Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby told about 10 lawmakers and their staff Wednesday that his agency is working in earnest to modernize the phone and computer systems to make it easier for its 750,000 clients to apply for programs or get answers about their benefits.
In the past that meant standing in line and submitting a paper application or trying to call a caseworker to leave a message on a voicemail that filled up almost hourly.
On July 8, all that changed for the 12 regional DSS offices.
A new centralized phone system allows specialized staff at three benefit call centers to receive the phone call while, simultaneously, the caller’s information and application is arriving on their computer screen eliminating the need for the 4 million pieces of paper the agency received every year.
Under the new system clients should be able to get an answer the first time they call. Since July 8 — when the new phone system debuted — 22,757 calls have been answered and the average wait time was less than five minutes.
“When we redesigned our business process we moved away from case management to a task-based system,” Bremby said.
That has meant in the Hartford office, which made headlines last year when agency officials were notified that 125 boxes of benefit applications had been discovered in a closet, 80 percent of the applications that have come in during the past two weeks have been resolved the same day, Bremby said.
In addition, the department has scanned 312,857 incoming documents and is working on processing the remainder on a daily basis. All 800 eligibility workers will have access to a client’s file. In the past the file would have been a paper document on one eligibility workers’ desk and a client would have to hunt down their caseworker to get a resolution.
Bremby noted that meant having to show up sometimes at the offices three times or trying to call an eligibility worker before getting an answer if there was a question or problem. Under the new system, Bremby wants the issue resolved on the first call or visit.
Starting last March the department rolled out its new eligibility website that allows individuals to figure out whether they’re qualified to receive benefits and allows those already receiving benefits an opportunity to check on them.
There’s currently no way to register for benefits online, but a client can fill out an application and print a copy to mail or fax to a central location to be scanned. Once the document is scanned, it’s in the system and can be accessed by any eligibility worker.
Looking forward, the department envisions getting rid of the 24-year-old “Eligibility Management System,” which is written in a computer language so old that there are few people left who can service the system.
“It’s a 24-year-old marvel,” Bremby said.
In the meantime, eligibility workers will have two computer monitors on their desks, one with the new system and one with the old EMS system. In the mornings and in the evenings before they leave work, workers will be making sure the old paper files are added to the new computer system so the old one can eventually be eliminated.
The Department of Social Services also is the defendant in two class-action lawsuits that allege the department failed to process Medicaid and food stamp applications in a timely manner. A federal judge gave the department a year to improve its timeliness regarding food stamp applications. The lawsuit challenging the timeliness of the Medicaid applications is currently pending in Hartford federal court.
“We know that the way in which we’re performing now is better than we ever have,” Bremby said.
When it comes to food stamps the Hartford office is processing about 70 percent of the applications for expedited service on time, and about 80 percent of the regular food stamp applications on time, Bremby said.
He said in April there were more than 20,000 pending applications, and by the end of May that number had dropped to 3,000. The Hartford office today is current with processing applications, Bremby said.
That means when someone walks through the door they’re getting same-day service, but not every office has been trained in the new business processes, Bremby said.
Ultimately, the goal on the web side is to work in coordination with other agencies, such as Access Health CT, the insurance exchange, to offer “no wrong door service” to individuals looking for government assistance.