Officials from the Department of Social Services told the legislature’s Appropriations and Human Services Committee on Tuesday that they’ve been successful in decreasing the amount of time it takes clients to get through to its benefits center on the phone.

However, advocates say an average wait time of 54 minutes with 58 percent of callers hanging up before a worker can even answer their call is unacceptable.

“We are processing applications faster than we ever have before,” Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby said Tuesday. “Yes, we still have delays in terms of accessing an eligibility service worker, but fewer people are trying to reach eligibility service workers in order to process their application.”

DSS officials told lawmakers at a public hearing Tuesday that there’s been an increase in individuals applying online through the new ConnectCT system and through the Connecticut insurance exchange, Access Health CT, for benefits.

There are currently 903,683 individuals receiving medical assistance from the state, 413,448 receiving food stamps, and 55,123 receiving cash assistance. Based on those numbers, 1 out of every 4 state residents is served by one of these programs.

The ConnectCT system was first implemented in July 2013. It’s a system in which a centralized phone system works in conjunction with an online filing system where paperwork is scanned and uploaded to a computerized database that any eligibility worker can access to assist a client. Prior to that system, clients had to show up at one of the 12 regional offices to submit their applications to a caseworker, or they could contend with their caseworker’s continually full voicemail and hope eventually they would be able to get through. At that time only their caseworker, who had their paperwork, would be able to help a specific client. Under the new system, any of the 915 workers at DSS can help a client. Of those, 215 are eligibility workers who can resolve a clients issue.

Lawmakers wanted to know why the wait times at other Connecticut calls centers, like the one managed by Access Health CT and Community Health Network of Connecticut, were much shorter than the wait times to reachthe Social Services Department.

In December, the DSS call center received 94,337 calls. Of those, 67 percent where dropped and the average wait time was 64 minutes. The Access Health CT call center received 110,425 calls that month. Of those, 2.66 percent were dropped and the average wait time was 54 seconds. The Community Health Network call center is under a separate contract with DSS to answer calls to DSS for Medicaid access issues — but not eligibility issues. In December, the Community Health Network call center received 34,000 calls for DSS regarding Medicaid access. Of those, 0.6 percent were dropped and the average wait time was 60 seconds.

Bremby told them that’s an “apples to oranges” comparison because the eligibility workers at the DSS Benefits Center are fully trained and have the ability to resolve issues across myriad programs, which makes those calls are more complex. Whereas Bremby said the workers in the call center under contract with Access Health CT don’t have the ability to resolve issues.

New Haven Legal Assistance Attorney Sheldon Toubman said Bremby’s comment disregarded what is done by the workers at the other call centers.

He said the Department of Social Services requires the Community Health Network call center — for Medicaid access-related calls — to provide sufficient staff to answer 100 percent of crisis calls in 15 seconds and maintain a less than 5 percent abandonment rate. It also dictates that 90 percent of the calls it received should be answered within 60 seconds and have an abandonment rate of under 5 percent “during normal business hours.”

He said the calls the Community Health Network call center receives also involve complex matters requiring separate calls to try to find doctors in particular specialties willing to see specific Medicaid enrollees, so its call center has comparable, if not greater, responsibilities than the DSS call center, at least for some cases.

“It’s an apples to apples comparison,” Toubman said, adding that for the calls it receives at its own call center, “DSS should impose its same standards on itself.”

Toubman said that “even if DSS were 10 times worse than this, answering calls on average in 10 minutes instead of one minute, it would still be light years ahead of its abysmal performance today — over a year-and-a-half after it rolled out its call center with the promise, made in March of 2013, that ‘This will help improve overall efficiency and reduce the frustration levels of clients who have difficulty getting through on the phone.’ “

DSS spokesperson David Dearborn echoed Bremby’s statement by saying Toubman glosses over the differences between call center functions.

“There’s a big difference between state government eligibility determination across several complex programs — including phone interviews for SNAP coverage — and more focused call centers. Sheldon knows that, but it would conflict with his mantra to push for more staff as the solution for everything. DSS has been provided with hundreds of additional staff over the past several years, and is serving more people than ever before, in more ways than ever before.”

But even the current system will soon be obsolete and replaced by something called ImpaCT. The new system is 75 percent complete and is expected to be operational by the first quarter of 2016. It originally was scheduled under federal guidelines to be completed in August 2015, but the federal government extended that deadline.

ImpaCT will replace the current Eligibility Management System, or EMS, which is an outdated mainframe computer system DSS still uses. The new ImpaCT system will be web-based and will integrate with Access Health CT.