The calls started coming fast and early at the state Department of Social Services, where a new centralized phone system launched statewide Monday. By 9:30 a.m., there’d been 2,400 calls, and by noon, 7,000. The day ended with more than 11,000 phone calls, with 90 people waiting when the offices were to close.
Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby, whose two-year tenure has been spent trying to improve the agency’s outdated technology and change the way work gets done at an agency that serves about 750,000 people, said the call volume likely represents pent-up demand.
Until now, it’s been tough for people to reach a worker on the phone since they’re often too busy to answer calls and their voicemail boxes fill up frequently. The new system is a single, statewide phone number (1-855-6-CONNECT) that takes callers through a series of prompts and, if necessary, will connect them to a worker in one of three new call centers.
It’s part of a series of changes to the department, which has been facing litigation over its handling of assistance programs and struggling to keep up with skyrocketing demand for services. The changes include computerizing client records to replace paper files, changing the way applications are handled and a shake-up in senior leadership.
“By and large, yesterday was a success,” Bremby said Tuesday of the phone system launch.
Sherry Suber didn’t have quite the same impression. Suber, who works at End Hunger Connecticut!, spent Monday helping clients having trouble with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
One client wasn’t comfortable following the prompts on the new phone system, so Suber, End Hunger Connecticut!’s SNAP outreach manager, called for her. The phone system said her estimated wait time would be less than a minute.
“I hung up my phone after 17 minutes and 49 seconds,” she said. “I really could not stay on the phone any longer because I had clients building in the office.”
Ultimately, Suber sent the woman’s information to DSS through an electronic fax, but didn’t get confirmation that it was received. She worries about clients with limited cellphone minutes trying to get through, and about how accessible the new system will be for older clients or those with low literacy levels who might not be comfortable accessing information online or through an automated telephone line.
Greg Bass, litigation director for Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said it’s reasonable to expect some glitches as the new systems launch.
“The state is attempting huge reforms in the way their business model operates,” said Bass, whose office sued DSS over its handling of the food stamp program and won a preliminary injunction. “A lot of this is happening with a confluence all at once, and that’s a tall order.”
But Bass has concerns about how accessible the new communication systems will be, particularly for people with disabilities. His office, which previously settled a lawsuit with DSS over accessibility issues, is in talks with DSS about it.
And Bass said changing the business model and technology won’t solve all the problems if there aren’t enough workers to handle the demand.
Staffing levels have been an ongoing source of dispute between DSS and advocates for the clients it serves. Bremby and other officials have said the technology changes, referred to as ConneCT, will give workers the tools to better handle the workload. And the department has hired more than 200 new workers to handle applications in the past two years. But critics say more are needed. Legal aid attorneys have sued, alleging that DSS is taking too long to process Medicaid applications because it doesn’t have enough workers.
Bremby said Tuesday that employees had been besieged by phone calls and flooded with paper, but that’s changing. New documents submitted to DSS now get scanned, so workers anywhere in the state can access them via computer. In the past, only a worker with a particular person’s paper file could address his or her case.
“These are the tools that our folks have been waiting for,” Bremby said.
The department is also changing how workers handle applications.
For more than 40 years, DSS used what Bremby called “the old welfare model,” handling paperwork in the order it was received, whenever a worker could get to it. If people were still in line when an office closed for the day, they’d have to come back the next day.
The new model is what Bremby calls “first-touch solution,” trying to complete an application on the first encounter. So if a person submits an application missing information on her rent, or with one pay stub instead of the required two, the worker could call the landlord to verify the rent, or call the employer for information the pay stub would have provided.
Currently, workers send clients notices about missing information and put the application aside until they get it. Bremby said when that happens, cases often require five or six more calls or notices before being completed.
DSS installed the new model in the Hartford regional office after 125 boxes of documents, some unprocessed since 2009, were discovered there last year.
At the time, only 5 percent to 10 percent of applications were completed on the initial encounter. Last month, after two months under the new model, 80 percent were, Bremby said.
The model will be rolled out in the other regional offices by the end of the calendar year, beginning with New Haven. The more cases that can be addressed on the first encounter, the less of a backlog there will be to clear.
“That’s the key,” Bremby said. “We’ve got to stay current.”
Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association who is suing the department over Medicaid processing delays, said the changes implemented this week are good, but not enough.
“We just absolutely do not expect it’s going to solve the problem of delayed applications, but it should help with lost paper,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic that these limited changes will eventually work out and improve things a little.”
But he said there’s another hurdle on the horizon: On Jan. 1, an estimated 58,000 more state residents will become eligible for Medicaid as part of the federal health reform law. Many other people who fall just above the threshold might seek information from DSS. Toubman predicted it would swamp the system.
DSS is working on an eligibility system that works with Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange, a new marketplace for people to buy coverage as part of health reform.
Bremby said the department is also moving toward an increased focus on metrics, using data to regularly assess its performance. He said that sort of work is a skill of Janel Simpson, the department’s new head of field operations.
She’s one of several new top officials at the department. In recent weeks, Bremby has replaced agency veterans, including former regional administrator Fran Freer and finance official Lee Voghel, and announced the planned retirement of Deputy Commissioner Claudette Beaulieu.
Part of the changes included combining responsibility for finance and human resources into one position, which Bremby said would make the agency more efficient. As for operations, he said, “DSS has not had a very strong skill set or experience in using data in ways to establish standards.”
Asked if the personnel changes suggested that he was dissatisfied, Bremby said no. “It should not be a reflection on a person who transitioned as much as it’s about the system that we had,” he said.