County commissioner Brenda Holt was one of four individuals who testified in front of a Senate Special Committee on Aging held on June 18 in Washington, D.C.
The following is from testimony given by Holt at the meeting:
“I am here today to see if anything can be done to restore the (Social Security) field office to our community. But if that cannot be accomplished, then I want to make sure that other communities like ours at least get a fighting chance,” Holt told the committee.
She continued by saying, “I want to make sure Social Security remembers that even if it no longer has a physical presence in our community, it still needs to find ways to serve us going forward. Our needs matter, and we won’t just be cast aside. Our seniors have paid their dues, now it is time for this country to help them.”
Holt said the whole process has been very sad to watch. “We never had an opportunity to weigh in as a community to try to save our office.”
The Social Security Administration (SSA), she explained, did not do much of anything to inform the community of the closure.
In fact, she said, sometimes she still stops when she sees people trying to get into the closed SSA building in Quincy to tell them that it is permanently closed.
Holt told the committee that her fellow commissioners, State Representative Alan Williams and other community partners were able to get a conference with SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin on March 25, a few days before the office was to shut down.
“They told us they would be saving $3.2 million over 10 years if they closed the office,” she said.
Holt stated that the $15,000 a month they were paying was too much for the area and offered several alternatives including: reduced rent at the current building; a free facility of about 4,000 square feet of office space; an annex building of the sheriff’s office; or free space at the local hospital.
The sheriff’s office offered to provide a guard at no cost to the agency. And the city of Quincy said it would cut the utilities bill by 25 percent, she added.
“But they refused to even negotiate or come to the table,” she said.
Holt asked the Commissioner and members on the conference call during the March conference “to please train us to help our citizens so that we may have the opportunity to make the transition smoother.”
“The closing of the office is an insult to the members of our community and those who have offered their resources to keep the office open,” she stated.
All SSA was willing to do, Holt said, was put in a video unit at the main county library that seniors could use to talk to an SSA employee in another city, and computer icons on computers at the library branches.
Her concern she said was that the library environment was not designed with confidentiality in mind, meaning that faxes containing personal
information could easily be intercepted and compromised, leading to possible identity theft.
“We have a lot of special-needs citizens here, so that unit won’t work for everyone,” Holt said. “We have people who can barely read because of vision problems. Or people with hearing problems, or poor comprehension problems. The computer is not the answer for many of these people.”
Holt said many people had worked hard their whole lives, but they were still financially restricted and that issue wasn’t going away any time soon.
In his opening statement, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, chairman of the special committee on aging, stated: “It is my sincere hope that we leave here with a plan to actually ensure that our most vulnerable populations are not left high and dry. That is certainly the feeling that still exists today in Gadsden County, Florida, where Social Security packed up shop with little notice and even less thought about how to serve this poor and rural community moving forward.
National Council of Social Security Management Associations president Scott Hale gave testimony regarding the reduction of SSA offices and the need for face-to-face services.
His organization resolutely advocates for the American public to have the option to visit a field office to speak face-to-face with an SSA representative if that is their preference.
Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine stated, “The Social Security Administration has been pushing for years to reduce the face-to-face services it provides through its field offices and to force beneficiaries to interact with the agency online or over the phone. While I don’t object to providing services this way where it’s appropriate, I am concerned that the SSA has not sought public input, and it is not taking into account the impact on the beneficiaries they are supposed to be serving.”
In response, Nancy Berryhill, SSA deputy commissioner of operations, gave the following testimony: “Our budget affects our ability to deliver services, regardless of service delivery channel. For the three years before FY 2014, we received an average of nearly a billion dollars less than what the President requested for our administrative budget, including for program integrity work. That level of underfunding has presented us with challenges in providing the public the level of service it expects.”
She added, “We still have fewer (employees) than we had in FY 2010, our workloads remain high, and we also must balance service with our important stewardship work.”