- Associated Press - Thursday, October 29, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska residents who rely on public benefits are spending less time on the phone waiting for help, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday.

Average call-wait times for ACCESS Nebraska fell to less than five minutes in September, compared to more than 14 minutes in August, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The September average is the shortest wait time for the service in three years.

ACCESS Nebraska processes applications and renewals for state and federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and home-energy assistance.

The service, created in 2008 as a way to streamline the application process, has faced criticism for delays and errors. Some low-income people who rely on the service use prepaid phones with a limited number of minutes; others call while on work breaks.

“We want to make sure that we’re serving our customers better, serving the people of Nebraska better, by improving services,” Ricketts said a news conference at the Capitol.

Ricketts said the system is also processing applications more accurately because of changes made by department administrators and Nebraska’s new chief operating officer, Felix Davidson. Ricketts, a former business executive, created the cabinet position to help find new efficiencies in government.

State workers are collecting application documents earlier from the post office, Davidson said, which reduces the time that call center employees spend trying to locate them. Employees also have daily “team huddles” to improve communication and solve problems that arise. State officials took steps to reduce the amount of work required after each call, Davidson said.

Davidson said the changes emerged from a working group that included employees from various parts of the Department of Health and Human Services.

James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed, an advocacy group for low-income residents, praised the improvements but cautioned that they need to be sustainable. Nebraska Appleseed filed a class-action lawsuit against the department in 2014, alleging that ACCESS Nebraska was failing to process applications in the time required by federal law.

Goddard said he still questioned whether call centers throughout the state were adequately staffed, and stressed the importance of employee training and retention.

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