House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Social Security (Shaw)
on SSA's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Larry Massanari, Commissioner
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Matsui, and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Social Security Administration's (SSA) response to the terrorist attacks on our country on September 11. We, along with the rest of the nation, were deeply affected by the tragic events that occurred in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. However, in the best tradition of public service, SSA responded immediately to meet the needs of the families who lost a loved one in these tragedies. Today, I will describe what we have done to assist the families, how we are handling their claims for benefits, and what measures we have taken to ensure that the American people will continue to receive the services and cash benefits they need in a timely and compassionate way. In addition, in the wake of the incidents of bioterrorism, I will discuss what SSA is doing to protect our employees and the people who visit our offices.
Before I begin, however, I want to acknowledge the dedicated service of the two Regional Commissioners (RC) who have accompanied me here today. To my right is Bea Disman, the RC for the New York Region, and to my left is Laurie Watkins, the Acting RC for the Philadelphia Region. Ms. Disman led our efforts to provide service to the citizens of New York, and Ms. Watkins directed our activities in providing benefits to the survivors of the victims of the attack on the Pentagon. I believe both of them reflect the highest ideals and the finest traditions of our Agency in making real our common goal of providing prompt and caring service to those affected by these acts of terror.
I also want to recognize the remarkable efforts of SSA's employees, particularly those in the New York and Philadelphia Regions. Although many employees were themselves affected by the events of September 11, and some were physically close enough to the sites to witness the events as they unfolded, virtually all of them were on duty the next day. They set aside any personal concerns, because they recognized the importance of what they do for the American people. And they handled the difficult and delicate task of working with the survivors to provide the support needed to help them obtain benefits with sensitivity and speed.
Mr. Chairman, I have had the opportunity to visit the Family Assistance Centers in New York City and in Crystal City, Virginia where SSA staffs have worked long hours to provide information and take claims. While at the Pentagon site, the Director of the Center, U.S. Army Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne said that "SSA employees are truly professionals with a heart." And I couldn't agree more. As I share with you today SSA's response to the disastrous events of September 11, I also share with you my pride in SSA's workforce. They have risen to a challenge no one could have anticipated with an extraordinary sense of commitment and compassion.
Supporting the Families
Following the attacks, SSA immediately invoked special emergency procedures to ensure that survivor claims for the families of those killed in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane crash in Pennsylvania could be taken and paid as quickly as possible. These procedures include, for example, allowing payment of survivors' claims with proof of death other than a death certificate (for example, airline manifests and employer records). Using these procedures, we can take and pay a claim as quickly as possible.
As soon as employers were able to arrange locations to meet with the families of victims, which happened in the first days following the tragedy, our New York Regional personnel were on-site working with employers and families to take and expedite claims. When the Family Assistance Centers were established at Pier 94 and Liberty State Park, we became part of that effort. We also worked closely with the New York Police Department, the Fire Department, and the Port Authority to take claims for the survivors of their employees who were killed. We were on-site at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center as well, working side by side with Department of Defense personnel to handle survivor claims there.
In addition to those sites, survivor and disability claims are being taken at a number of other locations. These include our field offices, our toll-free 800 number, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency locations, hospitals, facilities set up by large corporations, and even local Congressional offices.
The human toll of this tragedy is staggering. At this time, the number of disaster-related claims has risen to over 4,000 claims. Over half of those are for children who lost parents in the attacks. We have also taken a small number of disability claims (about 50) although we expect that number to increase over time. Unfortunately, we don't really know what the total number of claims arising from the September 11 assaults will be.
In Virginia, we have now taken claims or determined eligibility for all of the families of the 125 victims who worked for the Department of Defense, and for 53 of the 64 passengers on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Finally, we are working closely with both United and American Airlines. The information they can provide us is invaluable as we search to locate people who may be eligible for benefits. In addition, SSA staff attended a gathering at the site of the Western Pennsylvania crash to provide information to the family members who were there about how to apply for benefits.
In response to calls coming into our national 800 number, representatives are referring all disaster-related claims calls to our Immediate Claims Taking Units where benefit applications are taken immediately. These units represent a nationwide network of 14 claims processing units, staffed with 390 claims takers.
Within days, we also launched an extraordinary, full-scale outreach effort to make sure that no family eligible for benefits is overlooked.
We quickly put in place a special web page with information for those affected by the September 11 disaster to use. The site has information about how to apply for survivor benefits, as well as information about disability benefits. It displays the 800 number and has a link to SSA's office locator to assist persons who need to file a claim. It also reassures people that benefits will continue to be paid on time.
By the Sunday following the attacks, we had public information spots on every major network affiliate in New York City, the local television stations, and Spanish language stations. These spots included information on survivor benefits and how to contact Social Security.
We have worked with hospitals in the New York and Washington D.C. areas to identify potential claimants for disability benefits. The New York City Labor Council is working with us to provide outreach to union members and their families.
We are also working closely with the union, which represents the restaurant workers in the World Trade Center. The union will supply SSA with acceptable evidence of identity for enumeration purposes. This will enable U.S. citizens to obtain replacement Social Security cards, which they will need to apply for unemployment benefits.
To make sure that those foreign survivors who might be eligible for Social Security benefits are contacted, the Regional Office has done outreach to about 60 consulates.
We matched lists of employees for those companies that had been located in the World Trade Center. We are also working with those employers who were the most severely impacted, such as the Fire Department, the Port Authority, and several financial service corporations. We have contacted all of the individuals or families referred by these employers.
Finally, press releases and fact sheets have been and will continue to be distributed, as necessary, to national media outlets, advocacy organizations, and others. We are also providing frequent updates to Congressional delegations from the five affected States.
Social Security Remained Open for Business
In the aftermath of the attacks, SSA took immediate steps to ensure that we stayed open for business, for routine business as well as for those who lost family members or were injured that day. All Social Security offices in New York City and the Washington D.C. area were immediately closed on September 11 to protect both the public and our employees, while SSA assessed the severity of the situation and the need for increased security.
The next day, all Social Security offices and the national 800 number were open, with the exception of field offices in New York City, the Northeastern Program Service Center in Jamaica, and the hearing office and the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office in lower Manhattan. The New York Regional Office also remained closed, but we opened a command center in the Grand Central field office. All of our offices-except for those in lower Manhattan-reopened on September 13. We redeployed employees from the closed offices to offices that were open.
We immediately worked with the Treasury Department and the Postal Service to make sure that, where normal processes remained in place, benefit checks and electronic funds transfer payments continued to be sent. Where service was disrupted, we tried to find ways to mitigate delays.
We also recognized that our employees themselves were experiencing a wide range of emotions in dealing with the tragedies. Because of these concerns, we provided and will continue to provide counseling for both individuals and small groups of employees. We also offered our counseling services to employees in other Federal agencies.
By September 24, all of our offices were open, with the exception of the Manhattan DDS, which had been located near the World Trade Center. Some of the DDS staff is being temporarily housed in the Northeastern Program Service Center in Jamaica. Others have been sent to work in other offices.
All 15,000 claims that had been pending in the DDS were removed from the building and sent to a contractor for cleaning and decontamination. All cases have been cleaned and sent back to the DDS. The DDS personnel are in the process of recontacting claimants to update the medical evidence and explain the delay in processing.
We have deferred some workloads that are not time sensitive to focus on serving the needs of victims and survivors. We have also temporarily suspended collection and recovery of overpayments where the responsible party is under a hardship resulting from the terrorist attacks.
As for the security of our facilities across the country, we have supplemented existing security at our large sites by screening visitors, contractors, and non-employees more thoroughly and increasing inspections of packages, delivery vehicles, transit buses, and all vehicles entering areas under buildings. We have placed guards in the 322 field offices that did not have them, and will keep them in place for at least the remainder of the fiscal year.
Protecting Against Biological Threats
In this time of heightened concern about possible biological threats, both public and private organizations are treating suspicious mail seriously. The health and safety of all of our employees and the people who visit our offices is our utmost concern, and we will do everything possible to protect them. Every report of suspicious mail has been and will continue to be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
First, let me assure you that presently we have had no known cases of anthrax in the SSA community. Our employees in the Washington D.C. area have already been referred for treatment in accordance with instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are also doing environmental testing of our mailrooms in the New Jersey, Baltimore, and Washington, D. C. areas that may have received mail, either directly or indirectly, from either the Brentwood, D. C. or Hamilton, New Jersey, U.S. Postal Service mail processing facilities, to ensure they aren't contaminated. Employees in these SSA facilities are being referred for treatment in accordance with the CDC protocol.
We have had some incidents involving suspicious envelopes or packages in our field offices around the country. We have had to close some of our offices for a day or two while testing was done. We have also temporarily evacuated other offices for an hour or so. Thankfully, all of these suspected threats to public safety to date have proven to be unfounded.
We are working with the CDC and other Federal and State agencies to make sure all necessary actions are taken. To make our employees aware of what to do if they see a suspicious letter or package, we have distributed posters displaying instructions throughout our facilities. We also sent several advisories to SSA supervisors and staff that describe emergency procedures to follow if contamination is suspected. We conducted a live interactive broadcast with SSA security and medical staff that included questions and answers about anthrax, and have made the videotape of the broadcast available to all SSA employees.
I want to assure you that we are committed to doing everything possible to protect SSA staff and the American people who we serve.
Social Security Number Safeguards
Mr. Chairman, I would also like to discuss an issue that deeply disturbs all of us at the Social Security Administration. There are indications that some of the terrorists had Social Security numbers and cards, which may have been fraudulently obtained. As soon as we learned of this, we formed a high-level response team, which includes participation from our Office of the Inspector General (IG), and from the New York and San Francisco Regions. The response team is reexamining our enumeration process to determine what changes we need to make in our policies and procedures to ensure that we are taking all necessary precautions to prevent those with criminal intent from using Social Security numbers and cards to advance their operations.
The response team is also reviewing the recommendations the Inspector General has made over the last five years with respect to enumeration. They are also looking at several initiatives that SSA already had underway to identify those that can be accelerated. I have received the first of the response team's recommendations and I am considering their suggestions. They are just the beginning of our efforts to strengthen the process.
In addition, we are taking the lead to form an interagency task force with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of State to accelerate an initiative which we have long supported to enumerate people as they enter the country. I have contacted both agencies to begin to set up meetings for the task force.
I would like to point out, however, that based on information from the Department of Justice, it appears that as many as 13 of the 19 terrorists, who were on the planes on September 11, were in this country legally. Depending upon what their entrance status was with the INS, they could have been eligible to receive a Social Security number.
Mr. Chairman, over the last few years we have made changes to our Social Security number process to improve our security procedures. Those changes sought to strike a delicate balance between measures to ensure the integrity and security of the enumeration process and a desire to get a number issued to the applicant as quickly as possible. But we all know that the world changed on September 11, and we need to reassess that balance between customer service and security.
That brings me to your bill, Mr. Chairman, H.R. 2036, the Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2001, which you have developed over the last few years, with Mr. Matsui and other members of the Subcommittee who have cosponsored the legislation. This Administration supports the goals of your legislation to enhance privacy protections for individuals and to prevent the fraudulent misuse of the Social Security number, and we look forward to working with you and the Subcommittee members to best achieve those goals.
Finally, with respect to this subject, I would also like to acknowledge and thank SSA's Office of the Inspector General for the very significant role they have played in the investigation of the events of September 11. Our OIG is coordinating activities with SSA components, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, participating in the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and working with other Federal law enforcement agencies. In addition, their hard work and unique knowledge in the area of Social Security number misuse has been invaluable to SSA. I am confident that through their ongoing work and participation in the response team, we will be able to strengthen our safeguards to assure that only those individuals who by law are entitled to Social Security numbers and cards receive them.
Obviously, SSA has moved swiftly to implement all the emergency measures I have described knowing that additional resources will be needed to process thousands of new and unanticipated claims, increase security, and redeploy staff. There are also costs associated with redeveloping claims and replacing facilities, equipment, and computer systems that were damaged. We also know that we will need to provide the Office of the Inspector General with the additional resources they will need to support their investigative efforts.
It is still too early to estimate the full impact of our response to this tragedy. And, indeed, our first actions have been to address the needs of the survivors and injured in every way possible. However, President Bush has proposed a $20 billion emergency spending measure to provide for disaster recovery and security needs related to the attack on America, and SSA is to receive $7.5 million of that request.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, SSA has long sought to educate the public that Social Security is far more than a retirement security program. Sadly, nothing has brought home that message quite as vividly as the tragedy of September 11. In September, a husband in New York City whose wife had been killed at the World Trade Center was ready to sell his home, because he, as a stay at home father,
could not afford to keep it. He was able to take it off the market after a Social Security representative contacted him to let him know that he and his family were eligible for survivor benefits. All of SSA mourns with this man and with the rest of the country. We remain fully committed to doing whatever we can to help the families of the victims' recover from this heinous act of terror.