Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.

House Committee Moves to Rein in Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 1, 2019

On Nov. 18, House Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-RI) introduced The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 (H.R. 5133) to put the brakes on skyrocketing prescription drug costs. The bill attacked increasing costs by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from engaging in anticompetitive “product hopping.”

Two days later, the Committee unanimously passed the bipartisan bill to drive down the rising costs of prescription drugs. Now H.R. 5133 goes to the House floor for a vote.

“Big pharmaceutical companies have done everything they can to increase their profits regardless of who it affects. Their CEOs make millions in bonuses ever year while hardworking folks are forced to ration their medicine just so they can put food on the table for their kids,” said Cicilline, in a released statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

Since becoming Chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Cicilline has sought to take on the anticompetitive behavior in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. “This is wrong, and it needs to stop. This bill, along with the suite of legislation to lower health care costs the House has passed already this year, will put an end to anticompetitive behavior that is driving prices up while pushing the middle class further and further down,” says Cicilline in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“This bill builds on the Committee’s strong record of bipartisan legislation to confront one of the leading drivers of high prescription drug costs—efforts by drug companies to keep generic drugs off the market so that they can preserve their monopoly profits,” adds Chairman Nadler when H.R. 5133 was thrown into the legislative hopper. “The outrageous behavior of product hopping puts profits before patients and thwarts the competition that is essential to lowering prescription drug prices,” he charges. Nadler says that H.R. 5133 would “encourage drug companies to focus on delivering meaningful innovation for sick patients rather than delivering profits to their bottom line.”

Fixing the Problem

According to Cicilline and Nadler, pharmaceutical companies use a wide array of tactics when their patent on a drug is near expiration to switch patients to another version of the drug that they have the exclusive right to sell. Called “product hopping,” this anticompetitive practice extends the manufacturer’s ability to charge monopoly prices by blocking the patient’s ability to switch to a cheaper, generic alternative. Product hopping benefits the manufacturer’s bottom line at the expense of patients who are stuck paying higher prices often for many years at a time, they say.

The two Congressmen say that there is another roadblock to lowering prescription drug costs. Although antitrust agencies have made an effort to curb product hopping, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still faces a number of hurdles under existing law when trying to hold companies accountable for this anticompetitive conduct. The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 strengthens the FTC’s ability to bring and win cases against pharmaceutical companies that engage in all forms of product hopping.

A similar version of H.R. 5133 was considered in the Senate and it would save taxpayers an estimated $500 million according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A week earlier, before H.R. 5133 was passed by the and Judiciary Committee, a new report was released by AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI), giving data to Congress to enact legislation to lowering prescription drug costs. The report findings indicate that brand-name drug prices rose more than twice as fast as inflation in 2018.

According to the AARP PPI report, retail prices for 267 brand-name drugs commonly used by older adults surged by an average of 5.8 percent in 2018, more than twice the general inflation rate of 2.4 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for one brand-name drug ballooned to more than $7,200 in 2018, up from nearly $1,900 in 2006.

“There seems to be no end to these relentless brand-name drug price increases,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a Nov. 13 statement announcing the release of the report. “To put this into perspective: If gasoline prices had grown at the same rate as these widely-used brand-name drugs over the past 12 years, gas would cost $8.34 per gallon at the pump today. Imagine how outraged Americans would be if they were forced to pay those kinds of prices,” says Whitman.

Brand-name drug price increases have consistently and substantially exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods for over a decade, notes the AARP PPI data.

If brand-name drug retail price changes had been limited to the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2018, the average annual cost of therapy for one brand-name drug would be a whopping $5,000 lower today ($2,178 vs. $7,202). The report’s findings note that the average senior takes 4 to 5 medications each month, and the current cost of therapy translates into an annual cost of more than $32,000, almost 25 percent higher than the median annual income of $26,200 for a Medicare beneficiary.

“While some people will undoubtedly see a slower rate of price increases as a sign of improvement, the reality is that there is absolutely nothing to stop drug companies from reverting back to double-digit percentage price increases every year,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “Americans will remain at the mercy of drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior until Congress takes major legislative action,” adds Purvis.

With over 340 days before the upcoming 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections, Senate Democrats say that more than 250 House-passed bills are “buried in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) legislative graveyard.” The Senate’s top Republican}, referred to as the “Grim Reaper,” has blocked consideration on these bills (including prescription drug pricing bills) effectively killing them. As the election day gets closer this number is expected to increase.

President Trump and Republican lawmakers are loudly chanting that the Democrats are “getting nothing done in Congress.” This is just fake “political” news. Major reforms that would prop up Social Security, Medicare, and lower Prescription Drug prices get the legislative kibosh in the GOP-controlled Senate. It is now time to put these bills to an up or down vote in the upper chamber. The voters will send a message to Congress next November if they agree with the results. It’s time for McConnell to put down his reaper

For details, of AARP report, go to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

2050 and the Caregiver Dilemma

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 22, 2018

The year 2030 marks an important demographic turning point in U.S. history according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, released last month. By 2030, older people are projected to outnumber children. In the next twenty years, when these aging baby boomers enter their 80s, who will provide informal caregiving to them.

Almost three years earlier, in a July 2015 report, “Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update Undeniable Progress, but Big Gaps Remain,” the AARP Public Policy Institute warned that fewer family members will be around to assist older people with caregiving needs.

According to AARP’s 25-page report, coauthored by Susan C. Reinhard, Lynn Friss Feinberg, Rita Choula, and Ari Houser, the ratio of potential family caregivers to the growing number of older people has already begun a steep decline. In 2010, there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every person age 80 and older. By 2030, that ratio will fall sharply to 4 to 1, and is projected to drop further to 3 to 1 in 2050.

Family caregivers assisting relatives or close friends afflicted with chronic, disabling, or serious illness, to carry out daily activities (such as bathing or dressing, preparing meals, administering medications, driving to doctor visits, and paying bills), are key to keeping these individuals in their homes and out of costly nursing facilities. What is the impact on care of aging baby boomers when family caregivers no longer provide assistance in daily activities?

“In 2013, about 40 million family caregivers in the United States provided an estimated 37 billion hours of care to an adult with limitations in daily activities. The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $470 billion in 2013, up from an estimated $450 billion in 2009,” notes AARP’s caregiver report. What will be the impact on the nation’s health care system without family caregivers providing informal care?

The Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, again puts the spot light on the decreasing caregiver ratio over the next decades identified by the AARP Policy Institute, one that must be planned for and addressed by Congress, federal and state policy makers.

Who Will Take Care of Aging Baby Boomers?

With the expansion in the size of the older population, 1 in every 5 United States residents will be retirement age. Who will provide informal caregiving in our nation with a larger adult population and less children to serve as caregivers?

“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” said Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.”

The 2030s are projected to be a transformative decade for the U.S. population, says the 2017 statistical projections – the population is expected to grow at a slower pace, age considerably and become more racially and ethnically diverse. The nation’s median age is expected to grow from age 38 today to age 43 by 2060.

The Census Bureau also observed that that as the population ages, the ratio of older adults to working-age adults, also known as the old-age dependency ratio, is projected to rise. By 2020, there will be about three-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person. By 2060, that ratio will fall to just two-and-a-half working-age adults for every retirement-age person.

Real Challenges Face Congress as the Nation Ages

Jean Accius, Ph.D., AARP Policy Institute’s Vice President, Independent Living, Long-Term Services and Supports, says, “The recent Census report highlights the sense of urgency to develop innovative solutions that will support our growing older adult population at a time when there will likely be fewer family caregivers available to help. The challenges that face us are real, but they are not insurmountable. In fact, this is an opportunity if we begin now to lay the foundation for a better system of family support for the future. The enactment of the RAISE (Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage) Family Caregivers Act, which would create a strategy for supporting family caregivers, is a great path forward.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, gives his take on the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, too.

“Despite how cataclysmic this may sound, the rising number of older people due to the aging of baby boomers is no surprise and has been predicted for many years. This is why the Social Security system was changed in 1983 to prepare for this eventuality. Under current law, full benefits will continue to be paid through 2034 and we are confident that Congress will make the necessary changes, such as raising the wage cap, to ensure that full benefits continue to be made well into the future,” says Richtman.

Richtman calls informal caregiving “a critical part of a care plan” that enhances an older person’s well-being. “While there currently are programs such as the Medicaid Waiver that will pay family members who provide caregiving support more can be done to incentivize caregiving so that loss of personal income and Social Security work credits are not barriers to enlisting the help of younger individuals to provide informal support services,” he says.

Adds Richtman, the Medicare and Medicaid benefits which reimburse for the home-based services and skilled nursing care “will be unduly strained ”as the diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease skyrockets with the growing boomer population. He calls on Congress to “immediately provide adequate research funding to the National Institutes of Health to accelerate finding a cure in order to save these programs and lower the burdens on family caregivers and the healthcare system. “

Finally, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, says “Our aging population represents challenges on many, many fronts, including healthcare, housing, Social Security, Medicare and, of course, caregiving. It would be nice to think everything would take care of itself if there were more younger people than older people. But that misses the point entirely. The needs of older Americans are a challenge to all Americans, if for no other reason than most of us end up with multiple late in life needs. And too many reach that point without savings to cover those needs.”

“It’s worth noting, by the way, that many of the solutions will come from people 50 and older — many of whom will work longer in their lives to improve the lives of older Americans. We need to stop looking through the lens of ‘old people’ being the problem and instead encourage and empower older Americans to take greater control over their lives as they help others,” says Connell.

“Congress needs to focus on common sense solutions to assure families that Social Security and Medicare are protected. The healthcare industry needs to face the medical challenges. And at the state and local level, we must focus on home and community-based health services,” adds Connell.

For details about the Census Bureau’s 2017 statistical projections, co to http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html.

For more information about AARP’s July 2015 caregiver report, go to http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/valuing-the-invaluable-2015-update-new.pdf.

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