Following several years of limited service, the Social Security Administration will resume visits to the Vineyard, at least virtually.
The federal agency will install a video teleconference terminal at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, Cong. William Keating said Monday. The new system should be ready for use in the next two to three months.
“We’re excited about this,” Mr. Keating said from his office in Washington, D.C. “This is progress because we actually have some action on this.”
Mr. Keating has been working to reinstate the service since 2011, when the administration stopped making monthly visits to the Vineyard due to budget cuts. Islanders had no option but to travel to Falmouth to meet in person with a representative.
With high-definition video equipment, certain documents will be accepted through the video service, Mr. Keating said, and “more importantly, it gives the opportunity to have questions go back and forth.”
“One of the issues is access, and for people who want to talk back and forth and have questions answered privately and directly, getting on a ferry and making that trip is something that certainly wasn’t acceptable to us,” Mr. Keating said.
Mr. Keating said the video conference is based on a successful pilot program in Norwalk, Conn. He said a similar service will be brought to Nantucket.
“The Islands clearly represent a unique situation and they should be in front of the line in the country in having this service implemented,” he said.
Steve Richardson, deputy regional communications director for the agency, said the move to bring back service to the Island was largely based on feedback from community stakeholders.
“We are glad to be back to re-establish a presence on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
The administration will install what they call a video service delivery system where users will be able to speak and conduct Social Security business with an agency employee on the mainland, Mr. Richardson said. The terminal will be installed “as soon as possible” with hours of operation to be determined. The video conference system will be set up in a private room at the council on aging.
Mr. Richardson said the video terminal is an “innovative and cost-effective way” to provide access to the public.
Services include “anything that can be done in a local office,” such as retirement, disability, survivor claims, enrolling in Medicare and letter explanations. All foreign born Social Security applications are required to be done in person. The administration sends down an agent annually in June to process those applications for summer workers, and Mr. Richardson said it would likely continue to offer this service.
“There’s an enormous advantage in physically going down to the Islands and meeting with people,” he said.
News of the video terminal reached the West Tisbury selectmen at their weekly meeting last Wednesday. Town administrator Jennifer Rand notified the board of the change.
“It’s not what we wanted but it’s better than nothing, I suppose,” Ms. Rand said. “Apparently it’s common in rural areas.”
The selectmen had mixed reactions but welcomed the update.
“It’s progress,” selectman and board chairman Richard Knabel said.
“I miss the personal contact. I think that’s important,” selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd said. “We’re becoming a world of cold and impersonal communications. But it’s helpful for some people.”