State of Texas: TWC contractor reveals call center problems; Senate candidates prepare for debate

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Imagine showing up to a job where you know that almost 75% of what you do will fail someone. What if a fireman failed to help someone in three out of four fire calls? What if a police officer failed to help clear three out of four 911 calls?

Day, after day.

That’s what a contractor helping field calls for the Texas Workforce Commission told us was going on inside some of the agency’s call centers. The contractor, who asked to not be identified in this report, told KXAN the problem facing nearly every caller is that their call may be answered by people who have no way to help Texans calling for help with their unemployment problems.

This worker said they’re unable to help about three-quarters of the people who call with unemployment problems.

Since the pandemic hit in mid-March, hundreds of unemployed Texans wrote to us, all telling the same story: thousands of calls to the TWC’s lone toll-free number are never answered. The few who have connected are likely to find themselves on the line with one of 1,600 contracted customer service representatives.

At first, they think their prayers are answered and the weeks – sometimes months – of waiting for their unemployment benefits is over.

RELATED: Planning to appeal a TWC decision, prepare for 18-week wait

Then, the contractor reads from the script they use when they answer a call: “I am limited to the types of questions I can answer.”

That’s led to many unemployed Texans hitting a dead-end, following a series of calls to the TWC, and never finding help.

In April, the bosses inside the TWC were scrambling. As state and local stay-at-home orders began locking Texans down in mid-March, millions lost their jobs and headed straight for the unemployment office.

Within days, the TWC’s phone lines were jamming and its automated online portal crashed with hundreds of thousands of people trying to file unemployment claims. The agency put together deals with contracted call centers to help handle the onslaught of unemployed Texans trying to get calls answered to get claims filed and problems fixed.

In two contracts obtained by KXAN in May, the TWC approved up to $15 million in spending on two service agreements with one company. The agreements are dated April 11.

Since then, the TWC contracted with three other companies. Total spending at this point has reached $26.4 million, according to the agency’s spokesman James Bernsen.

The TWC contracted more than 1,600 new call takers in April. One of those contract workers told KXAN they can’t access claimant accounts to help Texans when they call with problems with their unemployment benefits. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

The initial contracts provided 100 “remote customer service representatives” at the outset and planned for “ramping up” to 300 contracted call takers. Each agent would cost taxpayers $48.52 an hour. Each contracted call taker was expected to have the ability to help the TWC’s 430 Unemployment Insurance agents answer calls and edit claimants’ accounts.

Except, that hasn’t always happened.

“All we would see is if it’s disqualified, and if they have any question as to why or how to fix it, I can provide them with the web site information on how to file an appeal, but I don’t have any information about that exact problem — it’s not even provided for me. I don’t even see it on the system,” a contracted call-taker told KXAN.

To not put the contractor at risk, the contractor asked not to be identified by name or which contracted firm they work for. This contractor is one of 1,600 contract workers currently helping the TWC field calls and help resolve unemployment problems for Texans calling the agency’s toll-free line.

But the contractor says the TWC limited what this contractor and the contractor’s team can see and do when someone calls.

This contractor’s firm can only handle new claim filings or help with resetting personal identification numbers and address changes, according to the contractor. They’re limited to what is known as an “inquiry-only” status, meaning the contractor can not get into an account to correct problems with claims. The inability to correct these problems has prevented untold numbers of unemployed Texans from being able to unlock their unemployment checks for months at a time.

The only option for the claimant: call back until you reach one of the 430 TWC agents.

“I’ve had multiple people where they call and as soon as I say I’m a contractor they disconnect the call because they’ve heard it all before. They’ve been through this loop of contractor after contractor and it’s pretty much the luck of the draw — is it going to connect to a TWC agent or not when you dial the phone number?” the contractor told KXAN.

We’ve also heard from dozens of people who contacted KXAN asking for help reaching the TWC. Each of those tipsters said they’d connected with a contracted call taker and if their claim involved anything more than a PIN reset or an address change they would be told to call back and wait in line for a TWC agent.RELATED: Second wave of unemployed Texans asking for TWC help pour into KXAN

“I spoke to two contractors. They were very cordial, I must admit, and very patient. Unfortunately, they were not able to assist me and they make that known,” Monique Lamping of Fort Bend County told KXAN. “It appears they have a script they’re reading from where they state that they are just contractors, they are taking calls but they are not able to give any information or a status of my claim or situation you may have.”

Lampkin said she first finally got through on the agency’s toll-free line on Sept. 19 and pressed option #3, which is where callers can speak with an agent to discuss problems with their account.

The contractor told Limpkin she’d have to call the toll-free number again to speak with an agent.

“I asked, ‘Could I at least leave a message with the agency that can be notated in the system so that the TWC can at least see that I did attempt to call them back?’ However, they don’t have the capabilities,” Limpkin said.

“The contractors did make it known that they aren’t able to access the system. ‘We don’t have no way to log in, give you any information, a status or anything,’” she continued. “The contractors were able to just appease me a little bit and with more empathy: ‘Mrs. Lampkin, if we could do more for you, we would, but we just can’t.”

As far as TWC Executive Director Ed Serna knew when we spoke to him last Wednesday, all 2,000 TWC agents and contract workers at this point were able to handle most any problem facing any unemployed Texans when they picked up the phone line. When Serna’s team executed the $26.4 million call center contracts, that was the agency’s expectation, according to Serna.

“There should not be a circumstance — unless it’s a complicated situation — our contractors should be able to answer and assist someone when they call in. If they can’t, those are the ones that I want to know about,” Serna told KXAN.

“Everybody that answers a phone has the authority to make a change to that claim. So, all 2,000-plus people that are answering calls for us have that authority,” Serna said when asked.

However, Serna wasn’t surprised by what the contractor told us. In fact, the TWC has already issued warnings to some of their contracted call center firms before about not taking care of problems and passing those callers off to the TWC’s 430 agents.

Each time a caller is transferred to a TWC agent, the agency issues that contractor a “tick mark” and the agency can sanction those contractors with too many transfers, according to Serna.

“If we have contractors that don’t feel that they can or don’t have the tools — and I need to know that because that’s not what I’ve been told in — that’s not the instruction that we’ve given. We’ve even called in a couple of contractors on the carpet for, ‘You’re transferring too many calls to us and you’re not helping because all you’re doing is, you’re now delaying that individual getting the help, one, and you’re clogging up a phone line,’” Serna said.

“The reason we hired these folks was to, one, help the 400 that we had but to have more people answering the phones and helping them, actually helping resolve the problem, not just listening and answering, ‘OK, well I got to hand you off to somebody.’ That’s no help,” Serna said.

Report Contractor Problems:

  • 1-800-628-5115
  • OMBUDSMAN@TWC.STATE.TX.US
  • 101 E. 15th Street, Room 370 Austin, TX 78778-0001

To get around the “tick mark” tracking, the contractor we interviewed said callers are told to continue calling back until they connect with a TWC agent. Serna said there is no real-time way to track when that happens.

The TWC can listen in to calls, can see the length of the call, the caller’s number and which contractor was involved in the call. But, as far as the result of the call, Serna said the agency did not have a way to track that metric.

Serna seemed surprised to know this problem was happening so often.

“That’s very — one: it’s disappointing. But two, it’s frustrating to me and I can only imagine how frustrating it is to our customers who get in, they have the phone answered and they’re not helped or they’re handed off to somebody else,” Serena told KXAN.

The fix lies in either hiring more TWC agents or giving each contract worker full access to edit claimant accounts, the contractor we interviewed said. The people we’ve spoken with since mid-March said this problem has plagued the TWC since the start of the pandemic.

“If they could fix that, I think the majority of the problems would be solved — just cross-training for contractors because we do want to do more. We all have to — I’ve talked to so many people even within my department, as well, that constantly say ‘I wish I could do more for these people, it hurts every day to listen to all these people talk about how terrible it is because they can’t get through and their life’s about to get shut off,’” the contractor said.

“I wish they would actually take calls to see how upset Texans are right now. It’s at a time —especially with this pandemic — that we should be helping fellow Texans and not just sending them in a loop, and I just feel like they haven’t done enough. These problems have been around, they’re known, it’s not like they can plead innocent on that, that they didn’t know,” the contractor told KXAN, “These problems are consistent and they need to be addressed. And, at some point I feel like someone needs to be held accountable for all of these decisions —or the lack of decisions at this point.”

Serna said he’s now working to find out whether any of the contracting firms misunderstood the TWC’s directive.

“This is unacceptable. I know that we don’t want them handing them off and I know what I’ve been told — and I’ll validate it and I appreciate you bringing it to my attention — but what I’ve been told by our staff is all 2,000 of those, our operators or our contractors, have the same ability,” Serna said. “The idea is that you call, you get the help and if you’re a contractor and you don’t know, then we’ll get you more training or, quite frankly, we’ll replace you. Get somebody that can get the job done.”

Data errors affect count of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes

More than 4,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but a data error by the state has raised new concerns that perhaps more deaths haven’t been counted.

In July, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission began releasing daily public reports about which homes had cases and deaths. As of Monday, state data showed 4,465 residents had died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

“Lives literally hinge on this data.”

BRIAN LEE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF FAMILIES FOR BETTER CARE

A family reached out to KXAN Investigators after their mother contracted COVID-19 in an Austin assisted living home and died over the summer. Yet, they noticed the state still listed zero cases or deaths at the facility she lived in.

“That wasn’t possible because my mother died,” one family member said. “It was shocking that they weren’t showing any. So, my first thought is, ‘One of two things is going on here: there’s either deception from the facility where they don’t want anyone to know, or there’s deception from a government agency.”

Nursing Home Investigations: KXAN’s in-depth look at how the pandemic is affecting some of the state’s most vulnerable 

They’ve asked to keep their mother’s identity and personal details anonymous, but did provide their mother’s death certificate — which lists COVID-19 as one of several causes of death.

“It’s not like we are looking for making my mother’s death famous — we are certainly not trying to. But I certainly don’t want her death to be in vain,” the family member said.

KXAN investigators reached out to the director of the facility in question about the discrepancy, who declined an interview, but claimed she had reported all of the required information to HHSC and followed all state and federal guidelines.

According to HHSC policy, a nursing home must submit notification of any resident death at the facility within 10 working days of the final day of the month of the death. This policy also applies to residents who died within 24 hours after being transported to a hospital. The nursing facilities report any deaths themselves through an electronic system called the Texas Unified Licensure Information Portal, or TULIP.

KXAN requested all nursing home deaths reported to HHSC through the TULIP system, broken down by month, from December 2018 through the beginning of September 2020. The graph below shows those results, including incomplete reporting for the month of August 2020.

These death totals, however, do not differentiate between deaths due to COVID-19 and deaths from other causes. For instance, the state data shows 10,687 people died in nursing homes from March through August. According to the state’s coronavirus data at the end of August, 3,733 of these people had from COVID-19.

This woman’s family was left to wonder: why wasn’t their loved one’s death being counted in the coronavirus data?

“It’s left a huge whole in my heart,” the family member said.

KXAN reached out to HHSC about the discrepancy concerning this facility.

A spokesperson for the agency clarified they were made aware of a COVID-19 death at this home.

“There are occasionally data entry errors given the amount of data that changes and updates daily. With that said, this was reported to HHSC and should have been listed. We are in the process of getting the data updated and corrected,” the spokesperson said.

As of Tuesday, the error hadn’t been corrected.

“It’s not like I can call these people and say, ‘Hey, my mom died,” the family member said. “It’s disbelief, really.”

The HHSC spokesperson said they “rely” on the numbers provided by facilities. Those statistics are then manually entered into HHSC’s system.

“When we see larger increases from day to day, we follow up to ensure the data is as accurate as possible,” they said. “These case counts posted to the HHSC website reflect data two weeks prior to the date of posting to allow time for a review of the data so that clerical or reporting errors can be corrected.”

The also pointed out each data set features a note that reads, “The data is provisional and subject to change.”

KXAN investigators asked HHSC how many other data entry errors there could be in the current case counts, but hasn’t received an answer.

Advocates like Brian Lee worry about the implications of underreporting or misleading data.

“Mitigation strategies really hinge on this data: where PPE’s are deployed, where testing is deployed,” Lee said. “It really sends out like a red alarm for the public when the state is chalking this up to a data entry error, when we know this data is so vitally important — not just for families to know it, but for the lives of their loved ones who are living in these facilities.”

He leads the non-profit Families for Better Care, fighting for improved resources for residents in long-term care facilities. He notes it will be hard for public health officials to distribute many of these resources if even portions of the data is incorrect.

“Lives literally hinge on this data, so if they cannot get this accurate and display a clear, concise picture — a credible picture — of this data, you just throw your hands up and go, ‘What’s the point?’”

The family who pointed out the discrepancy worries there are others like them.

“Now that she’s gone, if we can help any other family protect their loved one that happens to be in an assisted living facility or nursing home in Texas, or anywhere,” they said. “You need to be in the loop. You need to know, is there anyone else infected?”

Senate Debate Preview

Incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn, and former Air Force helicopter pilot, Democrat MJ Hegar, will meet on the debate stage for the first time next week as they vie to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate.

The debate will be held Friday at 7:00 PM at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. It will be broadcast live on Nexstar stations across the state of Texas.

The debate comes just over a week after the first of three presidential debates between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, which made headlines around the nation for being chaotic and unruly.

“I’d rather see something a little bit more policy-oriented,” Sen. Cornyn said of the presidential debate. “Unfortunately, politics are so personality-oriented that the policies get lost.”

“I think that the Texas voters really want to see side by side, the two visions for our state,” Hegar said similarly. She said she does not expect Friday’s debate to mirror the chaotic Presidential debate.

“It’s not really either one of our personalities to derail things that way,” Hegar said. “I think Texans will get a good opportunity to see other very clear differences between us.”

The debate also comes after Hegar’s campaign announced she raised $13.5 million dollars this past quarter – a dramatic improvement over her past fundraising hauls.

According to Patrick Svitek, a political reporter at The Texas Tribune, Hegar’s $13.5 million fundraising effort is nearly eight times more than that of her previous best quarter – $1.7 million in the second quarter of this year.

However, despite being a massive increase, Svitek warns that Hegar’s fundraising will likely still trail that of Cornyn’s earnings. Especially considering Hegar’s past fundraising efforts.

Texas Democrats prioritize Medicaid expansion in campaigns

Expand Medicaid. Save Lives.

That message, with candles representing low-income Texans who have died prematurely because of lacking healthcare coverage, was projected in a video mural outside the Governor’s Mansion in Austin Thursday night.

Democrats are again prioritizing Medicaid expansion on the campaign trail as they fight to flip nine Texas House districts in November and secure a majority ahead of the legislative session in 2021.

Projection of video mural on the Governor's Mansion in Austin supporting expanded Medicaid Oct. 1 (KXAN Photo/Andrew Choat)
Projection of video mural on a building next to the Governor’s Mansion in Austin supporting expanded Medicaid, Oct. 1 (KXAN Photo/Andrew Choat)

“We have got to expand Medicaid,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood), who is up for re-election after flipping Texas House District 45 in 2018. “Texas is leaving $10 billion of federal funding on the table every year because we got stubborn in 2009.”

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act since 2010. As of 2020, the federal government covers 90% of costs associated with a state’s expansion of Medicaid, while several states have reported millions of dollars in net savings after expanding Medicaid.

A Texas A&M study estimates around 1 million low-income Texans would gain health insurance coverage if the state expanded Medicaid.

“I know that that might sound odd for my district, because I have a pretty affluent district, but I think that everyone understands that having more Texans uninsured is not good for the state as a whole,” said state Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Lago Vista).

Republican Justin Berry, a police officer in Austin, is challenging Goodwin in District 47. He wants to see investments in mental health services to help underserved populations, like those experiencing homelessness.

“If now is the opportunity where we can (expand Medicaid) to help provide some quality care for people, then we should definitely look into that, as well, but that shouldn’t be our end-all-be-all, go-to thing,” he said.

Even if Democrats secure a majority in the Texas House this November, they would face a Texas Senate and governor who have opposed Medicaid expansion.

“It’s unlikely to get anywhere past the House if the Democrats were to even take it,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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