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Social Security offices closing as Internet access expands

AP
A former Social Security Administration office is boarded up in Houston, on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

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By The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 7:39 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to close dozens of field offices even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, swamping the agency with applications for benefits, a senior agency official told a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Better Internet access and more online services are easing the transition, said Nancy Berryhill, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations.

“We are fully committed — now and in the future — to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face service for those customers who need or prefer such service,” Berryhill said. “We also understand, however, that customer expectations are evolving due to changes in technology, demographics and other factors.”

Senators appeared unconvinced.

“The fact of the matter is, millions of seniors and disabled Americans are not accustomed to doing business online,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Aging Committee.

The panel held a hearing on Wednesday after issuing a bipartisan report showing that Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency's history.

In addition, the agency has closed 533 temporary mobile offices that often serve remote areas. Hours have been reduced in the 1,245 field offices that are still open, the report said.

As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are experiencing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone, the report said.

“They don't do any kind of analysis on what would happen to a community when their field office closes, including figuring out how the most vulnerable populations would make their way to the next-closest office,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee.

More than 47 million people receive Social Security retirement benefits, nearly a 20 percent increase from a decade ago.

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