Social Security cuts to field office locations come at a time when a demand for services to seniors is on the increase – making the timing of this latest round of cuts particularly maddening. The Social Security Administration announced that they plan on shuttering dozens of walk-in offices, and are looking for an increased usability on their web site to pick up the slack. According to SSA, traffic into their offices topped 43 million individuals last year.
The NY Times shared that a bipartisan Senate committee report is set to be released this week by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
According to the Times, the report “says the agency has closed more than two dozen field offices in the last year, generally without considering the needs of communities and without consulting beneficiaries or field office managers,” and that the Social Security Administration “excludes both its own managers and the affected public,” in its appearance of “often arbitrary” closures.
The chairman to the Senate Special Committee, Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said, “Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services … The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change.”
As the baby boomer generation nears retirement, Social Security is being called in to perform increased levels of service.
Nancy A. Berryhill, a deputy commissioner at the agency, said Social Security’s budget – like many government agencies – has been cut, leaving the agency hamstrung to deal with “a staggering 27 percent increase” in claims for retirement benefits.
Because of the budget slashes, SSA has been forced to close field office doors and release employees – a 14 percent workforce reduction since 2010 – but are encouraging users to access their website for services such as applying for benefits, requesting statement copies, appealing a denial of benefits, determining eligibility and estimating future SSA benefit amounts.
Berryhill said, “We received nearly half of all Social Security retirement and disability applications online, and the percentage of people who choose to file online continues to grow.”
The NY Times gave an example of one such troublesome office closure in Florida:
In March, the Social Security Administration closed a field office in Gadsden County, Fla., assuming consumers could use an office in Tallahassee instead. But, the committee report said, “there is virtually no public transportation” between the two places.
Brenda A. Holt, a Gadsden County commissioner, said the county had a high poverty rate: “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let alone reliable Internet access… It is highly unlikely that many of these seniors will be able to get to Tallahassee. We never had an opportunity to weigh in as a community to try to save our office. Social Security did not do much of anything to inform our community of the closure.”
Senator Susan Collins of Maine said SSA has bitten off more than they can chew if they think that their website can handle the office closures. “The plan proposes that Social Security shift from face-to-face services to online systems as the primary means of serving beneficiaries…This is completely unrealistic,” Collins said.