Social Security Administration field offices are scheduled to reopen in early April after being closed since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the agency is expecting a rush of visitors. This is welcome news to those who prefer in-person service, but it could create potential problems early on as the SSA returns to services it hasn’t provided in a year and a half.
During the shutdown, nearly all public service for Social Security has been restricted to online, phone and postal mail. This system worked out fine for many Social Security beneficiaries, but not all. As the AARP recently pointed out, people in rural areas and those without access to transportation or technology have struggled for help with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.
With field offices reopening, millions of Americans now have access to in-person help — and many are expected to seek it.
The problem is, the reopening coincides with both pent-up demand and ongoing customer service headaches. Those headaches include SSA’s national toll-free number, which has been plagued by some callers getting busy signals or abrupt disconnections, Reuters reported. The agency also is working to replace staff it lost during the pandemic, but that effort has been hindered by a lower-than-expected operating budget signed into law earlier this month.
“Our 2022 funding level will complicate our efforts to improve services to the public, although we remain committed to doing so,” SSA Press Officer Mark Hinkle told Reuters in an email.
Social Security field offices are there to help with retirement and Medicare claims as well as applications for SSDI and SSI, the program for low-income, disabled or older Americans. Although most retirement and Medicare claims have gone through as normal during the pandemic, the systems for SSDI and SSI claims have been clogged.
At the end of January 2022, about 974,000 claims were pending at the level of initial filing and the first level of appeal, Reuters noted. This is making life particularly difficult for low-income and disabled Americans.
“People are dying waiting for decisions, going into debt, or they’re unable to access medical care,” Stacy Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, an increase in deaths due to COVID-19 has backed up claims for Social Security survivor benefits. These are paid to the children of deceased workers who had earned enough work credits to be insured, as well as widows and widowers age 60 and older. Survivor claims for children have not kept pace with the number of deaths due to COVID-19 among parents.
With SSA field offices set to reopen — and an expected crush of people visiting the offices — some are concerned that services might get even more entangled.
“I’m worried that instead of access being restored, we’re going to see a dumpster fire,” Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an expert on disability, told Reuters.
Those worries aside, most senior advocates see the reopening of offices as a major positive.
“Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute, said in a statement. “It’s been a year and a half, and there are just some services that can’t be done remotely. While recognizing the health and safety challenges to the public and staff, at this stage of the pandemic there needs to be additional options for people who need in-person support.”
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