WASHINGTON —  Martin O’Malley, Social Security Administration Commissioner, stated at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on Wednesday that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has made it a priority to support American citizens in navigating the complex social security system, as part of his commitment to improving customer service within the agency.

“We owe it to every American to improve the customer service and support provided by Social Security, so people can get answers to their questions and get their benefit applications decided in a timely manner,” he said.

The Social Security Administration estimates it will serve over 68 million Americans this year. The majority of beneficiaries will be retired Americans and their families, said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) during a hearing on Wednesday conducted by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

According to Sen. Casey, experts estimate that without Social Security benefits, 4 in 10 older Americans would have incomes below the poverty line.

“We must protect and strengthen Social Security, so that Americans of every generation can continue to access this essential lifeline,” he said.

Stressing the role of social security as a pillar of social and economic justice in the U.S., O’Malley has promised to steer SSA in the direction of better responsiveness and accessibility to beneficiaries in the future.

O’Malley added that despite the monumental task ahead, SSA faces the challenge of serving an ever-expanding pool of beneficiaries with diminishing staffing resources.

Data from SSA indicates that by the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, the agency anticipates serving over 7 million more beneficiaries; it is doing so with approximately seven thousand fewer full-time permanent staff compared to FY 2015, a decrease of nine and a half percent.

“We want to work with Congress to sustain the funding increases in the President’s FY 2025 budget and beyond, to enable SSA to improve service levels and reduce wait times,” O’Malley said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Braun, (R-Ind.), said it’s not a funding issue with the President’s budget, but staffing efficiencies and training that need to be addressed.

“We can’t fix a customer service crisis by throwing more money at it and expecting different results,” he said.

Sen. Braun added that when inflation rises, it’s harder for the government to hire and retain employees.

“If we don’t get our fiscal house in order, we won’t keep our promise to millions of beneficiaries and future generations. Our debt is out of control. Like every agency, Social Security needs to find efficiencies,” he said.

Sen. Casey stated that it is unfortunate that support for the Social Security Administration is significantly decreasing and that demand for Social Security is rising along with the aging population.

“Due to the administration’s severe underfunding, the Social Security Administration has experienced significant challenges, including longer wait times for service and approval of disability benefits as well as overpayments and underpayments,” he said.

He added that by the end of the fiscal year 2022, the Social Security Administration workforce was also under tremendous pressure.

O’Malley said due to the complexities of the overpayment problem and the repercussions involved, the agency is enacting four changes:

First, starting next Monday, March 25, the agency will no longer take adverse action if a beneficiary fails to respond to the agency’s demand for repayment. Second, beneficiaries will not will not have to prove they didn’t cause an overpayment. Third, social security beneficiaries will be able to give a verbal summary of their income instead of written. Fourth, overpaid beneficiaries who believe they are not at fault for causing an overpayment and do not have the ability to repay can file a waiver of repayment.

Sen. Casey stated that achieving those objectives and resolving current issues will be challenging in the absence of sufficient financing and legislative changes.

“I will continue to push for robust funding for SSA which will support investments in technology, hiring, and retention,” he said.