Social security chief lauds computers, but critics see problems

Dorcas Hardy says her approach to improving the Social Security Administration is working. Critics insist it isn't.

Miss Hardy says the gigantic social security system she has headed for a year as commissioner can give better service to Americans and at the same time reduce the number of employees, through computerization, which is well under way. She says service generally is better and faster than a few years ago, and that surveys, including one last fall by the Government Accounting Office, show the public thinks it's at least as good, too. Overall, the survey reported, social security recipients ``rated the overall quality of service in 1986 about the same as or better than'' in 1984.

That is an inaccurate picture, critics charge. Rep. Ted Weiss (D) of New York says Congress has received complaints ``from all over the country'' from the elderly and the disabled who say they are having more difficulty applying for benefits at social security offices, or even extracting accurate information from social security employees.

Other critics charge that waiting lines are longer at many social security offices, that phones are often so busy that it's harder nowadays to get information, and that in some social security offices employees are badgered to ignore mistakes. Such poor performance on the part of social security, critics claim, is largely the fault of the Reagan administration's drive to hold down expenses and reduce staff through computerization.

Congress is holding occasional hearings to see who's right. Tuesday it was the turn of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations.

The disagreement is important. Every year 40 million Americans receive money from the Social Security Administration. Many also require the agency's help in other ways, such as in applying for benefits. Most recipients are retirees; others are widows or widowers of beneficiaries, or are disabled. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that America's retirees, and those who will retire in the future, deserve to have confidence that the Social Security Administration will treat them fairly and help them get the benefits they deserve - not impede them.

In the past half-dozen years the social security staff has been reduced by some 4,500 employees, mostly through attrition. The organization plans to reduce its staff by another 12,500 by the end of fiscal 1990.

Annually social security gives more than $200 billion in benefits. Commissioner Hardy says that about one-third of the offices are newly computerized, with the rest to be operating under the new system by the end of next year.

She says that increased computerization will bring greater efficiency - thus enabling Americans to get faster and better service in the future from the Social Security Administration. The agency is moving in the right direction, she adds.

But if Sen. Paul Sarbanes's survey of congressional aides is an accurate indicator, her organization may be losing efficiency, rather than gaining it. Mr. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, surveyed caseworkers, who are the staff members that deal with the problems of individual Americans. High on the list is difficulties with social security issues. Freshman Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California says her staff spends more time on social security problems than any other issue.

Sarbanes found that more than four-fifths of caseworkers do not give the Social Security Administration high marks for their service. Two-thirds saying a growing problem is that the agency gives Americans benefits that are the wrong amount. Over half say they are not confident that the agency will handle disability claims fairly. One-third say that in the past three years it has become more difficult to get through to the agency on the phone.

Money isn't everything, Sarbanes says: ``The quality of the services that people receive is an essential part'' of their social security benefits.

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