LINCOLN — Beverly DeWeese got on the phone 20 minutes early on Wednesday to complete an application so her grandson wouldn't lose his Medicaid.
She was still on hold nearly an hour after her assigned interview time had passed.
It took a full 78 minutes before the Hildreth, Neb., woman got to speak with an employee at one of Nebraska's problem-plagued public benefits call centers.
Then the worker could not find a document that DeWeese had mailed in and asked her to resend.
“Absolutely livid!!!” DeWeese wrote in an email to The World-Herald. “I go through this every time.”
She's far from alone.
Numerous efforts over nearly two years have failed to fix problems with long wait times and application processing glitches in the call center system known as AccessNebraska.
Now State Department of Health and Human Services officials believe that a planned shake-up can do the job.
Starting Oct. 1, the call centers in Lincoln and Lexington will handle only calls involving Medicaid and Kids Connection, which is an expansion of Medicaid as health care coverage for qualified children. The centers in Fremont and Scottsbluff will handle food assistance, child care subsidies and other public benefits programs.
With the division of responsibilities will come more employees, more specialization and, at least for the Medicaid call centers, extended hours.
There will be two phone numbers — one for the Medicaid programs, the second for the other programs — along with the ability to transfer callers needing help with multiple programs.
Jill Schreck, deputy director for economic assistance within HHS, is optimistic.
“This is an opportunity for us to get back on track,” she said. “Our expectation is that once the transition is complete (on Oct. 1), the workload will be more manageable.”
Department officials said the shake-up was needed because of the federal health care law.
Vivianne Chaumont, director of the HHS Medicaid and Long-term Care division, said she expects that the new law will encourage more people to apply for Medicaid.
The law also requires Medicaid to use the same application form as the new health insurance marketplaces.
That means the state can no longer use one form for all public benefits programs, as it does under AccessNebraska.
State officials also cited the health care law in asking for the money to add several new employees to the benefits processing system.
Chaumont said Medicaid is adding 87 positions in the call centers and local offices. Schreck said economic assistance is getting 38 new positions. Hiring those employees means erasing some of the savings that the AccessNebraska system was supposed to provide the state.
The system was launched three years ago with the goal of modernizing and streamlining how the state processes public benefits applications. State officials originally pegged the savings at $8.4 million a year from cutting 225 jobs and about half of the local offices, which previously handled public benefits applications through in-person interviews.
Later estimates revised the savings to about $5 million.
Last year, after being flooded with complaints about long wait times, lost documents, disconnected calls and inaccurate case processing, state lawmakers directed HHS to alter its course.
The Legislature provided funds to keep more local offices available for personal help and to prevent the last planned employee layoffs.
But department statistics show last year's changes have not corrected the problems.
Callers' average time on hold hit an all-time high in July, topping out at 28 minutes, 2 seconds.
The proportion of callers who give up without talking to a worker has risen along with hold times. In July, nearly three of every 10 callers gave up.
Meanwhile, the backlog of unfinished tasks — such as verifying information on an application or going through the steps to close a case on the computer — has mushroomed.
The average daily backlog in June stood at 85,334 such tasks. Special authorization for employees to work overtime cut the daily average to 65,583 in July.
But that's still twice the number from August 2012 and well above the goal of having fewer than 25,000 unfinished tasks.
Chaumont said efforts continue on getting the unfinished tasks under control.
Reducing the backlog should help with call volume, she said, because fewer people would be calling the centers, wondering about the status of applications.
Schreck said employees now are being instructed to spend the time wrapping up a case when a person calls, even if that means others wait longer on hold.
“Once they do talk to our staff, they're very pleased with the service they get,” she said. “We're taking the time to handle the call right the first time.”
Dividing the call centers should help by allowing employees to get more familiar with a smaller number of complicated programs, Chaumont said.
The economic assistance centers will have some additional specialization, Schreck said.
New employees will train first on the two most commonly used programs: the supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly called food stamps, and energy assistance.
Experienced workers will handle other programs, and newer employees will learn them with time.
Chaumont said she plans to make the Medicaid call centers more accessible by extending weekday hours and adding Saturday morning hours. No decision has been made about changing hours for the economic assistance centers.
DeWeese said she isn't sure the newest changes will be enough to turn around the system.
“I really do hope that if they make changes again, they are changes for good,” she said.