WASHINGTON –The Social Security Administration has been closing a record number of field offices because of budget constraints even as the demand for services soars, according to a congressional report being released today.
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.
Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency’s history, the bipartisan staff of the Senate Aging Committee said in its report. 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.
The report questions the agency’s criteria for choosing which offices to close, saying the impact on local communities is rarely taken into account.
“Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee. “The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change.”
The committee was holding a hearing on the report today, and a Social Security official was scheduled to testify. On Tuesday, the agency released a short statement on the report.
“We appreciate the Senate Aging Committee’s report on service delivery issues and the tough choices we have had to make because of budget constraints,” the statement said. “We just received the report this morning and have begun reviewing its findings and recommendations. We will respond to the committee when that analysis is complete.”
The closings come as applications for both retirement and disability benefits soar, a trend that will continue as aging baby boomers approach retirement.
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 and apply for benefits, and last year nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online, the report said.
Last year, more than 43 million people visited Social Security field offices, the report said. 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.
Wait times on the phone have increased too – for those who get through. This year, the agency projects that 14 percent of callers to a toll-free help line will get a busy signal. Those who get through wait on hold for an average of 17 minutes, the report said.