Christine Stuart photo

It’s been one month since the Department of Social Services rolled out its new phone and computer system to make it easier for its more than 800,000 clients to apply for programs or get answers about their benefits.

The perennial complaint that our clients can’t reach someone or that it takes too long to get an answer are beginning to dissipate, Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby said Wednesday.

But it’s only been a month since the new phone and computer system was implemented so there are still some kinks to be worked out.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of uptake in the use of the system,” Bremby said referring to the phone system that allows clients to check their benefits or talk to a worker. In the past the phone system was so antiquated that voicemails of DSS workers would fill up within hours and bounce clients off the line. Sometimes the old system would even go down on the first Monday of the month, Bremby said.

“That hasn’t been happening” with the new centralized system, he said.

Since July 8 when the system launched, 74,427 calls were answered and the average wait time was 12 minutes.

Under the new system, phone calls go to three call centers instead of 12 regional offices. That means that any caseworker can help a client. In the past, a client was only allowed to deal with their caseworker since their caseworker was the only one with access to their paper application.

But beyond the phone and computer system, the offices have begun to implement a new workflow process for clients who physically walk through the door.

If a client comes into one of the regional offices seeking in-person assistance they can receive assistance from any caseworker because the caseworker can now access the client’s application on a computer database. The goal is to resolve that case during the same visit, Bremby said.

If a client is missing information on an application, the agency now has a caseworker sit down with the client to get the information and complete the application before they leave the office, Bremby said. That’s part of the “business process re-engineering,” which is operational in the Hartford office and will be rolled out to the New Haven office and the rest of the regional offices by the end of the calendar year, he added.

He said the workflow re-engineering has increased the capacity of the workers because it means they resolve the application in one visit or phone call with a client, instead of five or six.

In the past, applications for Medicaid, food stamps, and other services were mailed to the 12 regional offices or delivered by hand to the offices by the clients. Today, those applications are scanned in by a contractor in Manchester and sent to a centralized database as the agency starts to transition away from piles of paper applications.

The new document scanning system already has helped eliminate some of the paperwork, Jay Bartolomei, an eligibility services worker in Hartford and president of the AFSCME Local 714 bargaining unit, said Wednesday.

As someone who has worked for the agency for 26 years, Bartolomei said it’s almost too early to tell if the new system is working, but he’s cautiously optimistic. He said workers are supportive of any improvement that helps them “service the community better.”

He said the biggest change in the Hartford office was the change in leadership, which brought with it a real sense of direction. Last fall, Lisa Wells, Albert Williams, and Poonam Sharma were moved to the Hartford office from other DSS offices and appointed as operation managers.

Bremby credited the trio with helping turn around the office, which made headlines last year when agency officials were notified that 125 boxes of benefit applications had been discovered in a closet. Some of those applications were three years old and some were voter registration forms.

Bremby said that the Hartford office is an example of a “turnaround” office. He said they’re currently caught up on processing applications previously submitted on paper.

“They by-in-large have really wanted to perform better and these tools enable them to do so,” Bremby said. “The way we did things in the past defeated them.”

The number of individuals seeking assistance has climbed since 2011 as the economy continues to lag. At the end of June there were 401,354 individuals and 221,622 households enrolled in the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And as of May there were 618,372 individuals enrolled in the state’s three Medicaid programs.

In order to better service their clients, the agency’s next step is to get 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 it.

The state will submit its proposal for replacing the system to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services by the end of the month and officials hope to have approval for that by the beginning of November. But it’s a heavy lift and will need to be completed in 26 months if the state expects to receive 75 percent federal reimbursement.

Bremby described it as “one of the largest, most complicated IT projects the state has ever seen.”

It will cost about $150 million by the time its completed. The state has chosen Deloitte as the sole source vendor because it’s the same company that worked on the modernization of the agency’s phone and computer systems. It’s also the vendor who will be helping launch the state of Connecticut’s insurance exchange, called Access Health CT. When the project is completed the exchange and the new DSS system should be able to speak with each other so there’s no wrong way to get benefits from the state.

Bremby said he’s hoping for a seamless “no wrong door” policy that gets individuals the benefits for which they qualify, no matter where they start their search.