Congress moves to fix SSA customer service issues 

Published in RINewsToday on October 3, 2022

After Sen. Joe Manchin (D- WV) abandoned his efforts to legislatively speed up the permitting process for energy projects, as part of the Senate’s Continuing Resolution, it began to get bipartisan traction. With a shutdown looming just days before federal agencies would run out of money on Oct. 1, the Senate passed a stop gap government funding bill by a vote of 72 to 25 on Thursday afternoon, sending the package to the House of Representatives for consideration on Friday. That day, passing in the House chamber by a vote of 230 to 201, the bill was sent to President Biden to be signed before midnight, the end of FY 2022.  

The continuing resolution funds the federal government through Dec. 16 and keeps spending at the same levels, giving appropriations committees in both the House and Senate more time to craft a broader budget deal for the rest of the fiscal year.

Before passage in the Senate Chamber, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called for Senators to vote for the bipartisan bill that would fund the government and avert a weekend shutdown. The bill provided Ukraine with $12.35 billion in emergency assistance and bolstered funding to LIHEAP by $1 billion dollars to help American families heat their homes this winter.

Two billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants were also provided to assist communities recovering from major disasters in 2021 and 2022.  The Continuing Resolution also contained $18.8 billion for the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund, which would bring available resources in the fund to approximately $35 billion to respond to disasters.  

To ensure passage the Continuing Resolution did not include funding that the Biden administration requested for vaccines, testing and treatment for the coronavirus or monkeypox.

Ratcheting up funding for SSA

On Sept. 2, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) applauded President Biden for requesting additional funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA), to maintain customer service, in his proposal regarding the FY 2023 continuing resolution.

“President Biden’s request for the SSA provides much-needed funds to ensure the agency can continue to serve the public as Congress works to complete full-year appropriations bills. SSA’s mission is to help Americans access benefits they have paid for and deserve. Unfortunately, rising workloads following years of underfunding for SSA customer service have led to delays and growing wait times for services. The President’s request is a necessary down-payment that would prevent SSA services from degrading and becoming even more delayed while a continuing resolution is in place,” stated Larson.  

Six days later, Jeff Nesbit, SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Communication, authored a “Dear Colleague” letter calling for Congress to increase funding in the Continuing Resolution to ratchet up the agency’s customer service outreach that would be voted on before Oct. 1.  Due to continual underfunding and the resulting hiring freezes, reduce staffing levels cannot keep pace with the demand,” the SSA official warned. 

“An extended or full year Continuing Resolution in FY 2023 without additional funding would be disastrous,” says Nesbit, noting that it would require SSA to absorb fixed cost increases of over half a billion dollars. “We would be unable to replace nearly 6,000 additional SSA and State DDS employees we expect to lose next year due to expected attrition,” he said.

“We would be forced to significantly cut overtime levels that we rely on to complete our workloads, like making initial disability decisions or even helping people who come into our offices at the end of the day.  These cuts would further delay important services and increase the public’s frustration,” he stated.

According to Nesbit, the pandemic has created a backlog of initial disability claims, estimated to be approaching the one-million mark (929,000 as of August 2022, an increase of 189 claims from the end of last fiscal year, Sept. 2021). 

Additional funding in the Continuing Resolution would help SSA continue to automate its work, enhance security of recipient’s information, and provide more efficient and convenient service for the public, says Nesbit.  

NCPSSM pushes for more SSA funding 

The Biden Administration has requested $14.8 billion for the SSA for fiscal year (FY) 2023 in the upcoming Continuing Resolution, says Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy for the Washington-DC based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).  “Continuing Resolutions are stop-gap appropriations bills that temporarily fund day-to-day government operations while congressional appropriators draft legislation to fund government for the full fiscal year,” explains Adcock, noting that Continuing Resolutions usually fund agencies and programs based on the previous fiscal year (FY 2022) appropriated levels. 

“The Administrations’ request to Congress is that they include an “anomaly” provision in the FY 2023 Continuing Resolutions that funds SSA at a level higher than what the agency received for FY 2022.  The Biden Administration made this request because the agency is chronically underfunded and has mounting costs due to staff shortages and reopening field offices after being closed for two years,” he said.

Public outcry over the inadequate funding of Social Security Administration (SSA) that led to delays of service and long waits for disability decisions pushed the Senate to increase funding for SSA.  According to Adcock, the bill included $400 million in addition to FY 2022 funding levels for the pro-rated amount to be paid October 1 (start of FY 2023) through December 16 (expiration of funding in the bill).

“SSA had not been adequately funded, says Adcock, noting that from 2010 to 2021, the agency’s  operating budget declined by about 13 percent after inflation, while the number of beneficiaries rose by 21 percent, primarily as a result of the growth in new retirement beneficiaries as the baby boom generation reached retirement age. “These budget cuts have left SSA with its lowest levels of staffing in 25 years.,” he said. 

Call for Action 

“The level of funding in the Senate-passed Continuing Resolution will help SSA maintain current services, but it is not enough to improve services beyond what is provided now,” warns Adcock. “We’ll work with friendly members of Congress and other advocacy groups to get SSA more funding in the Omnibus Appropriations bill which would fund day-to-day operation of the federal government for the balance of FY 2023 (from December 16, 2022, to September 30, 2023),” he says, noting that Congress will try to pass the Omnibus during the lame duck session.

“The President submitted the FY 2023 budget to Congress on March 28.  Members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will be negotiating the discretionary side of the FY 2023 budget within the next few months,” adds Adcock, noting that their first step is to pass a Continuing Resolution before September 30th.  Then they will try to agree on FY 2023 appropriations in the form of an omnibus appropriations bill to be passed during the lame duck session after the elections.

“The additional funding for SSA in the stopgap spending bill is an important first step towards correcting many years of starving the agency. It is the bare minimum that Congress should provide,” adds Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works. 

“In next year’s budget, Congress should increase funding levels to what SSA truly needs. In light of the years of underfunding, the current rate of inflation, the loss of experienced staff (necessitating not only hiring but extensive training), and the deterioration of SSA’s phone system, Congress should increase SSA’s budget by $3 billion or more, allowing the agency to spend at least $16.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. After all, that represents just 0.6 percent of SSA’s accumulated reserve,” says Altman.  

Final Thoughts

According to SSA, in 2022, over 70 million seniors and disabled workers received social security benefits. We’ll see who will control the levers of power in the Senate and House during the 118th Congress when the dust settles after the midterm elections.  Whether it be Democrat or Republicans, providing adequate funding to SSA for its operations to improve its customer service to these  beneficiaries MUST be a legislative priority.   

When next year’s budget debates begin, seniors must ask their lawmakers to adequately fund SSA.  Most important, they must call for the strengthening and expansion of this program, created to promote the economic security of older Americans.    

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