Posts Tagged ‘Social Security Administration’

Austerity cuts take “Social” out of Security

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

By J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Like most federal agencies, the Social Security Administration has faced deep, across-the-board cuts in recent years. These cuts have seriously degraded the administration’s ability to service a rapidly growing customer base and forced the agency to make tough choices about its future.

SSA turned to the National Academy of Public Administration to devise a strategic plan to reform its customer service model to better reflect this austere fiscal climate. The result was the Vision 2025 plan, released in July, which calls for a drastic reduction in the number of community field offices and a transition to an Internet-centric customer service model.

In an austerity mind-set, this approach would make sense: Fewer resources should naturally result in fewer services. But this experiment has already failed before it even begins. Over the past several years, SSA has closed nearly 80 offices, 500 contact stations and shed 11,000 trained staff members. Americans who go to the remaining offices will find shorter operating hours and longer lines. If they look for alternative methods of service, they’ll find a phone service plagued by long wait times and an overly cumbersome MySSA website.

To date these cuts have only exaggerated the program’s customer service problems — not improved them. Millions of baby boomers are becoming eligible for retirement, but SSA continues to cut services, offices and staff. The number of recent hires pales in comparison to the number of staff lost, and the workforce still faces an overwhelming workload.

Doubling down on a complex, error-prone MySSA website will do nothing to make up for the rapidly growing service gap. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not even use the Internet. Nearly 60 percent lack a broadband connection. But the problems don’t end there. Even for those who do use the Internet, those who file for benefits online often mistakenly leave out important information that could result in a loss of benefits.

Even if these concerns are addressed, the fact of the matter is that Internet solutions will never replace the comprehensive, professional and personalized service that is offered at community offices. That has been proved by the 43 million people who come to community offices every year. They don’t come because they lack an alternative, but because they get good answers to difficult, unique and deeply personal questions. Wouldn’t you want to talk with a live professional when making financial decisions that will impact the rest of your life?

When charting its next 10 years, Social Security must not lose sight of the fact that it is a paid-for benefit with paid-for services earned by millions of Americans through a lifetime of hard work. Any process to reform the program must be customer-driven, not just budget-driven.

Social Security needs to provide its growing customer base with an array of services fit to meet the needs of all customers, not just the most easily automated cases. It should maintain regular business hours, fight for additional staff resources and develop its online service as a supplement to, not a replacement for, face-to-face service.

What we need is an “all of the above” strategy to service a growing customer base, and we should not be afraid to fight for the resources needed to build it.

By proposing a plan that decimates the field office structure and relies almost exclusively on technology, Social Security is effectively taking the “social” out of America’s most beloved public program. Social Security needs to rethink its plan and envision a future that benefits everyone.

AFGE represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide, including 25,000 at the Social Security Administration.

“Vision 2025” an SSA Service Delivery Nightmare

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

By Steve Kofahl, President of AFGE 3937 and a member of PSARA’s Executive Board

On March 10, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) released its draft long-range vision and high-level strategic plan for Social Security Administration (SSA) service delivery over the next 10-15 years. It is being referred to at SSA as “Vision 2025.” SSA had contracted with NAPA, at the request of Congress, to conduct a study and create a report. The seven-member panel of “experts” that led this effort included three former high-ranking SSA officials. I hope SSA didn’t spend too much of our money on the contract, because there wasn’t much of a study done. Based on a briefing AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) received from SSA, there was no input collected from the public, or from organizations (such as PSARA) that advocate for SSA programs and clients. NAPA interviewed 15 “futurists,” but visited just one SSA field office.

Some of the more troubling portions of this vision are quoted below:

• Use online, self-service delivery as our primary service channel.

• Provide direct service options (e.g., in-person, phone, online chat, video conference) in very limited circumstances, such as for complex transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.

• Build an adaptive and open culture promoting new collaborative arrangements, including those with external partners (e.g., other agencies and advocacy groups).

• Adopt communication and business processes that enable a dispersed workforce no longer working in centralized, traditional offices.

What it boils down to is that workers and their families, and their survivors, would fend for themselves in almost all cases. Non-profit and for-profit organizations and agencies who are willing to help, or interested in making a profit, would try to fill the service-delivery gap in our communities. The Social Security equivalent of H & R Block would probably open storefronts in many communities, charging for services that workers have already paid for with their F.I.C.A. taxes.

To make matters worse, it appears that SSA has already embraced this vision. In her Agency Strategic Plan for 2014-2018, released at the same time as the draft report, Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin has this to say:

Even as we move forward with the strategies we outline here, we have begun critical work to create a long-range strategic vision and plan that supports our mission and goal of world-class customer experience well into the future – our “Vision 2025.”

The Acting Commissioner and her subordinate managers like to say that this is what the public wants and demands, but we know that’s not true. SSA field offices served a record 43 million visitors last year, and call volume to the 800 number created unprecedented delays in getting through to an agent.

The idea that this twisted vision would support a world-class service goal is ludicrous. SSA field office employees receive 17 weeks of intensive training, followed by a year of mentoring, and typically become fully proficient 3-4 years later in understanding and administering the complex programs run by SSA. Those programs include Social Security, Supplemental Security Income for the low-income aged and disabled, and Medicare. How can an applicant for one of these vital programs be expected to learn all that is needed in just a few minutes at a computer? It can’t be done, and the sad thing is that the decision-makers just don’t care anymore whether SSA pays the right amounts to the right people.

We don’t have to accept this vision, and we can stop it from becoming our reality. Contact your elected representatives, and make it clear to them that personal service is something that you have paid for and expect, and that SSA’s Vision 2025 must not become reality.

SSA Again Cuts Field Office Hours, Services

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

By Steve Kofahl 

Social Security Administration (SSA) field office hours and services will be cut again in 2014, according to SSA plans released in December 2013. In announcing the plans to shut down the field offices on Wednesdays, leaving four-day office hours of 9a.m.-3p.m., the SSA also reported that its Benefit Verification Letter Program and Social Security Number Printouts would no longer be handled by community field offices. What do these cutbacks mean for seniors and low-income benefits.

Benefit Verifications Letters (BVL) 

In the fiscal year ending September 2013, the agency issued over 5.5 million benefit verification letters to field office visitors. Low-income beneficiaries most often need this proof of income so that they can be certified or re-certified to receive assistance from other federal, state, and local government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Without a BVL, many beneficiaries may be denied essential needs like housing, energy, clothing and food.

Instead of having field offices issue BVLs, SSA wants beneficiaries to register for a “MySocialSecurity” account (the SSA online “self-help” program for SS recipients), request a benefit verification letter online, and print it themselves.

Or they may call the Agency’s toll-free number, and wait 5-7 days to receive one in the mail, a delay that can cause a real hardship.

Registration can be a difficult process, access to established accounts is too-often blocked, and many low-income people do not have a computer and printer. Computers and printers at libraries and other public locations are not secure. SSA claims that data exchanges with other government agencies limit the number of printed benefit verifications that are needed, but many providers do not have access to the data, and some who have access don’t know how to interpret the information.

(Slated to go into effect September/October)

Social Security Number Printouts (SSNP) 

While SSA wants people to print out their own Benefit Verification Letters, they don’t want anyone printing out Social Security Numbers. SSA issues 6 million SSNPs each year, to low-income beneficiaries who need them to qualify for assistance, get a driver’s license, state ID card, or a job.

SSA instead wants people to get a replacement SS card, a process which takes minimally 7-10 days. SSA says that agencies and organizations can verify SSN online, but there is a fee involved, and the “verification” is not always accurate. More importantly, a significant number of citizens and lawfully-admitted immigrants are incorrectly identified as not authorized to work, and, as a result, can be fired if their employers fail to give them a chance to correct the error with SSA and/or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Slated to go into effect June-July)

Closing field offices, slashing services and hours to the most vulnerable should be the last things SSA does to save costs. Join Social Security Works and other advocate organizations working to stop these latest cuts by voicing your disapproval to your Congressional delegation.

Steve Kofahl is President of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3937 representing Social Security workers regionally and is a PSARA Executive Board member.