The barriers state residents face in reaching the state Department of Social Services are unacceptable, and the options they have for accessing services are “woefully inadequate,” incoming commissioner Roderick L. Bremby told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing.

Department workers want to improve the situation, he said, but they’re limited by an obsolete phone system and a computer network so outdated it uses a programming language Bremby said was antiquated when he learned it in the late 1970s.

Addressing the legislature’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee Tuesday, Bremby, in his 16th day on the job, spoke of the need to overhaul the systems the department uses and improve the service residents receive.

Bremby, who previously served as secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, also spoke of the need to transform the fragmented health care services Medicaid clients receive into a coordinated system of care, and to plan for succession because a large portion of the department’s workforce is eligible for retirement.

With a budget of more than $5 billion, DSS is responsible for a wide range of safety net programs that serve more than 750,000 people, including close to 600,000 in Medicaid. In recent months, the department has come under criticism for its handling of the food stamp program, which has among the worst rates in the nation for providing benefits on time and accurately. Bremby’s predecessor, Michael P. Starkowski, attributed the problems to outdated technology and not having enough staff to handle skyrocketing caseloads.

Bremby offered a similar assessment Tuesday, saying that the department’s front line workers need better tools to keep up with record demand for assistance.

“We pledge to meet requests for help respectfully, while assuring our clients the maintenance of their dignity,” he said.

Bremby spent much of his confirmation hearing addressing problems that clients face, several brought up by lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, told Bremby he heard from a constituent who spent weeks trying to reach a DSS worker, then turned to a legal aid attorney, who also had trouble getting calls returned for a week.

“Unfortunately, that is a complaint that I’ve heard repeatedly since I’ve arrived,” Bremby said. “It’s not acceptable.”

Then he explained why it happens: When the phone system is busy, calls go into a voice mail box, which fills up.

“When that mail box fills up, people start calling our HR function, they start calling the secretary’s office, they call the governor’s office, I’m sure they call your offices, and they call any and everywhere they can,” he said. “They’re looking for contact with a human to provide the services that they’re desperately looking for.”

Bremby said there should be “no wrong door” for accessing department services.

“I’m sad to say that at this point in time, the service levels that are being provided are woefully inadequate,” he said.

A modernization effort meant to update the phone and computer systems could help. The full modernization is expected to take several years, but Bremby said the department doesn’t have that long to address direct service requests, and said the department could make some changes sooner. One option could be to devise a way for people to use smartphones to check the status of their applications, he said.

The department is also expected to get an interactive voice recognition program that could ease some of the phone congestion by providing automated responses to people calling to check on the status of their applications or other information that a computer could verify. Bremby said the system could be available by late spring or early summer.

The department’s communications with clients also needs work, he said. Currently, clients receive notices for meetings and hearings after the scheduled date. Bremby said the mail room that sends out the notices is backlogged.

“We have a complete system to overhaul,” he said.

Bremby has experience with updating technology systems. In Kansas, he oversaw the implementation of an immunization registry, a web-based system to report birth and death records, and the introduction of paperless systems for purchasing, personnel and document routing. As assistant to the city manager in Fort Worth, Texas, he directed the implementation of an enhanced 911 system.

Rep. Marie L. Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, said she wondered why DSS’ outdated systems weren’t addressed before.

“I think that there was a lack of investment, clearly, in trying to keep our systems current,” Bremby said. “I know that people want to do better, they just didn’t. Why the resources didn’t come, I don’t know.”

He added that the federal government can provide a significant portion of the funding for a new eligibility management system and that “we have a commitment of staff who really want this system to be better.”

Rep. John E. Piscopo, R-Thomaston, relayed a different sort of constituent complaint, saying he hears from people who believe the safety net system might make people too comfortable and serve as a disincentive to work.

“Sometimes we look at a neighbor and we have questions why that neighbor might be getting assistance, because they don’t look like they might need assistance,” Bremby said. “But we may not know the whole story.”

Regardless, he said, “We each have a responsibility to try to make sure that the safety net fabric is broad enough so that those who need the service the most actually get those services, and they’re not consumed by people or others who don’t really have that great a need.”

Asked about his priorities for the department, Bremby said making sure that department workers have the right tools is “job one right now.”

A second priority, he said, is transitioning from a fragmented medical care system to one that focuses on patients, in which health care providers work as a team and address preventive care and the patient’s overall health needs, not just the particular issue that brought the patient into the office.

A third, Bremby said, will be succession in the department.

“We have a large number of staff who are eligible for retirement, but yet the bench is not deep,” he said.

Beyond those three, he said, there are many other items he plans to focus on.

“I daresay that I won’t be bored at all,” he said.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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