Advocates, attorneys, and their clients told the legislature’s Human Services Committee on Thursday that waiting an average of 64 minutes on the phone to speak with a Social Services Department eligibility worker is too long.
“Every state in the country is trying to do this, but nobody is doing it this badly,” Lucy Potter, an attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said.
In December 2014, 94,337 people were transferred to speak to an eligibility worker, and of those some 61,423 or 65 percent hung up before they even got to that point.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby was able to get a new call center system into operation in July 2013, but after 18 months Potter said “it doesn’t work.”
Potter said she can’t quite put her finger on the problem. It used to be that piles of paper in the regional offices weren’t being processed because clients had to get through to their caseworker. Then the state went to a centralized phone system, which worked with an online filing system where the paperwork was scanned and uploaded to a computer system that any eligibility worker could access in order to help a client.
But that doesn’t seem to be working either. Clients and their advocates are still having trouble getting an answer about their eligibility for everything from food stamps to Medicaid.
Now, there’s a new system fix in the wings, but it’s not supposed to be up and running until 2018.
Potter said something has to happen before then.
Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance, testified that there has been no meaningful improvement in the call center wait times. He said it’s because there still aren’t enough workers to answer the phones and no amount of automation is going to take their place.
“Staffing is an essential part of the solution,” Toubman said.
David Dearborn, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services, said the agency believes the wait times are too long and they are doing a number of things to address it.
“We just began online change reporting, which gives clients another option in reporting income and other changes to us (instead of calling or coming in the office or mailing, they can go online),” Dearborn said.
He said they also have an organization looking at their business model to see where they can make improvements and are training new hires for their benefit centers.
But senior officials at the Department of Social Services stopped short of testifying that they need to hire more staff.
Toubman said the reason why DSS continues to say it doesn’t need more staff is because they’re under a hiring freeze from the Office of Policy and Management that was implemented in November 2014 following news that the 2015 budget was in deficit.
There are about 915 eligibility workers and supervisors working for the state agency today. According to a Program Review and Investigations report, the state had 845 eligibility workers and supervisors just 13 years ago. While that may seem fine, it doesn’t account for the Medicaid caseload tripling and the food stamp caseload doubling, Toubman said.
He told the committee during Thursday’s public hearing that it’s just not working and something needs to be done.
Once the clients get a worker on the phone the service they receive is great, but the wait time is obscene, Toubman said.
He said the state should look at Access Health CT’s call center model where the average wait time is under two minutes.
The Human Services Committee is considering a bill that will study the responsiveness of the Department of Social Services.