Friday, December 05, 2008

Unmanned HEAP Hotline Fails to Serve the Blind

The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance tells people with problems and questions concerning the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) to call for information:
Questions regarding the HEAP program should be directed to your County Social Services Office or to the NYS HEAP Hotline at 1-800-342-3009.
The OTDA State HEAP Hotline does not actually have a live person handling calls. See SNAFU in OTDA's Administration of the HEAP Program. Basically, the State HEAP Hotline is an automated system with pre-recorded messages that refers callers to the welfare department in their county. In Albany County, and perhaps in counties throughout the state, the local Department of Social Services simply will not answer inquiries of HEAP applicants as to the status of their applications.

PULP received a call this week from a blind, elderly and disabled gentleman facing imminent termination of utility service by National Grid. He tried diligently to ascertain from Albany County Department of Social Services whether his previously filed application for HEAP had been approved, and if so, when the HEAP benefit would be credited to his account. When he could get no answer, he tried several times to navigate the automated OTDA HEAP Hotline telephone system, always unsuccessful. He simply could not press the proper keys within the time allowed by the automated system. He told PULP, “I got stuck in a loop and I couldn’t get out.” His wife, with arthritic joints, was unable to assist him.

Another reason this elderly gentleman was anxious to stay abreast of his HEAP application status is because last year, he did lost his HEAP benefit due to a computer truncation of his wife’s hyphenated surname. He received a letter from Albany County DSS informing him that National Grid returned the 2007-2008 HEAP benefit to DSS, because its system could not match the hyphenated surname to his account. Despite his diligent efforts to resolve this, he was unable to get the 2007-2008 HEAP benefit applied to his account.

PULP telephoned Albany County DSS, and found out that this year’s HEAP benefit was approved and applied to the customer’s account. A HEAP grant forestalls termination of service for 30 days, so this was a temporary source of relief to our caller. We were also able to get the 2007-2008 benefit rightfully restored to his account.

What a difference eyesight makes!

Increasingly, the State and local agencies are relying on automated telephone and and web-based information systems to provide information of critical importance to New Yorkers. It is necessary for these agencies to take a further look at their new peopleless information systems, and ask, “Could a blind person successfully navigate this system without assistance?”

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