When People Called MassHealth and No One Answered

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/09/05/when-people-called-masshealth-and-no-one-answered/

Eleven Massachusetts social workers fielding calls about the state’s health insurance program for poor people routinely failed to greet callers or put their telephones on mute so that callers wouldn’t hear them and would hang up, according to the state.

But MassHealth’s decision to suspend them can’t stand because the state agency didn’t provide sufficient notice that calls were being monitored by supervisors, a state appeals court ruled last week.

Calls to MassHealth seeking information about state benefits go to a telephone system operated by Benefit Eligibility Referral Specialist social workers, which the state agency lists as “A/B” if they take calls. In February 2019, managers of MassHealth noticed that certain social workers had “a high number of short calls with the public,” according to court papers. They decided to use a function in the telephone system that allows supervisors to listen in on conversations without the call-taker knowing.

“After monitoring a number of calls, management discovered that the eleven BERS A/B Social Workers frequently answered calls from the public but failed to greet or respond to the caller, leading the caller to hang up without receiving any assistance from the Social Workers …” states a brief (with italics in the original) filed in October 2021 by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office on behalf of the state’s Secretary of Administration and Finance, which oversees MassHealth. “Managers determined that, in many instances, the Social Workers would place themselves on mute before saying the required greeting, so that the system showed them as ‘talking’ but the caller could not hear them.”

One entry in the record says “no greeting from representative – member hung up”; another says “worker did not speak, caller hung up.”

Among the 11 social workers, callers failed to get any assistance “on at least 184 occasions” between February and April 2019, or about 60 percent of the time, according to the attorney general’s office.

Breaking it down, MassHealth found that over five days in February 2019 one social worker provided no assistance to 20 out of 51 callers (39 percent) “and engaged in ‘rude and unprofessional’ behavior with three callers she did serve,” according to the attorney general’s brief. Over two days in April 2019, another social worker provided assistance to only two of the 19 calls she took. Another social worker, over two days in February 2019, provided no assistance to all 38 calls she got.

The brief does not name any of the social workers.

When called to account for their behavior, the attorney general’s office said, “Many of the Social Workers denied the allegations against them, indicated that they could not recall answering phone calls in the manner described by management, and/or claimed to have issues with the phone system.” But MassHealth managers found no problems with the telephone system.

Between June and August 2019, MassHealth suspended the 11 social workers for between three and 10 days. The union that represents the employees (Service Employees International Union, Local 509) disputes MassHealth’s version of events. The union filed a grievance in all 11 cases, which went to the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board, a three-member board appointed by the governor that hears disputes over state employee working conditions.

A year and a half later, on March 8, 2021, the board voted 2-1 to overturn the suspensions, finding that MassHealth “was obligated to provide the Union with notice and an opportunity to bargain to resolution or impasse before using MassHealth’s phone system to monitor employees’ phone calls as a means of evaluating their productivity and performance and imposing discipline.”

The state board found that MassHealth implemented “a new practice” when managers started listening in to the conversations, amounting to a substantial change in working conditions – which means it was necessarily a matter for negotiations in collective bargaining.

The state Secretary of Administration and Finance, which oversees MassHealth, appealed the state board’s decision in court.

Nearly a year and a half after later – on Friday, September 2, 2022 — the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld the state board’s decision, finding the board’s reasoning to be sound and based on state law.

The case is Commonwealth vs. Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is the state’s second highest court. The state’s executive branch could appeal the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.


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