Social Security braces for retirees

SSA’s growing workload

Statistics from the Social Security Administration forecast a dramatic rise in SSA’s workloads as members of the baby boom generation become disabled or retire and begin drawing benefits. Here are some of the numbers.

1. SSA expects to process 4.3 million retirement claims in 2008.

2. The agency anticipates a 23 percent increase in retirement claims by 2013.

3. By 2015, 50 million retirees, widows and widowers, and dependents will be receiving Social Security benefits.

4. During the the next 10 years, retirement claims will rise by 40 percent and disability claims by 10 percent.

5. Unless the definition of disability changes, the number of people receiving disability benefits will grow from 7.1 million in 2007 to 8.7 million by 2015.

- Mary Mosquera

The Social Security Administration is simplifying and automating  some aspects of its benefits application process in anticipation of a flood of retirees.

For several years, the agency has experienced lean budgets and staffing losses as its employees retire. And its backlog of disability claims has proved difficult to reduce by any significant amount. Meanwhile, the agency continues to prepare for the country’s retiring baby boomers. 

SSA doesn’t have much time to transform itself. Nearly 80 million baby boomers will soon retire, and the first ones have already started drawing Social Security benefits.

The agency is considering policy changes to reduce the amount of documentation it requires, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said. For example, retirees born in the United States might not need to provide a birth certificate to prove their age. Instead, a birth date that SSA can authenticate might suffice. That one change would make it easier for boomers to file for benefits and save time for field employees, Astrue said.

SSA also plans to offer an online application for determining the retirement date that would give people the highest monthly retirement benefit based on their earnings, Astrue said.

The agency also plans to automate its procedures for getting pertinent information to retirees. “We believe that if we can automate, reduce or eliminate such information exchanges, we can improve efficiency as well as the quality of our service and the morale of our field employees,” Astrue said. The agency will soon launch a new version of its Web site that should be be easier to navigate, he added.

The largest change will be a redesign of the agency’s online application for retirement benefits. Only a small percentage of beneficiaries apply online, Astrue said at a hearing last month before a House panel. “To keep field offices from being totally overwhelmed, we are going to need to drive that online filing figure up from about 13 percent to 50 percent over the next five years.”

The agency has shown a prototype of the online application to the Social Security Advisory Board and various Social Security advocacy groups. SSA officials say they expect the new version to answer most people’s questions when they deploy it in late September.

The online application will use links, streaming video and other features to improve the Web experience for users. SSA expects to cut the average time to file for benefits from 45 minutes to 15, Astrue said.

In addition to preparing for the flood of retirement applications, SSA must modernize the disability benefits application process so the agency and state Disability Determination Service offices can consistently handle such cases in a timely manner and eliminate the backlog, said Sylvester Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board.

As SSA modernizes its information technology infrastructure, it must also refresh its disability benefits policies and procedures, Schieber said. For example, although the agency has replaced paper folders with electronic ones, it hasn’t realized the full benefits of the change because case production processes are not coordinated and each state’s disability determination office has its own systems. 

“The main goal in initiatives like the development of the electronic applications folder may be to drain the backlog swamp, but there are so many alligators nipping at the various components [that] they have lost focus on the way,” Schieber said.

SSA has 1.4 million disability benefits applicants waiting for decisions on their claims. Some have been waiting for years. SSA’s efforts to reduce that backlog divert limited resources from  the agency’s day-to-day operations in field offices and payment processing centers,  said Rep. Michael McNulty (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s ocial Security Subcommittee.

“For too long, SSA has been severely underfunded,” McNulty said, adding that the agency used a budget increase in fiscal 2008 to hire 175 administrative law judges to help reduce the disability claims backlog. 

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