Social Security left at-risk Americans behind in pandemic, report finds

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The abrupt halt to nearly all personal operations at the Social Security Administration during the coronavirus pandemic has been debilitating for the most vulnerable Americans, a new report finds — and undermined President Biden’s pledge to ensure equitable government services.

With its 1,230 field offices closed for two years, millions of disabled and poor elderly people could not get help applying for Social Security benefits, and for many of them there was no online option, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released Thursday.

Hispanics, a growing portion of Social Security beneficiaries, were dead on the agency’s website. Overloaded phones crashed. The lack of access caused disability claims to plummet, and plaintiffs who did file continue to face delays in reviewing their cases.

Pandemic strife continues to hit Social Security, a last lifeline for many

“SSA has taken steps to address a range of challenges in delivering services remotely,” the 68-page report said, “but gaps remain in delivering services online and assessing lessons learned.”

The agency’s ongoing battle seven months after reopening its field offices to the public led auditors to conclude that it “may still face challenges in delivering services to the populations most in need” and to wonder asking if the agency “can fulfill its mission to ensure that its services are equitable and accessible.”

The auditors found that Social Security is unable to track the racial and ethnic backgrounds of those it serves, hampering its ability to understand the population at risk. Nearly two years after the president issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to “ensure that their missions promote racial equality and provide support to underserved communities,” the agency has not yet decided on a strategy to collect this data, according to the report.

Nor have officials determined what pandemic changes should be permanent and what they have learned from the crisis, auditors concluded. And there is no plan to manage an expected surge in disability claims from those who have contracted long-term covid or are starting to apply after finding the process too daunting during the public health crisis.

The report recommends that Social Security address these shortcomings and offer benefits applications under its anti-poverty programs, known as Supplemental Security Income, both online and in Spanish.

The conclusions of GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, echo reporting by The Washington Post, which has found that Social Security, a last lifeline for millions of Americans, is still struggling to restore basic customer service and help millions fewer of the poor. elderly and disabled people who sought help before the pandemic.

Two leading House Democrats who asked for the agency’s assessment of the pandemic response wrote in response that the pandemic “posed unprecedented challenges, and this report shows that the Social Security Administration was not immune to it.”

The Legislators – Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chair Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who heads the Subcommittee on Workers and Family Support — concluded that the agency, weakened by years of budget cuts and facing thousands of departing employees in recent years, “needs to be better funded” to restore customer service and improve reach.

Social Security chief of staff Scott Frey said in a comment in the report that the agency agreed with the findings.

The pandemic caused dramatic shifts in how Social Security serves the public. When field offices closed, drop boxes were eventually offered for sensitive documents needed for new Social Security cards or disability claims. Personal appointments were allowed for limited, “necessary” cases. By mid-2021, faxes were allowed and customers could send alternatives for sensitive documents that got lost in the mail. The offices where administrative courts hear appeals from rejected disability claims shifted to telephone hearings and eventually online video proceedings.

But field office employees were not initially equipped to easily telecommute with older laptops that crashed several times a day, the report found. Some offices lacked wireless routers, repeaters, and network cables. Rural workers faced slow internet speeds, low bandwidth and system failures at home.

“These challenges slowed SSA’s delivery of services to customers, according to multiple groups of employees we interviewed,” the report said. The agency also issued “no guidance” on how to deal with the influx of mail at the start of the pandemic, the report found. It often took weeks for staff to receive and process paperwork, including faxes.

Phone service exploded by 70 percent. But with the increase came long waits and crowds and “system instability” caused as a new phone system rolled out from 2021, peaking at an average of 36 minutes.

Millions of people who filed for retirement went online. But those claiming benefits under Social Security’s two disability programs — the anti-poverty program and another for those with a work history — fell 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively, compared to pre-pandemic claims.

“The overall decline … showed that fewer people with disabilities or very low incomes were accessing benefits,” auditors found.

The decline was steep among disabled children and those who do not speak English. Social Security offers a variety of Spanish-language resources, but disability applications are not one of them. The agency’s Spanish-language website directs clients to a page where they are informed in Spanish that certain online services and information are only available in English.

To promote its benefits to poor elderly people, the disabled, the homeless, those with limited English language skills, those living in rural areas and those without legal representation, the agency sent out hundreds of thousands of messages to individuals and community groups. It also recruited field office staff for a new role of liaison to vulnerable populations, training community groups to help low-income people apply for benefits. The outreach efforts resulted in 3,131 claims from March 2021 to May 2022, the report said.

But the effort was not robust, auditors found: Many community groups lacked the bandwidth to take on the role, and turnover was high among many of the Social Security workers assigned to help.

The report found that without a plan to address an expected surge in demand for its services as more at-risk people return to the system, SSA is “ill-positioned to make informed decisions about its critical functions.”

Those include how many employees will be working from home and how the agency is handling disability claim backlogs.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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