The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Rave

December 26, 2012

Find a way to make 2-1-1 make financial sense

A telephone referral system for those needing assistance with health, mental or human service issues is facing funding challenges just months after launching here in the Central Susquehanna Valley.

The Central Pennsylvania 2-1-1 system, a 16-county United Way initiative which includes Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties, is threatened by funding cutbacks in Centre County, where the program is based.

The objectives of the 2-1-1 program — first started in metropolitan Atlanta nearly 16 years ago — are certainly worthy. It currently operates in all 50 states, covering about 87 percent of the nation’s population.

By simply dialing 2-1-1, callers are connected with representatives at a centralized call center for referrals to local health or human service agencies capable to providing the care or assistance the caller seeks. The local referral effort is supported by 12 United Way agencies, including the Greater Susquehanna Valley and the Danville Area United Ways.

According to statistics posted on the website at www.pa211central.org, the call center received a total of 128 calls in July, 74 calls in August and 239 calls in September, including a total of 146 calls from the local four-county region over the three-month period.

The question for local governmental and social service agencies in the new year will focus on the cost-effectiveness of the call center concept, which likely was considered innovative in the 1990s.

Is there now potential for maintaining objectives of the 2-1-1 program at lower costs? That might involve pursuing current computerized database technologies which many of us use every day - such as speaking a few words into our phone and listening to a highly efficient female voice run through turn-by-turn directions to our destination or using GPS coordinates to recite the 10 best restaurants in a 50-mile radius.

This lesson in practical politics may be communicating to social service agencies that when they are allocated public funds for internal operations, there is a substantial responsibility to draw a connection between the investment and helping people who are really in need.

By keeping the primary focus on programs that actually touch the lives of residents in need, those who oversee the national 2-1-1 effort should connect with technological experts at leading communications companies to help build today’s most cost-effective and efficient referral network.

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