As Boomers Age, Social Security Closes More Offices

Social Security Budget
Mark Duncan/APSocial Security employees protest against budget cuts in Cleveland in 2011.

WASHINGTON -- Even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, the Social Security Administration has been closing a record number of field offices, forcing more and more seniors to seek help online instead of in person, according to a congressional report being released Wednesday.

The agency blames budget constraints.

As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are facing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone, the report said.

Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency's history, according to a report by the bipartisan staff of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. In addition, the agency has closed 533 temporary mobile offices that often serve remote areas.

Hours have been reduced in the 1,245 field offices that are still open, the report said.

The report questions the agency's criteria for choosing which offices to close, saying the impact on local communities is rarely taken into account.

"Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee. "The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change."

The committee is holding a hearing on the report Wednesday afternoon. A Social Security official is scheduled to testify. On Tuesday, the agency released a short statement on the report.

"We appreciate the Senate Aging Committee's report on service delivery issues and the tough choices we have had to make because of budget constraints," the statement said. "We just received the report this morning and have begun reviewing its findings and recommendations. We will respond to the committee when that analysis is complete."

The closings come as applications for retirement and disability benefits are soaring, a trend that will continue as aging baby boomers approach retirement.

Shift to Online Access

More than 47 million people receive Social Security retirement benefits, nearly a 20 percent increase from a decade ago. About 11 million people receive Social Security disability benefits, a 38 percent increase from a decade ago.

The Social Security Administration has been encouraging people to access services online. The agency has upgraded its website in recent years, including secure connections to access confidential information and apply for benefits.

In 2013, nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online, the report said.

But the committee report notes that many older Americans lack access to the Internet or might not be comfortable using it to apply for benefits.

Last year, more than 43 million people visited Social Security field offices, the report said. About 43 percent of those seeking an appointment had to wait more than three weeks, up from just 10 percent the year before, the report said.

Wait times on the phone have increased, too -- for those who get through. This year, the agency projects that 14 percent of callers to a toll-free help line will get a busy signal. Those who get through wait on hold for an average of 17 minutes, the report said.

People can get information about Social Security, Medicare and Supplemental Security Income at the field offices. They can apply for benefits and get information to help them decide when to apply. They can address more complicated issues such as fraud.

Visitors can also get documents verifying their benefits or Social Security numbers, though these services are scheduled to be eliminated at field offices later this year. People sometimes need the information quickly to apply for jobs or to verify income when applying for other government benefits, the report said.

"There are many, many instances where the case may be too complicated to be resolved simply by going online," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Aging Committee. "Far too many seniors throughout our nation, particularly those living in rural areas, might not have access to a computer or the Internet. It is critical that SSA take into account these issues and the effect on the community before eliminating services."

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June 20 2014 at 1:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Government in general, and in this case, the Social Security Administration (SSA) in particular. isn't doing anything different from what the private sector has been doing for decades since the beginning of the boomer generation in 1946, replacing customer service provided by humans with technology, making consumers do more by themselves, like operating elevators, pumping their own gas, self-serve check-out lines at the grocery store, getting money from ATMs instead of from bank clerks, etc, etc, etc... .

As a whole, boomers are a lot more tech-savvy then is believed by either the out-of-touch-with-reality politicians, or the younger generations, who tend to be tech-obsessed. It doen't take a degree in rocket science to be able to navigate the SSA website and securely access a one's own confidential information, as well as do just about anything that was mentioned in the article. For those who do need assistence, they are likely to have children, grandchildren, or a trusted friend who can lend assistence.

For those living in rural areas without internet access, there is still the option of applying for benefits over the phone. So what if it takes 3 weeks for a telephone appointment - it likely takes that long, if not longer, to schedule a routine visit with the family doctor, AND if a visit to a an SSA office far away is the only option, keep this fact in perspective - You're only going to apply for your retirement benefits ONCE.

June 18 2014 at 4:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Way too many people on ss disability that I have seen that could be working a job. Lot of fraud on the disability side. I have epilepsy and got denied but a car salesman I knew who was over wt said he couldnt work because of his wt .. well he got approved. Makes no sense. I see him at home watching tv all day working in his yard... looks like he is able to function just fine. As for SS I have paid in since I was 16,, in a few years it better be there.

June 18 2014 at 1:56 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Thanks Obama, Reid, Biden and Pelosi. If you want to get screwed on your SS, thank a Democrat.

June 18 2014 at 8:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to democrap2's comment

You are being ridiculous. Were it not for Democrats there would be NO social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps nor any other program which helps the people of this country. These offices are closing because Republicans discovered the deficit right after Bush blew the budget all to hell fighting in the Middle East. Now they starve the programs that help us so we can pay off their war bills. Looks like it will get worse before it gets better, too, because look at the mess Bush left in Iraq. Shame on him!

June 18 2014 at 9:11 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to wilster008's comment

Is your head up your posterior, Obama and the Democrats run 2/3's of the country you dunce.

June 18 2014 at 10:42 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

The TPGOP doesn't care about the middle class they only care about the 1%.

June 18 2014 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down