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Senators Probe Social Security Administration on Field Office Services

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What You Need to Know

  • SSA has a responsibility and a duty to provide timely, quality service to the public, the senators said.
  • SSA announced an agreement last week with three labor unions over its workforce reentry plan.
  • Senators want the acting commissioner to answer questions by Feb. 17 on SSA’s efforts to improve service delivery.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Aging Committee Chairman Bob Casey, D-Pa., and 15 other senators have called on the Social Security Administration to provide an update on its efforts to improve field office services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“SSA has a responsibility and a duty to provide timely and quality service to the public, whether it is provided online, via telephone or in-person,” the senators told Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner at the Social Security Administration, on Tuesday in a letter. “COVID-19 has amplified and exacerbated gaps in service for all. We write to request an update on the Social Security Administration’s efforts to improve service delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to modernize its business processes going forward.”

The senators noted that in March 2020, SSA closed 1,230 field offices in light of the pandemic and shifted the agency’s operations to a nearly 100% remote environment.

“With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations soaring to their highest recorded levels due to the Omicron variant, we support the agency’s efforts to prioritize the safety and well-being of the public and the Agency’s staff, especially those who are immunocompromised, as it finalizes the phased reentry plan,” the senators wrote.

That said, “SSA has a responsibility and a duty to provide timely and quality service to the public,” the senators wrote.

Last week, SSA announced an agreement with three labor unions representing the agency’s workforce about a reentry plan beginning as early as March 30.

“This will be a significant step toward improving access to our services as we implement this plan,” Kijakazi said in a statement.

For now, Kijakazi said, those needing assistance should continue to reach SSA at ssa.gov or by calling the 800 number or their local office. “We will let you know when we are able to restore additional services.”

Nearly 70 million people, the lawmakers wrote, “rely on Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits to pay for rent, groceries, medical bills, and other essential expenses.

“Additionally, over 45 million people visit SSA’s 1,230 field offices every year to file for benefits, make changes to their earnings record, and get guidance from SSA’s experienced staff. An incorrect denial of benefits or inaccurate payment can be the difference between a beneficiary having a home or being evicted, or whether or not they can afford their prescription drugs,” they said.

The senators cited a recent Washington Post article, which they said “illuminated the devastating impacts that poor service delivery can have on vulnerable populations.”

Further, a November 2021 SSA Inspector General report found that “nearly half of the 151 million callers to field offices and the national 800-number went unanswered, including 16.4 million callers who gave up while waiting in the queue. Many of these service issues have persisted long before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has amplified and exacerbated these gaps in service for all, particularly for those whose sole source of income is Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or both,” the senators wrote.

The senators asked Kijakazi to answer questions by Feb. 17 on SSA’s efforts to improve service delivery.

Applications for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income dipped substantially during the pandemic, the senators noted.

“State Disability Determination Services received nearly 16% fewer SSDI and SSI initial claims during the COVID-19 pandemic than the prior year,” the senators wrote. “What new efforts are SSA using to increase outreach to eligible groups, including homeless individuals, seniors, children with disabilities, and adults with disabilities?”

On Jan. 14, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said that SSI needs to be reformed, and she called for passage of the SSI Restoration Act, saying outdated rules “have trapped” 4 out of 10 recipients in poverty.