H&R; Block approaches SSA about computer link


WASHINGTON -- Imagine one-stop shopping where you file your income tax return and apply for Social Security benefits in the same place -- at H&R; Block.

Far-fetched? Perhaps.

But, the nationwide income tax service company has told the Social Security Administration that it would like to help claimants fill out and file their applications for disability benefits by computer.

And, the Woodlawn agency, working with the American Federation of Government Employees -- the union that represents its field office employees -- is about to look into having Block or other firms file disability and retirement applications.

The union has expressed misgivings about giving work performed by its members to outsiders and allowing them access to the agency's computers.

But faced with an increasing workload and shrinking work force, Social Security is computerizing and streamlining its cumbersome disability process and seeking ways to transact business with the public through the Internet and home computers.

Developing a system of two-way computer communication with the public raises a host of security and confidentiality questions regarding the agency's vast computer system and the records it contains on virtually every American.

"Until we have the ability to put up a fire wall and protect the privacy and security of our records, we won't do that," said Phil Gambino, the agency's spokesman.

Computer experts say it is possible to build "fire walls" that allow outsiders to send information into a system and to retrieve limited information without opening the way for hackers to obtain confidential information or to tamper with the system itself.

"It is possible to at least severely restrict the potential for bad things to happen," said Paul R. McMullin, a computer expert at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. "But, anytime you say it is impossible to get through these fire walls, you could be proven wrong."

Social Security gets 3 million disability applications annually, including 200,000 that are filed on paper by outside organizations assisting claimants.

These organizations, called third parties, include public and private social service agencies, for-profit companies and lawyers.

Social Security is moving cautiously toward allowing third parties to file applications electronically, a step that would give them limited access to its computer system. In effect, access would be a one-way street that would not allow retrieval of information in the system.

H&R; Block is eager to get involved.

"We are good at filling out forms," Harry Buckley, president and CEO of the Kansas City, Mo.-based organization, said in an interview.

With 8,000 offices nationwide, half of which are open all year, H&R; Block would greatly expand the network of high-visibility walk-in locations where Social Security applications could be filed.

The agency itself has 1,300 field offices nationwide, the front line of its service to the public.

The firm now files income tax returns electronically -- 7 million of them last year, according to Michael Lister, senior vice president.

Beyond one-way filing of applications, Social Security is searching for ways to transact business with claimants and beneficiaries through home computers and kiosks that are linked to its headquarters in Woodlawn.

The kiosks, initially equipped with touch screens that allow users to select the information they want to receive, would be placed in shopping malls and other locations with heavy pedestrian traffic.

The agency is planning a test of kiosks in New Mexico soon.

The first step in the computerization of two-way transactions with the public is expected to allow people who want a statement of their Social Security payroll tax payments and projected retirement benefits to apply for it electronically. It would then be mailed to them.

Later, the agency hopes to develop a system that would allow people to receive the statement electronically and then to develop other two-way computer transactions.

But, cautions Mr. Gambino, the spokesman, "Electronic service delivery is years away."

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