Column: What to expect when U.S. Social Security field offices reopen in April
March 24 (Reuters) - If you need help filing for Social Security, Medicare or disability benefits, I have good news and bad news.
The good news: The sprawling network of more than 1,200 Social Security field offices around the United States will reopen to the public in early April after a two-year COVID-19 shutdown. During that time, nearly all public service has been available only online, and by phone and mail. Millions of Americans who need in-person help from the agency can now start to get it.
The bad news: The Social Security Administration (SSA) is bracing for a crush of office visitors. Along with the pent-up demand created by the long shutdown, the agency’s national toll-free number has been experiencing problems, with some callers getting busy signals or abrupt disconnections, which an SSA spokesman confirmed. The phone system problems are expected to increase demand further in the initial weeks of the reopening.
The return to office comes at a time when the SSA was working to replace staff lost during the pandemic. But hiring has been frozen due to a lower-than-expected operating budget signed into law last week as part of a $1.5 trillion U.S. government spending bill for 2022. The SSA budget rose by $411 million to a total of $13.3 billion - less than half of what the Biden administration had requested.
“Our 2022 funding level will complicate our efforts to improve services to the public, although we remain committed to doing so,” said Mark Hinkle, the agency’s press officer, via email.
The agency is recruiting retirees to come back on a temporary basis to help with crowd control at the offices. Due to pandemic concerns, there will be limits on the number of people allowed into the offices at any given time, and it also should be possible to make appointments - assuming the phone system is up and running.
The offices served more than 43 million Americans in 2019, according to SSA data. They help with retirement and Medicare claims, but also provide critical assistance with applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the benefit program for low-income, disabled or older people.
BUDGET CRUNCH AND BACKLOGS
Most retirement and Medicare claims have been processed normally during the shutdown, but the systems for SSDI and SSI claims have been clogged. At the end of January, 974,000 claims were pending at the level of initial filing and the first level of appeal, according to agency data.
Those statistics point to dire circumstances for a large number of low-income and disabled Americans, notes Stacy Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, a specialized bar association for attorneys and advocates.
“People are dying waiting for decisions, going into debt, or they’re unable to access medical care” she said.
Part of the problem is application processing delays at the state level. The SSA sends disability applications to state agencies, which make medical determinations of eligibility. The largest backlog is in Florida, which had 92,525 cases awaiting determination at the end of January; Texas, California, New York state and Georgia also had large backlogs, according to agency data.
The SSA funds these state-level determinations, so the agency’s broader budget crunch has played a role in the backlogs, according to Cloyd.
Another concern is Social Security survivor benefits. Although many Americans are unaware of it, Social Security pays benefits to the children of deceased workers who had earned sufficient work credits to be insured. It also pays benefits to widows and widowers aged 60 or older, and pays benefits under certain other circumstances. Survivor claims for children have not risen at a pace that reflects the number of deaths due to COVID-19 among parents; advocates worry this is due to the difficulty of getting help from the agency during the shutdown.
The SSA and unions representing the agency’s nearly 60,000 workers have been negotiating terms of the reopening since last fall. Labor representatives charge that the agency lacks a detailed plan for handling the expected crush of visitors.
“People have been waiting on the phone for hours trying to get through,” said Angela Digeronimo, regional vice president of Council 220 NY Region of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of three unions representing SSA workers. “Trading that for waiting three or four hours in an office waiting room or outside an office is no solution at all.”
The unions have agreed to the office reopening timetable, but are continuing to press the agency to bargain over a number of issues related to health and safety for the workforce and the public.
For now, the agency website remains the best option for routine business, Hinkle said. The national 800 number (1-800-772-1213) tends to be less busy in the early morning, early evening and later in the month, he added.
Advocates for beneficiaries fear the worst when the agency opens its doors. “I’m worried that instead of access being restored, we’re going to see a dumpster fire,” said Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an expert on disability.
How does the agency expect things will go?
“Our employees are dedicated to serving the public and are up to the job at hand,” the SSA's Hinkle said. “Our message to the public is to first use our online services to conduct business with the agency, call us for help if they cannot complete their business online, and schedule appointments in advance.”
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
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