Some aid for the needy delayed; state says tech upgrades will help

MIDDLEBURY — As the state agency that administers benefits to people living in poverty implements a new processing system for its services, charities in Addison County have reported that some of their clients have experienced delays in receiving benefits.
Laura Morse and Donna Rose, two employees of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity/Addison County Action (CVOEO) in Middlebury, said that last week alone, six people had received word that their applications had been delayed due to “work overload”
Morse and Rose stressed that they have a very good working relationship with their counterparts in the Vermont Agency of Human Services, but they added that they have increased the time they spend helping clients with paperwork.
They have also contacted Gov. Jams Douglas’s office to expedite cases, and they said that this has gained some results.
State officials said that while there have been instances of delays, there isn’t an overall trend of long waits for benefits.
“As with anything, change is very challenging, and we recognize that change in this system was significant,” said Les Birnbaum, who has led the modernization efforts for the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Plans to modernize the benefits application process were put into place years ago, Birnbaum explained, and the goal of modernization was to increase efficiency and make the application process “more consumer friendly and accessible.”
The main components of the modernization efforts are a centralized call center for questions relating to claims and a new website through which clients can apply for benefits.
“We had to do business a different way to move ourselves into the 21st century,” said Monica Hutt, the director of operations for the DCF. She said that overall there aren’t increased delays in benefits application processing.
The website will launch in “the next weeks to a few months,” according to Birnbaum, and the call center is already in place.
Before the call center system was implemented in October 2009, people seeking benefits would meet face-to-face with state employees in their local areas to apply for benefits.
Birnbaum explained that these mandatory meetings were often inconvenient for people who have limited access to transportation, and that in many cases, the new call center is an improvement.
The forthcoming website will enable people to submit applications and manage accounts, Birnbaum said. He added that it should also decrease the amount of time local agencies spend helping customers with claims.
In the mean time, employees at the CVOEO, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (a Middlebury-based anti-poverty agency) and the Addison County Parent-Child Center have all reported spending more time helping clients complete applications.
“Families are needing more help maneuvering through the human services eligibility system,” said Mike Fisher, a Parent-Child Center employee, as well as a Democratic state representative who is vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee. “And there are more families in need today as a result of the economic downturn.
“I am very concerned about the wait times,” he added.
Once the new website goes online, the state plans on installing technology kiosks in state offices throughout Vermont and the call center will still be available, Birnbaum said.
Recognizing that many people in need of assistance probably don’t have access to a computer hooked up to the Internet, the state has partnered with more than 100 local agencies to give computer access to needy people, Birnbaum added.
“We need to continue working together the best we can, realizing that everyone is experiencing increasing workloads and stress,” Hutt said.
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected]

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