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.

A Sacred Trust – moves to strengthen Social Security

Published on November 8, 2021 in RINewsToday

Almost two weeks ago, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairperson John B. Larson (D-Conn.) threw H.R. 5723, the Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, into the legislative hopper. During its unveiling in the historic committee room of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, the same room where Social Security and Medicare legislation was crafted in the 1930s and 1960, the Connecticut Congressman’s proposal comes on the heels of the Social Security Administration’s 2021 estimate that the trust funds that support the program will be depleted in just 13 years, averting an estimated 20 percent cut in benefits by 2034.

The Sacred Trust Act is the successor to Larson’s original Social Security 2100 Act, which he first introduced in 2014.The House Ways and Means Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the bill in Nov. followed by a markup.

At press time, 194 House Democratic Members are cosponsoring the 100-page House Democratic proposal with no Republican lawmakers crossing the aisle. Almost 40 advocacy groups are endorsing the House Democratic proposal.

At the Oct. 26 news conference unveiling Larson’s legislative proposal, the Connecticut congressman noted that Congress expanded Social Security during the past 50 years and it has been 38 years since lawmakers have taken any comprehensive action to strengthen the program.“ With 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible, and with millennials needing Social Security more than any generation, the time for Congress to act is now,” he said.

Taking a Close look at H.R. 5723

According to the legislative fact sheet released at the news conference, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries. It provides an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits) equivalent to an average of 2% of benefits to make up for inadequate Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) since 1983.

Larson’s Social Security proposal also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation. It improves the annual COLA formula by adopting a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities. Although the 2022 COLA 5.9%, the largest in years, the average for the past 10 years is roughly 1.5% and in 3 of the past 12 years, beneficiaries received no COLA at all.

It protects low-income works that provides a new minimum benefit stet at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits doe not fall behind. Currently, 5 million seniors live in poverty.

The Sacred Trust Act also contains other provisions that seniors and their advocates have sought for years, including:

  • Improving Social Security benefits for widows and widowers in two income households so they are  not penalized for having two incomes.
  • Ending five-month waiting period to receive disability benefits so those with ALS or other severe disabilities no longer have to wait.
  • Providing caregiver credits for Social Security wages to ensure that caregivers are not penalized in retirement for taking timeout of the workforce to care for children and other dependents.
  • Extending Social Security benefits for students to age 26 and for part-time students.
  • Increasing access to Social Security dependents for children who live with grandparents or other relatives.
  • Requiring Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail annual statements to all workers detailing the FICA contributions they make and projects of their benefits in the future. 
  • Preventing unwarranted closures of SSA offices to improve customer serve
  • Improving access to legal representation for people seeking long-term disability benefits.

H.R. 5723 would pay for strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund by having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else.Currently, payroll taxes are not collected on an individual wages over $142,800.The legislative proposal would apply payroll taxes to wages above $400,00.This provision would only impact the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by making a significant contribution to the programs solvency, making up more than half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Funds.

Finally, H.R. 5723 would combine the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance with Disability Insurance into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure all benefits will be paid.

It’s Now Time to Fix Social Security 

Larson’s Social Security proposal would “take historic steps to expand Social Security — delivering for retirees, people with disabilities, and their families the first real boost in benefits in 50 years.  The Sacred Trust Act also would bring new revenue into Social Security amid projections that the trust fund will run dry in 2034 if Congress doesn’t take action,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“To those who claim that no one in Washington has the courage to address Social Security’s challenges, or that the only solution is to cut benefits for future generations, Congressman Larson’s bill is a stunning refutation,” states Richtman, noting that he understands that beneficiaries need an increase in monthly checks to meet skyrocketing living expenses. “He knows that the fairest way to strengthen Social Security’s finances is for the wealthy to begin paying their fair share of payroll contributions.  For years, seniors and their advocates have demanded these improvements,” adds Richtman.   

“There is good news for everyone in this bill, which is only fitting, since Social Security touches almost every American’s life.  Beneficiaries have waited long enough for these vital improvements.  Congressman Larson now has nearly 200 cosponsorsin the House.  After seven long years, seniors and their advocates can finally see the finish line, says Richtman.  

With the Democrats controlling the White House, seniors have a good chance of seeing the expansion and strengthening of Social Security.  The proposal has many of President Biden’s promises made during his campaign.  But, like Larson’s previous Social Security Bill, the latest version has no Republican cosigners.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown that the American public strongly supports Social Security, across party and demographic lines.  Larson’s legislative proposal has the support in the House, but will it pass in the upper chamber with Senate Democrats holding a slim majority?  Will voter support influence Republican lawmakers to work across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out an acceptable bipartisan  proposal, as the 2022 mid-term elections get closer?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

A call to Congress to strengthen, expand Social Security & Medicare 

Published in Rhode Island News Today on September 6, 2021

The 2021 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI)) and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI), released last week, gives Congress this stark warning: the Social Security Trust fund is heading toward insolvency in 13 years while SSDI will see its reserve funds depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than last year’s estimate. As a whole, combined, the two Social Security trust fund reserves will be depleted in 2034, a year earlier than estimated made in last year’s Trustee report.

However, there is good news. This year’s report notes that there is more than enough time for lawmakers to make up shortfalls by immediately shoring up the ailing Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI) by Congress increasing revenues or cutting costs to these programs.

“The theoretical combined trust funds will exhaust their reserves by 2034, when today’s 54-year-olds reach the full retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 75. Upon insolvency, all beneficiaries will face a 22% across-the-board benefit cut,” says a detailed analysis released by the Washington, DC-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committee that addresses federal budget and fiscal issues.

According to this year’s Medicare Trustee’s report, there was no change from last year’s projections that noted Medicare Hospital Insurance trust funds would be deleted in 2026. If this occurs, physicians, acute care facilities and nursing homes would not receive their full compensation of the program (only 91% of scheduled payments), pushing the uncompensated costs on the patients to pay.

Total Medicare expenditures are projected to increase in the future at a faster pace than both total workers’ earnings and the overall economy, says the newly released Medicare Trustee report.

In light of the projected insolvency of Social Security, this year’s Trustee’s report notes that beneficiaries may receive an estimated 3.1% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for benefits in 2021, the highest COLA in a decade. This large increase was triggered by higher inflation rates caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Beltway Insiders Respond

“The Trustees’ projections in this year’s report include the best estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program,” said Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. “The pandemic and its economic impact have had an effect on Social Security’s Trust Funds, and the future course of the pandemic is still uncertain. Yet, Social Security will continue to play a critical role in the lives of 65 million beneficiaries and 176 million workers and their families during 2021.”

“The Trustees Report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near-term yet underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent 22% in cuts across the board on all benefits in 2034,” says House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) in a released statement. “With the loss of traditional pensions, rising health care costs, and many people unable to save enough for retirement, there is a growing retirement crisis. 65 million Americans currently rely on Social Security benefits, yet millions are suffering and can’t make ends meet, adds Larson.

Furthermore, the Trustees Report shows that this year the cost of paying out benefits will exceed the income from the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) payments,” states Larson.

The released 2021Trustee reports on the financial solvency of Medicare and Social Security trust funds once again identify unsustainable benefit promises in Medicare and Social Security programs, stated senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said in a released statement.

 “The Hospital Insurance trust fund [Medicare] is projected to be exhausted around 2026; there are $60 trillion of unfunded liabilities in Social Security programs; and unfunded liabilities increased by trillions of dollars over the last year alone,” adds Crapo.

Crapo urges Congress and the White House to “work closely together with a sense of urgency to address the challenges detailed in the Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports. However, “most Democrats want only to expand benefit promises further without generating sustainable trust fund solvency,” he said.

Seniors Depend on Social Security on Most of Their Income

“There is no need to sound the alarm, but now is the time to address Social Security’s long-term solvency – and provide an overdue boost in benefits. Phone calls and emails to Congress are definitely warranted at this critical juncture,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, responding to the Social Security Trustee Report released August 31.

According to Richtman, Social Security has never missed a benefit payment in its 86-year history, but remains strong. Even if no Congressional action is taken and the Trust fund becomes deleted, Social Security could still pay 79% of the benefits with revenue coming from regular worker’s payroll contributions. “But that poses a huge financial risk for the millions of retirees who depend on Social Security for most if not all of their income.  It also raises a serious political risk for members of Congress who fail to boost the program’s finances so that the trust fund remains solvent beyond 2034,” he says. 

Living on an average monthly benefit of $1,540 is tough to do, says Richtman, as retirement savings dwindle, pensions disappear and the soaring cost of senior housing and medical care.  

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW) and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Richtman’s assessment of Social Security’s fiscal solvency and impact on the retiree’s income. “Today’s report shows that Social Security remains strong and continues to work well, despite the once-in-a-century pandemic. That this year’s projections are so similar to last year’s proves once again that our Social Security system is built to withstand times of crisis, providing a source of certainty in uncertain times,” she says.

“We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis — made worse by the pandemic, which, among other economic impacts, forced millions of workers to retire earlier than planned. The solution is to expand Social Security, as President Joe Biden has promised to do,” suggests Altman.

According to SSW, “about one out of two married senior beneficiaries and seven out of 10 unmarried senior beneficiaries and almost one out of tow unmarried beneficiaries rely on Social Security for virtually all their income.”

Mustering the Political Will 

Richtman calls for Congress to closely look at Congressman John Larson (D-CT) legislation to fix and expand the nation’s ailing Social Security program. “For over six years, Congressman John Larson has been driving efforts to strengthen Social Security by adjusting the payroll wage cap so that high income earners begin paying their fair share,” he notes.

Larson has also proposed an across-the-board boost for all retirees, enhanced benefits for the most vulnerable seniors, and a more accurate formula for calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) so that benefits truly keep pace with inflation, says Richtman, noting that the Connecticut Congressman’s  proposals also align with President Biden’s initiatives to strengthen and expand Social Security. 

“Of course, the default response from conservatives will be to suggest, indirectly or otherwise that Social Security benefits must be cut to address the program’s funding shortfall,” states Richtman said. “Some will insist that Social Security be privatized, which would gamble workers’ hard-earned retirement benefits on Wall Street. Meanwhile, conservatives likely will oppose common sense revenue-side measures that would actually boost benefits, including Rep. Larson’s proposed adjustment of the payroll wage cap.”  For Congress to act to advance legislation to strengthen and expand Social Security, voters must put political pressure on their elected officials “to muster the political will to get it done,” says Richtman.

A Final Note…

It’s better to make changes to ensure Social Security’s solvency now, rather than waiting, suggests CRFB, a delay only adds more costs to fixing trust fund shortfalls in a timely fashion.“ Acting now allows more policy options, lets policymakers phase in changes more gradually, and provides more time for workers to adjust their work and savings, if necessary,” the fiscal advocacy group says.

The clock is ticking. There are almost 4,500 days until the project insolvency of the Social Security trust fund. It is now time for Congress to find viable, bipartisan solutions to fixing Social Security and Medicare, once and for all. 

The 276-page 2021 Social Security Trust Fund report is available by going to https://www.ssa.gov/oact/TR/2021/tr2021.pdf.