Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, testified before Congress on May 17, 2012, about agency accomplishments and the resources needed to continue providing outstanding public service.
The first two portions of his testimony, Overview and Our Services and Accomplishments, and the ending Conclusions are included here in full. You can read his complete testimony at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/legislation/testimony_051712.html.
Easy to read, a lot of behind-the-scenes information is in the testimony. Other topics discussed by Commissioner Astrue include Social Security disability claim processing, service delivery in local field offices and the national toll-free number (800-772-1213 / TTY 800-325-0778), online services, budgets and agency staff levels.
I encourage you to look at the full testimony and hope you find interesting.
Statement of Michael J. Astrue,
Social Security Administration
before the Senate Finance Committee
May 17, 2012
Chairman Baucus, Ranking Member Hatch, and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss issues related to our ability to provide quality service and value to the American public. I will try to be very clear about the service the American people and Congress can expect, which is highly dependent on future funding levels.
Before I begin, let me express my gratitude to you, Mr. Chairman and the Ranking Member, for signing the letter to the Budget Committee urging support for the President’s FY 2013 funding request for the Social Security Administration (SSA), including full funding for our program integrity efforts authorized by the Budget Control Act (BCA).
Congress has expected us to manage our workloads successfully, with limited resources. In every fiscal year (FY) from 1994 through 2007, Congress appropriated less than the President requested. The agency did the best it could to meet expectations, but for the past 20 years, our workloads steadily increased. Requests for our core services have increased as the population grows, and baby boomers age and pass through their disability-prone years before retiring.
To the extent that limited resources allowed, the agency hired and trained staff for these increased workloads and used technology to make traditional work processes more efficient. Even with these new and unavoidable demands, our innovative and proactive employees maintained high service levels for some time.
Inevitably, though, increasing workloads combined with declining budgets damaged service delivery. Even with consistent year-over-year increases in employee productivity, our reduced staff could not keep up with the rising workloads. Throughout most of the past decade, the average time claimants waited for a disability hearing decision rose steadily, and in many locations, average wait times for a hearing exceeded 800, and even 900, days. Sadly, some claimants waited as long as 1,400 days—nearly four years—for a decision. We also dramatically cut the amount of program integrity work we did during these years despite the long-term harm to the trust funds.
After the Senate confirmed me as Commissioner, I made the case that we needed to move in new directions and that Congress needed to provide the funding to support that shift. For FYs 2008- 2010, Congress provided funding at or above the requested level and in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provided us with additional funds to tackle our surging retirement and disability applications. This funding allowed us to reverse many negative trends, significantly improve service and stewardship efforts, and absorb huge increases in workloads due to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We have dramatically lowered the average wait for a hearing decision, reversed the disturbing trend in program integrity work, and improved services agency-wide. We made remarkable progress.
However, in FY 2011, while we received unprecedented new workloads, Congress cut our budget more deeply than in any year of the previous two decades. Congress also rescinded a sizable portion of our IT carryover funding, which is our best mechanism for improving productivity. With staff reductions caused by hiring freezes and attrition, our work force is contracting rapidly, field offices are consolidating, and we are struggling to maintain recent levels of service. When I leave office in 2013, the agency will have about the same number of employees that we had when I arrived in 2007, even though our workloads have increased dramatically. Since FY 2007, retirement and survivor claims have increased by 26 percent and disability claims have increased by over 31 percent.
Before I describe the current state of our service delivery, our plans for improvement, and the difficult choices we have had to make under the current budget constraints, I want to briefly explain who we are and what we do, and our accomplishments with the funding you provided in FYs 2008 through 2010.
Our Services and Accomplishments
We have just over 80,000 Federal and State employees who serve the public through a nationwide network of about 1,500 offices. Each day almost 182,000 people visit our field offices and more than 445,000 people call us for a variety of reasons – to file claims, ask questions, and change direct deposit information.
During FY 2011, we paid nearly 60 million people over $770 billion in benefits. Specifically, we paid $591.5 billion in Old-Age and Survivor Insurance benefits, $128 billion in Disability Insurance (DI) benefits, and $52.4 billion in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.
We strive to make timely and accurate payments and operate efficiently and effectively. Our administrative costs are only 1.6 percent of benefit payments. We have invested in IT and efficient business practices that have kept our overall costs down and allowed our employees to be more productive.
We are proud of our record of optimizing our resources to produce results. Last year, we:
• Reduced the time it takes to get a hearing decision to the lowest point in 8 years;
• Handled a record number of benefit applications — over 4.8 million retirement
and survivors claims, nearly 3.4 million initial disability claims, and over 795,000 hearings;
• Increased our cost-effective program integrity work –1.4 million continuing disability reviews (CDR), including over 345,000 full medical CDRs, and over 2.4 million SSI non-disability redeterminations, which improves SSI payment accuracy and provides a significant return on our investment;
• Used our Compassionate Allowance and Quick Disability Determination processes to expedite medical determinations for obviously disabled individuals in over 150,000 initial disability cases;
• Achieved the best average speed of answer and busy rates on our National 800 Number ever;
• Handled nearly 63 million National 800-Number transactions;
• Issued over 16 million new and replacement Social Security cards;
• Posted 241 million annual earnings reports;
• Increased online claims — 41 percent of retirement claims and 33 percent of disability claims filed online;
• Maintained an average annual increase in employee productivity of nearly 4 percent over the last 5 years;
• Continued to use plain language principles to improve the 350 million notices we send Americans each year; and
• Balanced productivity with quality.
In addition to our core program workloads, we handle lesser-known services that drive millions of Americans to visit our field offices or call us each year. For example, in FY 2011, we issued about 1 million replacement Medicare cards, and handled nearly 1 million transactions in administering the Medicare low-income subsidy program. We handle about 2 million requests each year from claimant representatives asking for information we maintain. About 65 percent of these requests are from representatives handling Social Security cases, but 35 percent are from representatives who request our information for insurance claims or other government programs.
Furthermore, an increasing percentage of our work results from our duty to verify information for other Federal agencies. Last year, we completed 1.4 billion verifications ranging from the EVerify program to health care programs, voter registration, drivers’ licenses, and many other government programs. While most of these verifications occur cheaply and automatically, a small but significant percentage of these interactions produce an increasing number of nonmatches that strain the resources of our rapidly shrinking field operations.
In fact, if you look at our waiting rooms today, you see very few older Americans. You do see younger Americans, often with children, waiting for a document required by another agency for authentication purposes. For example, the number of people coming into an SSA office for benefit verification has increased by 46 percent since FY 2007.
(more information is in the complete testimony)
Thank you for this opportunity to explain what wonderful work the men and women of the Social Security Administration are doing under enormous stress, and why we need your support to continue to serve the American people in the way that you and I expect. I am proud of the hard-earned progress we have made over the past five years. We fully recognize that we all must tighten our belts, and therefore have examined which services, though important, we must discontinue. I want to be candid with you that we will continue cut services as funding requires, even though I know these decisions are unpopular.
The work we receive is not optional. At some point, we will have to handle every claim that comes to us, every change of address, every direct deposit change, every workers’ compensation change, every request for new or replacement Social Security cards. The longer it takes us to get to this work, the more it costs to do. Funding us to keep up with the work is ultimately cheaper than delaying it. It is also the moral thing to do for the American citizens who depend on our services.
No matter what Congress decides, our employees will continue to do their best to serve the public with a smile, even as that public misdirects its frustration at our frontline employees. Our employees will keep thinking of new ideas like AFI to help us better serve the taxpayer. We will also keep improving online services that are necessary to handle our ever-increasing work. I look forward to a constructive dialogue with you regarding how we can provide the best possible service and stewardship is this difficult fiscal climate.