COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri health officials are offering an online option for reporting adult abuse and neglect after an investigation found the state was answering fewer than half of the hotline calls.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said Monday in a news release announcing the new system that it would provide a secure and encrypted alternative to the Adult Abuse and Neglect Hotline.

“Holding those accountable who prey on and take advantage of vulnerable Missourians is a priority for our department,” said Dr. Randall Williams, director of the agency. “Creating the online reporting system will allow DHSS to ensure the health and safety of those most in need.”

The release says mandated reporters are encouraged to use the online system, which is available 24/7, freeing up capacity for members of the public to call in their concerns to the hotline, which is staffed daily from 7 a.m. to midnight.

The announcement came after the Columbia Missourian newspaper and KBIA radio station reported in May that only about half of last year’s nearly 92,000 calls to the Missouri Elder Abuse Hotline were answered. And from January through April of this year, only about 39% of calls were answered. Hold times averaged about 8½ minutes during the first four months of this year, but some callers have waited an hour or more.

Reports of abuse or exploitation increased 35% over the last decade, the outlets reported. The investigation found that over the same time period, the office added only one hotline worker.

“There’s a ton of calls where people just hang up because of the length of time they’re having to be on hold,” Kathryn Sapp, policy unit bureau chief for DHSS’ Division of Senior & Disability Services Adult Protective Services, said in May.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office opened a probe into the hotline after the news investigation. His recommendations include increasing staff levels during peak hours.

Schmitt said that while most of the changes have been made or are in the process of being implemented, the division hasn’t increased the number of calls its queue can handle. KBIA reported earlier this year that the hotline can have four people waiting at a time; if the queue is maxed out, additional calls are dropped.

The agency told KCUR that it is still considering increasing the queue because it doesn’t want people waiting on hold for a long time.

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