Nebraska's public benefits call center system has “failed dramatically” to reach key goals, according to a legislative oversight committee.
In a stinging report, the Performance Audit Committee said the system, called AccessNebraska, has been beset with extremely high rates of busy signals, long waits on hold and large backlogs of unfinished tasks.
State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, the committee chairman, said the committee's study of the program showed it is not meeting the needs of its clients.
“While the committee understands that some significant changes have occurred, we remain extremely concerned about this program,” he said.
AccessNebraska was launched in 2009, with the aim of streamlining the process of applying for public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid and heating assistance.
The system was touted as a way to save millions in taxpayer dollars.
But it struggled from the start, despite numerous attempts by Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services officials to fix call wait times and application processing glitches.
The legislative study focused on the 12 months that ended in August this year. According to the legislative report:
» The average call wait time increased more than 50 percent during the year, even though the number of answered calls decreased.
» Rates of busy signals far exceeded the goal of 5 percent of incoming calls. In July, more than four out of five callers were met with busy signals.
» Maximum wait times for calls ranged from almost one hour to nearly two hours, depending on which service a caller was waiting for.
» Although HHS allows clients to request an ongoing case worker and to meet with a worker face-to-face, the process for doing so has not been publicized.
HHS officials did not dispute any major findings of the new report.
They said extraordinary circumstances contributed to problems in the past year and said they are making efforts to address those problems.
“We have been aware of the issues mentioned in the report, and we've worked and continue to work to improve responsiveness,” said department spokeswoman Kathie Osterman.
Steps taken in recent months include hiring more employees, adding phone lines and shifting some tasks to local office staff.
Workers are now assigned to see cases through the initial application process. Dedicated workers are assigned to stay with complicated cases.
In addition, two of the four call centers have been assigned to handle only applications for Medicaid and Kids Connection, a program that provides health coverage for children.
The other two call centers continue handling other public benefits programs.
Call wait times have dropped since the centers were split. HHS officials said the average wait time for the Medicaid call centers in October was 6:21 minutes. The average for the other centers was 7:43 minutes.
But the backlog of unfinished tasks has grown. For the Medicaid call centers, new tasks exceeded tasks completed by 22,073 in October, according to HHS figures. For the other call centers, the difference was 3,797 tasks.
As of Dec. 2, HHS also changed its goal for average call wait times. Instead of aiming to keep callers on hold for three minutes or less, the new goal is to have average wait times of 15 minutes or less.
The new goal makes it easier for the department to meet its own standards, although it does not improve wait times for callers.
The Performance Audit Committee report acknowledged that HHS has been making changes since the study period ended. But it said the effects of the changes remain to be seen.
For example, separating Medicaid from other public benefits cases has the benefit of allowing workers to specialize more but could create coordination problems.
“Whether these changes are enough to resolve the problems documented in the report cannot be determined at this time,” it said.
The committee called for legislative oversight to monitor AccessNebraska's performance.
If the measures indicate continued problems, the committee said lawmakers may need to look at the adequacy of staffing levels, call center software and call center staff training.
State officials originally said AccessNebraska would save $8.4 million a year by cutting 225 jobs and closing about half of the local offices, which previously handled public benefits applications through in-person interviews.
Later estimates revised the savings to about $5 million.
Much of the savings has been erased as state lawmakers tried to help HHS deal with the system problems.
Lawmakers appropriated enough money this year for the department to hire 125 new employees for the call centers and local offices.