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Financials

COLUMN-Social Security needs a budget boost post-pandemic to serve the public

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

CHICAGO, June 24 (Reuters) - Our worries about Social Security often focus on the program’s solvency issues, which threaten benefits if left unresolved. But right now, we face a more immediate challenge: how to fund the Social Security Administration (SSA) as it climbs out of the COVID-19 crisis so that it can serve the public efficiently and equitably.

Social Security’s customer service has suffered from more than a decade of budget cuts imposed by Congress, and its operating budget dropped 13% from 2010 to 2021, adjusted for inflation. Over that same period, the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22%, SSA data shows.

The cuts have hurt the agency’s ability to serve the public, and some problems worsened during the pandemic. The SSA shut down its sprawling national network of more than 1,200 offices in March 2020 in order to protect the public and its employees from the coronavirus. The offices served 43 million visitors in 2019 and the agency has been providing most services since then through its website bit.ly/2SEeJpC and toll-free number (1-800-772-1213).

The challenge now is not only to bring SSA’s customer service operation back up to snuff, but to address inequities in how the pandemic has affected beneficiaries.

President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget proposes a 10% boost in the agency’s funding, and its commissioner, Andrew Saul, has recommended a 12% bump. That spending has nothing to do with the problems of the retirement and disability trust funds, which pay for benefits and are projected to run out of money reut.rs/3xylGY5 in 2034 (reut.rs/3xylGY5). At that point Social Security would have sufficient income from current tax payments to meet roughly 80% of promised benefits - a disaster that must be averted through injection of new revenue.

The administrative budget, meanwhile, funds the SSA field offices, its toll-free operation, website and other core functions. And the proposed increases for next year would be no more than a down payment on what is actually needed.

Routine business, such as applications for retirement benefits and Medicare, have proceeded smoothly during the shutdown. But applications for disability benefits plunged over the past year at a time when in all likelihood the number of people eligible for benefits - and needing them - jumped. There also has been a sharp drop in applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a benefit program for low-income, disabled or older people.

The field office closures are the likely culprit. Research has shown nyti.ms/2SOTHos that field office staff provide critical in-person assistance on complex matters, in particular on applications for disability insurance and SSI (nyti.ms/2SOTHos).

“The closure of the field offices really has hit people inequitably,” said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Younger and wealthier people with more stability in their lives can navigate the online system pretty well, but people who are not tech-savvy, or have precarious housing situations or limited English ability or disabilities, really need in-person assistance.”

SSI is a critical source of income for low-income Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American seniors and people with disabilities. Among SSI recipients 75 or older, 40% are African-American or Hispanic and 18% are Asian-American, according to SSA data.

REDEFINING PROGRAM INTEGRITY

Social Security also has a problem in an area known as “program integrity.” In Congress, lawmakers typically use the phrase to refer to fraudulent benefit claims - and they have pushed the SSA over the past decade to crack down by earmarking a significant portion of the agency’s budget to program integrity activities.

Much of this activity has focused on removing people from the disability benefit rolls based on an assessment of medical improvement. Last year, Congress earmarked $1.6 billion for disability and other reviews - a whopping 12% of its overall administrative budget.

Next year, the SSA plans to increase medical disability reviews by 36%, and the number of SSI redeterminations by 23%, notes David Weaver, a former associate commissioner in Social Security’s Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support.

But we need a broader definition of “integrity” that includes benefits that should be paid - and are not. The agency has identified 80 different groups of people who fit this description. The problem might be an error made by the SSA, or be due to a change in an individual’s eligibility. Examples include children of disabled workers, and those who may not know they are entitled to spousal or survivor benefits.

“To be fair to the public, Congress needs to allow SSA to spend program integrity funds to correct underpayments and missed payments instead of just focusing on removing people from the disability rolls through a somewhat flawed review process,” said Weaver.

The SSA will be reporting to the White House in August on ways it can help underserved communities as part of a broader federal government review ordered by Biden on his first day in office. That should be a springboard for putting the SSA into high gear on this front - if it has the funding it needs to get the job done. (Writing by Mark Miller Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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