Nat'l Insurance Institute's public hotline turns cold

Officials admit experiment to outsource National Call Center to a private company has failed.

Natl Insurance 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Natl Insurance 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Wednesday morning, 11:25: The phone goes dead after navigating the maze of automated options to try and get a "human response" (that is how it is advertised on the National Insurance Institute website) from the NII's National Information Hotline, *6050. 11:27: Redial *6050. The maze of options leads to a request to enter my secret code, which I don't have. Then the phone dies again. 11:33: Redial *6050. Trying the "general information" option on the main menu. Which leads to more automated options. Once again, no mention of how I can talk to a real person, and no one to ask why thousands of people who want more information on their state benefits - ranging from pension plans to newborn baby aid to assistance for the disabled, elderly or infirm - are left with no option but to throw their phone against the wall in exasperation. And while my attempts to reach a bona fide human being at the NII were purely for the purposes of this article, the Knesset's Public Petitions Committee, chaired by MK Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu), heard Wednesday from several non-profit organizations about the plight of elderly, disabled and other weaker populations trying to get information from this very public body. The committee also heard the response of NII and Finance Ministry officials, who admitted that the experiment to outsource this national call center to a private company just over a year ago has completely failed, costing millions of shekels while forcing the layoffs of government employees. "It is not worth talking about the history of the project and how it was created, I think we just have to admit that this experiment has failed," the NII's Hezkia Yisrael, told the committee. "We tried to improve the level of service, but instead the service has gone down." A response from the NII's spokesman to The Jerusalem Post confirmed that the institute has known about this problem for some time. Finance Ministry representative Yair Zilberstein said that the government had invested NIS 8 million in outsourcing the project, although he stopped short of admitting that it had been a ploy to reduce the number of workers in the NII. "You admit that this project has failed," scolded Landva during the meeting. "So why is it that no one has thought to deal with the problem up until now?" In the meeting, Ya'akov Cohen, head of the Umbrella Organization for the Disabled, told how one disabled man had broken down in his [NII-issued] car and called the hot line to find out which towing company he should use. "The operator told him that the service would call him back with an answer within 24 hours," said Cohen, adding, "He was waiting on the Arava road [to Eilat] - how could he wait there for 24 hours?" Legal adviser for elderly advocacy group Ken Lazaken, Yifat Solel, told of similar problems faced by hundreds of pensioners, some housebound, calling to find out whether their requests for benefits or services had been received by the institute. "There is a technical problem here," she said. "In order for them to get any information at all, they have to punch in a whole series of numbers and codes. For many of them it is just too difficult." As well as the complicated procedure and the lengthy wait - sometimes more than an hour - to reach a real person, Solel added that very often the information handed out by the operators is incorrect. "This call center is operated by people who do not know the answers, they are not trained by the NII and must then call the central office to find out what to advise the client," she told the committee. Ziv Shalev, director of Teleall Contact Center, which operates the three call centers in Rehovot, Dimona and Zefat, blamed the NII for the problems, charging that the conditions of its original tender were changed. "This project was badly designed from the beginning," he said. "And the people who are suffering the most are society's weakest segments." Ziv added that under the original terms his company was to manage only two-thirds of the calls received from the public, with the rest being directed to the local branches. In reality, however, Teleall now answers 100 percent of the calls. He estimated that to be roughly 9,000 calls a day. The unexpected change to the tender meant that the company had to hire additional operators and reduce its training time. Ziv also said that the NII was slow to give out passwords to his operators so they could access the NII's database, forcing his workers to share their secret access codes with anyone who needed it. Landver said the committee would hold a follow-up meeting in the coming months.