DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby

A group of Medicaid enrollees, providers and advocates demanded Thursday that the state Department of Social Services address the long wait times and dropped calls at its call center.

The DSS system for handling clients’ calls has been under scrutiny since it was implemented five years ago to improve service. The old system relied on each client reaching a specific worker, who kept case information in paper files.

The wait times to reach a worker by phone have been inconsistent over the years. People call the center for help with health care coverage, food stamps and other public benefit programs.

According to Thursday’s letter to DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby outlining the group’s concerns, the average wait time this May was 96 minutes.  In contrast, the period with the shortest wait times — 10 to 20 minutes — occurred between May 2015 and May 2016.

“For many people with disabilities, they don’t have the option of going in person to stand in line for hours at one of the DSS regional offices, which means that their ONLY means for getting a problem fixed is the call center,” said Keith Mullinar, a Medicaid enrollee with muscular dystrophy, in a statement. Mullinar is a member of the CT Cross Disability Lifespan Alliance, a statewide coalition of more than 230 advocates, individuals and nonprofits.

David Dearborn, DSS spokesman, said the agency is still reviewing the validity of the details provided in the letter. He highlighted some of the improvements DSS has made in recent years, and said the agency is working to bring the call wait times down through a variety of efforts, including the hiring of additional staff.

“Unfortunately, the letter ignores the many improvements DSS has made over the past five years—improvements that have speeded up Medicaid enrollment tremendously and moved our SNAP program into the top echelon nationally.,” Dearborn said. “We’re a national leader in Medicaid enrollment and leading New England in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).”

SNAP is the federal food stamp program for low-income individuals and families.

The 44 signatories, including Mullinar, called on DSS to produce a plan for getting to, and staying at, an average call wait time of 10 minutes or less.

“We ask that you get back to us within two weeks with an express assurance to commit the necessary human and other resources to promptly reach and then maintain this standard. If not, we will explore all advocacy options to bring about the necessary changes,” the letter said.

This chart was part of a presentation given by DSS in March.
This chart was part of a presentation given by DSS in March. Department of Social Services

The letter gave several examples of state residents who waited for hours for help. On May 11, an elderly person called at 10 a.m. because her Medicare Savings Program benefits were denied due to DSS having erroneous income information. She gave up after waiting three hours.

The letter said, as delays persisted, DSS claimed that replacing EMS with ImpaCT —  the department’s computerized eligibility management system — would resolve the delays in processing and other DSS service issues.

“But we are now ten months past full implementation of ImpaCT, with all training long completed, and call wait times with ImpaCT are now worse than they have ever been,” the letter said. “DSS has been in chronic crisis mode for almost two years. It clearly lacks the needed human resources to answer the phone, given the other system deficiencies.”

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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