Putting callers on hold gets costly Social Security paid $11.5 million in '91

March 26, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration spent $11.5 million in 1991 just to keep people on hold when they called its nationwide toll-free number, an internal audit by the agency found.

Callers to local offices apparently did no better. During a four-week period last summer, according to a survey by the General Accounting Office, 55.7 per cent of those who phoned local Social Security offices failed to get through.

The figures emerged at a congressional hearing yesterday on the Clinton administration's budget proposals for the federal agency headquartered in Woodlawn.

The agency is due to get $302 million in the president's $16.3 billion stimulus package. It also has been promised $920 million for speeding up disability processing and automation over the next four years and another $1.13 billion for a computer modernization program.

The hearing painted a picture of an agency that, having lost 23 per cent of its workers during the Reagan-Bush years, is now swamped with a rising tide of disability claims that take longer and longer to adjudicate.

"To compensate for the shortage of staff and the increased workload, agency personnel have been working many hours of overtime each week in a futile attempt to keep pace," according to a report by the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which held the hearing.

"Local field offices are stretched to the limit, overloaded with case work, unable to answer ringing telephones and at times lacking the resources necessary to purchase basic supplies such as pens, note pads and copier paper," the report said.

Some employees, according to a union that represents them, have resorted to falsifying data used to evaluate their performance through, among other things, filing phantom claims and altering application filing days.

The backlog of pending disability claims rose from 323,000 to 725,000 between 1988 and 1992, according to the subcommittee. As a result, processing of claims is now taking three months instead of two months.

Currently, the average processing time nationwide is 103 days, Jane L. Ross, a GAO official, told the subcommittee. The time varies widely from state to state, ranging from 70 days to 140 days. In Maryland, another GAO official said, the average processing time was 103 days.

"The ultimate consequence of the long delay is you die and never see the money you are entitled to," Ethel Zelenske, an attorney for the National Senior Citizens Law Center, told the subcommittee.

"More files are getting lost," Ms. Zelenske said. "People are giving up."

Ms. Ross of the GAO pointed to the economic downturn as a possible reason for the sharply rising disability claims. Many people who might have been eligible for disability benefits while employed did not apply for them until after they lost their jobs, she speculated.

Louis D. Enoff, the acting Social Security commissioner, insisted that the problems besetting the disability claims operations are not agency-wide.

The time it takes to issue Social Security cards and emergency payments has been cut significantly since 1982, he said.

A Capitol Hill aide who concentrates on Social Security issues agreed, saying that in many areas the agency is doing a good job.

About $200 million in the stimulus package will be used for processing disability claims, Mr. Enoff said.

That, however, won't be enough to prevent the disability backlog from continuing to rise.

Most witnesses agreed that the answer is more employees. Estimates of the number needed ranged from 5,000 to 7,500.

Speaking of the agency's efforts to automate, Daniel M. Smith, president of an association of Social Security managers, told the committee, "History has taught us a very valuable lesson. We can't pay for automation with a loss of people. It doesn't work."

The Social Security Administration sought to cope with the decline in employees by installing the nationwide 800-number in 1988 and limiting telephone access to local offices.

Responding to public complaints, it relisted its local numbers in telephone directories in 1989, according to a subcommittee report.

However, the report said the agency "did not reinstall the incoming telephone lines that would have enabled the public to reach these offices readily."

As a result, Social Security found that it was spending 30 percent of its 800-number usage cost to keep people on hold in 1991.

A year later, the GAO found that during August more than half the callers to local offices either got a busy signal, or no answer or were placed on hold or disconnected once they got through.

Phil Gambino, a Social Security Administration spokesman in Woodlawn, defended the expenditure to keep people on hold, saying the figure "is a little misleading."

Callers choose to be placed on hold rather than having to call back, he said after the hearing. They listen to recorded information about the Social Security program during their waits, which average four to five minutes.

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