SSA tries to improve customer service

The Social Security Administration is gearing up two initiatives aimed at improving service to beneficiaries.

SSA will save beneficiaries a trip to the local Social Security office with a new 800 phone number for claiming retirement and survivor benefits. The agency also plans to keep future and current beneficiaries better informed by mailing personal earnings statements each year to every American worker and retiree over the age of 25.

SSA promised Vice President Al Gore that the agency would meet customer service goals, as part of Gore's reinventing government movement. SSA is one of 32 federal agencies that have committed to meet customer service goals by September 2000, two months before the next presidential election.

To claim Social Security benefits, individuals must either schedule an appointment and then trek down to a local SSA field office or schedule a phone appointment and wait for SSA to call them back. SSA hopes to replace the lengthy and inconvenient process with a toll-free number that would allow beneficiaries to claim benefits over the telephone immediately. SSA says beneficiaries will be able to get through on the first call 90 percent of the time. The 800 number is now being tested in three cities, and is expected to be in operation nationwide by September 2000.

Beginning in October 1999, SSA will mail a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement to all eligible beneficiaries age 25 or older. Now mailed to people age 60 and older only, the statements outline an individual's yearly contributions to Social Security and provide an estimate of benefits that will be received upon retirement.

The statements include educational materials that describe survivor benefits such as disability and life insurance. "It's also a good way of showing what the [Social Security] benefits are and what you paid to get those benefits," SSA spokesman John Trollinger said.

According to Trollinger, SSA is currently mailing 33 million statements to beneficiaries born between 1940 and 1947. By the year 2000, all adults born before 1974 will have received their first statement.

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