GSA, SSA, Iowa team on benefits program

The National Performance Review office last month presented officials from the Social Security Administration and the General Services Administration with a Hammer Award for a videoconferencing pilot project operated by the agencies in conjunction with the Iowa state government.

Ron Piasecki, GSA's deputy commissioner for current and emerging technology implementation, said the application will aid Iowa citizens filing benefits claims with SSA by providing electronic hookups between adjudication judges in Des Moines and other regions of the state.

"This is a significant savings of time and money," Piasecki said. "In Iowa, Social Security recipients who want to file a claim either had to travel to the state capital or wait for the judges to travel the state circuit to hold hearings. Cities like Ottumwa, [Iowa] are a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Des Moines, so judges only get there about twice a year."

Piasecki said GSA personnel worked with state government officials to set up a communications office in Ottumwa using the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), a federal/state government collaborative project that will encompass a range of applications, such as distance learning and telecommuting. Besides videoconferencing equipment, the offices provide fax machines to allow citizens to share documents with SSA judges and other interested parties in real time, he said.

"Normally in the past, after people filed claims, SSA sent them to the state disabilities office, which disburses money," Piasecki added, "so we've hooked up the state office as well."

Bill Newton, a program analyst at SSA, said regulations require the agency to conduct claims hearings face to face with citizens requesting them. He added that judges can make better decisions when they are able to see the claimants.

"It's a chance for the person who makes the decision to physically see the claimant," he said. "You pick up a lot of body language and nuance."

The use of videoconferencing and other information technology to assist the claims process was stated as an objective in SSA's "Plan for a New Disability Claims Process," issued in September. "Claimants will be able to conduct business with SSA via telephone, self-help workstations, kiosks, videoconferencing and electronic data transfer at SSA facilities and other satellite locations," according to the plan.

Henry Lai, director of telecommunications customer requirements in Piasecki's office, said the project represents only a part of an overall effort by SSA to re-engineer how the agency distributes claims. Because GSA had already begun the Iowa project, SSA officials asked to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and test the application on ICN, Lai said.

ICN includes more than 125 communications offices at public buildings throughout the state connected by a Synchronous Optical Network ring running at 45 megabit/sec. "The Iowa project was in the right place at the right time to support them, so they proposed this as part of our project," Lai said. "We played a role in planning the overall project, and they used the infrastructure. It was a team effort."

Newton said SSA officials have already set up similar pilots in other states and hope to expand the use of the technology in the coming years.

"Video technology is something SSA will probably move into in greater force," he said. "But we have to look at what technology is available, what technology is coming, how much it costs and what our customers want. A lot depends on what happens with the technology down the road."

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