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Social Security closing offices as boomers age

BY STEPHEN OHLEMACHER Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Budget cuts have forced the Social Security Administration to close dozens of field offices even as millions of baby boomers approach retirement, swamping the agency with applications for benefits, a senior agency official told Congress Wednesday.

Better Internet access and more online services are easing the transition, said Nancy Berryhill, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations.

"We are fully committed - now and in the future - to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face service for those customers who need or prefer such service," Berryhill told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "We also understand, however, that customer expectations are evolving due to changes in technology, demographics and other factors."

Senators appeared unconvinced.

"The fact of the matter is, millions of seniors and disabled Americans are not accustomed to doing business online," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Aging Committee. "Even as computer and broadband technologies become more widespread, the idea that the Social Security Administration can serve beneficiaries primarily online ignores the very real needs of the senior and disabled populations."

The committee held a hearing Wednesday after issuing a bipartisan report showing that Social Security has closed 64 field offices since 2010, the largest number of closures in a five-year period in the agency's history.

In addition, the agency has closed 533 temporary mobile offices that often serve remote areas. Hours have been reduced in the 1,245 field offices that are still open, the report said.

As a result, seniors seeking information and help from the agency are facing increasingly long waits, in person and on the phone, the report said.

"They don't do any kind of analysis on what would happen to a community when their field office closes, including figuring out how the most vulnerable populations would make their way to the next-closest office," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Aging Committee.

The closings come as applications for retirement and disability benefits are soaring, a trend that will continue as aging baby boomers approach retirement.

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