Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — The Department of Social Services average wait time for its call center improved slightly in June to 85 minutes, at the same time as the call abandonment rate increased from 57 to 58 percent.

This past May it was 96 minutes and in March it was 107 minutes.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby told the Medical Assistance Program Oversight Council Friday that they are working diligently to reduce those wait times.

“We are committed to resolving the Benefit Center wait times,” Bremby said.

He said the wait times are not reflective of the department’s ability to process applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

“We tried to do too much with this Benefits Center,” Bremby conceded. “We’re going to pull some functionality out of that and we’re going to create capacity to get people into the system faster, but we also need to make sure we can process the work faster.”

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 ImpaCT replaced the outdated mainframe computer system that was written in Cobol, a code created in the 1960s.

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. People call to change their address, cancel benefits, or make sure their paperwork is being processed or has been received.

There are currently 800,000 residents who receive Medicaid benefits and 400,000 with food stamps.

Bremby said in the next few weeks they will be able to show the council that “we can reduce the wait times and sustain the wait times.”

He said he can’t say when wait times will be reduced, but he expects to have the information for the council by September.

“We are firmly committed to resolving this part of our customer experience,” Bremby said.

After the meeting Friday he said they got hit with an unprecedented amount of calls at the end of last year when the legislature cut and then restored the Medicare Savings Program.

“We sent over one million notices between November, December and January,” Bremby said. “Which meant people started calling and when people call it means you don’t have the capacity in the center to respond to the calls and do the work. “

He said they are going to scale back the work the frontline eligibility workers are able to do and push some of that off on the processing centers so that the eligibility workers can process more calls.

Sheldon Toubman, an attorney for New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said that’s an awful idea.

“Commissioner Bremby has been saying for years that it’s a process issue,” Toubman said.

But apparently none of the new processes to date have solved the problem.

Toubman believes the answer to the problem isn’t a new or better process. Toubman believes it’s staffing.

Toubman said Bremby’s refusal to ask Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for more staff is “damaging.”

Bremby maintained Friday that it’s a process issue and there’s no reason to ask for more staff.

Last month, Toubman and 44 advocates sent Bremby a letter asking the department to get the wait times down to 10 minutes without reducing any functionality.

In a July 12 response letter to the advocates who complained about the long wait times, Bremby said none of the Medicaid recipients who submitted their paperwork by the date required were “wrongfully terminated.”

Toubman disagreed.

He said advocates included stories in the letter pointing to specific individuals who saw their benefits end despite doing all the department asked. The department, which is under a court order to complete the Medicaid applications in a timely manner, says that’s “simply not our experience.”