In the past five years the Social Security Administration has completed the largest field office reduction in its history by terminating 533 temporary mobile offices and closing 64 of its field offices. In Maine, those actions resulted in the closure of the Rumford, Maine local office. In its place the SSA installed a two-way video monitor in the local library to enable a connection between an individual with a claims worker located in the Auburn, Maine field office. Individuals who suffer from a painful disability or seek to apply for their retirement are no longer are afforded the opportunity to meet with a social security worker who can explain the intricacies of the application. In its stead, SSA offers a telephone interview or, more encouraged, the use of an on-line form.
The loss of a human interface to the SSA system is a tragedy for those individuals applying for disability or retirement benefits. The never-ending push to online services will create a hardship for our elderly, our disabled and our average Maine resident who is not served by a high-speed quality internet experience that they are well trained to navigate. Online access for many Mainers is not a reality for those who neither own nor know how to operate a computer, or are incapable of keeping current with the latest technology. Even though I am a proficient online computer user, I still find myself unexpectedly disconnected from online access or confused by a question that is prompted, causing me to respond with incorrect information.
Working with the injured, disabled or elderly is people work – it’s listening, it’s informing and it’s guiding people through the maze of laws and regulations. Social Security is a prime example of complex and confusing regulations. Shifting the work of caseworkers to the work of a computer program is wrong and will result in greater hardship for all applicants. The Senate Committee on Aging is examining the impact these practices of eliminating face to face services will have on its applicants. I urge all of us to resist SSA efforts to shutter offices instituted with the argument that they are cost-saving measures. In fact, I believe these measures will likely produce far greater work to address confusion and incorrect applications. Moreover, the hardship faced particularly by rural and elderly Mainers is a disservice which should not be allowed to happen.
About the author: Suzanne L. Johnson is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.