In mid-December 2015 I applied for Social Security benefits. Before I could do that I had to visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) office in Hoboken NJ with my social security card and US passport, to have my status changed from ‘resident’ to ‘citizen.’ I was told to wait 24 hours before completing the on-line application, which I did. One day after submitting the application I received a voice message from the Hoboken office, telling me that I had to come into the office with my passport or naturalization certificate, to have my status changed. A phone number that I could call was left. Since I had just been in the office to do exactly what I was now again told to do I called that number, where a friendly recorded voice told me to leave a message and that I would be called back. I didn’t get a call back in the next couple of days, but instead I got a letter from the Hoboken office telling me once more that I had to come in with my passport or naturalization certificate. There was a number on that letter, which I called, but unfortunately I got the SSA office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the phone.
Obviously the Sioux Falls office could not help me, so the next morning at 8 am I called the number the Hoboken office had left in its voice message. To my surprise I got someone on the phone, who told me it was all a mistake and that my benefits were safe, which I got confirmed in a letter a couple of days later. Then, early in January, I got a letter telling me that I had to pay a surcharge on my Medicare premium because of my taxable income in 2014. Since I retired in 2014 and my 2015 taxable income was considerably lower I made an appointment with the Hoboken office to have my reduced income recorded. I brought copies of all my 2015 tax return documents to the office, and was told that the appropriate changes would be made. A couple of days later I received two letters from the Hoboken office, each in a different format advising me that the surcharge had been removed. Two days later, however, I received a letter from the SSA central office informing me that the surcharge was still in effect. Now knowing what to expect I didn’t respond but waited until three days later, when I received a letter correcting the previous one.
The moral of this story is that generally the SSA doesn’t get it right the first time, but that there is at least a chance they’ll get it right the second or third time. Since the agency’s mistakes, if left uncorrected, affect your income and health care coverage, it is very frustrating to deal with them, but you have no choice but to stay on their case until you have the right decision in writing. And even then you must make sure that premiums and payouts are processed correctly.
The SSA is hardly to blame for its guffaws. Like most federal agencies it is overtaxed – not in the least because of the large number of retiring baby boomers – and underfunded, because of the Republican mantra that government is the problem, not the solution. As a result it has too few employees, who are often inadequately trained and just trying to make the best of it.
Based on my experience the back office operation, not the front desk, is the SSA’s problem. I received very competent service once I was in the Hoboken office and talking with a customer representative. The way those communications were initially processed was inadequate and sloppy.