DSS modernization a culture shift, commissioner says

Since the state Department of Social Services’ new centralized telephone system launched statewide two weeks ago, workers have answered 22,757 calls. The average wait time to speak to a worker in one of the state’s three new call centers was less than five minutes.

That’s significantly less than the day the system debuted statewide, July 8, when the average wait time was nearly 15 minutes. On that first Monday alone, more than 11,000 people called in.

It turns out call volumes are highest on Mondays. Speaking at a legislative forum at the state Capitol Wednesday, Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby said the peak time to call is between 10 and 11 a.m.

That’s the sort of data DSS has been unable to collect in the past, but which Bremby hopes will increasingly drive the agency’s operations.

The new phone system is part of a modernization effort referred to as ConneCT, aimed at changing how DSS handles applications and interacts with clients. Until recently, each of DSS’ 12 offices had its own phone system. All files were handled on paper, so a client who had a question about an application or needed to speak to a worker had to try to reach the one person in the agency who had his or her physical file. Clients often complained that it was nearly impossible to reach a worker, who were often inundated with work and whose voicemail boxes could fill up several times a day.

Under the new system, documents sent to DSS go to Scan-Optics, a Manchester company that contracts with the department to scan each item, which then get sent to DSS. Because the files are computerized, workers anywhere in the department can now access them. And someone who has a question can call a central number — 1-855-6-CONNECT — and reach one of three call centers, where workers can access the client’s file via computer.

The new system is a culture change that will likely require adjustment for some clients, Bremby noted. Instead of dropping applications off at a regional office, it would be better for clients to mail them, since that will get them to Scan-Optics more quickly. Or, if a client brings an application to an office in person, he or she should bring the required supporting documents too, Bremby said. (Kathy Misset, who is leading the business operations side of the modernization program, added that there’s a courier service to collect applications from the regional offices daily, so those that get dropped off will still get to Manchester to be scanned.)

The new phone system also has a series of automated features, so someone could potentially get an answer without ever speaking to a representative. So far, 23,820 people have created accounts to access their information through the interactive phone system. And 22,854 people have created online accounts to access information through the ConneCT website, connect.ct.gov.

DSS serves close to 750,000 state residents. The ConneCT website is available in both English and Spanish, and is accessible for screen readers used by people who are blind.

In the fall, DSS will offer an online application and allow people to go online to notify the department about changes to their situations, such as a new address, new household member or change in income, Bremby said.

The online services will probably be particularly used by seniors applying for food stamps, Bremby said. Older residents are underrepresented in the program, and applying online would eliminate a potential barrier for people unable to get to an office or reluctant to have to explain their needs in person.

Other parts of the modernization plan include redesigning DSS offices to make them more customer-friendly, Bremby said, with waiting areas and separate, secure spaces for clients to meet with eligibility workers.

The federal health reform law will mean more clients for DSS – Medicaid eligibility is expanding, and close to 60,000 people are expected to become eligible – and DSS is working with the state’s health insurance exchange to develop a system for people seeking to enroll in either Medicaid or a health plan through the exchange, a new marketplace for people to buy coverage created under the federal reform law.

DSS is also working on replacing its outdated eligibility management system. Currently, people must apply for each assistance program separately, even though many people who qualify for food stamps also qualify for Medicaid. And Bremby said that leads to duplicated efforts and lapses and delays in benefits, as well as confusion because of notices sent out by the eligibility management system.

The replacement system is intended to instead provide a “single front door” for all of the state’s human service programs, eliminating the need to apply for each program separately.

At the forum, Bremby also eased concerns that about one popular part of the old system.

Rep. Philip J. Miller, D-Essex, said he’d heard from social workers in his district that one effective way to get applications processed was through the department’s mobile bus, which traveled across the state with workers who had laptops and could process applications on the spot. They were worried, Miller said, because it’s not in service.

“May I tell them that this new system will make that need obsolete?” he asked.

Bremby said the bus is not operating now because it had an accident while parked in a garage. It was hit by another vehicle.

“We will put it back out as soon as it comes out of the garage,” he said.

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