In response to decreasing staff levels, increasing backlogs and escalating wait times in field offices and the 800 number, SSA decided to redesign the Internet claims (iClaims) system and make it “cleaner and simpler.” People applying for Social Security benefits, whether elderly or disabled, are now strongly encouraged to use Internet self-service as much as possible rather than file with the help of a trained SSA employee. But in the process of simplifying the system, many benefit application questions, including some that can directly affect entitlement determinations and payments, were omitted.
Pressuring disabled and elderly Social Security applicants to use the Internet to apply for benefits is a radical departure from SSA’s traditional policy which allowed customers the absolute right to determine how they did their business with the government. In the past, the public had the option of communicating with SSA by phone, meet face-to-face with SSA employees, or use computers and on-line services. The agency also assured the public that it would carry out its mission with a “human touch.” iClaims changed all that by eliminating much of the advice and assistance that SSA employees have provided to the public and reducing the need for employee involvement in the claims process. For example:
- With iClaims, anyone with personal information about a potential claimant, such as an ex-spouse or an assistant, can file for that claimant’s benefits without their knowledge. There is no authentication of the applicant’s identity.
- The iClaims system limits questions regarding previous marriages and divorces. In the past, such information provided SSA with leads for potential information needed to determine that subsequent marriages were valid, and that entitlement to benefits as a spouse or survivor could be properly established.
- With iClaims-related policy changes, SSA no longer verifies age or citizenship if applicants claim the same date and place of birth shown when they obtained a Social Security Number (SSN). Individuals who claimed to be older than they really were when initially applying for an SSN, in order to get their first job or for another reason, will slip through the system and become inappropriately entitled to benefits if they allege the same date of birth when they file.
- Internal SSA polling illustrates why iClaims is a problem. In one survey of over 1,000 SSA employees who review Internet claims, 71% of the respondents said they had to recontact at least 90% of their claimants due to errors or omissions on their electronic applications.
Commissioner Astrue wants the final phase of the new iClaims policy to be in place by February 2010, if SSA can “authenticate” the identity of the applicant by then, something that is not done now when someone files over the Internet. Under his plan, applications would be processed without any SSA employee involvement at all, meaning that there would be no reviews done to make sure that errors are corrected. That would create opportunities for massive fraud and theft.