For many years, Social Security Administration representatives paid regular visits to the Island to assist with applications for benefits, and answer general questions about eligibility.
But in 2011, citing budget cutbacks, the federal agency said it could no longer afford the costs associated with travel to the Island. Over the next two years, 490 contact stations were eliminated, including the one on the Vineyard. People who qualify for benefits have been encouraged to seek assistance over the phone or online, or travel to East Falmouth to speak to a representative in person.
Since March, James Klingensmith, associate commissioner for elder affairs for Dukes County, has been working to change that by pressing for the agency to reassign a part-time social security agent to the Vineyard.
He points to the fact that since 2011, the population of Islanders eligible for the federal benefits has steadily increased. And citing estimates that the population of residents between ages 65 and 85 will triple in next few years, Mr. Klingensmith said the time is now to secure the personal assistance people need.
Vineyard Haven Council on Aging director Joyce Stiles-Tucker agrees. “Now we are finding a lot more people have questions about social security, baby boomers are turning 65, and they are asking a lot of questions, but it is a real ordeal for them to get [to the Falmouth office],” she said. She said previously agents made monthly appearances on the Island during the off-season and came almost weekly in the summer. On average, 15 people attended the visits before they were discontinued. “It was very helpful because they would have people coming every week to ask for help,” Ms. Stiles-Tucker said.
The agents continue to make an annual trip to the Island in June, but the purpose is to help foreign workers secure social security cards for employment purposes. “Who takes priority in this country?” asked Roger Wey, director of the council on aging in Oak Bluffs. “I understand how important [foreign workers] are to the economy, but you have people who worked all their lives. It’s a simple issue that can be corrected.”
But social security spokesmen said most of the services offered by the administration, including filling out paperwork and seeking benefit information, can be done over the phone or online. People can now file for retirement online, and change their address, request replacement social security cards, and submit verification statements, all through a secure site.
Some community members have complained that the phone system is difficult to navigate. “I tried it myself, and I was like, this is crazy,” Ms. Stiles-Tucker said. “It was like, dial one if you have questions about your benefits, when you press to talk to a representative sometimes you don’t get anybody . . . We are not talking about someone who has got dementia, these are able-bodied people who are having a problem getting through to them.”
The local field office was historically located on Gifford Street in downtown Falmouth, but it has since moved out of town to an industrial park. Ms. Stiles-Tucker said people have spent as much as $40 on a cab ride from the Steamship Authority to the new office in East Falmouth.
“For a lot of our aging population on the Vineyard, it’s just too difficult to get there,” Mr. Klingensmith said. “I spoke to a gentleman in Oak Bluffs who was retiring, and he could not get through on the telephones, so he got in his truck and drove over on the ferry to Falmouth to get his retirement money.”
Twice Mr. Wey has presented his case to congressmen in Washington, but he never received a response.
“There is no reason why they should cut it,” he said. “It is a small issue to the government officials, but it’s a big issue to the Island. It’s important to have a one-on-one, face-to-face for these issues to help them be resolved.”
Mr. Klingensmith has secured commitments from the SSA and the Oak Bluffs police to cover costs of travel and security for a visiting agent, and he is asking selectmen to join him in petitioning legislators to reinstate the regular visits. He said monthly visits would be ideal, but even quarterly appearances would make a difference.
But Roberto Medina, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said this week that the situation is unlikely to change. “Right now we are unable to return to the Islands with the service we provided in the past,” he said, reiterating that most paperwork can be completed over the phone or online, or by traveling to the Falmouth office. He said another concern centers on the lack of a secure network on the Island, which agents need to upload important information. Agents would need to record the confidential information on paper, and then spend additional time uploading the data to the network through the secure connection available at the field office. “The employee would have to do double the work,” Mr. Medina said.
When the news first went out that the agents would not be traveling to the Island in 2011, Mr. Wey fielded a lot of calls from concerned people in the community. But the calls have stopped.
“That’s how things are, people after a while start to accept what’s there, but they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t at all,” he said.
The Edgartown Council on Aging refers questions about social security issues to Mary Sullivan, the SHINE (Serving Health Information Needs of Elders) counselor, who can help translate technical jargon. The Up-Island Council on Aging does the same thing. And Steve Richardson, public affairs specialist at the Boston social security office, said his office is in constant contact with the local councils on aging.
“If any of these individuals have difficulty getting through to us, they should contact their local office directly,” he said. He said the best way to do that is to call 800-772-1213 to be referred to the Falmouth or Hyannis office.