‘Our job is to be there to answer the call’: 5 things you need to know about Alaska 2-1-1

SPONSORED: Calls to Alaska 2-1-1 have increased in the past three years; here’s how the free confidential helpline is helping lift people out of crisis.

Presented by United Way of Anchorage

Each call made to Alaska 2-1-1 is different. Sometimes people call in search of housing or food assistance; other times, parents need help finding affordable healthcare for their children.

There is, however, one common thread between calls, said United Way Chief Operations Officer Sue Brogan.

“The closer the caller is to crisis, the harder it is to figure things out,” Brogan said. “And that’s true for all of us.”

Alaska 2-1-1 is a resource that helps lift people up, out of crisis, by providing referrals and information for local health and social service providers. For more than 20 years, people across the U.S. and Canada have been able to dial a simple three-digit number and have confidence they will reach someone who can offer reliable, helpful guidance.

“We are information and referral. So, we empower people to make that call,” said Brogan, who has worked at United Way for nearly three decades and has been part of Alaska 2-1-1 since its creation in 2003.

In the past three years, calls to Alaska 2-1-1 have only increased, but some people may not be aware of the benefits it offers the state. Here are five things to know about the free confidential helpline.

Relevant referrals only: Providers sign up for program

When people call 2-1-1, they reach a community resource specialist like Jen Verney.

“We don’t really have a typical call,” said Verney, who is the call center manager for the 2-1-1 team.

The highest volume of calls is for basic needs, like housing, food, or utility assistance, she said. Other inquiries are more seasonal, such as help during the holidays or tax preparation assistance.

Verney and the team refer callers to relevant providers in their communities. Importantly, referrals from Alaska 2-1-1 are only made to providers who have signed up to be part of the database. That means when someone calls, the provider is prepared, and able to help. There are currently over 1,000 providers in the 2-1-1 statewide database.

“We do our best to create clarity on the resources that are available,” Verney said.

Verney has been working with United Way for more than a decade. In 2020, calls began increasing as the pandemic hit, and people who had never needed assistance before started to reach out, she said.

In early 2020 both the Municipality of Anchorage and State of Alaska called on Alaska 2-1-1 to serve as the official go-to source for COVID-19 related information — everything from medical and public health questions to the many community needs created by steep economic decline.

Before the 2-1-1 helpline, individuals had to complete all their own research — a massive and daunting undertaking, especially at times of crisis.

“This is a way that we’re really streamlining efficiency for the person that needs help,” Brogan said, “But also for providers that are wanting to get their services out in the community.”

“Our job is to be there to answer the call,” Brogan said.

Insights, brainstorming and interpretive services

Community resource specialists help callers brainstorm and ask questions that can generate new referrals.

“We really want the callers to feel comfortable talking to us, asking for help, because that’s not easy for a lot of people, and it can make people feel very, very vulnerable,” Verney said.

The team can also help with more specific questions, like what to bring to an appointment for free tax preparation assistance.

“Isn’t that the hesitancy of all of us when we go into an appointment? We don’t know what to expect?” Brogan said.

Interpretive services are available in roughly 170 languages. In those cases, the team will hold a three-way call with Language Line staff who provide translation.

More than 45,000 referrals were made in 2021 in Alaska.

Need child health care? Free support is available

Alaska ranks among the top five states with the most uninsured kids. When children lack access to health care, unmet needs can turn into lifelong challenges.

“Every child in Alaska deserves to have the best start possible in life. That’s why Alaska Children’s Trust partnered with Alaska 2-1-1 to launch the Denali KidCare help text line,” said Trevor Storrs, president and CEO of Alaska Children’s Trust.

The Denali KidCare help text line helps parents determine whether their child is eligible for free health care. Text KidCare to 898-211 for help.

Need health coverage for yourself or family? Alaska 2-1-1 is the connection to United Way’s healthcare navigators, who help Alaskans enroll in coverage through the Affordable Care Act Health Insurance Marketplace.

Local helpline with national support

The 2-1-1 system is not unique to Alaska; the helpline began after natural disasters in southern states caused people to flood emergency lines in search of social service referrals.

So, national partners began looking into the creation of a non-emergency, three-digit referral line, Brogan said.

Partners saw “the immense value in bringing together information and creating a one-stop place for individuals to navigate very complex health and human service systems,” Brogan said.

Federal and state permission was needed to use the three-digit number, and telecommunications companies helped partner with the effort.

In Alaska, the Alaska Mental Health Trust, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and Alaska Children’s Trust were major funders of the initial effort, Brogan said.

Today, Alaska 2-1-1 is operated by United Way of Anchorage. Whether someone calls 2-1-1 in Alaska, or in Reno, Nevada, they will receive the same experience and standard of care.

“We’re built on best practice,” Brogan said. “We’re built on years of data and data analysis. And we’re also built on certification and training.”

A full 98% of the U.S. and Canada have coverage under 2-1-1. An important note: If traveling outside of one’s local area code, a 2-1-1 helpline should be available by dialing 2-1-1 or a supporting toll-free number that most every 2-1-1 service has.

In 2022, more than 23 million referrals were made throughout the nation using this helpline.

Expanded services in the works

United Way of Anchorage is looking to add more people to its team of community resource specialists and plans to move into a larger building as it expands, Brogan said.

The team is also building its database to include even more providers who want to benefit from their referral services.

“We’re going to be doing that in a very intentional way,” Brogan said. “We’re planning to invite more and more people in, more providers in, so we can help amplify what they have to offer.”

This work is being made possible in part by a federal grant secured by Sen. Lisa Murkowski for Alaska 2-1-1.

More ways to reach 2-1-1: Text, email, website

For people in need of services, calling 2-1-1 or the toll-free number (800-478-2221) are great options, but there are other ways to reach out, too.

Connect on the Alaska 2-1-1 website, or email Alaska211@ak.org.

Looking for health care for your child? Text KidCare to 898-211.

Next up? A chat feature on the website that will be rolled out soon. No matter how people choose to reach out, Alaska 2-1-1 can provide valuable information and referrals.

“We want every Alaskan to know that help and hope starts with a call to 2-1-1,” Brogan said.

This story was sponsored by United Way of Anchorage thanks to a grant from ConocoPhillips Alaska. United Way of Anchorage serves the community as a convener, funder, sustainable changemaker, and as a service provider. If you’d like to join hands with United Way in this work and learn how you can contribute, please visit LiveUnitedAnc.Org.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with United Way of Anchorage. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.