LINCOLN — Problems continue to plague Nebraska's much-criticized call center system for processing public benefits applications, reports to state lawmakers show.
Callers' average time on hold is running at nearly 19 minutes — more than triple the low reached one year ago.
The proportion of callers who give up without talking with a state worker has more than doubled over the same time, to about 26 percent.
Almost weekly, technical difficulties shut down phones or computers at one or more of the four call centers, putting workers further behind.
Thomas Pristow, the state children and family services director, acknowledged the problems Monday at a briefing for the Health and Human Services Committee.
Yet, he said, he remains committed to the system, called AccessNebraska.
“We are confident we will see more successes as we continue down this path,” Pristow said.
Committee members, however, were more skeptical.
State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, the committee chairwoman, said the frequent technical problems are troubling.
“That's a concern because that throws off the whole system,” she said.
She's also concerned about a plan to divide the call centers between those handling Medicaid and those handling all other public benefits programs.
Starting July 1, the centers in Lincoln and Lexington are to handle Medicaid and Kids Connection cases. The centers in Fremont and Scottsbluff are to handle food stamps, energy assistance, child care subsidies and other programs.
Department of Health and Human Services officials decided on the division because of changes in Medicaid requirements under the federal health care overhaul.
The realigned call centers will have separate phone numbers and different applications.
Pristow said the plan is to transfer callers between the two divisions if they qualify for both Medicaid and other programs.
Kerry Winterer, chief executive officer for HHS, rejected suggestions that the change would make it more difficult for people seeking help. He said it will allow state workers to specialize more.
“The fact of the matter is it's going to make it less complicated,” Winterer said. “Ultimately it's going to be a simpler process, more efficient, more effective.”
But senators expressed concern about how well the transfers would work and how people needing help would cope with two systems.
“We're complicating it again,” said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.
He also questioned the state's latest attempt to cut the time that callers spend on hold.
As of last Thursday, HHS switched to a policy of answering all calls immediately and getting callback information. Workers then are to return calls within two business days to do whatever work is necessary on a caller's case.
Jill Schreck, deputy director of economic assistance, said workers try to call back during a designated time, although she said there are no guarantees.
AccessNebraska was launched nearly two years ago with the goal of modernizing and streamlining how the state provides public benefits.
The change was projected to save $5 million a year in state and federal funds, largely by cutting jobs and closing some local offices.
Along with call centers, the project involves online benefits applications and electronic scanning and storage of documents filed with applications.
Complaints began almost as soon as the first call centers opened, and the complaints have persisted despite several changes in procedures that have been implemented.
Applicants reported long waits on the telephone, lost documents, lack of continuity and the loss of personal contact with caseworkers who knew their clients.
The call center system also was blamed for Nebraska making too many errors on food stamp applications to qualify for a federal bonus payment last year.
Last fall HHS dropped the quotas used for call center workers and moved away from having the first-available worker field a call rather than one familiar with the caller's case.
Workers with greater experience were assigned to specific types of cases, such as nursing home residents, refugees and spousal impoverishment.
The Legislature passed legislation last spring directing HHS to maintain staff in local offices so people can get personal help.
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Statistics show continued problems with AccessNebraska, a state call center system set up to handle public benefit applications.
|Time period||Avg minutes on hold||Pct client hang-ups|
|March 4-15, 2013||18:44||26.70%|
Source: Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services