Social Security turns to the Web to manage escalating workload

Online services would ease burden on field offices scrambling to keep up with spike in beneficiaries, agency CIO says.

The Social Security Administration is deploying video technology and establishing a mechanism to confirm the identities of applicants online so it can keep up with increasing claims, Chief Information Officer Franklin H. Baitman said.

Citizens traditionally have interacted directly with SSA personnel at the agency's 1,400 offices. But a deluge of baby boomer beneficiaries and financially strapped families hit by the recession are straining staffs at those locations.

SSA predicts it will receive 375,000 additional retirement, dependent and survivors' claims and 730,000 more disability claims than forecasted two years ago, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue told the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security on April 15.

The agency is testing video services and expanding online services to keep up with the flood of claims, Baitman said in an interview with Nextgov.

"We have a number of pilots under way using video," he said.

One initiative aims to expedite disability determinations for applicants who live far away from offices. It involves placing cameras on location for judges making disability determinations and lawyers representing disability applicants. More than 100 of the agency's 1,400 administrative law judges are using video, according to Baitman.

Offering more online services could move millions of applicants out of field offices, saving money and reducing the paperwork burden for employees and citizens, he said.

"The Internet is taking off, and we're trying our best to make the experience every bit as pleasant as it is when you go to a local field office," Baitman said.

About 36 percent of retirement benefit applications now are filed through the Web, demonstrating that seniors are becoming comfortable with technology, he noted. More Web-based services are on the way. As of March, for example, applicants can file for Medicare benefits online.

Still, some services are only available offline because of security precautions. "We're very focused at the Social Security Administration on protecting your personally identifiable information. At the same time, we want to enable you to do more business with us in a channel of your choosing," Baitman said.

People who have to replace their Social Security cards cannot do so online because hard copies of identification are required. A major challenge in providing online services is authenticating, or confirming the identity, of applicants without physical identification documents, he explained.

SSA plans to have the technological capability in 2011 to allow people to submit applications and receive notices from the agency using a single, online authentication tool. "Clearly, it's going to be a hurdle," to verify the identities of people who lack information such as a valid government-issued ID number and financial account number, Baitman said.

Authentication is important because Social Security numbers are widely used by criminals to hijack personal information. An April 26 report by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration found 1.2 million tax returns filed in 2007 in which taxpayers used another taxpayer's Social Security number, a sign of possible identity theft.