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Nebraska's state Ombudsman's Office, which handles citizen complaints about state agencies, is on pace to shatter the record for the number of cases it handles in a given year.

Over the past 10 years, the office has handled an average of 2,285 cases each year. But at the end of August this year, the count was already at 2,075.

"It is rough math, but what you get is about 3,100 cases by the end of the year," Ombudsman Marshall Lux said.

That would be a 26 percent increase from the current record of 2,462, set last year.

The increase is due to a number of factors.

But Lux said problems with the state's ACCESS Nebraska hotline, established in 2010 and run by the Department of Health and Human Services, are adding to the heap. The hotline is for people applying for benefits including food stamps, Medicaid and Aid to Dependent Children.

But ACCESS Nebraska has been beset with problems, most notably callers having trouble getting through.

"A lot of people are calling in and getting left on hold for long periods of time," Lux said. "Sometimes they just get a busy signal."

He said one of his staffers frequently calls the hotline and experiences wait times of 20 to 30 minutes. Some callers have reported even longer wait times.

"The whole ... frustration with dealing with that system has caused people to contact us," he said.

What Lux calls instability in the state's child welfare system also drives a lot of people to seek help from his office.

"That's always been a pretty important part of our caseload," he said.

And, Lux said, his office is getting more calls recently from residents who have been referred by state lawmakers.

"But that's a good thing. I want as many of those as I can get. I'm happy about that." 

The Ombudsman's Office has a staff of 14, of which 10 handle complaints.

So far, Lux said, his staff has not been overwhelmed by the increase in complaints.

"I don't think we are," he said. "But we've talked about it some and ... if this keeps going on we'll need to find ways to make some shortcuts."

The Ombudsman's Office seeks to provide administrative justice to people who have been wronged by state agencies and also tries to promote accountability in public administration. Because the office is independent of the agencies it investigates, it can be impartial in disputes between administrative agencies and residents, and can promote reasonable and informal resolution of grievances.

The office can force an agency to cooperate in an investigation, but it has no enforcement powers. However, Lux knows he always can turn to the Legislature, which created the office in 1969, for backup.

"And we're not too shy about doing that," he said.

The Ombudsman's Office looks into all complaints it receives, but Lux said there is the possibility that could change. He said Iowa's ombudsman has a "declined" category for some complaints.

"That's means, 'We hear you. That's too bad, but we're not going to do anything about it,'" Lux said. "We've never had that category in Nebraska.

"But, obviously, if we get completely snowed under with cases, we'd probably have to start thinking about picking and choosing."

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Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.
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