Friday, April 07, 2006

San Antonio Express: Troubled social services call centers on hold

Troubled social services call centers on hold

Web Posted: 04/07/2006 12:00 AM CDT
Elizabeth Allen
Express-News Staff Writer

A much-touted rollout of privately operated call centers to replace state workers who screened applicants for Medicaid, food stamp and other social service benefits has been put on hold for at least 30 days because of staffing shortages and a variety of technical problems.

In announcing the delay, Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials essentially scraped the early summer date by which applicants in San Antonio and South Texas were to have been on the system, which the state initiated because it said it would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

After the 30-day hold, the officials will take another look at the privatization schedule that would have changed Bexar County services over in June. The commission is also taking steps to slow the hemorrhaging of state workers after 2,900 got news last year that their jobs were going away this year.

It is not clear how many of those workers have actually left state employment. One union representative estimated at least one-third of the targeted state employees left their jobs.

Nor is it clear how the delay will affect the more than $600 million that the agency promised legislators it would save by privatizing those functions.

Critics of the process cheered the move.

"I think it's very good news that they are acknowledging that there are very significant problems," said Celia Hagert, an analyst with the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities.

"Our only hope is that if they determine that more time is needed to fix those problems, they will take that time."

The new system, run by contractor Texas Access Alliance, lets people apply for benefits over the phone, online or in person. Using the new system, the state plans to replace 99 of its 310 eligibility offices with four call centers run by the contractor.

But long wait times and computer problems have plagued the pilot program in Hays and Travis Counties center, in part because of state staffing shortages related to layoffs that the Texas State Employees Union is urging the state to rescind.

Late last year, Texas Access Alliance, a private consortium anchored by Accenture, a Bermuda-based firm, also took over the Children's Health Insurance Program, which has always been contracted out.

CHIP was designed to provide basic coverage for children of families who earned too much for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance, essentially the working poor.

While coverage has fallen by more than 200,000 statewide since the state began cutting the program and toughening eligibility requirements in 2003, the rolls have dropped by more than 20,000 since Texas Access Alliance took over.

It began operating the Travis and Hays County pilot program in January.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the state wants to fix two major issues: better management of high call volumes and better training.

Some people have spent as much as 20 minutes on hold and many hung up in frustration. Goodman said that wait time has been sharply reduced "but we want to get that down a little more."

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he hopes the delay is an early indication that the state will decide that privatizing benefits services is a bad idea, while Texas State Employees Union Vice President Mike Gross said the unstable climate is causing the state to lose its more experienced employees.

Gross called for the state to hold off on the layoff of the 2,900 employees who were told last fall they would not have jobs after the call centers began operating this year.

He estimated that about 1,000 state workers have already left.

Hagert agreed that the heavy turnover is causing even more headaches, but that it's too late to stop that leak.

"I'm not saying we don't support that recommendation. It just might not be a realistic one," she said. "But we certainly support the idea that it's going to take more state workers to make the system work."

Goodman said the state hasn't actually laid anyone off, but it has seen more people leave for other jobs faster than expected. The agency is taking steps to keep people in place for now, especially in the Travis-Hays counties area, because of the numbers jumping ship.

She noted the agency is now developing a retention plan that will include a bonus to state workers whose jobs were to have been eliminated.