Social Security sees tech future

Social Security Administration officials say they are counting on information technology to help them handle a large wave of Baby Boomer retirements that will tax the agency’s capacity to perform.

“We’re not going to get 5,000 more employees to deal with a 20 percent increase in people retiring,” said Tom Hughes, SSA’s chief information officer, speaking today at an event sponsored by Input.

Hughes said the agency would be relying instead on new technologies such as voice over IP and IP version 6 to deliver services to beneficiaries.

SSA receives between 60 million to 70 million phone calls a year on traditional 800-number phone lines. But SSA officials plan to move their telephone support to newer voice over IP and Internet technologies, Hughes said. Twenty of SSA’s more than 1,300 offices nationwide now have voice over IP systems and more will soon, Hughes said.

The agency's transition to a single network for voice and data will be risky, Hughes said, because it will create single point of potential failure. Mitretek Systems, a public interest technology research group, is working with SSA officials to help mitigate some of the risks, he said.

In addition, the agency is developing major information systems to automate the processing of disability claims, handle new prescription drug benefits processing and create an electronic registration system for states to notify SSA of deaths.

Components of a new system to automate the processing of disability claims are in place all 50 states, Hughes said. But getting all of the intended functionality into the systems is proving difficult. “It’s a challenge for us to manage 1.8 million images a day electronic folders,” he said.

Compared with the electronic disability system, progress on e-Vital has been less impressive, Hughes said. With e-Vital, SSA officials hope to reduce the average 179 days that it takes for states to send death notices to SSA. “E-Vital is one example of a project on my radar screen that has been slow and frustrating,” he said.

SSA is, by nature, conservative, Hughes said. But its officials are exploring potential uses for new technologies and possible new uses for current technologies through a technology innovation board created two years ago, Hughes said. Its members represent offices throughout the agency.

This year, he said, the board’s members are exploring the potential uses of six new technologies, which are biometric USB hard drives, radio frequency identification, mobile office automation, electronic data interchange for medical evidence, universal routing, data integration technologies and business-rule engines.

In the rapidly expanding area of information security spending, Hughes said, SSA will spend more than $23 million this year on software licenses and consulting to secure its information and to ensure business continuity, an amount “that just scratches the surface.”

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