ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missourians trying to use a call center to sign up for the state's Medicaid program are running into long delays and busy signals, prompting state officials to notify the private company running the center to fix the problems or face losing some payments.
Records from the Missouri Department of Social Services show that nearly half of the people trying to use the call center for issues ranging from Medicaid coverage to food stamps are encountering such long delays that they are hanging up.
The Department of Social Services has told the company, Jackson, Mississippi-based YoungWilliams, to correct the problems at the Jefferson City center within five business days of Aug. 28 or the state might withhold 10 percent of the company's next monthly payment.
YoungWilliams signed a four-year contract in January 2012 to run the call center and to date has been paid $9.4 million by the state of Missouri.
The records showed the average wait time was more than 17 minutes in July, up from an average of 3 minutes in July 2013. Under the state's contract with YoungWilliams, callers are supposed to be sent to a call center staff member in three rings or 20 seconds, or placed in a hold queue. Once they are in the hold queue, they are supposed to be connected to a staff member within six minutes.
The average queue time was slightly more than 13 minutes for the month of July, according to the state's records and the last time the queue was under six minutes was in January.
The Department of Social Services sent a letter, dated Aug. 28 detailing "significant concerns" about the call center's performance to Rob Wells, president of YoungWilliams. Besides wait times, callers also are encountering busy signals, also violating the state contract, according to the letter.
Gov. Jay Nixon also finds the long hold times unacceptable, said his spokeswoman, Channing Ansley.
"Moving forward, the Governor's expectation is that these issues will be resolved so that Missourians receive the quality customer service they expect and deserve," she said Friday afternoon in a statement.
Mary Ann Wellbank, vice president of YoungWilliams, said the problems arose because incoming calls increased from an average of 141,000 per month in 2013 to 160,000 calls per month currently, and staff was working with multiple systems to review cases, adding to longer calls with customers. She said the company has 10 new staff members starting work this week and another seven in the hiring process.
"We're absolutely committed to rectifying the situation," Wellbank said. "It will take some time, and we appreciate the concerns of the citizens and advocates."