Next month, the state will begin using call centers to help Texans applying for government assistance programs, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and food stamps. The call centers promise to save money in a ballooning health and human services budget, but as the roll out for the new system inches closer, the critics have grown louder.
A recent barrage of news articles and opinion columns calling on the state to scrap its plans have thoroughly represented the position of call center critics, but uniformly neglect to tell the whole story. In fact, there is ample evidence to support the use of call centers – evidence that tells an important, and entirely different, story.
The current system is a technology dinosaur. Built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the system’s patchwork approach has attempted to keep pace with new and ever-changing programs, requirements, and caseloads, while the system grows increasingly more outdated. Few people in the 1970s could have conceived of a day when banking, paying bills, applying for credit cards and loans, or precise package tracking could be done with such ease on the telephone or Internet, yet that day is here.
This newly designed eligibility system will catapult the state’s welfare programs into the 21st Century by employing technologies that Texans use in their daily lives. The call centers will streamline the application process, making it easier for the client, more effective at quickly identifying fraud, and more efficient, resulting in savings for Texas taxpayers.
The new system will use one application for many different programs, while giving applicants a number of ways to apply. Where field offices today are open during traditional business hours on weekdays only, the new system will allow clients the flexibility to apply by phone during extended hours, or on the Internet around the clock. These are increasingly standard conveniences Texans expect, not the draconian inconveniences critics would have us believe.
In fact, the results of a little reported recipient survey show overwhelming support for the more efficient, streamlined system. According to the survey, 80 percent of surveyed recipients reported being “very” or “somewhat” likely to use the phone to apply, and 36 percent are interested in applying online; 31 percent of recipients even reported having Internet access at home. In addition, 85 percent like the idea of fewer office visits, 82 percent wanted to have the option to apply outside of normal business hours, and 81 percent wanted to be able to apply as privately as possible.
Sadly, the stories of increased convenience, as well as improved efficiency and better protections against fraud and abuse, have been neglected to showcase the more self-serving interests of the new system’s critics. Indeed much of the criticism surrounds plans to reduce the army of state workers who kept the old system running, but are no longer needed as the new system comes online.
While the reduction in the state employee workforce may make for a compelling story sold by unions, it is a distraction from the real story, and a sad commentary on where some would place the priorities of the social services system.
Interestingly, back in 2001 many of today’s fiercest “call center critics” were pushing to eliminate the requirement for face-to-face interviews, in favor of a mail-in application. They argued then that the high number of uninsured children was attributable to a cumbersome application process that unfairly burdened parents to miss work, travel to multiple appointments, and repeat the procedure every few months. Conservatives back then supported face-to-face interviews as a means to guard against fraud and abuse.
Today’s technology allows us to meet both objectives, making the process easier for applicants, while ensuring the system’s integrity.
The new system launches state social services into the future, rather than clinging to the past. There are two sets of big winners: the taxpayers who will see savings through improved efficiency and fraud detection, and the applicants of government benefits who will experience a more convenient and flexible system. With escalating Medicaid costs threatening the viability of the entire system, the state is obligated to actively pursue effective cost-savings measures to maximize limited resources.
This is the story that has been missing and it’s a story Texans need to hear.
Mary Katherine Stout is the health care policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based non-profit research institute.