- The Covid-19 pandemic prompted the Social Security Administration to move most of its services online.
- But that transition has not been without hiccups or delays, according to one government watchdog.
- Now, the Biden administration is looking to improve the government agency's online services. Here's what changes applicants and beneficiaries may expect to see.
Applying for Social Security benefits can be a complicated process. Now President Joe Biden wants to make it easier.
This week, the president signed an executive order to streamline processes for Americans to apply for services and benefits at 17 federal agencies.
"For millions of people who retire each year, you should be able to apply for Social Security benefits without needing to go to a Social Security office," Biden stated at the signing of the executive order.
Other government services are also slated to be improved through new online tools aimed at making it easier to file taxes or help Medicare enrollees access personalized information and expanded customer support.
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For Social Security, the effort comes as the federal agency has been tasked with switching much of its services online after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In person office visits are now available by appointment only, provided applicants and beneficiaries meet certain qualifications.
The transition has affected the federal agency's services, with some offices facing a significant backlog of traditional mail, according to the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration.
Earlier this year, the government watchdog flagged concerns about the increased volume of mail handled by Social Security's field offices and the lack of formal processes to track it.
The government agency does not know the exact volume of mail it is processing, which makes it difficult to properly adjust staffing levels, the Office of the Inspector General said in a recent annual report.
Moreover, the offices also lack "comprehensive policies and procedures" to track and return original documents that are provided with applications for benefits or Social Security cards, it noted. That includes driver's licenses, birth certificates, passports and naturalization documents.
"Because of this backlog, people went even longer without original documents that they might need for other purposes," said Dan Adcock, director of government relations and policy at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Biden's executive order aims to change that by creating a way for applicants and beneficiaries to upload their forms and documents online.
It would also expand the ability to use electronic signatures, enable the Social Security Administration to share data with other government agencies and let the agency help applicants and beneficiaries identify other government benefits for which they may be eligible, when possible.
The executive order requires the Social Security commissioner to provide a report to the Office of Management and Budget within 120 days identifying potential areas for policy reforms.
The efforts to improve Social Security's online services are a welcome development, according to Adcock.
"They're all about removing obstacles that prevent people from getting their earned benefits," he said.
However, with many Americans still lacking access to the internet or broadband, Social Security's physical offices still have an important role, he said. (A 2021 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by consumer website Reviews.org found that 27.6 million U.S. households, or 22.5%, don't have home internet access.)
"Field offices are still a critical link for people who either don't have online access or the skills to go online and use a computer," Adcock said.
The executive order's efforts to make Medicare information more accessible may also go a long way to helping beneficiaries, who are often flummoxed by the myriad of choices when shopping for private Medicare Advantage or Part D prescription drug plans.
"There's so many Medicare beneficiaries who just throw up their hands and stay in the same plan year after year even though it might make sense for them to move on to another plan," Adcock said.