UI Health expands contract with Chicago Lighthouse for call center employees
May 4, 2018

Photo courtesy The Chicago Lighthouse
Michael Hansen is a UI Health Call Center agent through the Chicago Lighthouse. Last year the Customer Care Center handled more than one million calls

By Robert Kingett

The University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health) has renewed its contract with the Chicago Lighthouse, an organization serving the blind, visually impaired, disabled, and veteran communities, to provide call center services on behalf of the hospital and expand them to ophthalmology clinics.

UI Health and the Chicago Lighthouse established their partnership in 2014, when Lighthouse employees began taking UI Health’s customer calls. UI Health has renewed the contract twice since then.

Kathy Stoeberl, senior vice president of Call Center Enterprises at the Chicago Lighthouse, said 153 employees work in the UI Health Call Center, “of which about one-third are blind, visually impaired, disabled, or veterans. In fact, UI Health Call Center employs 19 employees who are totally blind.”

The new contract will pay $8.2 million for these 153 Chicago Lighthouse employees’ services through August 2019.

UI Health’s Customer Care Center provides general information, scheduling, patient appointment coordination, referrals, pre-registration, appointment reminders, and connections to UI Health personnel who can answer health questions. Lighthouse employees answering calls for UI Health use software that allows for text-to-speech translation.

“We are pleased to be able to continue our partnership with the Lighthouse and to be able to provide quality employment opportunities for its clients,” said Robert Barish, MD, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Lighthouse employees have been instrumental in helping improve access to UI Health services for our patients for many years.”

One million calls

Demand, already high when UI Health first partnered with the Lighthouse in 2014, subsequently increased, with a 300% jump in calls in one year. Last year, the Customer Care Center handled more than one million calls.

In 2014, the call center began with 14 employees answering general information calls. Said Stoeberl, “All of the initial staff were blind or visually impaired. Due to the success of our work, UI Health asked us to take on additional work including appointment scheduling, patient registration, and account billing calls. The growth continues today, as we plan to launch scheduling and registration for the university’s ophthalmology clinics.”

Employees at the Chicago Lighthouse “are evaluated at our low vision clinic for visual impairments and are provided with technology and resources specific to their needs,” Stoeberl explained. “These resources could include magnification tools and screen reading software. In addition, supervisors are trained to identify and accommodate the specific needs of their employees.”

“We are thrilled about the renewal of our contract with UI Health and extremely grateful to Dr. Barish and his team for the vote of confidence they have given to the Chicago Lighthouse,” said Janet Szlyk, Lighthouse president and CEO. “We commend them for opening doors to greater opportunities for talented individuals with disabilities and veterans.”

The Lighthouse trains potential employees through its customer care training program. UI Health is not the only contractor it services. The Lighthouse also works with the Cook County Patient Support Center, the Advocate Health You Wellness Center, and the Illinois Tollway. The training program provides instruction in customer service, telecommunications, collections, and order entry. Employees use Job Access with Speech (JAWS), a common screen reader that interprets the graphical interface into a virtual buffer that employees can navigate through a series of keyboard commands, rather than by using the mouse.

Employees learn JAWS commands and how to use the screen reader effectively. Freedom Scientific, the company that created and maintains JAWS, sells a home version for $900; upgrade pricing varies based on product type and current release. Upgrade prices start around $500, although minor upgrades are free. A pro license for JAWS costs $1,100. 

Employee training

The Chicago Lighthouse funds employee training.

Some employees use magnification only. Some use a combination of JAWS and Zoom Text, one of a few magnification software applications for Windows.

As for payment and benefits, Stoeberl said, “We offer competitive wages based on industry standards. We offer a very generous benefits package for our employees, including paid sick, vacation, holiday, and personal days. We have a 403(b) and a pension plan as well as long-term and short-term disability, medical, dental, and vision insurance. Life insurance is paid by the Chicago Lighthouse.”

The Lighthouse also operates the Illinois Tollway Call Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus in Student Center East, 750 S. Halsted St. That center processes and resolves inquiries pertaining to I-PASS electronic tolling accounts, violations notices, or tollway procedures. It also handles credit card payments and keeps the database updated.

More than 75% of America’s estimated four million blind or visually impaired people are unemployed. Often, employers bypass these workers with discriminatory hiring practices, due to incorrect assumptions that they will not be able to do the work.

Employee Michael Hansen, 26, said, “I firmly believe that the greatest challenge in life for a person who is blind is not the loss of sight; blind people can do almost all of the things sighted people can—just in different ways. The real challenge is working to change peoples’ stereotypes and misconceptions about vision loss. You see this in all areas of life, not just in employment. So I think one of the main reasons that the unemployment rate for blind people is so high is that sighted employers just do not know what capabilities and potential people who are blind actually have.”

Another employee, Elantra, 25, who requested that her last name be kept confidential, said, “I believe that there needs to be more awareness in general about those individuals who can see but are still categorized as visually impaired or legally blind. So that when a person with a visual impairment does have to use one of these devices or tools, the people around them will not make inappropriate comments on how close the screen is to their face. We need to allow these individuals to feel comfortable using these devices in public without them feeling embarrassed.”

The Chicago Lighthouse is located at 1850 W. Roosevelt Rd. Call (312) 666-1331.