Yesterday the Associated Press released a story regarding closures of dozens of Social Security field offices, forcing an increasing number of people to seek help online instead of in person. The reason—budget constraints.
According to the Special Senate Committee on Aging, the Administration has closed 64 field offices since 2010 and 533 temporary mobile offices. In addition, hours have been reduced in the 1,245 field offices that remain open and 11,000 workers have been eliminated over the last three years.
In testimony prepared for a committee hearing today, Deputy Commissioner for Operations at the SSA, Nancy A. Berryhill, said the budget and workforce has not kept pace with the staggering 27% increase in claims for retirement benefits, rising from 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.3 million last year.
However, she insinuates that the personnel is not essential as nearly half of all Social Security retirement and disability applications received in 2013 were online, and the percentage of people who choose to file online Social Security applications continues to grow.
The crux of the Senate Hearing today will be the criteria used for closing field offices. The Committee argues that the impact on the local community where offices are closed is not a consideration and should be. The Committee believes that with the surge of baby boomers filing record numbers of retirement, disability, and survivor claims, a large percentage of those entitled to benefits cannot use the internet and don’t have access to the remaining field offices.
Senator Susan Collins (R) Maine, says the National Academy of Public Administration’s (a nonprofit group chartered by congress) recommendation that the administration eliminate face-to-face services and shift to online systems is completely unrealistic.
On the other side of the aisle, Representative Xavier Becerra (D) California, and Senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security said, “No one should be surprised that service hours have been reduced, wait times have increased and local offices have closed.” The Agency’s operating budget totaling $11 billion in 2013 has been reduced by 4% from the 2010 budget. This year’s budget totaled $11.697 billion and the request for 2015 is currently $12.024 billion which has yet to be approved.
What it means for disability claims in Utah?
The Utah wait times for decisions on Initial Applications and Requests for Reconsideration have fallen either right on the edge of the 30-60 day waiting period or many days after. Nonetheless, the trend has been moving farther and farther outside the 30-60 day waiting period over the past year. A Utah DDS claims examiner reported on the phone that decision periods are moving closer to 90 days. Fortunately, although decision wait times are increasing, none of the field offices in the state of Utah have been closed.
The National Organization for Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) believes that based on the assumptions made in the 2015 budget proposal the processing time for hearing decisions will rise to 435 days on average nationally, an increase from 382 days at the end of 2013, and that the number of pending hearing decisions will increase. President Proposes 2015 SSA Budget, Social Security Forum, Vol. 36, No. 4 – May 2014, pg. 20. In Utah the wait time for a hearing has been about 12 months.
While hearing wait times are increasing, the SSA projections indicate a downward trend in the number of disability applications being filed, but a continued record number of retirement filings as baby boomers continue to age. Id.
This might seem like immediate good news, but don’t plan on significant changes. Although a downward trend in disability applications suggests shorter wait times on the horizon, the truth is that the backlog is so significant it will be a long time before the effects of decreasing numbers of disability applications are felt. Your personal interaction with SSA will continue to decrease due the rising numbers of retirement applicants. They will continue to make wait times rise on the phone and for in person appointments at the SSA.
Though the closure of many field offices, and the elimination of SSA employees is concerning, the issue to grapple with is whether expecting retirement and disability applicants to engage with the SSA online is appropriate. Will such a policy shift rob entitled applicants from receiving their benefits? While, not all of the variables are known, for Utah we believe that disability applicants will suffer little or no adverse impact because an attorney is typically filing for the applicant. However, retirement applicants do not rely on legal help to access their benefits, and therefore may be left in the wake of the technological march forward that has resulted in a sharp generational technology divide.