Social Security looking for site for data center

Stimulus package provides funds

5,000 workers could be hired

February 19, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington -Wanted: Large parcel of real estate suitable for high-security, high-tech databank containing names, earning histories and Social Security numbers of 300 million Americans. Must be within 40 miles of Baltimore.

Using a hefty down payment from the newly signed economic stimulus law, the Social Security Administration has embarked on a $750 million project to replace its outmoded National Computer Center.

The agency received a total of $1 billion in the stimulus, with half to go toward the computer project and half for reducing a huge backlog in processing disability claims.

The injection of funds could result in hiring 5,000 to 6,000 workers in Baltimore and around the country, Michael J. Astrue, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said in an interview yesterday.

One thing that won't change, however, is the agency's top leadership.

An appointee of President George W. Bush, Astrue confirmed he has no intention of leaving his position.

Earlier this month, in an ad published in The Baltimore Sun, a labor union representing thousands of Social Security workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, called for "a new direction" at the agency by demanding Astrue's resignation.

"I'm here. I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm looking forward to serving President Obama."

In 1994, Congress tried to insulate the top job from a change in administrations at the same time that it made Social Security an independent agency. The commissioner cannot be removed except for "neglect of duty or malfeasance."

Astrue, a Republican lawyer with degrees from Yale and Harvard, has a six-year term that expires one day before Barack Obama's term ends.

A little over a year ago, Social Security officials began looking seriously at the need to replace its data center, which is 30 years old and has "outlived its normal life," Astrue said. It is currently projected to run out of storage capacity by late 2012, and the agency is making plans to fill the gap before the new facility is completed, possibly by mid-2014.

Building a new data center "is fairly complicated," he said, with a variety of "cyber-security and other security needs." The $750 million budget for the project includes an estimated $400 million for land and construction and about $350 million for new equipment.

The project will likely require moving some members of the computer center staff who work at the existing facility. There, computers house the earnings records of hundreds of millions of individuals, plus data on 56 million Americans who are receiving some form of Social Security benefit payment. Those files will grow as about 80 million members of the baby boom generation retire over the next quarter-century.

Social Security's databank also contains what the agency says is the world's largest collection of electronic medical records.

The medical information is used in processing disability claims under the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income programs. A total of about 12 million people are receiving federal disability payments through those programs, according to Mark Lassiter, an agency spokesman.

The backlog in processing disability claims exceeds 570,000 cases, Lassiter said. Some who become disabled are forced to wait an average of about a year and a half before their appeals are resolved, he said.

Until the agency began whittling down that backlog, it was taking as long as 900 days to resolve appeals. Astrue has set of goal of reducing the wait to an average of 270 days over the next five years, in part by computerizing more of the records used in the process.

To help do that work, the agency has been interviewing prospective new hires. As many as 5,000 to 6,000 new positions could be filled, using $500 million provided by Congress in the stimulus package, Astrue said. The vast majority of those new employees would work in hundreds of field offices around the country, he said.

Social Security employs about 11,000 workers in the Baltimore area, mainly at or near the Woodlawn headquarters, just inside the western rim of the Baltimore Beltway. But according to Astrue, the Woodlawn campus doesn't have enough room to accommodate a new data center.

The new facility will need "a fair amount of space" for "national security purposes," including an "appropriate perimeter" and land for future expansion, he said.

"Basically, there's no way to do it [at Woodlawn] without using up all or most of the employee parking or taking adjacent land, and neither of those look like practical options."

He declined to say where the agency hopes to build the new center or how much acreage it wants.

"We do need a reasonably sized piece of land," said Astrue, which would ideally be close to the current headquarters. But if the government conducts too narrow a site search, he said, it could "end up overpaying."

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