U.S. Markets closed

Here's what the Social Security Administration's new service strategy means for you

Mandi Woodruff

In this Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Janet Lipson, left, acting as a caregiver, is counseled by volunteer David Wolffe, and observed by Caregiver Center Director Randi Kaplan, of Montefiore Medical Center, during a training session at the hospital, in the Bronx borough of New York. A program at the medical center recruits retirees and specially trains them to help overwhelmed family members cope with a scary hospital stay, for their own health, and so they can better care for their loved one. The coaches offer more than emotional support and a sympathetic ear. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The next time you call the Social Security Administration with a question about your benefits, get ready for a long wait.

Even as public demand for Social Security information and services soars, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been shuttering offices, laying off staff and moving forward with plans to move most of its business online by the year 2025, according to a report released today by the U.S. Senate.

The report, the result of a seven-month investigation, found that the SSA has closed more than 60 field offices across the country and shed more than 11,000 staff since 2010. Nearly one-quarter of all field offices have lost at least 20% of their workers, the Special Committee on Aging found. Most offices have reduced business hours by 30 minutes a day.

“As customer expectations have changed, we need to balance those needs with the needs of those who prefer alternative options,” Nancy Berryhill, deputy commission for the Social Security Administration, said during a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

Americans have never been hungrier for information about their benefits. The agency has seen a 33% increase in retirement and survivor benefit claims questions since 2007, a trend that will no doubt continue. By 2030, seniors over the age of 65 will make up 20% of the population.

Opponents of the agency’s emphasis on digital services say it unfairly impacts seniors who aren’t used to doing business online.

“We don’t believe [this plan] is what people need or want with respect to Social Security,” says Eric Shulman, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union in the U.S. “These are important financial decisions people are making when they retire and [they need] a field office staff person who has been trained to answer their questions.”

Whether Americans want these changes are not, they won’t have much of a say in the matter. In the same way that the Internal Revenue Service was forced to significantly scale back its operations because of federal budget cuts, the SSA says it isn’t able to meet demand for services with its current budget. Between 2011 and 2013, the SSA received $2.7 billion less in funding than President Obama requested, according to the committee’s report.

Here’s what the SSA’s changes mean for you:

You’ll need to start brushing up on your computer skills: The SSA’s answer to reducing staff and field offices is an increased focus on online offerings. In some field offices, they have filled in that gap in service by setting up video conferencing stations — for example, to conduct hearings to decide whether or not a worker qualifies for disability benefits. But the emphasis on technology may be a problem for many seniors. Nearly half of people over 65 don’t even have Internet access today, according to the Census.  Less than half of retirement and disability benefit applications were filed online in 2013, up just 6% since 2003, the report found.

Those with web access should create an account with the SSA’s “My Social Security” portal. On the site, consumers can access their annual retirement benefit statement, apply for benefits, and get benefit verification letters. As of 2014, only 4.5% of the working age population had created an account on SSA.gov.

Get ready for a long wait:  Patrick Doland, a certified financial planner in Northbrook, Ill., says he encouraged a client to call the SSA in April to find out whether she qualified for spousal benefits. “[The agency] was unable to help her on the phone and the soonest she could schedule an in-person meeting in the local office was a little over 60 days,” Doland says. “How long will it be once they close more local offices?”

His client isn’t alone. In 2013, the number of beneficiaries who waited more than three weeks for an appointment with an SSA agent was over 43%, compared to only 10% a year earlier, according to the Senate report.  Since 2011, the SSA has reduced operation hours by half an hour and began closing field offices at noon on Wednesdays. In March 2013, the SSA estimated nearly 12,000 people who visited field offices would have to wait over two hours to be served — triple the wait time in 2012, the report said.

Phone callers wait an average of 17 minutes to speak with a human, and 14% of callers were met with only a busy signal. In 2012, the wait time was only 5 minutes.

Some benefit forms won’t be offered at field offices anymore. If you lose your Social Security card, you’ll no longer be able to pick up a copy at an office after Aug. 1 — unless you can prove “immediate dire need,” such as “imminent eviction, emergency medical situations, and regionally or nationally declared disasters,” the report said. By Oct. 1, the agency will stop providing benefit verification forms as well. You can print them from home by accessing the My Social Security website. But, again, this could be an issue for people who don’t have computers or Internet access.

You won’t get a benefits statement wake-up call every year. Beginning in September, workers older than 25 will begin receiving their Social Security benefits statements once every five years. Outside of that window, you’ll have to access them online via My Social Security. Benefit statements provide a detailed snapshot of how much your monthly payout will be when you hit retirement age, plus your estimated disability and Medicare benefits. They can be a great wake-up call for workers who may be considering drawing their benefits as early as possible -- age 62 -- because the statement provides a side-by-side comparison of your benefit amount if you wait.

It might be time to hire a financial planner. The closer you get to retirement, the more crucial the financial decisions you make will become. And while it’s great to have a Social Security representative on speed dial, you can only get so far with the agency itself.

“Whether people go in person or they are on the phone, they are going to be told that the SSA can’t give them advice about their benefits,” says Martha Ferrari, a certified financial planner in Princeton, N.J. “They’re going to get the bare minimum of information.”

The best strategy to get the most out of your benefits may be to consult a financial planner with any Social Security questions.

“What a financial planner tries to make people aware of is the right questions to ask the SSA so they can be proactive,” Doland says.


We're answering your personal finance questions every day at Ask Yahoo Finance. Submit a question here.


Read more from Mandi:

Why I'm dropping out of college

The economic recovery is leaving young people behind

Today's 20-somethings might need $7 million for retirement