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Social Security closes offices as baby boomers age

By Stephen Ohlemacher

WASHINGTON (AP) - Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to close dozens of field offices even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, swamping the agency with applications for benefits, a senior agency official told Congress Wednesday.

Better Internet access and more online services are easing the transition, said Nancy Berryhill, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations.

"We are fully committed - now and in the future - to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face service for those customers who need or prefer such service," Berryhill told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "We also understand, however, that customer expectations are evolving due to changes in technology, demographics and other factors."

Senators appeared unconvinced.

"The fact of the matter is, millions of seniors and disabled Americans are not accustomed to doing business online," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Aging Committee. "Even as computer and broadband technologies become more widespread, the idea that the Social Security Administration can serve beneficiaries primarily online ignores the very real needs of the senior and disabled populations."

The committee held a hearing Wednesday after issuing a bipartisan report showing that Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency's history.

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.

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.

"They don't do any kind of analysis on what would happen to a community when their field office closes, including figuring out how the most vulnerable populations would make their way to the next-closest office," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee.

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

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. People can apply for benefits without ever visiting Social Security offices.

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. 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.

About 10 percent of visitors to Social Security offices are applying for benefits, Berryhill said. The largest group, about 30 percent, are seeking new or replacement Social Security cards.

Berryhill said Social Security officials do annual reviews to determine whether offices should be expanded, reduced or closed.

"Once we make the decision to consolidate an office, we discuss the changes with stakeholders," Berryhill said. "We hold town hall meetings or other forums that allow the public to voice their concerns. We contact key community leaders."

Like many federal agencies, Social Security has faced budget cuts in recent years. After two years of shrinking budgets, the agency got a 6 percent increase this year, to $11.8 billion.

Social Security has cut its workforce by 11,000 employees over the past three years, Berryhill said.

She said the agency saves an average of $4 million over the course of a decade for every field office it closes.

"I can hire a lot of employees with $4 million," Berryhill said.

Join the discussion

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hoodspark2 June 18 2014 at 8:10 PM

Obama, has this whole country turned upside down, the threat of war covers the entire Planet........WORST PRESIDENT IN UNITED STATES HISTORY!!!!!!...Should be impeached!

Flag Reply +84 rate up
36 replies
mercinyc June 18 2014 at 7:53 PM

Social Security benefits increased only a little over 3% under 0bama, while welfare benefits increased nearly 40%.

Wake up you fools!

Flag Reply +81 rate up
17 replies
Michael W. Saier June 18 2014 at 6:28 PM

The bad mews was when they put a social security office next to all the new welfare offices so disability was made simpler for the junkies who are emptying the system

Flag Reply +78 rate up
20 replies
socsecman June 18 2014 at 7:03 PM

As a retired employee of the Social Security Administration, I can only "hope" that those needing services, are computer savvy individuals with access to the internet. It used to be a real joy to personally assist individuals filing for retirement and/or disability benefits. Most of the public we served were absolutely wonderful, salt-of-the-earth individuals who had waited a long time to retire and seemed to enjoy sharing retirement plans with an SSA Employee. Seems that those "good ole days" are gone and the human touch is a thing of the past. Seems sad, but life goes on . . .

Flag Reply +60 rate up
11 replies
navycva11 June 18 2014 at 8:19 PM

I've had to deal with SS recently due to my wife's terminal illness. I looked over their website before determining that I would rather do it face to face in office. My main reason was the fact that the amount of sensitive records that would have been required to MAIL to them made me uneasy. You call an 800 number and make an appointment at your nearest office( in my case, 10 mi. away) and when you get there, you check in, and wait no more than 10 minutes. The employees are VERY helpfull, and they copy your documents and GIVE THE ORIGINALS BACK. If the IRS can "lose" emails, what makes you think the SS won't lose vital documents through the mail?

No thanks. Face to face is best.

Flag Reply +46 rate up
3 replies
jimd8575 June 18 2014 at 6:21 PM

So where's the bad news here? I dont have to wait in lines all day at the SS office and can file right from my computer? Boo Hoo! Now if I never had to set foot in the DMV office my life would be perfect!

Flag Reply +44 rate up
13 replies
stengernc June 18 2014 at 7:08 PM

Tax the Koch brothers empire a few billion so they can't waste money on political campaign lies.

Flag Reply +39 rate up
21 replies
Bob June 18 2014 at 6:29 PM

I take exception to this article. I am one of those "baby boomers". I have a few years before I retire, but I work with computers at my job. I do all of my banking and bill paying on line. I even ship on line. We boomers are more capable than you think. If one of us does have a problem, there are usually Senior Centers that can help. Although it means more people out of work, it does mean a glimmer of hope that MY Social Security money will be there when I need it. I worked hard for it and I don't want to loose it.

Flag Reply +32 rate up
7 replies
plewdawg June 18 2014 at 6:24 PM

Can someone explain to me why SS rounds out to dollars? Whether it is 5 cents or in my case 80 cents, they keep it. When I asked they told me to contact my congressman. He hasnt answered me back and SS is as rude as the IRS. Thin k about the hundreds of thousands they round out on monthly. Now add it yearly. Very nice piece of change, indeed!

Flag Reply +27 rate up
9 replies
mefurgerson June 18 2014 at 6:35 PM

Not only that, they warned people to stop online use due to the hackers. Which I did.

Flag Reply +18 rate up
1 reply
bdgrizcp mefurgerson June 18 2014 at 8:02 PM

Who they? I had no such problems. The on-line application process was smooooth.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
MICHELLE bdgrizcp June 19 2014 at 12:28 AM

Don't lose your card. Guess what you can't do online?

Flag +7 rate up
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