SENATE AGING COMMITTEE TO EXAMINES THE EFFECTS OF SHUTTERED SOCIAL SECURITY SERVICE OFFICES ON SENIORS
Aroostook Area Agency on Aging Official Testifies, Committee Releases Findings of Investigation
WASHINGTON, DC— Despite an increased caseload resulting from the retirement of the Baby Boomers and the expansion of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI), in the past five years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has closed 64 of approximately 1,245 field offices-- the largest field office reduction in history--and the SSA has shuttered 533 temporary mobile offices and significantly reduced field office hours—this according to findings of an investigation by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. The Committee , led by Chairman Bill Nelson and Ranking Member Susan Collins, held a hearing today titled, “Reduction in Face-To-Face Services at the Social Security Administration,” to examine the effects these closures have on seniors, particularly those living in rural areas.
Tammy DeLong, who is the Medicare Specialist for the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging in Presque Isle, testified before today’s hearing at the invitation of Senator Collins. She explained how crucial the SSA field offices are to helping seniors resolve problems, many of which can be complex, at SSA offices and through personal contact with an SSA employee. She said that, in addition to the difficulty in resolving complicated problems over the phone or through the SSA website, there are a number of impediments to seniors receiving the assistance they need should these local offices be closed. For example, far too many seniors, especially those who live in rural areas, do not have the means or ability to access the Internet; those who have hearing impairments can have difficulty communicating by phone; and language barriers can exist. In addition, many seniors would not have the ability to travel long distances to alternative field offices.
Ms. DeLong explained that if seniors have questions about Social Security or Medicare, “A handshake still means something. If they want to know and understand something, they don’t want to seek it out online or on the phone. They want to sit and talk with someone in person, where they are a name and not just a number, which is why the local Social Security Office is so important.”
Senators Collins and Nelson were also critical of the process which the SSA has used to determine which offices to close or to reduce hours. The process has not been transparent and has not taken into account the input of affected communities or senior managers of the local offices.
Senator Collins said, “The Social Security Administration has been pushing for years to reduce the face-to-face services it provides through its field offices and to force beneficiaries to interact with the agency online or over the phone. While I don’t object to providing services this way where it’s appropriate, I am concerned that the SSA has not sought public input, and it is not taking into account the impact on the beneficiaries they are supposed to be serving.”
The Senator said that she was particularly troubled to learn of a draft strategic plan prepared for the SSA by the National Academy of Public Administration, which will not be published until this fall, and proposes that the SSA shift from face-to-face services as the primary means of serving beneficiaries over the next 11 years.
Senator Collins described this proposal as “unrealistic.”
While no Maine SSA offices are slated for closure in 2014, Senator Collins remains concerned about the SSA’s strong emphasis on reducing face-to-face services and the effects these closures could have on Maine seniors.
Other witnesses at today’s hearing included: Brenda Holt, Gadsden County, Florida Commissioner;
Scott Hale, President, National Council of Social Security Management Associations; and Nancy A. Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration