Social Security Customer Service Won’t Improve in 2023 — How To Help Yourself
The nation’s biggest seniors’ advocacy group has warned that customer service at the Social Security Administration “is going to get worse before it gets better,” as the embattled agency tries to overcome staffing and funding challenges that have already led to numerous customer-service issues in recent years.
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The warning, issued in a Feb. 22 blog on the AARP website, was in response to the fiscal year 2023 operating plan the SSA submitted to Congress on Feb. 10. The plan was included in a letter that SSA Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi sent to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the appropriations committee. It details how the agency will use its $14.1 billion budget allocation for the year.
The FY 2023 outlay represents an increase of about $785 million from the FY 2022 budget of $13.34 billion but was less than the $14.8 billion President Joe Biden requested. In the letter, Kijakazi said some SSA performance measures “will show improvement” in FY 2023, while others “may show temporary degradation.” The agency expects to process 129,000 more initial disability claims in FY 2023 than it did in FY 2022, or an increase of about 7%.
“We must address the significant number of people who are waiting too long for important disability decisions at all levels of the disability process,” Kijakazi wrote. “In particular, we share claimants’ frustration about waiting over seven months on average for an initial disability decision. We are confronting historically high employee losses, especially in the DDSs [disability determination services] that make the medical determinations for initial disability claims and reconsiderations, and conduct medical continuing disability reviews (CDR).”
Pending initial disability claims soared to nearly 975,000 cases at the end of December 2022, Kijakazi added — an increase of more than 380,000 cases from the end of FY 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The average initial claims wait time through December 2022 was 206 days compared to 120 days in FY 2019.
“It will take a multi-year effort and sustained funding to restore our average initial disability claims wait times to pre-pandemic levels,” Kijakazi wrote.
As AARP noted, most of the new money at the SSA has effectively been spent following years of underfunding and historically high staff attrition. The agency doesn’t expect customer service to start improving until at least fiscal year 2024, which begins on Oct. 1, 2023.
“Approximately 75% of the budget increase we received will be required to cover fixed cost increases,” SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann told AARP.
The combination of a tight budget and ongoing recovery from the pandemic means customers “will continue to feel the pain of declining service,” AARP noted — at least in the near term.
“Our first reaction was, this can’t be right,” Chad Mullen, an AARP government affairs director focused on financial security, said in a statement. “Last year, SSA stated that this funding would be used to maintain and improve customer service. We expected to see SSA talking more about how things would be getting better, not getting worse.”
Mullen said AARP is “especially disappointed” in projected longer waits for callers to Social Security’s national number. The SSA estimates that hold times will increase to 35 minutes this year from last year’s average of 33 minutes. The average hold time was about 14 minutes in 2021 — still below the SSA’s stated goal of 12 minutes.
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If you find yourself running into customer service problems with Social Security, AARP has issued the following tips to speed things along:
- Call during off-peak hours. Peak hours for the SSA’s national toll-free number are the first week of the month and when payments are made, typically on Wednesdays. You’re better off avoiding these times if you want to call.
- Go online whenever possible. The SSA has attempted to make its website (ssa.gov) more comprehensive and user friendly, which means you can do more things online now than you could in the past. Before calling the agency, research your questions and issues on the website first to see if you can find answers there.
- Use other resources. A good place to start is AARP’s Social Security Resource Center, which features a comprehensive mix of calculators, tools and articles that can help you navigate your way through various Social Security and retirement issues. The site also lets you submit questions to experts. You should also search the web for other nonprofits and investment companies that offer useful information free of charge.
- Hire an expert. If you have the budget, hiring a financial/retirement professional is one way to avoid frustrating calls or queries to the SSA. This can be particularly helpful when you are deciding when and how to file for retirement benefits. As AARP notes, not thinking through the details can cost you thousands of dollars in lost benefits. The SSA can help you process your claims, but it’s not there to offer advice on when and how to file it.
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