WASHINGTON - Jo Anne B. Barnhart, President Bush's choice to head the Social Security Administration, promised a Senate committee yesterday that she would report back within six months on how much money is needed for the agency to provide an "optimum level" of service.
At a hearing so friendly that Barnhart's confirmation was accepted as a foregone conclusion, she told the Senate Finance Committee that she agreed with its assessment that the Woodlawn-based agency is stretched too thin to process claims as quickly as it should. In some cases, she acknowledged, it can take up to three years to resolve a disability claim.
"I do not seek this position to manage the status quo," Barnhart said. "I have become convinced that we can and must do better. The people of America expect it, and they deserve it."
Barnhart, 50, was praised by committee members for her extensive background with the agency, which includes nearly five years on the Social Security Advisory Board. She said it had given her insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the program, which serves 44 million beneficiaries.
"Just to give you some idea, the agency puts out 390 million notices a year," she said. "That's over a million notices a day. I think the budget for Social Security is four times that of the state of California and bigger than the GDP of all but 10 or 11 countries. It does touch almost every home in America."
The nominee had high praise for the agency's staff. But she said employees are overworked and more likely to retire once they are eligible than they were in the past.
"Social Security employees are among the most dedicated work force that I have ever known," Barnhart said. "But when you look at the workloads today, and the pressures and the stresses that employees are under, I think that unless we can remove some of that stress ... they are going to be more likely to follow the lead of their counterparts elsewhere in the federal government."
Barnhart said it would take five or six months to determine how much more federal money might be needed to improve customer service, while easing some of the burdens on the work force.