Back in 2008, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services put forward a plan to streamline the way it handles applications for public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and energy assistance.

The plan outlined a series of changes culminating in full implementation by 2012. Under it, HHS would shift from face-to-face registration toward using telephone call centers, online applications and Internet storage of documents. Four call centers would be opened across the state, and the number of HHS workers involved in processing would be reduced.

It was an honest and understandable effort at efficiency, with annual savings estimated originally at $8.4 million, later scaled back to $5 million.

To say the plan hasn't gone smoothly would be an understatement, as HHS officials have acknowledged in statements to the Legislature and publicly.

As a World-Herald news article last spring summed it up: “Applicants reported long waits on the telephone, lost documents, lack of continuity and the loss of personal contact with caseworkers who knew their clients.”

The call center system led to so many errors on food stamp applications that Nebraska failed to qualify for a federal bonus payment last year for the first time in at least nine years.

A World-Herald article last week noted that in July, callers' average time on hold hit an all-time high — just over 28 minutes. Nearly three of every 10 callers gave up without ever talking to a worker.

The backlog of uncompleted tasks in July topped 65,000. That was down from June due to overtime work but still twice the number from August 2012, and well above the goal of fewer than 25,000 unfinished tasks.

No one should deny the difficulty that state workers face in trying to navigate these complex government programs. Plus, the switch by HHS began right as the Great Recession was pushing considerably more households into need. And now the federal health care law is about to take effect, adding further complications for workers to handle.

That said, HHS has an obligation to handle these applications with appropriate professionalism and efficiency. That it is failing to meet that standard in many instances is borne out by the ongoing complaints from Nebraska families.

It’s crucial that the numbers are turned in the right direction by HHS. These families are in need. The state only compounds their troubles by mishandling these cases.

HHS says it is making changes to address the problems. Applications will be handled by a state worker familiar with the caller's case. Workers with greater experience are handling specific types of cases, such as nursing home residents and refugees. Two of the four call centers will focus on Medicaid and child health, while the other two will handle food assistance, child care subsidies and other public benefits programs.

Whether these steps will be enough remains to be seen. But the state's duty is clear. HHS needs to make concrete, measurable improvements, once and for all, in managing these cases.

These years of frustrations have gone on long enough.

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