- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s public benefits system has improved its service for low-income people after years of problems but still needs to be monitored by lawmakers, a key state senator said Monday.

Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha said ACCESS Nebraska has changed in response to numerous complaints about long call-waiting times and errors when processing paperwork. Some clients had complained that they got transferred to a different person each time they called, forcing them to explain their situation over and over again.

The Department of Health and Human Services, state employees and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration deserve credit for changing how the service responds to the public, Howard said. Average call times have declined, and state officials announced last week that they have improved how quickly they process applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“This year in particular, notable gains have been achieved,” said Howard, the chairwoman of the committee that has investigated the problems.

But Howard nonetheless urged the Legislature’s Executive Board to advance her proposal to create a new oversight committee now that the investigative committee’s work is done.

ACCESS Nebraska was unveiled in 2008 as a more efficient way to help low-income residents apply for and renew public benefits, such as food stamps and home-energy assistance. The initial system reduced the number of caseworkers who met with residents in person and relied more on a network of call centers, kiosks and online services.

James Goddard, a staff attorney for the public interest group Nebraska Appleseed, said lawmakers should keep close watch on the service so they can respond quickly if the past problems return.

“The main thing we think is important is that these changes are sustainable over time,” Goddard said.

Courtney Phillips, the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services, has said that improving the system and remaining accountable is one of her top priorities.

Phillips told a legislative committee in July that she was working to improve employee training, staffing levels and customer service within ACCESS Nebraska.

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The measure is LR418

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