Customers' calls to Missouri welfare hotline directed to India

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missourians who call a toll-free number with questions about their food stamps or welfare benefits are receiving help from customer service representatives in India.

Yes, the country of India -- about 8,000 miles away from Missouri on the opposite side of the world.

The contractor that handles Missouri's electronic benefit cards switched its call center earlier this year from the United States to India.

But by that time, it was too late to request a Missouri-based call center as part of a new five-year contract that begins in February 2003, Janel Luck, deputy director of the state Division of Family Services, said Tuesday.

So the phones will continue to ring in India.

"To me, it's a conflicting message. We try to keep businesses from leaving Missouri, and then when have the opportunity, we contract with somebody in India," said state Rep. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who has written to the Department of Social Services complaining about the situation.

The state could have asked for cost estimates on in-state and out-of-state customer call centers in its request for proposals that was written about a year ago, Luck said. But at the time, the India call center had not become an issue, she said.

Subsequently, the state awarded the contract -- valued at around $6 million annually -- to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based eFunds Corp., the same company that switched the call center to India earlier this year as a subcontractor. The contract is for five years, with the option of extending it to seven years.

Now, "as long as they provide the service we're paying them for and they're providing it in a fashion that's acceptable, we can't really say where it should be located," Luck said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bob Holden said he was unaware that the calls of Missouri welfare recipients were being routed to India. But spokeswoman Mary Still said she did not now if the governor was concerned about that.

Besides the letter from Shields, the Social Services Department has received only a few complaints about the India call center, none of which came from welfare recipients, Luck said.

When The Associated Press called the toll-free number Tuesday, customer service representatives spoke English that was fairly easy to understand.

A manager confirmed the office was located in India, but declined to provide the specific city, saying it was against company policy.

On its Internet site, eFunds says it has four offices in India -- two in Chennai and one each in Gurgaon and Mumbai. The company also has offices in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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