Wait times to reach a Department of Social Services worker through the agency’s new phone system have increased each week since it debuted last month. The process of scanning all documents that come to DSS, to eliminate the reliance on millions of pieces of paper, probably needs additional tools. And agency officials are still trying to figure out how to handle the massive applications for Medicaid’s nursing home or home care coverage.

But on the whole, Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby said the department is making progress as it rolls out new technology and changes to the way work gets done, a process referred to as ConneCT.

“All in all, ConneCT is performing,” Bremby said. “I would say that there’s significant room for improvement. Our workers like the system a lot when it’s functional and it presents as it was designed, but there’s some gaps that we still have to resolve.”

More calls, longer wait times

The number of calls to DSS’ new centralized phone system has risen each week since it launched July 8. So has the average time it takes before someone picks up.

The new system connects callers to workers in one of three benefits centers across the state. In the first week of  operation, the system received 17,028 calls, and callers waited an average of 4 minutes and 59 seconds to speak to a worker. By July 29, the fourth week of the system, there were 26,668 calls and an average wait time of 15 minutes and 18 seconds.

The week after, the wait time jumped to 26 minutes and 42 seconds, although Bremby said that’s likely in part because a server went down for a two-hour period that week, preventing calls from getting through, and, later, pushing more calls into fewer hours.

Why are wait times increasing? In part, Bremby said, it’s because workers now conduct about 1,100 interviews of potential clients over the phone, replacing in-person interviews. That takes time from workers who would otherwise be answering other calls.

In addition, he said, some callers want to speak to a worker to request a form, even though that could be done through the phone’s automated system. “They actually want to talk to someone to make sure that’s the right form,” he said.

And some people call to make sure that the information they submitted made it into the computer system. Bremby said expectations had been heightened about how quickly information would be scanned into the system, and people call repeatedly to check until it’s there.

Janel Simpson, the department’s new head of field operations, is working to figure out what the normal call volume should be, and when it will be heaviest. In the past, Bremby noted, it was never clear because each of DSS’ 12 offices had its own phone system and often, workers’ voicemail boxes filled up.

“I like to say that we are still much better off than we were seven weeks ago or eight weeks ago, when people were still having difficulty reaching us at all,” Bremby said.

As part of the new system, documents sent to DSS go to a Manchester company, Scan-Optics, which scans them so they’re available electronically to DSS workers. But Bremby said the response time hasn’t yet reached the level agreed to. He said it’s becoming clear that additional tools might be needed to properly identify and route the wide range of documents DSS receives.

Bremby said there’s been more success in the online portal that allows people to create online accounts and determine if they’re eligible for programs DSS runs. More than 26,000 people have set up accounts so far without much marketing of the site. There will be more marketing in the fall, he said, when another piece launches: online applications and the ability for people to make changes to their accounts, such as reporting a new address or change in income, online.

In addition, clients have set up more than 40,000 accounts with the department’s interactive phone system.

Long-term care applications still need work

Bremby said more work also needs to be done to figure out how to best handle applications for Medicaid coverage of long-term care. The applications are more complex than most; they require documenting five years’ worth of assets and workers must ensure that applicants didn’t improperly transfer money to anyone else to meet eligibility standards.

Delays in processing long-term care Medicaid applications have been a longstanding problem. For nursing homes, which take patients before their Medicaid applications have been approved, it can mean going months without getting paid for care. Earlier this year, nursing homes reported that they were owed nearly $60 million for care provided to patients. For people seeking Medicaid coverage for home care, the delays can mean going without care for months while waiting for the application to be processed. The department is facing a lawsuit over delays in processing Medicaid applications, and agency officials contend that the new technology and other changes will speed up application processing.

Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents the nursing home industry, said Wednesday that delays in processing Medicaid applications “remain a persistent and worsening problem.”

The industry fully supports DSS’ efforts, Barrett said, but worries that the situation will get worse in the short-run before it gets better.

“But,” he added, “we have a positive outlook and are braced-up to deal with implementation bumps because the system will be an improved one.”

Bremby said that, initially, officials thought that having long-term care applications scanned would get them to eligibility workers faster.

But he said that the workers who specialize in handling long-term care cases prefer to handle them manually, often spreading them out over long tables to make sure all the pieces are there. “We think we’re probably going to have to go back to that for a while until we can do a complete” analysis of the process, he said.

“We’re not ashamed to admit that maybe we don’t have the answer to that just yet,” Bremby said. “It’s going to take a little bit of work.”

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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