Ratcheting up SSA’s customer service will take more funding 

Published in RINewsToday on May 1, 2023

Over two months ago, as required by law, Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration (SSA) released the fiscal year 2023 operating plan to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The report, released on Feb. 10, 2023, details how SSA plans to use its $14.1 billion budget allocation for the year. 

Kijakazi wrote in the report’s transmittal letter: “In FY 2023, we will build the foundation for improved services by rebuilding our workforce after ending FY 2022 at our lowest staffing level in over 25 years.”

According to Kijakazi, at the end of Dec. 2022 the initial SSA claims-pending level soared to almost 975,000 cases.  This was more than 380,000 cases higher than at the end of FY 2019. “The average initial claims wait time through Dec. 2022 was 206 days compared to 120 days in FY 2019.  It will take a multi-year effort and sustained funding to restore our average initial disability claims wait times to pre-pandemic levels,” she says.

While Kijakazi anticipates processing 129,000 or 7% more initial disability claims in FY 2022 (52 weeks), she expects wait times for a disability decision at the initial and appeal levels to increase for a period of time because backlogs will continue to grow while the agency hires and trains new staff. 

Although the FY 2022 outlay represents $785 million of the agency’s budget of $13.34 billion, it was less than the $14.8 billion President Joe Biden requested for administration funding. In February 10th correspondence to the House and Senate Appropriation Committees, Kijakazi stated that while budget increases will cover fixed costs and support staffing in the upcoming fiscal year, “some performance will show improvement in FY 2023, while others will show temporary degradation.” 

Conversations regarding SSA’s customer service challenges

In February 28th correspondence to SSA’s Kijakazi, AARP’s Nancy LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, recognized increased funding was necessary for SSA to address its customer service problems. AARP recognizes that federal funding has not kept pace with increases in operational cost and demands, but the agency “needs to do more to constrain operating costs and increase productivity,” Kijakazi says.

LeaMond called the “expected decline in service troubling, given multiple assurances from SSA that the funding level received would be sufficient to at least maintain the modest customer service improvements made last year.”

“Your operating plan asserts that the already unacceptable average of call wait time of 33 minutes will be longer this year, increasing to 35 minutes, and people trying to call the agency will get a busy signal 15 percent of the time, more than double the rate last year.  This is an unacceptable step backward,” wrote LeaMond.

LeaMond says that SSA’s operating plan doesn’t address several customer service areas, especially the challenges of beefing up staff to improve in-person services and reducing wait times and busy rates that the public should expect when calling their local office.  She called for more details and when beneficiaries can expect improvements to online services.

“Even more concerning is the fact that the operating plans note that disability-related service improvements are not expected to occur before 2024 fiscal year,” adds Leamond. While the plan provides details about disability claims, and appeal workloads, as well as prioritization of claimants who have been waiting the longest, she calls on SSA to “act more quickly to improve the disability process.”

“The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has large fixed costs, such as rent on its network of 1200 field offices, and those fixed costs increase every year. SSA’s funding does not come from the general government budget, but rather from Social Security’s accumulated reserve of $2.8 trillion. Yet for over a decade, Congress has restricted SSA from spending the funds necessary for adequate service,” says Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW).

Adds Altman, “While Congress this year allowed SSA to spend more, the additional dollars did not even cover all the fixed costs. They certainly did not correct the many years of underfunding. Service will not significantly improve unless Congress allows SSA to spend more of  Social Security’s accumulated reserve  — at the bare minimum,  the $15.5 billion that President Biden has requested — but ideally significantly more.”

Biden budget seeks to fix SSA’s customer service issues

In a blog article penned on March 30, 2023, Kathleen Romig, Director of Social Security and Disability Policy at the Washington, DC-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, says that SSA has an opportunity to ratchet up its consumer service impacted by decades of restricted funds by receiving increased funding. “With additional funding in for the coming year, the agency could invest in the staff and technology it needs to better serve the public,” she says.

“Since 2010, SSA’s customer service budget has fallen by 17 percent after inflation, with its staffing falling a commensurate 16 percent – marking the lowest level in 25 years. These cuts happened even as the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 12 million, or 22 percent. Being forced to serve millions more people with fewer staff and resources has caused tremendous strain at SSA, and beneficiaries are suffering the consequences,” says Romig.

On March 9th, Biden released a FY 2024 budget calling for increased appropriations to SSA. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the president’s budget provides an increase of $1.4 billion (a 10% increase) over the FY 2023 budget to cover salaries, benefits and rent increases. It would also improve customer service at field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.   

Each year, SSA processes more than 6 million retirement, survivors, and Medicare claims, and more than 2 million disability and SSI claims, says OMB, charged with producing the president’s budget. Biden’s budget increase boosts staffing levels from FY 2023, allowing the agency to process about a half a million more disability cases in FY 2024 that were completed in FY 2022, significantly reducing wait times for those decisions.

GOP debt limit bill drastically cuts SSA’s operating budget

Just last week, by a razor thin margin, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)’s Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 (H.R. 2811) passed by a partisan vote of 217-215. Four Republicans voted “no”. While this legislation to lift the nation’s debt limit allows the U.S. Treasury to pay the nation’s bills, it has no chance for passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate. However, it will force the president’s team to the negotiation table with Republican House and Senate leadership, hoping it will push compromise on future spending limits.

Failure to increase the debt limit would have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. and global economies, as well as for all Americans, who rely on the federal budget to provide public services. (from Social Security and Medicare to food safety inspection, air traffic control, school nutrition, and environmental. 

After the House vote, Alex Lawson, SSW’s Executive Director of Social Security, charged that 217 House Republicans just voted to cut Social Security. “Nearly every Republican in the U.S. House just voted to slash the already inadequate funding of the Social Security Administration (SSA). If this bill becomes law, it will force SSA to close field offices, reduce hours, and lay off thousands of workers. This will make it far harder for Americans to claim the benefits they’ve earned,” warned Lawson. “Cuts to SSA are cuts to Social Security, and we will hold every single one of these members accountable,” he says.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) agrees with SSW’s assessment. One day before the vote, he wrote House members to urge them to pass “clean’ debt limit legislation.

“If the spending cuts and other [GOP] legislative changes that are incorporated in this legislation were ever to become law, the negative impact would be felt by virtually every American family in every Congressional District in the country,” wrote Richtman.

According to Richtman, the GOP’s proposed debt limit legislation includes among its provisions a roll-back of ALL discretionary federal spending to Fiscal Year 2022 levels in FY 2024, with growth limited to one prevent annually for the next decade. “This is not a minor trimming of spending that has been portrayed by some, but a dramatic slashing that will have devastating impacts on the Americans who rely on the affected programs for their health and well-being,” says the nationally recognized Social Security advocate. 

Reluctance to cut Defense and Veteran Health funding would have at least a 23 percent reduction to all other programs for FY 2024, charges Richtman, this resulting in funding cuts to SSA’s customer service budget.

“Cutting funding by six percent would significantly affect SSA’s ability to serve the public and undermine the Agency’s core-mission – producing longer wait times for benefits and to reach SSA representatives, as well as reduced access to in-person programs, noted Richtman, stressing that face-to-face access with SSA’s employees is critical to those who are elderly and disabled.

SSA calculates that for every $100 million in additional funding cut the federal agency would be forced to lay off an additional 1,000 employees, this equivalent to closing 40 field offices, says Richtman.

Since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend, or revise the definition of the debt limit – 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents, says the U.S. Treasury.  Like in the past, this Congress must follow to raise the nation’s debt limit, and is expected to do so.

Ultimately, it is crucial for Biden and McCarthy’s negotiations to hammer out a “clean” debt limits bill that will not cut SSA’s operational funding further which could send the agency’s customer service efforts into a tailspin. It is time for Congress to fix SSA’s operational funding issues once and for all to improve customer service provided to 65 million beneficiaries. 

For a copy of SSA’s 2023 Operating Plan go to https://www.ssa.gov/budget/assets/materials/2023/2023OP.pdf.

For a summary of H.R. 2811, Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023, go to 


For a copy of President Biden’s FY 2024 Budget, go to:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2023/03/09/fact-sheet-the-presidents-budget-for-fiscal-year-2024.


Trustee reports: Social Security and Medicare still face financial woes

Published in RINewsToday on April 10, 2023

Over a week ago, the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds released their annual reports on the financial health of these two programs. As in prior years, the trustees found that the Social Security and Medicare programs both continue to face significant financing issues.

The latest Social Security projections show the program is quickly heading toward insolvency and calls for Congress to find policy solutions sooner rather than later to prevent abrupt changes to tax or benefit levels.  The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and other aging advocates are urging Congress to take prompt action to strengthen and expand Social Security, while Republicans have been calling for cuts to future retirees’ benefits and at least partly privatizing the program. 

This 270- page 2023 Social Security Trustees Report warns that if Congress does not act, Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds, which help support payouts for the elderly, survivors and disabled, will become depleted in 2033 (that’s a year earlier than forecast last year), becoming totally insolvent in 2034 when beneficiaries would only receive about 80% of their scheduled benefits. 

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), roughly 66 million people received monthly Social Security checks in 2022 (175,840 in Rhode Island). A vast majority, or about 57 million of those beneficiaries, received benefits through the OASI Trust Fund, compared to nearly 9 million people who received benefits through the DI Trust Fund. 

The trustees say that Social Security funds would be fully depleted in 2034 because of expectations of a slowed economy and reduce labor productivity, considering inflation and economic input.

Although the DI Trust Fund asset reserves are not projected to become depleted during the 75-year projection period, being able to pay full benefits through 2097, the combined Social Security funds would only be able to pay 80% of the scheduled benefits after 2034, says the trustees report.

Taking a look at Medicare’s fiscal health

Medicare, the hospital insurance trust fund referred to as Medicare Part A, will only be able to pay scheduled benefits in full until 2031, according to the 273-page trustees’ annual report. The program covered 65 million seniors and people with disabilities in 2022, and will only be able to cover89% of total scheduledbenefits at that time.

Although the Medicare Part A Hospital Insurance trust fund will become insolvent in just eight years, Medicare spending as a whole (including Parts A, B, D, and Medicare Advantage, will continue to grow over the coming years.

The Medicare Trustees project a shortfall of 0.62 percent of payroll, or 0.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), noting that it would take about a 21 percent (0.6 percentage point) increase in the payroll tax rate or a 13 percent spending cut to restore the program’s solvency.

The improvement of Medicare’s hospital trust fund’s finances over last year’s projections can be tied to lower estimates for health care spending after the height of the Covid-19 pandemic along with more projected income that the trustees estimate coming from a larger number of covered.

Dueling political statements

With the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund reports released on March 31, 2023, the Chair and Ranking Members of the House Ways and Means (HWM) were quick to issue dueling statements to give their political spins. HMW’s Subcommittee on Social Security has jurisdiction on bills and matters related to the Social Security Act.

House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith (R-Missouri) charged that reckless Democratic spending has impacted the financial viability of the Social Security and Medicare Programs.  “Thanks to President Biden’s economic failures, seniors’ hard-earned benefits are further under threat. Social Security’s combined trust funds are expected to become insolvent a full year sooner than forecast in the previous report as a result of a slowed economy and Democrats’ inflation continuing to outpace wage growth. And Medicare’s latest report comes amidst Biden’s plans to slash seniors’ access to innovative new cures and treatments,” says Smith, stressing that “the first step to protecting these programs is “growing the economy – not budget gimmicks or tax increases that hold back economic growth.

On the other hand, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Richard E. Neal (D-MA) counters Smith’s political perspective. “While Democrats are committed to the long-term health of these programs, Republicans are launching another shameful assault on the economic well-being of millions of workers and retirees with their plan to make drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare, warns Neal. “Their playbook is clear: slashing a critical resource that Americans have rightfully earned to give another tax cut to the top 1%. Democrats won’t let their reckless attacks stand, and we will continue to defend and protect Social Security and Medicare for generations to come.”

Rhode Island Congressmen were quick to give their comments about the release of the two trustee reports, too. “Unlike the nearly three-quarters of House Republicans who endorsed slashing Social Security in 2022 – reducing benefits by $729 billion over 10 years – House Democrats are working to protect Social Security for generations to come,” says Congressman David N. Cicilline, representing Congressional District 1.  Cicilline, who is retiring his seat on May 31, 2023, has pushed to expand and strengthen Social Security over his six-terms in office.

Cicilline asks: “Sixty-six million Americans rely on this essential program to make ends meet and we cannot allow Republicans to make any cuts to this hard-earned benefit. The drug spending savings implemented by our Inflation Reduction Act will not only keep money in seniors’ pockets but will also drive down costs to Medicare itself. We’ve been taking real action to strengthen these programs and help our seniors – what have Republicans done?”  

As Rhode Island’s newly elected Congressman, Seth Magaziner says he will “fight tooth and nail to protect Rhode Islander’s hard-won Social Security benefits.”   In responding to the trustee’s report about Social Security’s financial woes, Magaziner called for raising the cap on Social Security taxes, forcing “millionaires and billionaires to pay the same rate as teachers and fire fighters.”

“I stand ready to work with anyone who is serious about strengthening Social Security, not cutting hard-earned benefits,” says Magaziner. 

While there are few fixes being proposed by either party or leader, some fixes identified by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland that “Americans might be willing to support” include:

–        raising the Social Security payroll tax cap

–        reducing benefits for high earners

–        gradually raising the retirement age

–        increasing the payroll tax

–        raising the minimum benefit

–        changing cost-of-living adjustment calculations

–        increasing benefits for beneficiaries over age 80

Social Security advocacy group gives its two cents

“Contrary to conservative claims, Social Security is not ‘going bankrupt’; the program will always be able to pay benefits because of ongoing contributions from workers and employers. In fact, this is yet another Trustees report showing that Social Security remains strong in the face of turmoil in the rest of the economy,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO in a release on the Social Security Trustee Report. He notes that the program’s insolvency date has stayed roughly the same even after a global pandemic and recent economic upheavals. 

Congress can strengthen Social Security by bringing in additional revenues into the program, says Richtman.  NCPSSM endorses legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut) to keep the trust fund solvent for the rest of this century while expanding program benefits.  Both bills would adjust the Social Security payroll wage cap so that higher-income earners begin contributing their fair share, he notes.

As to Medicare, in a release Richtman called on Congress to take “pre-emptive action now” to protect the Medicare Part A trust fund from becoming depleted in 2031, three years later than estimated in their previous report, at which time Medicare could still pay 89% of benefits.  

“Beyond trust fund solvency, the Trustees reported that the standard Medicare Part B premium will rise next year to $174.80 per month – a $10 or six percent monthly increase,” says Richtman. “Any increase is a burden to seniors living on fixed incomes, who too often must choose between paying monthly bills or filling prescriptions and getting proper health care.  Seniors need relief from rising premiums and skyrocketing out-of-pocket health care costs,” he said. 

“We support President Biden’s plan to strengthen Medicare’s finances, as laid out in his FY 2024 budget.  His plan would bring more revenue into the program, rather than cutting benefits as some Republicans have proposed.  Building on the prescription drug pricing reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act, the President’s budget proposal would lower Medicare’s prescription drug costs — and some of those savings would be used to extend the solvency of the Part A trust fund,” said Richtman.

For a copy of the 2023 Social Security Trustee Report, go to https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2023/.

For a copy of 2023 Medicare Trustee Report, go to https://www.cms.gov/oact/tr/2023.

Problem Solvers Caucus may be key to re-establishing Committee on Aging

Published in RINewsToday on Jan. 16, 2023

H.R. Res. 583, Reestablishing the Permanent House Select Committee on Aging (HSCoA), chances were growing slim in getting Congressional attention for passage in the final days of the 117th Congress. Extensive media coverage of the ongoing Ukraine War, the wrap up and issuance of the Jan. 6th hearing’s report and midterm election coverage kept Congressman David Cicilline’s (D-RI) resolution from getting political traction from being considered by the House Rules Committee for ultimate passage and floor action.

The HSCoA was a permanent select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives between 1974 and 1992. The committee was initially created with the intent not of crafting legislative proposals, but of conducting investigations and holding hearings to put the Congressional spotlight on aging issues. Its purpose was to push for legislation and other action, working with standing committees, through regular committee channels. If  H. Res. 583 was passed by the House Rules Committee, it would have brought back the HSCoA. No Senate action was required.

According to the Congressional Research Services, it is a very simple process to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address.  Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

Taking a Looking Back

Last Congress, Cicilline’s H. Res 583 would reestablish a HSCoA without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the select committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts influenced legislation taken up by standing committees.

H. Res. 583 would authorize the reestablished HSCoA Committee to study the use of all practicable means and methods of encouraging the development of public and private programs and policies which will assist seniors in taking a full part in national life and which will encourage the utilization of the knowledge, skills, special aptitudes, and abilities of seniors to contribute to a better quality of life for all Americans.

It would also allow the HSCoA to develop policies that would encourage the coordination of both governmental and private programs designed to deal with problems of aging and to review any recommendations made by the President or White House Conference on Aging in relation to programs or policies affecting seniors.

Cicilline’s H. Res. 583 drew the support and attention of the Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based Leadership Council on Aging and a former Staff Director of the Senate Permanent Special Committee on Aging, along with President Nancy Altman of Social Security Works, and Chair of Strengthen Social Security Coalition.   

Robert Weiner, former chief of staff of the HSCoA, Tom Spulak, former staff director and General Counsel of the House Rules Committee and Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate in Rhode Island, including this writer were strong advocates for passage of this resolution.

Although H. Res. 583 had strong backing from the aging network, the bill never was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor considered by the Democratic controlled House Rules Committee As a result, the resolution never reached the House floor for a vote. As a result, the resolution died at the end of the 117th Congressional session.

The House must reestablish the HSCoA

It is now crucial for Cicilline to reach across the aisle for Republican cosponsors when he reintroduces H. Res. 583 during the new Congress. The need for reestablishing this investigative committee still exists today as when it was first introduced eight years ago.

“America’s seniors have spent a lifetime working hard and moving our country forward and they deserve the financially secure retirement that they worked and paid for. The pandemic disproportionately impacted seniors, and now those with fixed incomes are bearing the burden of inflation and the higher costs food, housing, and other essentials,” says Cicilline.

“I’m extremely proud that we were able to institute a $35 cap on insulin costs and bring down prescription and medical costs for seniors through the Inflation Reduction Act, but there is more work to be done. Reauthorizing the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging will give us the dedicated staff and resources necessary to study and address the issues that affect seniors to make sure they can live the rest of their lives with dignity and security,” adds Cicilline.

“It is vitally important that we ensure Rhode Island seniors have the financial security, access to high quality health care and quality of life they have earned. For this reason, I am proud to support the reestablishment of the HSCoA, and encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle make senior citizens’ issues a priority in the 118th Congress,” adds newly elected Congressman Seth Magaziner.

In the article, “Senior’s Need House of Reps to Bring Back Aging Committee,” I previously coauthored with Tom Spulak and Robert Weiner on this statewide news blog last July, provides the rational and reasoning for reestablishing the HSCoA.


“Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20 percent of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases,” and the need for re-establishing the HSCoA becomes even more important.”

“Historically, the HSCoA served as a unique venue that allowed open, bipartisan House debate from various ideological and philosophical perspectives to promote consensus that, in turn, helped facilitate the critical work of the standing committees. Addressing the needs of older Americans in a post-pandemic world will require this type of investigative, legislative oversight, work which can only be advanced and promoted by reestablishing the HSCoA.”

“As Americans are aging, we also face a variety of intergenerational concerns that merit the investigation by the HSCoA, such as growing demands on family caregivers and a burgeoning retirement security crisis.”

“Restoring the HSCoA would provide the House with an opportunity to more fully explore a range of aging issues and innovations that cross Standing Committee jurisdiction of importance to both Republicans and Democrats, while holding field hearings, convening remote hearings, engaging communities and promoting understanding and dialogue.”

“Today, the Senate Permanent Special Committee on Aging is working on everything from scams against seniors to increasing HCBS services, to calling out questionable billing practices by Medicare Advantage insurers. Seniors have been better off over the last 30 years with a Senate Aging Committee in existence — and the Senate investigative committee would benefit from a reestablished HSCoA, whose sole mission would be to look out for older American.”

“Over 30 years ago, working closely with authorizing committees with jurisdiction over aging programs and services, the HSCoA put an end to mandatory retirement.  Alzheimer’s became a household word because of its investigative hearings. Legislation was passed to improve the quality of care in the nation’s nursing homes, even creating the nation’s National Institute’s for Health.“

Centralist to play key role in passage 

“This is a unique moment in time where centrists from both sides in the House could influence legislative action thru genuine bipartisan collaboration”, said Vin Marzullo, who served 31 years as a career federal civil rights & social justice administrator at the National Service agency.   “I am urging our newly elected Congressman, Seth Magaziner, to join with the lead sponsor, Congressman David Cicilline, in the re-introduction of the House Resolution to re-establish HSCoA. 

Additionally, I would advise that bipartisan efforts begin by reaching out to Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), co-chairs of the “Problems Solvers Caucus,” for their co-sponsorship/support”, added Marzullo.  “That could be a pathway for better legislating and governing and Congressman Magaziner stated during the campaign that he’d look for common ground with members on the other side of the aisle.  This is it — we need an adult conversation about the Aging of America and how we intend to aid and support our elders, caregivers, and long term care options.”

We’ll see if Cicilline and Magaziner tag-team for a fifth attempt to reestablish the HSCoA.  For the sake of improving the quality of life of America’s seniors, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) must put politics aside and work with a Bi-Partisan Coalition and the Democratic Caucus, to achieve real results for our nation’s older adults. 

For details about the House Problem Solvers Caucus, go to  https://problemsolverscaucus.house.gov/.