Saturday, November 01, 2014

Help on Hold

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Arizona's 2-1-1 crisis hotline seeks solutions to its alarming dropped-call rate.

As a light on his phone flashes, indicating an incoming 2-1-1 Arizona call, Andrew, a former firefighter who suffered a career-ending injury, dons his headset. A middle-aged woman in Phoenix has received a shutoff notice from APS, and even in early fall, the temperature hovers in the triple digits. Andrew asks for her ZIP code and surfs a database of 3,000 human services agencies in the state. Identifying the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the organization to which 2-1-1 most often directs clients, he navigates a map of baffling block-by-block conference boundaries to pinpoint the chapter that can issue the caller a utility voucher.

2-1-1 became a three-digit assistance number, similar to 9-1-1, by a Federal Communications Commission decree in 2000. The hotline provides health and human service information, from referrals to food pantries to care for elderly people. Unlike 9-1-1 programs, 2-1-1 doesn't receive government funding in Arizona, which has jeopardized its ability to provide services. The agency receives more than 188,000 phone requests annually. With the equivalent of 14 full-time operators, the service often puts callers on hold. The hotline's dropped call rate in Arizona is 31 percent higher than the national rate. Proposed solutions include lobbying for more hotline funds and implementing a phone line surcharge, but nothing's been put in action yet.

Community Information and Referral Services (CIR) has been the lead provider of 2-1-1 service in Arizona since 2010. The nonprofit has served as a directory for health and human services since its 1979 incorporation as a 501(c)(3). CIR launched its 24/7 call center in midtown Phoenix on Oct. 3, 2011, making Arizona the last state in the U.S. to provide 2-1-1 response. "[Initial funding] just wasn't a priority," says Catherine Rea, CEO of CIR.

Thirty-eight percent of callers hang up before being connected to a representative – the national average is closer to 7 percent. "I would hope they would call back later or go to the website," Rea says. But, she acknowledges, there's a possibility these callers aren't receiving the help they're seeking.

"We all know what it's like to sit on hold when the situation isn't urgent," says Brian Spicker, senior vice president of community impact at Valley of the Sun United Way, provider of two-thirds of funding for 2-1-1 Arizona, which has an annual operating budget of $755,728 for the fiscal year 2014. "In any private enterprise, a 38 percent abandonment rate would be deplorable."

Because United Way also funds many of the organizations to which 2-1-1 refers clients, Rea notes, "We should not be competing with our customers [human services agencies] for the same grant dollars." Rea specifies 2-1-1 has two sets of customers: the clients who call, and the human service agencies to which they direct callers.

Seeking a solution to the call abandonment rate and their funding duel, CIR lobbied during the 2013 state legislature for a one-time $250,000 general fund to hire additional call-center employees. The measure stalled in the special session.

This legislative season, CIR is turning tack to secure sustainable funding. As an emergency telecommunication service similar to 9-1-1, it's proposing a one-cent monthly surcharge per phone line. (A 20-cent tax is added to Arizonan's phone bills for 9-1-1.) Rea estimates the surcharge would allow CIR to hire eight additional employees.

Spicker agrees public money is critical. "The service the 2-1-1 operator provides may be the one someone needs to keep them from falling into homelessness or to help seniors navigate through a health condition," he says.

At the 2-1-1 offices, a homeless woman in Bullhead City is on the line. A child jabbers in the background as she describes her desire for a hotel voucher – and perhaps money for a deposit on the apartment that's finally accepted her application. Andrew delivers the information, and as he concludes the call, the phone line is already flashing again.

 

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