Shalala visits Woodlawn Social Security's understaffing noted

February 11, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

An article yesterday on a visit to Social Security headquarter by Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, incorrectly identified the author of a congressional letter to Ms. Shalala detailing delays in processing disability and other claims. The letter was sent by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Donna Shalala, the new health and human services secretary, paid a visit to Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn yesterday and got a quick taste of just how long it can take the agency to process a claim.

Deep personnel cuts during the past 12 years have slowed the agency's response time, but Ms. Shalala could offer no promise of immediate relief under the new Clinton administration.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Trailed through the maze of desks and filing cabinets by aides, politicians, Social Security officials, cameramen and reporters, Ms. Shalala stopped to talk with William Alston.

Mr. Alston, 40, of Columbia is a benefit authorizer. It's his job to authorize payments for disabled workers. He said the case on which he was working when Ms. Shalala stopped by has been meandering through reviews and appeals for "going on three years."

"And if we get out of the way, he'll get paid," Ms. Shalala said.

She moved quickly along to shake hands with scores of workers and thank them for work that is "underfunded and, in my view, underappreciated."

Ms. Shalala made her tour of Social Security headquarters with Maryland's Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes and Reps. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, and Benjamin Cardin, D-3rd.

Mr. Sarbanes, in a letter yesterday to Ms. Shalala, noted that the average applicant for disability benefits waits seven months for an initial determination of eligibility, up from three months in May 1991. Many of the problems his district offices tackle for constituents, he said, are "simply a matter of Social Security not having enough workers to carry out its most basic responsibilities."

Mr. Sarbanes said he supports the president's efforts to scale back the federal work force, but added, "We must recognize that some agencies need additional employees to operate efficiently."

Social Security employs 65,000 people, 14,000 of them in the Baltimore area.

Ms. Shalala offered no promises that Social Security would be exempt from the reductions in personnel that President Clinton is seeking, but she did offer hope that the cuts would not affect workers on the front lines. "The personnel cuts the president is asking for are more administrative. We're going to look at the top levels" of the agency, she said.

"Social Security has been understaffed for a long period of time," she added. But hiring more people is not in the cards for now. Instead, she said, "we'll try to do our job better without an increase in terms of staff."

Ms. Shalala said she is looking for technological solutions to some of the agency's problems, including ways to improve working conditions, which Social Security workers have complained about for years.

Ms. Shalala spoke briefly to several hundred employees of Social Security and the Health Care Finance Administration. She was introduced by Ms. Mikulski, who drew laughter when she noted the secretary's 5-foot stature and observed that "short and chunky is in." Ms. Mikulski is 4 feet, 11 inches tall.

Ms. Shalala first buried her face in her hands, then took the podium and revealed that "I actually was 6 feet tall before I arrived in Washington."

In her remarks, Ms. Shalala said she would ask employees for their help in finding ways to improve the agencies.

"One of the things President Clinton and I talked about was our deep commitment to empowering the work force," she said. "The idea of top-down management just doesn't work anymore. We need to take real advantage of the very talented people who have worked many years for this agency, so that no matter what your rank, you ideas are as important as those of people of higher rank."

Ms. Shalala said she hoped to be able to name the new Social Security commissioner "in a couple of weeks." She would not comment on reports that James Morrison, 57, a former official in the federal Office of Personnel Management, had emerged as a leading candidate for the job.

L "The president has to make all the announcements," she said.

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