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Just1Call Honored for High Tech Approach to Serve Seniors, Disabled

By Bea Quirk, Special To LTW CHARLOTTE

When a government program wins awards from three different groups—one national, one statewide and one local—it tends to make folks stand up and take notice.

And that's just the case for Just1Call, a two-year-old information clearinghouse for seniors and the disabled developed and run by Mecklenburg County's Department of Social Services (DSS). By calling one number, the elderly, disabled and their caregivers, can have a full range of questions answered and problems solved. For those who are tech-savvy, the website provides access to a comprehensive database of service providers.

The Just1Call program won the National Association of Counties Model Program for its innovation; received a Blue Diamond Award from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce's IT Council, beating out the likes of Duke Energy and Bank of America; and last month was honored at the NCEITA 21 Awards in the nonprofit/government category.

It's not just organizations that are hailing the program – it's also the users.

In 2001, its first year, 13,000 calls were handled (95 percent of them answered by a staffer), and the website had 15,000 hits. Just1Call Coordinator Alan Geltman says he expects those numbers to increase by about 25 percent this year. The lines are staffed by six people during typical workday hours

Being innovative to overcome obstacles

Geltman says the County "thought outside the box" to combine "high tech and high touch" to create a program that uses technology to serve a population that is generally hostile to technology.

But there were also many non-technical obstacles to overcome, and it took six years to develop the program.

Agencies serving the elderly agreed this population had difficulties getting information and connecting to services and that a single method of access was needed. But it was debated whether this should be provided by the government or the private sector, and no one came forth to lead the effort.

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners finally came forward and budgeted $300,000 over a period of three years, and added the disabled to those being served.

Recognizing the technical challenges that would be faced, the county – in an unusual move – hired a consultant, Charlotte-based Telesys Technologies, to design the program.

Assessing human needs first

But people, not technology, came first.

Extensive research was conducted to assess customer needs and how they could best be served. It was found the elderly wanted a "real live person" to answer the phone—not hear a menu. They didn't want to be put on hold or transferred to other people, having to repeat their requests over and over.

The system the county developed has master-level social workers – not operators or information specialists – answering the phones. They answer simple requests, such as for the address of a senior center, but also help the caller resolve their problem (regarding such issues as transportation, financial assistance, health, meals and housing), often in one conversation.

Social workers don't just give out phone numbers; they take responsibility for solving the caller's problem, doing whatever it takes.

For example, three-way calling is an option. That means a social worker can call the agency a senior needs to contact, and can facilitate the resolution of the problem or make sure the needed information is obtained.

Additionally, Just1Call has a contract with a translator service that enables it to help people in 140 languages.

Technology configured for the people

Then came the technology to implement Just1Call.

"We were human resource providers – we were naïve about what the equipment could do," Geltman says. "We told programmers about the human needs, making sure the system fit into the way the county does business and was compliant with the way we serve our customers."

Installing a sophisticated phone system was one requirement. A synchronized laptop system also enables the social workers to keep a record of each call and what happened.

If necessary, social workers will follow-up and even visit people in their home. They can bring their laptop, which has a portable printing system, with them and further serve the customer.

Social workers also can bring the laptops with them to places where seniors and the disabled congregate or can reach easily, such as assisted living centers, libraries and community centers. DSS is talking with the Salvation Army about visiting their sites regularly, as well.

"The strength of the program is the person at the end of the phone or in the field using the computer," Geltman says. "They are experienced, trained, savvy social workers. Technology puts the information at their fingertips and enables them to give out information verbally, via fax or e-mail, or in the mail."

Technology is also helping Just1Call evolve and better serve customers. By tracing caller information, provider information, calls received and their outcomes, management reports can be generated to ensure quality assurance and to discover trends in customer needs.

Database management

Another technical challenge was converting the database of providers from the United Way of Central Carolinas so it was compatible with the county's computer system. That database only included services provided by nonprofit agencies; the Just1Call database also includes for-profit providers.

The database is kept up-to-date. In the third quarter of 2002, Geltman says, about two-thirds of the providers in the database were contacted to confirm their listing was accurate.

While many of the oldest elderly are not computer-literate, Baby Boomers are. Many Boomers seek information to help their parents, and the oldest are beginning to retire. So they turn to the Internet, and through Just1Call's website, can access the same database the social workers use. Links to providers are also listed.

"In my 28 years in county government," Geltman says, "I've never seen a program so responsive to community needs."