Over the past four years, amid budget restraints and hiring freezes, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has closed a record number of field offices that provide services to people applying for disability or retirement benefits.
The move was meant to cut costs and consolidate offices while encouraging more Americans to use the agency’s online services. Social Security officials say one office closure results in a cost savings of $4 million over 10 years. That means the 65 closures will save about $260 million over the next decade.
Lawmakers on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, however, are criticizing the agency for how it went about closing its facilities. They say the agency did not consider the impact on local communities and raised concerns about America’s older population, many of whom aren’t familiar with, or comfortable using, online technology.
“I am concerned that the SSA has not sought public input and it is not taking into account the impact on the beneficiaries they are supposed to be serving,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said during a committee hearing on Wednesday.
A report prepared in advance of today’s hearing accuses the SSA of not using proper metrics when deciding which offices to close. It details 64 field offices that have been closed since 2010. Another 533 temporary mobile offices meant to serve remote areas were also shuttered over the same time period. Meanwhile, hours have been reduced in the remaining 1,245 field offices as the focus shifts to online and phone services.
Last year, nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online, the report said. Still, it notes that the huge focus on online services does a disservice to older Americans who lack access to the Internet.
“As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are facing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone,” the report said.
Last year, more than 43 million people visited Social Security field offices. Over 40 percent of those individuals had to wait more than three weeks for an appointment, up from just 10 percent the year before, according to the report.
“Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services,” Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in prepared testimony. “The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change.”
However, according to agency officials, the shuttered facilities were hardly selected “arbitrarily.” SSA official Tammy DeLong told lawmakers that closures were decided by a number of criteria, including geography, proximity to other offices, and how many people the facilities served.
One office in Dickinson, North Dakota, for example, was closed in 2011 because it was only serving 17 people a week; it’s located near another facility, in Bismarck. Still, there are concerns that some older people do not have a way to get to offices that are not nearby.
As Sen. Collins noted, “Far too many seniors, particularly those living in rural areas, might not have access to a computer or the Internet. It is critical that SSA take into account these issues and the effect on the community before eliminating services.”
The closings come just as applications for benefits are soaring, as more baby boomers approach retirement. Nancy Berryhill, a deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, said the agency has seen a “staggering” 27 percent increase in retirement claims since 2007, from 2.6 million to 3.3 million.
“It is beyond question that eliminating superfluous services, including certain field offices, makes sense for an agency looking for ways to serve more with less,” the report said. “However, it is also clear that the agency has not done enough to consider the impact of the decisions it has made in recent years on the people who rely on Social Security the most: the poor, disabled or otherwise limited elderly populations.”
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