By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER
Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) - Even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, the Social Security Administration has been closing dozens of field offices, forcing more and more seniors to seek help online instead of in person, according to a congressional report being released Wednesday.
The agency blames budget constraints.
As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are facing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone, the report said.
Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency's history, according to a report by the bipartisan staff of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. 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.
The report questions the agency's criteria for choosing which offices to close, saying the impact on local communities is rarely taken into account.
"Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee. "The closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change."
The committee is holding a hearing on the report Wednesday afternoon. A Social Security official is scheduled to testify. On Tuesday, the agency released a short statement on the report.
"We appreciate the Senate Aging Committee's report on service delivery issues and the tough choices we have had to make because of budget constraints," the statement said. "We just received the report this morning and have begun reviewing its findings and recommendations. We will respond to the committee when that analysis is complete."
The closings come as applications for retirement and disability benefits are soaring, a trend that will continue as aging baby boomers approach retirement.
More than 47 million people receive Social Security retirement benefits, nearly a 20 percent increase from a decade ago. About 11 million people receive Social Security disability benefits, a 38 percent increase from a decade ago.
The Social Security Administration has been encouraging people to access services online. The agency has upgraded its website in recent years, including secure connections to access confidential information. People can apply for benefits without ever visiting Social Security offices.
In 2013, nearly half of all retirement applications were filed online, the report said.
But the committee report notes that many older Americans lack access to the Internet or might not be comfortable using it to apply for benefits.
Last year, more than 43 million people visited Social Security field offices, the report said. About 43 percent of those seeking an appointment had to wait more than three weeks, up from just 10 percent the year before, the report said.
Wait times on the phone have increased, too - for those who get through. This year, the agency projects that 14 percent of callers to a toll-free help line will get a busy signal. Those who get through wait on hold for an average of 17 minutes, the report said.
The union that represents field office employees is calling for a moratorium on office closures.
"Despite extraordinary efforts to reduce field office traffic, there has been no significant change over time," Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of Social Security Field Operations Locals, said in written testimony to the Senate committee.
"People simply want and need to discuss the complex issues that surround this program with someone who has the training and expertise to help," Skwierczynski said.
People can get information about Social Security, Medicare and Supplemental Security Income at the field offices. They can apply for benefits and get information to help them decide when to apply. They can address more complicated issues such as fraud.
Visitors can also get documents verifying their benefits or Social Security numbers, though these services are scheduled to be eliminated at field offices later this year. People sometimes need the information quickly to apply for jobs or to verify income when applying for other government benefits, the report said.
"There are many, many instances where the case may be too complicated to be resolved simply by going online," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Aging Committee. "Far too many seniors throughout our nation, particularly those living in rural areas, might not have access to a computer or the Internet. It is critical that SSA take into account these issues and the effect on the community before eliminating services."
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