Higher calling: 2-1-1 offering information

The new hot line helps direct callers to nonemergency services
Monday, August 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

“What is the phone number of the courthouse in Independence, Kan.?”

“Where can I obtain a passport application?”

“Is there a place to get nutritional supplements for a cancer patient?”

“I just saw an elderly lady fall in the icy street; no snowplow has been down here; how do I report this to the city street department?”

“What do you mean, I need to call 4-1-1 for the address of the China Dragon restaurant?”

On the other end of the line sitting at a workstation cubicle in a call center, and wearing a telephone headset while staring at a computer database, call specialists from the United Way 2-1-1 call centers in Kansas City listen to questions like these, and it is their job to direct the callers where to go for help.

First operated in Atlanta in 1997, the United Way 2-1-1 service is a hot line that people can call for information on services located near their community. These services include information on basic human needs, health, employment, volunteer opportunities and support for youth, seniors and people with disabilities. On May 11, Missouri’s Public Service Commission granted the United Way of Greater St. Louis permission to implement the United Way 2-1-1 service.

Missouri will be the 20th state to implement the service statewide, but the program has now been activated in parts of 41 states.

The Kansas City area launched the United Way 2-1-1 service March 9, 2006. The calling area includes 16 counties in Missouri and seven counties in Kansas. In a partnership with the United Way of the Plains in Wichita and the Mile High United Way 2-1-1 in Denver, the Kansas City call center, which is open 24 hours a day, also takes all after-hours and weekend calls for the state of Kansas and a 10-county region around Denver.

The call center was projected to receive 40,000 calls in their first year, but actually received more than 81,000. They receive 1,500 to 2,000 unduplicated calls a week, not including the Kansas or Denver areas.

“A significant percent of United Way 2-1-1 calls are from individuals seeking financial assistance, electricity, gas, water, utility, basic human needs. Many of those people are at or below poverty level who have lost a job, or had something happen in their lives so they need a little extra help,” Pat Cundiff, vice president of direct services for the United Way of Greater Kansas City, said.

The number of calls varies from day to day, with Monday usually producing the greatest number of calls, and Fridays the least. Cundiff said call numbers also increase during tax season since United Way 2-1-1 is publicized as the number to call for access to free income tax preparation sites, or when the media highlights a story or a major community initiative such as an immunization campaign.

The United Way of Greater St. Louis and the Missouri Foundation for Health have together paid a total of $8.5 million to go toward the program. Missouri Foundation for Health committed $1 million for start-up costs and $3.75 million over the next five years to support annual costs. The United Way of Greater St. Louis is also providing $3.75 million over the next five years to support the remaining annual costs. On a national level, the Calling for 2-1-1 Act, which is still being discussed in congressional committees, would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to give $150 million for the first two years and $100 million for the third to fifth year to help implement and continue 2-1-1 nationwide. To receive the federal money, the state must match 50 percent.

Making it happen

Before the United Way 2-1-1 was accepted by the Missouri Public Service Commission a series of steps took place. The United Way of Greater St. Louis first submitted an application for review to the Public Service Commission staff on Feb. 23. The staff included professionals in the fields of engineering, accounting, law, finance and economics. The staff then made a recommendation to the commission on April 25. The commission consisted of five members who decide all cases before the Public Service Commission. Once the staff made a recommendation, the commission reviewed the information and voted on the application. Finally, the application was accepted May 11.

As a result, this three-phase system will begin its first phase at the end of the summer.

“With other 2-1-1s existing in the country we have been able to call upon their resources and knowledge of starting up,” said Carrie Zukoski, public relations director of the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The first phase includes all AT&T carriers in Kirksville, Joplin, Cape Girardeau, Springfield, Poplar Bluff and the St. Louis metropolitan area. The second includes CenturyTel customers in Columbia, Jefferson City and the Willow Springs areas. The last phase will be implemented in 2008 and includes all of the remaining Missouri residents.

Seeking help

“2-1-1 calls can relate to a wide range of health and human service issues, from temporary assistance paying rent or utility bills to seeking a mentor for a child,” said Kay Archer, director of United Way 2-1-1 Missouri.

Incoming calls go to the 2-1-1 Call Center, which will be located at the United Way of Greater St. Louis offices in St. Louis, where they are answered by trained information and referral specialists. Cell phones are not included in the service so users are encouraged to call 800-427-4626 or 314-421-4636.

Data hubs are in regions in which a resource specialist will work with agencies and communities to inventory their health and human services in a manner that will help 2-1-1. Call specialists match people with appropriate services. Agencies included in the 2-1-1 database are required to verify or update their information on an annual basis.

“United Way of Greater St. Louis will employ a resource specialist to facilitate data collection in many counties, including Columbia. The resource specialist’s base of operations will be in Columbia, at the Columbia Area United Way, although they are expected to travel to all communities in that hub’s region,” Archer said.

Other hubs are located in St. Louis, Cape Girardeau and Springfield.

David Franta, executive director of the Columbia Area United Way, said there is already “buzz in the community.”

“It’s not like the phone is ringing off the hook,” Franta said. “I get phone calls; I’ve run into people on the street excited about the program and others in the office who answer the phone get calls. There wouldn’t be any way of getting you a number (of total people who have called or shown interest in the program).”

Local resources

The Voluntary Action Center is an agency that provides direct services for basic needs in Boone County. Franta said the Columbia Area United Way has been meeting with the center and other agencies discussing what they know about the 2-1-1 service and how it might impact certain agencies and services.

Cindy Mustard, the center’s executive director, said she believed that the center’s basic services would not change due to the presence of 2-1-1.

“It may reduce the number of phone calls, but it won’t reduce the services we provide,” Mustard said. “In fact, it may enhance our services and let more people know about what we do.”

Mustard said the center served 339 families in May of this year, 18,000 people last year, and provided more than 35,000 different units of service including Christmas presents, transportation services and prescriptions.

“The other social service agencies know about us, and the low-income families know about us,” Mustard said. “We try to keep really up to date on information going on, and we could also be a resource for 2-1-1.”

Mustard said that during the center’s meetings with Franta they discussed rewriting the center’s mission statement.

“We’re just saying we are repositioning ourselves to make sure everybody knows of all our services, which I think they do,” she said. “We said we were information and referral. Well, we will be doing that here for Boone County, but our primary purpose is really services. That’s where our emphasis will be and has been for several years.”

“I’ve talked to other agencies who do very similar to what we do, and they said (2-1-1) really did not have that big of an effect on their agencies as far as number of calls decreasing or increasing,” Mustard said. “People up here know about the Voluntary Action Center, and they are going to call us anyway instead of calling the St. Louis number. It allows somebody who may not know about us to call that 2-1-1 number.”

Success is probable

In 2004 the University of Texas Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources conducted a national cost and benefit analysis that estimated a $1.1 billion net value to society over the next 10 years. The costs are saved through the reduction of nonemergency 9-1-1 calls, decreased misdirected calls to nonprofit organizations and increased awareness of volunteer agencies for assistance or donations.

“We get 9-1-1 calls, we get 4-1-1 calls we even get 3-1-1 calls,” said Cundiff. “It is a constant process.”

The University of Texas survey showed that 93 percent of the users indicated they found the information they sought with ease, and 97 percent said they would call 2-1-1 again.

Confusion seems to be an obsolete issue in Columbia. James McNabb, director of the public safety joint communications center in Columbia, said that he does not feel emergency services in Columbia receive any more than a negligible amount of calls from residents concerning anything the United Way 2-1-1 program would cover.

“Nine-one-one in our community is not abused or misused,” McNabb said.

Based on the Kansas City area’s experiences, Cundiff said she found this hard to believe.

“Every 9-1-1 system is different,” Cundiff said. “Because Columbia 9-1-1 services have not received calls doesn’t mean that is true for everyone. Although we have not asked (how many) we do know they do receive calls not appropriate for 9-1-1. This is why we do marketing statements about 9-1-1 and 2-1-1 telling people to think about who to call when you need help but don’t need an ambulance, fire truck or squad car.”.

As a result of the high number of calls, the United Way of Greater Kansas City had to increase its staff. It now has 24 staff members, six of them full time and 19 part time. The staff rotates eight-hour shifts 24 hours a day. As part of the routine, staff members make a targeted percentage of follow-up calls to check and see if everything was met.

“It’s working beautifully,” Pat Cundiff said.

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