Last year, when the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices released a study of jurisdictions maximizing Internet technology in public assistance programs, Pennsylvania was one of the top five highlighted states.

The commonwealth, which originally set out to build a simple online application for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), ended up with a dynamic system that generated attention -- it was well on its way to becoming the single access point for all state social service programs.

In the Beginning

In 1999, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) teamed with the Insurance Department to investigate an online application system for Medicaid and CHIP. Though CHIP and Medicaid are distinctly different programs, personnel within the DPW realized the applications contained several common elements. DPW hired Deloitte Consulting to create an online system suitable for both programs, and it was implemented in just 10 months.

Response to the new system was extremely favorable, Pennsylvania officials said. Between January 2002 and May 2002, 718 applications were submitted online. Applicants who can't get to the office during normal business hours can apply for benefits online. Furthermore, constituents have up to 30 days to complete the application, and can log in and out of the system as they please.

When DPW officials witnessed the overwhelming response to the new system, they began devising its expansion and created the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Application for Social Services (COMPASS). The goal of COMPASS is to serve as a single access point for all the commonwealth's social service programs by enabling constituents to apply anytime from any location with Internet access.

"COMPASS will eventually be the online application for all social services programs in Pennsylvania, regardless of what agency a program resides in," said Michael Coulson, director of Program Support at DPW. "Ultimately, COMPASS will provide online applications for health insurance, food stamps, cash assistance, day care, the low income energy assistance program, work supports, and mental health and mental retardation services."

Making It Work

Consolidating applications was an initial challenge Pennsylvania faced in developing COMPASS. With separate applications for each individual support program, getting one online application to cover several programs was tricky.

"One of the first things we did was look at the information that has to be collected for each program," said Sundhar Sekhar, COMPASS project manager. "At first, we'd be faced with adding more than 50 additional questions for a single program. But as we continued, we found the number of questions we had to add went down because so many of the programs asked common questions."

Additionally, DPW discovered many constituents just wanted to know if they were potentially eligible for aid. Rather than requiring them to spend 20 to 30 minutes filling out an application, they added a screening component. Today, COMPASS performs online screening for several assistance programs and tells users the approximate dollar amount they'll potentially receive for food stamps.

"I don't believe there's any other Web site that does that for you," Sekhar said.

Pennsylvania also faced more substantial obstacles, the biggest challenge of which was not technology, but people, DPW's Coulson said.

"Because there were so many components you had to bring together, getting the right people in the same room to make sure everyone's doing what they're supposed to be doing was extremely challenging," he said.

The commonwealth tackled this obstacle head-on, setting up a governance structure that included a steering committee and stakeholders from all different components of the operation. They then solicited stakeholders' input on what was needed.

"As we add more programs administered by different types of people to different types of recipients, there's always the desire by the new program coming on to try and tweak the look and feel of our application a

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer