Practicing what she preaches

Jen Steele directs the largest telework program in Louisiana state government — and is a teleworker herself.

The Work@Home program Steele helped establish last July for Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ Medicaid agency is on track to have 134 participants by the end of February. That’s out of a universe of 900 employees. Teleworkers handle tasks such as Medicaid eligibility determination. The largest single group of department teleworkers came from a once-centralized call center that has since dispersed into home-based offices.

Telework program vitals

AGENCY: Medicaid office of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

TELEWORKER POPULATION: About 15 percent of 900-employee workforce. Telecommuting policy applies to the entire department, but Medicaid is the only agency participating. There are plans to have 160 to 170 teleworkers in place by the end of 2009.

TYPES OF JOBS: Program management, eligibility determination and call center representatives.

TELEWORK GEAR: Wyse thin-client computer and two flat-panel displays; wireless router; Centrex phone lines for call center reps; access to the state network and applications through Citrix Access Gateway.

Teleworkers, Steele said, “have to be well suited both in terms of job duties and work habits…and they have to have a supervisor supportive of the program as well.” Steele moved into telework in steps.

She initially commuted 60 miles one way to a full-time job with DHH in Baton Rouge. Years later, after the birth of a child with special medical needs, Steele transitioned to a part-time position in a department office closer to her home in Lafayette. Issues with her child care arrangements, however, led to discussions about home-based work.

In October 2007, Steele began working at home and was soon assigned to create a telework pilot program, which became the Work@Home program. She developed the program’s policies, training materials and teleworker-selection process. She pursued this research and development phase with the agency’s managers, IT and field staff. She also drew on the experience of the Arizona Medicaid agency’s telework program, Virtual Office.

Most Work@Home participants are frontline workers, such as employees who determine Medicaid eligibility.

Steele said such workers were not candidates for telework until recently because the state used to require face-to-face interviews with Medicaid applicants.

By transitioning from paper files to electronic case records, the agency paved the way for eligibility-determination staff to telework.

A 2008 Gulf Coast hurricane, meanwhile, was the impetus for the Customer Service Center’s telework push. The storm knocked out power to the Baton Rouge state office building that housed the call center, which operates toll-free lines serving Medicaid applicants and enrollees.

Steele said the center’s manager quickly realized the benefits of decentralizing the unit: Many home-based workers could still have power even if the main office doesn’t.

Work@Home participants also will include unit supervisors. Steele noted that the first local office manager begins teleworking in January.

The program has had to work around some business process and regulatory considerations. For example, teleworkers must visit a health and hospitals office once a week to sign a payroll sheet. She said the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor requires paper payroll sheets with original signatures.

However, for the most part, Work@Home has encountered only a few hitches. “We were surprised how smoothly it went,” Steele said.

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