Personal finance

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The Social Security Administration ramped up virtual meetings with customers over the past year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that and other changes might be here to stay, according to Commissioner Andrew Saul.

“Like many businesses and organizations, the pandemic has forced us to adapt,” Saul said in a statement released on Wednesday.

“As we examine our work in a new light, we are asking which lessons learned could improve service beyond the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

For example, some meetings do not need to take place in person, but it may still be necessary to get certain documents to the administration. For that, the SSA is testing drop boxes and express appointments in order to let people submit those materials.

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For those who only need to replace a lost Social Security card, the agency is testing video appointments. That could continue even after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, Saul said. Replacement cards can also be requested online through a My Social Security account.

For those who were denied benefits and requested an appeal, the SSA ramped up its telephone hearings and added online hearings last year. Those who are still waiting for a hearing are encouraged to consider scheduling a phone or video appointment.

The agency’s communication by telephone became more prevalent last year, with local offices answering 13 million more calls than they did in the 2019 fiscal year. The wait times at those local offices also improved to under three minutes on average, compared to almost 24 minutes in 2019.

The SSA also increased services through its 800 phone number, with its agents handling 1.6 million more calls than they did the year before.

The agency also added 6,000 frontline employees.

In addition, it has increased hiring and overtime at state Disability Determination Services as pending initial disability claims increased. In order to handle that higher number of cases, officials have cut down on the amount of continuing disability reviews they conduct.

“The [Disability Determination Services] have been able to reduce the number of people waiting for a decision on initial disability claims by about 100,000 cases since the height of the pending cases in August 2020,” Saul said.

In addition, expanded online resources can be found via My Social Security or the Retirement Benefits Portal.

Going forward, if the SSA continues to include more telework in its processes, it could make sense to reduce office space and free up money to hire more staff and improve online services, Saul said.

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