April 9, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 15

News

Dropped, but not forgotten

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

Callers to DSHS still endure disconnections and long wait times, despite improvements the agency has made

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Sometimes it’s just not possible to get through.

Every month, hundreds of thousands of calls flood the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) hotline. On the line are people looking for help with their food stamps, housing and childcare. They don’t always make it through. Many get a message to call back later, when the lines are not busy, and then they are disconnected.

This is actually an improvement. In March 2013, Real Change reported that the DSHS hotline disconnected callers more than half of the time. At its worst, the call center dropped more than 500,000 calls in a month.

Today, if callers are willing to wait, they’ll get through most of the time.

DSHS officials credit a new automated phone system and live operators called “navigators” who help people find their way through the statewide network of operators. The state office changed its phone system and hired new staff in July, but it only recently saw a reduction in the amount of dropped calls.

“It’s taken us several months,” said Rebecca Henrie, chief of operations for the DSHS Community Services Division. “November is when we really started seeing the payout.”

DSHS established the hotline in 2009. Since then, it has been more of a burden than a help, caseworkers and DSHS clients say.

In January 2012, the DSHS call center received more than 700,000 calls but dropped more than 500,000 of them. Until November 2013, the center disconnected more than half of the callers most months. A few months, the call center disconnected 70 percent of the calls.

Najwa Alsheikh, a former DSHS client, spent a month in the fall of 2012 trying to speak with someone at DSHS about her son’s daycare assistance. One morning, she called at 9:23 a.m., then 9:33 a.m., then 9:48 a.m. For days she rapid dialed into the call center hoping for assistance.

The newest data obtained by Real Change indicates that more callers to the hotline are getting through. Since April 2013, the call center has dropped less than 40 percent of the calls. In November 2013, the center dropped just 16.5 percent.

Several factors helped. A hiring freeze ended, and DSHS trained 100 new people for the call center in 2013. DSHS staff also received approval for overtime, which allowed case workers to catch up on a backlog of paperwork.

In July 2013, DSHS did an overhaul on its phone system, building in two triage points to route people to the appropriate network of operators. The DSHS hotline has several queues, depending on whether the caller needs help with housing, food stamps or child services, for example.

Today, the automated phone system first asks the callers for their client identification number or social security number and automatically routes them to the queue they need. The system knows, for example, if a caller is in the middle of an application for food stamps and routes them to operators who can help.

Those who don’t identify themselves will speak to operators called navigators, who ask a few questions and then forward callers to the appropriate queue.

But callers still get cut off by the phone system. Since July, when DSHS started the new calling system, the call center disconnected between 10 and 35 percent of callers, as many as 170,000 calls in a month.

Despite this improvement, the phone system remains a challenge for people who need help, said Stephanie Earhart, a benefits attorney for Solid Ground.

Callers still have to wait on hold for 30 minutes to an hour.

In March, DSHS dropped 24,295 calls, a record low at less than 10 percent. Almost as many callers gave up while waiting on hold. More than 21,000 hung up on their own.

“Most of our clients have pre-paid cell phones with only 250 minutes per month,” she said. “DSHS hold times can top 45 minutes, which means people won’t call. They don’t want to use up their minutes.”

DSHS isn’t done fixing the system, Henrie said. It has a goal of disconnecting no more than 15 percent of the calls that come through.

To achieve that, DSHS is installing software that will tell call center managers when to schedule breaks for the 500 operators, so that there are more people available during the busiest call times.

The Washington State Legislature also approved $1.4 million to hire up to 17 full-time people for the call center.

DSHS also needs to catch up on its work. Many of the calls, Henrie said, are from people asking for a status update on an application. If DSHS can catch up with a backlog of paperwork, people won’t have to call for an update.

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