By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page E01
It's good to know Uncle Sam doesn't give up; he just stops for breath. Then again, maybe the Social Security Administration was ahead of its time with its first big plan to automate disability claims.
More than a decade after the Social Security Administration took its first stab at overhauling the disability claims process -- a doomed effort that cost $71 million and took seven years before being abandoned in 1999 -- the agency is at it again.
This time, Social Security Administrator Jo Anne B. Barnhart has vowed to go paperless by 2005 by creating electronic folders for the millions of people who apply for disability benefits each year. The idea is to let the far-flung agencies and doctors that handle the mountains of claims documents do so using common folders online. The agency hopes the effort will save money and ease the crushing case backlogs that have plagued the national disability insurance program for more than a decade.
Barnhart's plan is on the frontier -- some might say the cliff -- of a movement inside big corporations and government agencies to exploit newer technologies allowing greater data-sharing over networks.
The agency has hired IBM to help it build a mammoth 52-terabyte electronic repository that can be accessible to 65,000 users around the country.
"They have undertaken one of biggest content management systems in the world," said IBM vice president Brett MacIntyre.
Indeed, the plan is so ambitious that the General Accounting Office issued a report this year concluding that the agency was moving too quickly, starting a national rollout in January without doing adequate pilot testing first or resolving several technical challenges. Because the Social Security Administration is introducing its five-part system in stages, starting new parts before others are fully built, the agency "lacks assurance that the interrelated components will work together," the GAO told Congress in March.
Yet the Social Security Administration appears undaunted. It is charging ahead with a project it estimates to cost about $800 million over seven years in hopes that the effort will save $1.3 billion in reduced costs for paper-handling, mailing and folder storage.
"A lot of people didn't think it could be done or that we could accomplish what we did by January 2004," said William E. Gray, the agency's deputy commissioner for systems.
Gray said the agency did extensive planning and testing, even though a decision to accelerate the project made it impractical to wait until every piece was finished before starting the rollout. Barnhart told Congress that waiting for the "end-to-end" testing that GAO wanted would have delayed the project by three years.