DSS modernization launches statewide Monday amid personnel shuffle

The state Department of Social Services is going through a leadership shake-up as it prepares to roll out major changes in how it deals with clients and handles paperwork.

The agency is getting a new deputy commissioner and has new officials in charge of finance, human resources, field operations and the effort to modernize the department’s technology and work processes. Some longtime officials have left the department or are leaving, including Deputy Commissioner Claudette Beaulieu.

Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby announced Friday that Raymond Singleton Jr., will become DSS’ deputy commissioner for programs. Singleton has been assistant deputy commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services since 2006.

Bremby also announced Friday that Beaulieu will retire Oct. 1 after more than 30 years in state government.

That follows other changes in top personnel, including the appointment of Kathy Misset, who has been involved in the department’s modernization effort, to take over as its business lead. She replaces Fran Freer, a veteran DSS official who also served as regional administrator.

Janel Simpson will head DSS’ field operations, coming to DSS from the Phoenix Life Insurance Co., where she was assistant vice president. And Diane Benedetto, who previously worked at the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, took over the department’s fiscal operations and human resources last week.

The changes coincide with today’s statewide roll-out of new systems for handling clients’ inquiries, applications and cases.

As of today, all DSS clients will be able to call a central phone number — 1-855-6-CONNECT — to reach a worker. The DSS Client Information Line will have a series of menu options for people to “self-serve,” and, if necessary, will be able to connect them to a worker in one of the department’s new benefits centers.

It’s designed to replace a system in which clients trying to address issues must call the individual worker handling their cases. Often, callers are unable to get through or leave a message because workers, whose caseloads have grown dramatically in recent years, are too busy to answer phones, and their voicemail boxes are often full. 

Part of the problem is that until recently, all the department’s files existed only on paper, meaning that only the worker who physically had a person’s file could address issues with the application or case. Now documents are scanned and can be accessed electronically throughout the department, allowing workers in the benefits centers to address questions for any client who calls in.

Some portions of the modernization plan, known as ConneCT, have already been in use in some regional offices, but they’ll be available statewide Monday.

Asked about the timing of the personnel changes, DSS spokesman David Dearborn said, “We’re at a new phase of ConneCT, moving from preparing and standing up a system to actually operating it, and so it’s the time frame for a change in the operations division.”

DSS has long faced criticism for its handling of applications and its struggles to make sure that people don’t get wrongly dropped from assistance programs, problems officials have blamed on outdated technology, inadequate staffing levels and skyrocketing demand for social service programs.

Late last year, U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant wrote that there was evidence of an “ongoing, persistent systemic failure” to comply with federal law in the department’s handling of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In May, she gave the state one year to be in full compliance with all federal requirements for promptly determining an applicant’s eligibility for the program.

Separately, the department is facing a lawsuit alleging that it has failed to employ enough workers to process Medicaid applications as fast as federal law requires, leaving thousands of people without coverage for health care services. The case went to trial in May. DSS officials have argued that in addition to the recent hiring of more than 200 more workers, the modernization effort will improve the agency’s ability to process applications.

 

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