HARTFORD, CT — The training of 860 Department of Social Service eligibility workers has increased telephone wait times for low-income residents seeking benefits from the state to an average of 54 minutes.

That 54 minute average wait time includes clients who hung up the phone. There’s no data available on the abandoned calls.

The Department of Social Services is taking the new data in stride.

“We would attribute the wait times increasing not specifically to any type of system issue,” Melissa Garvin, field operations tactical director for the Department of Social Services, said last week at the Medical Assistance Program Oversight Council meeting.

She said it’s taking longer for the eligibility workers to get comfortable with the new computer system. It’s also necessary for the workers to go back and check the information in the legacy system, which slows down their ability to process cases quickly, Garvin said.

The training on the new system began last August and since then wait times have steadily increased from 16 minutes last July, which was one month before the training began, to 54 minutes this past May.

Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, who chairs the council, said she’s concerned with the increase in wait times.

“It’s really climbing up there,” Gerratana said.

Those calling into the “interactive voice response” telephone system are seeking to renew or apply for long-term care, food stamps, or Medicaid benefits.

That IVR phone system, which in conjunction with an online filing system is called ConnectCT, was first implemented in July 2013. It’s a system in which a centralized phone system works 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.

The ConnectCT system is in the process of being replaced by ImpaCT, which is a new Eligibility Management System.

ImpaCT will replace an outdated mainframe computer system and will be web-based. The old computer system was written in Cobol, a code created in the 1960s.

The Department of Social Services is trying to encourage the clients to use the new online system to get a speedier response, but the transition has not been easy.

On average in April the DSS Benefits Center received 156,000 calls during business hours. Another 99,826 calls that month were transferred to the center.

Another 24,000 clients walked into one of the benefit centers seeking help in April.

Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, said one of the things she really hates is being asked to go online to provide sensitive information. She said she knows the people at Christian Community Action like face time.

“They like to interact with the provider. They like to interact with the system,” Grubbs said.

Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said there also seems to be a dramatic rise in incoming calls, which makes him think there might not be enough eligibility workers in the department to answer the calls.

He said he understands there’s a desire to transition to an online system, “But ImpaCT doesn’t replace an experienced and seasoned AFSCME employee making a decision on a complicated long-term care case or a complicated food stamp case.”

Barrett added: “We all have to acknowledge staffing component is directly related to the success of the program.”

Kate McEvoy, director of the division of health services for the Department of Social Services, said it would be inappropriate for her department to comment on pending negotiations. Rank-and-file state employees are being asked to vote on a concession package later this month. If they fail to ratify the agreement there could be up to 4,200 state employee layoffs.

According to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget, the layoffs would include 185 positions from the Department of Social Services.

McEvoy said she would convey Barrett’s concern to the commissioner.

Dr. M. Alex Geertsma, a Waterbury pediatrician, said there’s sparse information about the use of online systems by patients.

He said there are certain things included on websites that motivate people to do certain things and not others. He said his staff wastes huge amounts of time taking messages about refills when they can be done online by patients.

Margaret Morelli, president of LeadingAge Connecticut, said when wait times increased they met with the department and figured out that the nursing home business office should be using the online system so they aren’t holding up other calls.

“Some of our business offices have fallen into some of the mistakes,” Morelli said.

She said they all need to take a second and realize how far the system has come over the past few years.

Let’s “take a minute to realize the impact of ImpaCT,” Morelli said.