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Access Nebraska

The AccessNebraska call center in Lincoln.

AccessNebraska has taken many steps forward in the past year to improve services to 198,000 economic assistance and 235,000 Medicaid recipients, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services CEO Courtney Phillips told a legislative oversight committee.

Phillips detailed those improvements Tuesday on call wait times, food stamp processing, recruitment and retention of employees.

Call wait times have been averaging 5 minutes or less since September. Eight days is the average it takes to process economic assistance applications. And the food stamp program has met or exceeded the processing timeline of 96 percent since February.

"Our AccessNebraska staff and others in the department who support AccessNebraska are continually working on process improvement," Phillips told the AccessNebraska Oversight Committee.

The staff begins processing daily mail at 2 a.m. so it is scanned into the system and available for viewing by 8 each morning, she said. 

In April, call routing was updated and clients can get the scan date of the last document the department received and the date for the clients' next program review. Self-service information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Clients now can apply by telephone for economic assistance and Medicaid.

Recruiting, retaining and training employees has also improved, Phillips said. The turnover rate is 3 percent to 4 percent for 2016.

In addition, some correspondence and major forms have been rewritten so they are easier to understand, she said.

Even with the improvements, the department's work isn't done, Phillips said. The program will continue to adjust to changes in the operating environment and economic conditions.

State Ombudsman Marshall Lux said the struggle that was AccessNebraska, before it began to turn around last year, looked like this: Client callers were put on hold for a half hour to an hour while their cellphones drained. They were given inconsistent information, had calls dropped after long waits, or were treated poorly in terms of customer service.

In 2012 and 2013, the Ombudsman's office got about 50 complaint calls each year. Last year, the calls dropped to six. There have been three so far this year.

The decision in 2013 to separate economic assistance and Medicaid cases was a good one, along with restoring the ability to have some in-person interviews, Lux said, and helped to turn the system around.

Lux told the oversight committee the lesson is that when a state agency considers doing something as important as making weighty changes in how people access state benefits, it needs to come to the Legislature first for input.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, sent a letter outlining some employee complaints.

He acknowledged application processing was getting better, but feedback from some union stewards and others showed concerns about demands put on workers to meet quotas. In some locations, employee work statistics are posted, by name.

Managers are pushing quotas rather than accuracy, one worker reported, and so teamwork has suffered and morale is low.

Another letter the oversight committee received from an employee said the staff was being micro-managed and given unrealistic expectations. People are getting promoted over others, even though they have "less seniority, poor work history and less job knowledge."

Marvin has asked for a meeting between labor and management to fix any communication issues, because the messages to workers seem to vary from location to location.

Molly McCleery, staff attorney with Nebraska Appleseed, talked to the committee about the resolution of a 2014 class action lawsuit that challenged Nebraska's slow turnaround time for processing food stamp benefit applications and renewals. 

Even with the resolution, McCleery said, Appleseed appreciates the continued oversight of the committee. 

Appleseed also is receiving many fewer complaint calls about AccessNebraska, she said. But it does get calls about inconsistent information given to clients about their benefits. For example, a client might be notified of a reduction in benefits, even though there's been no change in his or her household circumstances.

"Ultimately we acknowledge that the system has gotten significantly better for both workers and for clients," McCleery said. "At this point, what we are looking for and want to make sure occurs is that any improvements are sustainable, and we really see a long-term fix to some of these problems."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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