CDC to consolidate info hot lines

Agency officials to provide citizens with single toll-free phone number

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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By early next year, people seeking information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be able to call a single toll-free phone number rather than sorting through more than 40 hot lines.

CDC officials recently awarded Pearson Government Solutions, based in Arlington, Va., a seven-year, $73 million contract to consolidate hot lines and toll-free numbers for many topics of inquiry.

The effort will be introduced in phases, with the first two hot lines — one for HIV/AIDS and the other for public health emergencies — to be accessible next year under the single toll-free number, said James Seligman, CDC's chief information officer. Consolidation of other numbers will follow as the system becomes operational and officials build its infrastructure.

The agency receives about 3 million calls annually, Seligman said. A content management system will be able to effectively handle a vast array of information from phone calls, faxes, mail and other forms of communication, he said. Call center staff, in turn, will be able to draw from content on CDC's Web site and its 150,000 pages to answer questions.

Mac Curtis, Pearson's president and chief executive officer, said one challenge will be to integrate the hot lines' levels of maturity, technology and content.

The company, which operates similar call centers for the Education Department and other federal agencies, will provide customer service representatives in five locations nationwide. Curtis said call center employees are multilingual and especially able to accommodate Spanish-speaking callers.

Bob McCord, a senior vice president who runs Pearson's public health division, said Siebel Systems Inc.'s customer relationship management software will be integrated into the system. As a result, the system should be able to route calls efficiently and effectively in times of particularly heavy volume.

Spikes in call volume, whether the result of an unforeseen public health crisis such as severe acute respiratory syndrome or planned events, are anomalies the company is well-equipped to handle, Curtis said. "We've got a good core competency in our ability to handle spikes and get online very quickly at our facilities where there might be another 200 or 300 people," he said.

Seligman said CDC's project has three components, of which the call center is the largest. A second component is fulfillment, for which a company will handle the mailing of brochures and documents under a small-business set-aside contract. A third part is an evaluation contract, which will be awarded to an independent contractor to perform quality assessments and performance measurements of the other two components.

Three levels of customer service representatives will handle calls for the general public, for public health officials and for clinical personnel such as physicians. In the latter case, Seligman said, the contract includes directing calls to health professionals to handle complex questions.

Learning from experience

While studying improvements for their call center operations, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited with officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Cancer Institute, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, all of which have recently upgraded their call center operations.

Officials in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston and Chicago have set up nonemergency 311 systems to better handle thousands of daily requests for information from the public. In New York City, for example, a 311 system replaced about 14 pages of agency contact numbers in the phone book.

— Dibya Sarkar

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