an additional 1,784 FTE cuts. The Senate proposal for 2013 reduces the FTE level to close to 2,000. The House budget proposal reduces FTEs by at least 2,400 and make SSA furloughs likely.

The Republican bill would reduce staffing below 2007 levels, while 30 percent more retirement and survivor applications and 30 percent more disability claims currently are filed than in 2007.

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 3 that enactment of the House Republicans’ budget proposal would force SSA to reduce staff in SSA and the state disability determination services by 5,000 “through a combination of attrition and termination of temporary hires.”

He also said the House proposal would force him to reduce SSA operating hours “equivalent to a month of furlough days.” Each day of furlough would mean processing 20,000 fewer retirement claims and 10,000 fewer disability claims and time for 3,000 fewer hearings.

More pending claims equate to longer processing times and delays in decisions and benefits.

According to Astrue, SSA would have to reduce program integrity activity under the House proposal. Thus, many recovered disability beneficiaries and Supplemental Security Income recipients would continue to receive benefits even though they would no longer be eligible for checks.

The American Federation of Government Employees, my union, contends SSA is using budget cuts to change its service delivery. SSA has closed or announced closings for 41 full-service offices in 2011 and 2012.

SSA also closed virtually all 300 part-time contact stations in the past two years despite the admission that contact station closings have a negligible budget effect.

Thus, SSA customers in many rural and suburban communities no longer have convenient access to face-to-face service. SSA conducted no studies or hearings regarding the public impact of these closings.

In 2011, SSA ordered all field offices to close 30 minutes early. Effective Nov. 19, offices will shut the door one hour early and effective Jan. 2, at noon on Wednesdays. Again, the result is diminished access to face-to-face service.

Office closings and reduced hours are directly related to SSA’s objective to shift service delivery to the Internet. Almost 50 percent of retirement claims and 35 percent of disability claims are now filed on the Internet.

More than 1,600 claims representatives, about 12 percent of that workforce, responded to an AFGE survey this year that found:

• 94 percent report that online retirement claimants must be re-contacted regarding when to start their benefits or to alert claimants to potential auxiliary beneficiaries, such as spouses and children. Some respondents said SSA does not allocate time for such re-contacts.

• 95 percent report the need to re-contact online disability applicants due to incomplete information on complex forms. Most survey respondents believe that many Internet claimants are losing thousands of dollars because they unknowingly made bad decisions.

SSA also recently stopped the legally required mailing of Personal Earnings and Benefit Statements to every wage earner over age 25.

Service deterioration due to insufficient revenue and questionable service delivery strategies threaten public support for SSA as much as political histrionics regarding SSA’s future funding.

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