Social Security plans IT improvements

The Social Security Administration plans to lessen its dependence on mainframe technology during the next decade or so and make many other information technology improvements during that time, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told the House Ways and Means Committee today.

The agency’s core systems comprise about 36 million lines of Cobol, Astrue said. “Given the huge amount of code we inherited,” he said, "it’s going to take some time” to shift to a more modern platform, but he promised to start the process. “I think the agency got comfortable with the Cobol technology,” Astrue said, and that now makes it more difficult to automate SSA operations.

At a hearing focused on reducing the long-standing backlogs in processing disability claims, Astrue said more employees are needed to process initial claims and adjudicate appeals of claims that are denied. More automation is in store when Congress appropriates the necessary money, he said.

Astrue said the agency wants to replace the disability determination systems used by the 50 states and four territories. SSA provides the systems, and the states operate them. Each system is different, and maintaining the separate systems is expensive and inefficient, he said.

“We’ve been negotiating with the states for about nine months” to obtain consensus on a single new system, Astrue said. “It will be an enormous step forward if we can do that.”

A new software tool called the Electronic Case Analysis Tool (eCAT) will help disability examiners collect the correct information faster, he said. An early version of eCAT was fielded prematurely “and failed miserably,” but a better development process and extensive testing should result in a different outcome next year, he said.

A new national hearing center houses judges who hear disability cases through remote connections to locations with the worst backlogs, Astrue said. This program  has been successful and will be expanded, he said.

The agency is also testing a program that will let lawyers who represent SSA claimants conduct video hearings from their offices, he said. “This initiative should offer convenience and comfort for many claimants, save time for attorneys and cut down on our investment in bricks and mortar, a cost which increases above the rate of inflation year after year,” Astrue added.

A new online application form for Social Security benefits will debut in September, replacing an 8-year-old form used by only about one in 10 retirees. The new, simplified form can be completed in one-third the time and with fewer errors, he said.

Visitors to SSA offices soon will go first to a kiosk where they will check in and register the reason for their visit. Also, waiting areas will have PCs where some visitors may be able to accomplish their business with SSA electronically.

“Although our electronic services are usually ranked as the best of all federal agencies, my judgment is they are far from good enough yet to deal with the imminent tsunami of baby boomers’ claims,” Astrue said.

The Ways and Means Committee members were generally supportive, as were the other witnesses at the hearing.

However, Sylvester Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, said eCAT development was not coordinated with the system’s users. “There appears to be a lack of a holistic electronic-systems strategy…linked to a well-thought-out process structure that is properly resourced and that emphasizes the interdependence of the operating components,” he stated.

About the Author

Nancy Ferris is senior editor of Government Health IT.

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