Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Social Security Administration - Prescription for Real Chaos

Proposed budget will cut close to a billion dollars from the SSA budget and release thousands of employees.

From today’s Federal Times (Copyright © 2011 Gannett Government Media Corporation), comes a succinct assessment of the chaos that close to a billion dollar budget cuts and loss of four thousand employees will have on the Social Security Administration staff and Americans who turn to SSA for retirement, health care and disability benefits. The article, entitled Social Security Administration struggles with budget cuts written by Andy Medici and posted on June 7, 2011; begins seven months ago, with Commissioner Astrue, shovel in hand, discussing the agency’s plans to deal with increased claims:

Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue broke ground in the small town of Jackson, Tenn., for his agency's first new call center in 10 years. The center, slated to open by the end of this year, would allow the agency to better respond to the fast-growing number of customers.

But the call center sits half-finished — a casualty of congressional budget cuts.

In April, Congress passed a 2011 budget that cut Social Security's administrative budget by almost $1 billion from the Obama administration's requested amount. The cuts not only shut down construction projects like the call center in Tennessee, but also information technology projects, hiring and investments needed to clear a backlog of disability claims.

Social Security was forced to close hundreds of direct contact stations and cancel plans to open eight new hearing centers across the country. Direct contact offices are remote locations open only a few days a week or month. Social Security Administration spokeswoman Dorothy Clarke said that by making "tough choices," the agency can avoid furloughing employees and closing down field offices entirely. "We will continue to review all aspects of our operations, including considering office consolidations, for ways to balance cost savings with our mission to serve the public," Clarke said.

At a March 9 hearing, Astrue warned lawmakers that his agency's staff is declining and that funding is "barely above the level where we have to have furloughs."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in the same hearing that the Social Security Administration should have spent earlier appropriations on streamlining its claims processes and reducing administrative overhead. He said that its use of stimulus funding instead to address those expenses was a "dangerous mismanagement" of funds and that Congress should not be looking to throw money at the problem. Joe Dirago, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said he expects even more severe budget cuts next year. The Obama administration's request for 2012 is $12.5 billion, but Dirago said signs point to a budget that will come in below $11.4 billion in 2010.

He also said his organization expects Social Security will lose 3,500 employees this year through attrition and a hiring freeze. If budget cuts continue, he estimates the agency will lose another 4,000 employees in 2012.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the Social Security Administration, said the agency is "cut to the bone" and its overhead expenses amount to only 1 percent. "Administratively,you will find no business in the private sector or agency in the government sector that is more efficient than Social Security," Becerra said.

He said in the first four months of 2010, there were 246,000 disability appeals, while in the first four months of 2011, there were 294,000 — an increase of almost 20percent.

But because of budget cuts, the agency cannot open the hearing centers to help lessen the backlog, Becerra said. He said that he does not see the budget situation for Social Security improving any time soon and that Social Security may have to shutter field offices to cope with the cuts.

"It's a prescription for real chaos," Becerra said.