Legislation Provides for Congressional Oversight on Decisions Impacting Local Offices
West Seneca, NY – Today, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) was joined by West Seneca Supervisor Wallace Piotrowski and local Social Security Administration employees as he announced that he has introduced H.R. 5110 The Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act, a new bill that would give Congress a proper oversight role for local hearing office operations to ensure that customer service is at a level that citizens deserve.
“Social Security field offices are the first point of contact for thousands of Western New Yorkers who rely on the agency as a vital source of income because they are retired, disabled or dependent,” said Congressman Higgins. “These citizens are vulnerable to fall through the cracks if their benefits are not properly dispensed or if their questions are not adequately answered.”
Congressman Higgins’ bill would give Congress a proper oversight role for local hearing office operations. Specifically the bill would:
· Require SSA to provide Congress a nonpartisan detailed yearly budget estimate;
· The budget estimate would include yearly statistics of the number of cases pending at hearing offices, the rate at with case backlogs are increasing or decreasing, the average length of time it takes for claims to be administered, and staffing level trends at offices over time;
· Prohibit SSA from closing or limiting hours at local offices without providing Congress with at least 6 months notice and thoughtful justifications for closure;
· Require SSA to inform Congress of changes to how it staffs offices at least 3 months before a proposed change could be implemented.
“This is an important issue, especially in the Town of West Seneca and surrounding communities like Cheektowaga and Lackawanna where you find a large senior citizen population,” said West Seneca Supervisor Wallace Piotrowski. “Residents are justifiably frustrated with the delays caused by understaffing and bureaucratic red tape. This legislation gives our local federal representatives the tools to know how their communities will be impacted by Social Security Administration changes and advocate on behalf of the residents they serve.”
“In 2006 the total nationwide backlog of Social Security cases, including initial disability claims and hearings pending, reached a record 1.3 million cases,” said Congressman Higgins. “The changes in this bill would give Congress the information it needs to help make field offices work better, and to give Social Security beneficiaries the respect and dignity they deserve.”
In October 2007, SSA proposed cutting public access to field offices in Western New York. Congressman Higgins fought this proposal, and it was delayed until March 2008. This action would continue a long trend of cutbacks in services to Western New Yorkers.
Statistics show that, in Western New York alone, Social Security offices are desperately understaffed, making it difficult for the hardworking Social Security Administration employees to meet even the basic inquiries of citizens.
Consider the following:
· As of the end of Fiscal Year 2007, there were 14,680 Social Security Disability petitions pending in the Buffalo Hearing office; 7,950 of these cases having been pending for over one year.
· Staffing at Western New York offices has decreased substantially – by approximately 170 employees - over the past 25 years, even though the need for services has increased. Since 1983:
· Staffing at the Buffalo office has decreased from 78 to 31.
· Staffing at the Amherst office has decreased from 49 to 18.
· Staffing at the Ridge Road office has decreased from 63 to 23 (Ridge Road office reflects numbers from both Cheektowaga and West Seneca offices, which were merged by SSA in 2007).
· Staffing at the Niagara Falls office has decreased from 44 to 16.
· Staffing at the Jamestown office has decreased from 29 to 11.
· Staffing at the Dunkirk office has decreased from 11 to 6.
“The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) fully supports the efforts of Congressman Brian Higgins to introduce legislation requiring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make transparent any attempt to close a Field Office (FO) and deprive the public of the service it deserves”, said Paul Demler, President of AFGE Local 3342.
Field office and hearing office operations, including funding for more field office staffers and administrative law judges, are paid for out of Social Security’s administrative budget. Along with his colleagues, Rep. Higgins fought for increased funding for SSA’s administrative operations this year. Congress passed appropriations of $9.781 billion to fund these operations for Fiscal Year 2008, representing a $200 million increase over the President’s budget request.
The following additional members have signed on to Higgins’ bill as original cosponsors: Reps. Michael Arcuri (NY-24), Joe Baca (CA-43), Nancy Boyda (KS-2), Joe Courtney (CT-2), Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Keith Ellison (MN-5), Mike McIntyre (NC-7), Jerry McNerney (CA-11), Dennis Moore (KS-3), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9).
“I appreciate the considerable support that Congressional leaders have given toward fully and properly funding Social Security field offices and hearing offices; I will continue to work with them in the future to improve the funding situation even further.” Higgins said.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the Social Security Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. SSA’s administrative workload includes paying Social Security and SSI benefits to more than 56 million people, processing more than 6 million benefit claims, issuing 17 million new and replacement Social Security cards, providing administrative support for the Medicare program and maintaining earnings records and issuing Social Security statements for the more than 160 million covered workers.