The Social Security Administration (SSA) has found it difficult to serve Americans living in remote and poor regions of the country, particularly on Indian reservations in the West where disabled and elderly citizens often have failed to take advantage of benefits that they desperately need.
Shane Kelley and Eva Ristow have helped bridge this gap, linking difficult-to-serve Indian communities in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah to Social Security claims officials hundreds of miles away through an Internet-based, two-way video conferencing system called Video Service Delivery (VSD).
“VSD’s greatest impact is its ability to bridge distances to help government reach the customer rather than expecting the customer to reach government,” said Kelley.
This vast six-state geographic area is home to 29 Indian reservations, where life can be difficult. The two million acre Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, contains three of the poorest counties in the United States. Infant mortality is five times the national average, the adolescent suicide rate is four times the national average and unemployment hovers around 80 percent. Additionally, life expectancy is about 50 years, and 49 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line.
The delivery of Social Security services to such poor, remote locations is a challenge. Although connected by telephone and periodic visits, Social Security representatives have not always been able to achieve the consistent “visual” communications essential in establishing an understanding of benefit programs. As a result, many applicants missed their scheduled interviews, leading to incomplete claims.
Social Security beneficiaries in these areas can now go to designated local libraries, public health clinics or other facilities close to home and get service “on demand” via the two-way video connection. Thanks to this added accessibility, VSD has increased the number of benefit applications by nearly 80 percent among Native Americans at some of the reservations.
“Some of these individuals have an average annual income of $3,000. Helping them receive disability or retirement benefits has had a huge impact,” said Jan Foushee, a senior executive program specialist with Social Security. “The money they receive can help support entire families and has an impact on the communities as well.”
The program has grown from a handful of units to hook-ups in about 70 locations in the Western states. The agency has now begun implementation of the system in the nine other Social Security regions around the country, with about 180 VSD units having been deployed so far.
Nancy Berryhill, the Social Security regional commissioner in Denver, said the concept was first tested in 2003, before Kelley came on board, by connecting the Minot Social Security Office in North Dakota to the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation.
But she said he took over the slow moving project in 2007, handled key technical details, found suitable sites for installation, promoted it to regional commissioners around the country and made it a model that now has unlimited possibilities to improve service.
“Without Shane’s leadership and vision, this would not have become a reality,” said Berryhill. “There was really no road map, but Shane is a problem solver. For him there are no problems, just opportunity.”
One recent successful connection has linked Hawaii with its remote satellite office in American Samoa. Social Security also has linked VSD units in high-traffic offices in New York City to locations in upstate New York. The upstate claims representatives now assist the beneficiaries in the city through the video service.
In addition, Social Security is planning to extend the video claims service, in cooperation with the State Department, to reach Americans living in Canada and possibly Europe, and is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on a project called “VA Connect” to assist disabled veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Besides receiving VA benefits, veterans can be connected via VSD to Social Security officers who can help them get the assistance they need. The first SSA/VA Connect claim came from a veteran undergoing treatment for stage four colon cancer and it was approved in just two days.
Kelley led the VSD effort for three years until a recent promotion, and has since worked alongside his colleague, Ristow, the current VSD project manager.
Kelley said he realized early on that they would need to prove to Social Security colleagues and the public that the equipment was secure, cost-effective and able to improve the delivery of services. He initiated a program in several Wyoming libraries, and the success of these efforts led to rapid expansion.
“As soon as I saw how clear the video connections were, I knew VSD would greatly enhance the way SSA delivers service to the public,” he said
Martha Lambie, Social Security deputy regional commissioner in Denver, said the project never would have materialized into anything substantial without Kelley. “He took a concept and made it a reality,” she said.