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Senators, watchdog hit Social Security over closed offices and poor service

Susan Landfield, 65, joined a May 3 protest of the closure of the Arlington Social Security office, saying it would be a personal hardship. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is getting heat from inside and outside the agency stemming from scores of field-office closures and poor customer service.

Bipartisan leaders of a special Senate committee want Social Security to explain why so many facilities have been shuttered, while a new internal watchdog report documents long processing times at hearing offices.

In letters to SSA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on Monday, Sens. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), the chairwoman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Special Committee on Aging said, “as some 10,000 seniors turn 65 each day and file for Social Security and Medicare, we should be expanding access to services, not reducing access.”

Instead, Social Security has closed about 125 field offices since 2000 and, the senators said, “service hours at field-office locations have also been cut while wait times have risen and hearing backlogs have grown.”

That was detailed in an SSA inspector general’s report that examined two regional Social Security hearing offices and found both had “high average processing times (APT), had below-average staffing levels, low morale, and issues with telework, claimant representatives, and the quality of the support staff’s work.”

The regions were New York, which covers 16 offices in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico; and Atlanta, with 37 offices in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.

These regions “had a disproportionate number of the lowest-ranking hearing offices in terms of average processing time,” Acting Inspector General Gale Stallworth Stone said in a letter with the report. In fiscal 2016, 88 percent of the offices in the New York region had above-average processing times, as did 65 percent of the Atlanta region, a trend that continued through fiscal 2017.

“It is our view that the availability of conveniently located and adequately staffed Social Security field offices is crucial to providing good service to America’s seniors, people with disabilities, and their families,” the senators wrote, “and to maintaining the public’s trust in Social Security, Medicare, and other programs that SSA administers.”

The report, however, demonstrates that the availability of an office alone doesn’t ensure good service. But without a convenient office, it could be difficult for many to get any service at all.

Collins and Casey included GSA in their letter because that agency acts as the government’s real estate agency and landlord.

“Particularly concerning are reports that in at least some of the locations where offices were closed, the reason cited for the closure was the inability of GSA to locate acceptable real estate within the geographical area served by the closed or consolidated offices,” Collins and Casey said. “This is reportedly the case even in areas where there were significant vacancy rates in commercial real estate.” They said offices in Arlington, Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee are targeted for closure or consolidation.

The GSA did not respond to a request for comment. SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle would not discuss the senators’ letter, except to say the agency will respond to them directly.

“Regarding the IG report, Social Security continues to make progress in lowering the hearing pending level. For 16 consecutive months, from January 2017 through April 2018, we have reduced the number of people waiting for a hearing decision. The number of cases pending is now under 1 million, at about 968,000 as of the end of April 2018,” Hinkle said. “We will use the information in this report, as well as other information, to continue to identify areas for business process efficiency and improvement in our hearings operation.  We will also work closely with the New York and Atlanta Regional Offices and their hearing offices to address the issues identified in this report.”

The senators’ letter followed, and in some wording closely tracked, one to them from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare asking for hearings into service issues. “It is difficult to overstate the importance of local Social Security field offices in providing service to the American people,” Max Richtman, the committee’s president and chief executive wrote last month. “Whether it’s time to file a claim for benefits or whether something has gone wrong regarding someone’s Social Security benefits, the availability of a convenient network of nearby offices is an essential element in SSA’s system of delivering services to the American people.”

Marilyn Zahm, a Buffalo administrative law judge in the New York region, who is president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, cited, by email, “inadequate staffing as the number one problem; many of the ills cited in the report (such as teleworking causing problems and deficient work products) actually flow from this factor.”

The IG report confirmed that, saying “we found a general correlation between the support staff ratio and APT.”

More support staff was, by far, the most suggested way to improve processing time in 96 interviews the inspector general did with employees, including management officials, judges and hearing-office staff, for the report.

Insufficient staffing also was a factor in low employee morale that contributes to long processing times and decreased productivity, along with overwork, regional office micromanagement and lack of accountability for poor performers, among others.

Regional office authorities, according to the inspector general’s report, “generally agreed with our findings, except for the claims of micromanagement,” as might be expected.

Collins and Casey expressed their “deep concern that the recently announced closures of multiple field offices continues a trend that will significantly affect the quality of service that the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides.”

Read more:

[One out of 10 Social Security offices has closed since 2000. Seniors and politicians want to know]

[Short staffing leads to long waits for Social Security disability hearing decisions]

[Trump’s Social Security budget offers more work, less staff, longer waits]