State call center moved back from India to the United States

Thursday, July 29, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A toll-free call center for Missouri welfare and food stamp recipients has been moved from India back to the United States -- but yet not all the way to Missouri -- at a cost to taxpayers of about $1.2 million.

Gov. Bob Holden's administration and contractor eFunds Corp. confirmed Wednesday the hot line calls are now being answered in Wisconsin and may eventually be switched to Kansas City.

The move comes just a week before next Tuesday's primary elections. And it comes after Democratic challenger, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, criticized Holden for allowing state-funded jobs to be shipped to India.

McCaskill claimed credit for the change, which she announced Wednesday before Holden's administration acknowledged it.

"Claire McCaskill has once again provided the leadership -- provided the information that forced change," she said. If elected governor, "I will be a strong enough leader to make things happen."

The Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees the call center contract, referred all questions to the governor's office. Holden campaign manager Roy Temple said McCaskill had nothing to do with change.

"This is something Governor Holden has been working on for months," Temple said. "Only a narcissist like Claire McCaskill could assume that everything that happens in the world is related to her."

EFunds received a request Friday from the state to switch the call center to the United States, and made the change within two hours, said company spokesman Thom Brodeur. McCaskill had questioned Holden about the India call center during a televised debate four days earlier.

Five-year contractThe Associated Press first reported in October 2002 that eFunds, which handles electronic benefit cards for Missouri's nearly 713,000 food stamp recipients and 121,000 welfare recipients, had moved the call center to India. At the time, the Department of Social Services said it was too late to request a Missouri-based call center as part of a new five-year contract with eFunds that began in February 2003. The contract requires annual payments of more than $6 million.

Holden issued an executive order in March prohibiting the outsourcing of jobs under state contracts.

The legislature appropriated $300,000 -- half from state, half from federal funds -- in the budget that took effect July 1 to rebid or renegotiate the eFunds contract, said Holden's budget director, Linda Luebbering. That assumed the contract for the call center could not be changed until later in the state fiscal year, she said.

But because the call center was moved sooner, it will cost around $1.2 million, requiring a supplemental appropriation from the legislature, which convenes in January, Luebbering said. Moving the call center from Wisconsin to Kansas City could cost additional money, Brodeur said.

EFunds operates call centers for 18 states. Missouri is the second state to move its operations back to the United States, following New Jersey in April 2003, Brodeur said. Workers at the Wisconsin center are paid $10 to $12 an hour, while their counterparts in Bombay, India, were paid the U.S. equivalent of $2 to $3 an hour.

In May, the Kansas legislature passed a bill that banned outsourcing of the food stamps program after learning eFunds had also directed Kansas callers to India.

"There are other states that are evaluating whether or not they are able to afford to onshore these services and to bring them back either within their state or the continental United States," Bordeur said.

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