Senate committee questions Social Security closures

The Social Security Administration applies inconsistent criteria when deciding whether to close its field offices, and it rarely involves local officials or the public in the process, a Senate committee says in a bipartisan report to be released Wednesday.

The Woodlawn-based agency, which serves nearly 57 million beneficiaries, often fails to adequately study the impact that closing an office has on a community and whether people can easily access the next-closest site — factors Social Security says are priorities — the Senate Special Committee on Aging found.

The report, which is tied to a hearing before the panel set for Wednesday, comes as the agency has closed dozens of offices to save money.

Some are concerned that the closings will continue as Social Security develops a long-term strategy that focuses on providing more services via the Internet.

"Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services," said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the committee. "The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change."

The Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment. When criticized, the agency has noted that Congress has cut nearly $1 billion from the money that President Barack Obama has requested for administration over the last three years.

Nancy A. Berryhill, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

At its peak, Social Security operated 1,352 field offices in 1996. But the agency has reduced the number steadily since then and now has 1,245, according to the committee.

The agency has also eliminated most of its "contact stations," or temporary offices.

In many cases, the committee says, Social Security has provided little notification to local officials.

The panel cites the experience of a city manager in Hugo, Okla., who read in a newspaper that the local field office was being closed. When an office was closed in Philadelphia last year, members of the public continued to form lines outside the building for weeks.

The agency does not generally consider public transportation options to other offices or other logistical barriers, as it claims to, the committee found. It also does not consistently consider the "special needs" of a community and does not analyze alternatives to closures, according to the panel.

The agency "cannot fully understand a community's special needs without talking to members of the community," the committee says in the report. "Without this input, it is difficult to understand how the agency can make decisions about the special needs of the community."

Labor unions have voiced concerns about a draft "vision document" the agency was developing in May that proposed using the Internet as a "primary service channel" for many services previously handled in offices.

The agency has nearly 64,000 employees, including more than 11,000 in Maryland — making it one of the largest federal entities in the state.

Social Security served more than 43 million people in its field offices last year.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top-ranking Republican on the Special Committee on Aging, expressed reservations about a shift toward more Internet-based service.

"There may be some instances where it could be more convenient for individuals to inquire about their benefits or make a request to the Social Security Administration through the agency's website," she said. "But there are many, many instances where the case may be too complicated to be resolved simply by going online."

Social Security field office closures have long been contentious. The committee notes that then-Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes raised the issue on the Senate floor in 1993.

"I am confident," the Maryland Democrat said at the time, "that many of my colleagues are aware of situations in their own states in which a service office was closed or downgraded without input from community groups and without adequate consideration of the public interest."

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