The Good, The Bad and The Frustrating: Social Security Benefits in the Digital World

May 11, 2016
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As a whole, we adapt to the technology that is constantly introduced into our lives. In fact, the digitization of everyday activities saves us time, effort and – in some cases – money. We tend to appreciate the immediacy of emails, or the ease of using a debit card instead of writing a check. But every time we are asked to switch yet another aspect of our lives into the digital world, we inevitably have to wrestle with the growing pains that accompany that transition.

As a whole, we adapt to the technology that is constantly introduced into our lives. In fact, the digitization of everyday activities saves us time, effort and – in some cases – money. We tend to appreciate the immediacy of emails, or the ease of using a debit card instead of writing a check. But every time we are asked to switch yet another aspect of our lives into the digital world, we inevitably have to wrestle with the growing pains that accompany that transition.

Sometimes these growing pains are on the user’s end or, in other words, our end. For example, while the online banking app on your phone might be working just fine, you might struggle to understand exactly how to transfer funds or check your balance, simply due to the novelty inherent in learning a new system. But sometimes, our struggles as we adapt to new technologies are compounded by the fact that the technology itself is full of bugs, kinks and glitches, causing us headaches and leaving us to long for the days when we didn’t have to depend on computer programs to do our jobs or keep our finances in order. 

Unfortunately for Social Security disability recipients, healthcare providers and their attorneys, it’s these technical flaws that are causing us some of these pains. When a flawed program prohibits us from listening to our favorite songs online or causes us to send a text message that we didn’t intend to send, it’s merely an inconvenience. But when glitchy programs leave us, or our clients and patients, with difficulties communicating with Social Security offices or delaying payment of much-needed benefits, it is much more than a mere inconvenience.

This is also true when it comes to accessing electronic medical records, which is a key part of the process for any SSD applicant. Talk to any applicant, their health care provider or their SSD attorney about the challenges presented by the electronic medical record system, and you’re sure to get some understandably frustrated responses. But before we start addressing the host of problems found in the electronic system, let’s take a look at why the technology – at least in theory – isn’t such a bad thing.

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The Promise of Electronic Processes

In theory, electronic medical records provide enormous benefits to both medical professionals and patients. Long gone are the days when handwritten notes and diagnoses are filed in a manila folder, stored in a basement and unearthed if needed for future reference. Technological advances streamline these processes, leaving a centralized database of information that can be easily shared between all necessary parties. After a doctor’s visit, a patient’s records will be entered electronically, which can be sent to the patient, SSA or the patient’s attorney with a few simple clicks. This is a much more efficient system, eliminating mail time, reducing the costs of sending records and cutting out the cost of paper itself. 

These benefits also apply to interactions with the Social Security Administration. Medical professionals, attorneys, applicants and recipients can use the SSA system, called Electronic Records Express, to send information. This eliminates the need for copies, postage, follow-up calls, and long wait times for delivery. It also makes the process of applying much quicker and, theoretically, leads to recipients’ receiving benefits in a more timely manner.

The Downside of Electronic Systems

There are, of course, some general concerns that accompany many online and digital processes. First is the fact that many people are asked to use a technology that is unfamiliar to them. This is especially true for recipients of Social Security benefits. It’s reasonable to assume that, just like many Americans, recipients and applicants haven’t used similar technology in the past and, therefore, might not find such a system as intuitive as would a medical professional recently out of medical school, for example.

The second concern is that of security. Cyber crime is a serious problem in terms of both identity theft and information security. For example, a growing concern in the medical community is that of ransomware, a program used by hackers to lock a computer system’s information until a ransom is paid. Earlier this year, the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paid $17,000 to hackers after important medical information was frozen. In this particular case, the system was disabled for 10 days, a critical amount of time for a hospital.

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The Downright Frustrating

One of the most frustrating aspects of online processes is the difficulty of working in a system that is glitchy and unresponsive. This is exactly what attorneys attempting to access client records have experienced in the Electronic Records Express system. These technical problems cause delays in important interactions with the SSA and force attorneys to revert back to physically mailing requests or submissions. 

Users of Social Security accounts frequently encounter messages like “unable to process your request at this time” or to see “timed out” failure notifications on the screen. Many users experience these difficulties when attempting to log in to or sign up for their accounts.

It’s not unusual for any large online system to give users problems from time to time, but these problems seem to be pretty consistent for users of Social Security accounts and for those attempting to access Electronic Records Express.

For all of us that depend on these systems to access important information for our clients or ourselves, these concerns are more than just frustrations and inconveniences. They are disrupting fundamental aspects of our businesses and our daily lives. If you experience technical difficulties using any of these systems, it’s important to notify the SSA immediately. The more complaints and feedback they receive, the more likely they’ll be to address the problem. Until these problems are fixed, it is also one of the few ways that we have to voice our concerns and see some sort of action on the issue. 

The benefits of having electronic systems are numerous, but those benefits are highly dependent on the safety and functionality of these systems. Growing pains are likely to continue in the future, as are cyber security issues that threaten to undermine the safety of sensitive personal and medical information. As we deal with the challenges presented by electronic systems, we can only hope that those in charge take the matter as seriously as users do.