U.S. representatives address sequester

PARKERSBURG – Officials representing local federal government operations are expecting to have to make job cuts and the processing time for people who rely on these services to increase.

Officials with the U.S. Social Security Administration released a letter from Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Michael J Astrue to Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Committee on Appropriations, on what the sequestration process would mean to the SSA.

With sequestration, Astrue estimates visitors to the field offices could wait almost 30 minutes to see a representative, and callers to the 800-number would wait almost 10 minutes for employees to answer.

”The pending levels of initial disability claims would rise by over 140,000 claims, and on average, applicants will have to wait about two weeks longer for a decision on an initial disability claim and nearly a month longer for a disability hearing decision,” he wrote.

Also on Wednesday, West Virginia’s three U.S. representatives voted for a bill to fund government through the existing fiscal year, including at the levels required by the sequestration cuts.

The resolution passed the House of Representatives 267-151 and is intended to prevent a government shutdown on March 27 if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement on spending.

The budget legislation also adjusts some of the across-the-board spending in the sequestration, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said. Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito, Republicans from West Virginia, also voted for the bill that now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“In this hyperpartisan environment, with all of the pessimism and rancor surrounding the so-called fiscal cliff and sequester, it is encouraging to know that reasonable minds can still prevail and find a way forward in addressing our nation’s deficits and ensuring essential government services,” Rahall said. “I am hopeful that months of budget negotiations, while frustrating and disappointing in many respects, may yet yield some agreements on which to build bipartisan budget compromises. We must realize that moving the budget toward balance is a long-term process and requires incremental progress rather than fanciful grand bargains; there are no quick and painless fixes.”

Sequestration would result in the loss, attrition without replacement, of more than 5,000 more employees in FY 2013, the termination of more than 1,500 temporary employees and re-employed annuitants, and the elimination of overtime except for life, safety and health concerns., Astue said

“We would be forced to reduce cost-effective program integrity work, continuing disability reviews and Supplemental Security Income redeterminations,” he said.

Astrue said the agency would operate with minimum non-personnel spending, only funding the most essential costs such as mandatory contracts and rent on the buildings. As a result, the agency might reduce contractor support.

”Sequestration would significantly reduce our Information Technology funding,” he said. ”We would use our limited funds primarily to sustain our IT infrastructure.

”We would not have sufficient funds to invest in the type of automation that makes us substantially more efficient each year.”

The SSA would try to prioritize its reductions to avoid furloughs, which would further harm services and program integrity efforts, Astrue said. However, the possibility of furloughs remains uncertain at this time, he said.

”The value of a furlough day is about $25 million,” he wrote. ”With each furlough day, we would not be able to complete roughly 20,000 retirement claims, over 10,000 disability claims, and 3,000 hearings.

”It would increase the backlog of initial disability claims and erode the significant progress we have made in the hearings backlog. The wait for service in our field offices and on our 800-number network would further increase.”

By not being able to complete work and get benefits to those who rely on them, a significant amount of money would not be put into the ecomomy, Astrue said.

”Sequestration would affect state and local economies as well because we must cut the administrative funding we provide state disability determination services to make disability determinations for us,” Astrue wrote. ”In addition, growing backlogs would delay claimants’ first checks, which delays money going to state and local economies.

”It is important to remember that none of our work is discretionary; we must complete all benefit applications we receive. The longer it takes us to get our incoming work, the more expensive it is to complete, and the greater the burden on the public. Moreover, if we do not have enough resources to keep our records accurate, it causes improper payments,” Astrue said.

Officials with the Bureau of the Public Debt did not return messages seeking comment on how sequestration cuts will affect local operations.

It appears the cuts will have little-to-no impact in the Wood County school system.

Sue Woodward, assistant superintendent of Wood County Schools, said officials have not yet been made aware of any cuts affecting the school system.

“Usually, we are pretty well protected for a period of time,” she said.

The White House, in anticipation of sequestration, released a state-by-state breakdown of estimated impacts that go into effect March 1. According to the information released by the White House, West Virginia will lose approximately $5.8 million in funding for primary and secondary education, putting around 80 teacher and aide jobs at risk. In addition about 8,000 fewer students would be served and approximately 20 fewer schools would receive funding.

Approximately $3.6 million in funds for about 40 teachers, aides and staff who help children with disabilities will also be lost.

The White House estimated Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for approximately 500 children in the state, reducing access to critical early education.

Woodward said officials have not heard any cuts affecting programs. She recommended speaking with John Merritt, director of federal programs for Wood County. Merritt was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Congress last week failed to reach an agreement on spending, that caused the automatic across-the-board spending reductions of $85 billion to take effect. Half of the cuts are to be in military spending.