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Our Opinion: State health department failing with hotline

Our Opinion: State health department failing with hotline

May 26th, 2019 in Opinion

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Imagine crying out for help, and no one is listening.

That’s essentially what’s been happening with a state hotline to report abuse of elderly/disabled residents.

The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services has been failing some of the people who rely on the agency the most.

A joint investigation by KBIA and the Columbia Missourian revealed that in 2018, the department answered just half of the hotline calls to report abuse of elderly/disabled residents.

According to a Wednesday Columbia Missourian story, more than 17,000 callers heard the message, “All agents are busy; please call back,” and the calls were disconnected. Another 10,000 callers hung up or otherwise dropped the call before anyone answered. Other calls went unanswered because of poor cell reception, staff error or an unknown reason, the paper reported.

Of the 92,000 calls to the hotline last year, only about 50 percent were answered. This year, that number is down to 39 percent.

Kathryn Sapp, policy unit bureau chief for the department’s Division of Senior & Disability Services Adult Protective Services, acknowledged in the story: “They’re not pretty numbers.”

In addition, the article reported that, while reports of abuse/exploitation have increased 35 percent during the past year, only one hotline workers has been added during that time.

Sapp said the department didn’t know until late last year that there was a problem. Before that, it had reported its call handle rate for fiscal year 2018 as 98.8 percent. The information was provided to the department by Unified Communications, run by the Office of Administration.

Jessica Bax, director for the Division of Senior & Disability Services, said that data was in conflict with what she was hearing.

Bax said data before 2018 didn’t include dropped/disconnected calls in the rate. She said her management team worked with Unified Communications to make sure they knew the true call handle rate by including dropped and disconnected calls in the data going forward, the story reported.

In other words, mistakes were made.

But in this case, we’re dealing with people’s lives, particularly their safety.

Missourians rely on the hotline to take information about abuse, neglect or exploitation of seniors and disabled residents. If the hotline can’t be answered in a timely fashion, it can do more harm than good.

So far, hold times averaged 8 1/2 minutes during the first four months of this year, the story said. That’s far too long.

The Department of Health and Senior Services indicates it is working to correct the problem.

Hopefully it does so quickly.

And, hopefully, state lawmakers will look into the situation to ensure the dismal record for handling this hotline doesn’t continue.

News Tribune