Social Security is rethinking how it runs customer service after Covid

The pandemic abruptly closed the agency’s 1,200 offices, and officials are considering how to move forward. One issue: Without the offices, fewer low-income seniors sought benefits.

  • By Mark Miller,
  • The New York Times News Service
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When the pandemic struck last year, the Social Security Administration shut down its national network of more than 1,200 offices as it scrambled to protect the public and its employees from the coronavirus.

The agency, which served 43 million visitors in those offices in 2019, was forced to meet immense technological and administrative challenges practically overnight as it shifted to an almost completely remote operation.

Social Security offices help older Americans with everything from retirement and Medicare claims to applications for disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.), a benefit program for low-income disabled or older people. Yet even as Covid-19 cases decline and businesses and other public places reopen around the country, the timeline for a full reopening of the office network is uncertain. The agency is slowly bringing back workers in accordance with safety guidelines established by the federal government.

But operations are not likely to look the same as they did prepandemic, and a segment of S.S.A. workers may continue working remotely, a significant shift for the agency, which paid benefits to 69 million Americans in 2019.

“The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to consider how to improve service, increase virtual services and include the role of telework in the future,” said Mark Hinkle, an agency spokesman. “We are reviewing what we have learned and are working with our management team, unions and other stakeholders.”

Importantly, the volume of Social Security and Medicare benefit applications has not been affected during the pandemic — the number of applications from April 2020 through March of this year was 6.1 million, up a bit from the comparable period a year ago, agency records show. Wait times on the agency’s toll-free phone line — which have been notoriously long in some recent years — jumped during the first few months of the pandemic, but fell to much lower levels as most field office personnel were redeployed to handle business by phone. In March, the average wait time was 13.6 minutes, down from an average of 23.6 minutes for all of 2018, the year when backups peaked.

Social Security’s consideration of a larger role for telework is a sharp departure from its stance in November 2019, when it ended a work-from-home pilot program. In addition, it is expanding the use of “express interviews” at the offices, aimed at minimizing the time people need to spend there. Another change: a new option to enroll for Medicare Part B online, available to people 65 and up who lose jobs that provided health insurance. Previously, those applications needed to be made by phone or mail.

But there have been problems.

There has been a sharp drop in applications for S.S.I., and for disability insurance. S.S.I. is an important tool for reducing poverty among the oldest Americans, and its beneficiaries are disproportionately people of color. For example, 50 percent of S.S.I. recipients 65 or older in 2017 were African American or Hispanic, and about 15 percent were Asian American, according to a new Census Bureau report.

“The drastic drop in S.S.I. applications and awards is deeply disturbing,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy group. “Generally, those numbers rise in a recession. It means that too many poor seniors and people with disabilities are not getting the help they desperately need.”

One issue that has prompted criticism is the agency’s requirement that sensitive documents, such as drivers’ licenses and birth and death certificates, which are used for verifications, be sent to S.S.A. via mail. The agency has relaxed some of these requirements, and tested drop boxes placed outside the offices to collect such paperwork. But during a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s pandemic customer service, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the committee, said he wasn’t satisfied with that.

“We can’t have people’s original documents flying around in the mail or putting them into a drop box and wondering when they will be returned,” he said.

Long before the pandemic, Social Security was trimming the number of field offices, and closed 67 around the country beginning in 2010. That move concerned consumer advocates, especially from an equity and access standpoint. While a great deal of routine Social Security business is now transacted via its website, field office staff provide in-person assistance on complex matters, in particular on applications for disability insurance and S.S.I., says Manasi Deshpande, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

“Especially for people with lower socioeconomic status, being able to get in-person information and assistance with the application is critical to their decision to apply,” Dr. Deshpande said. “Without it, they just don’t apply.”

She was an author of a 2019 study that found that field office closings reduced disability applications by 10 percent — and the number of new recipients by 16 percent in affected areas. The closings also disproportionately discouraged low-education and low-earning applicants from applying, the study found, because of longer wait times at offices that were still open.

In the 10-year period Dr. Deshpande studied, Social Security closed 118 field offices, a cost-cutting move. She estimated that during that period, a total of 786,000 applicants for disability insurance and S.S.I. were discouraged from applying.

The impact of closing all field offices during the pandemic has been far greater, Dr. Deshpande said. “You’d probably need to multiply the estimates from the paper by a few times to see the effect of closing all the offices,” she said. “The 10 percent decline we measured took place with neighboring offices absorbing some of the applicants. It’s likely a much larger effect with all the field offices closed.”

Agency data shows a 29 percent decline in S.S.I. awards from July 2020 to April 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier, and disability awards are down 17 percent over that period. Taken together, up to 330,000 people will miss out on these benefits over a one-year period, according to an analysis of agency data by David Weaver, a former associate commissioner in Social Security’s Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support.

The sharp drop in S.S.I. awards signals an equity issue that needs to be addressed, he argues, pointing to an executive order issued by President Biden on his first day in office. The order pledged more federal resources to help underserved minority communities, and directed all federal agencies to conduct an equity assessment by mid-August. Mr. Hinkle said Social Security established a team that is considering eight areas where the agency can ensure equity, and plans to report back to the White House by the deadline.

Mr. Weaver also worries that people are missing out on other benefits they may be entitled to under the law — and that a field office visit might uncover. “The fact that 43 million people a year are showing up in a field office tells you they needed something,” he said.

Agency research published in 2016 revealed 80 different types of beneficiaries who may be entitled to payments they are not receiving, either because of an agency error, or because of a change in an individual’s eligibility.

Social Security has a $1.5 billion budget for “program integrity,” but Congress limits that spending to reviews of disability awards that are aimed at removing people from the benefit rolls.

“A more common sense definition of program integrity would include the idea of making sure that people who are eligible for benefits are receiving them,” Mr. Weaver said.

Examples of people eligible for benefits who can be overlooked include children of disabled workers, and those who may not know that they are entitled to spousal or survivor benefits. This is a particular problem for divorced people, who may not be aware that they can file for a spousal or survivor benefit on the record of an ex-spouse.

For low-income people, field office staff members are charged with reviewing eligibility for food stamps and programs that help with out-of-pocket Medicare expenses, such as Extra Help and the Medicare Savings Program.

“It’s a very serious issue when people can’t tap into the expertise of these Social Security employees,” Mr. Weaver said. “When the field offices went away, a lot of that expertise was lost.”

How to get help

While Social Security offices remain closed, most services are available through the agency’s website, by telephone (800-772-1213), or via limited in-person appointments. You can find the office closest to you with an online locator tool. More information on dealing with Social Security during the pandemic is available on its website.

If you’re dealing with Social Security by phone, be cautious. The number of Social Security identity phone scams has been rising. The agency generally only contacts people who have recently applied for benefits, or to update the records of those who are receiving benefits. The agency will never call to tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended or to demand payments or ask for credit card information.

If you need to enroll in Medicare, free counseling is available from the national network of State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, known as SHIP. More information is available on its website.

The nonprofit group Medicare Rights Center runs a free national Medicare help line, which can be reached at (800) 333-4114. The center also offers useful tips on enrolling in Medicare during the pandemic.

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