SSA facing potential budget cuts, IT delays

Agency officials say the House\'s proposed budget could mean furloughs and layoffs. Reduced funding also could slow the construction of SSA\'s new data center. ...

By reduce the agency’s funding by as much as 9 percent. SSA officials say the proposal is equivalent to up to four weeks of furloughs at the agency.

The agency said the proposed budget would force them to furlough some employees and possibly eliminate other positions. Agency officials say fewer personnel will create backlogs in claims, benefit applications and disability hearings and reviews.

Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee say SSA is facing only a 1 percent cut, about $125 million. They say the Democrats and administration officials are basing the 9 percent number on President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request number, not the actual dollars in the appropriations law.

Either way, SSA’s cuts would affect its services.

Patrick O’Carroll Jr., SSA’s inspector general, told House lawmakers at a recent hearing that hundreds of thousands of people will not get the money or service they deserve and expect.

“When you take a look at the growth SSA has had, the expectations now of the public – because backlogs have dropped and service has increased – there’s going to be budget impact cutting back the amount of service,” O’Carroll said. “It’s obviously going to have an effect.

O’Carroll added that it is important that SSA continue to conduct its due diligence to ensure the right people still are getting the right benefits.

“Often times stewardship suffers when service is your alternate choice,” O’Carroll said.

SSA is currently in discussions with employee unions to prepare for potential furloughs.

“AFGE Council 220 is planning nationwide informational picketing at SSA facilities on March 2 to protest the House SSA budget for FY’11, which if enacted will likely result in furloughs of a month for SSA workers,” said Witold Skwierczynski, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of SSA Field Operations Employees, in a statement Friday. “We need our brothers and sisters in the other components to join us on March 2, 2011. I am receiving more and more reports of angry and concerned employees who want to express their dissent.”

The House budget also would cut almost $120 million in funding from SSA’s new National Computer Center (NCC).

The stimulus bill provided $500 million for SSA and the General Services Administration (GSA) to complete the project. It was the largest single project funded by the bill.

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight recently held a recent hearing to check on the progress of the program.

After assessing the almost 30-year-old facility in Baltimore, the agencies decided to replace the current facility, the NCC, with a new facility, the National Support Center (NSC).

O’Carroll told lawmakers replacing the NCC is the agency’s most critical IT investment over the next five years.

“Several factors make building a new data center imperative,” O’Carroll said. “Increasing agency workloads, expanding communications and data services, and structural and electrical capacity issues at the current NCC. The current center might soon be unable to support SSA’s operations. As time passes, the risk of a lengthy outage at the aging data center increases.”

Despite the need for the new center, progress has been slow.

Several of the committee members were frustrated with the project.

David Foley, deputy commissioner of the public buildings service at GSA, said there are unique requirements to building any federal facility – and those are multiplied when it comes to one as complicated as SSA’s data center.

“The timeline on this project is longer, just because of the type of facility,” Foley said. “The mechanical systems are much more complicated, the phasing-in sequencing is much more complicated, and so it does take a longer period of time.”

In addition to the technical requirements, Foley said there are numerous federal regulations with which the building must comply that require more due diligence than would a private sector project of a similar facility.

The agencies recently announced the selection of a site in Urbana, Md., and issued the first phase of their design-build construction solicitation. Foley says delays around site selection set the project back almost a year. It still is on budget and he doesn’t foresee any additional delays.

Foley said selecting a contractor often slows down the process, but GSA is using a two-phase source selection to mitigate the chance of further delays. He said this will let them identify only the most qualified contractors before any proposals are submitted, and then ensure the short-list of proposals that are submitted are tailored for the project’s needs.

Foley expects the NSC to be finished by September 2014.

Kelly Croft, deputy commissioner for systems at SSA, said he expects to complete the IT migration to the new center by July 2016.

In the meantime, O’Carroll said the agency must ensure it can keep up with current claims. The project timeline calls for SSA to rely on the current center for another five years.

“SSA has three main challenges over the next five years,” O’Carroll said. “Delivering the agency’s new NSC on time, maintaining the current NCC with repairs and improvements and further developing reliable back-up options if an extended NCC outage occurs.”

O’Carroll says right now SSA can recover critical operations in a little less than five days but over the next year he hopes to cut that down to one.

Croft said it’s typical for SSA to process more than 150 million computer transactions per day – these transactions are what the agency considers “critical operations.” He said if SSA’s computer systems are down, they are pretty much out of business.

“We can still talk to people in person and on the telephone and we do have contingency arrangements to ensure established payments got out,” said Croft. “But we cannot do things like compute and pay new claims, change direct deposit accounts, issue Social Security cards, or even answer specific questions about beneficiary records. Pretty much all we do relies on high-availability computer systems – even an hour of computer outage is a very big deal. At the massive scale we operate on, an extended outage of multiple days would have national implications.”

Though the hearing was held before the House passed its budget proposal, Croft says any delay in funding would bring the process to a halt and the risk of an outage would continue to grow.

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)

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