LINCOLN — Nebraskans calling the state about public benefits applications have been spending less time on hold this month.
Major changes in public benefits call centers appear to have cut the time callers spend on hold and reduced the number who give up without talking to a person, state officials said Friday.
Both developments would be good news for the problem-plagued system known as AccessNebraska.
“It's all about the reset we're going through,” said Thomas Pristow, children and family services director for the state Department of Health and Human Services.
But union leaders and consumer advocates said they are not yet convinced that the system has been fixed.
“I'm cautiously optimistic,” said Julie Pham, deputy state ombudsman, while warning that “it's just too soon to see if that's a trend.”
Julie Dake Abel, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said she's concerned that call wait times are coming down because the workload has been shifted to employees in local offices.
Those workers have been working overtime for several months, she said.
Yet they have been assigned to do all the interviews of people applying for food stamps, energy assistance and other government aid.
Until recently, those interviews had been the job of call center workers.
“We still believe more staff is needed,” Dake Abel said.
The three appeared before the Legislature's Health and Human Services and Appropriations Committees to give an update on AccessNebraska.
The call center system was launched three years ago with the goal of modernizing and streamlining how the state processes public benefits applications.
State officials originally said it 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.
But the system struggled from the start, despite numerous attempts to fix the call wait times and application processing glitches.
Time on hold averaged 27:59 minutes during July through September, according to the latest HHS report. About one in four callers gave up before talking with a person.
The latest changes kicked off Oct. 1, when two call centers were assigned to handle only applications for Medicaid and Kids Connection, a program that provides health coverage for children.
The other two call centers handle all other public benefits programs, such as food stamps, energy assistance and child care subsidies.
Since Oct. 1, call wait times have averaged around 7 minutes for the Medicaid call centers and 5:07 minutes for the other centers, state officials said.
About 15 percent of Medicaid callers and 10 percent of other callers give up without talking to a person.
Vivianne Chaumont, Medicaid director for HHS, said she is working to address both call wait times and the backlog of unfinished tasks.
The Medicaid centers have added employees and assigned several employees to specialized types of cases, such as those involving nursing home residents.
Chaumont also said she is looking at how to simplify the process and reduce unnecessary tasks.
Within the other call centers, Pristow said workers are now assigned to deal with complicated applications from start to finish. Previously, applicants would have to talk with a different person each time they called.
Along with moving some jobs to local office staff, he said training has been streamlined, more phone lines have been added and some additional employees have been hired.
The changes have helped with call wait times, he said. But the number of unfinished tasks has increased.
Pristow said the AccessNebraska system is being reviewed by outside organizations.
Reports are expected soon from NelNet, which operates student loan call centers; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps; and the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee.