WASHINGTON -- The American Federation of Government Employees council representing more than 22,000 employees at the Social Security Administration has detailed the customer service debacle the agency envisions for the year 2025 -- a plan that hurts seniors, disabled and low-income Americans.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE's National Council of Social Security Field Office Operations Locals, submitted testimony today to the Senate Special Committee on Aging during a hearing examining the reduction in face-to-face services at SSA offices.
“Mr. Chairman, it our strongest recommendation that you view this hearing as the beginning of a process in which Congress carefully reviews SSA’s current strategic plan, in light of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report, and works with the agency, the union and the public to fundamentally revise it,” Skwierczynski said. “In our view, a plan that embraces both the field offices and the internet and allows beneficiaries to choose the way they interact with the program should be the consensus goal.”
The cornerstone of the Vision 2025 plan is the MySSA website, which would replace face-to-face customer service. But, according to SSA, fully one-third of the people attempting to access the website fail to successfully register. However, the website’s issues are more troubling than simply a poor customer experience.
The Irish company Experian Credit Corporation was hired by SSA to provide security for transactions on the site, despite ongoing Congressional investigations into the company’s practices and vulnerabilities regarding identity theft. In 2013, Experian was caught selling more than 200 million accounts from their Identity Proofing Services to a Vietnamese identity theft ring. The corporation is being investigated by the U.S. Secret Service and FBI.
There already is evidence of identity theft and fraud at SSA, as the Office of Inspector General stated it received 37,000 reports from various sources concerning questionable changes to a beneficiary’s record. The data that the MySSA website uses to identify a beneficiary online is the same type of personally identifiable information that identify theft criminals obtained. These criminals were able to fool the website system and change the direct deposit information.
"AFGE was told that despite efforts made to identify fraudulent bank account and routing numbers used by identity thefts, new accounts are opened as fast as identified accounts are closed. It is a ‘moving target.’” said Skwierczynski. “SSA dismissed our recommendation and stated that the number of beneficiaries effected by the identity theft were less than one half of one percent of all beneficiaries. Therefore, ‘this is an acceptable risk.’"
Skwierczynski advised that SSA should embrace a ‘zero tolerance’ identify theft and integrity policy that ban third party access to records and social security number information without the consent of the beneficiary.
Skwierczynski said that SSA’s Vision 2025 hadn’t even been floated by Congress or the public, but that it was already in process. To date, SSA has closed 73 field offices, reduced office hours, shuttered 500 rural contact stations and cut 11,000 field office employees.
Last year, 11 million people went to field offices specifically for Numi-lites and Benefit Verification Forms - services that will no longer be offered by the end of the 2014. Benefit Verification Forms are used for car loans, mortgage applications, housing assistance and when applying for other government assistance programs.
Skwierczynski said that SSA must be required to notify the public, Congress and employees 180 days before a proposed office closing and schedule a public hearing no less than 30 days before to allow the public to weigh in impact of the agency’s decision.
“People not only want face to face service at SSA, they need it,” said Skwierczynski.
“Only through the work of a trained and experienced field office employee, can beneficiaries be assured their benefits will be accurately determined and appropriate for the individual circumstances of each beneficiary,” said Skwierczynski. “That’s the major benefit of a face-to-face or telephone interview with a trained SSA claims representative. Reducing or eliminating this option will result in many claimants losing money due to uninformed choices.”