Courtesy of DSS
Four years of wait time averages through February 2018. (Courtesy of DSS)

HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 4 p.m.) Telephone wait times for low-income residents seeking to verify their Medicaid, food stamps or other benefits has ballooned to an average of 96 minutes.

That’s an increase of 42 minutes over last year’s average wait time, but its down from a high of 106 minutes this past February. The call center averaged seven minutes just two years ago, according to the Department of Social Services own data.

On Thursday, more than 40 advocacy organizations called on Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby to fix it.

“This is wholly unacceptable,” the advocates wrote in this letter.

Jean Mills Aranha, an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services who signed the letter, said what ends up happening is people end up losing their benefits.

It’s unclear how many people may have lost benefits as a result of the wait times, but many are simply giving up calling or trying repeatedly. The call abandonment rate reported by the agency was 55 to 60 percent of the calls.

Medicaid redeterminations are made every 12 months, so Medicaid recipients have to make sure the department has their information in order to maintain their benefits. If they can’t make sure their paperwork has been processed then they risk losing their benefits.

The large majority are renewed automatically, the department notes, and anybody who submits their renewal on time and follows the directions for submission are not cut off unless the agency determines that they are ineligible.

“While what is said is supposed to be the system, it routinely fails: people who did everything right and timely submitted documents showing they still are eligible are nevertheless cut off because the workers just can’t keep up with reviewing all of the paperwork by the end of the redetermination period, so they are cut off anyway—until a DSS worker finally gets to reviewing the document waiting in the queue,” Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with New Haven Legal Services Association, said.

DSS countered that a person who submits his or her medical renewal by the date required in the notice and who follows requested steps using the cover sheet provided is automatically renewed until the agency is able to review it.  DSS says that legal services has not provided specific case examples to back up their claims.

Legal services says that If clients can’t make sure their paperwork has been processed then they risk losing their benefits.

“If the call center were accessible with reasonable wait times, at least these folks would have somewhere to turn to get these wrongful terminations promptly fixed,” Aranha said.

According to the advocates, the long wait times have caused more people to show up at DSS offices— a trend the department was hoping to eliminate when it instituted the new system five years ago. DSS notes that local offices are always an option for the public and the new system added alternatives to, not replacement, of the choice of in-person visits. The agency reports logging 24,447 walk-in clients in May 2018, compared to, as one example, 39,401 in January 2016.

A prime idea behind the new system was to get more people using the website to check their benefits and, eventually, renew services and report changes. The department still maintains 12 regional offices and launched the call center, which acts like a 13th office.  While it’s not an application line, the phone option is designed to offer eligibility-related services. 

“For many people with disabilities, they don’t have the option of going in person to stand in line for hours at one of the DSS regional offices, which means that their only means for getting a problem fixed is the call center,” Keith Mullinar, a Medicaid enrollee with muscular dystrophy, and a member of the CT Cross Disability Lifespan Alliance, said. “The shockingly long waits at the call center mean that many of these people simply cannot get basic problems fixed—like wrongful terminations of Medicaid/HUSKY C and other benefits, often the result of delayed processing—putting them at serious risk of harm and causing them great stress. This also raises a serious issue of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Many simply can’t wait that long and hold and end up hanging up.

“As you know, many DSS applicants and recipients are working and raising children, or are people with disabilities or elderly and, as DSS metrics clearly show, cannot wait that long,” the advocates wrote in their letter.

The Department of Social Services says it received the advocates letter and are reviewing it for accuracy.

Advocates acknowledged that fixing it won’t be easy, but that the department needs to comply with the law.

“We know that this a complicated system to fix. But it has to be fixed,” the advocates wrote. “The need is urgent for individuals who depend on DSS for their health coverage and basic subsistence benefits.”

A spokesman for DSS didn’t offer an explanation for why the wait times have increased.

“We’re working to bring the call-wait times down; for example, with additional staff,” David Dearborn, a DSS spokesman said Thursday.

He added that the “Benefits Center”, which is being referred to as the call center by advocates, “has a more specialized role that does not involve people actually applying for services.”

People call to change their address, cancel benefits, or make sure their paperwork is being processed or has been received. The technical individualized nature of the calls tends to lend itself to long conversations, especially if a worker is doing a SNAP eligibility interview.  If DSS can’t reach a client by phone, he or she is asked to call the Benefits Center for the interview, unless visiting a field office in person.

There are currently 800,000 residents who receive Medicaid benefits and 400,000 with food stamps. Dearborn said the agency is serving up to 1 million Connecticut residents and has seen major improvements in several areas over the past five years.  “The agency has speeded up most Medicaid enrollment tremendously with our partners at Access Health CT and moved our SNAP program into the top echelon nationally,” he said.  “In Medicaid for children, families and adults without minor children (HUSKY A and D), eligibility determination is almost immediate through the shared eligibility system.”

Meanwhile, New Haven Legal Assistance Association, filed a contempt motion against DSS in federal court in May.

A class action lawsuit the organization filed in 2012 requires the department to process Medicaid applications in a timely manner.

The department, based on its own data, has not met the requirements set forth in the 2014 settlement agreement, which was approved by the court in August 2017.

Motions filed back and forth in court show the department has failed to maintain full compliance with the agreement despite hiring new eligibility workers.

The department hired 109 new eligibility workers between October 2017 and June 2018, but not all of them have completed their training in some cases, according to court affidavits.

Court documents show that only 27 net new jobs were actually created.

Long term care applications were processed at a rate of 85 percent in January 2018, which is seven percent below the 92 percent agreed upon rate. Husky C applications have also fallen behind the benchmark. Those applications were processed at a rate of 84.9 percent which is 5.1 percent below the agreed upon rate. At the same time it’s also a decrease from the 91 percent timeliness rate achieved in October 2017.

In a June 11 court affidavit, Pete Hadler, a social services program administration manager, said that “productivity” has dropped as the department changed over to the new ImpaCT system.

“Based on observation and communication with staff, there has been a direct correlation with staff productivity and the length of time workers have been using the new ImpaCT system – i.e., the more time working in the system, the more productive workers are becoming,” Hadler said.

In July 2013, the department transitioned from the old eligibility management system to the ConnectCT system, which included an interactive phone system and a document scanning service. In August 2016 that system started to be replaced by ImpaCT, a new web based eligibility management system. ImpaCT replaced the outdated mainframe computer system that was written in Cobol, a code created in the 1960s.

Sen Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, who co-chairs the committee which oversees the Medicaid program, said she’s very disappointed and concerned about the wait times.

She said the group will be discussing it at their July meeting. She said there has been no indication from DSS as to what’s behind the delays.