Disabled individuals face many challenges in applying for Social Security Disability benefits, including a high denial rate and long waits for approval. Soon, however, they may be facing a new hurdle: The inability to get in-person help from a local field office. The Social Security Administration may be trying to redesign the way the agency operates so most of its services are provided only on the Internet.
Since Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin took control of the SSA in February 2013, she has begun to engage in long-term planning for the agency, and has contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to devise “Vision 2025,” a long range planning document that will address the organizational and physical infrastructure of SSA. The final report will not be released until October 2014, however NAPA has confirmed that its core recommendation to the agency is that by the year 2025 SSA will use online and self-service delivery as the primary service channel, and that in-person services will be available only “in very limited circumstances.”
Last week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, wrote a letter to the editor urging people to contact their politicians about the closures. She writes:
The fact is, millions of seniors and disabled Americans are not accustomed to doing business online, and, particularly in rural areas, many do not have access to computers or high-speed Internet services in their homes. 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 many seniors and disabled Americans.
Of particular concern is the lack of transparency in the SSA’s decision making process for closing field offices. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging thoroughly investigated the reduction in face-to-face services at the Social Security Administration, and has published their findings here.
Their report establishes that the SSA does not contact any local community members or stakeholders concerning the closing or consolidation of field offices until the closure decision has already been made. The report clarifies the detrimental impact of this practice on especially vulnerable populations. For example, the Amherst, New York, closure review noted that the local field office served the residents of several dozen area nursing homes; however the report fails to articulate how this population will properly access or how their needs will be adequately served by having to visit the next nearest SSA office nearly 20 miles away. Clearly, even short distances can be burdensome for the aged, disabled, or poor who must rely on public transportation.
Moreover, the SSA review documents concerning the West Louisville, Kentucky field office closure notes local residents need for face to face interaction, yet summarily concludes that “the community’s needs would be met without interruption,” apparently by way of the internet. This says nothing about the local community member’s access to or comfort with electronic forms of communication.
It is well known in my practice of Social Security law that the application for benefits from the SSA may be the most complex paperwork that many people have ever had to complete. Especially when applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits or Supplemental Security Income, many applicants may need to pose questions directly to an employee in a SSA field office. Unfortunately, sometimes disabled individuals may not have access to the Internet or their medical conditions may make it difficult or even impossible for them to navigate the complicated process of applying for benefits online. Without in-person field offices to provide help, these vulnerable individuals may not even know how to get started.