Inadequate Budget Causes Declines In Customer Service

April 19, 2017

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):
Years of Social Security Administration (SSA) funding cuts have hampered the agency’s ability to serve the American people. The current 2017 spending measure, set to expire at the end of April, froze funding for basic SSA functions like staffing field offices and call centers at last year’s level.

SSA’s core operating budget shrank by 10 percent from 2010 to 2016 in inflation-adjusted terms even as the demands on SSA reached record highs. The freeze on SSA’s operating funds in the 2017 continuing resolution (CR) only stressed the agency further. Anticipating the CR, SSA imposed a hiring freeze in the spring of 2016 and then eliminated nearly all overtime when the CR began. Beneficiaries and taxpayers are paying the price:

SSA has lost 1,400 field staff since the hiring freeze began. As a result, 18,000 field office visitors every day must wait more than an hour for service. Nearly half of visitors must wait at least three weeks for an appointment.

SSA’s teleservice centers have 450 fewer agents than they need to handle the 37 million calls they receive each year. As a result, most callers to SSA’s national 800 number don’t get their questions resolved. The average wait for an agent is 18 minutes, and nearly half of callers hang up before connecting. Another 13 percent of callers get busy signals.

SSA has been able to hire more staff to address appeals for disability benefits, in part due to the $150 million in dedicated funding that policymakers provided for this purpose in 2017. As a result, SSA has made initial progress in reducing its record backlogs. But that progress will disappear unless the President and Congress continue to provide adequate funding in the final 2017 appropriation bill and in future years.

The hiring freeze and cutbacks in overtime have hampered SSA’s ability to complete behind-the-scenes work, leading to growing delays in processing applications or changing benefits when a beneficiary’s circumstances change. This creates unnecessary hardship for beneficiaries. It also costs taxpayers, since it allows overpayments to build up and delays their collection — increasing the risk that they will never be recovered. By the end of 2016, the number of pending behind-the-scenes tasks had more than doubled.

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