Glenda Perez said she’d already sent in the paperwork needed to maintain her food stamps when she got a notice last month saying they were being discontinued. She called the state Department of Social Services, using the single phone number that everyone in the state who wants to reach a worker is supposed to use. But it didn’t connect her to a worker. Instead, she said, she’d wait 20 to 25 minutes, then get cut off.

“When you try to get in touch with them, you can’t get anybody. So how are you supposed to work the problem out?” said Perez, who is on disability and lives on $730 a month. The Bristol woman spent most of this month buying food with money that should have gone to other bills.

Eight weeks after the launch of DSS’ new phone system, part of a much-touted modernization strategy intended to ease longstanding problems at the agency, people who rely on social service programs and advocates say the changes haven’t helped and, in some cases, made things worse.

They say it can take an hour or more to reach a worker by phone if at all, a particular problem for people with no land line and limited cell phone minutes. Advocates accustomed to getting help troubleshooting emergencies from workers in regional offices say that avenue has been shut off.

The state contractor scanning documents into the DSS computer system, which is supposed to eliminate lost paperwork and allow workers answering phones to access client files, has a backlog, and some scanned documents haven’t been assigned to the appropriate client files.

“What that means is people don’t have food stamps, and what that means is kids don’t have food,” said Denise Dean, medical case manager at Fair Haven Community Health Center in New Haven. She said she recently waited nearly 50 minutes to reach a DSS worker on the phone, only to be told that a client who’d been cut off from food stamps should resubmit information she’d already sent in.

And some advocates say the way Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby has portrayed the situation is too rosy. The department’s figures show the average phone wait time during the first five weeks was just under 12 minutes, but advocates said that doesn’t reflect their experiences. Of the 111,734 phone calls placed to the new system in that time, in 33,942 cases — 30 percent — the caller hung up before speaking to a worker.

‘Growing pains’

Bremby said early problems with the system are being addressed.

“A lot of people are working very hard to make this transformation, and it’s awfully early in the life cycle to label it a failure,” he said. “We’re committed to making sure that this works well, but again, we’re just a few weeks into this program.”

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The company that scans documents, Scan-Optics, has quadrupled its staff and is expected to have cleared the backlog by the end of next week, Bremby said. At that point, he said, documents should be in the DSS system within 24 hours of being received, as required by the company’s agreement with the state.

In some cases, when a DSS worker can’t find a form a client sent in, it’s not that the document hasn’t been scanned, Bremby said. Instead, it’s another problem: Some documents aren’t being indexed correctly, meaning that they don’t end up in clients’ files. That’s also being addressed, he said.

As an interim step, DSS announced Thursday that it was extending food and medical benefits for 15,500 households at risk of losing them Sept. 1, to ensure that people aren’t cut off if their forms are stuck in the backlog or improperly routed.

Bremby said there are “growing pains,” but that he believes improvements at Scan-Optics will lead to lower call volumes and wait times, since people won’t have to call repeatedly to see if their paperwork arrived, and DSS workers will be able to access documents promptly.

Piles of paper

In theory, the new system is supposed to make it easier for people to reach a worker and get problems addressed. Having documents scanned means that any DSS worker in the state can access a client’s file to process an application.

DSS’ new central phone system has several automated options and replaces the separate phone systems each regional office had. Callers who want to talk to a person get routed to one of three DSS offices that now serve as call centers.

But Dean thinks the new system has made things worse. One of her clients has a newborn who was going to be cut off from medical assistance and was told to reapply, even though Dean said she’d faxed the information and received confirmation.

In the past, people complained that documents got lost in piles of paperwork at DSS offices, delaying applications and causing people to lose their benefits even if they submitted the necessary renewal forms.

“The whole scanning process was supposed to obliterate that,” Dean said. “We weren’t supposed to have to do double the work. That was the whole point of having it immediately put into the system within 24 hours.”

Bremby said the backlog should be cleared soon by Scan-Optics, which he said was surprised by the volume of documents. DSS, which serves about 750,000 state residents, handles more than 3 million pieces of paper a month.

Troubleshooting options gone

Dean also worries about another change. In emergencies, she used to call workers in regional offices directly to solve problems.

“Instead of, in absolute emergencies, being able to turn to the top dogs in New Haven to fix the problems, they once again have to send things to the scanning center,” Dean said.

Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, which helps people apply for food stamps, also worries about the loss of that channel for help.

The new system, she said, hasn’t made things easier. End Hunger Connecticut’s outreach workers had been faxing information to Scan-Optics at night because they couldn’t get through during the day. Sometimes it took five hours for faxes to go through.

Last week, DSS stopped allowing people to fax information into the scanning center because of “excessive volume.”

“It’s been two months, and it seems to have gotten worse, frankly,” Nolan said.

Waiting on the phone

The notice Cary Mahony got in the mail suggested that she could be cut off from Medicaid in January and appeared to list her unemployment income inaccurately. It frightened her. Mahony has cancer and her medications cost between $400 and $600 a month.

So she called DSS. She tried several options on the menu, hoping one would bring her to a person. They didn’t. After one hour and 56 minutes, she hung up.

She called the unemployment office, but was told to call DSS. “I said, ‘No one answers that number,’” said Mahony, who lives in Bristol. “No one’s there.”

Eventually, she spoke to Lucy Potter, an attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, who helped address her concerns.

Potter said lots of her clients have had long wait times calling DSS. She’s called too, often waiting close to an hour. She puts the phone on speaker while she does other things, and said the workers who finally pick up have been helpful.

“We actually have customer service, which is great,” Potter said. “But the call center is really backed up.”

Although Potter said things aren’t going well, she said it’s possible they’re better off than before. She noted that DSS showed an improvement in its processing of food stamp applications last month.

“Before we had this, we couldn’t measure how bad it was. We just knew there were an awful lot of people who kept sending and sending and sending stuff in,” Potter said. “My hope is this new system … hopefully lays out a map where they can see just how bad they’re doing,” address it and hold clients harmless.

Mahony wonders why DSS doesn’t have a feature that some companies use that allows callers to choose between staying on the line and getting a call back when someone is available to help them.

Bremby said the department is exploring that feature.

In addition, DSS is trying to get a handle on when call volumes are heaviest so people can be directed to times when there’s less wait.

Beginning in October, Bremby said, people will be able to use an online system for applying for DSS programs, as well as renewing their eligibility and notifying the department of changes such as income or address.

Staffing levels

Would things be better if DSS had more staff?

It’s been a longstanding criticism of the agency, and the subject of legal action. A case pending in federal court alleges that DSS doesn’t have enough workers to process Medicaid applications in the required time frame, leaving thousands of people waiting for benefits. DSS has countered that the modernization changes will help speed up application processing without additional employees.

Several advocates said DSS needs more workers, but Bremby said that wouldn’t fix the current problems.

“Having additional people at DSS would not have improved the scanning capability at Scan-Optics, nor the indexing of documents that are sitting in queue,” he said.

Wouldn’t having more people to answer the phones reduce wait times?

“While that may factually be correct, we also don’t believe that the call volume is a true reflection of what we will experience,” Bremby said. “We think that we’re experiencing an unusual call volume because of the disruption upstream with the scanning and indexing.”

Perez, the Bristol woman whose food stamps were cut off last month, met with a legal aid lawyer last week, who helped get her benefits reinstated.

“It was hard,” she said of her month without food stamps. “But I was just thinking of the women that have children. What do you do, tell your child, ‘We don’t eat today, we don’t have any food?’”

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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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