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By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Social Security Administration has spent nearly $300 million to develop a computer system to speed processing of disability claims, but the system still isn’t working after six years, according to a newly released report.

An independent analysis commissioned by the agency found that the project has been mismanaged and poorly executed. It is still in the “lengthy, expensive design phase,” the report found, while disabled Americans continue to wait hundreds of days — and sometimes years — for benefits.

Top lawmakers in Washington sharply criticized the agency’s acting commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, demanding by the end of the month all documents and communication related to the Disability Case Processing System for the last six months.

“It is concerning that while you and other agency officials routinely testify that the agency needs more funding from Congress, the agency wasted nearly $300 million on an IT boondoggle,” ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote in a letter to Colvin this week.

Social Security officials acknowledged the delay Thursday, saying building the system has been more complex than anticipated. The agency did not provide a date by which it expects the system to be operating.

The development comes as Colvin prepares for a Senate confirmation hearing next week. Colvin was nominated last month by President Barack Obama to serve a six-year term. Colvin has served as acting director of the agency since February 2013.

The members of Congress say that senior Social Security officials planned to withhold the 67-page report by consultants McKinsey & Co. until after Colvin’s confirmation hearing. They said “whistle-blowers” brought the report to the committee’s attention. The report, dated June 3, was released by the committee this week.

“According to these sources, senior agency staff placed a very close hold on this report with the goal of ensuring details about its findings remain secret until your confirmation by the Senate,” the House members wrote in the letter to Colvin. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on that allegation.

A Social Security spokesman said officials have taken action on one of the report’s leading recommendations, saying the agency has appointed a “single, accountable, program executive with full authority needed to manage the program.”

“Social Security has embraced McKinsey’s recommendations and has already taken proactive and definitive steps to strengthen the program,” agency spokesman William “BJ” Jarrett said in an emailed response.

Social Security initiated the effort to improve its technology infrastructure for disability claims in December 2010 as a way to make “timely and accurate disability decisions.” The agency did not explain the discrepancy between the 2010 date and the six years cited in the report.

Jarrett noted that the report “highlights a number of program strengths” as well as recommended changes.

“Social Security is committed to implementing the assessment recommendations,” Jarrett said. As it does, “we will create a new implementation schedule.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the oversight committee, cautioned against a rush to judgment. He noted that the report was commissioned at the agency’s request.

“It raises some serious concerns, but it is too soon to draw any conclusions because the committee has not even asked the agency for its response,” Cummings said in a statement.

The computer system is the latest problem for the agency’s disability program, which provides benefits to more than 19 million Americans. In addition to the delays, congressional investigations have revealed that administrative law judges who evaluate disability claims on appeal were rubber-stamping millions of cases at a potentially significant cost to taxpayers.

As of June, more than 660,000 claims were waiting awaiting an initial decision, with an average processing time of 110 days. Another 955,000 cases waited an average of 413 days on appeal.

The Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, which was hired as the lead contractor for the computer system, described the project as a “highly available, scalable, and modern web-based system.”

The project was expected to save Social Security money by eliminating the need to maintain 54 separate systems, and allow the agency to process claims “faster and with higher consistency,” the company wrote in a 2011 news release.

The McKinsey report recommend that the agency decide whether to keep the current contractor, use multiple vendors, or chose a new one. Regardless of that decision, the report called on the agency to strengthen management of the vendor.

Steve Field, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, declined to answer questions about the project, saying only that the company is “committed to delivering on this program and for our customer.”

The report also found that the project remained in the beta testing phase after six years with “limited functionality” and more than 380 outstanding problems. The rollout date over the life of the project was “consistently projected to be 24-32 months away.”

To develop the findings, McKinsey conducted more than 40 interviews and reviewed 300 documents, the report says.

John Fritze contributed to this report.

Photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir.

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