An aging workforce, retiring baby boomers and a poor economy are forcing SSA to innovate with new technology to keep up with the demand, the agency's commissioner tells a House subcommittee.
The number of public electronic transactions with the Social Security Administration increased by more than 50 percent from fiscal 2008 to 2009, and SSA has boosted its staffing to its highest level in five years. But the agency still is struggling keep up with a growing workload, a House subcommittee was told Thursday.
“SSA has expanded the level of staffing, and encouraged greater use of automated services. However, rapidly rising workloads have adversely affected customer service and the quality of some work, despite SSA’s efforts,” Barbara D. Bovbjerg, the Government Accountability Office’s managing director of education, workforce, and income security, told the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.
SSA is being hit with a triple whammy by a retiring baby boom generation, an aging workforce and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“This subject is critically significant, especially today as the baby boomers reach their retirement and disability-prone years in the middle of a serious economic downturn,” SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told the subcommittee. “We are flooded with retirement and disability claims. Based on the most recent economic assumptions for fiscal 2010, we estimate that we will receive over 375,000 more retirement, auxiliary and survivors’ claims, and over 730,000 more disability claims than we estimated only two years ago.”
SSA estimates that over the next 10 years it will see a 14 percent increase in claims for Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income, rising from a combined total of 9.4 million claims in fiscal 2008 to 10.7 million in 2017. Budgets and staffing have not kept up with these increases.
“We did not receive the funding we needed, therefore our service suffered,” Astrue said.
Complicating matters, the agency predicts that 41 percent of its workforce will retire by fiscal 2018. It has increased hiring in the past year and the number of total SSA employees rebounded from a recent low of 61,594 in 2007 to 66,459 in 2009, the GAO found. But workloads in the field offices still have increased over the past five years and many field office managers say their staffing is inadequate.
SSA has responded to these pressures with a number of strategies, including increased use of online, telephone and video services; load balancing by shifting work between offices; and deferring less essential jobs. Key among these strategies are online services.
“Online services are vital to good public service,” Astrue said. The public increasingly expects to be able to conduct business over the Internet, without having to wait on the phone on hold, or take leave from work to travel to an office and wait to meet in person with an agency representative. “In addition to being convenient for the public, this approach also reduces the average time spent by our employees processing claims.”
Astrue said the agency expects to achieve a strategic goal of having 50 percent of retirement applications filed online in fiscal 2012 and to exceed its goal of having 25 percent of disability applications filed online.
“Without the Internet, our field offices would be in dire need of even more resources,” he said.
The agency reported that in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 the total number of electronic transactions jumped from 4 million to 6.1 million. Electronic filings for retirement benefits went from about 400,000 to 833,000 during that period and now account for nearly one third of total retirement applications being filed. Online filings now account for 83 percent of total retirement claims growth.
The number of online disability claims also is growing through use of the iClaim application.
“Even though we did not market the option to file for disability benefits online when we launched iClaim, online disability applications have also increased from less than 10 percent just a few years ago to nearly 25 percent,” Astrue said. SSA launched an improved version of iClaim in December 2008 and saw an immediate increase in the number of retirement applications filed online. In fiscal 2009 more than 30 percent of retirement applications were filed online, nearly twice as many as in the prior year. That figure now is at 35 percent.
“We expect this positive trend to continue because in January, we released a simplified electronic version of the Adult Disability Report,” Astrue said. Feedback on the application has been positive. The average time required to complete the Adult Disability Report has been cut in half, completion rates have increased from 65 percent to 73 percent, and customer satisfaction with the process has increased.
In March, SSA introduced an online Medicare application, and a Multilanguage Gateway gives online access to information in 15 different languages. Astrue said the agency is on track to implement its first non-English interactive application, the Retirement Estimator, in Spanish later this year. In development are an online life-expectancy calculator to help in deciding the best time to collect retirement benefits, expected to be launched this year.