By – Kathleen Spillane
AMAC is dedicated to restoring Social Security and to saving the system from the large deficit and subsequent administrative inadequacies that are negatively impacting communities and citizens across the country. On Wednesday, June 18th, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing regarding the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) reduction of face-to-face services. The Committee’s Chairman, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Ranking Member, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), led the hearing and voiced their concerns over the closure of 64 Social Security offices around the country. Many of these offices were located in communities where the demand for assistance is high due to both large elderly and disabled populations and lower income levels. “I think it is a legitimate question,” Sen. Nelson stated, “that an agency known for its great service could be undercutting its mission? Most of this was done with very little consultation of the Congress or, I might say the reverse as well, most of this has been done without consultation with impacted communities.”
Prior to the hearing, both Sen. Nelson and Sen. Collins spearheaded an investigation into these 64 closures. The investigation discovered, however, that there was only viable information regarding 25 of the office closings. Thus, the Committee posed a strong, unified concern over the lack of available information to describe how these tough decisions were being made, the factors being considered prior to these closures, and whether enough advanced notice was provided to the impacted communities.
These offices and their personnel are being replaced by the installation of video monitors in places like town libraries as well as other online technology, which SSA states will save them approximately $4 million over a 10-year period per facility shutdown. These alternative systems of care and assistance, however, are in many cases thought to be further isolating those who live in more rural, low-income communities, as well as those who are more comfortable speaking to a representative in person. The senators urged for greater transparency within SSA in order for Congress and local communities to become more aware of planned closures and changes, to enable stakeholders to work with SSA to achieve common interests, and to ensure that taxpayer money is used efficiently and effectively.
Four witnesses were called to testify before the Committee during Wednesday’s hearing. The first, Nancy Berryhill, is the Deputy Commissioner for Operations for SSA. Berryhill addressed the Committee’s concern over the 64 office closures by explaining the budget constraints that have been placed on the Administration. With the cut of 10,000 personnel and other resource reductions in recent years, coupled with the steep rise in the number of individuals now eligible to receive Social Security benefits, Berryhill said these face-to-face reductions are not meant to be a decrease in the amount or quality of service being provided, but a shifting of minimal resources to maintain that more people are being taken care of faster. The Deputy Commissioner’s testimony highlighted that over 12.3 million people aged 62 or older have registered online in the past 18 months, and she spoke to the effectiveness of video counseling in areas where people may not be able to access the online portal – where there is no wait time and assistance is always available.
Berryhill’s testimony was countered by the statements of both Tammy DeLong and Brenda Holt. Tammy DeLong, who works at the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging in Presque Island, Maine, spoke to the need of many of her older clients for in-person assistance with issues regarding Medicare and other health and retirement benefits. She argued that website and video programs cannot offer the same detailed assistance that many of her clients need, as many cannot see or hear well enough, or they cannot find the necessary information online as the portal can be confusing and unclear.
DeLong’s testimony coincided with that of Brenda Holt, the Social Security Commissioner in Gadsden County, Florida. Holt’s office in Quincy, Florida, was closed with very little warning in a region where the next nearest Social Security facility is around an hour-long drive away. Commissioner Holt described the efforts she pursued with other local shareholders to try to seek common ground with SSA so that the offices could remain open. Despite having negotiated to lowering the rent, finding free office space, and establishing other resource and price reductions, SSA did not budge and chose to proceed with the closure. Currently, two unmanned, obscure video systems have been setup in the Quincy public library and public transportation system has become overly crowed as individuals attempt to have in-person consultations in Tallahassee. Holt emphasized the extreme repercussions that face-to-face reductions have had on her community – ultimately placing citizens who need this important assistance at a serious and sometimes fatal disadvantage.
Scott Hale, President of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, insisted upon the inadequacy of virtual service. He suggested that adjustments be made by SSA, in conjunction with policy supported by Congress, so that local management officials are consulted prior to any decisions being made regarding the future of face-to-face Social Security assistance. According to Hale, the input of local stakeholders would allow for a balance to be struck that would help to prevent the troubling and sudden closures of certain regional facilities, while making sure that high quality personal service is still being offered where and when it is most necessary.
Chairman Nelson concluded the hearing by underscoring that these face-to-face facility reductions warrant a continued investigation. In comparing these issues with the Social Security Administration to the recent issues regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) inability to provide proper care to America’s veterans, the Committee expressed that just as the VA lost veterans, SSA is losing the ability to reach out and help those that need its support the most. AMAC will continue to monitor the SSA situation and SSA’s ability to securely and routinely provide the benefits retired and elderly Americans deserve.