Cost-Saving Steps Ahead for Social Security

TO save an estimated $1 billion over five years, the Clinton administration may stagger the mailing of Social Security checks now sent out at the beginning of each month.

The move is one of several reforms expected to be announced tomorrow as part of the president's push to ''re-invent government.''

''The purpose of these proposals is to provide better public service at less cost to the taxpayer,'' said spokesman Phil Gambino.

Some critics say the blueprint overlooks Social Security's most pressing problem: looming insolvency for the national retirement system. Others say turning over a small piece of Social Security's work to private business, which is also being considered, poses a privacy risk.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the Social Security Administration is considering letting large employers file a retiring worker's claims for benefits directly with the agency, by computer. An employee of a participating company could still choose to file for benefits directly with Social Security.

The agency acknowledges, however, that several privacy issues must first be resolved. Social Security keeps records on the earnings of almost 140 million working Americans, and the information is coveted by collection agencies, private investigators, and information brokers.

The proposal to stagger the mailing of checks would apply to future retiree, and those who volunteer to switch payment dates.

Checks now go out on the third of each month to 49 million Americans, prompting more than 2 million calls during the first week of the month to the agency's toll-free phone number. The crush of callers ties up the lines and keeps some people from getting through with questions about their benefits.

Under Social Security's proposal, three more payment dates could be added, such as the second, third, and fourth Wednesdays of the month. The later dates would cost some recipients a little interest on their benefits - less than 25 cents a month by Social Security's estimates.

Social Security also wants to require recipients who have bank accounts to have their checks automatically deposited, rather than mailed.

Among the other proposals being considered: closing five out the agency's 10 regional offices and assigning half of the 700 employees who would be affected to front-line operations dealing with the public.

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