Social Security Seeks Infusion Of Confidence

January 29, 1995|By JOHN B. O'DONNELL

As Congress draws a bead on its out-of-control disability programs, Social Security finds itself on the sidelines, not even invited to testify at hearings called by Republicans bent on fixing problems and cutting costs.

A series of articles in The Sun last week showed the programs are replete with problems, some the creation of Social Security, some the creation of Congress. Disability aid is a $65 billion colossus that House Republicans are determined to "reform" and cut. They held the first of three hearings Friday in Washington.

The programs have overwhelmed Social Security. It spends half hTC its $5 billion administrative budget on them -- even though they account for 15 percent of beneficiaries. Three million disability applications arrive annually. The backlog of cases is over a million.

The agency is scrambling to cope and to solve other daunting problems -- even as it faces Clinton administration orders to cut 5,000 workers, on top of 20,000 axed by Presidents Reagan and Bush.

It uses a 1950s system to move mountains of paper. A claim takes 18 months to process if it goes all the way to a judge -- and that includes 10 weeks just for moving paper.

A letter can take a week to get out of headquarters in Woodlawn.

Paper records are so voluminous that some are stored in caves.

A massive effort to computerize and "re-engineer" the disability system is under way. Officials admit that successful computerization is the key to getting out of the swamp. It has not gone smoothly.

Congressional investigators criticized the agency in 1993 for moving on computer modernization without a plan for using the system, running the risk that it wouldn't serve their needs. A skeptical Congress has been stingy with the money.

The disability programs aren't the only public relations problem. Polls show that only three of 10 Americans believe they will get Social Security checks throughout retirement.

Further undermining public confidence was the agency's admission last year that a "computer glitch" caused it to shortchange 426,000 recipients nearly half a billion dollars over 13 years.

Rebuilding confidence is Commissioner Shirley S. Chater's top priority. So a public relations campaign is being devised.

She is also counting on help from a program ordered by Congress to rebuild confidence. This year the agency begins the first phase of a plan to send 123 million people annual statements on Social Security taxes they've paid and retirement checks they can expect. Officials believe these will convince Americans that the checks are in their future.

Officials told Congress last year they will need 11,000 workers to handle the statements and the millions of complaints from people who discover errors in their records.

They don't expect to get the added help and are trying to figure out what to do. But, they've learned through bitter experience that coping with staff cuts can be tricky. In the 1980s, they decided to free field office staffs from answering telephones. All calls from the public went to a toll-free 800 number. Millions of callers couldn't get through. And others were put on hold, at a cost of $11.5 million in 1991 alone.

Desperate to get a grip on that disaster, officials considered using federal prisoners to answer the phones, an idea they've dropped.

Staff cuts, the phone debacle and other problems have driven morale down. Supplemental Security Income, one of the disability programs, has been a factor. It is a welfare plan created out of 1,000 state and local programs and handed to Social Security in 1972.

For many employees accustomed to handling a retirement plan that sent checks to those who had "earned" them by paying taxes, administering a welfare plan was a culture shock. And it hasn't worn off.

"There are still people around here who would like to give it back to the states," says one official. Adds another: "Sometimes, I just want to tell them to grow up."

Field office workers say they are overworked and underappreciated. They view headquarters as a cushy place for semi-retirement. "Once someone is transferred to headquarters, they never want to come back," one field office worker said.

Ms. Chater is trying to fight the morale problem by creating a "nurturing environment" for employees.

She faces her own problem: Senate confirmation for the second time in 15 months. Social Security will be spun off from the Department of Health and Human Services in March. President Clinton has nominated Ms. Chater to be the first leader of the "independent" agency.

There are no signs that her nomination is in danger. But, in contrast to her 1993 confirmation hearings, senators are likely to hold Ms. Chater accountable for at least some of the agency's problems.

At a time when some people think it is flat on its back.

John B. O'Donnell is a reporter in the Washington Brueau of The Baltimore Sun.

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