Automatic Solutions

Rising caseloads and shrinking resources have welfare agencies thinking of technology more than ever.

by / April 16, 2002
When Texas residents log on to STARS , the state's new online public assistance screening service, they can find out within 10 minutes whether they may be eligible for a wide range of benefits, from shelter and cash benefits to medical coverage or child assistance. With just a few clicks of the computer mouse, the Web site wipes away years of government bureaucracy and replaces it with the kind of navigational tool for information that was unheard of just a few years ago.

The idea behind STARS was to provide needy residents with a single door into the world of public assistance. "It's hard enough to navigate the welfare system if you know it," explained Suzanne Biermann, the executive sponsor of TIERS, the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, of which STARS is a part. "But if you don't know, here's a tool that allows you to find assistance at your leisure."

The one thing STARS doesn't do is tell the applicant whether they are actually eligible for aid or not. For that to happen, they must print out the results of their online self-screening and bring the information down to the local welfare intake office. "It's not meant to be an online eligibility application," said Biermann. "The idea is to improve access and have better-informed people, so when they come in, they will know what to expect from the process and what sort of paperwork they should bring in advance."

STARS reflects the intriguing potential of Web-based services for welfare and their current limitations. On one hand, STARS breaks down a multitude of bureaucratic barriers by offering residents a simple and effective way to gather information about their eligibility for more than 50 public assistance programs. The bilingual system, designed by American Management Systems, allows users to find out about their welfare options based on need, not by government program. Its relative simplicity makes the online service easy for just about anyone to use.

But the fact remains, the Web site can't simplify the actual application process. Government case workers must still sit down with applicants face-to-face and gather minute details about their financial situation, a process that can go on for hours and involve forms that are more than a dozen pages long. While some e-government proponents see human contact as a weak link in what could be a seamless chain of online services for the poor, others are not so ready to dismiss the role of the human caseworker who must gauge the needs and priorities of a family out of work, food and money.

What the Web can do, as Biermann pointed out, is give the applicant an idea of what their options are and what they should be prepared to have with them once they show up for their appointment. The result could be a less painful process that takes less time to complete.

That's good news because the nation's unemployment and welfare rolls, which have been low for some time, have begun to grow once again. More people out of work means more people wanting government help as quickly as possible. Long lines and delays in receiving benefits are likely if welfare offices become swamped with the needy. But with a Web-based service, such as STARS, more people will arrive at local intake offices with the right information in hand and can be processed much more quickly, according to Biermann and other government officials.

Welfare Rolls on the Increase
Since 1996, state welfare caseloads have dropped from 4.6 million to about 2.2 million today. But with the softening economy, that picture may soon change. Last August, Pennsylvania reported that the number of welfare caseloads rose slightly from June to July, the state's first increase since welfare reform was enacted in August 1996. By early September, the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services reported that the number of families on welfare had increased in 18 states, with the biggest jump in caseloads taking place in West Virginia. These numbers came from a different time period -- September 2000 to March 2001 -- but they seemed to say the same thing: The large decline in welfare rolls appeared to be coming to an end.

By November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the nation's jobless rate rose to 5.4 percent in October, up a half-percent from September's 4.9 percent. Reports around the country also showed jumps in applications for Food Stamps and other forms of assistance. The tide was turning.

But as welfare rolls begin to grow again, federal requirements for welfare, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are also growing, according to Lorrie Tritch, deputy director of Iowa's Department of Human Services and chairperson of the Information Systems Management group of the American Public Human Services Association. "From the state perspective, our budget situation is being reduced while demands for our services continue to grow."

The budget situation Tritch referred to includes HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which is adding costly changes to state-run health plans such as Medicaid, and Congressional changes to funding for TANF block grants. States have been battling a Congressional appropriations bill that would reduce welfare reform's so-called supplemental block grants for 16 states. These fund reductions could total $240 million.

Last October, the National Governors Association sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson urging him to support the extension of the TANF supplemental grants. The cuts have been proposed in light of the decline in welfare caseloads over the past five years. But both the NGA and the APHSA feel the money is badly needed to support human services at the local level, as welfare rolls resume their growth.

Web-Based Welfare
Despite the double threats of growing caseloads and shrinking resources, state welfare agencies are plowing ahead with an assortment of computer-based solutions that could signal dramatic changes in how technology is used in social services. At a recent APHSA conference on information technology, members attended seminars on such subjects as "Tomorrow's Models of Service Delivery," "Collaborative Service Delivery Models," "Choosing Technology Options" and "Cool Tools" for service delivery.

Some recently announced projects signal the kinds of changes covered by the seminars at the APHSA conference. In November, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania demonstrated COMPASS, a new Web-based application designed to help families enroll in the state's social service programs. So far, COMPASS offers online applications for Medicaid and a children's health program called CHIP. When fully implemented, COMPASS will serve as a single access point for a variety of programs, including health-care coverage, food stamps, cash-assistance benefits, child-care subsidies, long-term care and energy assistance.

In January 2001, Louisiana announced the start of a $4.7 million project for a Web-based child welfare system that will support caseworkers with access to electronic records while allowing courts, foster parents and service providers access to data stored on the Office of Community Services computers. Also last year, the Center for Digital Government recognized a number of states, including Kansas, Washington, Maine, Minnesota and Florida for their innovative use of Web technology to support social service programs.

The trend toward greater use of the Web is occurring elsewhere, according to Tritch. She noted that state social services fully understand the benefits of keeping cases in an electronic format while relying less and less on paper and paper reports. Eventually, the mainframe will become a data-storage unit, she predicted, that can also be used for data-warehousing analysis and reporting. In addition, the Web is supporting another welfare trend: co-locating of staff so that fewer staff can handle more tasks. When this is coupled with the electronic consolidation of services into
an online delivery model, then states expect they can squeeze more efficiency out of their limited resources.

Automating Welfare
Sensing a shift in attitude toward automation in welfare, some new software firms have stepped into the social services arena for the first time. Most notably, FileNet, a firm known for its document imaging and workflow solutions, has developed its first public-sector application for welfare. Partnering with Impact Innovations Group, the two companies have created Acenza, which puts document imaging, management and workflow tools into a Web environment so that workers can process the blizzard of documents and data that accompany every welfare case file.

As the company explained, the solution recognizes that the need for workers to manage files and cases will never go away, no matter how sophisticated online service delivery becomes. Acenza gives workers real-time access to all documents and data, manages incoming mail and faxes and automates the assignment and routing of tasks, which makes better use of human resources.

That sort of high-tech, high-touch approach is taking place in Texas, where STARS is just one component of the $269 million TIERS automation project. Eventually, all 12,000 state and local social service workers will use a Web-based system to determine eligibility and issue benefits. "They'll do basically everything online," forecast Biermann. "When it's completed, TIERS will be the first Web-enabled eligibility system in the country. The STARS self-screening application is the foundation underneath."