When Andrew M. Saul, 73, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new commissioner of Social Security last June, it brought to an end a six-year period in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) was run by a sequence of temporary appointees. Saul is now in charge of one of the most important operations in the federal government, an agency that pays out more than $1 trillion every year to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries.
Saul — who started his career managing national retail clothing chains and also helmed the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board—is tasked with solving problems, such as slow customer service, that have troubled the SSA for years, and newer issues like scams run by people pretending to represent the agency. In January, he spoke with the AARP Bulletin to explain what he's doing to help the SSA face these challenges. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It's been, of course, a real learning experience, but the most significant thing is that whatever we do from here on in, the SSA has to be for the benefit of our customer. We are here to service them. It's become kind of the watchword, that whatever decision we make, it has to be for the good of beneficiaries. If we do that, we will never make a mistake. That's our mission.
We have some challenges, as everybody knows, in delivering the proper service to our customers. And this is what we are currently focusing on — everything from our disability operations to our 800 number to our field offices.
Extending office hours
I believe in getting out there with our customers, getting into the field and seeing what's happening. On one of my first field trips, I happened to notice on the door that we closed at 12 o'clock on Wednesdays. I frankly couldn't believe it, because we were losing basically 10 percent of our available time to service our customers by being closed on Wednesday afternoons. Then I understood why Thursday morning, when we opened, was kind of bedlam — like a Monday morning. But as of the beginning of January, all our offices are now open for the full day, five days a week.
Shortening wait times
The 800 number, that has been a major problem, major concern for all our customers. If you called in, you would find you had an unacceptable waiting time — sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes. So, what we've done is we've immediately hired about 1,100 new operators.
Our call time right now is down by about 50 percent. We've got farther to go, but I think if you watch over the next six months, we will get the call centers down to the proper waiting time, which will be close to zero. That's a prediction that I'm willing to make here, and I believe we will succeed in doing this.
The second thing is the offices. We're reorganizing how the offices operate and how we handle customers from the time they walk in the door. If you look at our field offices, over a third of our customers come in for card replacements, and another 20 percent come in for benefit statements. So we are now working on a process where customers coming in for a simple task like that are routed to an express agent, and they don't have to sit there and wait in the office for an agent who deals with more complicated tasks.
This sounds so simple, but if you think about it, almost 50 percent of our customers coming into the offices were waiting like somebody that had a very complicated problem, which is crazy.
Quite frankly, I don't think that we did the job we should have done over the last few years as this problem arose. But in the last six months, we have made major changes. We have a new fraud hotline that has been activated and we have a new form where our customers can report a scam or fraud through the internet.
It's unfortunate; it's a very sad thing. The money that's been scammed in some cases is really significant, in excess of $100,000. The most important thing is for our customers to be aware: If they feel that they are getting one of these calls, hang up and don't engage. And obviously, don't give them any personal financial information or accounts or anything like that. Just hang up.
Changing eligibility requirements for disability benefits
We have to modernize our disability operation. Some of our regulations are 40 years, 50 years outdated. We had a workforce 50 years ago that was very different than it is today: many more manual tasks, much more hard labor, for example, many more mining jobs, much more manufacturing. Today, it's much more office work.
Also, don't forget, health care has completely changed in the last 50 years. Fortunately, some diseases that affect a lot of people today, 50 years ago, if you were diagnosed with that disease, you were finished. Today, a lot of productive people have had serious strokes, heart attacks, cancer. Very, very life-threatening diseases. Today, we have medicine that has really cured the problems and allowed people to go on with very successful lives.
It's important that the disability plan services those people that really are in need of it, and that are really in bad shape. But it's also important that the plan reflects the current state of the workforce and health care. I think it's our duty to be sure that, so that these plans survive, they are up to date and run properly.
I believe that eligibility requirements should be fair and they should represent a person who's really disabled and should be available for the benefits. That's why the laws were passed in the beginning. Unfair claims should not proceed. We will make these things fair and they will represent health care today and represent the labor force today.
Fixing long-term funding for benefits
The trust fund wasn't built with anything else but everybody's hard-earned taxes, so how we spend our money is very important. To spend things judiciously will help the survival of the trust fund.
But only Congress has the power to fix the Social Security trust fund for the future. There's no question about that. We can educate, we can share our feelings with lawmakers, but in the end, it's Congress’ responsibility to fix this — and the president's, of course. I have confidence that, in this great country, we will figure it out before the situation becomes desperate.
Meanwhile, we're just about in balance now. And I do believe the future Congress, future commissioners, future presidents will fix it. I don't believe they will let this important lifeline to America ever get into trouble.