The Internal Revenue Service responded to only 339 out of 350,000 calls made to a special phone line it has set up for hearing- and speech-impaired taxpayers, according to a new government report.

The report, by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, noted that the IRS provides a toll-free phone line for hearing- and speech-impaired taxpayers who require Text Tele-typewriter and Telecommunications Device for the Deaf service. The TTY/TDD device has a keyboard that allows people to type their telephone conversations and read the reply on a display screen.

TIGTA performed an audit to evaluate both the IRS's customer service toll-free telephone access during the 2010 filing season and the access and service it provided to hearing and speech-impaired taxpayers.

However, the level of service for the TTY/TDD toll-free telephone line for the 2010 filing season was just 8.8 percent, meaning that only 8.8 percent of calls placed using the TTY/TDD successfully reached an IRS assistor. The total dialed attempts for the TTY/TDD product line during the 2010 filing season were more than 350,000; however, IRS assistors answered only 339 of those calls.

“Our report found that far too few hearing- and speech-impaired taxpayers successfully reached an IRS assistor,” said TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George in a statement. “The IRS must do a better job of ensuring that all Americans have equal access to its services.”

IRS officials were unable to determine the exact causes for the extraordinarily high primary abandons, but they cited several probable causes. The TTY/TDD telephone number is listed on most IRS notices. Individuals may not know that the TTY/TDD telephone line is for hearing- and speech-impaired individuals and may view this telephone line as an alternate avenue for reaching the IRS.

When calling the TTY/TDD telephone line, one hears a series of rings or beeps. Because there is no verbal welcome or dialogue, a hearing individual may think an error in dialing was made and hang up and call again. Calls may also be abandoned because of an incompatibility between the IRS’s TTY/TDD system and the IRS’s automated call distributor infrastructure.

The TTY/TDD system is compatible with Baudot tones, which is what most commercial TTY/TDD equipment use. However, all incoming calls to the IRS are routed to assistors through an automated call distributor, which recognizes only Dual Tone Multiple Frequency tones. According to the IRS, not all TTY/TDD telephone devices are equipped to recognize Dual Tone Multiple Frequency tones.

In these cases, the IRS sends the TTY/TDD caller a text message asking them to call a different number. If the caller subsequently hangs up, the call is counted as a primary abandon. The IRS is negotiating a contract for a new TTY/TDD system, but it may be months before an agreement is reached.

TIGTA made four recommendations to the IRS in its report. It recommended that the commissioner of the IRS’s Wage and Investment Division revise the various taxpayer instructions, including notices, for calling the IRS to clearly explain that the TTY/TDD toll-free telephone number is for hearing- and speech-impaired individuals; include in IRS publications the Federal Relay Service Web site and toll-free telephone number as a means to communicate with the IRS; determine the efficiency of the placement of its TTY/TDD workstations; and revise TeleTax Topic 102 to include the TTY/TDD hours of operation.

The IRS agreed with three of TIGTA’s recommendations and partially agreed with one recommendation. It plans to revise the taxpayer instructions for calling the IRS to explain that the TTY/TDD telephone number is for hearing- and speech-impaired individuals, analyze the placement of the TTY/TDD workstation, and revise the TeleTax Topic 102 to include the hours of operations for the TTY/TDD toll-free telephone line. The IRS also plans to assess its communications related to the availability of the Federal Relay Service Web site and toll-free number and will make revisions as necessary.

On its regular toll-free phone lines, TIGTA found that the IRS exceeded its overall performance measurement goals by 2.3 percent. The IRS planned to achieve a 73 percent level of service and a 635-second average speed of answer. Instead, it achieved a 75.3 percent level of service and a 580-second average speed of answer. The IRS moved less complex calls to automation, leaving more complex calls for assistors to answer.

The average speed of answering a call has increased by 12 percent since the 2009 filing season. During the 2010 filing season, 72 million total dialed attempts were made to the IRS toll-free telephone customer account services lines. Through automation and assistors, the IRS answered 37.3 million calls during normal hours of operation.

While the IRS did hire more assistors, assistors answered fewer calls during the 2010 filing season than the 2009 filing season, and callers waited longer to reach an assistor, the report found. The passing of late tax legislation and changes in regulations resulted in the IRS experiencing unprecedented high call demand the last two filing seasons and fiscal years.

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