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A program meant to alleviate headaches in the application process for public assistance programs like food stamps, cash welfare and Medi-Cal is overwhelmed.

The Union-Tribune’s Keith Darcé took a look at the program’s trouble today, finding there have been twice as many calls as the county expected when it launched the program, called Access, last year.

From the story:

County officials had anticipated about 50,000 calls would come in each month to the new call center in Mission Valley, but the figure quickly reached more than 100,000.
One user said she tried to dial into the system numerous times last week, only to hear an automated message telling her to try again later because call volumes were too high. In the handful of instances when her call was connected, she was put on hold for 45 minutes or longer.

Dale Fleming, a top official in the Health and Human Services Agency, said in the story the county has added more staff, more equipment and a consultant to help streamline the program.

When were preparing our investigation into the county’s social services safety net earlier this year, Fleming offered the telephone program as an example of the county’s efforts to streamline and reorganize its public aid programs.

But the phone system’s problems also came up in a federal review of the county’s food stamps program released in April. Then, the feds identified that the county’s new call center “was not adequately staffed and did not have enough lines.”

The reviewers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, called the toll-free number themselves. Those callers “failed on numerous occasions or had extreme difficulty reaching a live person. … Because of the ACCESS system’s limitations, there is, at this time, no way of knowing the number or percentage of calls that are automatically being dropped by the system when all lines are in use.”

The county responded to the feds’ observations in a recent letter. (The county’s letter to USDA responds to these findings starting on page 23.)

The county said that it added a self-service function on the Access line in April, reducing wait times by an average of four minutes in the first month.

But the wait times are still an average of 21 minutes and six seconds — more than twice as long as the average time the feds found that a caller would wait on hold before abandoning their call.

The number: 866.262.9881.

— KELLY BENNETT

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