Diary of an Official Runaround

You know the experience. You call the county or the city for information and get nothing but the runaround. One officious bureaucrat switches you to another. They put you on hold. Nobody knows the answer.

It's a story as old as government--or at least as old as the telephone. Yet the experience never fails to be infuriating and, when it happens to someone else, darkly fascinating.

A case in point: Julie Emmorey's little horror story about how it took two weeks and more than 50 phone calls to obtain information from the Los Angeles County welfare department.

Emmorey works in the human resources department of Pioneer Magnetics, a Santa Monica electronics firm. When a veteran employee became ill with uterine cancer and a brain tumor, and could no longer work, Emmorey called the county Department of Public Social Services to find out how the sick woman could receive Medi-Cal benefits and food stamps.

She related what followed in a letter to department director Eddy Tanaka, and was kind enough to send a copy to me. A verbatim passage:

10 a.m., March 8. Looked in the General Telephone book for the Santa Monica area under Los Angeles County, Public Services, Medi-Cal and Food Stamp Assistance. Called 312-6955. I was abruptly told that I had the wrong number and to call 312-5248.

I called 312-5248. The line was busy.

I then called the other number listed in the phone book, 312-5291. I reached a recording that told me to call the number of the office on Olympic Boulevard if I wanted AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and to call 312-6955 for information on Medi-Cal and food stamps ONLY.

I called 312-6955. I explained that I had been directed to this number by both the phone book and by a recording from 312-5291. I was told that I had the wrong number and to call 312-5248.

I called 312-5248. The line was busy. I called several times more before lunch. Each time the line was busy.

I called 312-5248 after lunch three more times. The line was still busy. By now it was 2:30 p.m.

I again called 312-6955. I asked to speak with the supervisor. . . . She was very understanding and concerned that I had been unable to get information. She repeated, however, that I had to call 312-5248 for information. She then directed me to . . . Mr. McKnight at 312-6945, so that I could lodge a complaint.

Mr. McKnight returned my call in less than a half-hour. He was very sympathetic . . . .and offered to answer any questions I had regarding Medi-Cal or food stamps. He qualified his answers beforehand, however, by saying that although both Medi-Cal and food stamps were processed in his building, he had little direct experience (with) them. He patiently allowed me to ask many questions.

The next morning, Emmorey realized she had a few more questions. Although she'd gotten nine busy signals the day before, she dutifully dialed the number that had been recommended as the proper source of information, 312-5248. This time, she got through . . . only to be told she had the wrong number.

Call 312-6955, she was advised. That number was the first one she'd called, the starting point for her wild goose chase.

"I decided heads were going to roll," she says. " I looked in the phone book for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. I saw that Deane Dana had an office in Santa Monica at 458-5291. Unfortunately, no one answered the phone there. The phone book also listed an office for Deane Dana in Malibu. . . . No answer there, either. Then I called the downtown office. A representative said someone . . . would get back to me."

More vain phone calls followed. Dana's office promised to have an expert telephone her. Nobody did. Emmorey phoned Assemblyman Tom Hayden's office. Hayden aide Ann Hiller said she'd have someone call. The next day, Colleen Quail of the Department of Public Social Services called Emmorey and answered her questions.

And finally, the cancer patient Emmorey was concerned about did receive benefits. That's the ending of this little horror story. And now for the moral. . . .

Carol Matsui, special assistant to department director Tanaka, investigated Emmorey's complaints and later she told me: "I believe she felt she was getting the runaround and I can see how she felt that way. We apologize to her, but she did get the program information she needed."

Emmorey said she appreciates the apology, but stands by what she stated in her letter to Tanaka: "I have never been more thankful that I speak English and don't require these services myself. What happens to people in need of these services? What if you only have 20 cents for one phone call? What if you don't speak English well? What do you do if you are disabled?"

You suffer, that's what you do.

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