The Social Security Administration is expanding a vital pandemic service to taxpayers it had limited to just one hour a day, allowing drop boxes at its closed field offices to accept sensitive documents and forms for more hours as it nears the opening of some facilities.
The agency is rolling out the workaround as its network of 1,230 local offices remains closed until at least mid-April, except for a handful of in-person appointments. Most Social Security employees have been working from home since March 2020, but officials say they are trying to improve assistance for low-income seniors and disabled people who depend on their local Social Security office to navigate the one of the most complex government livelihood systems.
The agency announced last week that it had reached an agreement with its main unions to begin a return to the office this spring. Negotiating the timing of the move has been contentious for months, officials on both sides acknowledge. The deal follows criticism from disability advocates and members of Congress that Social Security is largely shut down when most government offices either opened months ago or have never been closed to the public. during the pandemic.
Field offices are expected to reopen for appointment and walk-in visits which are crucial for disabled and elderly applicants who find it difficult to negotiate internet and telephone. Many details remain unresolved, including the number of days field staff will continue to work from home. Administrative law judges who hear appeals of denied disability benefit claims — and are currently holding hearings by phone or videoconference — will return to in-person work in May and June, the agency said.
The Washington Post reported in December that Social Security had significantly reduced its public services during the coronavirus pandemic. With no open offices, the agency relied on the public leaving birth certificates, divorce papers, green cards and other primary documents needed to verify their identity in open drop boxes as little as one. hour a day. Forty percent of field offices provided no boxes. (The agency originally told The Post the number was 20%.)
“We are in the process of increasing both the number of offices with drop boxes and the hours these drop boxes are available to align with local office hours (normally 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. h),” said Mark Hinkle, a Social Security spokesman. in an email.
The drop-box system still leaves room for error. Documents and forms must now be scanned by managers into computer systems that in some cases still run on computer language that debuted half a century ago, then assigned to claims processors working from home . Original documents must be returned to applicants. Proponents say things don’t always come full circle quickly or at all.
For months, Republicans in Congress had been pressing Social Security to improve the service and bring its staff back to providing it in person. The concern widened this week to include Senate Democrats, who demanded answers from Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi on how the agency plans to ‘provide prompt and quality service to the public’ during the pandemic. .
“An incorrect denial of benefits or an inaccurate payment can mean the difference between a beneficiary having a home or being evicted, or whether or not they can afford their prescription drugs,” said the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and the special committee. on aging Speaker Robert Casey, D-Pa., joined by 15 other senators, wrote in a five-page letter to Kijakazi. The letter cited The Post’s reporting on the agency’s struggles to serve disabled and low-income elderly taxpayers with the closure of its field offices.
Senators noted that a workaround offering in-person appointments to those with what Social Security calls “urgent needs” leaves out at-risk groups, cited a “large and growing backlog” of pending cases at state agencies that perform medical exams for Social Security and asked Kijakazi what she was doing to address a substantial, pandemic-related drop in disability benefit claims.
Hinkle declined to comment on the congressmen’s letters, saying Kijakazi “responds directly to them.”
The Post’s report focused in part on Mariann Clouse, a 21-year-old in Nashville with a terminal, degenerative neurological condition known as Juvenile Huntington, whose attorney filed a lawsuit last May for a rare compassionate care allowance that would give him a monthly disability benefit. . As a result of the report, Clouse was seen last week by a Tennessee doctor who does medical exams for Social Security, her attorney said.
“It takes time from there,” said Ann-Douglas Tycer, who represents Clouse. “No one is in a hurry except Mariann.”
The Post also highlighted the efforts of Beth Bates, a legal services attorney in Jackson, Tennessee, to apply for disability benefits for a client with degenerative disc disease, respiratory issues and borderline intellectual function who had been refused twice. The woman’s appeal had been stalled for more than a year as the state sought out a psychiatrist to perform the required examination. Following the Post’s report, an administrative law judge advised Bates that his appeal was successful.
Bates said his client will receive back pay until 2017. Her first disability check is due in February.
Adding pending drop box times and locations is an improvement on a workaround that itself began in the depths of the pandemic, proponents say.
SSA spokesman Hinkle said other efforts are also underway to improve access on the ground. Staff have almost tripled the number of 15-minute office appointments they schedule for circumstances of “extreme need”. The agency said it continues to change procedures to eliminate red tape, allowing applicants to use secondary evidence and more online forms, and attest instead of signatures in some cases.
But advocates continue to point to the serious problems created by field office closures, particularly the dwindling number of people eligible for aid but not applying because the system is now too complicated.
Despite the dwindling number of claims, state agencies that handle medical exams for Social Security are on track to end January with 1 million pending claims, according to an analysis of federal data by Stacy Cloyd of the Organization national representative of social security claimants. This is an increase of 27% compared to the same period two years ago.
Attrition, the shift to remote work and a shortage of doctors willing to see claimants in person are to blame for the delays, advocates said.
Advocates have a meeting scheduled with agency officials on Jan. 31 to discuss a series of proposals they have made to end punitive policies affecting disabled and elderly beneficiaries until the service of no one to no one takes over completely.
Their most important request is to resume the suspension of a process called Continuing Disability Review.
The agency has the right to determine whether a person’s condition has improved and then possibly reduce benefits. These exams became controversial under the Trump administration, when then-commissioner Andrew Saul proposed making them more frequent, suggesting fewer benefits were needed. But Saul agreed to suspend the exams at the start of the public health crisis and then resume them after six months. Biden has canceled Saul’s plan to require more frequent checkups, but Social Security is still conducting them.
“If they have to serve the public with field offices closed, that should be helpful in keeping the focus on things that help people maintain their benefits,” said Michelle Spadafore, who leads the Disability Advocacy Project in New York. Legal Assistance Group. “They should put things that suspend benefits on the back burner.”
His organization joined other advocates in October in a Social Security class action lawsuit on behalf of five disability recipients who claim the closure of field offices prevented them from reporting any financial changes. When the agency sent notices to thousands of people telling them their benefits were going to be cut because they were overpaid, the plaintiffs say they hadn’t had a chance to challenge the change.
Before closing in March 2020, Social Security field offices served 43 million people a year.