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News : Head of State's Problem-plagued Economic-aid Call Center Quits
Loncoln, NB, June 25, 2015 -- The state official in charge of Nebraska’s problem-plagued call center system for economic assistance left her post abruptly last week.
Jill Schreck, deputy director of children and family services within the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned June 16.
Her resignation took effect the same day, according to Russ Reno, an agency spokesman.
Reno said Schreck stepped down voluntarily.
However, citing employee confidentiality, he declined to say whether she had been asked to resign or whether HHS administrators were satisfied with her performance.
The call center system, called AccessNebraska, processes applications for several public benefit programs.
Schreck oversaw the portion of the system dealing with such programs as food stamps, child care subsidies and heating assistance.
The other portion handles applications for Medicaid and related health assistance.
Since its start in 2008, AccessNebraska has been plagued by long wait times, lost documents and delays in providing needed benefits.
A legislative investigation last year concluded that the system was "largely a failure."
State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, chairwoman of the legislative committee overseeing AccessNebraska, said she believes Schreck did "as good a job as she could" in managing the system.
But she said she was disappointed when Schreck was unable to tell the committee what changes or resources would be needed to make the call center system successful.
HHS officials originally touted AccessNebraska as a way to cut costs and improve efficiency by making use of technology.
Instead of waiting to meet in person with a local social worker, people in need would call one number and talk with someone in any call center across the state.
Along with call centers, the project involved online benefits applications and electronic scanning and storage of documents filed with an application.
However, complaints started shortly after the system was implemented and the state’s performance on federal measures dropped.
Under AccessNebraska, the state’s ranking for processing applications in a timely manner has fallen from the middle of the pack to the bottom.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned Nebraska that it needed to get better at processing supplemental nutritional assistance program, or food stamp, applications on time or risk losing nearly $17 million annually in federal funds.
In addition, Nebraska no longer qualifies for the federal performance bonuses it once earned for accuracy in processing SNAP applications.
Reno said the state is taking several steps to address problems with the system.
Since October, the state has seen steady improvement in processing food stamp applications on time. The state also has improved the accuracy of its application processing.
Most of the steps were implemented before Gov. Pete Ricketts took office in January and before Courtney Phillips took over as CEO of HHS in April.
The latest effort has been a series of weekly meetings involving economic assistance staff, Medicaid staff and Felix Davidson, the state’s new chief operating officer, Reno said.
The meetings, which started in February, focus on potential changes that may be small but could add up to significant improvements in the system, Reno said.
One change, for example, was to bring in employees at 2 a.m. to go through mail and scan documents into the computer system. That means the documents are ready when call center workers start their day.
Among other focus areas have been interactive voice response messages for routing calls, identifying ways to retain employees, preparing for periods of high call volume and simplifying processes.
HHS also has been working since 2013 with a consultant provided by USDA officials.
A period of mandatory overtime last year allowed employees to tackle a backlog of applications. Since then, a policy of trying to resolve problems in one phone call has reduced the need for repeat calls.
Still, Howard said lawmakers continue to hear from people unhappy with spending long periods on hold, having documents lost and having difficulty completing applications for the benefits they need.
In May, callers averaged nearly 22 minutes on hold, even though the call volume was a third lower than in July last year, according to HHS.
"It seems there hasn’t been much change since last year," Howard said.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Friday, June 26, 2015