Many people who have dialed the Social Security Administration’s toll-free number during the Covid-19 pandemic have faced long wait times.
In an effort to alleviate the customer service issues, Congress this week held a hearing to identify ways in fix the problems.
The issues are something leaders on both sides of the aisle are hearing from constituents about regularly, according to Tuesday’s testimony on Capitol Hill.
“In my home district in Oklahoma, seniors are completely unable to reach the Social Security Administration by phone,” said Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla.
“As a result, my elderly constituents end up calling my staff after many failed attempts to call the office at the Social Security Administration,” he said. “By extension, we have become the Social Security Administration call center.”
The SSA failed to provide adequate customer service even before the pandemic due to the fact that its budget has not kept pace with inflation, according to Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. He serves as chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.
Wait times to receive an answer on Social Security’s toll-free number have increased over the years, even prior to the pandemic. In 2010, the average wait time was around three minutes. That increased to average wait times of 20 minutes in 2019, 16 minutes in 2020 and 13 minutes in 2021.
Since 2010, the federal agency’s budget has fallen 14%, adjusted for inflation, while it has 13% fewer employees, he said.
The agency also closed 67 field offices, cut its hours at existing offices and postponed updates to its technology and phone systems.
Yet since 2010, the number of beneficiaries participating in the program has jumped by 21% to 65 million, from 54 million .
Social Security’s customer service delays can have serious consequences.
Between fiscal years 2008 and 2019, more than 109,000 applicants for disability benefits died while waiting for appeals, according to the Government Accountability Office.
“Thousands more have died waiting for their decisions since then,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
“Delivering on Social Security’s promises also requires ensuring that eligible individuals and families are able to access SSA’s vital programs in their time of need,” Vallas said.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic led Social Security to close its field offices to in-person meetings due to health and safety concerns, which put further strain on its services.
On April 7, Social Security reopened 98% of its 1,200 field offices. Yet just about 50% to 60% of its staff currently work on site in those locations, according to Grace Kim, deputy commissioner for operations at the Social Security Administration.
“SSA has been underfunded for too long,” said Kim during her testimony. “Without an adequate level of funding, we will not be able to continue our level of service or improve service to the level that really I would want to see us be able to deliver to the public.”
More money would enable the agency to fund hiring, overtime for existing employees and upgrade its technology, she said.
“Those are the three key areas that I see need to be funded to carry out our mission, and do it in a way that does not burn out our employees, because our employees are dedicated public servants,” Kim said.
President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for 2023 includes increased funds aimed at helping Social Security resolve its customer service issues.
Separately, Larson has proposed a bill to reform the program, titled Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, which seeks to set stricter requirements before field offices are closed, among other changes.
Other suggestions for improving the agency’s services were mentioned during the hearing.
That includes the creation of a beneficiary advocate position within the agency to help ensure Americans’ concerns are voiced within the agency. This would be similar to the taxpayer advocate position that exists within the IRS.
Advocates also called for reducing delays for Social Security disability coverage, as well as making it possible for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, applicants to be able to apply for benefits online.