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SOCIAL SECURITY & YOU

Social Security & You: Lapses in Service and Advice at the SSA

Today I’m going to write, once again, about lapses in service and advice from the Social Security Administration. I cringe every time I write one of these kinds of columns. When I worked for the SSA between 1973 and 2005, I was often so proud of my agency. We were always winning awards for public service and program efficiency from the overseers and watchdogs who monitor government programs and services. I’ve shared this line before from a former colleague — who ended up becoming the SSA’s Historian. He said that the Social Security Administration was “an honorable institution engaged in a noble public service.”

But oh, so sadly, times have changed. Every single day, I get emails from readers either complaining about the poor service they received from the SSA — or even worse, about bad advice or incorrect information they got from an SSA representative.

Complaints about poor service can be partly explained away by COVID-19. Dealing with the virus, and having so many agency employees working from home, has obviously put a huge strain on the agency’s ability to deliver services. Social Security offices around the country remain essentially closed, with only a skeletal, and mostly managerial, crew on duty. The SSA says it can only handle the most critical issues via an in-person appointment in a local Social Security office. Everyone else is encouraged to take care of their Social Security business either online at www.socialsecurity.gov or via phone by calling 800-772-1213.

This circumstance obviously puts a strain on these service delivery systems. But still, we should not have situations such as this one I heard from a reader recently. She said:

“I am receiving SSA benefits and my husband’s SSA benefits application is in the pipeline. Since COVID, SSA is not taking in person appointments. I have had three occasions where questions I have had could not be answered by the frontline representative at the 800 call in number. They set up a time for someone to call me back. Each time, I received a text and written letter telling exactly when a representative would call back. On all 3 occasions, no one called at the appointed time or anytime thereafter. Each time, I called the 800 number to find out why and no one could give me an answer. I imagine I’m not the only one this has happened to. Can you look into this?”

I feel so helpless when I get emails like this because there really is nothing I can do. I frequently will suggest the person call the local Social Security office and demand to speak to the manager. If that person is as service-oriented as I was when I worked for the agency, he or she should help the person cut through the red tape. As I recall, that’s what happened in this person’s case. (Sadly, I get so many of these complaints that I can’t remember the outcome of each one.)

As I said, service delivery issues can be partly explained away because of COVID. But if you reach an SSA rep and then get wrong information or knuckleheaded advice — well, there is just no excuse for that. Here is an example.

I heard from a 67-year-old guy who just started getting Social Security benefits. He has a 40-year-old son who has been disabled since birth. That son is getting a “disabled adult child” benefit on his record. He also has a 57-year-old wife who doesn’t work outside the home. She stays home to provide full-time care to their disabled son. This retiree did some research and figured out that his wife should also be getting benefits on his record. (A wife gets benefits if she is over age 62 or if she is under 62 but caring for a minor or disabled child.) The money she is due would be reduced by a rule that limits benefits payable to a family. But the bottom line is that she is due something. His wife called the SSA’s 800 number and was told she was not eligible for benefits. That’s when the couple wrote me. I told the wife to call the SSA back and insist on filing a claim. She did that. She was once again told she is not eligible for benefits. And when she insisted on filing a claim, the agent told her, “I am not going to take your claim because you are not eligible for benefits.”

This was not only bad information; it was downright shameful. This woman has every right to file for any kind of Social Security benefit she believes she is eligible for. In fact, I always tell people to insist on filing an actual claim for any benefits they think they might be due. Why? Because then they get a formal and legal decision on that claim, and not just some SSA clerk’s opinion on the matter. (Or for that matter, some Social Security columnist’s opinion!)

And here is yet another example of bad advice. In a recent column, I explained to people who are turning full retirement age sometime later in 2022 that it might be to their advantage to file for those benefits in January. The reasons why they might want to do that are just too complicated to explain in today’s column. If you really want to know, look through old editions of your newspaper or go to my syndicator’s website, www.creators.com, and look for the column. It ran a couple of weeks ago.

Anyway, last week I heard from a guy who had the perfect scenario for making use of this “file in January” tactic. He was turning full retirement age in May, but his earnings were such that a January application date made sense. He’d get slightly smaller ongoing benefits (by starting them 4 months before his full retirement age), but he’d get 4 extra Social Security checks he wouldn’t get if he waited until May to file.

He called the SSA’s 800 number and told them he wanted to file for his benefits now (in January). And the agent told him he could not do that. He was told he’d have to wait until May to file for benefits. That’s when he asked me for help. I told him to call back, and if he got the same bad information, to ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. He reported to me this week that he did call back, and he did get the same knuckleheaded advice. So, he asked for a supervisor. That person came on the phone, said he was indeed due benefits, and took his claim.

So, repeat after me: If an SSA rep tells you that you are not due benefits, but you think you are, insist on filing a claim. And if you still get the runaround, or just otherwise get bad service from the SSA, ask to speak to a supervisor or manager.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It’s called “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” You can find the book at creators.com/books. Or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about him and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.


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