Statement of Mary Glenn-Croft
Deputy Commissioner for Budget, Finance, and Management
Social Security Administration
Testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
Oversight Hearing on SSA’s Use of Recovery Funds
April 28, 2009
Chairman Tanner, Ranking Member Johnson, and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to describe the important and ambitious projects that we at the Social Security Administration are undertaking with the funds that you appropriated to us through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). I want to thank you on the agency’s behalf for the significant investment you are making in us and for the trust that you have in us to get the job done.
We realize that many of our fellow citizens are suffering because of the current economic downturn. Jobs have become scarcer; homes have been lost, and too many of our neighbors are facing increased difficulty in making ends meet. Undoubtedly, these are challenging times. Nevertheless, we believe that we have a unique opportunity to serve the millions of Americans who rely upon our programs and to continue to provide them with the quality service they deserve.
As the Senior Accountable Official, I am responsible for overseeing how we use the Recovery Act resources. Under the Recovery Act, you afforded us $500 million to tackle our retirement and disability workloads—$40 million of which we may use for health information technology initiatives. You also gave us $90 million to administer economic recovery payments and $500 million to construct and partially equip a new data center to replace our aging National Computer Center (NCC). This substantial investment will help us address the dramatically increasing service demands caused by the combination of a weakened economy and increased baby boomer retirements.
Today, I will discuss how these Recovery Act resources will help us process our increasing workloads and replace our aging NCC. I will share with you the agency’s plan to oversee all of our Recovery Act responsibilities, including paying $250 to millions of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries.
PUTTING RECOVERY FUNDS TO WORK - HIRING AND PROCESSING WORKLOADS
The Recovery Act gives us $500 million to process the increased number of disability and retirement claims we are seeing because of the economic downturn and the beginning of the baby boomer retirement wave. If our projections hold true, we will receive and process more claims this year than in any prior year. With the fiscal year (FY) 2009 appropriation and the Recovery Act funding, we plan to process over 300,000 more retirement claims, 30,000 more disability claims, and nearly 75,000 more hearing requests this fiscal year than we did in FY 2008.
We will use a significant portion of this funding to hire and train new employees and to provide additional overtime so that we can process critical workloads. Of more than 7,000 new hires that we are making this fiscal year, the Recovery Act funding will allow us to hire more than 2,000 Federal employees and the States to hire additional disability examiners. Specifically, in the near term:
• Our field operations will hire 1,500 employees in local field offices, teleservice centers, and processing centers;
• Our hearings offices will hire 550 new employees and 35 additional administrative law judges, and
• State disability determination services (DDS) throughout the country will hire 300 additional disability examiners.
In total, by September of this year, with our FY 2009 appropriation and the Recovery Act funding, we will hire over 7,000 employees. We will assign these new employees throughout the agency and across the country to provide a much-needed increase in our staffing level.
Additional employees, of course, require additional space to house them. As Commissioner Astrue said during his appearance before this Subcommittee last month, we will open 10 new hearing offices in the near future.1 Earlier this month, he also decided to add 3 more offices, bringing the total number of new hearing offices to 13.
New hires will make a real difference in the service we will deliver to the public. With this increased staffing, we will be able to take more claims, whether in person or by telephone, to adjudicate more claims, and to serve callers to our national 800 number.
Recruitment and Training – A Long-Term Investment
Hiring new employees is critical. Accordingly, as the Recovery Act moved through Congress, we instructed personnel offices and managers to be ready to hire as soon as we had an appropriation. To achieve a diverse and high-performing workforce, we will continue to seek employees through announcements on USAJOBS. We also will utilize the full range of hiring flexibilities, such as the excepted service appointment authorities for Veterans Recruitment Appointments and the Federal Career Intern Program. We are also working with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to obtain the necessary authority to hire reemployed annuitants for some of our highly technical positions since these individuals already possess the skill sets necessary to do the job.
Realistically, new employees will not have an immediate impact on our current or backlogged workloads, as hiring and fully training new employees is a lengthy and resource-intensive process. The hiring process includes reviewing applications and resumes, conducting interviews, conducting background checks, and offering positions. Often, new employees must relocate to their duty stations or give their employers sufficient notice so that the employer may seek a replacement. Once new employees report to work, they will receive training that because of the complexity of our programs, generally lasts from 13 to 17 weeks. After this initial training, we assign a mentor to most new employees to help them learn the intricacies of processing our work. This on-the-job training typically lasts a full year. By the end of that year, though still not fully proficient in all parts of the job, these employees will begin to contribute significantly to workload processing. The time spent training and mentoring, however, reduces the time our more experienced employees have to process their own work, reducing productivity in the short run.
Whenever we recruit and hire, we remain mindful of our firm commitment to a high-performing, diverse workforce. We are making a concerted effort to hire persons with disabilities by reaching out to Wounded Warrior transitional programs and Ticket to Work beneficiaries who are trying to return to the workforce. For example, on May 28, we will hold our second annual Hiring Heroes Career Fair at our Baltimore headquarters, and we expect over 100 military personnel and veterans with disabilities to attend. With Recovery Act funding, we have already hired a highly-diverse group of more than 1,400 employees.
Fully Funded and Staffed DDSs Are Essential to Meeting Our Commitments
When States are hiring DDS employees, they confront some of the same obstacles that we face when we hire employees. A number of States have introduced an additional challenge to fully staffing their DDSs by furloughing DDS employees in an effort to balance their budgets.2 Such practices are unnecessary since we fully fund the DDSs and reimburse the States for the salaries and benefits of all DDS employees. This fiscal year over 16,000 DDS employees will process more than 2.6 million disability claims. We will pay about $2 billion to the States to cover all payroll costs as well as the costs to obtain the health records and to perform the medical examinations necessary to adjudicate disability claims.
We empathize with the budget struggles that States face in these difficult economic times, but States do not save any money when they furlough or lay off DDS employees. We estimate that if all States furloughed DDS employees for one day, they would lose $7.8 million in administrative funding that we pay to them. In addition, such furloughs would delay the processing of approximately 15,000 claims and the payment of $4.2 million of monthly benefits to their disabled residents. Furloughs and restrictions on hiring and overtime only delay payments to their disabled citizens who have applied for benefits.
We appreciate your efforts in communicating with State leaders to help them understand the importance of having enough trained, full-time DDS employees on hand to process the influx of disability claims—an influx that we project will grow by more than 12 percent this fiscal year. Without enough fully trained and fully productive DDS employees, we risk limiting the processing gains that we can achieve with Recovery Act funds.
We will need Congress’s continued support as we work with Governors, legislators, and other elected officials to ensure that DDSs have the staff needed to adjudicate the increased number of disability claims that we expect to arrive at their doors because of the economic downturn.
Technology Investment Is Critical To Maintain and Expand Our Service to the American People
The Recovery Act also authorizes us to spend part of the $500 million for technology investments including health information technology. We will spend about $16 million of Recovery Act funding on computers for our new employees, as well as video conferencing equipment and increased bandwidth, which will improve our telecommunications network. With this funding, we will be able to continue to reduce the hearings backlog.
While all hearing offices now have at least one video conference connection, we are increasing the availability of video hearings in remote areas in order to reduce travel time for claimants and representatives who would otherwise have to drive long distances to reach a hearing office. The inability of some claimants and their representatives to attend face-to-face hearings can delay the disposition of their claims. Video conferencing addresses this situation by allowing claimants and their representatives to attend hearings remotely.
Indeed, two weeks ago, Commissioner Astrue officially opened our new National Hearing Center (NHC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Albuquerque NHC utilizes video conferencing that enables administrative law judges to hold remote disability hearings providing relief to those hearing offices that are struggling the most. Initially, the Albuquerque NHC will hear disability claims pending in Kansas City, Missouri and Portland, Oregon – two of the most backlogged offices in the country.
Moreover, we are a leader in the Federal Government in health information technology. We intend to spend $24 million of our Recovery Act funding to contract with a diverse group of health care providers and networks to provide us with electronic health records to improve the speed and accuracy of the disability determination process. As Commissioner Astrue told this subcommittee last month, we conducted a pilot project in Boston that allowed us to receive health records electronically in seconds and minutes, rather than the usual weeks and months that it takes to gather paper records. To improve the speed and quality of our disability determinations, we will use this funding to expand the number and kinds of health care records that providers can, with the claimant’s consent, send to us electronically. This funding will also be used to implement any new requirements that may be issued under the HITECH Act. Providers will be required to transmit to us structured electronic medical data based on standards established for use by the Nationwide Health Information Network.
Significant Headway in Workload Processing
Use of Recovery Act funds for hiring and technology will help us process our increasing workloads; however, improvements to processing times and claims pending will not happen overnight. Our current hearings backlog developed over time, and it will take time and sustained funding for us to reduce that workload to acceptable levels. In the near term, initial disability receipts will outpace our capacity to process them, and the initial disability claims backlog will rise. Just as we did with the hearings backlog, we are currently developing a multi-year plan to deal with the future increases of pending initial disability claims.
The substantial investment you made to increase our staffing levels will allow us to make significant headway in workload processing over the next several years. The additional employees we hire and train this fiscal year will enable us to increase our capacity to process critical workloads in FY 2010.
INCREASING OUR COMPUTER PROCESSING CAPABILITIES
Of course, these hiring and technological gains are only a part of the solution. To move forward in this environment of increasing workloads, we must continue to be innovative and find additional efficiencies. We must use every tool at our disposal to meet the standard of service the public has come to expect from us.
National Computer Center (NCC)—Limitations of the Existing Facility
Congress acknowledged our long-term information technology needs in the Recovery Act by allocating $500 million to replace and partially equip our NCC. The NCC houses critical data and computer operations essential for promptly and accurately paying benefits to millions of Americans. Because it plays such an important role in our data processing operations and automation initiatives, I especially appreciate this opportunity to describe our prior efforts to maintain the NCC and the analysis that led us to realize that a new facility was essential.
The NCC was designed over 30 years ago. Technology has changed radically since then, and we must upgrade the building’s cooling, electrical, and fire suppression systems to accommodate these new technologies. As a result, the NCC’s infrastructure systems will not be capable of accommodating the information technology necessary to handle our increasing volumes of work, our new and expanded responsibilities, and our new ways of doing business. Our transition to full electronic processing of our core workloads and the growth of electronic service delivery over the last decade resulted in a dramatic increase in our needs for data storage and network capacity. While we have modernized our hardware, we are facing finite limitations on our ability to distribute electrical power to our servers and mainframes.
Updated servers and mainframes have significant electrical requirements. Until recently, each server required only one power supply to operate; now, a server requires two to four power supplies to function, which the NCC can accommodate at this time. The current electrical panels will not be able to accommodate the more than four power supplies that we will need to run servers in the future.
As the NCC has aged, we have continuously upgraded and repaired structural, electrical, and data processing capabilities. Incrementally upgrading a facility of this kind is a best industry practice for maintaining facilities beyond their life cycle. We must incrementally repair these infrastructure systems because we cannot totally replace them in the existing NCC. To replace them, we would have to shut down the building completely for an extended period of weeks or months.3 Such a shutdown would result in an unacceptably long interruption of service to the public.
We also considered the possibility of renovating the existing building; however, renovations of this magnitude would require us to vacate the building and design and lease a facility to temporarily house the data and employees. The expense of doing this would be almost as costly as simply building a new, up-to-date data center and would create a risk of a major interruption in service.
Even if we could overcome the obstacles to repair and upgrade the NCC and its infrastructure, we would still have a building designed around a 1970s’ mainframe environment. In the seventies, redundant electrical, heating, and cooling systems were not state-of-the-art requirements for data centers. In addition, fire suppression systems were not designed to cover an entire floor.
In short, the current facility will not be able to meet the industry standards for data centers in the future.
In February 2008, we received a report from Lockheed Martin, whom we had asked to independently analyze the condition of the NCC’s infrastructure and recommend ways to upgrade it, if necessary. The Lockheed Martin consultants identified no chronic structural defects and verified that over the years, we have maintained the building well. Lockheed Martin also confirmed the NCC’s structural limitations and recommended we build a new facility.
The New Data Center
We thank you for your support of funding to construct a new facility, which we are calling the National Support Center, and appreciate your acknowledging that in an environment of evolving cyberthreats, we must continue to protect beneficiary records with unmatched vigilance.
I am pleased to report that the facility that will replace the NCC will not only be a state-of-the-art data center, but it will also incorporate green building technology. Compared to the existing facility, the new center will be substantially more energy efficient.
We have started working with our colleagues at the General Services Administration (GSA) on all aspects of this project. GSA will manage the design and construction activities for the project, as only GSA has the authority to own or lease Federal facilities for us. However, we are working very closely with GSA in designing and constructing the new facility. We have a history of working very successfully on construction projects with GSA, both at the national and regional levels. For this project, GSA assigned some of its most highly qualified project managers, as have we, to ensure the work is completed on time without cost overruns and in full compliance with our requirements. We look forward to this important collaboration, and I would like to thank GSA for its vital support of this particular project, as well as our other building and space needs.
We have started the formal planning process with GSA. Initial activities include:
(1) formulating specific requirements for constructing a state-of-the-art data center;
(2) developing the criteria for selecting a site; and (3) developing a detailed construction project plan. GSA will execute these steps, and we will provide input and oversight to ensure the facility’s design fully meets our needs and requirements. Additionally, GSA has awarded a contract to a construction management firm. The firm, Jacobs, will work with GSA and us to develop a detailed Program of Requirements, also known as a “scope of work.” We are currently providing Jacobs with necessary background information on the objectives of the project that it will use to define building requirements and land specifications.
In addition to replacing the NCC, we have proactively addressed our increased data processing demands and enhanced our disaster recovery strategy by bringing up a Secondary Support Center. We have begun to install equipment at that site, and we are ahead of schedule for bringing up the facility. Within approximately 6 months, we will be able to process about half of our production workloads at this facility, thus providing necessary backup to the NCC. The Secondary Support Center will eventually be able to provide full backup and recovery for our data and daily processing needs.
SUPPORTING ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY FOR RECOVERY ACT RESOURCES
We strongly support the accountability and transparency standards for Recovery Act resources established by Congress. To emphasize the importance of these standards, we are holding executives and staff accountable for monitoring and achieving the goals of all of the Recovery Act initiatives for which we are responsible. Because the Recovery Act invests in our core mission work, our existing internal controls will help us effectively account for our use of Recovery Act funding. However, we will also add any internal controls that we may need to assess our implementation of the Recovery Act.
As recommended by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we are using existing entities to review, assess, and manage Recovery Act risk. We have designated our Executive Internal Control Committee (EIC) to serve as our Senior Management Council, overseeing Recovery Act performance across the agency, including risk management. The Deputy Commissioner of Social Security chairs the EIC, and the Inspector General and I serve on the committee. The EIC oversees the results of our internal controls that, among other things, test our financial reporting processes, systems development, and validation processes. The EIC also helps ensure our compliance with administrative, security, and management policies.
As the Senior Accountable Official, I oversee all aspects of Recovery Act planning, implementation, reporting, and performance. I report progress, total obligations, and disbursements through a weekly update report, which we post to our website and submit to recovery.gov. As an indication of our readiness and ability to meet our responsibilities, we were one of the first agencies to place these reports on our website. We will be working with OMB to finalize our Recovery Act implementation plans by early May.
We have formed intra-agency workgroups at both the executive and staff levels to manage the implementation of our three key Recovery Act responsibilities. These groups meet on an ongoing basis to ensure progress, resolve issues, and as needed, take corrective actions.
Finally, we are working with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on seven of its audits that are directly related to the Recovery Act and four audits related to information technology processing. At this time, the Recovery Act audits focus on the adequacy of our planning processes. We understand that later OIG will perform additional audits on program results.
ISSUING ECONOMIC RECOVERY PAYMENTS – AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
Among the projects that we are monitoring very closely is, of course, the disbursement of economic recovery payments. The Recovery Act provides for immediate and direct assistance by issuing one-time $250 economic recovery payments to Social Security, Railroad Retirement, Veterans, and SSI recipients. We serve as the clearinghouse for the Railroad Retirement Board and Veterans Affairs to match the lists of eligible beneficiaries on our various systems to avoid duplicate payments.
We have already notified beneficiaries that they need not take any action to receive their payments. We are also informing the public about the recovery payments through a recorded message on our national 800 number, a prominent link about these payments on our website (www.socialsecurity.gov), and an informational leaflet available at all field offices and Wal-Mart stores across the country. We also have knowledgeable employees in our field offices across the country ready to answer what we anticipate will be millions of questions about these payments.
Our extensive planning with the Department of the Treasury, the Railroad Retirement Board, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will allow us to issue these payments to the more than 50 million eligible individuals during the month of May – 3 to 6 weeks before the statutory deadline. We will automatically mail the payments to them or deposit the payments into their bank accounts.
The Social Security and SSI Recovery Act payments will inject more than $13 billion into the economy, helping beneficiaries put extra meals on the table and pay increasingly high utility bills. We appreciate the support of Congress in our administration of the economic recovery payments.
Thank you for the opportunity to describe the very real and tangible opportunities the Recovery Act provides to us to improve our service to the public, as well as assist in the Nation’s economic recovery. Despite the many challenges we face, Social Security is a can-do agency. We have made a commitment to the American public to work down our backlogs, and we will continue to do so. The Recovery Act provides us with resources to tackle the increase in the work we expect this year and to collaborate with GSA to build a new data center that will meet our future needs. With the cooperation of colleagues at the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Railroad Retirement Board, we have mapped out a plan to deliver $250 recovery payments to millions of Americans.
For more than 70 years, we have served as a cornerstone of American economic security. We are proud of this role and see our Recovery Act responsibilities as a continuance of our mission. Going forward, we will maintain the highest level of oversight over all of our responsibilities funded in full or in part by Recovery Act resources. We will do our part to implement Recovery Act initiatives efficiently and effectively to help the American people as quickly as possible. However, the higher workloads the agency is experiencing require ongoing attention. We will need your continued support and timely action on the President’s FY 2010 budget in order to maintain our momentum and obtain the full benefit from Recovery Act funding for dealing with our workloads. We will keep this Subcommittee apprised of our progress and look forward to your continued support as we implement the plans I have described today.
We appreciate the actions of Congress to provide assistance to the American people in this time of economic hardship, and we thank you for providing us with the resources we need to help in these efforts.