Social Security left Americans at risk behind in pandemic, report says


The abrupt shutdown of nearly all in-person operations at the Social Security Administration during the coronavirus pandemic has been debilitating for America’s most vulnerable, says a new report – undermining President Biden’s commitment to ensuring equitable government services .

With its 1,230 field offices closed for two years, millions of disabled and poor older people were unable to get help to apply for social security benefits, and for many there was no option online, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released Thursday.

Spanish speakers, a growing share of Social Security recipients, find themselves in dead ends on the agency’s website. Overloaded phones broke down. Lack of access has caused disability applications to plummet, and claimants who have applied face persistent delays in reviewing their files.

Pandemic struggles still plague Social Security, a final lifeline for many

“SSA has taken steps to address a range of challenges related to remote service delivery,” the 68-page report states, “but gaps remain in online service delivery and assessment of lessons learned” .

The agency’s continued difficulties seven months after reopening its field offices to the public prompted auditors to conclude that it “may continue to face challenges in delivering services to the populations most in need” and to question whether the agency can “fulfill its mission to ensure that its services are fair and accessible.

Auditors found that Social Security is unable to track the racial and ethnic backgrounds of those it serves, hampering its ability to understand its at-risk population. Nearly two years after the president issued an executive order directing federal agencies to “ensure that their missions advance racial equity and support for underserved communities,” the agency has no strategy to collect this data, according to the report.

Officials also failed to determine which pandemic changes should be permanent and what they learned from the crisis, the auditors concluded. And there are no plans to handle an expected surge in disability claims from those who have contracted long covid or are beginning to apply after finding the process too daunting during the public health crisis.

The report recommends that Social Security fill these gaps and offer claims for benefits under its poverty-relieving programs known as Supplemental Security Income, both online and in Spanish.

The findings reached by GAO, the research arm of Congress, echo reports from the Washington Post, which found that Social Security, a last lifeline for millions of Americans, is still struggling to restore customer services. and help millions of fewer poor, elderly and disabled people who sought his help before the pandemic.

Two senior House Democrats who asked for the assessment of the agency’s response to the pandemic wrote in response that the pandemic “presented unprecedented challenges, and this report shows that the Social Security Administration was none of them.” sheltered”.

Lawmakers — Social Security Ways and Means Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who leads the subcommittee on support for workers and families – concluded that the agency, weakened by years of budget cuts and faced in recent years with thousands of staff departures, “needs to be better funded” to restore customer service and improve its radiance.

Social Security Chief of Staff Scott Frey said in a response included in the report that the agency agreed with the findings.

The pandemic has brought about dramatic changes in the way Social Security serves the public. As field offices closed, drop boxes were eventually offered for sensitive documents required for new Social Security cards or disability applications. In-person appointments were permitted for limited “urgent needs” cases. By mid-2021, faxes were allowed and customers could send alternatives to sensitive documents that got lost in the mail. Offices where administrative law judges hear appeals of denied disability claims moved to telephone hearings and eventually online video proceedings.

But field office staff were initially not equipped to easily telecommute with older laptops that crashed several times a day, the report said. Some offices lacked wireless routers, signal boosters and network cables. Staff in rural areas faced slow internet speeds, low bandwidth and system hangs at home.

“These challenges have slowed SSA’s service delivery to customers, according to several groups of employees we interviewed,” the report said. The agency also provided “no guidance” on how to handle the influx of mail at the start of the pandemic, according to the report. It often took weeks for staff to receive and process documents, including faxes.

Phone service exploded 70%. But this increase has been accompanied by long wait times, peak rates and “system instability” caused by the rollout of a new phone system from 2021, peaking at an average wait of 36 minutes. .

Millions of people applying for retirement benefits have gone online. But those applying for benefits under Social Security’s two disability programs — the anti-poverty program and another for those with work histories — fell 18% and 12%, respectively, from the volume of claims. requests before the pandemic.

“The overall decline…demonstrated that fewer people with disabilities or very low incomes were accessing benefits,” the auditors found.

The decline has been steep among children with disabilities and among those who do not speak English. Social Security provides a range of resources in Spanish, but disability claims are not one of them. The agency’s Spanish-language website directs clients to a page where it informs them, in Spanish, that certain online services and information are only available in English.

To promote its benefits to poor elderly people, people with disabilities, homeless people, people with limited English proficiency, rural areas and people without legal representation, the agency sent hundreds of thousands of advice to individuals and community groups. It also recruited field office staff for a new role of liaison with vulnerable populations, forming community groups to help low-income people apply for benefits. Outreach efforts resulted in 3,131 complaints from March 2021 to May 2022, according to the report.

But the effort wasn’t robust, listeners found: Many community groups didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the role, and attrition was high among many Social Security staff assigned to the assistance.

The report found that without a plan to deal with an anticipated surge in demand for its services as more and more at-risk people return to the system, “the SSA is ill-placed to make informed decisions about its duties. essential”.

These include the number of employees who will work from home and how the agency will manage the backlog of disability claims, among others.

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