Legislation requires transparency on backlogs, ensures communities have a voice in field office closings
In 2014, the Social Security Administration closed a field office in Amherst. In 2008, an office was closed in Cheektowaga. This happened with little advance warning, no public input and insufficient justification, said Congressman Brian Higgins, D-NY-26.
This week, he will introduce the Social Security Accountability Act, legislation Higgins said gives the public a voice in the process and provides transparency on caseloads and backlogs.
"The system, as it currently exists, allows bureaucrats in the Social Security office in Washington, D.C., to arbitrarily make decisions about how services will be provided in communities like Western New York without hearing from the public or giving clear justification for decisions that impact thousands of Social Security recipients in any given area," Higgins said.
Highlights of the Social Security Accountability Act include:
•Caseload transparency: Requires the SSA commissioner to provide yearly statistics on average wait times for claims to be processed, number of caseloads pending at each hearing office, and the rate at which backlogs are increasing or decreasing at each office.
•Justification for closings: Calls for a moratorium on closings until SSA can provide a report justifying the process. The report must include analysis of criteria used for selecting offices, a description of how the department will analyze factors such as communication and transportation needs of residents served by an office, and a cost-benefit analysis associated with any proposed office closings.
•Public input and notice: Requires a minimum 120-day notice and two public hearings.
"The first Social Security check was issued 75 years ago, after Ida May Fuller entered a Social Security office to inquire about benefits, and since then has provided a lifeline to millions of Americans," Higgins said. "We must continue to ensure the Social Security Administration remains focused on hearing from and being accessible to the people it was established to serve."
Social Security field offices offer a range of services, from providing new Social Security cards to assisting with the application process for Social Security and Supplemental Security income benefits, and helping Medicare beneficiaries with resources apply for extra help under the new Medicare prescription drug program.
Shawn Halloran, executive vice president of Local 3342 representing Social Security employees working in and serving Western New York, said, "In 2007, when doing Internet business with Social Security was in its infancy, 42 million people visited Social Security offices around the country. By 2013, when well over 50 percent of retirement claims were filed online, 43 million people walked into a Social Security office. The conclusion we should draw from this is obvious: People want to visit their local Social Security office to conduct business. If SSA plans to take away that option, at the very least they deserve notice, and their opinion deserves to be heard."
This week, the Social Security Administration released "Vision 2025," a long-range plan for service delivery over the next 10 years and beyond. In it, SSA states, "As demographics shift, the population aged 65 and older will grow by more than eight million from 2015 to 2020, and then by an additional 18 million by 2030. This shift will dramatically increase the demand for our services. Additionally, demand for government-to-government and business-to-government services will continue to expand."
A 2014 report by the Senate special committee on aging looked at the "Reduction in Face-to-Face Services at the Social Security Administration." The report questions the current process: "At a time when Baby Boomers are retiring and filing disability and retirement claims at record numbers, SSA has shed 11,000 workers agency-wide over three years," and closed 64 field offices and 544 temporary mobile offices in five years. Just three sites remain open locally, including offices in Niagara Falls, West Seneca and Buffalo.
The report recommends the SSA "create a more comprehensive and uniform consolidation policy that would enable the agency to: collect better data to inform decision making; be transparent and include stakeholders in the process, and build in transition time and alternative services before closing any additional field offices."
Higgins' bill, the Social Security Accountability Act, helps to meet those goals, his camp said.