Social Security Administration checks

Social Security Administration checks Bradley C Bower/AP File Photo

Senators: Social Security Isn't Going About Closing Field Offices the Right Way

The agency hasn't sufficiently justified its decisions, which are hurting seniors, report finds.

The Social Security Administration, which has shuttered dozens of field offices across the country to save money over the last few years, has not sufficiently examined or justified the rationale behind those decisions, according to a new report from a Senate panel.

The agency doesn’t involve local communities in the decision-making process until after it has decided to close an office, and has failed to weigh several factors when it eliminates in-person service, including the impact on employees, or whether Internet access is available for the affected population to seek government services online, the Senate Special Committee on Aging concluded.

SSA does take into account the demographics of an area when considering eliminating an office, including the age of the population, distance between offices, and the number of people who visit it, said Nancy Berryhill, deputy commissioner for operations at the agency, during a June 18 Senate hearing on the issue.

“I want to stress that our service to an area does not stop when we decide to consolidate an office,” Berryhill testified. “The public still has many options for receiving convenient service, including face-to-face meetings at another nearby office, getting help over the telephone, using online services, and using video options.”

But other witnesses at the hearing said that many seniors are not able to easily travel between offices, especially when they live in poor, rural areas. And many still prefer in-person interaction because they either aren’t comfortable with, or don’t have access to online services. Others have difficulty hearing over the telephone and understanding technical government language -- making face-to-face visits crucial, witnesses said.

One beneficiary in rural Maine was living on $460 per month, until her local Social Security office helped her track down information about her deceased ex-husband, from whom she had been divorced for decades. She was able to collect a widow’s benefit and increase her income to $1,000 per month, said Tammy DeLong, a Medicare specialist for the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging in Presque Isle, Maine. “This made a major difference in her quality of life,” DeLong said, adding that she doesn’t believe the beneficiary could have obtained the allowance on her own without the help of the local Social Security office.

Lack of access to technology also is a hurdle, witnesses said. “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let alone reliable Internet access,” said Gadsden County, Fla., Commissioner Brenda Holt, who tried unsuccessfully to get the SSA to reconsider closing a field office in her rural county where the poverty rate is nearly double the Florida average. The nearest SSA office is in Tallahassee, about 45 minutes away. Holt, who said the county didn’t learn until March 5 of SSA’s decision to close the Quincy office at the end of that month, pressured SSA to put in place a video unit in libraries around town, so seniors could talk with agency employees in other cities. “It is a fine resource, but it is no replacement for a field office,” Holt said.

“It is a different way to do business, but it is face-to-face service,” said Berryhill, who touted video conferencing as an alternative to in-person visits where necessary, but also acknowledged that SSA didn’t offer it as an option to Gadsden County until after local officials asked them to provide it.

SSA has struggled to provide service to a growing senior population while watching its resources dwindle: Its budget has been slashed over the last three years while its workload has increased as Baby Boomers hit retirement age, and during that time it has lost 11,000 employees. Congress boosted SSA’s budget in fiscal 2014, and the agency plans to hire more workers, but since 2010 it has closed 64 field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices. Berryhill said that consolidating an office can save the agency on average $4 million over a decade.

In-person and telephone wait times have increased over the past few years for those seeking assistance from SSA, and despite nearly 50 percent of all retirement and disability claims being filed online in fiscal 2013, “field offices continued to process record numbers of claims in local offices,” said Scott Hale, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, during Wednesday’s hearing.

While Committee Chairman Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, were both sympathetic to the budget and workforce challenges facing SSA, they urged the agency to be more transparent in decisions to close offices, engage local stakeholders earlier in the process, and be more open to creative solutions. For example, Collins suggested the possibility of sharing office space in local communities with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, which operates many offices in rural areas. “Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services,” Nelson said. “The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change.”

The committee report also called for better data collection on community demographics and a more uniform policy for closing offices.