People applying for benefits could have better chance of dealing with humans

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March 29, 2012 - 7:00pm

People who need to sign up for social services would have a better chance of dealing with a human being, under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

In 2008, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services began trying to modernize the way people signed up for benefits like aid to the elderly and disabled, and Medicaid. The result was Access Nebraska -- a phone and computer system to replace face-to-face meetings with caseworkers. The idea was to use technology to make the process more efficient, and, says Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, the Department claims it's saved $9 million.

But Dubas says there's a downside, including long wait times to talk to someone by phone resulting in high phone bills. Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha was one of several other lawmakers who spoke during debate Friday about problems she's heard regarding Access Nebraska. "Seniors with no computer skills or even no computer were faced with completing an online application. People who went to an office to apply were not allowed to talk to a case manager in person, but were told to use the phone," Howard said. "Those who had applied for assistance were sent a letter and told to call at a certain time - 10 o'clock in the morning, for example - and either were not able to reach a person, or were put on hold for an extended period of time. Access Nebraska has in reality become No Access Nebraska'," she said.

In an attempt to remedy that, Dubas's bill would require the department to staff local offices and contract with community organizations to provide more face-to-face help to people who need it. It would also require that specific caseworkers be assigned to certain cases, like those of people with chronic disorders, to avoid their having to deal with a different worker each time.

While it would be left up to the department to determine where workers are needed, Dubas cited estimates that it would take 8 community support workers, 36 social service workers, 18 case aides, and 6 supervisors, at a cost of $3 million. She said $1.6 million of that would come from state tax funds, with the remainder coming from the federal funds.

The bill got first round approval on a vote of 25-0.

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