The iClaims system and the gag order are causing permanent harm to claimants who are unable to understand and navigate the Internet claims system. That problem is exacerbated by computer illiteracy: according to a recent Gallup Poll, only 14 percent of senior citizens have gone online to a government website in the last six months. Moreover, SSA customers often interact with the agency in moments of great stress – after the death of a loved one, for example, or in the midst of a serious disability – and need a human touch to assist them in conducting their business. Without the option of human contact with an SSA employee, they lose that precious right. In addition to undermining the mission of SSA, these policies are hurting morale among SSA employees.
SSA began its initial rollout of iClaims in December 2008, with 12 field offices taking part. The initial pilot period lasted two weeks, and after that the system was implemented nationally. At that time, an American Federation of Government Employees survey of SSA employees assigned to reviewing iClaims revealed the following:
- Nearly half, or 44%, believed that SSA claimants have felt pressure to file their claims through the Internet rather than being interviewed directly or by telephone.
- Only 11% were confident that applicants could actually file a claim by themselves on the Internet.
- Only 22% were confident that benefits would not be lost due to the inability of claimants to complete the online applications.
- Only 17% were confident that the applicant had a full understanding of all the benefits for which he or she was eligible.
- Only 14% found that the applicant chose the most advantageous month of election on their own, without help from a Social Security employee.
- Only 26% felt that applicants who did not talk to an SSA representative would have an adequate understanding of their rights and responsibilities under the Social Security Act.
Claims Representatives share some of their iClaims horror stories:
- A claimant had to drive about 200 miles from Denver to Trinidad, CO just to file in person. The woman called SSA’s 800-number to make an appointment and they would not make one for her. She was directed to a message that told her to file on the Internet. She then found the number for the local SSA office. She called and was told she cold just come in and file anytime. She arrived, was told to take a number and preceded to wait for hours. When she arrived at the window, she was sent to their “Internet Café” to file online. She explained she didn’t want to do that, asked again to make a face-to-face appointment, and was refused. She then called family members in Trinidad, who contacted SSA and made the appointment for her. She then arranged to say with her family just to have her claim taken face-to-face.
- In the space of 1 week, I got three seemingly routine RIBs (Retirement Insurance Benefit) from women who had sporadic work histories and their own RIBs benefits were only $300, $500, and $600. However, EACH ONE of them is a widow; by filing for WIB (Widower Insurance Benefit) instead of RIB, each lady increased her retirement income almost threefold. None of them had a clue of their potential eligibility as a survivor. One had been divorced (10+ year marriage), one had herself remarried and divorced again, and the other – it just never crossed her mind because her husband had been dead so long.
- One iRIB claimant has a biological grandchild (approximately 10 years of age) whom he adopted, and the claimant did not pick up on the fact that the adoption makes the grandchild his “child” for benefit purposes until age 18. It gets him about another $965 per month.
- I interviewed an individual who really needed income, and very nearly made the decision to file online with a March 2009 MOE, but he decided to walk-in and wait to talk to a CR. He was more than 6-months past Full Retirement Age, and is receiving over $12000 more with full 6-month retroactivity to a July 2008 Month of Entitlement, with just $63/month less on an ongoing basis. He is nearly 16 years ahead – I violated Agency policy and did the calculation for him, which he appreciated.
- I followed up with individual who considered filing online but having remembered discussing his options with me last year when filing for Medicare, made the wise choice to come in. He did not know that his 18-year old daughter could be entitled to $863 x 6 months this year. He said that he had not gleaned this from the SSA website, though he had spent some time there – and he is not stupid. How can the commissioner suggest that applicants need to spend just 15 minutes on this very important activity, and should do it without our help?