- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The new CEO of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services promised Friday to improve the state’s troubled public benefits service, while a leading critic called for more oversight.

Department CEO Courtney Phillips told a legislative oversight committee that she is working to improve employee training, staffing levels and customer service within ACCESS Nebraska, the telephone and online service that residents use to apply for and renew public benefits.

The system was intended to streamline the process of applying for public benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and home-heating assistance, but has faced criticism for years because of long call-wait times and errors. Many recipients also have complained that the system forces them to repeatedly resubmit their paperwork.

“You have my commitment and my team’s commitment that we will spend the right amount of time and effort to make this work,” Phillips said to the Legislature’s ACCESS Nebraska special investigative committee.

Philips said the service is still trying to recruit new employees and to spread out current ones so that staffing levels match call volumes.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has also promised improvements, announcing in April that the department will issue monthly reports showing how quickly it responds to calls, the accuracy of payments and the time required to process paperwork. Ricketts appointed Phillips, who previously worked in a Louisiana state health agency, in February.

A staff attorney for Nebraska Appleseed, an advocacy group that is suing over the delays, said she’s hopeful the department can improve standards and staff training, but warned that the system faces many of the same problems that it has since its creation in 2009.

“We feel continued legislative oversight is crucial,” staff attorney Molly McCleery said.

The group’s lawsuit alleges that more than 30 percent of SNAP applications the state received in the 2013 federal fiscal year weren’t processed in the time required by federal law - 30 days. In April, a federal judge granted the case class-action status so that it applies to all recipients who were affected.

The lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages but asks a judge to order the department to process applications with the mandated 30-day window.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said Phillips has succeeded in boosting employee morale with face-to-face meetings and that working conditions at the state call centers have improved, which could reduce burnout and turnover.

But, he noted, “employee retention is still an issue. It is still a problem because they feel a lot of pressure on the job.”

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