WASHINGTON – Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to close dozens of field offices even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, swamping the agency with applications for benefits, a senior agency official told Congress on Wednesday.
Better Internet access and more online services are easing the transition, said Nancy Berryhill, the agency’s deputy commissioner for operations.
We are fully committed – now and in the future – to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face service for those customers who need or prefer such service, Berryhill told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. We also understand, however, that customer expectations are evolving due to changes in technology, demographics and other factors.
Senators appeared unconvinced.
The committee held a hearing Wednesday after issuing a bipartisan report showing that Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency’s history.
In addition, the agency has closed 533 temporary mobile offices that often serve remote areas. Hours have been reduced in the 1,245 field offices that are still open, the report said.
As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are facing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone, the report said.
The closings come as applications for retirement and disability benefits are soaring, a trend that will continue as aging baby boomers approach retirement.
According to the Special Committee on Aging, no locations in Indiana have closed as a result of the cuts.
More than 47 million people receive Social Security retirement benefits, nearly a 20 percent increase from a decade ago.
About 11 million people receive Social Security disability benefits, a 38 percent increase from a decade ago.
The Social Security Administration has been encouraging people to access services online.
People can apply for benefits without ever visiting Social Security offices.
In 2013, nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online, according to the report.
But the committee report notes that many older Americans lack access to the Internet or might not be comfortable using it to apply for benefits.
Last year, more than 43 million people visited Social Security field offices.
About 43 percent of those seeking an appointment had to wait more than three weeks, up from just 10 percent the year before, the report said.
Berryhill said Social Security officials do annual reviews to determine whether offices should be expanded, reduced or closed.
Like many federal agencies, Social Security has faced budget cuts in recent years. After two years of shrinking budgets, the agency got a 6 percent increase this year, to $11.8 billion.