State call centers that handle requests for food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits are understaffed, and many workers need more experience and training, a Nebraska social services administrator said Tuesday.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Thomas Pristow told lawmakers that staffing at the centers has not kept pace with the number of programs being handled by its employees. The state has four call centers that process applications for 16 public-benefit programs.
"We will always strive to improve," said Pristow, the director of Nebraska's children and family services. "However, we have made progress in improving the system with dedicated employees who are doing their best."
Pristow's comments came as lawmakers grilled him about ongoing problems with ACCESSNebraska, a program that helps residents apply for public benefits through the call centers and Internet, as well as at brick-and-mortar offices. Some users have complained the service is plagued by long waits on the phone and bureaucratic finger-pointing that has kept them from receiving their benefits on time.
The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee convened a hearing Tuesday to address concerns from constituents. Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad said her office has continued to receive complaints from social workers and users who complain that state workers are unfamiliar with their cases.
"ACCESS Nebraska is indeed making progress in serving our citizenry, but there is far, far, far more work to do," Conrad said. "Our work is not done. I wish it was."
In April, lawmakers approved a bill that requires the state to offer face-to-face services for residents and join forces with local organizations that help the poor. Lawmakers have said they'll likely push for more changes next year.
Pristow said ACCESSNebraska services are still improving, and employees are still adjusting to the two new customer centers that opened within the past year. He said 70 percent of the centers' employees have held their jobs for less than 18 months, and one-fourth have worked in the centers for less than a year.
ACCESSNebraska receives between 6,000 and 7,000 calls per day.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist expressed frustration that Pristow had not asked lawmakers for money to help make the program work.
"If you don't have enough money and the need is legitimate, you need to ask for it," Krist said. "You need to come back and say 'This is what I need to make this program work, because it's not working.' You're making progress - I have no critique of that - but it's not working."
Anna Donahoo, a single mother from Lincoln, told lawmakers she received a letter from the state telling her to reapply for food stamps and Medicaid services for her son. She said she mailed the application on Aug. 25 and was scheduled for a phone interview on Sept. 5.
Donahoo said she waited 45 minutes in the middle of her work day before she was interviewed. The following day, she said, her food stamps didn't arrive, even though she had filed the required paperwork on time. Donahoo called back again, waited another 45 minutes and was told someone had closed her case.
Later, she received her food stamp benefits - 34 days late and in an amount lower than usual. A third call revealed that someone had mistakenly cut her benefit, forcing her to take more time off from her job at a tele-services company so she could go to a food pantry.
"We struggled that month," Donahoo said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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