The council's City Light committee got a look yesterday at the results of a new push by the city's Human Services Department to increase the number of people who use the city's Utility Discount Program, which helps low-income residents with their utility bills. Currently, just 20 percent of those who are eligible for the program use it, in part because people are unaware it exists, and in part because the application process has long been cumbersome and time-consuming.

Under the old "caseworker" version of the program, applicants would have to fill out a mostly blank application on their own and deal with a specific employee; if that person didn't happen to be around when an applicant called, they'd have to leave a message and wait, resulting in delays for help that lasted, on average, 71 days. Under the new "call center" system, the person who answers the phone fills out the application for the applicant and sends it to them in the mail; if the applicant has any questions, they can talk to anyone at the program. The new system, HSD employees said, has reduced the time to get benefits to 48 days.

Additionally, committee chair Mike O'Brien says, the form you have to fill out to get benefits has been dramatically simplified. (See the old and new versions here.) "They'd send out an application that was three legal-sized pages long---it was like you're applying for a mortgage," O'Brien says. "We asked, why aren't people enrolling in it? And one of the answers we got back was, it's kind of pain to get enrolled."
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