SSA to continue offering verification letters in offices

WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration announced Thursday it will continue to provide benefit verification letters at field offices, reversing an earlier plan to cut that service that had led to criticism from members of the public and some lawmakers in Congress.

The Woodlawn-based agency, in an effort to cut costs, announced in February that the documents -- which allow beneficiaries as well as employers and government agencies to verify someone is receiving benefits -- would only be available online starting in October.

The agency said Thursday it will instead continue the service indefinitely.

The change comes as the agency's acting commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, has been nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the agency for a six-year term. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, have criticized the agency for recent service cuts.

"I'm glad the Social Security Administration has listened to our seniors' concerns," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "As the agency pushes more people online to conduct their business, we need to make sure our most vulnerable citizens are not being left high and dry."  

The committee released a report last month questioning both service reductions and the process the agency has taken to close dozens of field offices across the country. The findings of that bipartisan report are likely to be a central focus of lawmakers at Colvin's confirmation hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.  

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top-ranking Republican on the committee, called the decision "good news that will help ensure that current and future retirees continue to have access to this very important service of their local Social Security office." 

Social Security officials have been pressing to provide more services online, but that effort has sparked criticism from seniors groups and labor unions representing field office employees, who argue that face-to-face meetings are more appropriate for vulnerable populations receiving benefits.

"We recognize that some members of the public may require in-person assistance and we will have a presence in local communities," Colvin said in a statement. "We also want to ensure that the public is aware that they can access many of our services without making a trip to a local field office."

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