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DHS news release

September 9, 2004

Contact: Nadine Jelsing (503) 945-5950
Story length: 614 words.

DHS Governor's Advocacy Office handles hundreds of calls, emails

photo of steenson

At the Oregon Department of Human Services in Salem, the first thing you notice about the Governor's Advocacy Office (GAO) is a feeling of openness. Gone are the high walls encasing typical office cubicles and the entire area is flooded with sunlight. It's a cheery place to be - and that's a bit ironic.


"We rarely get calls from happy people," says GAO Administrator Naomi Steenson. "We take a lot of abuse and sarcasm from disgruntled people - and we listen to heartbreaking stories. Because we're on calls all day that are so draining, I want an environment that's supportive and positive in which staff can thrive."

Call the GAO with a problem - and you'll find someone who cares. "Maybe we can't fix the problem," says Steenson, "but sometimes just listening to the person helps validate their concern."

The GAO team listens a lot - especially if there's been a change to an Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) program or a cutback in services - as there was July 1 to the Oregon Health Plan. Changes like that can precipitate up to 300 calls a day, Steenson says. Tack on 50 to 60 phone messages from the night before and another 60 to 100 e-mails and you have one busy office.

"We get tons of child welfare calls, too, and people upset that they've been - or are about to be - terminated of parental rights," says Steenson. "For example, I've got a letter on my desk right now in which foster parents are complaining that DHS 'ripped the child out of our arms.' " But when Steenson's staff dug a little deeper into the case, they found past abuse claims against the foster father, and mental health issues affecting the foster mother. "Like a lot of cases we see, this one was multi-faceted. You really have to do your homework."

But not every call is a heart-wrenching ordeal. "It can be a single question," says Steenson, "like where do I get a birth certificate, or sometimes we can direct the caller to a very specific resource - like the nearest women's shelter."

People with questions, concerns or even compliments about DHS can contact the office toll free at 1 (800) 442-5238 or by e-mail gao.info@state.or.us

Steenson says staff members all developed thick resource guides filled with information about nonprofits, prescription assistance, domestic violence and a lot more. The book is never far away - and constantly updated - so they can help people quickly and efficiently. Sometimes, though, solving a problem means going the extra mile.

"There was an Oregon Health Plan client with mental health problems," Steenson recalls, "who suddenly had his eligibility revoked - even though he insisted he'd paid the premium. The person couldn't get his medications and ended up being hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. And, because the person had been knocked off OHP - OHP wouldn't pay for that either."

Steenson says the staff turned detective and called everyone they could to verify that the payment had been received. They found out it was just late - and the case had been closed in error. The staff helped get the person out of the psychiatric facility and back on his meds.

"We deal with the human side - the ramifications of errors and misunderstandings," explains Steenson. "We always contact the policy experts first to make sure we have the correct information. Then we can call the caseworker, explain what happened and make the system work for everyone."

Steenson acknowledges that sometimes she and her staff leave the office feeling heavy with the burdens of others.

"You can visualize these people out on the ocean just drifting - and if we can throw them with a life raft, that's great," she says.

This story was provided by the Oregon Department of Human Services.