Crucial Face-to-Face Services At The Social Security Administration

Nearly one in four Maine residents—more than 325,000 individuals—receives retirement, survivor, or disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Of these beneficiaries, more than 225,000 are seniors over age 65.   These individuals are served by eight field offices located throughout our state, where trained staff can help them obtain important documents and navigate through the complexities of the Social Security and Medicare programs so they can apply for, and receive the benefits which they have earned.
The Baby Boom generation is entering retirement at a rapid rate, and the number of individuals over the age of 65 is increasing significantly.  At the same time, the population of those on disability has increased. That is why I have long been concerned by SSA’s efforts to reduce person-to-person services, including closing field offices or restricting hours of service, and to force beneficiaries to interact with the agency online or over the phone. 
The Senate Special Committee on Aging, which I chair, has spent a great deal of time looking into this issue. 
In the past six years, SSA has closed 64 of approximately 1,245 field offices—the largest field office reduction in its history—and shuttered 533 temporary mobile offices. It has also reduced field office hours, and in 2013, the agency began closing field offices at noon on Wednesdays.   

To be clear, there are many instances where it works well for beneficiaries to call the SSA or log onto its website to take actions such as request a new or replacement Social Security card, replace a Medicare card, or to request a name change, for example. There may also be situations where more complicated matters can be dealt with in this manner.  I certainly do not object to SSA providing services this way where it is appropriate. 
My concern has been that the SSA has not sought public input with regard to decisions about field offices, nor has it taken into account the impact on the beneficiaries they are supposed to be serving.  Even though computer and broadband technologies have become widespread, the idea that the SSA can serve beneficiaries primarily online ignores the very real needs of many in the senior and disabled populations. 
The fact is, millions of seniors and disabled Americans are not accustomed to doing business online, and particularly in rural areas, many do not have access to computers and high-speed Internet.  If a beneficiary has a complex issue to resolve, solving the matter may take the attention of a trained field officer through a face-to-face interaction with the beneficiary.  
During a hearing last year of the Senate Aging Committee, a Medicare Specialist for the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, located in Presque Isle, testified that the office handled the cases of an estimated 1,400 seniors, and that the loss of face-to-face services would be a real hardship for these individuals. 
The Aging Committee also completed an investigation and released recommendations related to SSA’s efforts to reduce face-to-face services.  A key recommendation was that the agency should take into account the input of members of the local community, as well as the effect a field office closure or consolidation would have on those who rely on these offices. 
As a result of the Aging Committee’s work, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General (SSA OIG), which is SSA’s chief watchdog organization, recently released a report on the process used by the agency to determine whether field offices should be closed, consolidated, or operate under reduced hours. 
In this report, the SSA OIG wrote, “Because of the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s investigation, SSA plans to further update its process to evaluate field offices for consolidation.”  The report further recommends that SSA strengthen its transparency in the process and consider in the decision-making process the input of the public and other stakeholders, including SSA managers, employees, and elected officials.  The report also noted that because the SSA field offices provide the public with a variety of services, SSA must also improve its justification to support consolidating field offices. According to this report, the SSA agreed with this recommendation.
Fortunately, the SSA has not shuttered any field offices this year and, according to the agency, does not plan to do so. It is critical, however, that the agency make a greater effort to take into account the needs of the millions of beneficiaries it serves.