- Associated Press - Thursday, July 27, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s largest state agency unveiled its newest initiative Thursday to improve services for children, low-income families and residents with mental health problems and developmental disabilities.

The plan includes 20 goals for the state Department of Health and Human Services, some of which are already in progress. Gov. Pete Ricketts described it as the agency’s “business plan” and said it was created to set specific, measureable goals and hold the department accountable.

The department has faced criticism in the past for its handling of some services, such as the time required to process public benefit applications. Callers to ACCESS Nebraska, the state’s public benefits hotline, endured average waits of 24 minutes in August 2014, although call times have since been reduced to less than five minutes.

This year marks the second time Ricketts, a former executive at TD Ameritrade, has called for a business plan for the department.

“We want to have a culture of continuous improvement, and so that’s what this second business plan is about,” Ricketts said at a news conference to announce the new plan.

The goals include an expansion of “alternative response” programs designed to keep more children with their families, shortening the time in which people with developmental disabilities have to wait for benefits, and reducing the number of questionable costs identified by independent state auditors.

The plan also calls for a greater reliance on web technology for child welfare caseworkers to reduce paperwork, as well as debit cards for recipients of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Department of Health and Human Services CEO Courtney Phillips praised her staff for meeting 93 percent of their goals in the agency’s first business plan last year.

The department fell short in some areas. State officials have yet to develop a job description for a geriatric support specialist for the Central Nebraska Veterans Home, which was included as part of the facility’s construction and transition plans.

They also didn’t meet all of their goals to improve the process that the department uses when determining whether residents are eligible for Medicaid. Department spokeswoman Kathie Osterman said the task was more complex than officials originally thought, and they wanted to ensure no data was lost or compromised when switching to the new system.

The department also faced delays for planned upgrades to the Nebraska Medicaid system and the vast amount of data it receives. Osterman said those goals weren’t met because one of the potential contractors protested the decision to award the work to another firm, which created delays beyond the department’s control.

Phillips said the business plan came in response to criticism from staff members and outside groups that they didn’t know what was happening throughout the department.

“This is a mechanism we can share in terms of what are our core priorities for the upcoming year,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the plan consisted of “stretch goals” that go beyond what most other states have attempted.

“It was a heavy lift, and we tried to push to achieve 100 percent,” she said.


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