Electronic Signatures May Get Help From the D.C. Gorillas

 Commentary  December 22, 2021 at 07:44 AM  Share & Print

What You Need to Know

  • The Biden administration says federal agencies are imposing a 9 billion-hour-per-year time tax on the public.

  • The Social Security Administration is supposed to save people time by moving Social Security and Medicare support services online.

  • A new executive order calls for the SSA to take electronic signatures whenever possible.

A big new federal government efficiency project could ease some of the remaining barriers to the use of electronic signatures.

The administration of President Joe Biden is calling on the Social Security Administration to try to reduce the use of physical documentation and in-person visits in program administration efforts.

Biden says the SSA should look for other ways to verify that people are who they say they are and to decide whether the evidence that applicants are eligible for benefits is real.

The SSA handles applications and disputes involving Medicare Part A coverage, Medicare Part B coverage and Social Security Disability Insurance as well as Social Security retirement income benefits.

The SSA should “develop a mobile-accessible, online process so that any individual applying for or receiving services from the Social Security Administration can upload forms, documentation, evidence, or correspondence associated with their transaction without the need for service-specific tools or traveling to a field office,” according to a new federal customer experience executive order that appeared recently in the Federal Register.

Biden acknowledges in the order that, in some cases, laws or practical considerations may require the SSA to continue to require the use of physical signatures, paper documents and in-person meetings.

But the SSA should do what it can to revise any regulations, forms, instructions or batches of guidance that now require members of the public to provide physical signatures, Biden says.

The SSA should also, “consistent with applicable law and to the extent practicable, maintain a public policy of technology neutrality with respect to acceptable forms of electronic signatures,” Biden says.

High-Impact Service Providers

Congress and presidential administrations have tried to ease federal administrative burdens many times in the past.

The federal Office of Management and Budget puts many proposed regulations and government information collection efforts through a burden review process.

In spite of those earlier anti-bureaucracy efforts, “the annual paperwork burden imposed by executive departments and agencies on the public has been in excess of 9 billion hours,” Biden says in the order. “That number is too high.”

All of the lost time is a kind of “time tax” on the American people, Biden adds.

In the new order, Biden defines a new class of “high impact service providers,” or HISPs. A HISP is a federal entity “that provides or funds customer-facing services, including federal services administered at the state or local level, that have a high impact on the public, whether because of a large customer base or a critical effect on those served,” according to the order.

The Office of Management and Budget director will decide which federal entities are HISPs.

Health Programs

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and an HHS arm, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, oversee administration of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act public exchange plan program, and they also handle some Medicare program enrollee service functions, such as running the Medicare.gov website.

The new executive order requires the HHS secretary to develop “new, personalized online tools and expanded customer support options for Medicare enrollees” and to try to use modern techniques, such as electronic renewal forms that are partly filled out with information from government databases, to help people who are using one federal health program cross-enroll in any other federal benefit programs they might be eligible for.

What It Might Mean

If agencies implement the executive order as written, and the changes work as Biden administration officials expect, the order could:

  • Encourage Congress, state lawmakers and state agencies to eliminate many of the remaining barriers to the use of electronic signatures.

  • Ease signature-related administrative hassles for financial professionals.

  • Increase the odds that financial professionals with brick-and-mortar offices in one place will face competition from online competitors in other places, by reducing the need for customers to visit offices simply to sign documents.

  • Lead to improvements in cross-selling tools aimed at private-sector life and health agents, as vendors create systems aimed at helping the SSA implement what amounts to cross-selling bundles of federal benefit programs.

Pictured: The White House (Photo: Shutterstock)

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