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Posted on Feb 05, 2006 | LA TIMES
Official says staff overwhelmed by Medicare inquiries
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
WASHINGTON -- Social Security has been so overwhelmed helping seniors cope with the new Medicare drug program that other services are starting to suffer, a senior government official contends.
The large backlog of cases is getting worse, and the agency is cutting cut back on audits that save the government money, Linda S. McMahon, deputy commissioner for operations, wrote to agency employees in an e-mail released Friday.
''It's not a rosy picture, and the news doesn't get better," McMahon wrote.
The agency is scrounging for money to pay overtime, McMahon said, and will have to cut back on other priorities, though monthly retirement checks for 48 million Social Security beneficiaries will not be affected.
''I won't try to kid you," McMahon told the employees. ''This is going to be a very difficult year."
On some days, about one in three callers to Social Security's toll-free number has been getting a busy signal, she explained. The agency's 1,300 local offices have been getting as many as 60,000 extra visitors a day, a 40 percent increase from the fall.
McMahon's Jan. 21 e-mail was released by Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat. Waxman called for immediate congressional action to restore a recently enacted cut of nearly $200 million in Social Security's administrative budget.
''The problems faced by the Medicare program in implementing the benefit are spilling over and having significant impacts on the Social Security program," he said.
McMahon testified Thursday before the Senate Aging Committee about her agency's effort to assist Medicare with financial subsidies for low-income seniors called ''extra help." More than 4 million people have applied for the aid, but only about 1.4 million qualified.
In her testimony, McMahon did not recite the litany of problems detailed in her e-mail. Instead, she thanked Congress for ''providing [Social Security] with the resources we have needed to begin this challenging process."
In a statement issued Friday, the agency said: ''As the Social Security Administration handles the increased phone calls and office visits associated with the new Medicare prescription drug program, we continue to provide [financial] benefits and assistance with timeliness and professionalism. As always, we remain dedicated to providing the best possible service to the American people."
While jammed phone lines at Medicare offices and at those of the private insurance plans administering the drug benefit have been widely reported, problems at Social Security have largely gone unnoticed.
In her e-mail, McMahon said some employees had warned that the agency would run into trouble trying to juggle its regular duties and the added task of helping seniors enroll in the complex prescription program.
''Those of you on the front line have been expressing your deep concern that [Social Security] is not positioned well to help people understand, enroll in, and negotiate" the Medicare drug program, she wrote. ''Now we are seeing the consequence of that fact. Our national 800-number network has been overwhelmed for weeks."
Although the law that created the Medicare drug benefit provided extra funding for Social Security in 2004 and 2005, it earmarked no funds for this year, when the agency is facing its largest burdens, Waxman said.
Instead, Congress cut the agency's administrative budget from $9.3 billion in 2005 to $9.1 billion in 2006.
To free up staff, the agency has gotten permission from the White House to cut back on disability reviews, McMahon wrote. The reviews determine whether certain beneficiaries still qualify for monthly assistance. Such audits save the government money.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
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