Technology Tuesdays: Social Security Goes Digital

By Jennifer Sullivan

 In early 1956, Social Security installed its first modern computer--the IBM 705 mainframe. It was used to calculate benefit amounts electronically.

This blog entry is a part of Enroll America’s Technology Tuesdays blog series.

Fifty-six years after the Social Security Administration (SSA) installed its first computer, an IBM mainframe system that took up an entire room, it is again leading the way in the use of information technology to enroll consumers and provide benefits. In preparation for the increase in demand for services from the aging baby boom generation, the agency has implemented online access to its services and modernized eligibility and enrollment systems.

Earlier this month, the agency added an online version of the Social Security Statement to its website. The new online statement is easy to use and provides people with secure real-time access to information on their Social Security earnings and benefit information. The new feature has been extremely popular, and more than 100,000 people used it within three days of its launch.

MyAccount Sign inSo, today, I joined those thousands of users and set up my own account. Yes, this is very sensitive information we’re talking about here: To set up an account, the site requires users to enter their social security number, date of birth, and home address. But the site is secure, it provides a description of its privacy protections in simple, easy-to-understand language, and it was easy to set up my account. In about 10 minutes, I was looking at my annual earnings all the way back to my very first job in high school (thanks for the good times, Bagel Haul Deli!), as well as my projected Social Security monthly payment when I reach retirement age.

Why does any of this matter when it comes to health coverage enrollment? It shows that good things can happen when a simple, consumer-friendly “front-end” is connected to a powerful, data-rich “back-end.” As the consumer, I was granted access to useful, personal information—my information. It was empowering to know that I have access to the same information as the Social Security Administration. That means I can keep an eye on it, contact the agency if something doesn’t seem right, and I can use the information to make my own plans (in my case, I plan to work for many, many more years!).SSA_website

The Social Security Administration now provides a wide array of services directly through its website. At www.socialsecurity.gov, people can do the following:

Just like the online Social Security Statement, consumers applying for health coverage through an exchange should have the ability to create an online account, see the information that is used to determine their eligibility for health coverage programs, and take that information a step further by using it to learn about coverage options and choose a plan. Ideally, that account will move with them as their situation, and possibly their eligibility, changes over time.

Will everyone be comfortable doing business online? Probably not, which is why it’s important that Navigators and other application assisters be available to help people apply for coverage in the way they are most comfortable with. In many cases, these assisters might use some of the same online tools that consumers could use on their own.

How do we get there from here? The changes at SSA did not occur overnight. Since 2001, the agency has completed hundreds of projects each year to transition its aging systems into a more modern technology platform. Recently, the agency started building a $500 million data hub to accommodate the new systems. This experience at SSA can provide valuable lessons for states as they take advantage of exchange establishment grants and federal funding for Medicaid information technology architecture upgrades to prepare their eligibility and enrollment and systems for the first open enrollment period next year.

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