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Originally Published: Jun 28, 2023
Originally Published: Jun 28, 2023 Last Updated: Jun 29, 2023 7 min read
Photo collage depicting customer service in the social security administration
Money; Getty Images

Government agencies aren’t exactly known for their stellar customer service. People looking for help from the Social Security Administration (SSA), however, may have it particularly bad.

Average call wait times with the agency have more than doubled in a year, according to SSA data. Even worse, AARP, a leading critic of the SSA's customer service, says that the average amount of time for a Social Security disability claim to be processed has increased to 223 days — and that 10,000 people die every year while waiting for approval.

For Social Security recipients in dire need of answers to their benefits questions and claims, the decline of the agency’s customer support can be more than frustrating — particularly while inflation continues to create hardships for the most vulnerable Americans.

People who rely on Social Security benefits for basic necessities often can't wait around for several months just to get answers from the agency, Chad Mullen, AARP's government affairs director, tells Money.

"For folks who really are depending on Social Security to just get by, to pay the bills, to eat — we’re talking extraordinary long periods of time to just to find out if they’re going to qualify for that benefit," Mullen says.

The SSA received a $785 million increase in administrative funding this fiscal year to revamp operations. Now AARP is campaigning for the agency to get another increase of $1.4 billion to address its woeful customer service.

Frustrations with bad Social Security customer service

The SSA itself acknowledged its inadequate customer support in its fiscal year 2023 operating plan submitted to Congress in February, saying it anticipates further deterioration of service while it undergoes a long-overdue systems overhaul. The agency says it doesn’t expect improvements to its support problems before the next fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Applicants for Social Security waited 206 days on average for a decision on disability claims in fiscal year 2022, according to the operating plan. That’s a whopping 96 days longer than the agency took to address claims in 2019.

“We must address the significant number of people who are waiting too long for important disability decisions at all levels of the disability process,” the SSA says in the operating plan. “We are confronting historically high employee losses.”

AARP's Mullen says that disability decision wait times have climbed to 223 days on average this year. Someone trying to appeal the SSA's decision will have to wait longer still — roughly another six months as of 2022.

Only about 66% of calls to local field offices and the SAA's national line were answered in 2022, according to SSA data. So far this year, nearly one-third of calls have not been answered.

Those who manage to find the patience to hold waited an average of over 32 minutes in 2022, 19 minutes longer than the previous year. Mullen says that when beneficiaries connect to an agent, they often report receiving incorrect information or conflicting information as they're passed among customer service representatives. Many tell Mullen that the SSA lost paperwork submitted by mail, requiring new forms and wasting more time.

Showing up in person for help has proven frustrating for beneficiaries, too. Last summer, six months after the SSA reopened field offices to the public, people waited for hours in the heat in hopes of finally having their claims and concerns addressed, according to a Washington Post report.

[UPDATE: After we published our story, Mark Hinkle, press officer for the SSA, acknowledged to Money that wait times for disability claim decisions are "far too long," adding that service has been crippled by inconsistent funding, staffing shortages and turnover, new hire training and tech issues.

At the end of fiscal year 2022, the agency's staffing levels were at the lowest in over 25 years, which Hinkle attributes to underfunding. He says that the agency has added 2,000 full-time, permanent employees this year, and that most new hires are in direct customer support.

"It will take time and resources for these new hires to become proficient," Hinkle says. "Service improvement will be a multi-year effort requiring sufficient, sustained funding to reduce wait times and backlogs, especially since each year we serve more beneficiaries."]

Fixing Social Security Administration customer service

In a February letter to the SSA, AARP vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer Nancy LeaMond called out the SSA’s backpedaling on previous assurances that the increase to the agency’s 2023 budget would be enough to maintain its customer service. According to LeaMond, 10,000 Americans die every year while waiting for the SSA to administer their disability claims.

“It is hard to explain how despite achieving a significant budget increase, SSA believes customer service will decline,” she says in the letter. AARP is pushing hard for funding for and accountability from the agency: Many of the group's state directors have published op-eds in local papers across the country to increase awareness.

The SSA says in its 2024 budget proposal that in order to improve customer service, it needs $8.7 billion for sufficient staffing, plus $1.7 billion for IT services, $1.9 billion for program integrity and $9 million for Medicare enrollment.

LeaMond says in her letter that AARP will continue to advocate for the SSA to receive the funding it needs, but calls for the agency to step up non-monetary measures to improve customer service and quality.

“These issues will not be solved with funding alone,” LeaMond says.

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