Christine Stuart photo
Crystal Wilcox of Old Saybrook (Christine Stuart photo)

Social workers and clients gathered Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building to vent their frustration with the new Department of Social Services system, which seems to have made it more difficult for them to continue their benefits.

Crystal Wilcox of Old Saybrook has a daughter who takes four daily medications for her asthma. That’s on top of a breathing machine twice a day and an inhaler.

In June, Wilcox said her daughter lost her health insurance benefits and she’s been battling with the state agency ever since to get them back. As a result of losing the coverage, Wilcox said two weeks before Christmas she’s behind $2,000 on her rent because she’s been using her rent money to buy her daughter’s medication.

“It was get behind in my rent and possibly get evicted, or keep my daughter alive? I’m going to keep my daughter alive,” Wilcox said.

She said she’s had face-to-face interviews at the regional DSS office in Middletown and called numerous times waiting to talk to a worker to resolve the problem, but after an hour on hold she gets frustrated and hangs up.

Wilcox is not alone among the roughly 750,000 clients who have been experiencing problems with the new “modern” DSS system that was launched in July.

Community outreach workers like Pat Beeman of Suffield said she has a 92-year-old client who was told she would lose her medical benefits.

“What I find so interesting is that the Connecticut Social Services could send me two notices, but did not send me the actual form in question,” Beeman read from the client’s letter.

Another 92-year-old client had her benefits discontinued after Beeman went to her home, filled out the forms, and mailed them to the scan center in Manchester on her behalf.

“There should be no room for excuses,” Beeman told Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby, who was listening in the audience. “. . . The way the system is inefficiently meeting the needs of our clients, we couldn’t do business with you if you were a vendor.”

She said in the past that she was able to work the back channels for the most dire and serious cases, but has had trouble doing that under the new system.

Bremby, who listened to the complaints and criticism with his senior staff, said those back channels or “work arounds” no longer exist because they weren’t programmed into the system. But he said they are aware of the complaints from social workers and are using a team to figure out the best way to move forward with technology.

Christine Stuart photo
Commissioner Roderick Bremby talks to Sen. Joe Markley and Rep. Peter Tercyak (Christine Stuart photo)

Since May 2011, DSS has expedited about 50,000 cases.

Bremby said he understands that it’s tempting to be nostalgic for the way things were, but he said the system had been broken for a long time.

Nancy Boone, project coordinator for the Connecticut Alliance for Basic Human Needs, said her group, which helped organize Wednesday’s press conference, isn’t for or against the new scanning system.

“I know that DSS had an old system and it’s trying to update that and we absolutely support that,” Boone said.

In August, when it looked like the vendor helping DSS transition to a paperless system was falling behind from an “unanticipated volume of mail,” Bremby decided to extend food stamp and medical benefits to all the clients currently receiving them, even if they may not have qualified for them.

That gave Scan Optics, the Manchester company hired to scan all the paper applications, time to catch up.

Bremby said it’s well-known that the department has been suffering under the weight of an antiquated and obsolete system and it’s only 150 days into the new one.

“What we heard today is very reminiscent of the very same problems we’ve been trying to solve,” Bremby said.

But since its launch in July, 290,000 phone calls have been answered and 2.8 million records have been scanned.

“It’s not enough and we’re not satisfied with where we are,” he added.

He said there were initially some issues with scanned documents that could not be retrieved easily. He said for the first six weeks following the launch of the new system, the documents being scanned by the vendor were not being picked up by the new ConnectCT system. Now there’s a daily reconciliation, Bremby said.

Now the issue is about optimizing the system and making sure “we make it work for the people that we serve,” he said.

Bremby said the problems today are both hardware and software issues. The system is slow and workers can’t pull up a scanned application in a timely manner. He said he’s working with the state’s technology department to come up with a solution, but in some respects his hands are tied.

While he has control over the vendors, he has no control over the Bureau of Enterprise Systems and Technology, which is another state agency in charge of technology. He said he doesn’t have control over the system to make sure it’s up and operational.

“When we have two cluster servers not balancing the load on a daily basis, that’s outside of our purview,” Bremby said. “But what we can do is make sure we’ve got the right resources on the phone.”

He said he has control over Deloitte & Touche and IBM, the two vendors in charge of the phone system, but the Bureau of Enterprise Systems and Technology is a sister agency.

Mark Raymond, head of the bureau, said his agency has been working closely with DSS to correct the load balancing problems. He said they’ve also been working with IBM, one of the vendors on the project, to resolve some of the issues.

“We are all partners in this,” Raymond added.

Lawyers for legal aid organizations have complained in class action lawsuits that the department continues to be understaffed, but Bremby maintains the problems are not related to staffing issues.

“If it was a worker issue we would ask for more staff,” Bremby said. “Right now, it’s an efficiency issue in the system. Putting more people at work in an inefficient and unstable system doesn’t make sense at all.”

He said they are talking to the unions about changing some of the work hours for some of the workers so they can staff the call centers until later in the day.

He said department doesn’t expect the economy to pick up in any significant way so it is building a system that can serve more people than the 750,000 clients it currently serves.