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S. Security hot line leaves many cold

When people called the Social Security Administration's new 800 number for help last month, they usually got a busy signal. Nearly 52 percent of the callers in January heard a busy signal when they dialed the agency's toll-free number for information about their benefits. On Jan. 3, the day most beneficiaries received their monthly checks, 80 percent of the callers received a busy signal.

"People are saying they have to wait till they go to heaven to get through to the 800 number," complains Rep. Andrew Jacobs, D-Ind.

In October, Social Security began routing calls made to its offices into a network with 37 service centers around the country. As a result, callers from one state sometimes are transferred to a service center in another state that is unfamiliar with their needs, according to members of Congress and advocates for beneficiaries.

What's more, some callers who do get through to Social Security report receiving inaccurate information. "We are dehumanizing this service," Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who is chairman of the Aging Committee, said last year.

Both Pryor and Jacobs say the toll-free system, established to improve efficiency, should be changed. Pryor plans to file a bill requiring Social Security to reopen local offices to beneficiaries' phone calls.

The Social Security Administration began using the toll-free number in October 1988. Under the system, phone numbers for local Social Security offices are no longer in most telephone books. If beneficiaries happen to know the local number and dial it, they are told to dial the 800 number.

That number is 1 (800) 234-5772. A call elicits a recorded message offering a statement explaining Medicare deductions from Social Security checks. Callers are told they also can wait on the line to speak to an agency employee.

The toll-free system costs the agency $107-million a year, according to Frank Battistelli, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. The old system cost $70-million a year, he said, although needed improvements would have pushed the annual cost to $123-million.

Social Security officials say they originally anticipated 250,000 calls a day. Instead, more than five times that amount have come in on the busiest days. On Jan. 3, for instance, more than 1.4-million people tried to reach the Social Security office, according to Battistelli.

The number of calls falls off dramatically toward the end of a month.

Jacobs, in a letter to Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn King, said complaints about "telephonic inaccess" to the agency are "universal." He said he wants to open up the lines to local offices for specific queries and keep the toll-free number available for more general calls.

King is scheduled to testify on the matter Wednesday before a House subcommittee on Social Security led by Jacobs. According to her spokesman, King supports the toll-free system. "She thinks the system is good and that it can get better," Battistelli said.

In response to the overwhelming number of calls, King has authorized additional overtime for employees and added staff to take calls on busy days. She also has reopened phone lines at 360 of the country's 1,300 local Social Security offices so they may accept calls, according to Battistelli.

The commissioner is considering one other option: a "Breakfast with the SSA" program that would encourage beneficiaries to call on the toll-free line during the less-busy morning hours.

Even so, the lawmakers say there is nothing like local service.

"You know in former years, there was a link between people in my hometown and the seven or eight people that worked in that little office," Pryor said at a hearing on the toll-free lines last year.

"They had raised their children together. They probably sang in the church choir together. We're losing it, and when we lose that, we lose the confidence and the credibility and the soul (of the program)."